by Margaret S. Hamilton
We had several Halloween mystery short stories submitted to our contest recently that while they didn’t make the final five, they are well worth publishing–here is the last of them–Corn Maze Corpse, a never before published short story. Watch for the winning story Saturday, followed by the last of the top 5.
“How did we get roped into this? It’s been an exhausting week, and I’m bone tired.” Lizzie had envisioned a quiet evening dozing in front of the fire, instead of driving a carload of soccer players to the corn maze. The girls were packed in the back two seats, chattering at top volume while simultaneously texting.
“Do I need to remind you of your mantra? Volunteer to drive them everywhere and listen, but don’t speak.” Nick smiled as he sipped his coffee. “We’ll have a chance to wander off by ourselves in the maze. I’m looking forward to it.”
Lizzie looked at her feet encased in hiking boots and wooly socks. October nights in Ohio were chilly. Spending evenings wrapped in a blanket watching her daughter Claire play soccer was one thing; tramping through a corn maze with a flashlight was quite another. Perhaps there would be hot cider and doughnuts at the end.
Claire had skillfully ditched them, catching a ride from a senior on the varsity women’s team. Lizzie and Nick dropped their carload of soccer players at the entrance, and then carefully navigated the ruts in an adjacent field looking for a parking spot.
The flashlight maze adventure was for high school students; hordes of shrieking children were exiting the maze as Lizzie and Nick entered, holding hands and carrying large lanterns.
Lizzie said, “Let’s do it, and then maybe have some time to ourselves around the bonfire. As long as we leave with the same number of kids we brought we’re in good shape. And thank you, as always, for coming along.”
He stroked her cheek gently. “Of course.” And grinned. “As a matter of fact, I’ve always wanted to visit a corn maze.”
“On your bucket list, is it? It’s certainly not on mine.” Lizzie laughed. “Got your map? I read once that, as long as I keep the maze on my right shoulder, I’ll find the center. Or is that just a myth to keep amateurs walking in circles for hours?”
“Let’s give it a try. We can always put up our flag for help.”
“Ask for help? Never.”
They entered the maze and started down the path. Lizzie could touch the tall brown cornstalks on either side with her outstretched arms. Plastic caution tape lined the pathway. Nick trained his lantern ahead of them on the ground. Lizzie could hear squeals and giggles as the soccer players navigated the maze on their team bonding experience. They had planned their entrance fifteen minutes behind the girls, trying not to be on top of them. Lizzie could smell the bonfire; stars filled the black sky. She heard rustling in the corn stalks. A skunk or raccoon? Surely not a snake. She held Nick’s arm as they found the first station with a clue to direct them further into the maze.
“I hope the clue is something we can answer. I’m woefully out of date on the current music scene,” said Lizzie.
Nick trained his flashlight on the posted notice.
From which direction was the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz? Walk towards her home.
“That would be west,” said Lizzie. “When Dorothy landed in Oz, she killed the witch from the east.”
There was a signboard at the first station, marking the junction of four paths. They followed the rutted path to the west. Lizzie trudged along in the darkness, holding Nick’s arm. She felt the damp ground through her boot soles. Silence engulfed them.
“Are we going the correct way? It’s deserted out here. I don’t hear the girls.”
“That’s what the clue indicated, unless someone switched the signboard.”
They finally came to another four path intersection with another clue posted.
Follow the path to the White Witch.
“That’s from Narnia,” said Lizzie. “Let’s see what the signboard says.”
They had a choice of Winifred, Jadis, Glinda, or Bellatrix.
“Jadis it is,” said Nick. “Glinda is the good witch and Bellatrix a memorable Harry Potter character.”
They headed down the narrow path unmarked by caution tape. Lizzie tripped over corn stubble. “This must be a brand new section they didn’t open for the kiddies,” Lizzie said.
“Probably. Watch your step.” Nick held her arm.
Lizzie heard panting and heavy breathing and then a female voice.
“No, please don’t hurt me. Please, I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t hurt me. Let me go. You’re choking me. I can’t breathe.”
They frantically shined their lanterns at surrounding corn stalks. Lizzie caught a flash of red, yelling “Quick, she’s over there.”
She parted the cornstalks and charged through, arms in front and head down. Nick held the back of her jacket, following her.
Lizzie reached a clearing in the cornfield. A scarecrow lay slumped on the ground.
“Am I just hearing things? Was it just a scarecrow?” Lizzie saw hot pink toenails and started to scream. “It’s a girl. We just heard her get murdered.”
The scarecrow wore face paint, a red plaid flannel shirt and baggy jeans, her hands covered with gloves and a straw hat on her head. Her bare feet had freshly manicured toes.
Nick knelt down, placing his fingers on the scarecrow’s neck, searching for a carotid pulse.
“She’s alive.” He pulled the shirt away from her neck. “There’s bruising, but she’s breathing.” He gently lifted her straw hat and felt her head. “She’s got a big lump on the back of her head. It looks like she was hit with something.”
Lizzie said, “I see a piece of rope over there. I wonder if she was tied up.”
“Maybe, but I’m not going back alone. Whoever did this is out there, waiting to finish the job. We stay together.”
“We can’t leave her here.”
The girl opened her eyes and rasped, “Help me, he tried to kill me. He took my shoes and then tried to tie me up with the rope. He said it was all a joke, but when I tried to grab my shoes and run, he…he started strangling me.” She struggled to sit up. “Ow, my head hurts. What happened to me?”
Nick checked her head again. “You have a large lump. Any idea what he hit you with?”
She shook her head. “I don’t remember anything.”
Lizzie asked, “What’s your name?”
Lizzie said, “That sounds familiar. Are you a Jericho College soccer player?”
She replied, “I was, until the cheating scandal.”
Lizzie asked, “Who did this–’’
Nick cut her off. “Colleen, any chance you can walk? We’ll help you.”
“My shoes. He took my shoes.” She burst into tears.
Lizzie knelt down. “Colleen, Colleen, hush.” She handed her a tissue. “You can wear my socks. We’ll walk on either side, supporting you.” She looked up at Nick. “Okay with you?”
He nodded as Lizzie unlaced her boots, and gently slid her socks over Colleen’s bare feet.
“Let’s get her up,” said Nick. “You take the lanterns and lead the way. I’ll carry her until we hit the path, then we’ll support her together.”
Lizzie said, “We heard Colleen screaming about here. I remember seeing her red shirt on my right, so let’s go left and hope to retrace our route.” Nick wrapped Colleen’s arm around his waist, and took a lantern in his spare hand. Lizzie did the same, settling Colleen’s arm around her shoulders. They slowly made their way through the corn stubble. Lizzie grabbed the sign boards with the fake clues they had followed.
Nick said, “Tape marked the paths we took until we reached the four witches signpost. Let’s watch for it. We’ll be back in the maze when we find it.”
Suddenly, search lights lit the maze in the distance, and a voice on a bullhorn blared out.
“Fifteen minutes till closing. Please make your way to the exit. If you’re lost, wave your flag.”
The flag shot into position like a spring-loaded umbrella. Lizzie waved it high overhead.
A search light swooped down on them from the observation tower. A voice behind a bullhorn asked, “Are you people in trouble? Do you need help?”
“Help! Help! One of us is injured.” Lizzie frantically waved her flag.
“Sit tight, we’ll find you,” the bullhorn voice responded.
The maze owners finally appeared with a stretcher. “What are you people doing way out here? You’re out of the maze and across the field. We’ve called the police.”
“Just following the clues that were posted,” said Lizzie.
Nick helped load Colleen on the stretcher, telling the maze owners she had been assaulted.
He joined Lizzie, wrapping his arm around her shoulder, as they walked through the maze. It went quickly, the maze owner pointing out small orange triangular markers at every intersection.
“See those markers? Just follow the way they’re pointing, and you’ll always find your way out.”
Nick quietly spoke to the policeman and continued with the stretcher to the ambulance.
Claire rushed up. “Mom, are you all right? Did you find another dead body?”
Lizzie sighed. Claire did pick her moments.
The police officer turned to Lizzie. “Is that your hobby, lady? Finding dead bodies?”
Lizzie replied, “No, of course not. Dr. Cameron and I followed what turned out to be fake clues, directing us out of the maze. We heard a girl screaming that she was being strangled, and we found her. She’s alive.”
“Do you know the victim?”
“She said her name was Colleen Hughes, and that she’s a Jericho College student.”
“And you’ve never met her?”
“Of course not,” Lizzie snapped. “I barely know the girls on the high school team. We volunteered to drive a carload of players out here for a team bonding experience. If you don’t believe me, ask their coach. Dr. Cameron and I were cleared by the Jericho police to act as chaperones and drivers for the high school.”
The officer was taking notes. “So you didn’t lure Colleen out of the maze and hit her over the head?”
Lizzie was exasperated. “Certainly not. Why don’t you ask Colleen?”
The officer asked for her driver’s license and went over to talk to the EMS personnel. He collected Nick’s license and went to his car, calling in their information.
He returned, handing Lizzie her license. “How come you and Dr. Cameron have the same address? You guys married or living together?”
Lizzie tried not to lose her temper. “Dr. Cameron and I live in separate houses on the same property.”
“And you’re an item?”
Lizzie replied, “We’re close friends.”
“I called a pal in the Jericho PD. You’re Lizzie Christopher. You moved here in June and caused all kinds of trouble in Jericho.”
“Do you mean identifying a murderer and a serial killer? Yes, I did that, risking my life twice.” Lizzie felt her face flush; she focused on staying calm, clenching her fists in her pockets.
He said, “My buddy told me you’re helping investigate the college cheating scandal. Was Colleen involved in that?”
Lizzie stared him down. “I recognized Colleen’s name from the college soccer team roster. She told us she was no longer on the team as a result of the cheating scandal.”
“And you and the good doctor are in it up to your big blue eyeballs,” he said.
Lizzie’s reply was icy. “I really wouldn’t know. You do understand that someone took Colleen into the cornfield and assaulted her?” Lizzie spoke slowly, biting each word off. She was furious.
The officer replied, “So you say. But you and Dr. Cameron were the only people out there.”
“You’re forgetting Colleen’s assailant. He was out there, too. You saw the signs with the fake clues? That’s what we were following. I found them and brought them back.”
He nodded. “We have the signs. But this isn’t over, until you can tell us who took Colleen out there and assaulted her.”
“And why is that my responsibility?”
Lizzie stared at him in disbelief. Colleen had been strangled and then hit on the head. Who had attacked her and left her in the middle of a cornfield? Was this an entrapment plot? Lizzie was listed as the driver for this outing. Had someone lured her out of the maze intending to kill her? Or had Colleen been told to identify Lizzie and Nick as her assailants?
A black Suburban pulled up, the driver jumping out and heading for the ambulance. The car had a college faculty parking pass hooked on the rear view mirror. Lizzie stared at it, trying to remember which department was assigned to the J lot. She casually strolled behind the car, grabbing a pen from her pocket and scribbling the license plate number on her hand. She shoved her hand back into her jacket pocket and continued to the ambulance.
The driver was arguing with the EMS staff, insisting that he would take Colleen to the hospital himself. He pulled out his wallet, waving identification in their faces.
Lizzie joined Nick at the ambulance. “Excuse me, may I ask Colleen if she wants to use my phone to call her parents?” She turned to Colleen. “You can keep my socks, Sweetie. I’m glad we found you so quickly after you were attacked.” Lizzie stared at the driver, memorizing his features. Medium height and weight, eyeglasses, graying eyebrows, which probably indicated graying hair or a bald head, hidden under a beanie, probably in his forties. He wore jeans and a leather jacket. She was tempted to take his photo with her phone, but couldn’t do it discretely.
The EMS attendant finished his phone call. “Okay, folks, time to roll. Colleen, your parents will meet you in the ER. They need to be present before the police question you. Let’s hit the road.”
The driver glared and headed back to the Suburban.
Lizzie quietly approached Colleen. “Let’s keep in touch. That was the guy who assaulted you, wasn’t it? I won’t say anything tonight. I want you safe with your parents.” She wrote her cell number on the back of her ticket stub and tucked it in Colleen’s hand. “It’s going to be all right. I’ll ask Officer Bethany Schmidt to talk to you tomorrow. Can you give me your cell number, or did you lose your phone?”
Tears streamed down her painted face. “He…he took my phone and my purse.” She whispered her mother’s phone number as Lizzie wrote it on her hand. Colleen clutched Lizzie’s jacket. “He told me to put up the signs with the fake clues and then pretend to be attacked. It’s you he wanted to hurt. You’re too close to this mess, and he wants you gone.”
Lizzie stroked her check. “I know, I just put it together. He’s the professor who staged the cheating scandal. He’s targeting all you kids who lost your scholarships. Did he tell you you’d be reinstated on the team with your scholarship if you helped him?” Colleen nodded.
“And can you tell me his name?”
Colleen replied, “Peter Ross. He’s a visiting professor in the Economics Department.”
Lizzie kissed her forehead. “Good girl. Take care of yourself. Officer Schmidt will protect you. You’re a victim, just remember that.”
The police officer spoke briefly to Nick, and then joined her. “You and your boyfriend are free to go, but don’t leave town. You’ll have to come to our station tomorrow morning and give full statements. We’ll see if your stories match Colleen’s version of what happened.”
Lizzie was already punching in Officer Schmidt’s phone number. “We’ve got him. The professor who caused the cheating scandal. He knew I would be chaperoning this trip and planned to lure me into the corn field and finish me off. I wonder if he saw us together and changed his plans to entrap us as Colleen’s assailants.”
She smiled. “In any case, we’ve identified him. Colleen is safe, and so are we. I’ll let Bethany Schmidt deal with Officer Unfriendly over there.”
Nick hugged her. “I’m so glad you’re safe. We’ve earned a quiet evening in front of the fire.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories, and more Halloween stories all month, in our mystery section.