My name is Terra West. I'm the daughter of my city's Chief of Police, and more importantly the assistant to J DeMarcus, the teenage detective. These memoirs describe our cases. This particular one, dear reader, I recommend reading on or around Halloween.
"Are you sure you don't just wanna go trick or treating instead?" my father asked from the driver's seat of his car.
His eyes avoided me, but I could tell they were full of worry and fear.
"Dad," I groaned, leaning my head against the window. "How old do you think I am?"
Granted, I had gone trick or treating last year, but at fourteen years old the time had come for a change. It was my first Halloween party. And my first real party. Real, as in the kind not at somebody's house chaperoned by their parents. I had just begun high school, it was time for the wild parties you see kids going to in movies or hear adults describing when they're feeling all sad about their youth being over. And tonight wasn't just someone's crummy house while their parents were away; it was at a club, an actual nightclub, which was an extension of the hotel next door, both of which were owned by the Troys, one of the richest families this side of the country. It was kind of like if your first time riding a bike without training wheels was on a high-speed motorcycle, so for once my father's overbearingness was a little understandable. But I wasn't gonna let it stop me.
'I'm here, outside' was the text I sent to the contact in my phone titled The Knowitall as I stood outside the hotel.
In all his worrying, there was one detail I didn't tell my dad. The first time I met Clarissa Troy was the first case I had ever been on as J's partner. She and I were a long way from 'friends'; not that I hated the airhead heiress, or that she even remembered my name half the time, but the only reason I got a free pass to her big event was because of our mutual friend, J. And tonight was another case.
'Come in' he replied. 'The doors are unlocked and we're all inside'
I placed my phone back into my pocket, accidentally bumping my hand against the plastic sword I had forgotten was attached to my hip. Between that, my sailor hat, leather boots and weird white shirt, my outfit was the spitting image of something you would see in a pirate movie. Or I would if those films starred thin, 4'11", blonde girls. Of all the things a teenage girl could choose to be for Halloween, why a pirate? Well, the idea started when J and I were reminiscing one day about how growing up as with no siblings meant we never experienced shared costumes, something we were always secretly jealous of. So this year, the first time J and I would be spending Halloween together, we promised each other we would do matching costumes. The original plan was Black Widow and Hawkeye, but after I ranted about how gratuitously sexualized that black leather suit was we somehow ended up on pirates. I know it's dumb, but it felt sweet; like a celebration of our friendship and how far we'd come.
I had no idea what kind of case it was, but J was confident we could solve it quickly then enjoy the party for the rest of the night. I found myself wondering if he'd ever been to a real party. How could he have been? He doesn't even go to high school.
Entering the hotel, I was reminded why the buildings owned by the Troys were considered such high class establishments. It was bigger and more lavish looking than any hotel my family had ever stayed at, with high ceilings looming over white marble walls and shining floor tiles covered by red silk rugs. In the name of the season, it was decorated like some kind of gothic castle, with thin black curtains hanging on every window and a bunch candles attached to mantles that lined the walls.
I followed J's instruction, walking up the giant staircase, passing the chandelier and rounding the corner through a golden arch doorway. I ended up at a secret balcony sort of area. A large platform hung out into the sky, where two girls and a boy, all in costumes, sat around on leather couches between exotic plants. One, of course, was the airhead heiress herself, Clarissa Troy. She was dressed up as a vampire, with a beautiful, gothic-style black lace dress, black fishnet stockings, black nail polish and eyeliner, with fangs in her mouth and bright red blood streaming down, splattered randomly all over her clothes. Beside her was a boy and girl a few years older than us. The guy was a tall, lanky kid, dressed up as a generic slasher movie killer, and the girl was slightly chubby and wore big, round glasses and wore a blue jumpsuit covered in robotic parts made of tin foil, her costume being some character from a nerdy TV show I've never watched.
As they all looked up at me, J entered. He was dressed not at all like a pirate, but as another vampire. His outfit was the male equivalent of Clarissa's, equally black and bloodstained
"Yo, Tee," he said, flashing a mouth full of fangs. "What took you so long?"
I was taken back by his nonchalance.
"What the hell are you wearing?" I spouted. He raised a hand to his curly hair and looked at me with confused defensiveness.
"I'm a vampire," he replied. "Like Clarissa. Don't I look good?"
"I…" I was so mad and hurt my mouth couldn't form an answer. Clarissa noticed me and beamed.
"Tia, you're here!" Clarissa called out. "We can start the case now then, right, J?"
"Meet tonight's crew," J said, with a motion of his arm toward the other two people in the room.
Clarissa began the introduction. "I thought I could get a bunch more of my friends to come since they're all gathered next door for the party, but they were all too scared. The only people that would help are these two, my best friend's boyfriend and an intern on this hotel's interior decorating department, or whatever they are."
Clarissa's two friends stepped forward.
"I'm Melena," the girl introduced with an awkward hand wave.
The guy was more sociable. "Hey, I'm Brian. Tia was it?"
"Terra actually," I replied dryly, shooting a look at Clarissa.
"Your friends were too scared?" J repeated. "Can someone explain what exactly is going on"
Brian flashed a big smile and answered, "This hotel is haunted."
Melena rolled her eyes and elaborated.
"Sixty years ago this hotel was closed down. Nobody knows why for sure, but there's a rumor that there was a big freak accident. According to the urban legend, a lot of people died here somehow, but the Troy family used their power and influence to cover it up. Now that it's been reopened, they say the ghosts of those who died here are coming back for revenge."
"Right," J said with a skeptical sigh and a raising of his brow. "We're not going off rumors alone are we?"
"No," Clarissa chimed in. "We're going off reports from guests."
"Sightings," The slasher guy said with a big grin. "It started off as noises in the dark and shadowy figures, but a dozen people claim they saw the ghosts up close and personal. They have rotting skin and glowing red eyes, and if they find you they'll chase you until you leave the hotel."
J all but scoffed. "That happened to a dozen people?"
"So they say," the girl in the glasses replied.
"I asked my dad," Clarissa said. "But he says he doesn't know anything about a freak accident. My grandpa was in charge back then and he's not around to ask anymore. But now that the hotel's been closed down for a little while for maintenance, I figured we check it out ourselves."
"Do your parents even know you're here?"
"Of course not," Clarissa replied with a laugh. "They would never approve. But they'll be happy after we figure out what's going on?"
"But what if we don't?" Melena asked.
"Oh, we will," Clarissa replied with a big smile. "We have a master detective with us that can solve anything. If there really is something weird going on, it's all gonna be over tonight."
She threw her arm around his and looked at him with big, sparkling eyes. It was nauseating.
"So, master detective," I began. "What's the game plan?"
"Well," J laid out. "Normally I wouldn't violate horror movie rules, but since we're on a time crunch here with Clarissa's party, we're gonna break the biggest one. We're gonna split up. Let's spread out and search the most reportedly haunted areas of the hotel and if one of us stumbles upon anything scary we call the others. Clarissa took the liberty of adding all our numbers to a group chat."
"We're gonna be alone?" Melena asked, sounding kind of creeped out.
"Not all," J answered. "Just one of us. The rest will be in groups of two."
He raised a hand and began to point at the four of us.
"Terra and Melena, you two check the basement. Brian, you seem to be the least scared so you can roll solo and check the dining area if it's not a problem?"
"Not at all," Brian said said with a shrug.
"Cool," J replied. "Clarissa, you're with me. Show me all the rooms the guests have complained about."
The heiress' eyes lit up and her smile grew wide. I tried to hide me annoyed expression as J looked over to me.
"Terra," he instructed. "The bag?"
I accordingly handed him my small backpack. He rifled through it for a moment.
"Since the 'ghosts' apparently knock out the power," he said as he searched. "I brought along flashlights. We didn't know how many people there would be so we only got three, sorry. But hey, one for every group."
"No problem," Melena said, walking over to a nearby shelf. "The design staff had a bunch of extra candles, so I brought some along for everybody just in case."
She handed each of us the small trinkets she had crafted, wax sticks with shiny metal handles.
"Word," J said, carefully slipping two into the bag. "Well, we know what to do. Time to bust a move."
'Basement' isn't quite the right word for the basement of a hotel. I think a more apt term would be something along the lines of 'giant, scary underground dungeon that goes on forever' or something. Granite floor and walls covered in cobwebs stretched out for miles. Dingy lightbulbs hanging on long cords from the ceiling brought a dim light to the area.
I looked around, trying to grasp my surroundings as best I could. Melena noticed my reaction and laughed a little.
"I thought you guys were detectives," she laughed. "I didn't expect you do be this jumpy."
I felt myself blushing. "I mean, none of our cases ever involved ghosts before. Sometimes murderers, kidnappers and once a crazy bomber, but never ghosts."
"After all that some stories about a hotel scare you?"
"Well when you say it like that it sounds silly."
"Your detective life sounds fun though, from what Clarissa told us. Solving crimes, sneaking around, making plans to catch bad guys, I'm older than you and my job isn't half as exciting. I mainly just cut fabric and getting yelled at."
"It's not always fun," I sighed. "Sometimes it's confusing. Sometimes you think you got the hang of it and everything's going good, then it throws you a loop and you start wondering how much you really understand any of it."
I realized I was starting to ramble on, and looked over to see Melena giving me a somewhat concerned sideways look.
"It's also pretty dangerous," I added with a nervous laugh. "You know. But mostly it's exciting, you're right. Is that why you agreed to help Clarissa with this?"
"Meh, I had nothing to do tonight. Plus I get into the party afterward, so I figured why not?"
I noticed our voices were slightly echoing, highlighting the huge emptiness of our surroundings. My nerves began to stir.
"Hey, Melana," I said, trying to take my mind off of it. "Do you actually believe any of this ghost stuff might be real?"
She shrugged. "I mean, the logical side of me says no, but the curious side of me says you never know. I'm not as scared as you, though."
"Scared? Me? Puh-lease."
And right at that instant, I noticed what was on the wall in front of me. Dripping, red liquid that looked like blood was splashed across the wall, spelling out words: LEAVE THIS PLACE OR DIE.
I froze, a thousand thoughts racing through my head at once.
"What is it?" Melena asked, before she saw it too. For a second, we stood there, silently staring at it.
"It's just some joke," she finally said. "Someone snuck down here and thought they were really funny."
"Right," I said, beginning to feel dumb for being scared. "A joke. Of course it is."
And at that very second, the lights cut off. Blackness stretched out across the basement instantly. Melena and I screamed, piercing my ears as I processed what had just happened. Luckily, a beam of light brought the room back to life as Melena turned on the flashlight she was holding.
"Good call on these," Melena said, betweens scared gasps. "I thought the power going out was just the guests exaggerating."
"Well we did plan for this," I replied, trying desperately to calm my nerves. Suddenly there was another sound, a third scream. This time it was a man's, and it seemed muffled and distant.
"Did you hear that?" I asked.
"What was it?" Melena replied. "It sounded like a guy yelling."
And then it came again, louder and consecutively. I felt my body jump, my hands starting to tremble at my side.
"It's coming from upstairs," Melena said.
I was frozen with fear as the yelling went on. I tried my hardest to think of what to do, and then I thought of J.
No, I can't be scared. J wouldn't be.
I took a deep breath and tensed to stop my hands from shaking.
"We have to see what's going on," I said. "Come on, hurry."
We ran back up the way we came, trying to guide ourselves the best we could with the flashlight. It felt like a miracle that I didn't trip while running up the stairs. There was a lone spot of light in the otherwise dark hallway. As we got closer, I could see it was the ember atop a candle, held by a man. Focusing on the light of the candle, I could make out the uniform of a janitor. The light got closer and closer, and I realized this man was running toward us. Melena aimed the flashlight at him to get a better view, which accidentally startled him. Blinded, he threw one hand in front of his eyes and lost grip of the candle. It fell, its metal handle hitting the marble floor tiles with a clatter that echoed through the hall.
"Hey, wait!" I called out as he slowed himself to a halt just before crashing into us. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me with his big, strong hands.
"You have to get out of here!" he cried hysterically. "We all have to leave!"
"Why?" I said, struggling for my balance. "What's going on?"
"They're coming! They chased me and I just barely got away! If we don't get out soon, they'll catch up."
"Calm down," I yelled, pulling his hand off my shoulder. "Who are you talking about?"
Of course, I knew the answer. I just didn't want to have to admit it to myself. He didn't have to clarify though, that was done for him by the sudden sound of a female voice laughing.
"Run!" he screamed, taking off and blowing past us. I looked over to Melena and with equal uncertainty we ran after him.
The laughing got louder and louder, echoing along the walls until it felt like it was right behind me. Not daring to glance back over my shoulder, I ran as fast as my legs could move. Barely seeing the shapes of Melena and the janitor in front of me, I followed the path of light from the flashlight in her hands.
"This way!" she cried, turning a corner. I couldn't hear the laughing anymore, but we all kept running anyway. We ran as fast as our legs could move, with no concern for where we even ended up. That's when I felt a hand landing on my shoulder. I shrieked, whirling around and swatting my hands through the darkness.
"Terra!" J called, pushing me back to keep a safe distance. "Chill!"
He pointed his flashlight upward so I could see his face. I took a big sigh of relief, placing a hand over my pounding heart. Melena's flashlight revealed Clarissa standing behind him, eyeing the two of us with a confused look.
"Did something happen to you?" she asked.
J trained his light over to the janitor, who was now crouched on the floor, rocking back and forth and hyperventilating.
"Who's this guy," J said. "And what the heck is his problem?"
"One of the ghosts," I managed between breaths. "We were chased."
"You saw it!?" Clarissa shouted, bouncing up with wide eyes.
"He did," I said pointing to the hysterical man beside us. "And he's been like that ever since. Then we heard her voice laughing, so we ran here."
Clarissa gasped. J simply raised a brow.
"But did you see it?" he asked.
"Wait," Melena said. "Nothing happened to you guys?"
Clarissa shook her head. "We searched all the reported rooms."
J sighed, "We found a whole lot of nothing."
"It definitely wasn't 'nothing' that chased us!" I shot back.
"It definitely wasn't a ghost," he replied dryly. "Being that they aren't real and all, as everyone seems to keep forgetting."
At that moment, his phone rang. Then mine. Then Clarissa's and Melena's. The four of us exchanged uneasy glances as we pulled them out of our pockets. It was a group phone call, being initiated by a number I didn't recognize.
"It's Brian," Clarissa reported. J was the first to answer.
"Yo," he called. "What's going on over there?"
The rest of us accepted the call too. There was no answer, just dead air and what seemed to be the faint sound of someone breathing.
"Brian?" Clarissa said. "Are you there?"
Then, that breathing turned into a laugh. It was a woman's voice, the same one we had heard earlier. A wave of cold spread over every inch of my skin, and for a moment it was as if all of our bodies had locked up and shut down. The laughing echoed simultaneously from all of our phones until the janitor screamed, jumping up from the floor. His brazen shout cut right through the laughter, causing us all to jump.
"Woah," J cried over him. "Relax, man!"
The man threw his hands to his head and shook violently.
"I have to get out of here!"
"Stop," J tried. The man simply took off running.
"I have to go," he screamed, as his voice grew further and further away until it was just another echo in the dark.
"Wait," I called after him. "How are you gonna see?"
But he was already gone. The four of us stood there, dumbfounded as the call ended.
"What's going on!?" Melena yelled, anxiously pulling at her hair.
J sighed, running a hand through his curls.
"No idea," he said, with an assertive calmness. "But we all know what we have to do now."
"We do?" Melena asked hesitantly. J answeed,
"We're gonna go find your friend."
She sighed. "I was afraid you were gonna say something like that."
"He was in the main dining room," Clarissa chimed in. "I know where that is."
J shrugged. "Lead the way," he said, handing her his flashlight. Obscured by the dark, I grimaced to myself. Just when I was thinking the situation couldn't get any worse, I ended up following her lead of all people.
After a couple turns through a couple of hallways, we arrived at the first properly lit area I'd seen in what seemed like forever. It was a section of the hall that was apparently closed off to the public for repairs, and there were six or seven women surrounded by paint and tarp, and a dozen lit candles all around them. They looked incredibly distressed, but not really scared; mostly just frustrated. They looked up at us and erupted into confused chatter.
One of them, a woman around her thirties who had short hair and big hoop earrings, spoke up.
"What're you kids doing here?" she asked, before noticing a familiar face amongst us.
"Hey," our temporary partner replied sheepishly, stepping forward.
"What's going on here?" this woman demanded.
"Clarissa brought her friend," Melena explained, pointing to J. "He's a detective. I volunteered to help them figure out what's going on with all the scary things happening around the hotel."
The woman scoffed. "You're running around trying to catch ghosts?"
J replied, with a healthy gloss of attitude over his words. "That would sound crazy if you weren't all here sitting in the dark because of an unexplained power outage wouldn't it?"
"Hey," the woman defended. "The power outage is easily explained. The greedy bosses who rushed this building into development didn't make sure all the wiring was correct. Nothing to do with any scary ghost."
"No," I spoke up. "There's more than power outages going on."
The woman looked at me like I was the weirdest kid she'd ever seen. "Like what?"
"Wait," another woman in the group interjected. "Was there another kid with you?"
Clarissa jumped. "How did you know?"
"We found another flashlight just like yours on the way here."
She held forward said flashlight. It was definitely the one J and I had packed.
"It was just lying on the stairs," she answered, pointing behind her.
"We gotta go," J demanded. "Terra."
He motioned to the woman holding the flashlight. I rushed over as quickly as I could, practically snatching it out of her hands.
"Thank you," I called out as I hurried after J and the other two girls.
"Brian!" Clarissa cried as we ran to the light. The two combined flashlights revealed her friend, crouched on the floor, laying back against a wall. He was jittering all over, staring into space with terrified expression and seemingly empty eyes. He didn't seem to hear Clarissa call out to him at all.
"What's wrong with him?" Melena asked.
"Everyone catch your breath," J instructed. "Odds are we'll probably be running again pretty soon."
He then crouched down before Clarissa's friend.
"Brian," he tried, waving his hand over his eyes. "Hello?"
He moved the flashlight to get a better look at his face.
"His pupils are dilated," J reported. "Heavy breathing and he's covered in sweat. Same as the janitor from earlier."
"What's happening to them?" Clarissa asked.
"They saw the ghosts," Melena answered, her voice beginning to shake.
J sighed, "They maybe would've if there were any ghosts."
He tapped Brian on the shoulder, and that caused him to jump in his seat, screaming and spastically throwing his arms up. The candle flew out of his hands and landed on the carpet before us. Melena quickly stepped on the flame before it could spread.
"Brian!" J called out, grabbing him by the arm sternly. The hysterical boy turned to J with an expression of terror and pushed him in the chest as hard as he could. J doubled back, falling to the floor.
"J!" I screamed, jumping forward. Melena grabbed my arm and held me back.
"Stay away!" Brian yelled, backing up against the wall. "Get away from me!"
His face still full of shock, his eyes darted back and forth between all of us. His hands grasped at the wall behind him for some type of safety.
Clarissa stepped forward, slowly and with her arms up in front of her.
"Brian," she spoke softly yet sternly. "Can't you see it's us? What's going on?"
She took another step forward and he backed up accordingly. Before Clarissa could say anything else, the distant sound of heavy moaning suddenly filled the air.
"What the hell was that!?" I cried, frantically looking around and struggling to see what little I could. I tried clicking the third flashlight again but it wasn't turning on. Clarissa and Melena screamed in unison.
"Stay calm, guys," J called out, getting up off the floor. The moaning drew closer. My chest was so tight I could hardly breathe.
"J," I cried. "We have to go, now!"
"Just wait," he demanded.
"Brian!" Melena, noticing their friend was no longer pressed against the wall. Before we knew it, he had taken off into the depths of the hotel. We could just barely see his figure in the distance.
And then suddenly, the lights came back on. The hallway came back to life, the bright red carpet and white marble walls popping out harder than before. Before any of us could process what was happening though, we saw something standing to the other side of J. In clear, bright light, stood a creature that used to be a man. His skin was grey and lifeless, his clothes were the filthy remains of what was once an expensive suit, his colorless face lacked any expression, and in place of eyes all he had was empty blackness.
I screamed as loudly as I could, otherwise completely frozen in fear. Melena and Clarissa did the same. J, startled by our screams, turned and saw the ghost for himself. He jumped up and backed up toward us. Melena let out another ear-piercing shriek, and we turned to see another ghost behind her. This one was a woman, in what used to be red dress, with the same blank expression, staring at Melena with the same black holes as she latched her hands around the girl's arms. Melena thrusted her body with all the force she could muster to break free from her grip, flailing her arms until the former woman let go. In her panic, the flashlight she was holding fell to the ground with such impact the batteries flew out.
"Run!" Clarissa yelled darting off past the ghost. The lights cut off again, blackness swallowing the hallway.
"Wait!" J called out to Clarissa.
"J!" I screamed, grabbing him by the arm and running after her, pulling him with me.
He reluctantly aimed the flashlight before us to guide our way. Melena following behind, we caught up with Clarissa and continued running as fast as our legs could take us. I couldn't tell over all of our own rapid panting, but it seemed like the ghosts weren't keeping up.
Eventually, Clarissa turned around, grabbing J's arm and pointing his flashlight at a door. It was a bathroom.
"Hurry!" she demanded as quietly as she could. We all followed suit, running into it and closing the door behind us.
"I think we're safe in here," Melena reported, crouching down to the floor to gain her composure. Clarissa and I crouched beside her and tried to slow our breathing. My heart was still slamming itself against the inside of my chest and my body was shaking all over. With no warning, Clarissa started bawling.
"We left Brian," she moaned, trying to wipe away the tears as they streamed down. "He's out there alone!"
"There was nothing we could do," Melena replied, placing a hand on her shoulder.
I looked up at J, who was standing up with his back toward us, facing the door.
"J," I said when I caught my breath. "What are you doing?"
"Thinking," he replied, with an extremely shocking calmness. "Those things attacked Brian and the janitor when they were alone. Whatever they did to them, they didn't get the chance to do to us. Why not? And why did the lights turn back on for that brief second? It's like these guys wanted to stop and make sure their presence was fully known before attacking. And their eyes weren't glowing red like the rumors said, they were black…"
"What are you talking about?" Melena asked, sounding irritated.
"And why us?" J continued, ignoring her.
"Me and you. When the ghosts popped in, of everybody in the group they specifically went after the two of us. What's special about us?"
I looked down at the flashlight in my hands, trying for the third time to turn it on but no matter how many times I hit the button nothing happened. Melena noticed me struggling and sighed.
"I can't believe I dropped mine," she said. "I was so scared I freaked out."
"It's not your fault," I sighed back, dropping the useless device to the floor.
J snapped his fingers, whirling around and nearly blinding us with his flashlight.
"Solved!" he cried.
Melena rubbed her temple in frustration as she handed me a lighter. "What is it now?"
I pulled out a two candles from our bag and went to light them.
"Stop!" J yelled. I was so startled I jumped, nearly burning my hand with the lighter.
"What?" I called back. With no answer, he rushed over and snatched the candles from my hand. He then ran over to the toilet, and we all heard a big splash as he tossed them in.
"Why'd you do that!?" Melena snapped.
J just chuckled. "Don't you get it?"
Before anyone could say anything else, there was a distant knocking, as if someone was banging against a wall with everything they had. Melena, Clarissa and I screamed. J plugged his ears.
"Would you calm down?" he yelled over us. The banging sound grew closer and closer until it felt like it was right next to us. And that's when J opened the door.
"Stop!" Clarissa screamed out.
"What are you doing!?" Melena shouted.
"There's nothing to worry about," J answered, cool and collected as ever.
Clarissa started to yell, "The ghost-"
Before she could say another word, a figure appeared in the doorframe. J's flashlight brought the image to life. This time it was a tall woman in a once-silver dress now torn up and covered in grime, with long, white hair draped down over her decomposing face. Melena, Clarissa and I kept shrieking, grabbing each other as tightly as we could and scuttling back across the bathroom floor in the darkness. I looked up to J, to see he was covering his face. Not in fear, but in frustration.
"I'm getting real sick of repeating myself," he called out. "How many times do I have to say there is no ghost."
He then did the unthinkable. He reached a hand forward to this dead woman's face and grabbed a handful of her decomposing white hair. He then pulled his fist back and ripped it off. Under it was normal human hair, and below that was a makeup-covered face of a woman who now looked terrified and clueless.
"We didn't fall for your trap," J called out, tossing her wig to the floor. "You and your friends can take those stupid costumes off now."
"What?" I said, my heart rate and trembling body parts calming down immediately.
"Wait," Melena said, going through the same change. "You're not a ghost?"
J turned back to her and threw his arms up angrily. "No!"
The now scared woman turned to run, but J quickly stomped on her dress.
"Oh, no you don't," he said as she stumbled and fell over.
I got up from the disgusting bathroom floor I realized I was sprawled across, and rushed to his side, stomping on the dress too as the woman continued to struggle.
"J," I grunted, putting all my strength into my foot. "Wanna explain?"
"Sure," he said, shining his flashlight down at the woman's face. "Look harder at this ghost. Anything familiar."
She shielded her eyes and tried to turn her head away from the light.
"You!" I yelled. "That painting lady from earlier! The one who found the flashlight."
"Except she didn't find it," J went on. "She and the other two took it from Brian forcefully. They had to, that was the only way they could do their trick."
Clarissa got up from the ground too, her sad, shaky voice now angry and forceful.
"What did you do to him!?"
She stepped on the dress with us, and the woman all but gave up trying to move.
"They poisoned him," J explained. "Just like they've been doing to guests here. Just like they did your friend and that janitor. Just like they almost did us. And this woman was the most important part, because they needed a hand in the interior decorating department to do it."
"How?" I urged. "You're not fully explaining."
"Don't you get it?" he scoffed. "The candles."
I gasped, looking over to the toilet that he had tossed our candles into.
He went on, "They're not just for decoration. Their wax is laced with some type of chemical that induces hallucinations. That's why they knock out the lights; to force us into the dark. With these candles everywhere, people in the building get the instinct to grab one and light it, and that's when their minds get drugged up and make them see all those scary things. But they didn't count on a group of kids looking for ghosts who came with flashlights."
"That's why that thing doesn't work," I said in realization, trying to spot my discarded flashlight on the bathroom floor. "They messed with it so we would have to use the candle."
"That's why they grabbed us," Melena added with a gasp. "You and me were the only ones holding the flashlights."
"Now you're catching on," J said. "Spreading all those ghost rumors and scary stories were half the work. They put the idea in everyone's heads that there were ghosts running around this hotel, so when the hallucinogen kicked in that's the first thing they saw. They made sure the visions were consistent by putting on those terrible costumes and jumping out to scare people. When you're drugged up, seeing these people chase you must be the craziest, scariest thing you can imagine."
"Wow," Clarissa said, rubbing what was left of the tears from her face. "I can't believe this."
"That's why the lights turned on," J continued. "They wanted us to see them and be scared, but since our minds weren't altered yet they couldn't let us get a good look and see how fake their costumes were, so it could only be for a second."
J stepped away from the woman's dress and walked further into the hallway.
"The others should be around here somewhere," said J, waving his flashlight around. He found them, the ghosts that had chased us earlier, a few feet from the bathroom door. Illuminated only by his flashlight, I could make out their clearly human faces were covered in the worst makeup job I had ever seen. The man was holding a portable speaker, which I realized was the source of all the scary laughter.
"They look so fake!" I uttered in shock. "Are those the same ones we were running from!?"
"You guys didn't need to hallucinate," J explained. "You were so caught up in the moment and convinced that ghosts were real that you believed their cheap costumes without the drug. This backyard haunted house attraction is what y'all were running from."
I clutched my arm, glad it was too dark for anybody to see the embarrassment on my face. J trained his light on the ghost man and gave an annoyed sigh.
"I know you have at least one other guy at the fuses. Call him and tell him to turn the lights back on, the jig is up."
Somewhere around twenty minutes later, Melena, Clarissa and I were standing outside the hotel, shielding our eyes from the flashing of arious police cars and ambulances that swarmed the parking lot. In the distance I could see three adults in ghost makeup and one dressed normally being walked out in handcuffs by police, Brian and the other victims being taken out into ambulances, and J talking to some cops. Then I noticed Deputy Allen walking over to us.
"Wow," he laughed once he saw me. "You kids really can't stay out of trouble, can you?"
"You heard the full story?" I asked.
"The gist of it," he answered. "A few members of the staff felt like they were being mistreated by the Troys for years, and since nobody successfully sued them before, they came up with this crazy plan to ruin their business as revenge.
"Wow," Clarissa said, taking in this slight against her family. "A lot of people don't like my dad, but Jesus… This is new."
Deputy Allen shrugged. "I'm just sorry you kids were caught in the middle of it."
"Well that's actually on us," Melena replied. "We're the ones who investigated."
"I guess it's kind of a good thing that you did," Allen replied, before placing a hand on my shoulder. "Terra, your dad has been going on all day at the station about how unsafe tonight would be for you. We all told him over and over again it was just a simple Halloween party, it's what all the kids do. 'There's nothing to worry about'... Do you have any idea how stupid you almost made us look?"
"Almost?" I repeated. "You mean my dad doesn't know yet?"
"Of course not," he replied. "If he found out he would rush over here and shut this whole thing down. After you and J solved another case, I couldn't repay you by ruining your first party could I?"
I felt myself smiling, remembering then why we considered Allen to be the cool one amongst the police force.
"That's enough questioning," he said, turning around to walk away. "You kids go in there and start having fun."
In another half hour, the party at Clarissa's club was in full swing. Booming EDM and trap music pulsated over the excitement of a thousand teenagers. They were cheering and dancing and having fun, completely unaware of the craziness that had just happened on the other side of the building. Every kid there was having a great time, except me. As antisocial as I am, I couldn't mingle my way through a dancefloor full of strangers. I had never planned to, but the only friend I had here was preoccupied with the pretty rich girl, and I was left to be the lone wallflower, fading into the background. Eventually, I walked up the stairs to the VIP balcony area. The party was apparently so fun that this space was completely empty. I found a seat beside a table and slumped down, resting my head on my arms as I wondered once again why I could never fit in with my peers. I wondered why social engagements were so hard for me and wished I could just be normal for once and have fun like everybody else; like a girl my age is supposed to. Then suddenly,
"Yo," J called out from directly behind me. I rose from my seat in surprise, turning around. As soon as I did, I was greeted by the sight of a shiny blade two inches from my face. I jumped back in my seat and got ready to scream until I saw it was made of plastic. It was a sword. My eyes took in the rest of the image and I noticed J standing there, in full pirate garb, decked out twice as intently as mine.
"I've been looking all over for you," J complained. "What are you doing up here? The party's downstairs."
"J," I stammered. "You're a pirate!"
"Of course I am."
"What happened to your vampire costume?"
"That was just for Clarissa's photoshoot before the party. Wait, did you forget we planned this? After all this work I did to make-"
Before I realized it, I burst out laughing. He stopped mid-sentence, staring at me curiously.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"Nothing," I replied, trying to control myself. "But can I ask you one question?"
"When the case earlier started and you split us into groups, why did you pair up with Clarissa instead of me like we always do?"
He scoffed. "Clarissa's a sweet girl and all but she couldn't handle herself on a case alone. One of us had to keep watch over her, and since you don't get along with her I took it upon my- Wait, why are you smiling so hard?"
"What?" I said, getting embarrassed and covering my mouth. "No reason."
He sighed, putting his sword back into his holster. "You're so weird sometimes."
I took a second to gawk at how elaborate his costume was. He must have spent weeks putting it together. He raised a brow at my silence.
"Did you come here to party or to sit up here the whole night."
I nervously shifted my eyes to the balcony's railing. "I mean, we can go dance and stuff. That would probably be fun."
Suddenly and unexpectedly, he grabbed my hand.
"Come on then, you loser," he urged.
I tried my hardest to stop smiling like an idiot but I couldn't control my face.
"After you, loser."
And with that, I truly began my first ever party. And I must say, I had a great time.