The massive stone buildings sat atop the rise like enormous birds of prey. The central structure, perhaps five stories tall, one hundred feet wide, gave way at either end to a pair of great wings, each of which bore a series of towers that fingered high into the morning sky.
The grounds surrounding the complex, at one time finely manicured, boasting Eastern Hemlock, Red Pine, and Box Elder, had fallen fallow decades earlier. Now the trees and shrubs were tortured and diseased, ravaged by wind and lightning. A once impressive arched stone bridge over the man-made creek that ringed the property had long ago crumbled.
In 1891 the archdiocese authorized and built a cloister on top of a hill, about forty miles northwest of Philadelphia, establishing a convent. The main building was completed in 1893, providing residence to more than four dozen sisters. In addition to the vegetables grown on the nearby fifteen acres of farmland, and grain for the artisan breads baked in the stone ovens, the fertile land around the facility provided food for shelters throughout Montgomery, Bucks, and Berks counties. The sisters' blackberry preserves won awards statewide.
In 1907 four of the sisters hanged themselves from a beam in the bell tower. The church, having trouble attracting novitiates to the nunnery, sold the buildings and property to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Five years later, with four new wings built onto the original building - including two tiered lecture halls, a pair of autopsy theaters, a state- of-the-art surgery, and a non-denominational chapel built into one of the apple groves - the Convent Hill Mental Health Facility opened its doors. With its two hundred beds, sprawling grounds, and expert staff, it soon gained a reputation as a thoroughly up-to-date hospital throughout the eastern United States.
In addition to its main purpose - the treatment and rehabilitation of the emotionally disturbed - the facility had a secure wing maintained and staffed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. In its twenty beds slept some of the most notorious criminals of the early twentieth century.
By the early 1950s the facility's funding had begun to dry up. Staff were laid off, buildings were not maintained, equipment became outdated and plagued by time and disrepair. Rumors of inhumane conditions at Convent Hill circulated. In the 1970s a documentary film was made, showing deplorable and sickening conditions. Public and political outrage followed, with a million dollars being pumped into the coffers.
By 1980 Convent Hill had once again been forgotten. More gossip of corruption circulated, as did tales of incalculable horror. But the public can only be outraged about something for so long.
Convent Hill closed for good in 1992 and its inmates and patients were moved to other state-run mental health facilities, as well as to correctional facilities throughout New York and Pennsylvania.
Over the next eighteen years the grounds were bequeathed to the elements, the vandals, the ghost-hunters and derelicts. A few attempts were made to secure the facility, but with its nearly two hundred acres and many points of entry, much of it surrounded by forest, it was impossible.
The fieldstone wall near the winding road that led up to the entrance still bore a sign. As Kevin Byrne and Christa-Marie Schönburg approached, Byrne noticed that someone had altered the sign, painting over it, rewording the message. It no longer announced entry to what had once been a state-of-the-art mental-health facility, a place of healing and rehabilitation, a place of serenity and peace.
It now announced entry to a place called Convict Hell.
As they drove the twisting road leading to the main buildings, a thin fog descended. The surrounding woods were cocooned in a pearl-gray mist.
Byrne thought about what he was doing. He knew the clock was ticking, that he was needed back in the city, but he also believed that the answers to many of his questions - past and present - were locked inside Christa-Marie's mind.
'Will you come back on Halloween?' she had asked. 'I want to show you a special place in the country. Well make a day of it. We'll have such fun.'
A special place.
Christa-Marie wanted him to come here for a reason.
Byrne knew he had to take the chance.
Once they crested the hill the ground leveled off, but the fronts of the buildings were still somewhat obscured by pines, evergreens, and barren maples. The walkways were crosshatched in rotting branches, matted with fallen needles. The arched entrance was flanked by two massive rows of Palladian windows. The roof boasted a main cupola, with two smaller watchtowers.
As he parked the van Byrne heard the call of larks, announcing an impending storm. The wind began to rise. It seemed to encircle the stone buildings like a frigid embrace, holding inside its many horrors.
Byrne got out of the vehicle, opened Christa-Marie's door. She gave him her delicate hand. They walked up the crumbling steps.
The two immense oak doors were secured by large rusted hinges.
Over the years the doors had been marked with epithets, pleas, confessions, denials. To the right of the entry was an inscription carved in the weathered stone.
Christa-Marie turned, an animated look on her face.
'Take a picture of me,' she said. She smoothed her hair, adjusted the silk scarf at her neck. She looked beautiful in the pale morning light.
Taking a photograph was the last thing Byrne had expected to do. He took out his cellphone, opened it, framed Christa-Marie in the doorway, and snapped.
A moment later he pocketed his phone, put a shoulder to one of the huge doors, pushed it open. A cold breeze rushed through the atrium, bringing with it years of mildew and decay.
Together they stepped over the threshold, into Christa-Marie Schönburg's past, into the infernal confines of Convent Hill.