Ghost Town - Meet your friendly neighborhood PMCs


Larry drove the bus off the road after the incident with the Black Lake deputy, worried that the trigger happy police officer would resume the chase with a new car. We spent the night on the bus, parked in the middle of the forest. Gabrielle suggested that we take a moment to honor the loss of our fellow passengers, but all she got in response was yawning, disinterest, and, in the case of Paul and Mara, loud snoring.

Philippe whispered something in her ear which made her smile, then she announced they would go for a walk in the forest. Larry warned them not to stray too far and to stay away from the beehives. The couple returned an hour later, and it looked like they had been climbing trees for they were sweaty and several dry leaves were stuck in their clothes.

In the morning Larry headed southeast until he reached the shores of Black Lake, just a few miles south of the town from which we had been banned. He circled around the lake in the opposite direction, which allowed Costas to film an excellent view of the lake. Several boats were out on the lake with people fishing for Black Lake trout. Fish with extremely large fins swam around one of the boats, fins that looked quite like those of a shark. This discovery took Costas by surprise and he asked Larry about the sharks. The driver shrugged and said:

"Strange things happen around Black Lake these days."


*


Black Lake, that is, the lake itself and not the town of the same name, is a freshwater lake with a fearsome reputation. Said to be haunted by the ghosts of the first settlers of the area, the lake claims the lives of careless visitors every year. Each year a handful of locals or tourists go missing whose bodies are often found washed ashore, and sometimes never found at all.

The drownings have led to the Black Lake Town Council planting warning signs all around the lake, stating that swimming in the lake "is only allowed for licensed professional athletes" and that those who go out on the lake in fishing boats do so "at their own risk". The signs have little discouraging effect on thrillseeking tourists though, which is why Black Lake claims more victims every year.

In recent years however, the drownings have all but faded to obscurity next to the plethora of strange events that occurred in the area around the lake, including the town of Black Lake, as well as the other settlement founded along the shores of the lake. This second settlement was our next destination, a town know today simply as Ghost Town.

Formerly known as Black Falls, named so for the waterfall at the northeast corner of the lake where a fast river feeds Black Lake, Ghost Town is a deserted settlement that used to provide jobs and resources for the surrounding area. Founded just a year after the fishing village on the opposite shore, Black Falls was originally built to make use of the river to power a water mill. In the 20th century a water power plant was built by the waterfall that used to power not just Black Falls but also the town of Black Lake. This all changed when the entire population of Black Falls was wiped out in an industrial accident a few years ago.

The blame falls on Sloan Chemicals and their CEO Robert Sloan, brother of Sloan Fishery's owner Albert Sloan. Prior to the accident, Sloan Chemicals was in the business of the mass production of industrial chemicals ranging from fertilizers to preservatives and various acids. A few years ago an experimental toxic gas was released from the facility. While the gas dissipated into negligible concentrations within the span of two hours, leaving the town perfectly safe, those two hours were enough for the gas to kill everyone in Black Falls. The town was never repopulated due to fears that residual toxic materials are trapped within the abandoned factory of Sloan Chemicals which may be released at any moment.

Robert Sloan's body was never found which has led conspiracy theorists to believe he is still alive somewhere and that the release of the gas was an elaborate experiment, possibly ordered by the government. Such paranoid speculations are of course not taken seriously by anyone in the government, and are not in the least bit the reason why the late Robert Sloan remains on the list of top ten wanted criminals in the country.


*


We approached Ghost Town from the southeast but could not enter due to the elaborate roadblock preventing entry into the town. Tall metal fences topped with barbed wire led along the border of the town in both directions. A pair of men stood near the roadblock wearing green uniforms and were armed with assault rifles. Gas masks were hanging from their belts.

Larry waved to the men and turned the bus to the side road on the right, proceeding north along the fence.

Stavros walked up to Larry and inquired about the reason for the soldiers' presence.

"They are not soldiers," Larry explained. "They are private military contractors, paid for by the Black Lake Town Council to guard Ghost Town."

"But Ghost Town is an empty desolate ghost town, is it not?" Stavros argued. "Why does it need to be guarded by PMCs?"

"I don't know and I don't want to know. Most of Ghost Town has been locked off since the accident, and I myself wouldn't go anywhere near that wretched chemical plant anyway. We'll just drive to the northern entrance and see the parts of the town that are open to grief tourism."

Stavros went back to his seat and spent the rest of the journey discussing the matter with his brother. Costas looked rather intrigued by the fence and the lockdown, and soon shook hands with Stavros as if agreeing on a bet.


*


The north entrance of the town was also guarded by PMCs, but instead of a roadblock there was a boom gate barring our way. Larry stopped the bus and opened the door. A PMC stepped aboard and greeted the passengers.

"Welcome to Ghost Town!" he said. "Please stay within the designated safe zone for your own protection. If you are found wandering into the locked off areas of Ghost Town, you will be shot on sight. Enjoy your stay!"

The PMC left the bus and the boom gate was raised. We drove into the safe zone, which was a rather small number of streets littered with abandoned decaying houses. A small park stood on the left hand side of the safe zone, where a souvenir shop operated. Larry parked the bus beside it.

The shop was operated by an elderly woman who used to live in Black Falls, and survived the accident due to visiting her grandson in Black Lake at the time. She was selling original tiles that had fallen off the roofs of local houses, clothes that used to belong to the locals, and knitted sweaters bearing the logo of Sloan Chemicals. She also sold T-shirts with the slogan "I saw Ghost Town and lived" but she advised us against buying it as it was not produced locally.

Helga took notice of some camping tents in the corner and asked the old woman if she had any two-person tents for sale. The old lady explained that the tents were for rent and could be set up in the park, then showed Helga the selection. She and Paul looked them over but before they could select one Mara whispered something into her cousin's ear. Paul nodded and asked for a three person tent, then winked at Helga who blushed and smiled.


*


While Helga and the Aussies were setting up their tent, Philippe and Gabrielle went for a walk among the ruined houses. They found one that looked ready to collapse. They sat down in the garden opposite the house and Philippe started drawing it while Gabrielle took notes.

The Greek stock broker brothers finished their walk across town very quickly, and looked extremely disappointed. Costas had hoped to film the water power plant or at least the water mill, but alas all of that was in the locked off part of town, along with Sloan Chemicals. Some of the taller buildings could be seen beyond the fence, but they hardly provided Costas with satisfactory footage.

In the evening Larry and I retreated to the comfort of the bus. Helga, Paul, and Mara were quite happy with their tent, while the rest of the tourists were nowhere to be seen. Eventually Stavros came back to the bus and said he had seen the French couple go into the ruined house Philippe had been drawing.

At around 11 PM Gabrielle and Philippe returned to the bus as well. They must have narrowly escaped some falling plaster in the ruined house, as their clothing was covered in dust and bits of moldy plaster.

Of Costas there was no sign, not even at midnight. At that point, Gabrielle asked Stavros about his brother.

"I made a bet with Costas," he explained, "that he wouldn't dare to sneak into the locked off area. I lost. He was much too eager to film the ruins of the chemical plant. From the inside."

Gabrielle looked at Larry, as if asking what to do, but the driver just shrugged.

"He's a stock broker," he said. "I'm sure he'll be fine."

Barely an hour later we started hearing screams and howls from beyond the safe zone. Most of the time they sounded feral, but on occasion they sounded suspiciously like the voice of Costas. Twenty minutes later a series of loud gunshots echoed through the area, lasting almost a minute, and the screaming stopped.


*


In the morning Stavros went to see the PMCs about his brother. They claimed they had not seen or heard anything of Costas. Of the screams and shooting they said it had been a rabid wolf which they had put down.

Another PMC came by, filming the argument with a camcorder that looked exactly like that of Costas. Stavros asked the man about it, but the man said he could not understand Stavros's accent. The Greek gritted his teeth and asked me, in perfectly clear English, to be his interpreter, but the PMCs waved their assault rifles in our direction and told us to move on.

For a moment it looked like Stavros would lunge at them, but he exercised restraint and walked away. The PMCs waved us goodbye and started reviewing the footage on the camcorder.

Back at the bus Larry greeted us with bad news.

"Engine's dead," he said. "Can't fix it, either. Nearest place to get the parts for the damn thing is Black Lake, and we ain't going back there. We're going to have to hitch a ride to Con City."



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