“You lose,” the old security guard laughed, throwing down his cards.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jack grimaced, dropping his losing hand on the table, face down. He stood and lifted his black coat off the chair. The old man chuckled while Jack zipped up and pulled the vinyl hood over his dark hair. He paused at the door to turn on his flashlight. “I’ll get you next time, old man.”
“Welcome to the team, kid,” the old guy winked, then swivelled around to scan the screens.
Jack hated Colorado. The black sky was dumping rain, like an up-ended lake, freezing cold. He wasn’t looking forward to winter, but the end of October meant the end of this job, and for that he couldn’t wait. The temp agency had sent him up to the haunted house as a security guard a few days ago. He almost wished they’d left him at the pig slaughtering plant. Almost.
His socks were wet by the time he stepped off the asphalt into the muddy cornfield. He gained an inch in height with each step, stopping every ten feet or so to shake the clay off his boots.
Cruel and unusual, he thought as he beamed his flashlight up the rows of corn on either side. And pointless. No one is going to be out here in this. After midnight.
He jogged around the slight bend, hopping over puddles that were beginning to rim with ice. He stopped to catch his breath at the edge of a five-foot wide lake and let his flashlight arm drop. As the yellow beam lowered, a flash of shimmering white and black caught his eye, low and moving fast. He yanked his arm up and scanned the brown path ahead.
“Hello?” he called. His heart was beating hard. Was that legs? Shoes? The wind whipped his hood back and a spatter of hail swept painfully over his red cheeks.
Jack kept his flashlight high and forward, glancing down as he edged around the huge puddle. He decided to just step through it. He was freezing anyway. And he didn’t want to keep looking at his feet.
“Hello?” he called again. The hail thrashed the weathered corn and shook the soaked rusks. “Must’ve been a racoon,” he whispered, walking faster, his eyes wide. The back door of the haunted house was near, though he couldn’t see it yet. He’d reach it in a minute.
Jack’s toes were starting to tingle. His shoes slid with every other step. He nearly went over and kept a closer eye on the mud, still loose and churned up by the running footsteps of hundreds of visitors. At least he hadn’t been hired as the chainsaw massacre man—that poor guy had been running up and down this alley all night.
The wind died down. Jack’s heartbeat sounded twice as loud. He stopped to catch his breath again, his hands resting on his knees. He needed a cigarette.
“Fricking elevation,” he wheezed. An echoing laugh blasted through the air to his right.
“Jeez!” Jack jumped and slid forward, barely catching his balance. He turned his flashlight toward the laugh, scanning wildly through the corn.
“Who’s there?” he yelled, spinning around to scan the rows on his left. He heard a crash of cornstalks behind him and whipped around to where he thought the laugh had been. The corn swayed as something pushed through a few feet in. His light caught flashes of black, reflective white, and glistening red as it headed back the way Jack had come.
“Hey!” Jack turned sideways and stepped into the wall of corn. His heel slid sideways on a frozen puddle. He yelped, grasping at the slippery stalks as he fell backward.
The ice water flooded up the back of his coat and down his pants. He lost his breath and dropped his flashlight. Lightning flashed above him, blinding him. He rolled over, cursing.
Red. Jack stared at the dirty puddle, blinking to regain his vision. His flashlight lay half below the surface of the rain water, swirls of brown and red passing in waves through the yellow light. He raised himself onto an elbow and picked up the flashlight. He pointed it across the ground. The yellow beam reflected back from a wet, pale face, flecked with mud. Jack blinked again, watching the rain fall on wide, empty eyes. The boy’s mouth was open, mud spilling in over his tongue and teeth. His neck was slashed and seeping red-black.
The old security guard set down his mug and narrowed his eyes for a moment, listening from the office. He thought he heard… something. Quaking thunder shook the sky. He shrugged, and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee.
It rained for three solid days before the murder.
Maybe what the murderer wanted was an icy canvas—corn stalks frozen into thick clay where blood spreads far and pools slow.
Maybe he pictured it, saw the security guard slip in the frozen blood. Thirsty, summertime dirt would have sucked the blood into the cracks—not where he wanted to lay out his first body. Wet clay, icy clay—that’d be the place.
Maybe, if it hadn’t rained, the victim would have settled into an Autumn evening of studying instead of a silent thaw in the county morgue.
Or maybe the murderer just had his heart set on ripping someone open October 28th and would have done so in rain, snow, or the clear light of a cold moon.
Whatever his desire, the 28th dawned with wind, clouds, and ice, and ended with a laughter more cold than any of these.
Maybe that was all he wanted, at first—a laugh. One night of blood-soaked earth for one really great chuckle. One thing was, without a doubt, not a “maybe”: after that first day, that first great laugh, someone was going to have to stop him.
It was just too good a joke to stop telling.
“They’re getting the security tapes,” Carter gestured to the black door swinging closed behind him.
“Good,” Shirley said, kicking her chewed toothpick into a wet crack of the broken asphalt. “What’s their system?”
Carter shrugged. “Didn’t ask. The guard is getting fired. Loudly.”
“Good. He had one job.”
A gust of wind whipped up the rows of moist corn stalks and cut right through Carter’s wool jacket. His suit pants flapped around his legs. Shirley forced her hands deeper into her leather coat pockets, pushing the knee-length edges lower over her calves.
“What’s the elevation here?” Carter shivered, turning his collar high and tucking his chin behind it.
“Not sure, maybe 8 or 9,000,” Shirley jiggled her arms and tried to pull the leather sleeves over her fingers. She regretted her haircut and made a mental note to buy a scarf. Her mother had always told her she had a swan’s neck. She’d never found that to be an advantage.
Carter’s teeth clacked. Shirley often forgot Carter hadn’t been raised in the cold, as she had. His muscles were thicker than hers but he was less tolerant of the temperature dropping. He got defensive if she reminded him to dress warm, though. So it was by and large his own fault that he was shivering hard while she stood still.
He bounced on the balls of his feet, bobbing beside her. They were the same height, though he was often mistaken as taller. It had to do with the shape of his face, all tight triangles—geometric, like the rest of him. Shirley was long, smooth ovals, softer than Carter, and darker. Quieter. Carter was younger than her, too, though not by much. It seemed like a lot to Shirley when he failed to do simple things like dress warm. She smiled. He was still the best partner she’d had in her ten years of detective work. When it came to abstract deduction, no one beat him. When it came to practicality, everyone did.
Carter hopped back and forth as though the ice would, any second, slice right through his thick boots. Shirley rolled her eyes. “Why didn’t you dress warmer?”
“Like you? Just ‘cause I’m not always dressed like Hell’s Angels doesn’t mean—” the Medical Examiner glanced at him while he backed out of the corn, “—you’re any warmer,” Carter whispered.
The flapping of the wind in the corn stalks died and the muffle of gurney wheels on dirt shuddered onto the gravel and clicked onto the asphalt, echoing through the empty parking lot.
Shirley clamped her jaw tight. With the loss of gusting wind, the sound of her shivering teeth seemed to carry for miles, over the earthy rows of molding corn, down the long stretch of county road, all the way to the little town’s police station. She shivered head to toe with a violence brought on by more than pre-dawn October.
“Wanna go in?” Carter muffled from behind his collar. His cold-tearing eyes squinted at her above a shiny pink nose and he pulled the beanie lower over his cropped hair.
“Sure, if you’re cold,” Shirley smiled. She turned toward the office and averted her eyes from the humanoid bat perched beside the black door, blood dripping from its fangs. One curled claw held a swaying sign with the ominous “Dead End” scratched into it, the other reached toward her, hairy knuckles and broken fingernails stretching, gray eyes sparkling with reflected moonlight.
Shirley reminded herself the bat was rubber and started to walk past it, hoping it wasn’t animatronic, when it reached out and grabbed her bicep. She screamed and twisted free, wide eyes staring down at gloved fingers instead of broken nails.
“Woah, sorry,” Carter withdrew his hand, laughing, “Jumpy, huh?”
“This place creeps me out,” she grabbed the cold doorknob and yanked.
“Why, because of the bat or the murder?” Carter chuckled.
“Shut up,” she yanked again.
“Here,” Carter restrained a laugh and twisted the knob the other direction, “It’s tricky.”
The door swung open. Fluorescent light washed over the bat, revealing seams in the rubber and exaggerated, bright red paint. She averted her burning eyes again and pushed past Carter’s arm into the office.
“Hey, Mr. VanMord, love the bat,” Carter said, closing the door behind them.
“Like that one, huh?” the tired manager asked, looking up from papers strewn on the low coffee table. “My son makes the props, he’s proud of the bat. Wants it to be best man at his wedding someday. Don’t ask me where I went wrong, I don’t know.”
A white-haired man in a sharp blue suit rose from the couch and extended his hand. VanMord jumped up beside him and added, “Detective Adoms, this is my lawyer, Kip Tremont. Kip, Detective Adoms.”
“Shirley, please,” Shirley took the man’s dry hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you.” He studied her face with his cold gray eyes and the hair on her arms stood on end. She felt compelled to look away but wasn’t going to.
“Always a pleasure to have visitors from the CBI, though I’m sorry to meet under the circumstances,” the lawyer frowned, and sat with a thud.
“Unfortunately, Kip,” Carter smiled, “This is the only time we meet people. What’s the elevation here, by the way?”
VanMord pressed his thumb and forefinger into his eyelids. “Elevation?”
“10,000, give or take,” Kip Tremont answered, eyes narrowed at Carter. He made no effort to hide his appraisal of the detectives. Carter smiled wide and stood straight, Shirley blinked slowly.
“Oh,” Carter said, raising his eyebrows at her. “10,000, Shirley.” He turned his smile back to Tremont and pointed at her with his thumb. “Shirley was just cold. Not used to the mountain air, you know, city girl,” Carter sniffed and looked with interest at a framed newspaper in the opposite direction of his partner. “‘Dead End’ Opening a Success’. Yeesh. Journalists are getting lazy these days. No wonder newspapers are dying.”
“What would you have called it?” the manager asked, eyes wide.
“Hmmm. ‘Dead End’ Dares Darowans to… Die?’”
“Carter,” Shirley warned. Tremont picked up her tone. She fought a shiver as the lawyer took in her windswept black hair then ran a keen eye down her body to her dripping boots.
“Too soon?” Carter whispered. “Well, that’s why I’m not a reporter.”
“Mr. Tremont,” Shirley stepped forward and raised her voice, “Would you be willing to accompany—”
“Detectives!” The door burst out as a young officer burst in on a wave of wind that shot ice up Shirley’s nostrils. “They’re ready for you at the station now.”
“You could have called,” she said.
The officer shook his head.
“No service,” Tremont said. “Thank you, Tom.” He waved the young man out. Tom hesitated, then nodded and left.
Shirley pulled out her phone and glanced at the empty bars. “Wait,” she said, as the door closed behind the officer.
“Yes,” Tremont said before she could follow him, “I’ll accompany my client to the station.”
“No,” Shirley smiled wide, straight teeth bared. Carter took a slow step back. “I was going to ask if we could speak to you both later, around three? We have a few people to speak to first.”
“Thank you,” she finished and left.
By the time Carter caught up to her she was well past the “Dead End” bat.
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt if people liked us,” he sighed as he fell in step. The sky was beginning to turn red, the deep, narrow rows of corn promising day time shadows instead of black tunnels.
“People like you fine,” she answered, halting her quick step to stare through the fence into the pushed out row of corn. Yellow lights bathed the location where the night guard had slipped on the red ice and fallen beside the carved up body.
She traced the reflection of the floodlights down a glossy path to where the blood gathered in a frozen footstep. It flashed a vicious red as white lightning shot through the clouds. She shuddered and turned away.
“I don’t care if people don’t like me,” she said, “I care about this.”
Across the range of piney peaks, thunder rumbled.
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