The four of them poured out of the van, each taking a moment for a good look at Commander’s Mansion where it hulked over the grounds. Long, cloudy windows on the second floor stood in contrast to a small, lonely porthole in the central tower. What was once the grand covered porch traversing the front and sides of the building was ruined by bare, splintered floorboards, warped steps, and sagging railings. Years of being baked in the summer sun and buried in winter snows had stripped the impressive building of its glory. The windows seemed to weep, and the dark entrance gaped in horror as if to warn off visitors.
“What did you say it’s called?” Shane asked. “Ball and Chop House or something?” He gave them a look of disbelief.
“He said Ballingschap House,” Dom replied. “It’s what the Commander named it. In Dutch, ‘Ballingschap’ means ‘exile.’ We think it had something to do with him leaving Holland.”
“All right, that’ll do it,” Blake announced with a clap of his hands. “We’ll have more time for history lessons and gawking later. Let’s get the equipment inside.”
Like being woken from some kind of dream, the group starting moving at all once. Shane threw his backpack over his shoulder and walked to the rear of the van where the guys were pulling out a mishmash of green- and gray-colored bags.
He frowned. This wasn’t half enough equipment to make a real, quality video. Maybe they’d pull out the small stuff first and then dig out the bigger equipment. They might even need one of those two-wheeled handcarts to get it all inside. Hopefully it wouldn’t take them too long.
“Can we help you guys?” Ellie said from behind him, giving him a hard shove to the shoulder. Always the more considerate of the two, she fixed him with a hard glare for not offering, adding, “Shane and I would be happy to carry some equipment.”
“Oh sure,” Dom replied. “This is it, so grab a bag and head up to the door. We got the rest.”
“That’s it?” Shane cocked his head. “Shouldn’t there be a bunch more? Cameras and lights and heavy stuff? And where’s the Tracker truck? You said we’d see it.”
Dom shook his head. “Sorry, this is it. Remember all those conditions? They wouldn’t let us bring all the usual filming equipment. We’re going to film everything on high-def handheld cams with mini tripods. And we’re all going to wear wireless personal cameras too. To make sure we don’t miss anything. It’s going to be an extra-cool episode, twice as edgy as normal, and the plan is to use as much of the raw footage as we can. We’re hoping not to need much extra film in post to embellish it.”
“Embellish? What does that mean?” He turned to Blake. “What’s he talking about?”
“The truck should be here in the morning for all the individual shots we need to do, the arrival segment, ‘initial entry’ shot, the wrap-up. All that stuff. Point is, once we’ve survived the night inside and gotten some great raw stuff, you’ll get to see the truck before we make the add-ins. We’ll do the one-on-one diary-style interviews with you guys then too.”
Shane felt like he’d swallowed cough medicine laced with soap. “So you film all that stuff extra? But this is the arrival. And we’re about to walk in, which should be your entry shot. And why do the diaries afterwards? Won’t they be better when you’re in the middle of it?”
“Shay-man,” Blake said with a grin, “this is content creation. Everything you see is crafted with care, put together to get a shot or a scene perfect. There’s not a whole lot of reality in a reality show.” Lifting a pair of duffels, he nodded at the door. “Come on. No reason to waste any more time out here.”
Shane’s frown deepened. In half an hour, he’d learned that his TV heroes bickered like an old married couple and doctored up episodes to make things look cooler. And on top of that, he wasn’t going to get to sit in the Tracker truck until tomorrow morning at the earliest. This wasn’t what he’d expected, not at all.
They managed to carry all of it in one trip, each of them lugging two, three, or—in poor Dom’s case—four bags of stuff up the wide expanse of steps leading to the front door. The entrance was a double set with those fancy multicolored stained-glass sidelights on both sides, obscuring their view of the interior. Both the house and porch itself, though, were neutral-colored gray, reminiscent of a chilly overcast day in early February. The trim boards and shutters were gray, too, but a darker shade of the same tint. More the color of summer storm clouds.
“Open ’er up, Dom,” Blake ordered.
The shorter man glared back. “What do you mean? I don’t have the keys. I gave them to you.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course, I did. With the gate key.”
“No, you only gave me the gate key.”
“That’s a load of—whatever, I know I gave them to you.”
Blake set his bags down and pulled his pockets inside out. Nothing but the van’s ignition key.
Dom glared at his partner. “Well, that’s great. Because I don’t have them either.” He followed suit, turning the white-cloth pockets of his own jeans out in an explosion of lint. “Let’s check the van. But you had them after the production meeting. They gave them to you with that big gate key. And then you had them after—well, I saw you with them today.”
The pair scrambled down the steps while still arguing then began searching the van, looking under seats and between cushions for the missing keys.
Setting his bags down but pulling the harness on his own backpack tighter, Shane stepped up to one of the sidelights beside the door frame. Cupping his hands around his eyes, he pressed forward, leaning his forehead against the glass. The first colored pane he picked was a dark blue, keeping him from seeing anything. Then he crouched slightly and found a yellow one that let him see through.
Inside was an open, empty entryway with rooms to each side, a hallway farther back, and a curved staircase winding up to the floors above, with stairs wide enough that four kids could have gone stair-diving down them side by side on sleeping bags. The one single piece of furniture he could make out looked like a table at the base of the steps, but it was covered in a sheet.
“What do you see?” Ellie asked in a whisper. “A crazy, power-hungry scientist with plans to take over the town council? Disembodied ghosts dancing in sheets that don’t touch the floor? Mops and buckets moving on their own?” Her voice dropped a level. “Or a lonely woman by herself, crying over being a failure?”
Shane pulled back and spun to face her. “Dang. That’s creepy, Ellie. Where’d that come from?”
“You, I guess. You’re always talking about your mom being all alone and sad now. I… Forget it. I was just making a joke. Sorry.”
“Hmm,” he grumbled. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re acting weird.”
“I’m fine. Should we go help them?”
An idea shot through him like lightning. “They didn’t even check to see if the door was locked. I bet it’s open.”
“What? Don’t be a bonehead. Of course, it isn’t. You know this place is always locked up tight. Otherwise, it’d be full of drunk teenagers and homeless people.”
Shane shook his head. “It’ll open.”
He looked back at the door, eyes narrowed. It couldn’t hurt to try, right? Especially since the guys he’d spent most of the last few years idolizing were now shouting at each other as they ripped whatever they could find out of the van in search of the mysterious missing keys.
Ellie followed his gaze to the scene of the two men working their way around the vehicle. “They make you feel real safe, don’t they?”
“Oh yeah,” Shane replied, snickering. “Even better than my old security blanket.”
Turning back to the door, he eyed the handle with suspicion. It wasn’t a knob but one of those fancy, ornate latches with the push-down thumb button. Did they have door handles like that back in the 1700s? Well, even if they did, this one looked shiny and relatively new. It had to have been replaced in the last decade or so by one of the maintenance crews. How much of the rest of the house was the same? Old but not really that old, everything truly ancient having been replaced with something newer in the past few decades?
Time to find out.
As he reached out to grab the door handle, his backpack suddenly sagged hard against his shoulders, the straps biting into the skin and bone. It felt ten times heavier than it had been before, like someone dropped a load of rocks or an anvil into it when he wasn’t looking. When his hand touched the metal of the handle, though, the weight floated away like a feather.
The handle itself was freezing, as searing cold as a flagpole in mid-winter. Burning needles of ice raced up his arm. He yelped and tried to pull his hand away, but it was stuck, frozen in place.
Then the latch clicked. The door swung inward swiftly, silently. Shane’s hand remained in the same space the handle had occupied a second before, clutching at nothing. The freezing cold was gone. His hand, arm, everything felt normal. “What the—”
Ellie gasped. “Are you kidding me? It was really unlocked?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess. But I didn’t—”
“Guys,” she yelled back to the van, “it’s open!”
“What?” Blake shouted back.
“The door! It’s open!”
The pair slammed the van doors and raced back up the steps to the porch.
“What do you mean?” Blake demanded.
“You’re kidding!” Dom said from behind him.
The kids both took a step to the side and gestured at the open doorway.
Shane couldn’t help but add a touch of flair. “Bam!”
“Killer work, Shay-man.” Blake grinned. “I’m glad I decided to let you tag along. Keep this up? You’ll both turn out to be awesome Trackers-in-training.”
Dom adjusted his cap. “Let’s get the stuff inside and set up. We’re running short of daylight. Time to get to work.”
“Nah, dude,” the other man said. “Now’s the fun part.”
The pair picked up their respective equipment bags and rambled through the doorway.
“That was kind of anticlimactic,” Ellie said, watching them go. “The least they could have done was take a picture to mark the moment they entered the house or something.”
Shane paused while picking up the bags he’d been carrying. “Didn’t you hear them? I’m sure they’ll have something dramatic planned for the ‘initial entry’ shot they’re going to film tomorrow.” Inside, he tried not to fume.
“I don’t mean just for the show. I mean, I—I don’t know. They could show the place a little more respect.”
“I guess.” She was being weird again. Speaking of weird, he had a thought. “Hey, were you hanging on my backpack or pulling down on it or something when I went to open the door?”
Her eyes, the color of his dad’s old leather bomber jacket, flashed wide in surprise. The shock disappeared as he noticed it, though, and they narrowed again as her eyebrows crinkled. “No. Why would I do that?”
“It felt like… It got real heavy for a second. Like it was full or rocks or something. I thought maybe you were messing with me.”
Hefting her own bags, she huffed. “No, but I wish I had. Serve you right for talking me into this. I’m sure you imagined it. Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine.” He rolled his eyes. “Go on. Let’s help them get set up. I can’t wait to start looking around.”
With a nod, Ellie walked ahead of him and through the doorway, pausing for a half a second before she crossed the threshold.
Shane followed behind her.
As he stepped through the door into Commander’s Mansion, a perfect, unearthly silence teeming with dread filled his ears.