“Thank you,” Phoebe said to the librarian. The floor cried out and the old man shifted in his chair as she turned to the foyer and heavy set of stairs which led to the second floor. To her surprise, the wide staircase didn’t make a sound as she climbed. The rail, darkly stained wood, was cold and smooth in her hand. She rounded the landing, and saw the second floor was dark.
It’s just a library.
She lowered her head and forced legs up the final steps. A small, handwritten sign read “please turn off lights as you leave” with a switch beneath it. Phoebe happily flicked the switch, and the room sparked to life. The floor plan mimicked the level below, with racks of books visible inside a room labeled “Non-fiction” to her left and another room labeled “Reference” to the right. She moved toward the right, surprised at the eerie silence of the carpeted floors. So silent she imagined even the books were listening for the slightest sound, waiting to fall from the shelves and crush her.
Tall windows decorated the walls of the reference room, and Phoebe quickly found the shelves of bound newspapers. They were large books, as wide and tall as the paper and at least three or four inches thick. Five volumes all together, each marked with dates on the spine.
“Okay, Phoebe, where to start,” she whispered to herself. She pulled out the volume with 1918-1935 on the spine, deciding to start with the train. If what her brother said was true, she’d need a paper from 1928. The heavy book echoed in the empty room as she dropped it on the table top. Inside, the pages were obvious reproductions made on glossy, heavyweight paper.
The first headline, Doughboys Stop Hun in Belleau Wood, showed pictures of four local men in uniform along with a map of France. Phoebe’s fingers slid over the slick pages, turning them gently, one at a time. Some jumped weeks, others only days. The paper must have been published on an irregular schedule. She passed Armistice Day, various business announcements in the early twenties, election results, and finally, on April 30, 1928, the headline she’d been looking for:
Tragedy Strikes on Rail: 78 Confirmed Dead
The reproduction, like most of the other pages, was of poor quality. Many of the words were nearly unreadable because of smudges or age. Phoebe was able to decode enough to learn the train wrecked just west of town while crossing a steel deck girder bridge over the Republic River. The engine had skipped the tracks traveling at approximately 35 miles per hour, and dragged all cars and passengers over the edge.
Subsequent pages showed grainy, black and white photos of the rescue efforts. The final death toll for the tragedy stopped at eighty-one.
A sigh escaped Phoebe’s lips, long and raspy like a midnight breeze. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until so much of it came at once. Eighty-one people died in a train wreck outside a small town in Kansas. Two parents die on an icy road in Illinois. Phoebe’s blood became frozen mud. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember her mother’s face.
A noise sounded across the second floor—a thump, the sound of a book falling from a shelf onto the carpeted floor. Phoebe pressed her fingers against the tabletop until the blood drained away and they were as white and cold as new snow.
The building answered with a quiet, settling creak. Outside, the sun had begun to set, and the room, with its bright fluorescent lights, was now brighter than the sky. How long had she been in there?
She returned the 1918-1935 book to the shelf, and drew out 1936-1948. Another heavy volume, this one largely filled with the last years of the Great Depression and World War II. Nothing about a school fire.
It was a picture in the next volume, 1949-1965, which caused the icy fingers of terror to encircle Phoebe’s heart—not the picture exactly, but the caption beneath. The photo was of a young woman, Lucy Hardaway, fifteen. The caption read:
The Strangler Takes Another Victim
Phoebe covered her mouth and stifled a gasp. She scanned the date under the newspaper flag: September 21, 1957. Another victim? Her fingers worked the pages in reverse order, checking each until 1955. She found nothing about a first victim. Maybe an accident. An omission. Maybe the police hadn’t known or the paper didn’t report it—
Another sound from across the way.
Phoebe felt for her bag under the table. She thought of calling EG, telling him to come pick her up, now. She would run down the stairs, leaving the 1949-1965 book open on the table, open to the picture of Lucy Hardaway, a pretty girl in black and white with dark curls, glasses, and thick eyebrows. She could…
She turned past Lucy’s picture, hunting for another mention of the Strangler. A morbid curiosity took over Phoebe’s fingers. She flipped the next few pages, working against the fear which clutched her heart and threatened to crush her lungs. Cars passed on the street below, making strange shapes on the walls with their headlights. She flinched at every, tiny sound.
January 4, 1958. Another girl, Joan Carpenter, dead of the Strangler, only now, the reporters had begun to call him—of course they assumed he was male—the Springdale Strangler. There was mention of another girl in the article, evidently the first victim, a young woman who lived in the rural area surrounding town. Evelyn Jones died six months before poor Lucy, but the police only made the connection after the second death.
With fevered intensity, Phoebe continued her hunt. The police searched for the Strangler. He’d gone silent until 1961. The girl’s name was Emma Lee. She had dark hair, limp and long, her face was long, too. High cheekbones. Phoebe couldn’t help but think she’d seen the face before, somewhere. She went missing in June of ’61, and the police feared the worst. The FBI became involved.
She flipped pages, skipping anything which didn’t mention the Strangler.
July 1, 1961, the FBI and Spring County Sheriff’s Department cornered a man named Nathaniel Slade in a small house on the heights overlooking the Republican River. After an eight hour standoff, the law enforcement moved in, shooting Slade dead. He was unarmed.
They never found Emma’s body.