1: Black Sunday
The moon was high in the clear April sky. It was a Sunday night like any other Sunday night in Sticksville, a small town in Southern Ontario, which is to say that a thirteen-year-old girl and her five dead friends were in the midst of breaking and entering (or committing a “905”) at the historic Sticksville Museum. And that aforementioned thirteen-year-old was one October Schwartz, the protagonist of this series of books (but you probably already knew that).
This was not the first time October and the dead kids had broken into the Sticksville Museum in the pursuit of a mystery. And this time, there was no need to use one of the dead kids’ heads to break open a window, nor were there any troublesome ghost pirates (or substitute teachers posing as ghost pirates) to worry about. (If you haven’t read the three books that precede this one, you really should. Ghost pirates!) October’s dead friends, as ghosts themselves, had no effect on the motion sensors (or whatever burglar alarms use — this is a book about child ghosts, not an Alarmforce training manual). They were also fully aware of where the burglar alarm was located and how to deactivate it. After allowing their living friend to enter, they all crept quietly down the narrow hallway that led from the kitchen and up the uneven steps to the museum’s private administration area, where materials, documents, and artifacts not currently on display were stored. October and the dead kids marvelled at the rows and rows of metal shelving overstuffed with bankers boxes.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Derek, a Mohawk boy who died only a few decades ago, asked.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” October answered, scanning the boxes’ labels for guidance as if one might read, Clues You Desperately Require (1 of 2).
“Super,” Kirby sighed, adjusting the belt of his khaki shorts under his gut. “Improvised detective work is my favourite. ”
Though it was the dead French-Canadian quintuplet Kirby LaFlamme’s tendency to provide unconstructive criticism, his snark was justified. The kids had been raised from the dead by October a week ago during the full moon and — as per the seemingly lunar rules of child resurrection — they had only a few more weeks until they’d have to return to the cold ground.
So what, exactly, was October hoping to find hidden in the labyrinthine storage system of Sticksville’s only public museum? As long-time readers of the escapades of the Dead Kid Detective Agency well know, ever since the black-clad dark makeup enthusiast October Schwartz accidentally raised from the dead the five kids with whom she was currently committing a felony, she has been bound to the corpsified tweens — first through their aid in solving the mysterious death of her kindly French teacher, Mr. O’Shea, and then through her offer to help each of the kids discover how and why they died in the historical eras in which they first took dirt naps. As it happens, the dead kids were rather good at detective work (read, “illegal building entry”), being able to walk through walls and get around largely undetected. But they required the shrewd mind (and warm body) that only — let’s presume — October Schwartz could provide to actually solve the riddles of their own demises. In the past six months, October and her ghost friends had solved the mysteries behind the untimely deaths of United Empire Loyalist Cyril Cooper (in 1783) and Scottish immigrant Morna MacIsaac (in 1914), and in both cases something way more sinister than a case of tuberculosis was to blame.
Of the two dead kids’ deaths that October and the team had already solved, 100% of them could be tied back to a seemingly ancient secret society in Sticksville named Asphodel Meadows — a society that may also have ties to long-dead Sticksville resident Fairfax Crisparkle, who may or may not have been a witch. (Reports varied. ) Murderer number one was an impostor of a Titanic survivor, Dr. Alfred Pain (who was really Udo Schlangegriff), while murderer number two was the alleged Crisparkly witch himself. More recently, young October discovered that the very same Asphodel Meadows may also have had something to do with the disappearance of her own mother, who departed without much explanation when October was three, leaving her and her father (Mr. Schwartz to you) on their own.
The excursion to the Sticksville Museum — a must-see in any historical murder investigation — was part of October’s search into the cause of death of a third deceased friend of hers, Tabetha Scott, a girl who was born enslaved in 1800s Virginia, escaped to Sticksville via the Underground Railroad (a bit more on that later, just you wait), but died in the relatively placid (and, then, slavery-free) settlement of Sticksville, Ontario. Though even money had it that the dastardly Asphodel Meadows was somehow to blame for Tabetha’s death, October wouldn’t be much of a detective if she just attributed the mystery to Asphodel Meadows without asking the whys and wherefores, right? That impulse to be a competent detective was what led her and the dead kids to the Sticksville Museum, searching for some material on Tabetha and her family or, at least, Sticksville’s role in the Underground Railroad.
However, as it was April and not February — that very short window also known as Black History Month — all the information about the town’s Black history was no longer on display and had been filed for later use (next February). This included, tragically, any information regarding Sticksville’s role as a point in the Underground Railroad — that causeway to freedom for so many oppressed and imprisoned by slavery in the United States. That a soul-crushingly boring and predominantly white town like Sticksville could have ever been a beacon of hope to people escaping slavery was mind-boggling to October (and your humble narrator). October spotted a bankers box with Black History Stuff scrawled on the label in Sharpie, and Derek clambered up the metal shelving to retrieve it. The dead kids opened the box and spread the documents, prints, and objects across the office floor.
“So you’re telling me there’s a Black History Month every February?” Tabetha asked, turning a replica of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin invention over in her hands. Being, for all intents and purposes, a part of Black history herself, she was unaware of the annual observation.
“Yeah,” October said, riffling through papers. “And maybe it’s wrong for me to assume so, but I figured if there was anything about your death in this museum, that’s where we’d find it. ”
“Nice how they decided Black History Month should be the shortest, coldest month of the year,” Tabetha grumbled.
“I don’t understand,” Cyril confessed, though one could assume this of him in most situations. “Don’t we all have the same history?”
“Really, white boy?” Derek said, displaying for his Loyalist friend an example of manacles used on a slave ship.
October sighed. “Cyril, you may not realize this because when you were alive, it was assumed by white people that they were, like, God’s chosen ones and destined to be lords of all domains or whatever, but most of history is written from the perspective of certain groups of people who’ve spent, like, a lot of the past ruling over, controlling, and even owning other people. And Black History Month is just one way of trying to counteract that. ”
Cyril, thoroughly chastened for his archaic (though, sadly, still quite popular) ideas, returned to searching. But as he was unable to read, he honestly was not much help.
“Given this town was supposed to be an endpoint of the Underground Railroad,” Kirby started, “you’d think they’d have a display up year-round. That would be a pretty big deal. ”
“Right?” Tabetha said. For once, she and her constant nemesis agreed. “Thank you. ”
“I’ll have to talk to Ms. Fenstermacher about that,” October said. October’s high school history teacher (who took the place of her former murderous one) worked part-time at the Sticksville Museum.
“Wait,” Morna said. “Sticksville had a subway? I don’t remember tha’. ”
As Morna had died in 1914, she had heard of electric underground railways (or subways) in London, New York, Paris — even her home country’s own Glasgow — but nothing in Canada. (Toronto didn’t open its subway system until 1954. )
“No, not a subway, Morna,” October explained. “The Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual transit system. It didn’t have tracks or tickets. The Underground Railroad was a nickname for a secret group of people and travel routes to help people like Tabetha, born into slavery, escape the American South and get to freedom in Canada. ”
October was paraphrasing for the sake of brevity, but she was mostly correct. As October Schwartz and most human beings around the world (let’s hope) are well aware, the cruel and barbaric practice of slavery had been practised by Europeans throughout the Americas and Caribbean since the first English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. This system, whereby Africans were kidnapped from their homes in West-Central Africa, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere and sold by slave traders to farmers and landowners as enforced labour ironically was thriving when the American Declaration of Independence, asserting that “all men are created equal,” was signed. (As with most laws written by white men in America, exceptions applied when it came to men and women of colour. ) Shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, right about the time that Cyril Cooper died in Sticksville, most northern states passed laws to abolish slavery, though the practice grew and calcified in the Southern states, where one in four families owned other people. Black men, women, and children were sold on auction blocks like cattle, whipped and beaten in a cruel effort to impose obedience, and even hanged.
In the early 1800s, the Underground Railroad emerged, though it didn’t emerge so much, since secrecy was the key to its success. As October explained to Morna MacIsaac, perhaps more patiently than I might have, the Underground Railroad was not an actual rail system, but more a covert movement against unethical laws and institutions. It’s been said the resistance used the lingo of railways, with safe houses being “stops” and “stations” and organizers being “conductors” who would guide small groups of freedom seekers from one station to the next. To maintain secrecy, conductors — made up of free Black Americans, Native Americans, Quakers, and white abolitionists — often knew their section of the “track,” but not full routes. Railroad “passengers” would, by way of foot, wagon, or boat, move from barn to cave to church basement on indirect routes from the Deep South to the northern states or Canada. (Canada was preferable, as bounty hunters and federal marshals would pursue and apprehend escaped slaves only as far north as upstate New York. )
Over the Underground Railroad’s history, over 30,000 enslaved people escaped to Canada, with most of the Black families arriving through the station of Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario. Many settled in Southern Ontario in the Lake Ontario and Michigan Peninsula, though many returned to the United States during or following its Civil War (after which, slavery was — in theory — abolished).
But before any Canadian readers feel too smug about Canada’s role as “Promised Land” and end destination of many Underground Railroad routes, please keep in mind that slavery was only abolished in this country in 1833. Though the slave trade in Canada was never the massive institution it was in the United States, there were thousands of Africans enslaved during Canada’s early history, including those brought by Loyalists fleeing the newly independent U. S.A. (much like Cyril’s family). And even after slavery was abolished, discrimination against Black people in Canada was rampant. (In Saint John, New Brunswick, the town legally banned Black residents from practising a trade or selling goods until 1870!)
Apparently, another Underground Railroad terminus — not as celebrated and heralded as Amherstburg, ’natch — was Sticksville, Ontario, the home of our own intrepid heroes. Not that you’d know it from looking around the Sticksville Museum. (October was going to have to speak to Ms. Fenstermacher. Kirby was correct: it was a really big deal. )
“Over here,” Kirby called. “I found something that may be of interest. ”
Kirby, not typically one for understatement had, well, understated. Resting on the mottled carpet was a placard clearly used in the Black History display, with information about the town’s role in the Underground Railroad. More importantly, the placard was accompanied by a map showing what was believed to be the terminus of the Underground Railroad in 1860 Sticksville.
“October, d’you know where that is?” Tabetha asked, pointing at the storehouse marked on the map.
“Sort of,” she answered. “Don’t you? I mean, this map is more from your time than mine. And you were actually there at one point. ”
“That’s Acheron Creek,” Derek asserted, pushing his finger through the blue gulf on the map.
“So, this is fairly far north in town,” October said.
“We lived near the creek,” Tabetha said. “Me n’ my dad. He built a house not far from where we arrived, near a storehouse by the mill. White folks didn’t like people who came up on the Railroad to move too far from where they came from. ”
“If it’s north by the creek, this has to be where the fairgrounds are now,” October decided. “There won’t be anyone up at the fairgrounds these days — not until June, at least. ”
“Maybe we can snoop around and see if we find any clues,” Derek said.
Tabetha, encouraged by the first real break in her mystery since ever, was overwhelmed with enthusiasm: “We could go tonight!”
“It doesn’t look like we’ll find anything more about Tabetha or the Underground Railroad here,” Kirby said, riffling through the remaining contents of the Black History Stuff box. All that remained were posters about Elijah McCoy and Portia White: important Black Canadians, yes, but ones who never lived in Sticksville nor had any connection to the Scott family.
October glanced at the office wall clock, to discover it was past 1 a. m. “I don’t know . . . the fairgrounds are pretty far . . . ” Though far more nocturnal than most thirteen-year-olds (and possums), she was acutely aware that tomorrow was a school day and her father was liable to check on her empty bedroom at any given hour, given how many times she’d snuck out in the past several months. “Maybe we could leave this until tomorrow?”
“Why wait?” Morna asked. “I’ve been dead so long, I don’t even remember what it’s like to sleep anymore!”
Morna: helpful as always.
Having placed the maps and historical objects and bric-a-brac back into their proper boxes, the group descended the stairs from the office area into the museum proper. October was not relishing the several additional hours during which she would now have to be awake, nor was she entirely sure how she and the dead kids would get to the fairgrounds, the pathetic Sticksville bus service having ended around ten. But, like a proper detective, she asked Tabetha to recount what she remembered of her life over 150 years ago in Sticksville, so as to give her some rough guide to what she should be looking for at the Sticksville Fairgrounds.
“Tabetha, when did you arrive in Sticksville, at the warehouse by Acheron Creek? How did you and your father get here?”
“I dunno,” she said. “I was pretty young. I think about seven?”
Tabetha Scott’s childhood recollections were cut short by the sound of a low hum, like a far-off riding lawnmower, emanating from the darkened part of the stairs. Cautiously, the six continued downward until a bright white shape took form in the darkness, revealing itself to be a snarling, agitated Dalmatian — an unorthodox choice for a guard dog, but a choice, nonetheless.
“That’s new!” Kirby said.