Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Erica L. Ruedas
Photo Credit: Richard Freeman
There was a graveyard at Fort Ord.
Madge found out about it on her second night while patrolling with Ronnie, the cocky sergeant. He took her out beyond the barriers on Inter-Garrison, where only bikers, hikers, and cops and military personnel were allowed.
“See the kennels over there? The military used to keeps dogs on the base, and they’d have guys sleeping in those buildings nearby. Some of the fellas here, they say they can hear them howling at night when they drive by. I’ve never heard it, though.”
Madge sipped her coffee and stared out the window. The moon was out, and Monterey’s famous fog had left off for the evening so the kennels stood out clearly. They looked like everything else did on this base—old and abandoned.
Ronnie tossed her a grin and put the car in gear and they travelled a little farther down the torn-up road. There were more abandoned buildings, which Madge knew she should get used to on this campus, but Ronnie drove past them without comment and pulled up next to a small clearing surrounded by a chain link fence on two sides.
“Now, take a look here,” he said, glancing at her to make sure she was looking. “Now, not too many of the students know this, but there’s a graveyard here. Belonged to some family a long time ago, like 1800s or something. But anyway, when the government came ’round looking for land, the family sold it to them under one condition: that they could come visit this graveyard to pay their respects to their ancestors whenever they’d like. Military agreed, and they were the only ones allowed on this base during times of war, when the whole place was locked down.”
Madge nodded, but she was staring at the headstones outlined in the moonlight. The graveyard was small, with one large cross and one or two small headstones. If they had been closer, she would probably make out more, but Ronnie drove off again.
“You know,” he said, after a moment, “they say sometimes a little girl goes down to the kennels at night, wearing a blue silk dress. Those headstones all belong to kids, but they’re all really little kids, like two years old. Some of the fellas think it’s a girl killed by the soldiers, to hide evidence or something. And she hears the dogs howling, and goes down to the kennels to play with them, cuz it makes her forget the horrors she experienced here.”
Madge rolled her eyes. Ronnie was taking her silence to be fear, when really she was just wondering about the family buried in the graveyard. She loved history and visiting cemeteries.
They finally drove back to the station and spent a few hours filling out some paperwork and watching training videos from the eighties before everyone on the night shift packed up their gear and went home. Madge had taken a townhouse in the staff housing two miles away from the station, and, as she had sold her old car before moving, she hitched a ride with the campus shuttle on its second lap around the campus.
There was no one getting on the shuttle from campus to housing, so Madge struck up a conversation with the student driver. She was a business major, named Emily, and was in her second year. She shared Madge’s love of the history of Monterey, and on the short drive the two of them traded facts until Madge’s stop.
When she got back to work again that night, the office staff of the student transportation and parking services were leaving from their office next door. Emily was among them. “Have you been here all day?” asked Madge, shifting her gear to get at her swipe card to unlock the police entrance.
Emily separated from the group. “No, I just take a second shift on Tuesdays. Hey, have you been around the area yet?”
“No, not yet, I’ve barely had time to go grocery shopping.”
“Well, leave a message in the office—my boyfriend and I can show you around this weekend.”
“Cool, thanks.” Madge finally found her keycard and let herself into the station, waving goodbye to Emily.
An hour later she was in briefing, where she learned she was to be partnered with Sam, a tall, good-looking detective who was popular with the students. She also learned that she was in the driver’s seat.
“So, have you been learning the streets?” Sam asked her in the car as he made adjustments to his seat.
“Yeah, east/west streets are given the designation ‘Street’ and the North/South ones are ‘Avenue.’ I’m still figuring out the housing blocks—which one is Civil War again?”
“That’d be Frederick Park 1. The first left when you get past Inter-Garrison. Frederick Park 2 is Revolutionary War, and Schoonover is all on its own—that’s where you live right? Want to drive around there for a while?”
“Sure.” Madge called it in to dispatch and they drove the two miles back to the campus housing. They’d been driving around for a few hours when Madge asked about the graveyard. Sam laughed.
“Yeah, Ronnie likes to scare all the new guys with that. New girls. People. Sorry.”
“Anyways, there is a graveyard back there, but I’ve never heard of any ghost girls or ghost dogs or anything like that. Nothing much happens out there, anyway. It’s just a place to go when you get bored at night.”
Within a few weeks Madge was driving a car on her own, and as the students settled into the fall semester the station got busy at night with party bust-ups, disturbance calls, and one particularly interesting marijuana bust in the dorms where an R.A. discovered a student growing pot in her dorm room. She hadn’t had a chance to drive past the barriers on Inter-Garrison to see the graveyard yet, but it was hanging at the back of her mind. Thanks to Emily’s tours she’d found the cemetery in Monterey, but it was small and uninteresting compared to the mystery of the graveyard on the military land.
Just before the school’s fall break, Madge found herself driving around one night with nothing to do. She had already done a few sweeps of the abandoned buildings down by Second Ave, where students liked to steal souvenirs or smoke pot, so she drove down Inter-Garrison and through the barriers, trying to remember how to get to the graveyard.
She found it quickly, despite not having any landmarks back there, and as she approached the kennels her hands slipped on the steering wheel. She was more afraid of being found there by the MPs, as she didn’t know how to explain why a campus cop would be out here alone, but there wasn’t anyone else around. From the road near the kennels she realized she could see the headlights going up and down Imjin to Marina, something she hadn’t seen the last time she had been here, but as it was nearly three a.m., there were few headlights.
She don’t know why she did it but she got out of the car. She wished she had a camera so she could photograph the kennels by the half-covered moon, and she left the car running with the headlights off just in case. She could always tell the MPs she thought she saw someone moving out there.
The kennels were falling apart, some missing their gates, but Madge stood there awhile, imagining she could hear the dogs sleeping inside. The moon went behind a cloud, and it took a minute for her night vision to kick in. She had a flashlight on her belt, but she didn’t want to take the chance of it being seen.
When the moon came out from the clouds again, she suddenly heard a howl, and then another. She froze, staring at the kennels, but nothing was moving. The howls stopped, and Madge suddenly remembered it being mentioned in her orientation that there were still animals on the base, like deer and coyotes—and mountain lions. She realized that this was a stupid idea, to be in such a strange place by herself with nothing but some pepper spray and her gun, and she was heading back to the car when she saw the girl.
She had materialized behind a dilapidated building about a hundred feet from the kennels and was walking towards Madge, wearing an old-fashioned blue dress that shimmered in the moonlight. She was about seven or eight, and she was looking right through Madge at the kennels.
Madge stood staring at the little girl until her radio crackled to life and she jumped and ran to the car. In the car she chanced a glance back at the kennels and the little girl had disappeared. The radio crackled out something again, and Madge turned it up and heard dispatch calling her to suicidal student out in FP1. She acknowledged the call and drove back to campus, where she spent the rest of her shift counseling the distraught student and seeing her safely onto an ambulance to the hospital.
Two days later, Madge was walking around campus when she ran into Emily near the library.
“Hey, Officer Stevens, taking a class?”
“Oh, no, just looking around.”
“Well, be sure to check out our library. I think it’s the smallest university library ever.”
“Yeah, it’s in the Guinness Book or something. Anyways, I gotta get to class. See you at work!”
It occurred to Madge that she might find some history about the cemetery in the campus library, and as she was technically staff of the school, she had a library account. From the outside the library looked small, but inside it was even smaller. A nearby librarian spotted her and greeted her: “Can I help you find anything?”
“Yeah, I’m looking for some books on the history of Fort Ord.”
“Is it for a class?”
“Oh, no, I’m not a student, I’m actually a police officer that just started. I wanted to learn a little bit more about when this all used to be a military base.”
“Sure, we’ve got some books, but it might be best to try the city library.”
“Yeah, you guys are kind of small for a university.”
The librarian smiled apologetically. “Well, the school itself is only ten years old, and we don’t have much of a collection yet. But we do have a great interlibrary loan system, and there’s plans to build a much bigger library in the next five years or so.”
The librarian spent a few minutes showing Madge some books on the history of Fort Ord then she left to help another student for a class. Madge picked up some of the books and took them to a study table so she could look through them. She flipped through several of the books, but none of them had any information about the land before it had been sold to the military by David Jacks. The librarian came by again and peered over her shoulder.
“Any luck?” she asked.
Madge sighed. “No, not really. None of these have the information I want.”
“You might want to try the city library—it’s behind downtown on Pacific Street. I think they’ve got a historical exhibit right now.”
Madge followed the librarian to the desk and took the slip of paper with the city library’s address. “Thanks.”
Rather than waiting to find someone to take her out there, Madge took the bus from the stop outside the library. She hadn’t been able to shake the image of that girl from her mind. She came home later with a stack of books about the history of Monterey, and she grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down to read. There was still very little history mentioned prior to what she had begun to dub “The David Jacks Era,” but she eventually fond a footnote somewhere that said that a family called Whitcher had once lived on the land. There was no more about them in any of the books.
Just before fall break, the university started advertising a Secrets of Fort Ord tour for all the potential students coming to view the campus. It was a two-hour bus tour that went around the military land. Madge found that she was off that day, so she signed up. When she ran into Emily at work she found that Emily had signed up as well, and they agreed to go in the same bus.
“I hear there’s a graveyard out there,” Emily said, lowering her voice.
“There is, I’ve seen it.”
On the day of the tour they met up outside the main university building with a large group of teens who were looking around nervously. “Ever been on the tour before?” asked Madge, craning her neck to see down the street.
“Nope, but my friends went on it last year and said it was cool. That’s how I found out about the graveyard. There’s really one out there?”
“Yeah, it’s really small, though.”
The guide they had was an old colonel who had been stationed on Fort Ord in the seventies. His commentary was dry but informative, and he was able to pepper it with some of his memories. At certain spots they were able to get out and walk around, except where there was a live training being done, and people crowded the windows to watch soldiers in full gear storming a building with their M-17s drawn.
They finally drove to the area by the graveyard, and everyone got out to look around. The fog had started to settle, so the colonel warned them to watch their step, as there was still a lot of hazardous material around, and Madge got a chance to go over to the small graveyard. There were only five headstones, and Ronnie had told the truth about them all being toddlers, except one, who had been an adult buried in the thirties. She couldn’t see where the little girl might have come from.
Emily came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Not much to look at, is it?”
“No, not really. Wish someone knew more about them, though.”
The fog grew heavier as the party walked down the road to the kennels, and Madge was enjoying seeing them in daylight when they all heard the howling. A few people laughed nervously, but the colonel explained that it was probably just coyotes.
“Those aren’t coyotes,” someone said.
“Well what else could they be?” asked Emily.
“That’s some kind of dog. There’s a dog out here.”
Everyone looked around, but no dogs appeared. Then Emily suddenly screamed, and the colonel ran over.
“What is? Did you step on something?”
Emily shook her head, pale under her make-up. “No, I thought I saw a little girl over there by that building,” she said, pointing to the corner where Madge had also seen the little girl.
“There’s no children on this tour,” the colonel pointed out, sounding irritated.
Emily shook her head again. “It was definitely a little girl.” She turned to her Madge. “One of the cops told me there’s this ghost of a little girl out here. I bet it was her.”
“Was it Ronnie?” asked Madge, as the colonel started herding them towards the bus.
“Yeah, him, I had to do a ride-along with him my first month and he took me back here and tried to scare me. I didn’t believe him, but…”
“Yeah, he told me the same thing too.” They got back on the bus and Madge followed Emily to the back, where Emily leaned her head towards Madge’s.
“You know, I bet it’s someone from the graveyard over there on the other side of the road.”
“All the people buried there are under five or over thirty,” said Madge.
Emily looked disappointed. “The girl I saw was around eight, and I know I saw her.”
Madge peered over the seats and lowered her voice. “I’ve seen her too.”
“Yeah, a few weeks ago. Was she wearing a blue dress?”
Back at work the next day, Madge went to Ronnie immediately. “Did you try to play a joke on us this weekend?”
“No, I was up in the Bay Area with my girl. Why?”
Madge had known that, but she soldiered on. “Someone tried to scare one of the tour groups, out at the cemetery.”
“Oh, that Secrets of Fort Ord tour? I been on that a few times. Probably one of the theater students doing his own Blair Witch thing.”
“They saw a little girl in a blue dress.”
Ronnie laughed. “Oh, come on, you don’t believe that, do you? Hey, Sam,” he said, as the tall detective came into the room, “our newbie here believes that old ghost story.”
Sam laughed at the irritated look on Madge’s face.
“You want one of us to ride with you, huh? You too scared to go alone?” taunted Ronnie, getting too close to Madge. She punched his arm and walked away, slightly satisfied when she saw him rubbing his arm.
Emily met her for dinner the next day.
“It definitely wasn’t Ronnie,” said Madge, as they sat down.
“Well, what else do you think it was?”
“I don’t know. I looked it up and the family those graves belong to is called Whitcher, but none of those graves belong to an eight-year-old girl. And I can’t find anything else.”
Emily chewed her pizza thoughtfully.
Madge spoke up again. “Look, it’s not the best source of information, but Ronnie said maybe a girl was molested and killed out there, and they buried her to hide the evidence.”
“You think there’s someone else actually buried out there?”
“Maybe. It doesn’t have to be from when this still belonged to the military. It could be someone more recent, and no one’s ever around out there, so it wouldn’t be too hard not to get caught. Either way that makes it a crime and I have to investigate it. What if someone’s really buried out there?”
“Well, get the other cops in on it.”
Madge knew she didn’t have enough evidence to even mention it to Sam, and she was more interested in getting to the bottom of a possible ghost story. “They won’t believe me, not after I got after Ronnie for trying to scare us,” she said.
They finished their lunch and Emily got up to head back to class when Madge caught her arm. “Hey, go on a ride along with me next week. We’ll head out there again, look around.”
“Sure. When do you work next?”
“Cool, I’ll meet you at the station, then.”
Up until Madge grabbed the shuttle to work, she tried to find information about any missing girls in the area, but nothing came up. She finally printed out some pages that she knew were going to be irrelevant and ran out the door. To her surprise, Emily was driving the shuttle.
“Someone called in sick, so I’m driving till 7:30. I’ll come by then, though?”
Madge got to work and filled out the paperwork for a ride-along, then grabbed her car and drove around the housing for awhile. The night was quiet for a Thursday, and she was able to drive back to the station to pick up Emily.
“Here’s some stuff I printed out earlier, but I don’t think it’ll help,” she said, tossing the print-outs in Emily’s lap.
Emily went through them quickly on the way to the road blocks and shook her head. “There’s nothing here.”
When they got to the kennels, Madge shut off the car and the headlights. They sat staring at one another for a minute, and then Madge took a deep breath and got out of the car. Emily followed her.
The night was foggy, and Madge felt safe enough pulling out her flashlight. “Stay close to me,” she said. Emily hugged herself and followed Madge to the kennels.
They spent a few minutes looking around, but Madge never found anything suspicious. She was about to tell Emily she was going to call it quits when Emily gasped and pointed to the shed. Madge shone her flashlight in that direction and saw nothing, but Emily grabbed her hand and pulled it away, and Madge saw the little girl coming towards them.
Once again, she was looking right through them towards the kennels, but this time there was no howling. The fog rolled across the field, and Madge’s blood froze as she watched the little girl pick her way to them. She was within twenty feet when Emily’s hand seized Madge’s and tugged her away.
Madge nearly dropped the flashlight as they ran to the car, and was adjusting her grip on it when Emily tripped just ahead of her. Madge stopped to help her up and turned around, but the girl was gone, or at least had gone far enough towards the kennels that she couldn’t be seen. Panting, Madge pulled Emily up and turned on the flashlight to make sure she was okay, and Emily gasped again.
At her feet was a greying bone.
This time, Madge grabbed Emily and pulled her to the car, where she started it and kicked up clouds of dirt taking off.
They drove around for an hour or two to calm down and decided that they would report it to Sam. When they got back to the station, Sam listened to them quietly, then radioed for a back up team to go out there, where Madge and Emily led them to the bone. It was bagged up and taken as evidence.
A few days later, Madge joined a team of MPs, Ronnie, Sam, and a few other cops as they went over the ground near the kennels. A dog had been brought in, but he found nothing until they got to the place where Madge and Emily had been standing the other night when they last saw the little girl. It was there that he started whining and growling at nothing, and tugging on his leash.
“What’s wrong with him?” Sam asked the handler, but the handler just jerked the dog away.
“Get away from the area, folks,” he said. “Hey, Parkins, you want to get an air quality tester over here?”
A couple of hours later, more MPs, in masks this time, were going over the area. Carbon monoxide, in concentrated amounts, had been detected near the kennels. Sam wanted to go back to the station, but since Madge wasn’t actually on duty, she elected to stay.
She was there when one of the MPs fell through the dirt, and his teammate barely caught him before he dropped fifty feet into a well behind the kennels, and she watched as they uncovered the rest of it, and blasted the carbon monoxide out of it.
By the time the city historians got there, it had been worked out that the well had belonged to the Whitchers, and vandals looking for metal had disturbed a lot of the surrounding soil, allowing the carbon monoxide to reach the surface. The gas, along with the story Ronnie had planted in Madge and Emily’s heads, and a nearby family of coyotes, had been the source of the bone, the howling, and the apparition. The little girl was never seen again.
In her day job, Erica fixes software and databases, but at night she is a dancer, writer, and photographer. Email: eruedas[at]gmail.com