Robert, the security guard, drew his gun, took a deep breath, and headed down a shadowy corridor full of plastic cobwebs, fake blood, and recorded screams. It was Robert's worst nightmare, a real-life killer on the loose in Cohan's Haunted House. At least one person was dead, and behind any one of these doors might lie another victim -or worse, the killer - waiting for another victim.
Someone somewhere turned off the sound system and switched on the emergency lights. Robert tried the door on the left. Locked. Then the one on the right. Unlocked. He pushed it open two inches, and then it hit something, something that moaned. Robert looked down and saw more blood. Real blood.
An hour later and the police had pieced together the basics. A total of two attacks and one murder. Jason Pierce, a 22-year-old employee, had been killed by an ax. Definitely not one of the prop axes, but a real weapon. Alicia Cohan had been luckier. She, too, was bleeding from an ax attack. But when Robert found her, barely conscious behind the door, she was still alive.
"It could've been worse," Sergeant Greeley told his captain. "There were just a few employees in the haunted house. The attacker wasn't seen coming into the building, or leaving, for that matter. But he was seen." Greeley checked his notepad. "Medium height, in a ghost costume and a full-head rubber mask. We found the costume, the mask, and the ax not far from the second attack scene. The lab matched the blood samples. Jason's blood and Alicia's blood."
"Attacker not seen entering or leaving." The captain had a way of honing in on the essentials. "That's strange, given the limited access in that kind of attraction."
"Yes, sir. I'll interview the second victim, then talk to the others."
Alicia sat up in her hospital bed and spoke with effort. "We were just opening up. Jason and Millie and Todd were changing into their costumes. Dad was there, too. I turned on the sound system and the mood lights. I was checking the halls for garbage when I heard Todd shouting--something about a crazy person with an ax. A few seconds later, this thing came around the corner. I knew right away.
"I don't know why I ran into the dungeon room. There's no other exit. This maniac pushed open the door and started swinging. I fell to the floor, then I must've passed out. I guess he thought I was dead, 'cause the next thing I know, the security guard was waking me up. Was anyone else hurt?"
Alicia hadn't yet been told about her boyfriend's death.
Todd Wilkins seemed more concerned about Alicia than about the death of his best friend. "She's going to be all right," Greeley assured him. "Just some cuts and bruises. You saw the attack on Jason?"
"Part of it," said Todd. "I was changing into my ghoul costume when I heard something. I went into the next room and there was Jason, fighting off this guy in one of our ghost costumes and an old mask. The guy was swinging this ax, and Jason was trying to grab the ax and swing back. I tried to jump in, but the guy got in one last swing, then ran off down the hall. I shouted out a warning to the others, then went to help Jason. He was bleeding so much."
Millie Miller, like the others, was in her early 20s: short blonde hair, an athletic build and slightly taller than average. "I was in the locker room downstairs, changing into my witch's uniform. I guess I heard some screaming, but I thought it was the tape. I didn't realize anything was wrong until I came upstairs."
Sergeant Greeley nodded, then changed subjects. "I hear Alicia and Jason were engaged."
"Engaged? She wishes." Millie's laugh died in her throat. "I shouldn't be mean. Jason and I were together for years, ever since middle school. Things were getting a little stale and too serious, all at the same time. Jason said we should see other people for a while, just to get it out of our systems. That's all Alicia was, a little experiment. He told her that. He was coming back to me."
This was the third different story Greeley had heard. According to Alicia, they were happy, and Jason had already proposed. According to Todd, Alicia cried on his shoulder all the time. She was sick of Jason and ready to leave. And now Millie's variation on the old, familiar theme.
The sergeant caught up with Alicia's father at Cohan's Haunted House. A curious throng stood by the police barricades in front of the boardwalk attraction. "Thank God Alicia's okay." Then he chuckled. "I can't figure out if this will be good for business or bad."
"Are you the sole owner?" Greeley asked.
"Alicia and I," said the sad-eyed, middle-aged man. "Alicia has an inheritance from her grandparents. I'm the trustee until she turns 30 or gets married. A chunk of her money went into Cohan's Haunted House. It's a good investment for her."
"Did you see or hear anything this morning? Anything at all?"
Cohan shook his head. "Robert and the kids were all there when I unlocked the doors. I locked up behind them, then went upstairs to the office. They often joked about a real killer getting loose in the haunted house."
"I'm not surprised."
"That ghost costume came from a storage closet. And the ax..."
"Was the stairwell fire ax."
Cohan sighed. "It doesn't look like an outsider, does it?"
Sergeant Greeley agreed. It was an inside job, all right. And he had a good idea which insider it was.
Alicia's "unconscious" body was too close to the door to allow the killer to exit.
Millie was right about Jason's state of mind. He had been ready to dump Alicia and return to his old love. But Alicia wasn't ready to let go.
While the others changed clothes, Alicia grabbed the ghost costume and the mask, plus the ax from the stairwell. She attacked Jason, but he fought back, cutting and bruising her in the process. The only way that Alicia could explain away the injuries was to pretend to be a second victim. She discarded the ax and costume, then pretended to be unconscious in the dungeon room.
Her one mistake? She lay down too close to the room's only door. If a real attacker had been in there, he would have had to move her body in order to squeeze out the door.
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