Warden Bergamot Honing, a man well into a hale and hearty prime, escorted them to a group of rustic timber buildings. The overall look suggested logging camp more than prison, a pleasant surprise. He gathered them around a rectangular wooden table in the mess hall. Heavy trusses marched across the ceiling, like the gigantic ribs of some prehistoric beast. But the belly of this leviathan was cozy, thanks to heat-radiators and steaming tea. Agnet fingered the initials gouged into the worn-smooth pine, a cross hatched graffiti, only a few names and dates legible, a testament to the many who’d sat beneath these beams.
The warden’s bald dome shone in the lamplight. He’d greeted them, seated them, and now was describing his domain. “She’s hard land, hereabouts. Soil’s shale and limestone decomposed into heavy clay that drains about as well as a bucket. So what do we grow? We grow buckwheat. Tough as nails, buckwheat. And it improves the soil. Occasionally, we have success with winter wheat. Not often, on account of the blight. Our honeybees feed off the buckwheat, and apple and raspberry blossoms.” He stared over the darkening field, his brow furrowed. “The apples ain’t in yet.”
“Wouldn’t honeybees fly into the containment zone, load up with contaminated pollen, then poison the honey?” asked Philip.
“Slim pickings for bees, past the valley and the woodlot. They stick to this valley.” The warden gave Philip a quick once over, a sunny grin, and a raised eyebrow. Philip probably attracted that look regularly, from women, men, honeybees. Perfumed blossoms, these perceivers, thanks to rumors of special emotional and sexual skills. And Philip’s tormented-actor-look added to his appeal.
“Speaking of flying the coop, I notice the perimeter isn’t secured.”
Welp. Brandt clearly hadn’t taken the meaning of “low security”.
“No need. We’re too remote. And too many hazards between here and the next viable settlement. Out there’s your mutant wild life, your ferals, and radioactive fallout. A trainee skips every so often. But we just feel sorry for them when they do.”
“Why run this facility as a rehab? Sure, the trainees provide free labor, but aren’t most ill-suited. I’d imagine most would require substantial training to come up to basic standards? Wouldn’t AgroCorp handle the land more efficiently?”
Ouf. The tactless question hung like a fart in the air, but Honing displayed no offense.
“That question comes up now and again. Way back, during the founding of this colony, the owners wouldn’t sell to AgroCorp, figuring the enterprise would last about a year under the stewardship of corporate money launderers, buying themselves forty-thousand dollar pitchforks and such-like. Not that you heard me making critical remarks about our government. The owners followed an ancient religion partial to redemption—this was back before the outbreaks and the uprisings, you see, so their feelings were taken into account. They believed offenders would find purpose working hard out here in the wholesome countryside. One old guy even stayed on and shared his expertise with the first Warden. We’re still farming old school style, and we’re still about redemption. We offer a way out and up. Our people do pretty good with the chance they’ve been given. Well, usually.”
The Warden paused, but his reply seemed to have rendered Jemin speechless, his expression amazed or awestruck. What had surprised the historian, the choosing of redemption over efficiency? Be nice to believe the man’s heart wasn’t that hard.
Honing nodded, marking the question as answered, then continued. “Right now, we’re struggling. I can’t get workers out in the fields. My people keep babbling about spooks. I’ve never seen one. I’m not sure of the truth of these…whatevers. But we’ve had a few grisly incidents, and the population is terrified. We got pumpkin and apples to harvest, and time is growing short.”
Orl’s head popped up at the word spooks, and her eyes focused on the Warden. Interesting, as the girl had ignored several direct inquiries while they’d walked across the field. The prison staff decided Orl was hard of hearing. But seemed deaf wasn’t her problem. Agnet pulled her notebook and a pencil from her front pocket, now that the conversation had moved on topic. Pleaser had called the problem “monsters” not “spooks”. Was there a difference? Maybe she’d just skip over the change in terminology, in case someone in Intake had misheard. No need to let the Warden know Central wasn’t paying full attention.
“Spooks? We heard you had monsters.” Brandt, talking out of turn, had stuck his foot right in it.
Honing laughed. “Monsters, spooks, not much difference in my book. I may have used ‘monsters’ up front, but later on, the community settled on ‘spooks.’”
“Monsters would be better from my perspective. Spooks sounds same as ghost. And they’re always transparent in fireside stories. I’d prefer solid.” Brandt swung an imaginary bat.
“I see your point. I’m more a monsters man myself. Though, I’m a reality-based person. I believe my people are seeing something, but I’m having difficulty accepting a supernatural explanation.”
Brandt’s face became sober. “You're probably right. But I’d still take monsters over spooks.”
Philip ineffectively smothered a giggle.
Agnet glared at Brandt and Philip, and made a show of flipping open her notebook to a blank page. Then she donned a reassuring smile for the Warden’s benefit. “I’m a reality-based person myself. But we’re here to help with whatever you got, spooks or monsters, your preference. We know the basics, but we’ll need your story and the testimony of any witnesses. All the details.”
The Warden pulled in his chin, his eyebrows high on his forehead. “You’re here to help us?”
“Of course. Why else would we be out here?”
“I was just about to ask. Excuse my surprise. Shock actually. Been sending out distress calls since July and haven’t heard a peep. Other government teams came through, but they had their own business and looked at me as if I was crazy when I mentioned our spooks. So we stocked ‘em up, and watched ‘em head out. I assumed Central wasn’t taking me seriously. And I couldn’t really blame them.”
Two unexpected twists, other groups passing through, and the Warden’s astonishment. She’d read a team inspected the region ten years ago on account of a minor forest fire, but— “Now I’m surprised. How many teams and when?”
“Two. Spoke with the leaders briefly. Said they was looking into the environment.”
“They describe what they found?”
“No. They didn’t come back this way. I figured they traveled to a pickup point somewhere downriver.”
“Many visitors pass through?”
“No. We’re well off the beaten track. So we really appreciate you coming out. You’re really here about the sightings?”
A huge grin overtook Honing’s face. “Well, that’s just fine, and I hope you can run them creatures off before the frost. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.” He described four, for lack of a better word, manifestations, child-like figures in various states of decay, but strong and grabby. One casualty to date, a man drowned during an attack near water. The other witnesses survived, frightened but unharmed.
As the Warden wrapped up his story, a tall man in worn coveralls rolled up a metal partition, revealing an industrial style kitchen. Looked as if meal prep was commencing. Agnet laid out her start-up agenda. “So initial steps: we interview the witnesses, then inspect the premises.” People laid baskets on a long counter. A meal cooked close to the source of naturally farmed food—now that’d be something.
Warden Honig followed Agnet’s eyes to the kitchen and a knowing smile flashed across his face. “We’ll start In the morning. The lights go out shortly after supper. Dark falls early and power generation’s slack, given the cold, the cloud cover, and angle of the sun. Besides, people will be too tired to talk business after dinner. Let’s set up your quarters. Then, you ever tasted apple crumple?”