[Mysteriousheartland.com] The two story, red-brick building grew closer, until the Fallen could see the remnants of last year’s haunted house splashed across its façade. Gravel spun and crackled under the wheels of their dark blue Toyota Corolla as it slid up the driveway and stopped on the turf parking lot, jolting its passengers. Mike threw the gearshift into park, but his companions did not wait until the car was off to start climbing out. Through the windshield, Mike saw a tall man stride toward the car, wearing a black t-shirt that read “Ashmore Estates” in spooky lettering. A black and white Border Collie followed obediently at his heels. Across the yard, an employee busied himself clearing some debris.
Greg, Aurelia, Emmet, and Davin instinctively lined up behind Mike as he stepped out of the Toyota to greet the man, who he correctly assumed to be the building’s owner. Mike, as usual, wore a black t-shirt and dark blue jeans, and his trench coat hung loosely from his shoulders. Aurelia knew the day might involve crawling around inside a dusty old building, so she wore a black tank top, camouflage pants, and combat boots and tied her dark brown hair in a ponytail. Greg wore an old Vietnam-era olive green shirt and tattered khaki shorts. Emmet and Davin were less imaginative, content with jeans and dirty t-shirts.
The man shook Mike’s hand, and he introduced himself as Scott, “Spookmeister” of Ashmore Estates. “I’m glad you came,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get right down to business. I’ve still got work to do before the season begins.”
Mike nodded. “Of course.”
“This is the most popular haunted attraction in east central Illinois,” Scott explained. “Do you guys like haunted houses?”
The Fallen exchanged glances.
“Ok, well, we get over a thousand visitors every season,” Scott continued. “You know people say this building is haunted in real life, right? We’ve had several paranormal investigators in here over the past few years, but nothing’s ever happened like this before. A bunch of key props have disappeared recently. A ladder to the attic fell, and yesterday I found oil on the stairs. I can’t have that. It’s a safety hazard. I didn’t know what to do until someone told me about you guys. They said you’re different from those other paranormal groups. You better be, for as much as I’m paying you.”
“Have your employees seen anything?” Mike asked, ignoring Scott’s last comment.
Scott hesitated. “Joe over there.” He pointed toward the young man who was working in the yard a few dozen feet away, near some horses. “He refuses to talk about it though. He got real shook up.”
“We’ll go check out the building,” Mike said. “Whatever it is, we’ll take care of it.”
“Before you go in there, I have to ask you to sign these forms,” Scott said with a wide grin. He thrust a stack of liability wavers toward the Fallen. “Just in case.”
One after the other, Mike, Aurelia, Greg, Emmet, and Davin signed the forms using fake names and filed into the aging building. On entering, they saw a stairwell that led two floors up and one floor down. “Let’s start in the basement,” Greg suggested, and the others agreed.
A musty smell hit them as they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, and it became immediately clear the owners used the basement to store props and other equipment for the haunted house. There was little space to walk around. Costumes, boxes, benches, and buckets lined the walls and filled the rooms.
“I think this used to be the kitchen and cafeteria,” Aurelia said. “I can sense relaxation and satisfaction. I can almost hear the silverware scraping against the plates.”
Emmet rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and there’s two serving windows in the wall and cabinets in those rooms back there. That’s a big clue.”
“Let’s keep going,” Davin urged. “It’s too damp down here.”
The Fallen continued down the hallway toward the back of the building. At a certain point it became clear they had entered the newer addition. The distinction was obvious on the outside, where the builders had not even tried to preserve the original architecture.
Without warning, a small rubber ball began to bounce along the concrete floor toward the Fallen. Aurelia brought it to a stop with her boot, and the quintet fell silent. No one moved as their ears strained to pick up the faintest sound. For a few tense moments, they heard nothing but the wind and the chirping of birds floating through the open door at the other end of the hall. Then, a clatter came from the stairs.
The Fallen bolted into action. Nearly tripping over one another, they raced to the stairwell and climbed up to the third floor. “That sounded like a person,” Mike wheezed.
Davin, also winded by their short jog, fell onto his rear end into the dust at the top of the stairs.
“Let’s go!” Aurelia shouted, grabbing him by his shirt collar and hoisting him to his feet.
The Fallen spilled into a wide corridor cut through the plaster walls down one side of the building. A maze of heavy, black folding screens and black curtains filled the area. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Emmet said, giving Mike the evil eye. “You told me this was going to be easy.”
Mike grinned. “This is the fun part,” he said. Suddenly, the cackle of a maniacal clown filled the air—deflating his smile. “Not that fun,” he frowned.
“I hate clowns,” Davin said with a shudder.
Mike motioned to Aurelia and she instantly understood. She moved quickly to find the exit to the maze, while the other four entered it.
Inside the walls of the maze, the darkness reduced visibility to a few inches. The only light came from the open window at the end of the hallway, and it barely peaked over the top of the black folding screens. Despite its confined area—or perhaps because of it—navigating the maze proved frustratingly difficult. Mike, Greg, Davin, and Emmet groped the walls and bumped into each other. More than once, they thought they caught someone, only to discover that it was one of their friends.
Meanwhile, near the exit, Aurelia waited with arms folded across her chest. She tapped her foot impatiently. “This is pointless!” she finally shouted. “Will you guys stop screwing around in there?”
As the last word left her lips, a section of the wooden screen collapsed. Mike and his companions spilled onto the floor with someone wearing a polka doted jumpsuit covered in red paint, with a twisted mask and rainbow-colored hair. The clown sprang to his feet and bolted past Aurelia, who was too shocked to react.
“I knew it wasn’t a ghost!” Emmet yelled. “Get him!”
But Aurelia was already gone. She chased the clown down the hallway, past rooms filled with props and seaweed-green walls covered with graffiti.
At the same time, Scott appeared at the top of the stairs. “I heard a crash,” he said. “What’s going on in here?”
The clown veered into the closest room to the stairwell, while Mike, Emmet, Greg, and Davin finally got to their feet and raced to join Aurelia. Mike grabbed Greg and pulled him into a room further up the hall, assuming the rooms might connect. He was right. Over the years, vandals had knocked holes through the walls, creating a passage from one end of the building to the other.
Aurelia, Davin, and Emmet plugged the doorway with their bodies, and when the clown saw Mike and Greg coming through the hole in the wall, he knew he had nowhere to run. He climbed through the window and jumped onto the roof, but a nail snagged his baggy pants, throwing him off balance. The clown plummeted to the ground and landed with a thud.
Moments later, Scott and the Fallen were down the stairs and on the front lawn. They surrounded the clown, who clutched his knee and groaned. “We think we found your ghost,” Mike said, addressing Scott. “We chased him to the third floor. That’s when you came upstairs.”
Emmet grabbed the twisted clown mask and pulled it off, revealing the man who had been cleaning the yard when the Fallen first arrived.
“Joe!” Scott yelled. “Why would you do this?”
“He was creating accidents to try and scare you off,” Emmet explained. “Probably wanted to take over the place himself.”
“I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you freaks!” Joe spat.
As orderlies wheeled the disgruntled clown into the waiting ambulance, Mike approached him. “There’s just one thing I can’t figure out,” he said. “How did you do that trick with the ball when we were in the basement? We didn’t hear anyone else down there.”
Joe looked at Mike with a puzzled expression. “What ball?” he asked, and then the orderlies pushed him into the ambulance.
[New episode every Friday…]
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