The trail wound its way through rhododendron bushes and down a steep incline towards a rapidly flowing creek. Above the high water line which was clearly indicated by patches of debris attached to nearby pine trees was a small cabin. There was no road leading to it. No telephone wires, electricity, or water lines connected the cabin to the outside world that existed less than ten miles away.
Someone fleeing a storm or on the trail of game would find nothing of interest in the cabin except the shelter of its porch. The front door was unlocked and the cupboards were empty. Raggedy furniture arranged in haphazard fashion provided the only décor for a structure that consisted of a living area and a kitchen. The wood stove in the kitchen was vintage 1941. The property ownership was a famous wood products company in Oregon. Otherwise, for legal purposes the cabin did not exist.
Cleverly hidden in the small living area underneath some aged, washed out, cardboard was a hidden door in the floor. There were no visible hinges or handles by which to open the door, but if someone were clever and had the right tool, they could pry the door open and go beneath the floor of the cabin where they would encounter another door. Steel imbedded in concrete with a chain and a lock prohibiting entrance. Only a very dedicated person would attempt to gain entry – even if they were so lucky to find this hidden portal.
The little girl who lived behind the steel door had very cramped quarters. She had been there a year and had given up hope of ever returning to her mommy and daddy. The day she disappeared from the shopping mall in Gatlinburg was now a blur in her memory. Nightmare Man – the name she had given her captor – came every two days and brought her food and let her go to the creek and wash. She had to do her business in a bucket which he required her to empty in the creek. She’d gotten over the smell months before.
Gracie Lynn Crye had never seen her captor’s face or heard his real voice. He always spoke in whispers behind the plastic smiley mask he wore. He fed her well – the meals were either Kentucky Fried Chicken or Taco Bell. She noticed that she was getting fat. When she was taken, she was the skinniest girl in her class. Now she could barely wear the clothes she had on when Nightmare Man brought her to the cabin. It got cold sometimes and Gracie had to curl up in the thick sleeping bag in the corner, but generally speaking, the temperature never got above or below 56 degrees. What Gracie did not know was that her enclosure backed into the wall of a cave that was under the mountain where the cabin was located. A small hole in the wall allowed air to escape from the cave keeping the temperature constant. An even smaller hole at the bottom of the wall allowed water to flow from a very small spring inside the cave. The water flowing into her room disappeared into another hole in the concrete floor and down into the creek outside the cabin.
Nightmare Man did not know it, but Gracie had caught a tadpole that flowed into the room from the small trickle of spring water. With all the empty drink containers lying around, her new friend – now a small frog – was her only companion. The frog whom shed named “Frog” was Gracie’s only grip on sanity. It kept her from thinking what was eventually going to happen to her. Nightmare Man was starting to change the way he treated her. He was actually treating her very nice. This only had the affect of scaring Gracie.
“How’s my little girl today,” Nightmare Man whispered from behind his mask.
Gracie had learned that the best thing to do when addressed by Nightmare Man was to smile. Talking or answering Nightmare Man’s questions honestly had always resulted in her being smacked. She would smile and just let him talk. Today he was doing something totally different. He’d brought two buckets of water from the creek and what looked like a bottle of shampoo.
“Take off your shirt.” It was a command and Gracie dare not disobey.
Even though he frightened her to death, Gracie enjoyed having her hair washed. This was a first. After rinsing, Nightmare Man dried her hair with two towels and then began combing it out. As he combed, he whispered,
“Soon you’re going to be ready, sweetie. All I need to do is get you some nice clothes and my little doll will be ready. You’re going to like the nice clothes I bring you – and the perfume. I bet you’ve never wore perfume before. You’ll like it. My little princess will like it…” Something is going on; Gracie thought when she noticed that Nightmare Man had changed her menu. He’d brought her a pizza and a book. Who, she thought, were Hansel and Gretel?
The next day
Rick Wilson parked his Tahoe in the gravel drive of the Century Presbyterian Church. He thought, even though Johnny Turbyfield's story sounded crazy, that he would check out the wild tale.Walking into the cemetery he noticed he was not alone. There was a man on a backhoe excavating in the corner of the cemetery. Probably digging a grave, Johnny thought. He walked towards the man.
“Hey,” Rick yelled above the backhoe’s noise.
The operator frowned as if irritated at having to shut down his machine.
“How can I help you, buddy?"
Rick flashed his badge and identified himself.
“Say, have you seen or heard anything unusual since you’ve been out here?”
“Nothing except all this junk that people leave behind when they decorate these graves. I come out here once a month and gather it all up and bury it in the corner up there.”
Feeling slightly foolish, Rick walked up to the small pit the operator had dug to bury the cemetery waste. Among the sprays, floral foam, and wire frames, Rick saw something among the debris that caught his attention. Jumping down into the pit, Rick retrieved a small tennis shoe. It looked like a girl’s.
“Who do you think lost this?” Rick asked the operator.
“Beats me,” the operator said, “You find all kinds of junk in cemeteries. I found a baseball bat in one yesterday. I took it home and gave it to my grand kid.”
Rick took the shoe back to his Tahoe and put it in an evidence bag. Going out the gate, he noticed a small white sign affixed to the side of the church which read, “Property of Quillen Enterprises.” What’s this about he wondered. He decided to drive to the Blount County Courthouse to find out.
Later that afternoon
The Blount County Courthouse was old. History had been made there. The great Texas hero, Sam Houston, a Blount County native son, had once been fined ten dollars – a great sum at the time – for disturbing the peace in that same courthouse. Hangings and Ku Klux Klan rallies nearby were a darker part of its history.
Blake McClemore spent most of his time roaming the courthouse. The fine invisible dust that permeated the air due to the courthouse’s poor ventilation system reeked havoc on his sinuses. Blake was a paralegal for a busy lawyer and spent a great deal of his time researching property ownership, archival records, and court documents from bygone cases. Today he was checking out the ownership of a piece of property his boss’s wife wanted to buy for a small boutique.
Blake turned around and saw Rick Wilson standing at his elbow.
“What brings you into this part of the courthouse, Rick? Are you into real estate now?”
Rick and Blake had played football together what seemed like centuries before at nearby Maryville College. Neither got tapped by the pros and were always joking with each other about it. At one time they had been much closer, but life had interfered and they saw each other on the occasional rare occurrence like today.
“I am kind of out of my element here, Blake, maybe you can help me.”
“I’ll try partner. 'Whatcha' got?”
Rick told Blake about the sign he saw on the Century Presbyterian Church. Two aisles away, Blake found the record of the property ownership.
“I vaguely remember something about this.” Blake said. “It seems that membership in the old church dwindled away over the years until there was no one left. A larger Presbyterian church in Maryville owned the property and decided to sell it – including the cemetery. There’s twenty acres and Quillen Enterprises out of Sevierville bought it all with the provision that they would maintain the cemetery for twenty years or until they got an agreement with the relatives to move the graves to another location. So far, about twenty graves have been moved with about forty left to go. Quillen's paying top dollar for those graves.”
“So you’re telling me that Quillen owns the whole thing?”
“That’s about it. Most people around here think he’s holding it to be the cornerstone of one of his new developments.”
“So the sonofabitch is a grave robber as well as land thief. What’s he going to do with the cemetery when all the graves are moved, turn it into a water park?”
“Shh… don’t talk so loud. One of his real estate agents is standing behind you.” Blake looked slightly embarrassed.
“Busted! I heard that.” A pleasant, extremely curvy blonde, spoke up near Rick.
“Well at least you’re smiling.” Rick said.
Flashing her green eyes at their highest intensity, the girl said, “Don’t worry; I hear that kind of stuff all the time about Cosby.”
“I’m not going to have you say anything negative about you boss, but sometimes seeing how wild development has gone around here, it’s hard to keep my opinions to myself.”
“Let’s change the subject. I’m Laura Delozier.”
“I’m Rick Wilson. Pleased to meet you.” Rick took Laura’s extended hand and gave a brief handshake.
“I’m just confused on why a real estate developer would buy a church? Seems strange to me.” Rick didn’t expect an answer, and was turning to go when Laura said, “Buy me lunch and I’ll tell you more than you want to know about real estate development.”
“I’m for it as long as we get something to go and have a picnic lunch. You comin’ Blake?”
“No you kids have fun. I’ve got work to do.”
Watching the curvaceous Laura Delozier walk ahead of him sent a shiver of excitement through Rick that he hadn’t had in years. Damn! He thought. Quillen sure has good taste.
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