It rained for three solid days before the murder.
Maybe what the murderer wanted was wind so cold the corn stalks froze deep into muddy clay, an icy canvas where the blood spread far and pooled slowly.
Maybe thirsty dust where spilled blood sucks into the cracks wasn’t where he wanted to lay out his first body, a canvas where blood couldn’t form a frozen puddle upon which the security guard could slip.
Maybe, if it hadn’t rained, the victim would be settling into an Autumn evening of studying instead of sleeping on ice in the county morgue.
Or maybe the murderer just had his heart set on ripping someone open on October 15th, and would have done so in rain, snow, or the clear light of a cold moon.
Whatever his desire, that day dawned with wind, clouds, and ice, and ended with a laughter colder than elements create.
Maybe that was all he wanted at first–one night of blood-soaked earth for one really great chuckle, but one thing was, without a doubt, not a “maybe”: whatever his intentions for any day after that first day, that first laugh, someone was going to have to stop him.
After all, it was just too good a joke to stop telling.
“They’re getting the security tapes,” Carter gestured to the black door as it swung closed behind him.
“Good,” Shirley said, dropping her spent cigarette in 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 dry corn stalks and cut right through Carter’s fleece jacket.
“What’s the elevation here?” he shivered, zipping the 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 further over her fingers. Carter hopped back and forth. Shirley smirked. “Why didn’t you dress warmer?”
“Just ‘cause I’m not always dressed like Hell’s–” the Medical Examiner glanced at him as he backed out of the corn. “–Angels,” Carter whispered. The rusking of the wind in the corn stalks died and the muffle of wheels on dirt became a shudder of wheels on gravel as the gurney pulled from the field onto asphalt.
Shirley clamped her jaw tight. With the loss of gusting wind, the sound of her shivering teeth seemed to carry for miles, over the fragrant rows of drying corn, through the parking lot, down the long stretch of cold county road, all the way to the little town’s police station. Even drown out the grating of the gurney wheels. 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 were narrowed on her, intent in the strip of stark white skin between fleece and beanie.
“Sure, if you’re cold,” Shirley smiled. She turned toward the office and averted her eyes from the hulking humanoid bat perched beside the black door, blood dripping from its fangs. One 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. She reminded herself it was rubber and walked past with crossed fingers, 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 bleeding nails.
“Woah, sorry,” Carter held his gloved hands up, “Jumpy, huh?”
“Don’t touch me! This place creeps me out,” she grabbed the cold knob and yanked.
“Why, because of the bat or the murder?” Carter chuckled.
“Shut up,” she yanked again. “Ugh!” she pushed the door.
“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.
“Like that one?” the tired manager VanMord 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 with small eyes rose from the couch and extended his hand. VanMord jumped up beside him and added, “Detective Shirley, this is my lawyer, Kip Tremont. Kip, Detective Shirley.”
“Nice to meet you,” Shirley took the man’s dry hand and shook it.
“Sorry to meet under the circumstances,” he wheezed and sat heavily.
“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.
“Oh, 10,000, Shirley,” he raised his eyebrows at her and Tremont, then pointed to 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 so boring 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.
“Too soon?” he whispered. “Well, that’s why I’m not a reporter.”
“Mr. Tremont,” Shirley stepped forward and raised her voice, “Would you be willing to–”
“Detectives!” The door burst out and a young officer burst in on a wave of wind that shot 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 turn the knob, “I’ll accompany my client to the station.”
“No,” Shirley smiled wide, straight teeth bared, and Carter took a slow step back. “I was going to ask if we could speak to you both later, around 3? We have a few people to speak to.”
“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 daylight shadows instead of black tunnels.
“People like you fine,” she answered, halting her quick step to stare through the fence into a pushed out row of corn. Yellow lights bathed the location where the night guard had slipped on the red and brown ice and fallen face to face with the carved body, maroon blood seeping into the green and yellow of the crushed corn stalks. Lightning flashed a vicious white and blue through the clouds and she jumped back. A livid smile and glowing orange eyes seemed to flicker in the horizon.
“I don’t care if people don’t like me,” she said, “I care about this.”
Across the range of piney peaks, thunder rumbled.
The reviews of Darowan Community College were obviously purchased, except for the one with the persistent use of “u” instead of “you”. That one was probably authentic, Carter decided. A glowing review of the college, perhaps written by a five-year-old. He wondered at whatever website manager had decided to include it.
Shirley pushed her chair back from the desk behind the glass and stood. Carter quickly stashed his phone in his pocket.
“You believe him?” she whispered after the door latched behind her.
“Yeah, he’s too stupid to lie,” Carter shrugged.
“He’s not stupid,” she turned to face the kid in the interrogation room, his long hair gathering in curls around a sparsely bearded face, “He’s just…”
“Young,” she closed her eyes and nodded for emphasis. “Just a freshman.”
“So was his friend,” Carter said.
Shirley frowned. “Yeah… I mean, his memory is decent. He remembered all the rooms and how Mark reacted. Didn’t notice anyone suspicious… but how can you tell in a haunted house? Didn’t seem like he was lying… just is an idiot.”
“Ah, Shirley,” Carter wrapped an arm around her. “You need some coffee.”
“Maybe. How many more kids?”
“Make it a double-shot.”
“There isn’t a Starbucks for fifty miles, you know.”
“Damn it to hell.”
Carter patted her shoulder sympathetically.
“You want to call it a day? Or shall I take over and get it done properly?”
Shirley scratched her nose with her middle finger and looked around the tiny police station. Besides the one interrogation room, they had an empty holding cell, a single bathroom, a small kitchenette, and two desks with only one sergeant present, looking more tired than she felt. Against the row of front windows, a bench of kids who looked no older than fourteen leaned on each other in various stages of sleep.
“Want me to count how many times they say ‘like’?” Carter smiled.
Shirley sighed. She turned back to the glass and took a concentrated breath. “You really think he’d have left without his best friend? Then not care that he didn’t come back that night?”
“Middle one’s pretty,” Carter said.
He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the bench. “Where’d you go to college?” Carter asked.
Shirley folded her arms. “I did it online, you know that.”
“Exactly, online, in your parents’ basement,” Carter leaned against the glass like a frat bro. “Some of us had the decency to get dressed to attend lectures. And some of us had the decency to not cock-block their roommates,” he turned back to admire the pimpled face sitting at the desk. “This young gentleman thought Mark had his pants down in a noble quest somewhere.”
Shirley shoved him. “I think you need to call it a day.”
“Oh yeah? Let’s see.” Carter walked in before she could protest and leaned back in the chair across from the kid.
“Jeremy, pleased to meet you.”
The kid’s lips tightened in a pale smile.
“You said you met up with a bunch of other freshmen at the haunted house. Did you know all of them?”
Jeremy mewled like a cornered kitten.“Not really, no. But no one was, like, scary or creepy or nothin’.”
“Right, right. What about girls?”
Jeremy’s face went bright red. He nodded. Carter swiveled in his seat to grin at the glass.
“Now, Mark didn’t have a girlfriend, right? Was he talking to a lot of the girls there?”
“Yeah, a few.”
“Any in particular?”
Jeremy nodded. “Just…Jess, this girl that’s in our Psych class. But she’s, like, so sweet she’d never hurt him.”
“Mmhmm, not saying Jess did it, friend, just wondering who he spent his time with. Did Jess seem interested?”
Jeremy nodded. “Yeah, but no way was she–”
“She have her own car?”
“No. I mean, she has this car she shares with her roommate but I don’t know if its, like, hers.”
“Right, did she come with her roommate?”
“So, she had her own car there that night. Did you think Mark left with her?”
“No, he–you know.”
“Yes, I do know that Mark did not leave. I mean, is that what you thought?”
“No, man, I, like, loved Mark! I wouldna left him there if I didn’t know.”
Carter stared at Jeremy.
“But you did. You left without Mark.”
“Yeah, but no. There was, like, a ton of cars and we were all there and someone… would have taken him home.”
“Yeah, or no. I dunno. I thought, maybe.” Jeremy turned a darker red.
“Got it. Thank you, Jeremy, you’re free to go.”
Jeremy stared at Carter.
“Shoo,” Carter said and Jeremy jumped up and shot out of the station, two of the semi-conscious college kids following.
Carter stood in the door of the interrogation room and watched the kids go, smiling. Shirley sighed.
“Okay, okay, proverbial roommate tie-on-the-doorknob-whatever. Well done, he was with a girl.”
“Oh-ho, no, my friend, our Mark wasn’t with a girl. He wouldn’t have been picked off from the pack with his nose on her heels like a puppy,” Carter squeezed her shoulder. “Watch this.”
He took a step forward, cleared his throat, and called, “Jess?”
“Yeah!” the remaining kid on the bench sprang to her feet. Carter winked at Shirley and Shirley rolled her eyes.
“This way, please,” she gestured to the room and followed the girl in.
“So, Mark got a little too friendly,” Shirley said as she watched Jess pull out of the station parking lot onto the wet road. “Think maybe someone was protecting Jess?”
“Sounds like she didn’t need it. Full frontal use of knees.”
“Still, she was in the final room with Mark and more screaming kids than she could count. Maybe someone saw him get a little handsy and chased him the wrong way out through the corn? Away from Jess?”
“Then stabbed him a dozen times?” Carter handed Shirley a steaming Styrofoam cup. “Some protector. Anyway, the manager says there’s no way someone could go the wrong way through the corn.”
“Yeah? How can he be sure? The M.E. got a gurney up a row.”
Carter gestured to an empty chair by the sergeant’s desk and took the opposite one.
“So,” he flipped a manila folder over and set his pen on it. “Here’s the haunted house, about 20,000 square feet,” he sketched a long L-shaped building and slashed a double door entry near the top. “Here is the parking lot…” He added a large square above the building with car entrance and exit arrows. “Here is the house’s exit where you hit the headstones,” he added tiny crosses at the bottom of the inner bend of the L. “And here is the corn,” he took his time filling the space with small horizontal rows broken in the center by a narrow alley that to connect back into the parking lot at the top of the L.
“Now, the final room is the chainsaw massacre room, right?” He tapped the bottom end of the L beneath the crosses. “So, inbred cannibal man chases you out of the house, and a chainsaw man chases you through the center of the gravestones, and you don’t peel off because of the creepy skeletons and junk hanging out in there, then you run into the corn. They planted it too narrowly to make it easy to run through except for this alley,” he traced the curving path across the folder. “You run down the alley, chainsaw man follows and revs it a few times so you run like hell, then when you hit this bend,” he tapped the curve in the corn, “second chainsaw man comes out of nowhere to chase you into the parking lot. And you’re out.”
Shirley studied the diagram, “And it’s a long run,” she said. She took the pen from Carter. “And here,” she traced the edge of the cornfield, “is the fence around the corn, and,” she extended the fence around the parking lot, the line, and ticket booth outside the long stretch of L, “there is barbed wire everywhere.” She dropped the pen.
Thunder rumbled and the lights flickered off. White hot lightning filled the room in flashes. Shirley blinked away the searing spots and walked over to look out the rain-pelted windows.
“It rained the 12th, 13th, and 14th,” she said as the red emergency lights flicked on. “Did you look for footprints?”
“Of course I did,” Carter joined her. “It’s impossible to tell. They get 500 visitors a night, at least.”
“Not down here,” she walked back to the diagram and pointed to the body’s location, “Just inside the corn, just past the gravestones. You said no one takes that way, everyone heads for the alley, right?”
Carter squinted at the diagram, then looked up at Shirley and shrugged. “We need those security tapes.”
Carter threw Tremont’s fountain pen down on the table.
“The hell is wrong with you?” he yelled.
“It is in the best interests of my client–” Tremont began.
“Screw your client!” Shirley shoved the stack of paper toward the old man. “What about the best interests of the whole damn county? The state! The area is still under investigation, so, no, we’re not signing whatever the hell this is.”
“We’d simply like your endorsement that Dead End has taken every precaution to ensure the safety of its clientele,” Tremont said, rearranging the paper and pen.
“That has not been verified,” Carter said, clenching his fists. “In fact, we have a bag of evidence in the morgue right now that argues your client is negligent and if he can’t get us those security tapes he’s coming pretty damn close to an accessory.”
Tremont blinked at Carter. “Raise charges, son, we’ll see how you fare.”
“Okay, okay,” Shirley stood and Carter sat. “Deep breaths. We’ve all had a long night, and day. But, opening again tonight is too soon, Tremont. It just is.”
“Explain that, please, Detective, because as far as my understanding goes the crime scene has been wrapped by the forensic examiner and–”
“Just because it’s been wrapped–”
“And, my client has acquiesced to every demand put upon him by the authorities. His perfectly safe establishment cannot remain closed indefinitely or it will ruin him. The doors will open again eventually, you know that, so there is no reason to keep them closed tonight.”
“No reason?” Carter laughed. “How about a murderer on the loose? Possibly an employee, or a visitor, someone got into that field, killed a full-grown man, and got out again without a single indication that something was amiss until the guard found his body the next day!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tremont,” Shirley put on her forceful face. “It isn’t safe, for anyone, including employees. You can’t open tonight.”
Tremont carefully returned the papers and pen to his briefcase, then rose to face her. “We can open, lawfully. I came out of professional courtesy and to ensure we are on the same page.”
“Same page?” Carter asked. “Nope.”
A stillness rose in Tremont’s eyes as he returned Carter’s gaze. “We consider this an isolated incident yet have called in all of Dead End’s staff to maintain a watchful eye. Any other indicative evidence will warrant a call to yourselves. We are still in full cooperation with your investigation and appreciate your courtesy.”
Shirley’s lips tightened. “This is a bad idea, Mr. Tremont,” she followed him toward the door. “I mean it. People are crazy before Halloween. Normal people would stay away from a crime scene but not during Halloween. You’re inviting attention, you’re inviting copycats.”
Tremont turned in the half-open door. “There are more important things in this world than your worries, Detective. Dead End makes over $10,000 a night and this investigation has cost one and a half already.”
“You’re going to make a hell of a lot more than ten grand if you open! That it?” she yelled.
“Tapes, Tremont!” Carter yelled from the other side of the room.
The old lawyer held the door and turned to Carter. “Unfortunately, the remote location of Dead End prevents cellular and satellite service and the storm has downed our internet lines. If you wish to review them, you’ll have to come to the office or wait for the lines to be restored. Good day.”
Carter waited for the station door to close behind Tremont, then roared, “They wrapped the scene? Are they kidding!?”
Shirley picked up the phone. “Sergeant,” she turned to the desk across the room where the sleepy sergeant watched with his mouth open. “What is the extension for the forensic examiner?”
She dialed, then looked up at Carter.
“Raise Hell,” he said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she whispered.
The county road to Dead End haunted house is a long one. Streetlights end long before the road begins. The twenty-minute paved drive grows more narrow by the mile, the sharp gravel turn-off at the center of the steep canyon easy to miss. From November 1st to August 30th the small county “dead end” sign blends into the shadows of draping branches. In September and October, the sign is garishly augmented with glow-in-the-dark, ghostly arrows.
Carter and Shirley slowed to ease the SUV onto the gravel road, narrowly missing the grotesque zombie clown VanMord had this year perched by the sign, pointing the way with a rigid arm, blood-streaked white silk fluttering in the wind.
“That’s new,” Carter pointed to the clown. Its fixed grin was white and black in a green face, its eyes black and sagging.
“You’ve been here before?” Shirley couldn’t avert her gaze from those black eyes. They seemed real, seemed human, and she wondered if the same VanMord son who crafted the bat crafted the clown.
“Um, yeah, last night?” he patted Shirley’s head, “Remember?” She didn’t remember the sign, let alone the clown; her dreams in her brief morning rest had been dominated by a slashed body and, occasionally, a swooping humanoid bat. If she’d seen that clown, it would have been in her nightmares, too.
“Must not have been watching,” she mumbled. She could feel her pupils dilating, searching for light in the thick pines that overarched the narrow lane and spread to the end of the world on either side.
Five minutes in silence brought them from dense forest into organized orchards of bare apple and cherry trees, then plunged them into fragrant acres of decaying corn.
“Easy cover,” Shirley frowned, “From the house to the road. Plenty of cover.” Carter bumped over the pot-holed and muddy dirt.
“Yeah, but that just means they were covered in mud and blood by the time they got back to society.”
“Maybe the mud covered the blood,” Shirley suggested.
“It would have drawn attention.”
“Unless they drove straight home.”
They bumped past the overflow parking lot. Nervous visitors, boisterous teenage packs, and couples holding hands were interspersed with costumed aliens and zombies. Shirley wondered which were employees and which were visitors in the dress-up mood.
“This time of year… the blood might not have drawn attention,” Shirley said, searching faces beneath the makeup and masks.
“I think we should walk the house,” Carter said slowly.
Shirley turned to him and frowned, “Why?”
“To get a feel for it, to see where Mark would have run.”
“Uh huh. To get a feel for it,” Shirley rolled her eyes. “I think we’ll get what we actually need from the security tapes. You get your Halloween jollies another time.”
Carter snorted as he rounded into the primary parking lot.
“You chicken?” he asked, pointing toward the chattering crypt keeper at the ticket booth. He parked the SUV outside the black door of the office, in arm’s reach of the bat. The sunset was just fading into gray, but the early shadow of the overhang concealed all but the “Dead End” sign swaying from the claw and the otherworldly glow of the glass eyes. The eyes of the clown flashed at her through them and she fought the rise of goosebumps.
“I guess if you can get your jollies from the free bat, then so be it,” Carter said, watching her focus.
“Shut up,” Shirley answered. She opened her door and faced the bat. Not scary. Stupid, really. The eyes gave her goosebumps nonetheless. Carter’s door slammed and she felt his heat behind her.
“If you lurch me, I swear…” she said, not taking her eyes off the bat’s claws.
“Does that mean a yes? We can go?”
“No! I meant right now, not in the–whatever, shut up,” she reached past the bat for the doorknob. “No.”
Carter chuckled as they crossed the threshold.
The dark office was empty. The smell of burning coffee sucked toward the outside air from a hot plate behind the counter. Shirley edged between the couch and the counter.
“Hello?” she pushed open the door to the tiny security room. Twelve screens displayed infrared images of clinging and jumping people, their pupils bright spots of green in the blurry gray. Five seconds passed and the images flicked through, one by one, to the next angles.
“These our security cams?” Carter asked from the doorway.
“Yessir, Captain Obvious,” Shirley settled into the folding chair and pulled the keyboard toward her. “The real question is, what system are they using?” She looked for a logo on the keyboard and screens, then turned to Carter, perplexed. “Do you recognize it?”
Carter shook his head. “No, looks like an in-house job.”
“We need whoever set it up. The security guard?”
“I’ll see if I can track down VanMord.”
Shirley tentatively tapped the arrow keys but nothing on the screens changed. She heard the office door close behind Carter and leaned back into the chair. Her neck bent uncomfortably to see all the screens.
“No wonder he missed something,” she whispered, scooting lower. By the third cycle through all the rooms she began to anticipate the sneaky location of the ax-wielding cave dweller and the chopping arm of the headless huntsman. She smiled at the willingness of teenage lovers to leap into each other’s arms.
The wall the screens hung from buzzed with electricity, but faint screams emanated from it as well. Shirley supposed it must share a wall with the haunted house and leaned forward to see if she could match the wisps of scream to any particular room. She stared at the fog-filled room, waiting for the telltale lift of the swamp monster’s head when a scream split through her skull as though it came from right behind her. It raised the hairs down her arm and back. She jumped up, the folding chair clanging hard against the door, and spun around. The scream came again, louder, and she turned back to the screens. Her eyes darted across the greens and blacks, her middle finger tapping desperately against the familiar arrow keys. The shriek came again, three times. She glanced down and pounded the space bar, then the enter key. The screens flashed white in response, jumping, lines flicking down, flashes of people running, then out of nowhere, a too-near, laughing face that made Shirley gasp and choke.
She closed her eyes tight and breathed deeply. This room shared a wall with the attraction, the house of parlor tricks and black lights. Thin walls, apparently. She gathered her focus and opened her eyes to the upper left screens where some trick of the light had seemed a face. She hit the enter key, scanned, then hit it again. The rattling scream came again, and it was followed by gleeful laughter.
She hit the enter key faster, once, twice, pounded it hard to cover the sound of the laughter. Overwhelmed, the scenes froze and Shirley gulped at the uppermost screen. It hadn’t been a trick of light or a product of atmosphere. There it was: eyes. Large and black, surrounded by a wide rim of gray and white paint smearing to a black border on dripping cheeks, tracks of sweat cutting furrows of skin down to the corners of the grinning mouth.
No no no, it’s the zombie clown from the road. It’s a prop, like the bat. A prop like the bat.
The screen rolled to the next scene: floodlights shining from a tower in the corn threw the black silhouettes of the gravestones into view, the blinding light disorienting even from the security screen. Shirley imagined running into that blinding light with a chainsaw whizzing around her legs, hoping not to trip on a gravestone. She hit enter again and the image reversed. The haunted house rose behind the rows of corn, illuminated by the floodlights. A masked man with a chainsaw chased five people, clods of mud flying off their shoes as they ran for their lives down the narrow alley of corn. Shirley slammed enter and the exit from the corn into the parking lot appeared, empty. She hit enter again, anxious, shivering visitors waiting in the ticket line, again, more line, again, and the midway view of the exit from the house into the graveyard appeared, well lit from the floodlights. She could see the door clearly, pounded steel and rivets, the weeping brick facade extending from each side as far as could be seen before giving way to rough cinder block. She hit enter again and was blinded by the floodlights through the gravestones.
She clenched her jaw and looked down at the keyboard. Two keys were worn black, the white letters nearly gone with overuse: enter, and shift.
“Shift, enter, yes!” She hit the keys and the close-up of the house exit returned. The clown was gone. “A prop like the bat. A prop like the bat,” she whispered, then hit the combination of keys again to return it to view. The camera must be at least ten feet up, about five feet out from the corner where the outer walls met. There must be a step stool. She hit enter and cycled through again, searching for the prop’s face and hoping she’d never see it again.
The masked man returned from the corn alley to his position outside the exit door, chainsaw dragging. She studied his relaxed posture, watched him take his position and hit a release button beside the door. A few seconds later the door flew open and a screaming group ran out. He revved his engine and gave chase. As the door swung shut, the view slowly changed. The focus raised up, the door sliding out of the picture until the small light above it was almost out of view.
Shirley watched the change with gaping mouth, then danced back and forth from foot to foot, flicking through the screens, scanning the ticket lines, then the rooms. “Come on, Carter, come on, where are you, Carter, come on.”
She landed back on the view of the exit, the camera now angled so high that stars shone over the ragged rafters of the house.
“Shit!” she yelled and yanked open the security room door.
“Woah!” VanMord was standing by the counter, holding the burnt coffee, “Detective, I didn’t know you–”
“Carter!” she yelled at him. “Where’s Carter?”
“I-I haven’t seen him.”
“Call 911!” she bolted around the couch and pulled open the door.
“What’s going on?”
“Call 911!” she screamed and ran to the SUV. It was locked and empty. She reached under her jacket and unsnapped her 9-mil as she ran down the side of the fence. She stopped where she could look down the ruined row of corn concealing the crime scene. VanMord had salvaged a few corn stalks to cover what he could but beyond them she saw a black cartoon shadow in a gray tunnel. She fumbled for her flashlight and pointed it down the row. Ten feet away from her, just past the bloody stain, stood the zombie clown. He smiled at her, white and gray paint smearing down his face. His baggy silk jammies were torn and dirty, the rose pink spotted with blood. He mimed pulling up a smile from the edge of his lips and laughed, high and loud, his yellowed teeth the only color in his face.
He turned from her and she yelled, “Stop!” The crunch and squish of shattered corn stalks digging into the mud beneath his feet accented the high chuckle from his shaking back.
“Stop!” she repeated.
“Stop!” the clown mocked, his back shaking harder as he turned out of the row and into the alley.
“Carter!” Shirley called, sprinting down the parking lot. She swung into the crumbling mud of the alley, body-slamming an oncoming girl. The teenager shrieked and toppled with her to the ground.
“Move!” she yelled, pushing to her feet. She sprinted toward the second chainsaw man. He hesitated, then revved his chainsaw and swung it at her, filling the air with spent gas and oil.
“Move!” she shined her flashlight into his masked face. “Get out!”
“Hey…” he called as she ran past.
The noise of the parking lot was silenced by the rustling of a thousand corn stalks. From the musty edge of the field and a whole world away, the chirp of crickets answered her footfalls in the muffled dirt. “Carter!” she yelled again, her desperate voice high and breathy from leaping puddles.
She rounded the corner and the steel door loomed past the headstones, illuminated by the floodlight. She slowed, drew her weapon and pointed her flashlight down each row, scanning for white silk. Extra stalks had been propped by the crime scene row in the alley as well, and she ripped them down and pointed both gun and light into the row. “Prop like bat prop like bat,” she repeated. It was empty.
Terrified shrieks filled the air and she side-stepped back to the center of the cleared alley, heart pounding in her ears. The exit door was flung open and screaming visitors, blinded by the floodlight and terrified by the rev of the chainsaw engine, came rushing toward her. She pushed into the corn to let the herd pass. The masked man with the chainsaw trotted past her and she peeked out, gun raised.
The clown stood at the open door, watching, waiting. He laughed high and waved slow. She was wrong, the eyes weren’t black. They were a brilliant seafoam green with shots of gold and emerald radiating from their center. They were anything but the eyes of a harmless prop. He slipped inside and had the door pulled shut before she could leap the gravestones.
She punched the door, furious at the lack of an exterior handle, then spotted the button and mashed it hard. A mechanical “click” unbolted the door and she pried at the edge, bending her fingernails, but the door sucked in.
She turned and backed against the door, scanning. No windows, no doors on this side of the house. She whirled her face up to the tampered camera in the corner, it’s little red light flashed “on”. A torture cage with a skeleton sat beneath it. Prop like the bat. The wild urge to climb the cage and wave into the camera came to her, then her stomach sank. No security guard would be watching. “Every precaution” my ass, Tremont!
Shirley pulled her phone from her pocket. No bars. She banged her head against the freezing steel and watched the alley for signs of the chainsaw man. He was taking his time.
“Hello!” she yelled down the corn, stepping forward and shielding her eyes against the floodlight. There was no answer.
A pounding of furious fists sounded against the door until it spilled open, a rush of people tripped out, laughing. She grabbed a middle-aged man by the arm and he yelled, “You’re not real!” then ran.
“Did you see a clown?” she yelled after him, following through the gravestones. From the center of the cornfield, she heard a chainsaw rev.
“Damn,” she said, then sprinted to catch the door. She looked around, pleaded with whatever God there may be that VanMord had called 911, then pointed her gun above the forest and fired into the air. At least they’d know which way she went.
There were three reasons Carter knew he had to go into the house: 1) he was looking for VanMord–why not inside? 2) he needed to feel the atmosphere, understand the headspace of the prey so he could understand the mindset of the hunter, and 3) okay, yeah, it was going to be fun. Funner if Shirley had come, she was one hair away from jumping out of her skin every time they’d set foot on VanMord property. She’d be a blast in a haunted house.
Carter’s badge hadn’t swayed the crypt keeper, so he handed over his twenty with a grimace and took his glowing red “you can touch me” wristband. The badge luckily had swayed the jack-o-lantern-headed entrance pacer, and every patron he’d bumped on his way in so Shirley couldn’t be too mad at him for blowing 30 minutes on “research”.
He patted the heavy form holstered under his armpit and stepped through the hanging moss into pitch black, adrenaline heightening with each swooping bat as he entered an eery swamp, the sickly scent of chemical fog promising a headache.
A quiet clicking came toward him, rising from the fog. It fell like ice into his stomach and he backed up, second-guessing his choice of a red wristband. He was keeping his eye on the brief breaks of monster head in the fog, feeling for the next door, when his collar was grabbed from behind.
That was fast, was his first thought, followed closely by his croaked, “Choking–me!”
A slender rope twisted around his neck and red spots rose across the green fog. He scratched the iron hand at the base of his neck and tore open his skin trying to get his nails beneath the rope, and was answered with two sharp kicks to the back of his knees. He buckled and whistled low gasps instead of screams as he was dragged into the darkest corner and pulled beneath the fog line.
A patter of shoes from the entrance announced the swamp’s new visitors, and nervous shrieks and giggles floated above the fog. Carter kicked and writhed and tried to scream. A white silk arm with black crusty spots wrapped tightly around his throat, choking off anything but a wheeze, and the sound of his heartbeat inside his head grew louder and louder. Wisps of fog followed his kicking boots as they dragged further into the black.
Above the sound of the heartbeat burning in his temples and below the nervous squeals of the group came stilted wisps of high-pitched giggling, just behind his left ear. He gave an arching kick and a rotted hand punched him hard on the nose. His eyes rolled back and he fell into nothing.
Shirley’s shoulders ached, her back ached, and her jaw ached. Wasn’t it enough to be hunting for a crazy, murderous clown in a dark, winding maze? Must there be animatronic wind darts and water spray, trick floors and steps, and fun-house mirrors wherein she realized she needed to holster her weapon before she shot her reflection? Not to mention dozens of actors and visitors attempting to push her the wrong way.
“Carter!” she screamed at each group, blinding them with her flashlight as she searched their sweaty faces. “Carter!” she screamed through the off-shoots of an echoing cave. “Carter!” she screamed through tunnels of dusty webs. And to every actor she could grab she yelled, “Have you seen a clown in here?”
Everyone answered, “Yes.”
Carter awoke to a nightmare.
The pain in his arms roused him first, pulled tight in an X across his chest, manacled wrists with tight chains wrenching upward in opposite directions. He couldn’t see past his swollen hands but felt a chain wedged beneath his ribs, locking him tight to the wall. Every breath was an agonized gasp of twisting, digging links, sucked through a salty cloth lodged in his mouth and tied around his ears. He strained with his bare toes to grip something, anything, to stop him hanging, and didn’t find it.
The room was dark, illuminated only by the glow of purple electricity dancing up a wire net along one wall with a hiss! each time it reached the top. His eyes adjusted and fixed on the wall opposite. Hanging upside down above the narrow door was a woman, skinless, with her intestines spilling from a deep gash in her abdomen. Her long hair clotted to her dangling arms with sticky blood. Small spots dripped from her fingers to tink! on the floor, audible between bursts of electric static. Her eyes were open, glossy smooth, peaceful in the midst of tortured features. The blacklight aimed at her grotesque figure showed a row of bloody, white teeth.
Carter moaned and exhaled the smell of blood clotting in his nostrils. After an eternity in sixty seconds, he heard whispers and strained his face up over his crossed wrists. Beyond the glare of the blacklight pointed at him, a small huddle of visitors stepped cautiously into the room. They slipped through the black puddle below the woman, clutching at each other.
“Mmmmmm!!!” Carter screamed behind his gag and writhed to get their attention. They shrieked and laughed, jogging past him, their sticky shoes joining the electric hiss! He groaned at their retreating backs. The exit door slipped shut behind them. A chorus of sudden screeches and a triumphant, high laughter boomed through the door and stood Carter’s hair on end. The screeches became faint footsteps, but the laugh stayed close until it abruptly stopped. Once again it was just hiss! and tink!
Another group tiptoed in. The last man to enter avoided the puddle but looked up at the dangling arms and shouted, “Oh, gross!” when a bead of cold blood splattered his cheek. His friends laughed.
“Mmm! Mmm! Mmm!” Carter groaned and the group whirled from the specter of her dangling body to gape at him. Surely he’d bumped these people in line. “Mmm! Mmmmm!” One of you, look at me! Help me!
His moans were overpowered by a violent BANG! His taxed muscles shocked and he looked with the group at the wire net, terror bittering his tongue.
“Nyah ha ha ha ha ha! Ah ha ha ha!” the white silk clown with the green and gray face, eyes drooping, mouth twisted in delight, banged a crowbar against the wire net. Shoots of purple lightning leapt from the electric coil to every corner of the net with a shocking heat. Carter squinted against the light and the group hid their eyes. The clown laughed higher and louder. The purple light strobed with the blacklights, and the white silk wavered so the clown seemed to dance underwater. The group covered their ears as he shrieked a high laugh and went BANG! BANG! BANG! on the net before running down the narrow room. He scattered the screaming group with his crowbar and chased them out, then stood in the open door and laughed. His flickering white body shook with the sound.
“Huh hmmm… haha hmmm…” the clown chuckled in falsetto as he turned around to smile at Carter. He waved, slowly tilting his head back and forth. Drips of green and black makeup mixed with the stains of blood on his chest and arms.
The clown stopped and stood still, then pressed a gleeful hand behind his ear. The sound of giggles echoed from the gaping hall below the woman. The clown’s eyes grew wide with anticipation, the black pupils rimmed with a scarcely lighter brown.
“MMMM!” Carter tore his throat with the loudest scream he could. The clown raised a rotted finger to his lips and comically tiptoed to hide behind the electric coil. This group entered and screamed and laughed much as the previous one did. So did the next group. And the next.
Carter dripped sweat. In the brief seconds the room was empty he breathed hard through his throbbing nose and experimented shoving the gag with his dry tongue. The tearing in his shoulder sockets was unbearable.
By the time the fifth group passed, Carter added weeping to the hiss and tink, and somewhere below him, the clown responded with a high, breaking laughter.
“No, no, no, props, props, props,” Shirley repeated as she walked forward. Her flashlight had been on the ground for the last two rooms, watching the stamps of bloody footprints grow darker, wetter.
“He’ll be glad to take your head!” A woman screamed at Shirley, leaping from beneath the shadow of a fire-burnt arch. Her mascara dripped down her white-powdered face and her pioneer dress stank of chemical fog and sweat.
“Shut up!” Shirley yelled.
“The Horseman! You’ll make a fine addition to his–”
Shirley shined the light in the actress’ face. “I said, shut up,” Shirley repeated. “Have you seen a clown?”
The actress nodded and pushed Shirley’s flashlight away. “Yes, he’s been running through here all night. You’re going to fire him, right?”
“Running from where?” Shirley shined her light around the room, locating two hidden doors in addition to the covered bridge where the bloody footsteps came from.
“There,” the actress pointed at the bridge. “I don’t go into the carnival rooms, he shouldn’t come in here. It ruins it.”
Shirley stood aside as a terrified group ran through the bridge. After they passed she raised her weapon and pointed it with her flashlight down the bridge. No clown appeared.
“The horseman!” the actress ran to the end of her room after the sprinting group, then turned on Shirley and threw her hands up. “See? Ruins it!”
“What room is before this?” she asked, lowering her gun but not the flashlight. “The carnival?”
“No,” the actress said, “There’s the black hallway with the nets and then the electric torture room, and before that is the seance, then the carnival. So he’s ruining all of them.”
Shirley nodded, shined her light on the wet red footprints, and stepped through the bridge.
“You can say it,” Carter croaked.
“Say what?” Shirley whispered. She sat on the cold ground beside him, muddy legs crossed, staring at his purple-blue torso.
“You know,” his throat still whistled.
She smiled but Carter saw the fear slip through the grin.
“They–” he gulped a deep breath, “They didn’t even let me in… for free… you know.”
“Good,” she said, scooting back to allow the paramedic to analyze his stomach.
“How long were you hanging there, Detective?” the paramedic asked. Carter shrugged.
“Hour and a half, two hours, maybe,” Shirley said.
The paramedic grunted. “Good you found him soon. Might have suffocated.”
The crowd was held back by caution tape. New visitors arrived, pleased at the theatrics, their faces turning to horror as they heard the whispers. Shirley stood and scanned their faces for any threats, for anyone too still, too focused, smiling too widely. She recognized a face and grunted an anti-welcome as it was allowed past the line to greet her.
“Detective,” Tremont came to a stop beside her.
She forced herself to take three deep breaths and dug her nails into her palms to stop the punching reflex. “What’d I say?” she hissed through clenched teeth. “I told you not to do it. I told you it was stupid. This,” she pointed at Carter and the motionless body bag patiently waiting for its morgue taxi, “This is on you.”
Carter wheezed a laugh from the region of their feet.
“What?” Shirley nudged his bare foot roughly.
“So… you’ll tell him… but not me,” he wheezed some more, bruised belly shaking.
“Shut up,” she nudged him again and he wheezed harder. The paramedic glared at her and squatted between them.
“I’ve come to offer you the use of the Dead End office for interviewing those on scene,” Tremont said, unruffled.
“Oh, you have, have you? Wow, that’s really freaking generous,” Shirley clenched her fists, unwilling to leave Carter in Tremont’s shadow.
“Detective!” Officer Tom jogged toward her.
“Tom,” Tremont said, extending his hand. Shirley stepped between them before Tom could take it.
“Yes?” she stared into his flustered face.
“I-I just wanted to let you know the building’s been searched and the cornfield was searched and everyone’s out.”
“Everyone’s out?” she repeated.
“Yeah, I’ve got–”
“Everyone? As in, a freaking clown covered in blood? Is out?”
“We… we didn’t… see one,” Tom looked side to side as though the clown was waiting to tap him on the shoulder.
Shirley pushed past the officer and strode to the Sergeant taking statements by the ticket booth.
“It–we–we didn’t see one!” Tom called after her.
The Sergeant looked up from his notebook as she joined him. “Ah, Detective,” he said, “How’s Detective Carter?”
“He’ll do,” she said shortly. “What’ve you got for me?”
“A, uh, list, here, of those to interview further. And the answer to your question.” He excused himself from a distressed looking Victorian woman and led Shirley behind the booth.
“They’ve all seen a clown,” he said, leaning in. “They say he’s a roamer, one of the guys that walks the ticket lines, sometimes the whole house.”
“And the cornfield?”
“Well, no. There are only two in the cornfield since it’s just a place to run, you know?”
She gave a quick nod. “I know. What’s his name?”
He shrugged. “None of them know. They’re all college kids, high school kids, seen each other once at orientation but don’t know each other in costume, see?”
“Your officer told me they didn’t find a clown,” she said, voice shaking.
The Sergeant frowned. “Well… it was a bit before we locked it down. He could have–”
“No. Uh-uh. I saw him, twice. In the field and I chased him halfway through that damn house, there is no freaking way he got out!”
“Search again!” she yelled and turned toward the office. She paused at the black door, took a step back, and shoved the bat off of its perch.
“No clowns,” VanMord said, staring at his hands. “I, well, I don’t remember. No. I do. There are no clowns. They freak me out.”
“Anything I can verify this off of?” Shirley asked, rubbing her temples as she leaned over the counter. VanMord opened a filing cabinet and pulled out a stack of paper.
“Hmm,” he turned them over until he found a stapled stack laced with crinkles. “Here. No clowns.”
Shirley took the paper. It was a sign-up sheet with items like “Extra-terrestrial 1, Extra-terrestrial 2, Extra-terrestrial 3” and cramped signatures claiming characters. She scanned the pages quickly, then went over them a second time in detail.
“No clowns,” she sighed. She took the paper and folded it along an existing line before tucking it into her jacket pocket.
“Wait,” she stopped and frowned, “What about at the entrance? The zombified clown holding the sign? It was a prop, I think, who are your prop guys? Just your son?”
VanMord’s eyes went wide. Seafoam green. Shirley held her breath.
“No,” VanMord smiled, “there’s no props out there, you’re mistaken. Coffee?” He turned to reach the pot on the hot plate and she leaned forward, searching his hair and clothes. Dry, no makeup. He turned around and held up the pot.
“No, thank you,” she pulled a scarf tight around her neck and grabbed the doorknob, then turned back to VanMord. “Oh, and VanMord…”
“Yes?” he asked.
She smiled. “Burn in Hell.”
Mallory Kelly | October 2018