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The Children of Astro Springs

Part 5 of the Braunville Chronicles

Lucky’s was a barbecue restaurant locally famous for its décor. Touting a retro atmosphere, the restaurant lot was cluttered with sculptures of famous landmarks as well as other “outsider art” pieces. Well entrenched in local memory is “Ford Rex,” the dinosaur made from scavenged car parts. The Eiffel tower shared a strip of grass with a Mayan pyramid, and a giant tiki god guarded the restaurant’s entrance.

Laurence McGee, known as Larry to the townsfolk, owned Lucky’s. He always corrected people who called him Lucky for, according to McGee, Lucky was the one who had built the restaurant in the first place. When asked about Lucky’s location, McGee would often say he was “drying out,” taken as an allusion to alcoholism.

Lucky’s was part of a consulate of local landmarks, along with the Squatch Watch gift shop and Z’s New Age Books. McGee styled himself as an “ambassador of the weird,” greeting people with obscure handshakes and bizarre slang. As an example of the offbeat nature of Lucky’s: the restaurant served no chicken; chicken orders would come out with a substitution of ‘mocken,’ McGee’s term for wheat gluten roasted as a loaf. The drinks all contained cinnamon, even the soda, and milk was served in a wine glass.

Though the restaurant was small, business was steady. McGee made a point of donating to what he saw as worthy causes, Franklin Moor’s run for Mayorship the most notable among them. He never bought from the same vendor twice in a month, leading to shortages of certain ingredients and thus a radically changing menu.

Around the time of the raids of Harlow Downs, McGee’s behavior became noticeably erratic. The restaurant had always kept odd hours, but suddenly McGee would be absent for days on end. This may not have been notable but for the fact that McGee was the sole employee of the restaurant, acting as chef, maître d’, and waiter all in one. Since he drove a very conspicuous vehicle, a powder-blue Chevrolet Bel Air, his travel was easily traced by local residents, who reported that he took frequent trips up to the surrounding hills. McGee would park at a sightseeing platform and then hike to an undetermined location. It was during one of these trips that a grease fire started in the kitchen at Lucky’s. Authorities attempting to track McGee down were led to the hillsides by townsfolk, who revealed McGee’s car but could not provide current whereabouts, as McGee took a different path every time. A manhunt swept the hillside, and this was how the resort was discovered.

Astro Springs had been a Seventh-day Adventist church before being converted to a resort in the early twenties and finally abandoned altogether after the great depression. The outbuildings were decrepit but showed signs of recent habitation. Deputies were investigating the garage, which had been converted to a machine shop of sorts, when a young child walked over a nearby hillock.

The child was a boy and seemed to be in no distress. He did not react to the officer’s presence with curiosity, nor did he show fear when they approached him. When asked his name, he replied as if it should be obvious:

“Franklin Moor.”

As the boy was questioned, other children began arriving along the same path. Three deputies were dispatched to trace their origin. They found the children were emanating from a site hidden from overhead eyes by a large blue tarp. On the site was a small replica of Braunville, depicted with stunning accuracy. All of the children gave their name as that of an existing Braunville citizen. None of the children wore shoes. None of the children could read. None of them described having parents, or showed familiarity with the concept of parenthood.

Many documents recovered from the site were rants aimed at a “Lucky” who was inferred to be the dual ruler of an unnamed organization, and how he was “drying up” before his time. “The builder and the breaker” were terms that came up frequently, along with unusual vocabulary patterns that mimicked Annika Pataky’s diaries. Also extant were various “observational data reports” similar to that of Pataky’s, detailing daily psychological experiments on the children of the compound. Investigation into McGee’s financial records showed that his philanthropy ran deeper than expected: he held a controlling interest in nearly every business in town.

The site was exhumed, and a jumble of bones were found beneath the model town. Dental records linked some of the remains to the abducted bus passengers, but the rest remain unidentified.

A young blond man was reported hitchhiking out of town around this time: he appeared delirious to observers and was ultimately unable to find a ride. He collapsed by the shoulder of the highway and was taken to Braunville Mercy General where he expired due to a combination of dehydration and heatstroke.

The children were re-homed in the Warm Hearths adoption agency. Amelia Franck’s request to have a DNA test done on children to determine if one is her stolen infant has been delayed, as the children are undergoing a battery of psychiatric tests. They show decreased empathy and lack independence, often asking what their “role” requires. Felix Lowell of Dry Docks construction has vowed, in an act of philanthropy, to redevelop the resort site into a group home for the children. The construction company has also acquired the lot of Lucky’s and vow to re-open it under new management.

Laurence McGee has not been seen since. The identity of the individual “Lucky” is still unknown.


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The Incumbent

Part 4 of the Braunville Chronicles

Franklin Moor had been elected mayor in 1992 by dint of a labor vote. The election turnout was 26% greater than previous years, with Moor leading a charismatic(some say showboating) campaign.

By 2002, accusations of corruption had wracked the government of Braunville. Moor had been accused of everything from racketeering to taking bribes. Most insistent were the rumors that he held a high position in a secret society that had been instrumental in getting him the office.

Moor and 90% of his cabinet were accused of holding monthly meetings in secret rooms built under cover of renovations to the mayor’s office. Staff members not “in the know” were said to have a high turnover rate.

Moor would frequently dismiss these allegations as “typical dry Braunville humor.” He even lampooned the idea of a secret room during one memorial day fundraiser, entering a ‘secret chamber’ beneath a prop outhouse where people were encouraged to throw money down. Moor ran unchallenged for ten years for the mayor’s office. He was, by all accounts, a fairly popular mayor. His response to Amelia Franck’s infant was what did him in.

Gene Franck had backed the opposing candidate, the incumbent mayor, in the 1992 election. Franck and Moor never had an outward rivalry, but Moor was know to take covert potshots at the other man in speeches. He was also responsible for demolishing the Asher house, an antebellum mansion, when Franck was gathering signatures for its restoration. The mayor claimed that the city needed the land for new public facilities(nothing was ever built on the site.) Moor also repeatedly cut funding to the city’s only art museum, where Franck was on the board of directors, but private donations kept it open.

When Amelia Franck’s infant was stolen from the delivery room, Moor made a quip about “someone needing [the] birth certificate” at a public city hall. The comment was received poorly, though Moor did not appear to understand why.

Sondra Yee, a reporter at the hall, thought the comment oddly worded. In researching the mayor, she found that little public record existed of Moor before his run for mayorship. So she took a trip to the hall of records.

She found Moor’s birth certificate. Rather, she found the birth certificate of Franklin Henry Moor, an infant who had died in 1959. Rather than break the story in the paper, she took it to Branville’s chief of police. The chief agreed to accompany her to the mayor’s office, where they were received by only a single secretary. The office was empty of staff. Moor appeared to be ill, pale with circles beneath his eyes, and frequently drank water. He queried the pair about their visit, and when given the reason, laughed.

He told them he would clear everything up, and walking into a supply closet which, to the chief’s knowledge, did not have another exit.

He did not walk out again.

The office was searched, but no alternate rooms were found. Emergency elections were held, and Brian Grant, a public transit official, was installed in office. The staff had to be replaced entirely.

Sondra Yee attempted to follow up on the story, but no more leads turned up.

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Twilight Sleep

Part 3 of the Braunville Chronicles

Amelia Franck had no memory of delivery. In one moment of consciousness she was waiting for the doctor to return, and in the next she had delivered, stomach flat. A nurse that had not been present for the earlier delivery prep administered a dose of morphine and scopalamine, called “twilight sleep” by medical officials, a concoction traditionally used to numb the pain of child birth. The practice had been all but abandoned by the medical industry by the time of Amelia’s labor, but she was unaware of this. She was also unable to give a clear description of the nurse, who is thought to have absconded with the infant once delivery was complete.

Investigation into the hospital acquitted both the doctor and nurses presiding over the birth, but also revealed an alarming trend of abduction.

Patients brought in for cranial injury or otherwise rendered insensate were frequently checked out by “relatives” with oddly aggressive behavior. These supposed family members would intimidate staff into forgoing identity checks and release forms, sometimes even carting out patients still unconscious. While Amelia’s case was the most alarming, it was by no means the only stolen birth in hospital records. The victims were often low-income, some with very poor command of the English language who could not state their case clearly for the doctors. In fact, Amelia’s birth was a clear step outside the norm: Amelia was the daughter of a well-known public figure, Gene Franck, and could clearly state what she remembered of the incident. Another exception came in the mail six weeks after delivery. Written on a piece of cardboard torn from a cereal box, a note told Amelia the infant was “Lucky to be stolen befor[sic] it could even dry off.” Handwriting analysis indicated the writer was suffering from cranial trauma. Police expected a ransom note to follow, but that was the end of the correspondence.

Police turned their search outward, to adoption agencies operating in-state. The illegal brokering of infants was not unheard of, but usually it involved children taken from other countries imported into the US. The search turned up no infants fitting the description of the missing. However, a lead was provided by the owner of the Warm Hearths adoption center, who drew up a list of equipment needed to provide support for children taken directly after birth. Police were able to use this list to canvas various in-state purchases of the equipment, narrowing the search down to one facility.

Harlow Downs was a series of warehouses built by the Magnum Steel Mill, sold off to the city to bail out the foundering mill in 1928. The property passed from hand to hand until it was purchased by the Swan Fruit company in 1985, a company that, upon investigation, did not exist. Police raids on the warehouses produced nothing. The warehouses stood empty of people and equipment. Puzzlingly, a mural of the city itself was painted on the inside walls of each warehouse.

The Franck family is currently offering a $500,000 reward for the return of Amelia’s infant.

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The Interloper

Part 2 of the Braunville Chronicles

The footage from bus #2317 starts off as typical for a day on route 19. The mean passenger number for that time of day was about 20; the footage appears to correspond to that. By the time the bus turns to go down Remington lane, the driver appears to be in high spirits, engaging in lively chatter with the passengers.

Remington lane is a farm route that is still largely unpaved, stretching 9km from the city’s center to the campus of Wind River community college, which was the bus route’s end. About halfway along the route that day, a car was stalled by the side of the road. The footage shows the driver slow to a stop, open the passenger doors, and call out to the person or persons with the car. It is thought to be an offer of assistance(the cameras did not record audio) and the affirmative is implied when a new passenger climbs aboard. Though the footage is black and white, a description can be taken that should be fairly accurate: a young man with light, short hair and dark eyes. The man is wearing a full suit, though the temperature that day was pushing the nineties. The young man stands beside the bus driver, gripping the rails as the bus lurches back into motion. The conversation goes on for a number of minutes, with the young man laughing amiably at comments from the driver. The young man then pulls a machine pistol from somewhere on his person and holds it to the driver’s head. From the general demeanor of the other passengers, it can be inferred that this created some distress. The driver appears to maintain calm, speaking slowly to the young man. The young man himself crosses to lean against the front dash of the bus, facing the driver, speculated to be in case the driver attempted to throw him off by stopping suddenly. The young man begins gesturing with the gun, and at some point the bus turns off the usual route as what little scenery that can be seen in the windows changes. At this point the passengers huddle. Some appear to be praying. The journey takes fifteen minutes, and not once does the driver stop talking. His body language indicates he is bargaining for the lives of his passengers, while the young man takes a flippant air. Fifteen minutes into the detour, the bus appears to enter a tunnel as the footage is suddenly swept over with darkness. It continues to record until the scheduled end time, 3:00 am.

The bus was later found parked outside the Juaquina tire dump, completely empty. No ransom was ever issued for the passengers, and no passenger was ever seen again.

On review of the footage, the young man was pegged as the perpetrator of a number of petty crimes in the weeks building up to the incident. He, along with a number of unknown accomplices, perpetrated the sale of a forged artwork to the local museum. The young man acted as broker, and gave a card identifying himself as Arthur Sales. The curator noted the man’s unusually self-assured demeanor, likening him to a used car salesman. The young man pressed to close out the sale quickly, and so the curator undertook a number of tests that were normally left to museum staff. When the curator took a black light to the canvas, something unsettling revealed itself.

On the back of the canvas, the phrase “help me” was written with what looked like a fingertip. The curator said he made no comment, but the young man appeared to sense the change in his behavior and announced a hitherto unmentioned appointment and took the canvas with him. The curator looked up the painting, by a (deceased) local artist and worth about $127,000, and found it was still in possession of the artist’s estate. Contact confirmed the canvas was not missing. The number and name on the card led nowhere.

The petty thefts were equally puzzling. The young man would walk up to the cashier of a convenience store and announce his need of a cleaning supply, far in excess of what the store could stock. When deferred, he would demand what they had in stock. While the cashier would confer with management, accomplices that faced away from security cameras would secrete away various items. Some were as innocuous as juice and snackfoods, others were potentially harmful pesticides. As soon as the accomplices left, the young man, alerted to their departure by unseen means, announced he would have no need of the chemical after all and leave.

An APB with the young man’s picture failed to produce results, until a neighborhood resident indicated him as someone seen milling about Annika Pataky’s apartment three months before her discovery by police. He arrived in a Lincoln town car and exited to pet the resident’s dog. He announced that he was a real estate agent, and that he had lived in the neighborhood before the Vietnam war. When the neighbor pointed out that he was too young to have served during that war, the young man became distressed, asking if he was “drying out.” When the neighbor asked what he meant, the young man became agitated, sprinting to a local drinking fountain and rinsing his face vigorously before getting back in the car and driving away.

Investigation into his identity is ongoing.

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The Lonely Death of Annika Pataky

part 1 of the Braunville Chronicles

By the time she was discovered, Annika Pataky had been dead three months. The Braunville PD had to shift approximately 900 pounds of refuse before they could attempt to mount a search for her body.

Annika had been a shut-in for an indeterminate amount of time. Neighbors paint her as a quiet, sensitive type who had been friendly when she first moved in but gradually withdrew from the public eye. She did not talk about her family or past. She would undergo bouts of paranoia that gradually increased until conversation was all but impossible, for no one could convince her that they hadn’t been “sent” for her. She held a visible fear of cars, chiefly the Lincoln town car, ducking out of sight the moment she spotted one. She also displayed a verbose but odd vocabulary, using terms like “dry” to describe negative things and mixing up verbs frequently. After two years, Annika stopped appearing in public, but the neighbors did not contact authorities for they could still hear her moving around in her apartment.

The mystery of Annika’s death starts with the question of who notified the police. An anonymous tipster alleged a foul smell emanating from Pataky’s apartment, but when questioned, no neighbors confirmed any detectable odor. Moreover, it became clear over the course of the investigation that someone had been in the apartment before the police. Documents elucidating Annika’s mental state were found scattered throughout the apartment, including diary entries and “observational data reports” detailing social activity in the neighborhood around her. Even though the diaries are meticulously kept and appear to have been written nearly every day, gaps appear in the time line(though since the diary takes the form of a loose-leaf binder, no definite gap can be confirmed.)

The second mystery is the cause of Annika’s mental state. Neighbors describe her as a calm, rational young woman, even in her retreat from society. She seemed somewhat apologetic in her withdrawal, but emphasized the necessity of doing so. The state of her apartment seems to indicate an anxiety disorder, as evidenced by the hoarding, while the narrative of persecution in her diaries points to a possible late-onset schizophrenia. The state of her apartment appears to be deliberate, however, with Annika aware of the fact that she is hoarding refuse. One journal entry states:

“more rods. I nevr[sic] wanted to dry this way, but they can slump in at any day and I just cant[sic] be caught under.”

This and several structures within the hoard led police to believe that the hoarding was a primitive sort of self-defense, and that Pataky had attempted to construct several booby traps out of the collected trash.

The third mystery is the cause of her death. Annika was found on her back in the middle of a “clearing” she had constructed in the middle of the apartment. As the body was badly decomposed, the autopsy was inconclusive. The signs of forced entry on a barricaded window indicate that she may have been murdered, but there were no signs of violence on the corpse and no fingerprints beside Pataky’s at the scene. The theft of several papers indicate Pataky’s paranoia may not have been entirely unfounded, but as to who and what, there are no answers. A few remaining journal entries allude to an all-powerful organization, possibly a cult, whom Annika had formerly been in contact with. Later entries note with terror that a satellite community of said organization existed in the city, and that she must arm herself against “reabsorption.”

The fourth and biggest mystery is who Annika Pataky actually was. No photo id, social security card, or other form of identification exists with that name. Pataky signed the rent agreement with the pseudonym and paid cash deposit. Monthly rent withdrawals were drawn automatically from a trust set up in that name. Pataky’s fingerprints do not show up in any government database, and inquiries into possible family connections have led nowhere.

Her apartment is currently being renovated by the owner. Water damage to the floor and an infestation of black mold have complicated the removal of most of her hoard. Felix Lowell of Dry Dock construction, the company assigned to the renovation, assured that they would turn over any new evidence over to the police.

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