Haunted Hayride with Murder: New Excerpt
Erica Bloom and Otter Lake Security are once again on the case in Haunted Hayride with Murder, Auralee Wallace’s sixth installment in the hilarious Otter Lake mystery series.
Trick-or-treating just got a whole lot deadlier.
Erica Bloom is loving everything about autumn this year in Otter Lake, New Hampshire: changing leaves, apple cider, cozy sweaters … and the warm and fuzzy relationship that’s heating up between her and Sheriff Grady Forrester. But when some local teens out to find some Halloween thrills come across a boot with a dead man’s foot bones still inside it, a chilling new reality comes into play.
Everyone in Otter Lake knows about the age-old witch who haunts the apple orchard bordering the White Mountains. So when the bones turn out to belong to a long-gone local with a scandalous connection to the orchard, stories of the spooky figure roaming the forests at night once again rise up from the past.
Now it’s up to Erica and the rest of the Otter Lake Security team to expose the identity of the killer. Will they be able to lay this ghost to rest … or will this witch hunt be their last?
“I can’t believe you got us into this.”
“Here we go.”
“Seriously, it’s freezing out here.”
“It’s not the cold that’s bothering you. And we both know it.” I put my flashlight under my chin. “We’re in Apple Witch territory.”
The man in front of me stopped walking.
Freddie Ng. Best friend. Business partner. Devoted boyfriend to his boyfriend. Total scaredy-cat.
“What are you supposed to be right now?” he asked, his frosty breath rising between us. “The flashlight monster? Put that thing down. And, for the record, I am not afraid of the Apple Witch.”
I smiled. “Then why does your voice drop to a whisper every time you say her name?”
“My voice does not drop to a whisper every time I say her name.”
He totally just said her in a whisper.
“Let’s just find the kids, so we can get out of here,” he said, spinning away. I trotted after him on the winding trail that led deeper into the forest.
We were on our latest job for Otter Lake Security, hashtag OLS. The one and only security company in … well, Otter Lake, New Hampshire. Our business had been picking up lately thanks to our third business partner and only fully licensed private investigator, Rhonda Cooke. She had managed to impress an insurance company with her skills, so we had been gathering evidence on a number of people committing insurance fraud. We were also taking on the odd adultery case. She wasn’t working with us tonight because she was on another case, but all that being said, we weren’t doing well enough that we could turn down any business that came our way. So we were currently employed by the Honeycutt Apple Orchard to help oversee their Halloween festivities. Every year the orchard had a number of themed attractions—a haunted barn, a maze, a scary hayride. It was lots of fun. I had been the one to bring this job in. I used to babysit the Honeycutt kids a couple of times a week for a few months a really long time ago. It had been … an experience. But, all that was history. Tonight, we had been called upon to search the woods for a campfire party and to send the young derelicts at said party home. Even though it was a long-held tradition for teenagers in Otter Lake to seek out the Apple Witch this time of year, the Honeycutts had been trying to put a stop to the practice. They were worried the kids might end up getting hurt on their property.
“It is pretty cold out here,” I said, stepping over a fallen log. “I’ll give you that.”
Freddie huffed a laugh. “I would have thought that the woolen monstrosity on your head would be keeping you warm.”
“It is. And it’s not a monstrosity,” I said, tugging down the hat I was wearing while still clutching my flashlight. And, okay, fine, maybe it wasn’t so much the hat itself that was keeping me warm as the thought of the hat. My friend Sheriff Grady Forrester had made it for me. He’d recently gotten into knitting. He found the yarn arts to be relaxing. And he needed a lot of relaxation. Being sheriff in Otter Lake, Live Free or Die, New Hampshire, was not always easy. Sure, our small town had a lot to offer if you were into things like docks stretching out into lakes, nights with a billion stars, and fall foliage that could make you believe in higher powers. But small towns always seem to come with their eccentricities, and Otter Lake was no exception. In fact, just last week Grady had investigated a reported Peeping Tom at a local’s cabin. He set up a security camera to catch the perpetrator in the act, and it turned out there was indeed a Peeping Tom—a moose—peering into the bedroom window. Three nights in a row. Grady recommended to the owner that he call Fish and Game for advice, but in the end, the local man decided he could live with a peeping moose. He was even thinking of starting an Instagram page. I didn’t think that was wise. Moose could be really mean. But to each his own.
“Admit it. You’re scared. We’re in Apple Witch territory, and it’s getting close to Halloween. And you hate Halloween,” I said, stumbling over a rock sticking out from the hard-packed trail. “Actually, you’re like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Halloween. Soon you’ll be visited by—”
Freddie let out a garbled yell. I think he was trying to say What are you doing? while also trying to shout Stop! Once he got himself together, he pointed his flashlight directly at my face and said, “Were you about to wish ghosts on me?”
I smiled … and squinted. The flashlight was very bright. “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts.”
“I said I wasn’t afraid of ghosts.” He darted a look around the shadowy forest closing in on us. “I’m not sure what I believe.”
“Well, we don’t know everything that happens under the moon and stars.”
“I don’t know if we are technically under the moon—”
Freddie swatted my arm. “What are you, a scientist now? Nobody likes scientists anymore, Erica. Read the papers. And the point is,” he said, voice rising from its whisper, “seeing as nobody really knows for sure whether or not ghosts exist, whispering a ghost’s name in ghost territory is just smart. Precautionary. Like wearing a seat belt.”
“A seat belt?” I asked with a smile. “Really?”
“You know what?” Freddie said, whirling back around. “You are being awful tonight. I hate it when you’re in a good mood.”
I chuckled. I was in a good mood even though my face was a little numb and my nose was running from the cold. I loved fall. Cozy sweaters. Stunning vistas. Pumpkin spice. Couldn’t forget the pumpkin spice. Oh! And hot sheriff friends who liked to snuggle around warm fires. Those were pretty nice too.
We walked on a few moments, the only sound being the crunch of our footsteps on the frosty trail.
“Besides, if anyone should be worried about ghosts,” Freddie suddenly whispered, “it’s you. She only—”
“By she you mean the Apple Witch that you’re not afraid of?”
“She only goes after young, nubile women,” Freddie continued, ignoring me. “And you fit those categories, if we’re talking broad strokes.”
“What?” I shone my flashlight directly at the back of his head—which really had no effect. “That’s not true.”
“Which part? The young? Or the nubile?”
“Har, har, har,” I said, turning my flashlight back to the path. I really didn’t want to trip over any more rocks. “But no, the other part. The Apple Witch only goes after men for her revenge.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said, stopping short. “What story have you been listening to? She doesn’t go after men. Everybody knows the Apple Witch, with her rotten-apple face, uses her knobbly tree-branch fingers to pierce the flesh of supple young women to drain them of their beauty like maple syrup from a tr—”
Suddenly a strange sound cut him off.
“Did you hear that?” I don’t know why I bothered asking. Freddie had instantly stiffened. He looked like a dog with his ears perked up, but, you know, without the ears.
“That was weird,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. “It almost sounded like—”
I whipped my head toward the sound.
I scanned the trees with my flashlight. “I think we’ve found our— Freddie? Where did you go?” I spun my flashlight around only to have it land on him perched atop a boulder at the side of the trail. “What are you doing? Get down from there.”
He just looked at me.
“It’s the kids,” I said. “And why would you climb up a rock? I’m pretty sure both teenagers and ghosts could get you up there.” I rolled my hand. “Come on down.”
“How was I supposed to know it was them with all your talking about the … you know who.” He slid down from the rock. “And don’t you judge me. It’s not like they were calling Eeeeeerrrrica. Eeeeerrrric—”
“Okay, knock it off.” It was kind of spooky.
But, of course, none of the local kids would be calling my name. Freddie and the teens—hey, that sounded kind of like a band—had a long and convoluted history. It had all started a few years ago when he had been running security for the fall fair. Freddie had taken it on himself to give the kids a pretty hard time over stuff like littering and loitering, and they had responded by taking his boat for a joyride … and accidentally crashing it into some trees. They were fine, but the boat was not. That had landed them in some pretty hot water. Freddie opted not to press charges—at the pleading of their parents—and in return the parents offered the kids up to the town for indentured servitude under Freddie’s supervision. If you had a gutter that needed cleaning, you knew just who to call. In some weird Otter Lake way, this had bonded them, and Freddie had ended up becoming a kind of mascot slash drill sergeant for the adolescents. It really was a sign of affection that they were picking on him.
“Besides,” Freddie whispered, “that didn’t sound like any of the kids I know.”
Just then the wail started up again, “Freeee—”
This time the ghost’s voice cracked.
“Okay, I take it back. I know that voice. That was Austin.”
I grimaced. “He still hasn’t made it through puberty?” Poor kid. He had to be almost sixteen.
“No,” Freddie said, shaking his head, confused squint on his face. “It’s almost like he’s going backward.”
“Come on,” I said. “I think I see their fire over there. They’re right by the house.”
We cut through the trees toward the dilapidated structure—the dilapidated structure that once housed the Apple Witch. The stone foundation was still in pretty good shape, but the rest of it looked like it would have trouble withstanding a sneeze. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the clearing, there were no kids, just a small fire and junk-food wrappers.
I sighed. “They are not going to make this easy, are they?”
A tree branch snapped in the distance.
“Come on,” Freddie said. “Let’s go after them.”
“Nah, forget that. Let’s just wait until they get bored and come back. We can’t leave the fire unattended.” Besides it was nice and warm. “Only you can prevent forest—”
A marshmallow pinged off my brow. “Hey!”
“We have a job to do. And I want to do it and go home.”
“I know, but they’ll be back, and I don’t think the Honeycutts would appreciate it if we burned down the fores—”
Freddie picked up a two-liter bottle of soda from the ground and dumped it on the small flames. “There. Let’s just get this done. Stanley’s going to need to pee.”
Stanley was Freddie’s ancient French bulldog. He was a real sweetheart. Freddie didn’t like to leave him alone for too long because he was his baby … and he did have a weak bladder.
“Fine, but we’re not chasing after them.” There had to be an easier way. I swung my flashlight over the trees again. “Okay, guys, you’ve had your fun,” I shouted. “Come on out now.”
No answer. But there was lots of rustling and hushed laughter.
“Seriously?” I muttered. “How is this a good time for them?” Just then I heard quick footsteps. They were running around us now. I tried to catch them with my flashlight, but they were quick. “You’re going to run into a tree,” I called out again.
“They’re teenagers, Erica,” Freddie said. “They don’t care about physical safety. Let me handle this.” He cleared his throat then shouted, “Last one out here has to clean the goose poop from Mrs. Moore’s lawn.” That’s right, Mrs. Moore had a pet goose named Buttercup, and boy, could that bird poop.
Freddie’s band of three merry teens came tearing through the trees.
“Hey man, why did you put out our fire?” Austin whined in his cracked voice. “We were just messing around.”
“Yeah, well, it’s time to go home.”
“Aw, come on,” another boy said. “What’s the hurry? We’re waiting for the Apple Witch.”
“She’s not coming,” Freddie said, adjusting his gloves. “Your excessive use of body spray has scared her away.”
“Seriously, man. Be cool.” A fourteen-maybe fifteen-year-old girl said that. She had braids coming down from either side of her hat.
“Krystal,” Freddie said, pinching his temples. “There is nothing cool about freezing to death in the woods waiting for a ghost witch that is not coming.” She looked like she was about to say something when Freddie pointed at her. “And so help me if you pick apart any bit of that sentence, I will … do something you are not going to like.” He looked at me and added, “God, I hate teenagers.”
“You love us,” Austin said happily.
“I can’t even…” Freddie just blinked and shook his head. “Let’s go.”
“We can’t,” the other kid said. “Josie and Tyler aren’t back yet.”
“Josie and Tyler are here?”
All three teens nodded.
“Well, where are they?”
“They wanted to be alone,” Austin said with a double pop of his eyebrows.
Freddie groaned and threw his head back. “So they want to die. That’s what you’re telling me. Because that’s what happens to teens who make out in the woods.” He whirled away from the kids and muttered to me, “God help them if Josie takes her top off.”
I wagged my finger in the air. “I don’t think you’re giving ghosts enough credit.”
“I’m sorry, what are you talking about now?”
“Well, they are not as slut-shamey as they used to b—”
“Please, Apple Witch, take me now,” Freddie said, throwing his arms wide. “I wish to die in your tart embrace.”
I chuckled. “Careful. She might hear you.”
“I don’t care anymore. It’s better than hearing your feminist ghost theories.” His eyes were darting side to side though. Looking for the Apple Witch. You know, in case she had heard him.
Just then a girl came running out into the clearing wearing jeans and a heavy flannel jacket. Josie. She did a quick double take at the sight of Freddie and me, but quickly dismissed whatever she had made of our arrival. “Tyler found something. I think you guys need to come see.” She rolled her hand for us to follow and whipped back around.
We all hurried after her, our many flashlights bouncing over the trees. It didn’t take long before we spotted Tyler standing at the bottom of a slope. We eased our way toward him on what I was guessing was a dried-up water runoff. It had been a particularly stormy spring and summer. The water had carved a few new paths in the trees. Unfortunately, it made for pretty slippery terrain. We were all leaning back at steep angles toward the ground so that we didn’t end up sliding all the way down.
Tyler had glanced up at us a few times as we made our way toward him, but he never kept his eyes long from the spot on the ground lit up by his flashlight.
“What’s going on?” Freddie asked. “Are you okay?”
“I … I don’t know.”
I trotted over to get a closer look at the spot. “Is that a boot?”
Tyler nodded his head. “I picked it up. For just a second. It was stuck at first, like half-buried, so I yanked it and—” He shook his head again. He suddenly looked like he might be sick.
“And?” I asked carefully.
“When I yanked it…” His wide eyes met mine. “There was a crack.”
“A crack? Like a branch?”
“I don’t know.”
We stared at each other a moment. Suddenly I was too afraid to look back down.
Everyone fell silent.
“Tyler,” I finally said in an unnaturally calm voice, “I need you to swear on everything you have ever loved that this is not some stupid Halloween prank.”
“Do it, Erica,” Freddie hissed in my ear. “Look in the boot.”
I whipped around so that my face was about an inch away from Freddie’s. “Why don’t you look in the boot?”
He planted his hands on my shoulders and turned me back around. “You’re the feminist scientist. It’s only right that it be you.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” I mumbled.
But no one answered. They were all waiting.
I looked down at the boot. It was standing straight up—Tyler must have dropped it that way—but it was too dark to see anything beyond its black mouth. I swallowed one more time then pointed my flashlight toward it and—
Copyright © 2018 Auralee Wallace.