[Mysteriousheartland.com] With the paved road nearly out of sight, Mike, Davin, Aurelia, Emmet, and their new companion Emily strolled up the dirt trail toward the summit of a small hill. Fallow cornfields flanked them on both sides, and a stand of trees obscured the brick building at the end of the trail. Wind whipped across the barren fields.
“While you guys were doing who-knows-what over New Years, I was doing some serious research,” Emmet explained as he led the group toward the distant brick building. “I found a real mystery to investigate, for a change.”
“This looks like private property,” Davin interrupted. “I hope the police aren’t going to arrest us again. Last time, they stuck me in a cell with that pervert who kept flashing me.”
“Didn’t you share a cell with Greg?” Mike asked.
“Who did you think I was talking about?”
Emmet cut them off. “Anyway, as I was saying, I discovered something interesting. Everyone has heard of coydogs, right? Half coyote, half dog? Supposedly coyotes bred with domesticated dogs their owners abandoned along country roads. Nasty critters. I never believed that explanation though, and now I have reason to believe these coydogs did not appear by chance.”
“You mean someone bred them on purpose?” Emily asked from the rear of the group.
“Who the hell is she?” Emmet whispered to Mike, but without much concern for the volume of his voice.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mike replied. “You were saying?”
“Right. Anyway, I think someone bred them on purpose. Locals call the abandoned building up ahead Sunset Haven. Southern Illinois University owns it and once used it for animal research. They closed it down years ago―I have no idea why. I read in an old newspaper article that they were conducting genetic experiments.”
“What makes you think Sunset Haven and coydogs are connected?” Aurelia asked as she pulled her coat tighter to insulate herself from the thrashing wind. “There are dozens of facilities in Illinois that conduct research like that.”
“Yeah, but how many closed mysteriously?” Emmet argued.
As the group approached the summit of the hill, their throats tightened. The simple, rectangular building looked like nothing but a red brick shell. Sheets of aluminum covered its windows and broken branches decorated the lawn.
“Who wants to go inside first?” Mike dared. Aurelia shook her head and marched up the cement stairs, past a dead tree tangled with vines, to the door. A steel wire mesh had at one time covered the doorway, but there was a gaping hole torn in the links, allowing for easy entry. She stopped and signaled for the rest of the group to follow.
Once inside, a stairwell presented the Fallen with three choices. The basement looked promising, but there were two other floors. Mike scratched his head.
Emmet sighed and shoved his way to the front of the group. “The most likely place we’ll find anything is in the basement,” he said.
Suddenly, the group noticed movement just outside their peripheral vision. In the adjoining room, branches covered with dead leaves jutted like monstrous cockroach antenna through the wire mesh that covered the broken window. The branches scratched at the wall below the decaying windowsill.
An object outside the window caught Mike’s attention. From between the branches and the metal links, he noticed a blue tractor slowly lumbering toward the building along the dirt road a few dozen yards away.
“Crowley’s ass! Get down!” he hissed.
“What is it?” Davin yelled.
“Shut up! Someone’s coming.”
Mike and Aurelia grabbed Emily and pushed her against the wall, while Emmet and Davin dropped to their knees. There they waited while the tractor engine rumbled closer.
Suddenly, the engine stopped. The torn aluminum covering the windows on the top floor scraped together, filling the air with a high-pitch squeal.
For several moments, the Fallen held their breaths while they heard someone crunching dried leaves under foot.
Mike signaled to Emmet and Davin to make their way deeper into the building. Once they had carefully crept into the hallway, Mike, Aurelia, and Emily followed.
Minutes passed. The footsteps climbed onto the porch and skidded across the foyer, where they stopped.
“Hello?” a man’s voice called out.
A shuddering wind blasted through the silent corridor.
“I’m not paid enough for this,” the Fallen heard the man grumble. He waited a few more moments before he turned and walked out of the building. Mike, Emmet, Aurelia, Davin, and Emily stayed frozen against the hallway wall until they heard the tractor engine turn over and rumble into the distance.
Davin looked as though he was seconds away from passing out when he finally exhaled.
“That was close,” Mike whispered.
Emily shivered and wiped tears away from her eyes, but no one besides Davin noticed. He touched her arm sympathetically and asked if she was okay.
“Alright, who’s ready to check out the basement?” Emmet asked with an inappropriately cheerful tone. He removed his baseball cap and smoothed his dirty blonde hair.
Mike smirked and led them to the stairwell, where they switched on their electric torches and pointed the beams into the darkness below. Wires hung from the ceiling and peach paint pealed in every direction. Piles of leaves covered the floor in some places, and graffiti decorated the walls.
Rats squeaked and scurried away as the quintet descended the stairs. Emmet took the lead and went from room to room, carefully examining their contents. Most were empty, but a few held random objects or debris. Trespassers had stolen nearly everything. Disappointed, Emmet scowled and turned off his flashlight.
The group noticed a boiler room and decided to check it out. At first, they saw nothing unusual. Sunlight coming from a door across the room lit old and weathered equipment. A faded, empty soda bottle sat on a rusted motor.
Davin made his way over to the door and peaked outside. “Hey, come here!” he shouted to his companions, only a few yards away.
As Aurelia pushed Davin aside, she discovered they were now standing in a garage or delivery bay. Leaves covered the cement floor, and a chain-linked fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the yawning entrance.
“Gross, look at this,” she said as she brushed some leaves away with her boot, uncovering the skeletal remains of a canine.
“That looks like a weird dog,” Emily piped up from the doorway.
“My thoughts exactly,” Emmet said with a satisfied grin. “It could be a coydog.”
Mike knelt and removed his glasses to examine it closer. He found a decaying rope still clung to the vertebrae where the animal’s neck used to be. “This skull looks strange,” he muttered, stroking his prominent chin.
“This doesn’t prove anything,” Davin said. “Maybe it was just a stray.”
“True,” Emmet agreed. “But it’s still interesting that we found it here. I think we should take the skull home and test it.”
“Yeah, we’ll run tests on it,” Mike said sarcastically. “I’ll just take it back to my lab.”
“You mean your bathroom?” Aurelia quipped.
“Right.” Mike produced a large plastic bag from his trench coat pocket and gently placed the skull inside. He then tied the bag closed and stuffed it back into his pocket. “I think we have some research to do,” he said. “It’s time to hit the books.”
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