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"It is the scariest place ever," said Demond.
His girlfriend, Rachelle, sitting next to him, just rolled her eyes.
"Uh-huh," Demetrius, his brother, called Little D, responded—being cool, not playing along. He was angry, stuck in between Antoine and Lorelle—both of them hefty. For all they played at being in love, they didn't want to middle-seat it where a metal bar made riding a real pain. This was especially true when Demond, the world's worst driver in Little D's mind, hit a pothole or bump at full speed. Then the boy felt like he was getting mashed between two rolled mattresses. Every part of this trip seemed stupid.
Demond, put off by his little brother's attitude, continued. "It's five stories high—each floor scarier than the last one. You get your money back if you get through floor five."
"How much does it cost?" asked Antoine.
Antoine whistled. "That's scary enough! But it's got a money-back guarantee, you said."
Demond hawked out a laugh. "They say it's so scary no one ever got all the way through."
"What, afraid of plastic skeletons and cardboard monsters and glow-in-the-dark ghosts?"
"It's much scarier than that," Demond insisted.
"How do you know so much?" challenged Little D. "You been there?"
"No—ain't that many people ever been there. You got to know somebody."
"So who do you know?" asked Rachelle. "You never told me."
"Toussaint. Couple of weeks ago, we were taking care of a little business. And I got to asking him about that voodoo stuff he messes with. Then we got to talking about other scary stuff. I asked him if he'd ever seen a ghost. Yeah, he said, and plenty of other things. That's when he told me about this place. He said it's scary as all get-out—and it might really be haunted, too."
Before Rachelle could say anything, Lorelle piped up.
"Toussaint!" Lorelle made no effort to hide the disgust in her voice. "That is one crazy dude. We're on a wild-goose chase, for sure."
"Wild ghost chase, you mean," said Antoine, cracking up at his own joke. Lorelle just grunted, folded her arms, and stared out the window. But Little D heard her mutter, "This is going to be one big waste of time."
"Funny. I ain't seen Toussaint for almost a week," said Rachelle.
"Toussaint, he always turns up sometime," Demond said.
Little D knew that was wrong. Toussaint had crossed Jamal Machado, a bad man to cross. Unknown to Demond, Little D had begun working for Jamal as a watcher on street corners, using his cell to alert Jamal if he spotted a police car in the area where Jamal was conducting his illegal business. The man, knowing the friendship between Little D's brother and Toussaint, had paid the boy extra to lure Toussaint into a back alley. Jamal had said he and a few of his bros were only going to give Toussaint a warning. But Little D suspected more was at stake. Long after Jamal and his pals had left, he went back into the alley. Toussaint's motionless hand was outflung, his gold-ringed fingers and thumb clenched like a claw. The boy began to run, putting as much distance as fast as he could between himself and what he was responsible for.
No, Toussaint wouldn't turn up ever again.
They were on the road that led northwest out of Detroit toward the suburb of Garriott, some thirty-five miles from town. Newish, gated housing developments and strip malls alternated with lightly wooded patches and meadows. To Little D, who rarely got outside of the city, it was like a different world, afloat in money. It was completely unlike the inner-city world he knew, where the only real possibilities were fast riches through criminal activity or a quick end when caught in the crossfire of a gangland turf war or a police standoff.
As for his brother's legendary haunted house, Little D was inclined to agree with Antoine's opinion that it was "a wild ghost chase." Toussaint—full name Jean Marcelle Toussaint—was anything and everything in the 'hood—number runner, fence, bookie, and dabbler in darker areas. Folks said he knew voodoo and other secrets from his native Haiti. So just maybe, Little D thought, the guy had some skinny on this scariest place of all. Then he dismissed the idea. No so-called haunted house could be much scarier than the haunted houses that popped up all over Detroit at this time of the year, offering nothing more frightening than bats on strings and face-painted teenagers holding flashlights under their chins or a plateful of soggy spaghetti they called "brains."
Well, it might be worth a laugh—if the place existed. And Demond was paying the way for him and Rachelle. These past weeks, Demond seemed to have a lot of extra cash to throw around. Little D knew better than to ask where it came from, but he was wise enough to take advantage of his brother's sudden generous streak. Neither the money nor the impulse to share would last long with Demond.
"Garriott, next three exits," Rachelle reported. No one else had noticed the road sign.
Keeping his left hand on the wheel, Demond fished a folded paper from the dashboard with his right, unfolded it, and held it so he could read it in the dashboard glow. After studying a moment, he announced, "We want the exit for Montrose Avenue, East."
They quickly passed the first two exits, before Rachelle spotted theirs. Once they were on Montrose, Demond checked his notes again. "Look for Crane Hill Road on the left."
The twisting pavement cut deep into a woodsy area. The route was moonlit, easy enough to follow, but there seemed to be fewer and fewer lights indicating houses. Little D, used to twenty-four-hour shops, streetlights, and city glow that screened out the stars and softened the night, found the thickening darkness unnerving. Then he spotted the tilted street sign even Rachelle had missed.
"Crane Hill Road!" he shouted so suddenly Demond slammed on the brakes, pitching them all forward against their seat belts—except Antoine, who refused to wear his and slammed against the driver's seat. He cursed loudly, then put his finger to his lip and pulled it away bloody.
"Made me cut myself." His usually good mood was gone. "Look how you're drivin'," he snarled at Demond.
"Wear your seat belt like you're s'posed to," Lorelle said. She sounded pretty put out at this point.
Antoine's rude response left his girlfriend in an angry silence. Now Demetrius felt caught between two sources of anger so electric he could almost feel the bad energy crackling between them. It seemed the evening was going from bad to worse. Everyone was on a short fuse.
Demond waited for two oncoming cars to race past—the first cars they'd seen in a while, Little D realized—then swung onto Crane Hill Road.
It was a single-lane road, walled on both sides by lanky trees and rampant shrubbery that stretched back into thick shadow.
Demond instinctively slowed the car.
"This the road we want?" asked Lorelle. "Looks more like a cow path no self-respectin' cow would use."
Even as she complained, the car jounced through a pothole. Though Demond was cruising at a slower speed, this caused Antoine (who still refused to buckle up) to hit the ceiling, while the others were merely jerked against their belts.
"Tryin' to kill me?" Antoine complained.
"Maybe that's not such a bad idea," Demond called over his shoulder.
"Second that," said Lorelle.
"Watch out!" warned Rachelle.
Demond slowed so that the next pothole caused only minor bouncing.
The branches overhead had become interlaced, as if the trees were deliberately linking limbs to keep moonlight or starlight from reaching the road. To Little D, peering anxiously over the front seat to watch the road ahead, it seemed they had entered a tunnel that was bored into the heart of darkness. With every passing minute, the boy was more convinced that this adventure was one very bad idea.
"Toussaint havin' us on, for sure," grumbled Lorelle.
Nobody argued. But Demond kept the car moving ahead, as if determined to prove he hadn't been played for a fool by Toussaint. Little D had a vision of Toussaint roaring with laughter when he heard about their foolishness. Then he remembered . . . that man wasn't going to laugh ever again.
The road curved this way and that. Little D, looking right, left, straight ahead, his neck in constant motion, imagined flicking shapes and glowing eyes in the shadows surrounding them. The surface was growing bumpier; the woods were pressing closer; it was clearly a mistake to be here. He wondered why Demond was pushing on.
And then, around the next bend, the road ended in a gravel-surfaced parking lot, well lit by floodlights on high, metal poles. A scattering of cars was spread out across the generous parking area. Beyond, towering above the lot and brightly lit gardens, was the floodlit façade of a towering, five-story mansion. Lights bathed the structure in a garish glow and revealed windows galore, as well as many carved surfaces and an array of gargoyles leering down from the peaked eaves. All the windows were sealed—no trace of light came from inside the building.
"See? Toussaint wasn't jivin' after all," said Demond. To Little D, he sounded both relieved and I-knew-it-all-along smug.
He parked the car under the light stanchion near the stone statues at the head of the concrete walk that cut through the gardens to the massive front doors. Each stone guardian had a lion's head, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake or dragon. A sign beside the path announced simply CHIMERA HOUSE.
"This must be the place," Demond said unnecessarily. "Everybody out."
It was a relief to stretch his legs, Little D realized, and no longer be squashed between the other backseat passengers.
Everyone luxuriated in the fresh air and the chance to stand and move about. Demond put his arm around Rachelle's shoulders, and she snuggled close to him. They started toward the house. Antoine and Lorelle followed separately. Little D could still sense anger between them. He brought up the rear, glad to be out of the car but not quite sure he wanted to explore the secrets—hokey or genuinely scary—inside Chimera House.
At the end of the path, a short flight of broad steps led up to a wide porch, sheltered by a roof supported by tall columns. The high, wooden double doors were carved with strange human figures and inhuman creatures and bunches of grapes, leaves, and flowers. Matching squares of thick, milky glass, about the height of a man's head, revealed some light inside. There was a doorbell below an illuminated sign: HOURS OF OPERATION: WED–SUN, 11 A.M.–MIDNIGHT.
Demond pushed the bell, and the right-hand door swung open. The five entered single-file. Inside was a vast, circular, marble-floored area. A long wooden counter and waist-high wooden barrier divided it in half. Three people—two men and one woman—were seated behind the counter. The men, off to one side, were deep in conversation over a computer console; they barely glanced up at the visitors before returning their attention to the screen. The woman directly in front of them welcomed them with a smile. Though there was overhead fluorescent lighting, the bright glow from some kind of console recessed in the desk surface lit her face from below, giving her a faintly ghostly look.
Little D wondered if the effect was deliberate, to get folks in the mood for a "fright night."
Still smiling, she took care of the ticket sales.
Antoine, buying the ticket he had apparently promised Lorelle, said, "I understand if I get all the way through this place, I get my money back."
"That is correct," the woman said. To Little D, it seemed her smile grew bigger at the thought of anyone really collecting on this guarantee. He felt a chill. In the weird light, her smile seemed almost wolfish.
"Let's get goin'," said Demond, rubbing his palms together in a great show of enthusiasm.
Excerpted from Haunted Houses by Robert D. San Souci.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert D. San Souci.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.