A chorus of crickets chirped on an unusually balmy autumn night in Historic Ellicott City. Antiques showcased in store windows cast silhouettes on Main Street's brick sidewalk. Neon signs advertising beer, tattoos and tarot card readings flickered in the darkness.
As Linda Joy Burke began to tell a ghost story - a firsthand encounter - she motioned a group of about 25 people closer to the dark entrance to a former department store and its lone occupant, Mr. Bob the tabby cat, who appears behind the glass door to watch.
Burke's tale was remarkable only in that it was modern. A stranger didn't mysteriously emerge in a fading black-and-white photograph. A dusty wooden chest didn't skate across an attic floor. A young woman who disappeared didn't hover in the air dressed in a bonnet and white nightgown.
Instead, Burke's key fob - one of those finicky keyless car-entry systems - took on a life of its own. How 21st century. How fitting for the mill town's new ghost tour, Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City: Part II, which could be named "Inexplicable Sightings by People Still Around to Tell About Them."
For four years, Howard County's tourism office has offered weekend ghost tours from April through November. A few weeks ago the office debuted a second script for repeat visitors who know the original's cast of ghostly characters.
"We've gathered more stories from residents and shopkeepers than we can use," said Rachelina Bonacci, director of the Howard County tourism office. "We'd go around collecting the stories, and an owner would tell us that they'd occasionally hear phantom footsteps. Just phantom footsteps? In Ellicott City, that's not enough."
Burke's tempestuous key fob made the cut. Then again, as the tour's author, she has editorial control over the production, which she keeps low on gore and heavy on history.
Burke's story dates to last October. After guiding visitors on the original 90-minute route up and down Main Street, she drove home to Columbia and, before walking inside, pressed her key fob and locked her car doors. The next day, the doors were unlocked. The frustrating pattern repeated for days. She would lock the doors at night. And something - or someone - would unlock them overnight.
Then her car's dome lights began flickering.
Her neighbor suggested that she had picked up a "visitor" in Ellicott City. Refusing to believe it, Burke went through her car manual, browsed the Internet and replaced the key fob's batteries. To rule out "electronic interference," she moved her cell phone away from her car. A logical reason never materialized.
Taking her neighbor's advice, she drove her car to the exact place she had parked on the night that her key fob started acting up, opened the car doors and told "the spirits" to get out. Burke, a poet, reports that her car has been "quiet" ever since.
"Do I believe in ghosts?" she says. "I believe in mine because it happened to me. ... I'm a witness to my own experience."
Ever since 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes swept away most of the town's dilapidated housing, Ellicott City's Main Street has been on the upswing.
Jordan's Steakhouse is plush and swanky. Tersiguel's whisks diners to the bucolic French countryside. What's In Store features furniture so funky that it could be mistaken for an Austin Powers movie set.
A former plethora of swinging-door saloons has dwindled to two. Their doors don't swing anymore. You can't even light up a cigarette inside them. (Ellicott City was once so rowdy that Fort Meade commanders declared it off-limits to soldiers during World War II.)
The town has survived hurricanes, devastating floods, fires and hooligans - making it an ideal setting for ominous, history-infused tales.
Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth is said to have performed at an old opera house that is now the Forget-Me-Not Factory. Tropical Storm Agnes killed eight people here, and 38 people, including nine children, perished in the flood of 1868. The water heights are marked on the railroad trestle that crosses over Main Street.
The ghosts of these tragedies, according to local legends, levitate pens, slam doors, drop large chests, woo bartenders and appear dressed as the man on the Quaker Oatmeal box.
The shadow of the Duchess of Main Street, a local woman who died five years ago, often passes through the corridors of a local attorney's office, leaving behind the unique scent of her homemade perfume - according to Burke, that is.
The attorney, Dennis A. Hodge, was surprised to learn he had been named on the tour.
However, Leslie Lewart, owner of The Well, the town's center for the healing arts, vouched for her building's ghost, named Al after the owner of Al's Garage, which once occupied the space. Al has shattered a glass table, knocked down a shelf and tickled yoga students' feet during classes, Lewart said.
Lewart says ghosts don't adapt well to change and spook people as a form of protest.
"The building was originally a mechanics garage, and that was built on a cemetery, which was moved," she said. "You know, you start fooling around with that stuff and spirits don't like it."
Ellicott City Ghost Tours
Ye Haunted History of Old Ellicott City Ghost Tours, Part I and Part II take place at 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from April through November.
Tours begin at the visitor information center, 8267 Main St. The cost is $8, and $6 for children and seniors.
Information: 410-313-1900 or e-mail email@example.com.