His fingers, capped with dirt, lingered on the grimy piano keys and tapped the first few notes of Annie Breen. The barmaid, catching his eye, sighed and gave a little laugh.
―You‘re barkin‘ at a knot,‖ she told him. ―You know I‘ve got to get these done.‖
She took the rolling pin up in her hands and coated it with a pinch of flour. She floured the lump of dough, too. Then, furrowing her brows, she squished the dough flat with several long rolls of the wooden cylinder.
―Crimany, Kathy, the festival can wait. Now how ‗bout a song?‖ He brought his first two fingers down on the piano keys, creating a harsh medley of notes that, by any other musician‘s hand, would have sounded crude.
―How ‗bout you pare this pumpkin, Henry Leath, or cut a path right out those doors.‖ Kathleen pushed the rolling pin to the side and pulled a pumpkin down from one of the shelves of amber and emerald bottles.
Henry gave the piano keys one final longing tap with his thumb and went to take the pumpkin from her hands. He braced the ginger vegetable against the bar and set to skinning it with his Bowie knife. As he worked, he sang:
Come all you men of Arkansas, a tale to you I’ll sing: of Annie Breen, from old Kaintuck, who made the forest ring. A sweeter girl and sweeter voice no man did ever knowand well she loved a straight-limbed lad whose name was Texas Joe.
Kathleen took three eggs from the basket and cracked them into a wooden bowl. Then, as she measured out a quart of milk, she sang the second verse:
To meetin’ she and Joey went and, oh, her eyes did shineto see him full of manly strength, so clear and tall and fine! To be his wife and helping hand she wanted as her fate, but said the story that befell as now I will relate.
She wiped her hands down the front of her apron, leaving faint streaks of flour on the white cotton. Her handsclean, Kathleen gathered the skirt of her checkered dress in her hands and wandered through a doorway at the end of the bar. She continued to sing, her sweet, steady voice filling the storeroom and the bar.
One morn when birds were singin’ and the lilacs were abloom, there came unto the little town and there he took a room: an evil-hearted city man who said he’d made his stake and then it was that the serpent in old Paradise did awake.
Henry set the pumpkin and his Bowie knife on the bar and wandered back to the piano bench, bringing his fingertips to the ivory keys in time to play the next verse.
At meetin’ after prayers were said, sweet Ann sang clear and fine. The stranger said upon his knees, ―That girl, she must be mine!‖ So arm in arm they both walked home and wandered up and down,which caused the neighbors, who loved Ann, to shake their heads and frown.
He entered in and brought a stain on Annie Breen’s fair life. He told her that he loved the girl, would take her for his wife.When Joe got wind how matters stood, his heart was like a stone. With ne’er a word of parting he went off to Texas alone.
Before a year in a shallow grave lay Annie and her childand when the tidings reached brave Joe’s ears that lad went almost wild. He saddled up and cantered hard, and rode both long and fast and in Fort Smith he found the man who’d ruined Ann at last. Then words were spoke and shots were fired and Joe fell on the floor. He said, ―In spite of all that’s been I love my Ann the more.‖ His face was white as driven snow, his breath came gasping low. He said, ―My soul is clean and to my Maker it must go.‖
The song was a slow ballad, usually accompanied by piano or banjo. Henry played the last verses evenslower, with more sadness. But as they swung into the last verse, Henry heard a faint click at the back of his head. His fingers froze mid-note; he was suddenly too aware of a presence just behind him. Before he closed his dimming eye…
Kathleen‘s singing stopped.―Well, what‘s the matter, Henry Leath? We got a visitor? Soul cakes are on the bar. Tell ‗em I‘ll say a prayer for their deceased.‖
Kathleen appeared in the doorway of the storeroom, brushing back hairs that had fallen from her Gibson tuck, and with a large cooking pot balanced on one hip. Her expression turned cold.
―Crimany, Kit,‖ she whispered, suddenly short of breath. She set the cooking pot on the bar. ―You best un-cock that revolver and get gaited. I already kicked ya out once.‖
The man who stood with the revolver pressed between Henry‘s shoulder blades was a tall man, hunched over atthe stomach and dressed in muddied jeans and cotton shirt. Tentacles of raven hair slithered out from beneath the deeply creased crown of his hat, crawled down his narrow glare and swung against his unshaved jaw. And when the little barmaid ordered him out, he only laughed and brought the barrel of the revolver up to the back of Henry‘s skull.
―Shut yer bazoo. I ain‘t gotta take no orders from no slommack, you… you slommack.‖ Kit stumbled forward on his feet, shoving the barrel further into Henry‘s skull. To him, Kit whispered, ―How much she costin‘ ya?‖ followed by another laugh.
―Cut dirt, Kit, ‗fore I haul ya to the calaboose.‖ This was from Henry, whose fingers clenched into fists and crushed down on the piano keys beneath them.―That‘s the beauty in killin‘ the sheriff, Sheriff. Ya can‘t tie the noose ‗round my neck if ya‘re already cold as a wagon tire.‖
―Quit your bellyachin‘, Kit,‖ Kathleen barked. ―You‘re loaded to the gunwales with liquor. What do ya want here,anyhow? More Cactus Wine? Bourbon? Well, you keep on trampoosin‘. Freeloaders ain‘t welcome here. ‗Sides, me and Henry got work to do.‖
For emphasis, she fussed with the iron cooking pot, using it as a basket in which she gathered the partially pared pumpkin and its skins. Kathleen gathered up the Bowie knife, too, but kept that in her hand.
―Work?‖ He spat in the direction of a spittoon, but missed. ―I knew ya was a soiled dove.‖Before they could again refute the accusation, Kit flew to the bar and slammed the butt of the revolver down on the polished mahogany. ―This groggery belongs to me,‖ he hissed. ―Ain‘t no coot gonna keep me from it or my twofer.‖
Kit clamped one hand onto Henry‘s shoulder and pulled him off the piano stool. As Henry contorted about on thefloor, trying to right himself, and Kit scrambled to keep him down, Kathleen threw the cooking pot to the floor. It clamored against the wooden floor and drowned out the mangled cries of the piano as the men‘s flailing limbs beat its keys.
Kathleen flew from behind the bar. Tightening her fingers around Henry‘s Bowie knife, she didn‘t stop at the edgeof the row. Spotting Kit in the tumultuous blur, she rushed into the mess, reaching for his neck and clawing at his arms.
Kit bellowed and grabbed at the thin arms climbing up his neck. He tore them away, leaving long gashes in theflesh of his neck where he dragged her fingernails away. Dark blood instantly began seeping from the tears and smeared the layer of dirt that coated his tanned skin.She stumbled as he yanked her off of him, held her at arm‘s length and laughed at the sight of the little barmaid and the Bowie.
Kathleen lunged, aiming the knife at the soft flesh of his side. But Kit held her fast.He grabbed the hand in which the Bowie was clamped and twisted her around so his chest pressed against her back. His hand slid up her wrist ―Get your muck forks off me,‖ she hissed.
His fingers closed around hers and ground them into the handle of the knife until her skin turned white.Slowly, he bent her arm, first at the wrist, to point the Bowie back at her. She tried to fight him as he bent her arm at the elbow next. But with a small pop, her muscles gave way and the blade lunged nearer her heaving chest.
Kathleen tried to drop the Bowie when she saw Henry coming near them. But only once Kit changed his aim; onlyonce he had lunged, wielding her hand like a sword, and plunged the blade into Henry‘s midsection did the Bowie fall.
Henry tumbled back, staring at the spot in his stomach where a crimson spot bloomed. He touched his fingers to it and brought his eyes up.
―Crimany,‖ Kathleen whispered. Her eyes were wide and her skin was void of any color. For the moment, sheseemed to have forgotten to struggle against Kit‘s hold. But as Henry‘s eyes rolled to one side and he fell back onto the piano, she remembered the fingers that constricted her wrists.
Her wrath clashed with his obstinacy. She crunched the toe of her high top boot into his toes, bent her fingers into claws, and scratched at his bare flesh. ―Get out!‖ she screamed and aimed a fist at his nose
Kit caught her clenched fingers and, snarling, threw her to the ground. She tumbled to the floor not far from the body of Henry Leath.
―You shouldn‘t have done it, Kitty,‖ he said, snickering at the sight of her crawling to Henry‘s limp body. Hisfingers left crimson streaks on the piano‘s ivory keys where he had collapsed against the massive musical beast; the stains matched the front of the sheriff ‘s cotton shirt. ―You shouldn‘t have killed him.‖
She pressed her shaky fingers to either side of Henry‘s face and bent an ear to his chest. ―It was an accident,‖ she whispered and drew back her hands. She jumped as Kit slammed his hand down on the bar.
―Don‘t be a liar, Kitty!‖ he roared. ―Don‘t lie! I saw you do it; I saw you kill him.‖―I didn‘t-‖ The words died on her lips. She watched Kit as he grabbed up the pistol in one hand and cocked the hammer. ―Crimany,‖ she breathed. ―What‘re you doing?‖
―Sheriff ‘s gone and made the big jump. He‘s probably meetin‘ our maker as we speak.‖ Kit aimed the pistol at a flickering oil lamp set up on top of the piano. ―He won‘t come sniffin‘ ‗round your death.‖He pulled the trigger, letting loose a sharp craaaaaack! that rattled the bottles. The bullet ripped through the air, colliding with and shattering the glass of the oil lamp. Its glittering remains showered down on them. ―And anyone else who does… They‘ll just believe I was avenging the death of our dearly departed sheriff.‖
Kit cocked the hammer again.Her eyes wide with terror, Kathleen grabbed at the skirt of her dress and scrambled to her feet.
She ran for the staircase that led to the second floor, composed of her and the others‘ bedrooms. Behind her, she heard the second shot go off, and flinched. A second later, she heard the bullet careen into one of the paintings above the poker table.
The sound of the hammer cocking for a third time was joined by the sound of heavy footsteps running after her. Without turning around, she knew the steps belonged to Kit. Lifting her skirts higher, she took the carpeted stairs two at a time and dashed blindly for her bedroom, hardly listening for the fourth shot.
From down below, Henry became faintly aware of the sound of a bedroom door opening and shutting. Severalmoments and a gunshot later, the bedroom door was pulled yanked back open and both pairs of footsteps stopped. The pistol‘s hammer was cocked. The fifth bullet flew from the barrel, and Henry cringed.
There was wicked laughter up above and the sound of something small falling to the floor.Through tired, blurring eyes, Henry looked up at the top of the piano. The oil lamp still burned.
Kit pulled the bedroom door closed tight behind him and slipped his pistol back into the holster at his waist. The saloon had fallen quiet. Except for…
Kit raced down the staircase and came to a stop before the piano.
A ring of crimson blood encircled the piano and in the center of it slumped Henry Leath. In one hand, he heldthe oil lamp with the shattered glass. Carefully, he tipped the flame, until it licked the piano‘s fine finish and the wood caught. ―What‘re you doing, boy?‖ Kit hissed.
But Henry only smiled at seeing Kit, his fingers grabbing for his pistol, and the color that drained from his face. He placed the oil lamp back on top of the piano, then rested his cherry fingertips on the edges of the red and ivory keys.Henry parted his lips, his stare never wavering from the face of Kit, and began to sing, his voice breathy and low: Before he closed his dimming eyes he said, ―My work’s not done.‖ And turning on his aching side, he drew his faithful gun.
Henry drew his hands back from the piano, took the oil lamp in both hands, and stood to face Kit. Henry turnedthe oil lamp on its side and doused Kit with the kerosene. He took the cotton wick from the lamp next and held the burning tip out to the cowboy.
And he sang:―You’ve done your mischief, stranger, but from life you’ve got to part.‖ His finger pressed the trigger, and he shot him through the heart.
―No!‖ bellowed Kit, tearing his pistol from the holster. Wildly he shot, a strange look contorting his face.
Kit slid the pistol back into his holster. ―Extinguishers!‖
Instantly, several men dressed in fire retardant suits swarmed the saloon set, armed with massive fireextinguishers and tanks of water. They hurried to smother the flames that blazed atop the flammable gel that coated the piano, the bar, and majority of Kit‘s costume.
―Sorry. Sorry,‖ Kit groaned to the man who hurried on set.
He was a tall man with pale skin that had recently begun to wrinkle around the eyes and corners of the mouth.The blond hair, slicked back so it looked greasy, had begun to come loose. He was clothed entirely in black, save the silver-framed glasses perched on his pointed nose.
―Did that look like a dramatic ending to you, Fenner?‖ he roared. ―How many times have I told you? You‘ve got toread your script! Read it; learn it; love it; live it.‖ He punctuated each command with a wild shake of his head that nearly threw his thin self off balance.
―Make-up!‖ he screamed and looked wildly about the set.A small team of well-armed make-up artists scampered from out behind the cameras.
―You,‖ he snapped, poking a finger at the artist in the middle. He also motioned in the direction of the actor cast as Henry. ―Make Hiltz over there look less dead. We reshoot in ten. And someone get Kesten back down here!‖
Several of the interns, armed with bagels and coffee, scattered like cockroaches. One after the other, they scurriedup the carpeted staircase, a blur of elbows and headsets. The tall, graying man turned his back on the commotion as the interns retrieved the actress who played Kathleen. He turned his attention instead to a broad-shouldered, squared-chinned man who wore dark shade and an ear piece. He also wore a white T-shirt, labeled ‗Security.‘
―The cars have arrived, Mr. Fye.‖Mr. Fye‘s strained expression softened for a moment into a grimace that could almost, but couldn‘t quite, count as a smile. But as quickly as the strain had vanished, it returned.
The cameraman jumped when his name was called; immediately, he scrambled away from the vending machine,leaving the soda where it clattered to the bottom of the cubby. He snatched up the massive Panasonic VariCam and hurried to catch up with Mr. Fye, who headed straight for a pair of double doors.
―Make-up!‖ he commanded. A pair of make-up artists working on re-touching Hiltz dropped their brushes and flew to the older man‘s side.Dropping their immense, doctor-like bags at the toes of Mr. Fye‘s Italian dress shoes, they produced soft brushes, hair combs, and a pad of base make-up from hidden pockets and zippers. With precise movements, they patched holes in the crumbling layer of pale foundation and brushed flat the edges of his hair.
―Quiet on the set!‖Properly primped, Mr. Fye brushed the make-up artists away. Then to Gage, he ordered: ―Action!‖
As the portable camera began filming, Mr. Fye pushed open the double doors. Gray light spilled in on the studio floor, watering down the intensity of the florescent lights. There was a light fog that had collected on the roadway and crept over Studio 13‘s threshold, where it dissipated in the warm air. Up the driveway came a dark van with heavily tinted windows.
―Good evening, friends, and Happy Halloween. I‘m Sydney Fye, here at the Millhourst Saloon in Oregon where the only thing chillier than the beer is the ghost stories.‖ With that line, Sydney gave a tight-lipped smile at the camera.―To celebrate the holiday, my company, Meuse,‖ another smile, ―is bringing two paranormal investigation teams in. They will be locked in the saloon for seventy-two hours during which they will investigate the ghosts.
―Henry, Kathleen, and Kit: competing lovers driven to murder by matrimony, but bound to the earth by acrimony. Tonight, we are broadcasting footage of the investigation to you live. ―And here, the first paranormal investigation team is arriving.‖
Gage zoomed in past Sydney and focused on the nearing van. There was a driver sporting dark shades and one of the white ‗Security‘ T-shirts in the front seat. The road he maneuvered down was a thick slab of asphalt laid between white, brick buildings marked Studio 10, 11, and 12. On either side grew small shrubs, cut in the shape of a square, and orange lilies, frosted over by the frigid fall weather.The van‘s wheels crunched over orange and red leaves that had blown over from the orchard on the next lot over until they came to a stop several yards away from Studio 13.
Gage closed in tighter on the back door. Several more members of Security swarmed the vehicle. One pulled open the door; the others flanked either side.
―Morgan Skeates; Laurence Fisher,‖ Sydney announced. Off to the side, a small, mousy girl with thick-rimmed glasses recorded the names and time on Gage‘s camera on a pad of paper.
Gage zoomed in on the dark mouth of the door. From the dim lighting, two men clambered out. The first wasMorgan – a younger guy with frayed, black hair that looked like it‘d been recently combed with a handful of steel wool. He carried his weight around the middle – not that it dissuaded him from wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt with the name Entity Seekers, National ironed across the front.
Laurence was his partner.He had dark hair as well but kept it cut so close to the scalp that thinning patches looked oddly pink. He wore amatching ESN T-shirt and surveyed the set with a surprised, wide-eyed stare. Morgan popped down onto thesidewalk, freeing his hands from a bag of chips and soda as quickly as he could. Soon as he had, he brushed his orange-tinted fingers down the thighs of his jeans and gave the camera a wave. Laurence stumbled after, fumbling nervously with the edge of his ESN tee shirt.
Once their converse shoes and sandals hit Studio 13‘s cement, the first car sped away to make room for the second. They stood dumbly in the middle; the first security guard had to shove them out of the frame of Gage‘s camera and then return to his post at the second van‘s side door.
―John Fenner; Eilena Rydell.‖The van door was pulled open. For a moment, the two team members remained inside. Sydney‘s heart gave a little skip as he panicked, trying to think back to earlier this morning. Had he received a confirmation on Fenner and Rydell‘s arrival?
His nerves were spared. From the dimness emerged a thin, long leg dressed with gray tights and topped with a sleek stiletto.The heel of that shoe came down on the sidewalk with a sharp click. A matching stiletto followed, then the rest of Eilena Rydell.
She adjusted the belt that cinched her suit jacket at the waist; then shimmied the hem of her pencil skirt backdown over her knees. Behind Eilena an older looking man slid out. He was dressed equally as stunning in navy slacks and a loose button-up shirt. His hair was blond on the top, but graying around the ears.John surveyed the set with an aloof expression that made his forehead lightly crinkle; both of them strolled off to where the first team stood without bothering to acknowledge any cameras.
Sydney took his place back in the middle of the frame.―I‘d like to personally welcome both of our teams to the Millhourst Saloon. Shortly, they will be taken on a tour and shown the ‗hotspots‘ – locations in the building frequented by our ghosts. But first, let‘s learn a little more about our contestants.‖ The same girl with the notepad scribbled down the time on the camera again.
Sydney motioned for Gage to stop filming and, for emphasis, yelled: ―CUT!‖
Eilena and John relaxed, letting their shoulders sag and one knee go slack. Morgan produced a flattened bag ofcheese-covered crackers from the back pocket of his loose jeans. Shrugging, he peeled the plastic apart at the seam and tipped it to his mouth like a chute for the crumbs. Laurence continued to take in Eilana‘s features. But no one could relax entirely.
―Where‘s Kittle-Millhourst?‖ Sydney roared. ―I want him on set; now.‖―She‘s in the conference room,‖ Notepad Girl offered up in a timid voice. ―She and her husband are working with Detective Page. They were having trouble piecing together-‖
―On set; now,‖ he repeated through clenched teeth. Notepad Girl‘s face instantly blushed a deep, rosy shade underhis direct attention. But it was short-lived, as he quickly turned to every breathing creature in a ten foot radius of him and barked: ―Time is money, people! Let‘s get this moved inside – we‘ve got a tour to block!‖
―Mr. Fye?‖Everyone who had started for the double doors was brought back by this, from the security guard with the largest muscles. His face entirely indifferent and movements calculated, the guard nodded back at the road. A sleek, black car rolled steadily for the studio.
―Gage!‖ automatically commanded Sydney. Just as automatically, Gage lifted the camera back to his shoulder andhit record. ―Driver, this is a closed set,‖ he announced in his Boss Voice as he approached the passenger door. The van had rolled to the front of Studio 13 and now sat idling.
―A closed set,‖ he repeated. ―Do you hear me?‖The driver didn‘t appear, however, to be concerned with Mr. Fye‘s instructions.
―That won‘t be necessary,‖ a new voice said. ―Security: stand down, or be removed from the premises yourself.‖
All eyes and the camera lens swept to the double doors. In it sat a little old man, hunched over and settled in a wheel chair with a blanket tucked around his legs. ―Men: the door, please.‖
After an unsure glance was exchanged among security guards, one of the men shrugged. Two leapt forward out of line and flanked the side door of the blacked out van like they had the others. ―Gage. Turn the camera on me, if you will.‖ Willingly, Gage complied and zoomed back in on Mr. Fye Senior.―F-father,‖ Sydney stuttered, all the color except for a flush of red missing from his complexion. ―What is this?‖
―Ladies and gentleman,‖ Fye Senior announced into the camera with as strong a voice as his son‘s. ―The third paranormal investigation team.‖
He continued to yell on in the background – but the show moved on without him. The guards opened the sidedoor like they had for the others. Then, two more people – a young boy and an even younger girl – leapt out onto the cement and blinked in the gray light. ―Are you crazy?‖ Sydney gasped.
Fye Senior cut his eyes to his son, a sly smile tugging at the corners of his lips.―Now that you mention it, it seems that I have confused April Fool‘s Day for Halloween.‖ He nodded at the third team. ―Surprise.‖
Sydney, who stared down at the orange, well-crisped leaves that swarmed around his feet, furrowed his eyebrows and rolled his eyes. ―This is ludicrous,‖ he spat. ―You can‘t do this! I haven‘t approved a third team!‖
Fye Senior rolled his eyes as well. ―You may have taken me to court, young man. But this company is still mine.‖Closing his gnarled fingers around the edges of his wheel chair, Fye Senior rolled himself to the van‘s door.
―Jasmine and Gregory Hawksley,‖ he said with a quiet smile. ―Welcome to the Millhourst Saloon Investigation.‖
Jasmine, a tall, thinly built girl with dark, thick hair returned the smile. Her brother, Greg, was similarly built; he wore a plain, blue pullover and clapped his hand on Fye Senior‘s shoulder on their way past.
―Uh…team members…if you‘ll follow me through the double doors, then-‖ began Notepad Girl. As she spokeevery one began moving toward the double doors again; but at the sound of Sydney‘s voice barking another order, they for a second time froze in their steps.
―Scratch that! Everyone – back to where you were.‖ Then, to Jasmine and Greg: ―You two, back in the van.‖ And to the driver of the third vehicle: ―Take them back up to the top. Gage, I want you filming; Annabelle, make a note for the editor to splice the takes together.‖
Annabelle, or Notepad Girl, obeyed and scribbled down the note.
Sydney brushed a bit of spit from the corners of his mouth.―Action!‖ He flashed his smile at the camera. ―The mystery‘s only beginning, folks. Here‘s our last two players: Jasmine and Gregory… uh…‖
―SOMEONE GET ME A LINE! DRIVER, INVESTIGATORS… EVERYONE ELSE… BACK TO YOUR PLACES; GAGE: ACTION!‖
It was late. Most of the studio had closed up; most of the production team had dispersed; but in the very middle of the saloon set, where a single, low-hanging bulb swung, the team members had gathered around a circular table.―Morgan, here.‖ Her voice disrupted the quiet and echoed off the studio‘s high, metal ceiling. She set a chilled can of root beer at the edge of Morgan‘s plate, piled high with spicy Szechuan eggplant and spring rolls from the Lucky Lotus.
―Aaank ooo,‖ he grunted and sucked the rest of his Chow Mein into his mouth. Before swallowing, he snatched up the can in both soy-saucy hands, popped the top, and dumped half the syrupy contents in with the noodles. He swallowed the mouthful of quasi-soup and let out a large belch.
Eilena visibly cringed; the others just continued scraping the plastic forks against the inside of their takeout boxes quietly.
―So where is everybody from?‖Again, Jasmine‘s voice broke the quiet. She blinked in the dim light and took a small sip from her own root beer. Greg, who had settled into a wooden chair on her left, snuck a drink after she‘d set it back on the tabletop.
―Colorado,‖ Laurence answered first. Morgan nodded his head in agreement.
―Ah, man,‖ Morgan groaned, packing his latest mouthful into one cheek with his tongue. ―They‘ve got great cheese cake there.‖Eilena rolled her eyes at the bits of lettuce she extracted from an egg roll and washed down with a sip of water. ―So we‘ve heard.‖
―What about you two?‖―We‘re from right around the corner, actually.‖
Most everyone, except for Morgan, who looked to Eilena in the hopes she‘d have more to say, looked to the siblings. There were murmurs all around the table, too; some through mouthfuls of noodles; some through bits of lettuce; and one through a wad of pink bubble gum.―‗Around the corner‘?‖ Gage popped the bubble with his front teeth and came to stand at the edge of the table. Hewas dressed entirely in black and offered a thin, lopsided grin that showcased a bit of teeth and retainer. Without having to read it off the clipboard he held at his side, Gage announced: ―Jasmine, you‘re up first.‖
―Oh,‖ she said and set her plastic fork inside the empty takeout box. She smiled nervously at her brother and the rest of the teams; then slid the chair back from the table. ―Wish me luck.‖
―Luck,‖ Greg said and gave her forearm a bit of a squeeze as she stood. She slid the rest of her root beer in his direction.
Gage nodded his head in the direction of a blacked out booth. She followed, matching his log-legged saunter. ―So you‘re a local?‖ In the background, Greg picked up where Jasmine left off with the questions.
―All my life,‖ she answered. They wound down around the stairs of the bar set.―Watch your step,‖ he said and came to the edge of the wooden platform, raised a couple of inches off the studio‘s real cement floor. He fumbled for her hand, ended up grabbing her elbow, and more shoved than helped her off the edge.
―Sorry,‖ he mumbled. She could hear the nervous smile in his voice.―No worries.‖ A couple of strides later, she continued: ―You know, when I was little, I used to walk past the saloon every day on my way to school.‖ ―I didn‘t know there was a school around here.‖
Jasmine laughed. ―That‘s because there‘s not. Greg and I went to Kalavan.‖―What?‖ Gage laughed now, too. They‘d reached the booth; he pulled the door open and held it for Jasmine. ―It‘s true; it added an extra thirty minutes to the commute. Used to drive our mother nuts.‖ Gage followed Jasmine into the booth. The door swung shut behind them.
The interior had been painted dark gray; against one wall was tacked black canvas drapes that fell to the carpetedfloor in elegant swirls. In front of the backdrop was a stool. Tall lights with cylinder-shaped tops and dark panels that surrounded them like petals on a flower were aimed at the set-up.
―Finally!‖The exclamation came from Sydney, who sat in a plush arm chair. It was a piece of furniture brought down fromKathleen‘s bedroom set. At least five other crew members occupied silver, metal chairs clustered around Sydney‘s. They all examined Jasmine with wide eyes.
―We must start filming,‖ Sydney ordered; however, instead of leaping to his feet like the fervor in his voiceimplied, he waved his hand around, motioning for the crewmembers to do it for him. He leaned back in his chair and began barking out names and orders. ―Phoebe: wire! Austin: mic! And where‘s my script?!‖
The conversation between Gage and Jasmine was consumed by the burst of chaos. Four pairs of hands dove forJasmine at once; one pair tugged up the bottom of her hoodie; another pair clipped a battery back to the waist ofher jeans; the third and fourth pairs snaked the wire up the back of her T-shirt, out the top, and pinned the mic to a spot on the shirt collar just under her chin.
―Final Orbit? Is that your company?‖ A woman‘s face poked through the flurry of hands.
―Huh?‖ Jasmine followed the woman‘s eyes and the finger she wagged to the front of her T-shirt. ―Oh, no. That‘s a band.‖ ―I need a Meuse tee!‖ the woman hollered.
A second later, a black T-shirt was pitched into the disorder. The sleeves of her own jacket were yanked down herarms; it was then tossed to the corner. Over her head, all the pairs of hands jammed the dark shirt, labeled Meuse, with the gentleness of the demons that tormented St. Anthony. ―Good,‖ Sydney barked. ―Let‘s start rolling!‖
Any wiring that sprang loose in the commotion was stuffed back under Jasmine‘s shirt with cold fingers andsharp nails; she was steered to the stool, where she stumbled up the rungs and plopped onto the wooden seat.
―Here‘s how this is going to work,‖ Gage said. The camera was massive; it was larger than the one he‘d shuffled around during arrivals and concealed him from view. ―Mr. Fye is going to ask you some questions. Now, the audience isn‘t going to hear what he asks you; we‘ll only play your responses so they have to be able to stand alone. Understand?‖
Jasmine nodded and tried to sweep her dampened bangs out of the beads of sweat that formed along her hairline. ―Ready?‖The camera swung closer to her face, its joints and wires groaning with the movement, and stared at her with amassive, unblinking eye; the lens reflected her nervous expression back at her. The lights were turned on with a sharp click and she was flooded with white light. She nodded again.
Someone dashed out in front of her with a directors board, snapped it, and hollered: ―Take one!‖―Miss Hawksley: first question.‖ Mr. Fye‘s voice already seemed bored. ―How long have you been involved in the field of paranormal investigations?‖ She assumed the camera at some point had begun filming. ―Um, pretty much all my life.‖
The mic had barely picked up the last word before Sydney sighed audibly. On cue, Gage translated the noise into English.―Focus on repeating the question in your answer. Remember, they‘re going to stand on their own when we air.‖ ―Take two!‖ This from Mr. Fye; the directors board boy scampered back across the camera frame.
There was an awkward pause during which Jasmine waited for Mr. Fye to repeat the question; when he didn‘t, she cleared her throat, then – realizing the mic would‘ve picked it up – counted to three before repeating her answer. ―I‘ve been involved in paranormal investigations pretty much my entire life.‖ Every one took pauses in between addressing one another to keep Jasmine‘s answers clear.
From Gage: ―Tell me again about the school.‖ Beat. ―I used to walk past the saloon every day on my way to school.‖ Beat.―Let‘s try that line over again; only, this time, include that your school was actu–‖
―CUT!‖The entire room fell into a chastised silence; only the whir of the camera and the light hmmm of the lights remained.
―I hadn‘t realized, Gage, that the boss had promoted you to director. Oh, wait… That‘s because I haven‘t!‖ Mr. Fye roared. And, in case anyone in the recording booth had flat lined and missed that, he added: ―I am the boss; I am the director!‖
His usually gray complexion burned pink.―Very well, then.‖ His voice was quavering and forcefully calm. ―Next question.‖ ―Take three!‖ ―Just how exactly did you come to be… involved in the competition?‖ Beat.
―There was a competition held in Millhourst. My brother and I submitted our application; we were admitted to the competition as the third, local team.‖ Beat. ―Next question.‖
Near midnight, Jasmine‘s interview was complete; she was given a bottle of water and three sets of instructions.The first was to go find a cot in the commons and settle in for the night – a caravan was coming to take the entireproduction team to the saloon at five the next morning; the second was to send Greg for his interview on her way by. And the third was to keep the mic on; the competition had officially begun; from that moment on, everything would be recorded.
―Hi,‖ Jasmine croaked and folded her legs under her. The cot squeaked with the movement. She could hear similar squeaks and groans of other cots as the rest of the crewmembers rose.
―Hi.‖Greg, still lying face-down in his cot, stuck one arm out from under the single sheet each person had been provided.
―What‘s for breakfast?‖ ―Dunno.‖For a second or two, the siblings sat with their feet pulled up off the floor, their eyes still closed. But then: ―Rise and shine!‖
―G’murrnn.‖ Greg felt around the cold, cement floor blindly until his fingers brushed his sweat shirt. With a gaping- mouth yawn, he sat up. Eyes still closed, he pulled the sweat shirt over his head, covering up his own Meuse tee. ―Caravan‘s outside,‖ Gage announced. He was already dressed in what was becoming his usual black T-shirt and slacks and had his hair combed back.―You‘re a morning person,‖ Jasmine observed in a flat voice. She, too, fished her hoodie out of a pile under the edge of her cot.
―Production crew gets waken up first.‖ He gave the end of Greg‘s cot a bit of a nudge. ―Dohhhn,‖ Greg grumbled and pulled the hood down over his eyes.
―I‘ve got to deliver the wake-up call to the actors,‖ he announced, glancing briefly at the neon numbers that flashed on the face of his digital watch. ―Get your brother up, will you? Caravan‘s leaving at six.‖ ―Yep,‖ Jasmine mumbled.
Gage started in the direction of the more private cots, secluded from the rest by sheets of plywood that had been nailed up around them. His hand poised at the canvas curtain that served as the entrance to these cubicles, he turned back. ―Oh. And it‘s crullers and congee for breakfast.‖ Jasmine gave him a small wave of acknowledgement.
―Crullers and congee?‖ Greg repeated from under the sheet. ―Sounds like the name of a bug.‖ Jasmine laughed and slipped her stocking feet into her unlaced sneakers.
―I‘ll make sure to make yours a double serving.‖
A couple of bowls of congee and many Styrofoam cups of bad coffee later, the teams and the rest of production crewwas assembled on the cement drive of Studio 13. As promised, an entire fleet of large vans, had arrived with sunrise. The person in charge of getting everyone and every piece of equipment into vans was a small woman with her hair was piled high on top of her head and she darted from cluster to cluster of crewmembers, checking people off theattendance list and organizing ―travel buddies.‖ As she took a final account of all present crewmembers, and shooed asmall section of them back inside to wrap up filming with the actor, she climbed onto a wooden bench. Her high-piled hair and pointy nose now poked up a foot higher than all the others.
―Van six…‖ She pointed with her pencil toward the van idling in the back of the line. ―…With the filming equipment, I want Jamie, Phoebe, and Michael. In van five, with audio equipment, I want Lisa and Harvey.‖ On and on she went, rattling off the names of production assistants, cameramen, audio assistants, tech guys, drivers, make-up artists, wardrobe specialists, and the guy who ordered all the food from Lucky Lotus until she‘d made her way up the line of vans.―And in the caravan, I want all investigation teams. Riding with them will be Gage, Marcus, Cynthia, Julia, Kennedy, and myself.‖ She exhaled loudly. ―Any questions? No? Good.‖
It took almost as long to get all the people loaded into the right vans as it did to get them up, ready, outside, and run through all the roll and assignment lists. By six forty-five, however, all had been accomplished. There were three camera operators assigned to the caravan: Cynthia (assigned to Eilena and John‘s team), Marcus (for Morgan and Laurence), and Gage, who was left to Jasmine and Greg. The official orders from Mr. Fye – or, at least how Martha, the organizer of the morning who now rode shotgun inthe caravan, reported them – were to keep all cameras rolling at all times. Following these orders, all three operatorshad started up their cameras as Kennedy put the caravan into drive and started out of the gates of Studio 13 and sat back for the duration of the ride to the saloon.
Initially, Jasmine and Greg took to commiserating over their brutal individual interviews in quiet voices. When Gage zoomed in on their low-bent heads and one of the other investigators tried to interrupt, the topic wasquickly dropped. There were a few more niceties exchanged after that – How long have you guys been hunting ghosts? What was the best case you ever worked on? But after a while, everyone grew bored of the small talk.
Martha drifted off, her wild hair pressed against the cold window. Greg followed suit, hooking his fingers underthe edge of his hood and pulling it down over his eyes to block out the gray and orange light of morning. Johnplugged into an iPod; Eilena applied some make-up, flipped through a magazine on fitness, then reapplied more make-up while Laurence watched.
They stopped once at a drive-thru for French fries – and a salad for Eilena and two burgers for Morgan – but jumped right back onto the main road. Everyone resumed their silence. ―Five or seven?‖ Gage glanced up from his shoes. ―Huh?‖ ―Five or seven?‖
They were at a red light. Quickly, Jasmine undid her seatbelt. She climbed over the legs of Greg, extended intothe aisle, and plopped down into the vacant seat next to Gage. Glancing cautiously at Martha, who stirred but didn‘t wake, she quickly fastened herself into this seat and produced a deck of cards from her coat pocket.
He gave her that lopsided smile. ―Nine.‖―Ooh, nine,‖ she repeated dramatically and set to separating eighteen cards into two piles. ―What are we playing?‖ They both scooped a pile of cards up from the caravan‘s seat and inspected the hand.
―Go Fish.‖ He hummed aloud thoughtfully; set a pair of fives to the side. ―Do you have an eight?‖ Dramatically, Jasmine took a deep breath. ―…Go fish.‖He frowned as took a card off the draw pile and added it to his hand. ―Your turn.‖ He matched this new card to another one, a queen, and added it to the pair of fives. ―But I‘ll have you know I dominate at this game.‖
―I will have you know that when I was eight, I won the Millhourst Gold Fish Championships. Do you have a jack?‖ ―They have that?‖ He shuffled through his cards. ―Go fish.‖ Jasmine drew from the pile and laid down a match. ―No. Your turn.‖
―Cameras! I want cameras!‖As Martha jolted awake, screeching orders as she turned off her cell phone alarm, everyone else jumped. Playingcards, magazines, lipstick, burger wrappers – everything was cast aside. John tore his earphones off; Greg sat up straight and wiped the sleep from his eyes. All three operators snatched the cameras up off the seats; all before Martha could see and panic. The cameras had, after all, been rolling the entire time.
So what if all they captured was an hour and a half of cup holders, sneakers, and the floor? Martha‘s limbs flew about wildly as she righted herself in her own seat and turned to survey her passengers.―Everyone‘s enjoying the trip, I hope?‖ she asked in a falsely sweet voice. She stroked the fraying curls that swung at either side of her oblong face and flashed a wide, yellow-toothed smile at the eyes and lenses trained in herdirection. There were mumbles of half-hearted agreement all around. ―Just wonderful. We will be arriving at the Millhourst Saloon shortly, boys and girls. Look alive – there are ghosts to investigate!‖
She giggled sharply. ―Do you get it? I said ‗look alive‘… and ‗ghosts‘… see, it‘s a pun, my sweets, because, well, ghosts are dead and, well…‖ Gage grumbled and swung his camera to focus on Jasmine. ―Jasmine Hawksley!‖ ―Gage .‖
―You are about to arrive on-location at the Millhourst Saloon. What do you have to say about that?‖ She furrowed her eyebrows together and allowed for a long pause. ―…I can‘t wait to get out of this car.‖ ―Now, now; enough of that silly play stuffs,‖ lectured Martha from the front seat. ―Pay close attention. Cameracrew: out of the caravan first. Audio – before you exit, I want a mic check; then I want you out of the frame as we begin shooting. Go and help the other vans unpack. Investigators! Do you have your scripts? Yes? Good.‖
Jasmine turned back to face the front; she stuck her hand into the backpack at her feet and dug out the single, typed sheet.The corners were folded and the paper was wrinkled. She‘d highlighted her lines and instructions and doodled little ghosts all over the rest.Ext. Millhourst Saloon – Day, the first line said. Below that were instructions detailing what order each investigator was to enter; Jasmine and Greg last. They were to shake hands with the owner of the saloon, who would welcome them to the building – in case the viewers forgot in the course of five minutes where the teams were headed. Jasmine folded the paper into quarters; stuffed it into her jeans pocket.
―We‘re rolling in 3…2…1…Action!‖Two cameraman were outside the caravan; one inside. A team at a time, the investigators climbed out into the chilled air. A production assistant stood off to one side, a black garbage bag in her hands. From the bag she dumped orange and red crisped leaves; someone to her left manned the fan that blew them softly across the investigators‘ path.
The owner of the saloon was a petite woman with crimson hair that draped over her shoulder in a long, loosebraid. She wrapped herself in a warm, autumn sweater and stood in front of the front doors – painted to look like the batwing doors of an old western saloon – with her husband, a young man with curly hair.
Angling their faces toward the camera lenses, the owners shook all of the investigators‘ extended hands. ―Mr. and Mrs. Kittle-Millhourst,‖ John, at the front of the group, greeted. ―Good morning. Welcome to the Millhourst saloon.‖ ―Thank you.‖ This was mumbled by all the team members.
―We‘re so glad you could be here,‖ Mrs. Kittle-Millhourst mused with a polite smile. ―It‘s or pleasure.‖ This from John. ―Why don‘t you give us a little history about the saloon?‖Mr. Fye, who had apparently been shuttled from his hotel suite to the set, ordered for cameras one and three to cut to Mrs. Kittle-Millhourst. They did; she was directed to resume with her lines.
―In 1859, Kit Millhourst traveled by covered-wagon to Oregon territory. He settled in Millhourst, where, a year later, he established the saloon. It functioned as a bar and music hall until, in 1861, the woman called Kathleen came to town. ―Over the course of the year, the saloon became of ill-repute; it was rumored to be a brothel. Henry was the sheriff of Millhourst; he fell in love with Kathleen. But supposedly, Kit allowed her and her girls to work thesaloon in exchange for her service. Halloween, 1861, Kathleen and Henry were planning to elope. They‘d stayedlate in the saloon to finish preparing for the autumn festival. Kit came in; found the two together. And in a fit of rage, the three murdered one another.
―The saloon burned down. It was rebuilt by a descendent of the Millhoursts. In the years following, the soileddoves abandoned the saloon. But it‘s a popular opinion that Kit, Henry, and Kathleen stuck around. And here we are today.‖It took three takes for the owner to get the monologue right. On the third take, the cameras panned to the right and focused on the owner‘s husband.
―How ‗bout a tour of the place?‖ he asked, finally getting to deliver his only line.
―Sure,‖ John answered as casually as a rehearsed line could be. Then, as camera two cut to a wider frame, the investigators trooped inside as Mr. Kittle-Millhourst held open the door.
Filming resumed in the entrance. ―This is the bar,‖ Mrs. Kittle-Millhourst announced.―And what sort of paranormal reports do you have here?‖John prompted.
―There have been reports of Kit‘s ghost manifesting behind and around the bar; bottles falling off the shelves; drinks flying down the bar.‖ ―And around the corner is the staircase, where Henry is seen.‖ Contemplative and interested expressions crossed all of the investigators‘ faces at just the right moment. Thenthe boom mic was lifted away from the space around the owners, boxes were shuffled off to other rooms, and the actors and production crew moved the tour upstairs.
―This is the room where we get the most reports. Room five is where Kathleen was supposedly murdered.‖ Mrs. Kittle-Millhourst took a breath. She creased her eyebrows slightly as she struggled to remember a line. ―Hercharred remains were found here in the bathtub. It‘s thought that after the scuffle downstairs, Kit chased Kathleen up here; she tried to hide, locking herself in the bathroom. But Kit followed and she was shot.‖
―Thank you for the tour. Sounds like we have a lot of hot spots to investigate,‖ Eilena piped up. John nodded his head in agreement. ―Exactly,‖ he added. ―We look forward to investigating.‖
Jasmine peeled the plastic-wrap away from the edges of her sandwich and nibbled at the corner of the crust.
―Everybody listen up,‖ Mr. Fye boomed in his large voice. He paced the length of the wooden dance floor, theheels of his freshly shined shoes making a soft tapping sound with every step. Set behind him was a bowl of fresh salad, a bottle of sparkling water, and a single dinner roll.
Everyone else, assigned to a sea of folding chairs that spread out before Mr. Fye, cradled dry sandwiches, greasy potato chips, and the left over Chow Mein in their hands and plates. They munched quietly on the dry foods.
―In three hours, we will be ready for filming. At that time, I want team one – Eilena and John– and their cameraman to report to the bar area. You will be conducting the first investigation. I want cameras and micsrolling at all times. Your investigation ends at eleven. Team two – Morgan and Laurence – report to the stairwell with your cameraman. Your investigation will run from eleven fifteen to two fifteen.‖ Mr. Fye paused to take a sip from the bottle of water; then turned his narrow gaze on the third team.
―Jasmine, Greg, and Gage will investigate from two thirty to five thirty. You‘ve got the dance floor.‖ He tookanother short pause during which the first two teams tried not to snicker and the third team tried not to grumble. Jasmine and Greg exchanged an eye roll at the grim promise of their area of investigation. Mr. Fye swept his glare over the entire audience again. ―I want everyone to report back here at six.‖ Another eye roll at the lack of promise for sleep.
―Tech reviewers will be working during the other investigations so we can gather our evidence as quickly aspossible. Tomorrow is Halloween. Footage of the final investigation, which will be completed in room 5 by thewinning team and myself…‖ He drew the last word out with a proud smile. ―Footage of this investigation, from ten to one, will be broadcasted live to our viewers. Any questions?‖ No one spoke up; whether it was because all their mouths were preoccupied with dry bits of sandwich was unclear.
―Good.‖ He motioned for Martha. She scurried forward, her high heels scratching against the wooden floor. In her nervous fingers she clutched a handful of skeleton keys. ―On to room assignments, then.‖
―I just don‘t understand,‖ Jasmine huffed as she threw her suitcase onto the end of the bed. The mattress gaveway and sank into the brass frame another inch as Gage and Greg dumped their bags next to hers. ―Why would Fye put us in room five?‖
―Freak us out; test our dedication to the competition,‖ Greg suggested. ―Or they ran out of places to put all the cots.‖ Gage eyed the thin mattresses leaned against the wall with agrimace. Strung across them were the scratchy blankets transported from Studio 13. Between the brass bed andthe wall was one of the cot frames; on the other side of the bed, near the door to the bathroom, was the second one.
―This room could be a peace offering for all I care. I‘m not staying in Kathleen‘s bed.‖Jasmine grabbed for one of the mattresses and claimed the cot furthest from the bathroom. Greg squished the mattress of the brass bed with both hands; then felt the soft, heavy blanket piled on top. ―I‘ll take it,‖ he shrugged. ―Fine by me.‖
Gage grabbed up the other mattress and started making up his own cot. ―But I‘m not using that bathroom,‖ Greg said. ―Me either,‖ Gage and Jasmine answered in unison.
His eyes flew open; they widened; they tried to take in room five. But all he saw was darkness. There it was again: the murmur of a soft, female voice.
Kathleen? And a man‘s. Kit? Henry?His skin scrawled with nervousness and he was quickly too aware of the room, the bathroom door, and the bed he laid in. He half expected the voices to float closer; drift into the room.
Residual haunting, his mind shouted automatically. He listened to the female voice. He wondered if it belonged to Kathleen and if, a hundred years ago, this is what a night in the saloon would have sounded like.Residual haunting, his nerves echoed. For a moment, he thought the bedroom door would come rattling open to reveal Kit and Kathleen‘s apparitions. Some part of Greg believed the apparitions would replay their deaths, unaware of the warm bodies that wandered the saloon‘s halls. Into the bathroom they would chase; then, with the evocative ringing of a gunshot, the ghost would be murdered again and again.
―Gage!‖ he hissed, wary of a feminine giggle that came from outside the bedroom door. ―Gage!‖ he repeated. He tore the only pillow out from under his head and threw it at Gage‘s cot. ―Get your camera,‖ he ordered.
―Why? What‘s happening?‖ Jasmine asked automatically as she shot up off her cot.
Gage sat up, snatched the camera up from the floor and trained it on Greg. ―Listen,‖ Greg whispered.One, two, ten seconds of silence passed. Someone shifted. A cot squeaked. Someone else yawned. Then they heard it: a soft giggle and the sound of a door closing.
―Go!‖ Jasmine hissed. She grabbed the digital recorder from her backpack and she and her brother tore across thebeds. Gage, his camera held out before him, followed more gracefully. With the camera focused on the action, they pulled the bedroom door open and slipped out into the hall.
Jasmine cleared her throat and pressed the record button.―Kathleen?‖ She cleared her throat again. ―If Kathleen, or any other ghost, is here… This is Greg, my brother. My name is Jasmine. And this is Gage.‖ Step by nervous step, they moved together toward the stairs.
―What is your name?‖ Jasmine paused, allotting a few seconds for any possible answer. ―How long have you been here?‖ Pause. ―Gage is holding a device called a camera. It–‖ ―We know what a camera is.‖
Gage turned the white light of the camera toward the end of the hall. They slowly released the breaths they each held as the pasty faces of John and Eilena came into focus.
Jasmine‘s face remained set in a serious expression. ―We just thought… Never mind,‖ Greg sighed. ―Come on, guys. Let‘s go back to bed.‖―Wait a second.‖ Jasmine took a step forward. The boys, who had already begun retreating to room five, glanced back over their shoulders with equally exhausted expressions. Gage held the camera in her direction; the adrenalin gone, Greg wavered sleepily back and forth.
―How long have you been out here?‖ she asked. John shrugged. ―Few minutes. Why?‖ ―Were you talking and laughing?‖ ―Sure,‖ Eilena shrugged. ―Why?‖
―We could hear it from our room. We thought we were hearing one of the ghosts or something.‖―The laughter of a ghost,‖ John mused, frowning as he thought to himself. ―That sounds interesting. I‘ll pass it on to Fye.‖
Jasmine‘s neutral expression gave way to a frown of her own. ―Wait, what–‖―We‘ve got to get downstairs,‖ John said by way of excusing his team. ―Investigation starts in five.‖
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep. In unison, Jasmine, Greg, and Gage groaned and rolled over in their beds. Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep—Someone reached for the glowing cell phone and squeezed the side button; the alarm turned off.
―What time is it?‖ one of the boys mumbled.The cell phone was flipped open; it illuminated room five. ―Two fifteen.‖
Gage and Jasmine could barely hear Greg mumbled, ―Good. We have more time to sleep‖ over the sound of him rolling over in bed.
―Forget it,‖ Jasmine said and climbed out from under her blanket. She dug around for her clothes. ―Now, keep the lights off and everyone get dressed. Gage, could you grab the equipment duffel? This is what we came for.‖
―Team three: Greg, Gage, and Jasmine. Two-thirty in the morning. Dance floor.‖When she finished speaking into the digital recorder, she set it on the edge of one of the tables.
―Let‘s start by getting a base EMF reading for the room,‖ Greg suggested. He dug the electromagnetic fielddetector out of the duffel and began pacing the room. All the while, he read out the numbers that blinked on the plastic box‘s screen. ―Zero… Point one… Point one… Zero… Zero…‖ he read out.
Greg clicked the flashlight off and stepped toward the camera.―The base EMF reading for the dance floor is basically zero. That‘s great; spirits are said to emit EMF. So if any show up, we‘ll know because our meter will pick up a spike in electromagnetic fields.‖
―I‘m getting the same thing for temperature. The base is 65 degrees Fahrenheit.‖ Jasmine retired the thermometer to the equipment duffel and came to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Greg. Gage zoomed out to include both of them in the frame.―It‘s held by some leading paranormal theorists that in order for a spirit to manifest, they have to take in energy,‖ Jasmine explained.
―This can be accomplished in one of two ways. The first: a spirit can draw energy from our electronics,‖ Greg added. ―The second: from the air around us. If anything manifests the air will get colder.‖ ―Which our thermometer will catch.‖ ―Great,‖ Jasmine said. ―Why don‘t we try some EVP work?‖
As Jasmine and Greg pulled out chairs at the table where the digital record was and sat down, they explainedEVP‘s. The acronym stood for electronic voice phenomena and was defined as any disembodied voice caught on the digital recorder.―My name is Greg,‖ he began. ―This is my sister, Jasmine, and our cameraman, Gage. Is there anybody with us in this room?‖ They waited for any response that may come.
―What is your name?‖ Jasmine asked. Pause. ―What are you doing here?‖ Another pause.
―Do you know what year it is?‖ Greg asked. ―Do you know there was a fire? The saloon burned down one hundred and fifty years ago.‖
Only a split-second passed before Jasmine jumped up from her chair. ―Something just touched me,‖ she gasped. ―What?‖ ―I felt something brush my thigh.‖
―Did you just touch Jasmine on the leg?‖ Greg asked as Jasmine ducked to glance under the table.―There‘s nothing there,‖ she announced. She and Greg were sitting opposite one another, in the only two chairs at the table. There was no table cloth that could‘ve brushed against her. ―Don‘t sit back down,‖ Greg instructed. ―See if it happens again.‖
Jasmine nodded and moved to the middle of the dance floor.―What I have here is a flashlight,‖ Greg explained as he set it on the table. ―If you touch the back like this, it‘ll turn on. See?‖ he asked as he demonstrated it. The thin beam lit up a sliver of the table. ―Can you turn the flashlight on for me, please?‖
Everyone waited, their breaths short and eager. Nothing happened. ―Jas, put a mini DV on the flashlight,‖ Greg said.She took the miniature camcorder that Gage handed her, focused the lens on the black flashlight, and hit record. ―It‘s kind of like a candle,‖ she explained. ―Or a lantern. Can–‖
The flashlight turned on.―That‘s awesome,‖ Greg breathed and then, more loudly to whatever (or whoever) had turned it on, added: ―Thank you.‖ ―Can you turn it off for us, please?‖
The flashlight flickered. A second later, it turned off and the room returned to darkness. Jasmine‘s skin crawled and adrenalin swam through her veins. ―Thank you.‖ Greg and Jasmine exchanged grins.
―We‘d like to ask you some questions – yes or no questions, please. I‘d like for you to turn the flashlight on or off if the answer is yes. If the answer is no, don‘t do anything. Do you understand?‖ One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four…
―Thank you. Is your name Kathleen?‖ Jasmine asked. Nothing. ―Is your name Henry?‖ Nothing.
Greg swallowed, his throat dry, and his heart fluttered. ―Is it Kit?‖ he asked. Flashlight on. ―Do you think it‘s 1861?‖ Nothing.Jasmine and Greg exchanged another excited glance. Even Gage was drawn in by the communication and so the conversation continued for another minute and a half. ―Are there other ghosts here?‖ Light off. ―Are Kathleen and Henry still in the saloon?‖
Light on. ―Did you love her?‖ Light off.―Were you mad that Henry was going to marry her?‖ Light on. ―Are you trying to move on?‖ Nothing. ―Did you kill them?‖
―Guys, my camera‘s battery just—‖ Gage began, but was interrupted.
The flashlight clattered to the floor; the light fizzled out. The room was filled with the sound of a soft female giggle.
―Grab a mini DV,‖ Jasmine whispered to Gage. A second later, the laughter died. ―Do you hear that?‖ Jasmine asked. ―What? More laughter?‖―No. Silence.‖ Slowly, she sat back down in her chair.
―Camera‘s back up,‖ Gage announced. He exchanged the mini DV for his larger camera and turned back to the third team. Greg stared into the camera‘s lens.―It‘s gotten really quiet in here,‖ he said. ―After a flurry of activity, it‘s completely calm. I‘d be surprised if we see much of anything else tonight.‖
―I know I was right there; I just still don‘t believe it!‖
Jasmine flew into the room, flipping the light switch on as she came. She clamored over Kathleen‘s bed and found her own cot. Folding her legs up under her, she covered her face with both hands and laughed. ―That was the best footage we‘ve ever got, Greg; I mean ever.‖
Greg entered, a silly smile plastered over his face. He stood by the edge of the bed and pulled his sweatshirt off over his head. He threw it to the side and stretched out over the bed but, for once, didn‘t start nodding off. ―I know,‖ he mused. ―I was there.‖
There was a large amount of bumping and thumping on the outside wall. Gage appeared in the doorway a few seconds later, dragging the duffel after him. He dropped it a few feet inside the door.―That was great,‖ he agreed and glanced at his watch. ―Listen, it‘s going on six. Why don‘t you guys try to catch some sleep? I‘ll bring the tapes down to review. Fye will want you up in a few hours anyway.‖
―You sure? You‘ve been up just as long as we have,‖ Jasmine said, though she was already pulling the blanket out from under her and slipping her feet beneath it. ―Sure. I heard there was an espresso machine in the employee lounge.‖
Before Gage had gathered all the tapes and slipped back downstairs, the Hawksley siblings were already snoring.
Everyone was back in their folding chairs, gathered in a warm crowd of bodies. They gnawed at bits of bagel and cold scrambled eggs for breakfast; some swallowed mouthfuls of milk that tasted like the cardboard carton they were served in. And they all waited excitedly to hear Mr. Fye announce the winner. As he came into the room, production crewmembers cheered; cameramen adjusted the focus on their cameras; investigators waited with polite smiles.
―Ladies and gentleman, I‘m glad to announce that all the film and all the audio tapes from last night have beenreviewed.‖ The applause came from everyone in the audience now. ―And, after careful consideration, it has been decided. The winner of the 2011 Meuse Halloween Investigation Competition is…‖ He drew in a dramatic breath.
―…team number one: John Fenner and Eilena Rydell!‖
For a split second, she forgot to clap; then, along with the rest of the crowd, her hands automatically slapped together as team one stood up from their chairs. Mr. Fye beckoned for them to come alongside him.
―Tonight, John and Eilena will be joining me in the investigation of room five.‖ He turned his stare, significantly colder, toward the third team. ―I want you to vacate the room by noon. You may move your cots into the hall.‖
Jasmine sank into the back of her plastic chair. Next to her, Gage grunted and folded his arms across his chest.
―The episode airs tonight. After that, you are all free to go.‖ Mr. Fye waved even his winning team out of his spotlight and then, with a flourish of his long, dark coat, bellowed: ―Happy Halloween!‖ And with that, he exited.
Excuse me!‖ she called more loudly over the noise of the crowd that swarmed the second story of the saloon. ―Yes?‖ Mr. Fye hissed as he turned to regard her with an inconvenienced glare.
―Did you review the tapes, Mr. Fye?‖He brushed his suede coat sleeve free of her grimy touch and tilted his head back so he could look farther down his thin nose at her. ―Just what are you insinuating, Miss Hawksley?‖
―I just mean… Unless the first team had a tea party with Kathleen… Did you see some of the stuff that we got?‖ She wrung her hands as she spoke, both excited and nervous. ―It was by far the most impressive footage of my entire paranormal career…‖―Miss Hawksley, your career can be reduced to a single-showing of Casper the Ghost and a Nancy Drew chapterbook. You were not chosen for the competition; you won a raffle organized by my senile father.‖ He turned away as if to leave. ―Besides, aside from some faint laughter, the tapes were blank. Far from impressive.‖
―GAGE!‖The wooden door clattered against the wall paper as Jasmine came storming through.
The small bedroom was crowded by crew members in Meuse T-shirts. They moved around furniture, taped wires along floorboards, propped cameras against paintings. Gage wrestled with dismantling his bed frame to have it moved into the hall. Greg‘s bed had already been folded together and now sat against the balcony rail, a pile of metal, springs, and canvas.
―Gage,‖ she repeated again, but more quietly, as her yelling warranted strange looks and glares from the rooms other occupants. ―You‘ll never guess what I just heard about the footage for our team.‖ He glanced back at her, but continued fumbling with the bed frame. ―What‘s that?‖ he mumbled.
―You turned in a blank tape?‖ He quit fussing with the cot.―It was probably just an error.‖
―Then I‘ll go ask them to re-review the evidence.‖ ―An error with the machines. The cameras could‘ve eaten the tapes. For all we know, all of the footage could‘ve been deleted.‖―For all we know?!‖ she echoed. ―For all we know, Gage, you could have turned in a blank tape! That was legitimate footage; that is the stuff that‘s going to help us resolve what happened here a hundred years ago.‖
He straightened up and stared at his converse for a few seconds. ―Come on,‖ he finally said. He strode out of bedroom five; Jasmine followed at his heels.
―Put these on.‖She complied, stuffing the ear buds inside her ears. Gage leaned over the table; she listened to him click around on the desktop. He loaded several audio files. ―You want to hear what you got?‖ Jasmine nodded her head. He clicked ‗play‘ on the first audio file. Immediately, she was brought back to last night‘s investigation.
―What?‖ Greg’s voice asked. ―I felt something brush my thigh.‖ There was the scraping of chair legs and some shuffling. ―Did you just touch Jasmine on the leg?‖ Greg asked.Jasmine listened to her own voice say ―there‘s nothing there‖; in the same instant, she listened to a deep, male voice say something.
―Did you hear that?‖ Gage asked. Jasmine shook her head again; he loaded the second audio file. ―Here‘s that piece of audio isolated and cleaned up.‖ ―Did you just touch Jasmine on the leg?‖ ―There‘s nothing here,‖ and over the top of that: ―Yes.‖ Jasmine ripped the ear buds out.
―I don‘t recognize that voice,‖ she said quickly, her words tumbling over one another. ―That‘s not the voice ofanyone who was in that investigation room.‖ Her eyes darted around the room and her eyebrows furrowed as she thought. ―Do you think it was Kit?‖ ―Or Henry. Here: listen to the next one.‖ Jasmine stuffed the ear buds back in.
―Are you trying to move on?‖ There was silence and the soft buzz of static. ―Did you kill them?‖ Almost immediately after this was asked, Gage interrupted: ―Guys, my camera’s battery just—‖The audio was interrupted by the magnified sound of the flashlight falling to the floor. Jasmine cringed and kept herself from tearing the ear buds out again.
As the thunder of the falling flashlight settled, she could hear the tail end of another male voice: ―Burned.‖ Jasmine shivered.―That‘s great,‖ she whispered. ―Why wouldn‘t you turn that in to Mr. Fye? Obviously, with those kinds of EVP‘s, and that flashlight sequence…‖ ―There‘s one more.‖
Gage clicked play on the last of the audio files. A second later, a soft, feminine giggle filled Jasmine‘s head. ―Recognize that?‖ ―Sure,‖ she shrugged. ―That‘s the laughter we caught right after the flashlight fell.‖ ―No. This is that laughter,‖ he said and replayed the clip with the male saying ‗burned.‘ ―So you edited it out; spliced it; or something. That still doesn‘t mean anything.‖
―Jasmine, this isn‘t the audio from the investigation.‖ Gage sighed and closed the lid of the laptop. ―Do you remember last night, before the investigation? We all ran into the hall because we thought we heard voices and laughter and we thought it was Kathleen. You told John, and he said…‖―He said it was an interesting point; that he‘d have to bring it up with Mr. Fye.‖ Her eyebrows scrunched together again. He took a deep breath. ―They‘re faking the data.‖ Jasmine sighed. ―Then all the stuff we got last night…‖
―That was all real. Minus the laughter,‖ Gage reassured. ―The entire competition is rigged. John and Eilena were always meant to come out on top; the show was scripted like that. Morgan and Laurence were hired on to do thedirty work. It‘s a closed set; they‘re the ones setting up the supposed ‗evidence.‘ Why else do you think Fye was so mad when his father sprung a third team on him? Why else do you think he gave you the dance floor to investigate? There was never any script for you.‖ Gage took a deep breath.
―Look, I‘m sorry. I‘ve suspected Fye of faking data for a long time – since he took over his father‘s company,actually. But there‘s no way to stop it; the least I could do was reserve the evidence you found for you and Gregand turn in tapes with only the planted evidence on them. I just thought you‘d want to keep Fye‘s paws off ―the best footage you‘ve ever got, ever.‖ Jasmine couldn‘t help but smile.
―You‘re right about one thing: I do want to keep him away from it,‖ she said. ―But there is something we can do about his cheating. Come on. I have an idea.‖
―My name’s Sydney Fye and these two are John and Eilena.‖Jasmine stood with her arms folded and watched the green images of the investigators on the monitor. Greg sat at the chair in front of the set-up, his fingers poised and ready over a small lever labeled Kathleen – 6. ―Is there anyone here with us?‖ There was a small knock; the three investigators feigned surprise.
Right on cue, Jasmine thought bitterly, then turned to Gage and ordered: ―Grab your camera; get ready to start rolling.‖―Was that you who made that knock?‖ John asked. ―On the count of three, I want you to knock again so I know it’s you. One… two… three.‖ The knock came again the second John had quit talking. More fake excitement. Mr. Fye turned to face the camera in room five directly.
―We’re hearing a lot of knocks,‖ he narrated. ―They’re happening on cue; it’s a definite possibility that one of the spirits is in this room with us right now.‖―Please,‖ Jasmine sighed. Still rolling her eyes at Fye‘s latest attempt at mock-drama, she yelled to the production grew in the hall: ―Places, everyone; we are taking Mister Fye down in five… four… three… two…‖ Gage hit record on the camera. Immediately, the image of Jasmine and Greg, who had turned his chair around, flooded the monitors.
―We interrupt the investigation to bring you an important message,‖ Jasmine announced with a half-smile, half- grimace and a tone of voice that matched.―It‘s come to the attention of, well, absolutely everyone here at the Millhourst Saloon that you‘ve haven‘t been getting the whole story. Don‘t worry: neither have we.‖ ―See, Sydney Fye‘s a liar.‖ Jasmine faked a smile then, bluntly, added: ―All the ‗evidence‘ has been faked.‖
―Observe,‖ Greg continued and with a cheesy smile turned to the lever. One of the monitors switched back to show the investigation that continued, oblivious to what was going on onthe other side of the door. Greg pulled down on the Kathleen-6 lever and instantly the bedroom was filled with the soft giggle of the ―ghost.‖―What the--‖ Fye started, but cut himself short. He scrambled for some sort of a comment and John asked if Kathleen was with them; but their nervous expressions shone brighter
―There are ghosts here,‖ Jasmine promised. ―We spoke with them. During our investigation. But you didn‘t getshown any of that footage because Fye was trying to create an illusion. Kit didn‘t murder Kathleen in a fit of rage regarding her marriage to Henry. She was the illegitimate daughter of William Millhourst, the founder of this town; Kit and Kathleen were half-siblings.‖ ―Fye didn‘t care to consult the same records that we did,‖ Greg said.
―Or even ask the owners the real story,‖ she interjected. ―Fye doesn‘t care about investigating the saloon; he doesn‘t care about uncovering the truth behind any haunting and helping release ghosts looking to move on.‖―That‘s the end of what we have to say.‖ Greg shrugged. ―You‘ve already watched the broadcast; Fye will get his compensation for the viewers. But we couldn‘t let it air and say nothing.‖
―Neither could I.‖Everyone jumped and turned; Fye Senior rolled toward them in his wheelchair. He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders at the camera. Then, in his withered voice, he spoke.
―A couple of weeks ago, my son took me to court. He had the judge rule me incompetent to continue the management of Meuse. For the recent duration of this project, I‘ve had to stand – I mean, sit – by and watch ashe scripted this so-called ―investigation.‖ The first team was hired to play the winners; the second to plant all the―evidence‖ created by production staff and writers. I brought on the third team, honest, true, and a bit naïve since the beginning.‖ Everyone chuckled a little at this.
―They found real evidence of ghosts here at the Millhourst saloon; they accomplished what Meuse sets out to do.‖ Slowly, Fye Senior braced his hands against the sides of his wheelchair. ―Which is why I would like to make some… executive changes, effective immediately.‖
He climbed to his feet and stood with Jasmine and Greg on either side of him. ―Firstly, I would like to name the Hawksley siblings as the winners of the competition and invite them back fornext year‘s Halloween investigation.‖ A loud cheer went up; over the top of the ruckus, he continued. ―Secondly, Iwould like to thank Gage, my eyes, ears, and legs-‖ more laughter ―-in this investigation. Enjoy your promotion to editor.‖ More cheering. ―And, finally, I‘d like to say: Security, get this kid off my set.‖
The entire backstage area had erupted into applause and cheering now. The door to bedroom five flung open and an exasperated Sydney Fye appeared. ―Do you mind?‖ he hissed. ―We are TRYING to do an INVESTIGATION!!‖His cold eyes widened as he stared at the cameras and the monitors, which showed the image of him yelling, pink- faced from the door. His eyes narrowed again.
―What is this?‖ he yelled. ―What are you doing on set?‖ he demanded of his father. ―I thought I had you ruled incompetent!‖
Fye Senior smiled. ―Perhaps you missed the memo: that was overruled.‖The security advanced on Sydney Fye, who screeched and struggled against their grips. ―You can‘t do this!‖ he insisted, and ―I am the DIRECTOR! I am the PRODUCER! You can‘t kick ME off the set!‖