I crossed the midway cautiously. No one had come for me yet, and it made me wonder what they were waiting for. And if there was no noise, was I too late to save anyone? No, if there was fear in the air, then there must still be a little hope. I held the gun out but downward, ready to raise it at any moment. My heartbeat thumped along steadily, my pulse not yet above average.
The thumping of the screen door grew louder as I approached the path leading to the haunted house. On the front porch the old door swung open, then smacked closed, swung open and smacked closed, over and over in a steady rhythm. A little too steady, actually, considering the wind had all but died since I’d hopped the fence.
Yet there it was, smacking and squealing at me, doing its best to lend the night a more frightful atmosphere than necessary. In one of the upstairs windows a blue light flickered on for a fraction of a second, illuminating a figure. My finger tensed on the trigger as I took aim, but when the light flickered a second time it showed the figure to be nothing more than a dummy dressed up like a villainous hag.
I lowered my weapon and stood in awe of the house. Dense fog had begun to roll out from beneath the front door, but the smell of it was faintly chalky. Smoke-machine haze.
“Okaaaaay,” I whispered.
Either this place was haunted by one seriously unoriginal ghost, or the power had been restored to this building. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind when a deafening pop echoed through the air, the sound of a breaker being thrown, and the whole park came back to life.
Neon lights, most broken or faded, lit up as best they could, and to my right, in the distance, a carousel I hadn’t noticed before began to move in slow rotations. The still-life horses looked macabre with their open-mouthed whinnies and wild eyes. The air filled with the sounds of music and the irritating bells and whistles of midway din.
A chill cut through me and my heartbeat quickened a pace.
This was all wrong.
I took a step towards the house, where flashes of green-and-blue light were now intensifying and the fog had grown thick, spilling down the front steps. The soundtrack of the haunted house was playing full volume, filling the night with manufactured screams and the noises of moaning ghosts and ghouls.
If anyone called for help, I wouldn’t be able to tell. The suddenness of the lights and sounds had thrown my senses off balance. I couldn’t tell if the movement from the shadows was a trick of the light or if someone was actually there. I didn’t want to be outside and exposed anymore.
I reached the front of the house and was about to pull the door open when a hissing crackle over the park’s loudspeakers froze me on the spot, my hand still extended.
First it was just white noise, but that was replaced by the sound of someone singing the tune from a jack-in-the-box. The slow, creepy way the voice sang each note made me draw my hand back from the door and step away from the house so I could get a better look at the midway. In between notes the voice began to laugh. It started as hiccup-like bursts of giggling, interrupting the song and giving the tune a markedly demented quality.
Then it broke down into a maniacal cackle that had nothing to do with amusement and would have given a supervillain the willies.
I held tight to my gun, wishing I had something to shoot at.
The singing resumed, but the song was coming to an end. Once the final note had been sung, the jack-in-the-box should have popped out. But there was only silence and white noise. My heart was pounding.
“Boo,” came the voice I’d heard on the phone.
Only it wasn’t over the speakers, it was right in my ear. I choked back a scream and spun around to fire, but before I could, the power shut off again.
In a moment of shock, before I could readjust to the dark, a hand darted out and grabbed me by the throat. It was a large, rough palm that seemed capable of wrapping itself all the way around my neck. My fangs were out—the fight instinct had kicked in almost the second the voice sounded in my ear—but fangs are only useful if I can bite something.
I aimed my gun, but by the time I sank the barrel into something fleshy and pulled the trigger, the sound of the bullet was an empty echo, having missed its intended target. I had been dropped to the ground. Scrambling to my feet, I aimed back to where my attacker once stood. There was no one there.
Panting, I did a scan of the area, but there appeared to be no one else present. I couldn’t hear or smell anyone near me. It was almost like whoever attacked me had vanished into thin air. And why hadn’t I heard or smelled him before he came up behind me?
On cue, the laughter burst through the silence, right next to my ear. When I pivoted to shoot, the sound was suddenly ten yards away. I lowered my gun and let my gaze travel the midway. With the lights shut off, I got a better sense of what was there and knew none of the shadows were stirring.
The laughter erupted again, loud and foreboding over the speakers, and a moment later from inside the house.
Vampires can move fast, but I’ve never seen a vampire go that many places that quickly. I’d assumed it was a vampire because of the inhuman quality of its voice over the phone. Now I no longer knew what kind of monster I was dealing with.
Deciding it wasn’t a vampire should have made me happy, but it only managed to make the situation worse because I didn’t know what I was up against. And Jameson had said they’d followed vampires here. If that was true—and I had no reason to believe it wasn’t, considering what I’d smelled when I got here—then I still had a nest of vampires to deal with on top of whatever this freak show was.
And Jameson, Nolan and Noriko still needed my help.
“Hey,” I shouted, interrupting the rapid-fire laughter bouncing all over the park. It was giving me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, but I was here to do a job. “You wanted me to come play? Well here I am.”
The park was dead silent. It was so quiet, in fact, I could hear the thump-thump-thump of my own heart trying to free itself from my rib cage. Some assassin I was, letting a little light and noise scare me like this. It was sort of pathetic that I—
It appeared in front of me, without any sounds or flashes of smoke to announce it. It just sort of…materialized. I yelped and stumbled backwards, but managed to keep my footing. Now that I had a good look at it, I wished it had stayed in the dark.
The creature had gray skin with a pallor of green beneath it—the skin of a long-rotting corpse. The rest of its face was so monstrous it was hard to believe what I was seeing was real. The cheeks were gaunt, the skin sunk so deep into the crevices it rested right against the bone. Its eyes were hollow, and one socket was completely empty, revealing a hole so black staring into it threatened to suck you in. The other eye was still there, loose and milky white, unseeing but all seeing. Even with no pupil I could tell it was fixed right on me.
Its arms were skeletal at best. One ended in a bony claw of a hand, while the other still maintained a fleshy glove of skin, which would have been the one I’d felt around my neck. The thought of that hand touching me made bile rise in the back of my throat.
The creature opened its mouth and a rattling hiss passed where its lips should have been, but now only the strained, peeling tissue of dwindling muscle remained. A tongue appeared, shockingly pink and wet in the dead mouth of the corpse head. It wet its lips, and its white eyeball twitched.
The tongue moved, independent of any real purpose, just flicking around like a small pink fish. Then the creature sighed a rattling breath and released the high, miserable laugh I’d been hearing. To witness it up close chilled me to my core. I raised my weapon, and it watched me take aim at its head, laughing all the while.
“You came to play. Stay to play.” It cackled, wheezy laughter bubbling through its dry lungs.
“I. Don’t. Want. To. Play. With. You.” I spat out each word through a clenched jaw.
“We don’t understand want,” it said, its eyeball moving freely, looking at everything or at nothing. “You will play.” This time there was no laughter, only cold demand.
The monster and I stared at each other for what seemed like a long time but must have only been seconds. It kept sucking in breaths that I could hear seeping out through the holes in its decaying body.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll play.”
It grinned, and as it did, a chunk of gaunt cheek sloughed away, exposing bare jaws and two rows of age-yellowed teeth. The grin didn’t flicker. And that was when I saw the fangs, exactly where they were on every vampire I’d ever met.
I didn’t have time to think about what it meant.
“Tag.” The word came out as I pulled the trigger. Its eye widened, and then the whole messy patchwork of its head exploded in a fine mist of bone and skin. “You’re it.”
So I’d been right and wrong. It wasn’t a vampire, not anymore, but it had been once. And now it was nothing. But in the time between life and death what had become of it? What could turn a vampire into a ghost? And what kind of ghost could be killed by bullets?
This night kept getting stranger and stranger.
I jogged up the steps to the house, not letting anything else distract me from my purpose. I kicked open the inner door and had my weapon at the ready if anything was waiting for me inside, but the main floor of the house was empty.
The power had been shut down again, and the last remnants of the smoke-machine haze were fading away, leaving only a low-lying gloom over the floors that kept the bottom half of the room invisible.
In front of me was a large oak-banister staircase leading to the second floor. The room on the left had been converted into storage and was filled with boxes and various parts of the park’s former life. To the right, a room bathed in moonlight appeared to contain only a shiny black coffin on a pedestal. More leftovers from the house’s former life. Behind it, a mummy dummy rested at an angle against the empty bookshelves, arms pointed outward in preparation to grab an unsuspecting passerby.
I sniffed the air, but the dry smell of the fog was overwhelming. If anyone was in here with me, I couldn’t tell, so I was effectively fighting blind. I took a few tentative steps forward, and when I didn’t trip over anything, I moved with more confidence towards the stairs. Following the staircase to the second floor, I did a sweep.