Authors: R.K. Jackson
The Girl in the Maze
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Randal K. Jackson
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover design: Caroline Teagle
Cover image: Â© Nikki Smith/Arcangel Images
She wants to kill you.
Martha's fingers tightened onto the Pentel No. 2 pencil, clutched in her lap like a secret talisman. Dr. Ellijay picked up the stack of test booklets, squared them on her desk with soft raps, and began handing them out. She walked slowly down the aisle, her heels popping on the linoleum.
Please, Lenny, not today.
Outside the casement windows, the campus was awash in gray, a silent movie, as it had been for days, suspended between fog and drizzle, the dull light suppressing shadows, flattening the neo-Gothic buildings of Ponce de Leon College like a plywood set. Only two o'clock, but outside looked more like dusk.
The quad was empty, except for a lone figure seated on a bench, a man in a tweed blazer taking notes in a composition book. He looked up in Martha's direction, then down at the notebook, then toward her again. To escape his gaze, she looked elsewhere, beyond the campus buildings, above the crenellated rooflines.
It was there again. She had seen it before, on bad days, and now it stretched across the buildings, high above the spires and turrets, gelatinous and nearly invisible except for a network of threadlike capillaries. It pulsed and it heaved, breathing, alive.
Don't look at it, Lovie.
Lenny murmured in her ear, his voice moist and intimate.
You know they don't want you to see that, right? Just pretend you don't see it.
Today Lenny was only a voice, but on some days she could see him. He was tall and gaunt, his skin white and mottled, like the belly of a toad. Spiked hair. Blue jeans shiny with stains. Canvas sneakers, gray and frayed.
Martha felt a touch on her shoulder, jerked around.
“Relax, Martha.” Wade leaned forward in the desk behind her. “You look as tight as a piano wire. You'll do great.”
You won't do great. You'll die,
S'truth. You'll die if you even touch the paper.
This was the first time Wade had spoken to her in months. In the early weeks of the semester, he had flirted with her, singled her out for special attention. For a while, the attraction had been mutual. She liked his pug nose, his subversive sense of humor. But that was before.
Dr. Ellijay walked to the end of the next aisle, Martha's aisle.
Have a look out, Lovie. 'Ere it comes.
Martha tried to concentrate, to review her mental notes. This was the final. Her grades had been flounderingâ
that's all part of the plan, innit?
âbut Martha had decided she would overcome the plan. She wouldn't let them win.
Don't touch the paper,
It's printed with poison ink. It's like them colorful frogs in Ecuador. We learned about that in Biology 101, remember? Beautiful, but lethal. If you touch the ink, you'll die.
Dr. Ellijay returned to her desk at the front of the room and glanced at her wristwatch. “All right, you have forty-five minutes,” she told the class. “You may begin now. Good luck.”
Look at 'er. She's watchin' you. She wants to see you fail. Touch the frog poison and you'll die. Look out the window. The man on the bench, he's watchin', too. They're all watchin'. They've all been waitin' for this moment, doncha see?
Martha stared at the page, paralyzed. She felt a drop of perspiration release from her armpit and crawl down her side. Around her, she heard the frantic scratching of her fellow students' pens, which mingled with the sounds of the rats in the walls, the ones that chewed at the masonry with sharp teeth like yellow rice grains. The other students acted as if the rats weren't there.
She glanced at the clock. Six minutes gone already. She looked down at the paper and tried to focus, to form the answers in her mind.
If you fall for itâdon't say I din't warn you, Lovie.
She wanted to cry, or to scream, but she was motionless except for the pounding of her heart.
Don't react. Don't let 'em know. Don't let 'em on to you, right? That's the worst thing.
She heard Dr. Ellijay's footsteps approach and stop next to her desk. She didn't look up.
“Martha? It's been ten minutes, and you haven't even started. Are you all right?”
A swarm of ghostly amoeba shapes floated in front of Martha's eyes, and she felt as if her head would explode.
“Martha?” Dr. Ellijay placed a hand on her shoulder.
Martha screamed and lunged out of her seat, pushing the desk over, causing books to tumble out.
Run. It's yer only chanceârun like hellfire.
She bounded up the aisle, reached the door, and flung it open with a bang.
In the hallway, Martha collided with a student on his cellphone, texting. She turned the corner onto another hallway and spotted the door to the custodial closet. She tried the knob. It opened. She slipped inside, squeezed next to a plastic mop bucket with rubber wheels, pulled the door closed, and slid to the floor.
In the darkness, she could smell ammonia. She heard the rats scurry around her. One brushed against her ankle, another along the back of her neck. Out in the hallway, footsteps approaching. Voices calling her name. But Martha remained silent, invisible.
This is one thing we're good at, hey, Lovie?
We know how to vanish.
EN MONTHS LATER
Martha sat on an iron bench in front of the Wash-and-Fold and watched a column of ants as they marched away carrying crumbs from the smashed corner of a ham sandwich.
She had made the walk from the Pritchett House to Tobias Avenue in only fifteen minutes, strolling past dew-damp lawns and sprinklers, reaching the business district early. Nothing to do now but wait and watch the town slowly wake up. The morning was hazy, already humid. The rising sun painted sharp, expanding triangles of yellow on the buildings and storefronts.
Martha opened her leather satchel and unfolded the advertisement, the one Vince found on the bulletin board at the Gateway Center. She reread it for the hundredth time.
The Historical Society of Amberleen, Georgia, seeks a full-time intern to assist with book project. Must be bright, organized, and detail-oriented, able to hit the ground running. Will transcribe/edit interviews, write introductions, assist with research. Three-month term with stipend.
She felt restless, considered moving to the local diner for a cup of coffee, then scrapped the idea. Like so many things, caffeine was no longer admissible.
She wished she'd brought a book to read, or maybe a newspaper. Anything to take her mind off the fluttery feeling in her gut, a sensation that took hold yesterday when the Trailways bus crossed the Intracoastal Waterway and rolled past that sign in the grass median:
WELCOME TO AMBERLEEN. SPACIOUS OAKS, FRIENDLY FOLKS.
Martha held the leather satchel close to her face and sniffed. The smell calmed her. It reminded her of her father, who kept it bulging with papers as he shuttled between their house and the university. She tilted the satchel and heard a faint rattle from within, a secret sound. The part of herself she would keep hidden.
A Lincoln Continental pulled up in front of the brick building across the street and parked. A tall woman with white hair and an old-fashioned collared dress got out, unlocked the glass door to the building, and entered. Martha checked her watchâ
. She took out a mirror, freshened her lip gloss, and brushed a few strands of loose hair from her face. It was time.
Gold letters stenciled on the door announced the names of the tenants inside:
MULKEY & DUNLAP, ATTORNEYS AT LAW,
and below that,
AMBERLEEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, SUITE 200.
She entered and ascended a narrow stairway, her flats echoing off the cement walls. Wearing her new cream-colored wool suit, she felt sharp, almost normal. It was like floating on a calm lake.
Remember to speak normally. Don't slur your words. And if you hear Lennyâ
She paused on a landing, gripped the tarnished handrail. Lenny, now exiled to the fringes of her consciousness
. If he speaks, ignore him.
She ascended the last steps and entered the vacant reception area and took in its furnishingsâvinyl sofa and chair, coffee table with a scattering of magazines, dusty venetian blinds, cast-iron radiator. The door opened behind her and a slender young woman with frizzy blond hair entered carrying a Krispy Kreme donut box, a carton of coffee cups balanced on top.
“Here, let me help you.” Martha put her satchel down and reached for the cups.
“Thanks, you can set those right on the desk. Are you Martha?” The woman flashed a glossy smile. Martha wondered if she was sincere.
“Yes, Martha Covington. I'm starting todayâ”
“Yes, I know. I know all about you.” Martha tightened inside.
How much does she know?
“My name's Stacey.” The woman extended a hand with bright orange fingernails. “I'm the receptionist and bookkeeper. Welcome. We've been looking forward to having you come and help us out.”
“Well, let me run back and let Lydia know that you're here. Make yourself comfortable. Would you like a cruller?”
Stacey disappeared through a swinging door. Martha looked up at a big, black-and-white aerial picture on the wall behind the desk. Waterfront buildings, like gray Legos, fronted a wide ribbon of river. Beyond that, a tangle of creeks, marshland, and barrier islands stretched for miles, then finally gave way to a dark crescent of ocean.
Martha thought back to her last session with Vince, his final words to her:
You can do this.
“I'm always just a phone call away, Martha. And I'll see you again in three months.” And then Vince stoodâhis customary signal that they'd reached the end of their session.
Martha focused on the wood sculpture on the shelf across the roomâa short log, resting on its end. From the middle of the log, a whimsical face peered out, as if checking to make sure it was safe to emerge.
Vince's office was a safe, woodsy place. With its warm walnut paneling and furniture and folk-art decor, it had become a womb to her. Like his furnishings, Vince's eyes were comforting. He had round, dark features and a close-cropped beard that covered much of his faceâtoo much for Martha. But his eyes always spoke to her, always told her how much he cared.
Her relationship with Vince was the most intimate bond she had ever shared with another human being aside from her parents. Now that it had to end, Martha struggled to put on a brave face. She didn't want to disappoint him. She nodded and got up to leave.
“Wait, Martha. I have something to give you.”
She paused, not turning yet, and something like a cold tide rose up in her body. She wasn't sure if it was fear or joy.
Stacey returned, accompanied by the tall woman Martha had glimpsed on the street earlier. It was Lydia Dussault, who had interviewed her by phone. She looked older than Martha expectedâat least mid-sixties, maybe even seventy, and she looked formidable. Her white hair was drawn back into a bun and secured with a porcelain stick.
“Hello, Mrs. Dussault.”
“Call me Lydia. Welcome to Amberleen. It's wonderful to have you here.” Lydia clasped Martha's hand in both of hers, smiling warmly. Her eyes glistened, and Martha caught a whiff of Chanel No. 5. A large pearl graced her index finger.
“Stacey will have you fill out some paperwork, but first let me show you around and introduce you to our other staff members.”
She led Martha into a long, open room. Wooden tables ran the length of it, and one wall was covered with shelves and cubbyholes containing books and artifacts. Some shelves sagged from the weight. Tall metal filing cabinets lined the opposite wall. Cardboard boxes, stacks of old newspapers, and files with documents spilling out covered the floor and chairs.
“As you can see, we have a long way to go before we'll have everything cataloged and organized. We may not have a lot of space, but we have an extensive collection of documents on the county's history. We have letters written by plantation owners in the eighteen hundreds, Civil War correspondence, over five hundred historical photographs, as well as old maps and architectural drawings.”
Lydia picked up a pocket folder from the table and pulled out a yellowed ledger, each line crammed with elegant scribbles. “We just received this item today from a family on DuPont Road. It belonged to one of the local plantation owners. It has every transaction for a full year. See that?”
Martha squinted at an entry:
Slave shoes, 12 pair, 50 cents.
“Now I'd like you to meet our other full-time staffer.” Lydia guided Martha across the room.
They stepped into a small office with only one window, obscured by a metal bookcase. Its occupant, a squat, balding man who looked to be in his early thirties, cleaned a camera lens.
“Nick, I'd like you to meet our new summer intern, Martha Covington.”
Nick stood and offered his hand. “Nick Loomis.”
“Nick is our chief photographer.”
photographer.” Nick tapped his front tooth with a fingernail. “Pleased to meet you, Martha Covington. Welcome to the asylum.”
Martha took a step back. Her hands grew clammy.
“Martha is going to give us some much-needed help with the oral history project,” Lydia said.
“Fresh melons today?” Nick blurted, tapping his tooth again.
Martha took another step backward. “I beg your pardon?”
“Nick is also curator of the collection,” Lydia continued. “Things may look a mess around here, but Nick always remembers exactly where every item is located.”
“If you need it quick, just ask Nick,” he said, winking four times.
As they left the office, Lydia lowered her voice. “Don't worry about Nick. He's harmless. He just has no control over what he says. Tourette's, you know. But he's an excellent photographer. We located him through the same agency where we found you.”
Martha felt a sinking sensation, wondered what she had gotten herself into. She focused her attention on a series of antique photos along the wallâflaking portraits from another era.
“Now, let me show you where you'll be working,” Lydia said.
Martha's office at the other end of the room was a mirror image of Nick'sâmetal desk, boxy monitor, filing cabinet, and a single window. On the desktop, a cassette recorder poked out from under a sprawl of audio cables.
“Well, we're not exactly the Smithsonian Institution, are we? But there's some important work going on here, I can tell you that. Now, let me fill you in on our big summer project.”
Lydia pulled a rolled-up map from a cubbyhole and spread it on the center table.
“This is our town, Amberleen, population seventeen thousand.” She tapped her finger on a landmass shaped like a leg of mutton. “Over here, across the sound, is Shell Heap Island. One of the last unspoiled gems of the Georgia coast.”
Martha leaned forward. Serpentine creeks and rivers surrounded the island except for one side, which faced the Atlantic. A lighthouse icon marked the northeastern point.
“The windward side has some of the most pristine beachfront property you'll find in this part of the country. The developers have been circling over it like vultures in recent years, but so far we've managed to hold them back. And that's how it should be. That island belongs to the Geechees.”
“The Geechees?” Martha pulled out her notebook and pen.
“They're direct descendants of slaves who were freed after the Civil War. Let me show youâ¦.” She opened a cabinet on the wall and pulled out a black-and-white photograph. It showed a group of people standing under the bough of a gnarled oak. A man with a bushy beard and cane sat in a ladder-back chair. A heavyset woman stood next to himâflowing dress, a scarf around her head. An older gentleman cradled a drum. Two young women gazed at the camera, wide-eyed, enigmatic.
“They're the direct descendants of slaves. Like the Gullah, in South Carolina, onlyâ¦now where did we put thoseâ” She opened a shoe box, glanced inside, replaced the top. “They've lived in isolation, maintaining a truly distinct culture and system of beliefs.”
“What kind of beliefs?”
“They still believe in magic, ghosts, those kinds of things.”
Martha felt a chill run down her back. She wrote the word in her notebook.
“Don't worry; they're beautiful, gracious people. The elders hand down traditions to their children, traditions they brought from places like Sierra Leone and Liberia. It's a wonderful culture, but it's dying, you see.”
Martha nodded, jotting down the information.
“Only seventy-five are left on Shell Heap. Most of their other communities along the coast have been bought out. It's happened on St. Simons, Daufuskie, and Hilton Head. They've been forced to sell, in some cases.” She moved away from the cabinet and began opening and closing file drawers. “Many of the island residents are quite elderly now. Most of the younger ones have fled. The whole culture has been preserved orally. It exists only in the words and memories of the elders. That's where the society comes in. Last May, we received a grant from the Georgia Trust to capture that historyâthat's what the book is about. I suppose we've recorded about five miles' worth of tape already. That's why we needâ¦ah, here we are.”
Lydia slid open the cover of a rolltop desk, pulled out a shoe box, and handed it to Martha. The box bulged with cassette tapes, separated by labeled index cards.
“Sixteen tapes here already. We still have another thirty-three interviews to record. We want to get every surviving member of the community on tape if we can.”
“You want me to help transcribe these? All of them?” Martha felt a twinge of apprehension, mingled with excitement.
“More than that. Make sense of them. You know, clean them up. Make them sing. Your professors said you were good at that.
help with the rest of the interviews. For that, you'll need some âpeople' skills. A lot of these residents are shy. Some of the older ones are afraid of having their voices recorded.”
“They think it gives you a mystical power over them. Any other questions?”
Martha looked at the photo of the Geechees. She tried to think of a question, but drew a blank. She couldn't take her eyes off the image of the two girls, the ones staring at the camera. Braided hair, like woven ropes. The gnarled and mossy oakâ¦and then the room started to spin and the image was fading, going dark, as if someone were turning down the lights, twisting the dimmer switch. In the darkness, a vision flashed into Martha's head. A cloth sack, hanging from a metal hook. Something alive inside, something squirmingâ¦.
Lydia's voice broke through the cloak of darkness and Martha was back in the room. She clutched the edge of the table to steady herself.
“Miss Covington? Are you all right?”
“Yes. I'm fine.” She fought to control her breathing. “I'm just a little tired. It must have been that ride on the bus, all day yesterday. I guess it sapped my energy.”