The van with Professor Dillon, Tony, Clare and Dawn turned its blinker on as it exited Interstate 94, west of Kalamazoo toward Owl Observatory, not far from Lake Michigan.
“Why do they keep putting their blinker on?” Willis asked, crinkling a bag of potato chips closed. “There’s no one to see it.”
“We must be close to the observatory,” Father said, ignoring Willis’s observation. He slowed the car and followed the van onto a desolate secondary road, leading into a forest of towering Grand Junction oaks. While Southwest Michigan did not have mountains like the Rockies, it did have some sizable hills that hosted a few small ski resorts and their destination, the Owl Observatory. Old Nelly climbed the incline of Mount Blue Star without a sputter.
“There’s a sign pointing toward the observatory,” Jack said as Father steered the car down a paved driveway that wound around the hill of sand and gravel atop Coldwater-shale toward the peak. The trees had thinned when they rounded the last curve, revealing what appeared to be a cross between a Dutch civic building and a lighthouse. Gables flanked the two-story round structure that rose from the center of the brick building, but instead of lamps and lenses to guide sailors at the pinnacle, there sat a white metallic dome, housing the thirty-four-inch robotic telescope.
“That look’s old,” Georgie said as Father parked a couple spots over from the van. “It doesn’t look like the ones I’ve seen on TV.”
The 1850s building showed its age. Areas on the facade had mismatching bricks and mortar from previous repairs, and a rusted lamppost light outside the main entrance had a pane of glass missing from its fixture. However, the silver dome housing the telescope was modern, and the tower that supported it showed signs of recent reinforcement.
“It’s an oldie but a goodie,” Jack said as he got out of the car and stretched. He looked at the sun that was now high in the pale pink sky. A tepid breeze barely moved the leaves on a nearby walnut tree—last to get their leaves and first to lose them.
Everyone exited the vehicles; car doors slammed shut. Sarah stood next to Jack. “There’s something missing,” she said.
“It’s the birds,” Jack said. “There aren’t any birds.”
As the professor walked onto the concrete sidewalk toward the observatory entrance, he called over to Jack, “Let’s see if Max is here, that’s his Mustang over there.” He pointed toward a partially restored white 1964 Ford Mustang convertible, with a long hood and short deck, parked at the far end of the lot. “He always parks way over there so visitors don’t bang into his car.”
“Nice pony car,” Jack said as the group followed the professor to the front door.
The professor pulled on the door handle of the single tempered glass door, but it would not open. “Must be locked, let’s check the side door.”
Dry brown leaves crunched under their feet, releasing a moist soil smell of decaying leaves as they brushed through them to the door on the side of the building.
“Damn, this one’s locked, too,” the professor said. Then he reached into his jacket pocket. “I think I have a key to it.” He pulled a key ring from his pocket loaded with various sized keys.
“Are you a super of an apartment building on the side?” Jack laughed, watching the professor fumble with the keys as they jingled against each other. Then he noticed the large square bandage on top of the professor’s left hand. “What happened to your hand?”
“Huh? Oh, that happened when I was fighting that zombie at the gas station.”
Jack looked at Sarah, who was moving in for a closer look, then back at the professor.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the professor said. “We put antiseptic on it to kill any germs. I’ll be fine.”
When the correct key slid into the lock and turned with a click, the professor pushed the door open. He walked in and flipped the light switch; nothing happened. “The power’s out,” the professor said. He isolated a key on the ring and handed the bunch to Tony. “There’s a generator in the shed, can you get that running?”
“I’m on it,” Tony said, carefully holding the shed key so that it would not fall back into the chaotic mix. Clare and Dawn followed him to the shed, a bus length from the building.
“Come on, Georgie, let’s get the flashlight from the car,” Willis said, making a swooping gesture with his arm for Georgie to follow him as he ran to the car.
“Come right back, you two,” Sarah yelled after them.
Enough light spilled in from the windows and entrance door that the professor, Jack and Sarah could see well enough to walk into the casual lobby area. A few wooden chairs and a plaid fabric Davenport were arranged for conversing in the middle of the main room. Plastic lilies were centered on a Dutch baroque style side table against the far wall. Rooms and open doors expanded the space, but the center of attraction was toward the back of the meeting area where the tower joined the foyer, drawing the eye to an iron spiral staircase winding majestically up to the observatory dome.
“This is quite some place,” Father said, walking to the tower’s entryway. He looked up toward the dome, where the staircase ended. “There’s a light up there.”
“Max!” The professor shouted as he walked to the base of the stairs. He looked up at the warm yellow glow. “Max, it’s Professor Dillon.”
Just as the lights flickered on and a distant hum of motors echoed down the turret, a door in the back of the foyer opened. Jack reflexively took the Kimber from his back waistband and aimed it at the sound. In the doorway of the bathroom was a wild-haired, unshaven, scrawny man with thick round glasses, buckling his pants.
“What the hell is going on?” The man said, raising his hands when he noticed the pistol pointed at him. Without the buckle prong secured in the belt hole, his over-sized khaki janitor style pants dropped to his knees, revealing Scooby-Doo boxers and thin shaking legs.
“Max, good to see ya,” the professor said, choking back a laugh. “You better pull up your pants, there are ladies present.”