The sound started again. It started slowly at first, the low creaking of old timber lashed by the waves of a storm, so soft it seemed to come from a distance. Growing louder, the noise was soon accompanied the loud snap of wood and the hardy clang of an old buoy tossed about on the waves.
Rich opened his eyes and rolled onto his side to check the luminescent dial of his watch.
“3:14am… is that the same as last night?” He asked himself.
Rich Peterson was not a superstitious man, though he had known many in the Navy. He kept both feet firmly rooted in reality. He didn’t believe in ghosts, goblins or omens, but something about the time made the hair on the back of his neck tingle.
Moving slowly, he got put on his boots and stepped cautiously onto the balcony that overlooked the great hall below. From here he could see out the windows that overlooked the Atlantic. The beam from the lighthouse was out, as it had been the night before and the sky was nearly obscured by a low overcast. It should have been nearly impossible to see anything at sea.
Yet there it was, clear as the nose on Rich Peterson’s face. Four lights bobbed low in the water just beyond the Point. They were moving up and down and to and fro like a ship being tossed by the waves… but at this hour the ocean was calm and wind was light.
Frowning in concentration, Rich stared at the distant lights, trying to make out any additional details, but the distance was too great.
“Damn these old eyes!” He growled.
Moving as quickly as he dared, the elderly man moved down the balcony and rushed down the stairs. He reached the library in six strides and pulled his old Canon 35MM camera from the shelf. A moment later he was on the back deck, snapping pictures of the bobbing lights in hopes that the camera’s telephoto lens would make out details he could not. He didn’t stop until the film canister was empty and his fingers were exhausted. He then set the camera aside and sat in one of the battered deck chairs, watching the lights until they faded from view just before dawn.
When he was certain the lights were not coming back, Rich rose and went inside. He repeated his daily ritual and stepped into the morning air less than two hours later. The sky was still leaden, with a low ceiling accompanied by a bitter wind that grabbed the older man’s bones and squeezed, causing him to shiver.
“Looks like fall is coming early,” he intoned to himself. “I’ll have to order in supplies for the winter.”
Straightening and ignoring the cold through a will stronger than steel, Rich climbed into the HUM-V and rumbled down into the village. He stopped first at the Five and Dime, weaving his way through the old wooden shelves laden with everything from cheap souvenirs proclaiming Winter Cove “a great place to visit” to hurricane provisions and fishing gear. At the back of the store was a large Kodak developing center, and it was here that he dropped off his photos to be developed. For the first time he could remember, he checked the box agreeing to pay extra for the photos to be developed within the hour. When he was through, he returned to the HUM-V and drove across town to Marth’s.
Though on the outside Martha’s Diner looked like a ramshackle fishing shack at the end of the pier, the inside was spotlessly clean and dressed up like every fifty’s diner Hollywood ever made, complete with a chrome-edged lunch counter, bright red booth benches and black and white ceramic tile on the floor. Night or day it was always clean and smelled of French fried potatoes.
Rich took a seat at the counter; Martha’s twenty-something granddaughter immediately poured him a cup of coffee and put in his regular order of three eggs over fried bread and potatoes with a thick piece of ham on the side. Rich placed a fifty-dollar bill on the counter and sipped his coffee, savoring the black brew before swiveling to look out at the harbor. From here you could see the entire harbor and its collection of yachts preparing to leave for the season, as well as the lighthouse on the point, its bright white walls standing out against the darkening sky.
When his food arrived, Rich turned back to the young woman and said, “Hi Kelly, thank you for the grub.”
“You’re welcome Mr. Peterson,” she said with a smile. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Just answer a question… do you know if anyone has been doing any late night fishing off the Point?”
“Not that I know of, Mr. Peterson,” Kelly replied. “I was still here when Baby J came in last night and she was the last boat out for the day. Why?”
Rich shrugged and addressed his food, answering, “Oh just something I saw last night,” around a bite of ham. “Thought I saw a fishing boat out beyond the lighthouse.”
“Could’ve been someone from up Canada way,” Kelly said, refilling Rich’s coffee cup.
“Mebbe,” Rich grunted.
Kelly smiled and turned to address the small group of tourists who had just arrived. The season would soon be over and every dollar earned now was one more during the long off season.
Rich finished his breakfast, alternating between watching the harbor and swapping tales of the sea with the tourists, who turned out to own one of the large yachts being loaded nearby. They were sailing down to the keys for the summer and would be leaving after breakfast. Rich regaled them with a tale of his adventures on a North Pacific sub-chaser during the latter part of the war, resulting in a substantial tip that he pushed on to Kelly. When the tourists had finished and made their goodbyes, she leaned across the counter and kissed the older man’s cheek.
“Thank you, Mr. Peterson,” she said. “Gramma will appreciate it.”
Rich nodded, pushed the folded fifty towards the young woman and exited the small diner. He made his way down the pier until he reached the dock where Baby J was moored. The large fishing boat was in excellent repair, painted a bright red and white two tone with white lettered Pirelli tires down both sides. Her diesel engines were already rumbling when Rich called out, “Jeff? Jeff Yates, you up there?”
A moment later a grizzled, deeply tanned face appeared over the boat’s railing.
“Hey Rich!” Jeff called down in a thick Maine accent. “What can I do ya for?”
“Kelly over at Martha’s told me you were out late last night,” Rich began.
“Yessum, we were late coming in, had a little engine trouble,” Jeff replied.
Rich paused and then asked, “Were you up north by any chance?”
Jeff nodded and leaned on the railing. “Doing a little work up there. What’s up Rich?”
“You didn’t see any other boats up there, did you? Mebbe an older yacht or something?”
“Nope, everyone’s taking their tinker toys and heading south for the winter. Why?”
“Just thought I saw something last night,” Rich replied. “Thanks Jeff. Clear sailing!”
“Have a goodun,” Jeff said, watching the old man move back down the dock.
Rich returned to the HUMV-V and drove back down Main street to the Five and Dime,
where his photos were waiting for him. Randi, the cashier on duty at this early hour, handed him the bulging envelope of 35MM images and smiled.
“I already added then to your account, Rich,” she said in her Jamaican accent. “Anything else you need this morning?”
“Not yet, Randi,” Rich replied, turning towards the door. “Thank you kindly for the pictures.”
“You’re welcome, old friend,” Randi said. “Come back around lunchtime, my Neville is already boiling up a batch of steamers for lunch!”
Rich waved the photograph envelope by way of reply and continued out the front door. He climbed into the HUM-V and popped open the envelope to view his pictures. The photos he had taken the previous day showed nothing out of the ordinary; the Atlantic was calm and placid in the foreground while the Lighthouse and Mansion were clearly visible in the center of the frames.
The early morning images, however showed the same lights he had seen, bobbing just a few feet above the water. Rich selected the highest quality image from the collection and slipped it into his shirt pocket. He then went back inside the store to find Randi.
“That was fast, Rich,” she said pleasantly. “The steamers won’t be here for a bit yet.”
“I’m not here for lunch,” Rich replied. “Do you have any way to enlarge and enhance a photo?”
“What do you have in mind?” Randi asked.
Rich pulled the photo out of his pocket and showed it to her.
“Can you blow up the lights in the middle so I can see what they are attached to?”
Randi examined the picture for a moment and shook her head.
“The best I can do you is an eight by ten of the whole image from the negative,” she said.. “What you’ll need here is a computer with a scanner.”
Rich made a face and slipped the photo back in his pocket. “Do you know where I can get one? I haven’t bought a new one since the Commodore was in style.”
Randi laughed and said, “The Café that opened down the street has computers for rent. They can probably help you.”
“Café? You mean that coffee house that opened a few weeks ago?”
“That’s the one,” Randi said. “It is an internet café.”
“They make coffee with foam on the top,” Rich grumbled. “Foam shouldn’t be on coffee.”
“So don’t drink the coffee, just use the computers,.”
“Thanks again, Randi,”
Reluctantly, Rich drove back to the “purveyor of coffee foo-foo drinks” as he and the other old-timers liked to call it and parked in one of the narrow spaces in front.
The outside of Charlotte’s Web looked like almost every other business on Main street; the building had been constructed in the late 1800’s and was essentially a three story oblong with a slightly canted roof and large windows overlooking the street. The windows had been painstakingly painted to look like they had been covered in spider web, with small cups of coffee and computers stuck in the web. Rich looked up at it distastefully and pushed his way through the door. An antique bell chimed over his head, prompting the young man in the kitchen to bustle out with a wide smile.
“Good morning,” he said with a smile. “I’m Kyle, welcome to Charlotte’s Web, what can I get you?”
Rich looked Kyle up and down and was surprised. This wasn’t the sallow-skinned, bespectacled wet-noodle he was expecting. In his place was a muscular young man with a healthy complexion and a wide smile. The only thing about him, aside from his trade, that made Rich’s fists itch was the man’s shoulder-length hair.
“Peterson, Rich Peterson,” Rich replied. “I could use a little help enlarging a photo.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Kyle said, shaking the offered hand. “You can do that here, sure. Let me get you set up at one of our workstations…”
Five hours and three cappuccinos later, Rich had a photograph showing what looked like the stern of a five-masted ship. He could just make out the windows of the captain’s cabin and the large lanterns that hung from the top of the transom.
“What were you doing out there,” he asked the photo. “And why did no one but me see you?”
“What do you have there, Mr. Peterson?” Kyle asked, having just finished assisting another customer.
Rich showed Kyle the photo and replied, “A picture I took early this morning.”
Kyle examined the photo and said, “it looks something like a pirate ship. It was out last night?”
“It does and it was,” Rich replied. “Thank you for your help, son.”
“No problem, Mr. Peterson. Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No thank you, son,” Rich replied, fishing a hundred dollar bill from his wallet. “I appreciate all you did today. Will this cover it?”
“Of course, sir, let me get your change.”
“No thanks,” Rich replied. “I don’t keep change.”
Kyle smiled widely and said, “thank you, Mr. Peterson, thank you very much!”
With the photographic evidence of the ship confirming it wasn’t his imagination, Rich Peterson set out to obtain more evidence of whatever he had seen. He’d set an expensive night-vision video camera with a zoom lens, his battered old telescope and a comfortable chair out on the sand near the high tide mark and waited. Each night for two weeks he sat patiently, sipping coffee and eating cold pork pies by the light of the waning moon and the distant lighthouse. When the sixteenth night came and went without incident, he decided that what he had seen and heard must have been a yacht making its way south for the winter and that any suspicious or supernatural attributes had been added by his own imagination in the wee hours of the night.
On the seventeenth day he’d returned to his normal schedule, spending his days on the house, determined to finish it before his death, and his nights slowly working through the collection of first edition novels he had collected, fighting his dyslexia all the while, or listening to recording of old radio shows he remembered from his own childhood.
By All Hallows Eve, he’d nearly forgotten the strange sounds that had awakened him in the wee hours of the morning, and he spent a happy evening scaring and sharing treats with neighborhood children that were brave enough to ring the antique bell of the “haunted mansion on Ichabod Lane.”
He was surprised when the sounds started again early on All Saint’s day. As had happened before it started as the low, distant creak and crack of timber, followed by lights and the clank of a buoy. This time, however, the sounds were much closer and accompanied by a noise he couldn’t identify; a sound that frightened him badly, for no reason he was able to discern.
His hands shaking, Rich slid from the bed and reached for the lamp next to him. For a scant moment he hesitated to turn the knob, afraid of what he might see in the room with him.
‘Stop it, Richard,’ he said to himself. ‘You are being ridiculous.”
Steeling himself, he turned the knob and squinted in the sudden brightness; as his instincts told him, the room was empty save for the strange lights twinkling on the walls.
Now more angry at himself than afraid, Rich pulled on his pants and boots and walked into the hallway. The full moon shined overhead, seeming huge even at such a late hour. It illuminated the small yard and the beach, the waves crashing on the sand seeming to glow with a supernatural light. In the bright glow he could see that the lighthouse was dark as it had been so many weeks ago, and the harbor beyond was dark and silent, except for the pale illumination provided by what Rich was now certain were lamps on the stern of a ship.
Certain her would be able to get enough photos to identify the vessel. The retired engineman trotted down the stairs, grabbed his video camera and trundled out onto the beach, where his wooden deck chair still sat just above the water line. He sat in the chair, his booted feet almost in the water, and fumbled with the camera. With his nervous fingers it took a few tries to get the night-vision to function, but he soon raised the camera to his eye and pointed it out to sea, where the lights still bobbed in the waves. What he saw in the lens chilled him to the bone.