Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2021
Adult Winners

Second Place

Our second place Adult winner is Leonard Varasano of Sea Bright, New Jersey. Mr. Varasano also won this contest in 2019, 2017, 2016, 2013, 2012, and 2011 making him the first one in the history of the contest to win an amazing seven times.

Death Grip

Leonard Varasano

Parking her car near the canoe launch point, Sally Starnes shut off the headlights and stared out into the reservoir’s blackness. Within minutes a Maserati turned into the lot and pulled into a spot near hers. She watched the male driver exit, tie the belt of his raincoat closed and approach. She got out too. “Thanks for meeting me,” she said.

Sure, Sally. Your voice sounded so serious,” the man said, easily 20 years her senior. “And so many texts.”

Sally glared at the man. “Do you have the money?”

The man smirked. “Of course.”

Where is it?”

The man drew a small line in the dirt with his shoe tip. “In my car but first, I want to get this straight. I give you the money and that’s the end of it, right?”

That’s right.”

The man flashed a mirthless smile. “I see.” Reaching towards Sally as if to embrace, he grabbed the back of her head at the last moment, slamming her face first into the trunk lid of her car with a loud thud. She slumped towards the ground, unconscious before hitting the dirt.

Prodding Sally with his foot, the man entered her vehicle compartment and placed the car in neutral. He popped opened the trunk release, returned to the rear of the car, picked her up and as he dropped her inside, she moaned.

You never were very smart there, Sally girl”, he said while pushing the car over the crest of the launch slope and into the black water beyond.

The car had gained momentum as the front wheels entered the reservoir. The man started to close the trunk lid when suddenly Sally’s hand reached and grabbed his raincoat belt buckle, yanking it inside just as the lid slammed shut. Furiously, he dug in his heels but was no match for the weight of the sinking car. “No… No… NO!” He fought and tugged but could not break free and was pulled under into utter darkness, descending through the water’s depths, soon to lose consciousness.

He came to stretched out, face down on the launch slope. Gagging and heaving water, he finally gained his footing, stumbled to his car and drove off into the night.

Des Basilone sat at his desk, leafing through crime stat reports, bored. Town events had been mundane since Super Storm Sandy had struck 5 years earlier, after which the desiccated body of serial killer suspect Stephen Moloch was found in the aftermath, impaled and crucified by the disinterred bones of his many victims. The county Medical Examiner had much difficulty explaining what many thought to be a supernatural event, especially after photos of Moloch’s savaged body had been leaked on social media, drawing the interest of both paranormal investigators and horror fans the world over. The town’s business owners surely appreciated the increased revenue while the visits lasted.

There was a low knock on the door frame. “Excuse me, Chief. There’s a Mrs. Starnes here to see you.” Des nodded, appreciating the interruption. “Sure, Mary. Would you show her in, please?”

A distraught woman entered the office and Des stood to greet her. He knew her look and could tell something was drastically wrong. “Hello, Mrs. Starnes. What can I do for you?”

Chief, my daughter Sally has vanished. I’ve tried everywhere...everyone I could think of but she’s gone...can you help me find her, please?” The woman began to weep.

How long has she been missing?”

She went out last night and never came home. I’m terribly worried...I couldn’t ask for a better daughter...she’s never done anything like this before! Won’t you please help me find her?”

Of course, I’ll help you! Here, why don’t you have a seat? If you’ll provide me with some basic information, we’ll get started right away.” Des guided her to the chair in front of his desk, then returned to his seat and began asking questions and taking notes.

A half hour later, Des was on the phone. “Hello, Judge. This is Chief Des Basilone. We have a missing young woman...not the disappearing kind...foul play is not off the table at this point and I’m hoping you’ll grant me verbal CDW authorization so we can track her phone location. I promise to follow up with the warrant affidavit later today.”

Afterwards, Des was reviewing the cell tower positioning detail concerning Sally Starnes’ phone when Gary Thompson, the on-duty detective he’d summoned, arrived. “Hey, Chief, what do we have?”

Missing woman, something’s screwy.” Des frowned. “Last night, the final ping from her cell phone recorded on a tower near Swimming River Park. What the hell’s out there these days?

Not much.”

And another cell phone pinged the same tower, same time, then drove off and came back to town. I should have the subscriber lookup on that number shortly.”

What can I do to help, Chief?” The detective emanated youthful exuberance which Des found contagious.

When that lookup comes back, so long as it’s not a burner phone, we’ll take a ride to see the owner… and say hello.”

An hour later, a grim-faced Des and Detective Thompson drove to a huge beachfront house on Ocean Avenue. “Gary, if you want to wait out in the car, that’s fine,” Des said.

No sir, Chief.
“All right then. Pay close attention to his body language, eye movement and general demeanor.”

The two officers walked past a Maserati parked in the driveway. Des rang the doorbell. A large sounding dog whimpered until a male voice yelled “GO LAY DOWN!” A few moments later a man answered holding a highball glass, and he was undoubtedly startled to see two police officers outside his door. Des nodded. “Hello, Mr. Mayor. Do you have a minute for us?”

The mayor tensed. “Is everything all right, Chief?” he slurred.
We’re following up on a missing person… a young woman from town.”

What does that have to do with me?” the mayor shot back, both indignant and inappropriate. Des glanced at Gary and glared at the mayor. “I was hoping for a different reaction from a town know...maybe something like ‘who’s the woman?’”

Okay… who’s the woman?”

Des waited a long moment before responding. “I figured after your phone blew up with scores of inbound texts the past week alone, not counting dozens of calls from the SAME NUMBER, you’d know.”

The mayor took a huge slug from his glass. “Some nerve you have coming here and firing a shot across the bow. I’m your boss, remember?”

That’s true regarding certain administrative functions, Mr. Mayor. But believe me when I say, that will not prevent me from doing my job. Not in the slightest. You’re acting just like an attorney with something to hide, rather than a concerned citizen.”

The mayor sneered. “You’ll need to speak with my attorney from this point on,” he said, slamming the door shut.

Des and Gary exchanged disbelieving looks. As they got in the car, Des said “This does not bode well for Sally Starnes.”

But Chief, shouldn’t we go inside, even without a warrant?” Des shook his head. “No need.”
“What if she’s in there, chained to a wall or something?” “She’s not.

How do you know?”

There’s a street cam...right there,” Des gestured to the telephone pole across the road, bearing an unobtrusive Hi-Res Acuity camera. “Courtesy of federal grant money after Superstorm Sandy, several strategically placed throughout town. Earlier, I pulled last night’s video. He arrived home at 20:37...alone...the time coordinates with his cell phone positioning. I fast forwarded and saw after he parked in the driveway, he didn’t leave the house the rest of the night. Now, if he had pulled into the garage and I couldn’t see if he was alone or not, rest assured you and I would be inside there right this very moment, searching.”

Inside his house, the shaky-handed mayor emptied his glass and quickly poured a refill. Realizing he’d completely blown credibility with the police chief, he now was in full-throttle survival - damage control mode. If he kept his mouth shut and lawyered-up he could weather the storm. Yes, he could. Though his own law practice might suffer, it would be better than 30 years in prison. Downing several more glasses of bourbon, he drank himself unconscious.

At H.Q., Des and his detective discussed their next course of action. “Gary, call the ranger guys. In the past, they’ve used trail cameras throughout the park for wildlife management. See if they still do, and if they have any retrievable data from the last 48 hours, particularly near the roads. If they don’t, see if they can spare a man to help us install a few cameras ourselves. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see what happened, or our suspect will get antsy like suspects do sometimes and revisit the scene of contact.”

You’ve got it, Chief.”

That’s strange Sally’s phone stopped pinging the way it did. Probably there are ways of circumventing the GPS, but just shutting off the phone, to my knowledge, won’t do that. It’s doubtful Sally used a Faraday bag. I’ll call an expert I know and see what he can tell me.”

The mayor awoke to a dark house in the middle of the night, his German Shepherd whining near his feet. “Shut the hell up...some guard dog you are!” Grabbing the bottle, he poured some more bourbon and was about to take a slug when he heard a sound from an adjacent room. Still groggy, he stood and saw the dog cowering with its tail between its legs. He tiptoed and peeked inside the den from where the sound emanated. Still blurry-eyed, he glimpsed a dark figure near the fireplace, silhouetted by the ambient light seeping in from outdoors. “Who’s there?”

The figure moved towards him with small, disjointed steps producing eerie, squishy sounds.

Scalp prickling, the mayor yelled and bolted towards the front door. Just as he yanked it open, his dog pushed past him, disappearing into the night. Running to his neighbor’s house, the mayor pounded on the door and called the police from there.

Minutes later, standing outside his residence, the mayor met with the two young officers emerging from his house. “Mr. Mayor, the house is clear.”

Are you sure? I saw someone standing in the den. My dog freaked out and still hasn’t returned.”

There’s no one here, sir. Every door’s locked, window secured.” I’m crazy?”

The officer shrugged. “No, sir. But there’s no one here now. There’s a small puddle upon the marble bordering your fireplace. Perhaps your dog piddled, or maybe something spilled or leaked earlier?”

The mayor shook his head. “I doubt that. If you guys see a German Shepherd running around would you call me? Before tonight I thought he might bite someone, but now I’m not so sure. Thanks for coming.” Closing the door before the officer could respond, and with every light switched on inside the house by the police, the mayor conducted his own room to room search, saving the den for last. Even with the lights on, he warily entered the room. He found water on the marble and upon closer examination saw the adjacent, burgundy carpet was wet too, every few feet, leading up to the door frame through which he’d fled the house. Finally, he turned and went upstairs to bed, leaving on all the lights. He slept poorly, with weird, fragmented dreams; dark, wavering shadows followed him at every turn.

The next morning, Des read the ‘Officer Wanted’ report generated by the midnight shift’s visit to the mayor’s house concerning a “possible intruder, unfounded.” He showed Gary the narrative, who offered “Maybe he’s starting to bug out.”

Later, Des and Gary met with a park ranger and together they placed a few cameras on some hiking trails and the canoe launch parking area, anywhere that might capture human activity around the reservoir at Swimming River Park. At the Park Ranger station, they reviewed photos taken during the last 24 hours from previously installed cameras with negative results, except for the nocturnal foraging of some deer.

Des spoke with Gary on the way back to town. “Tonight’s council meeting ought to be interesting. Let’s see if the mayor shows, and how he holds up when questions start flying about Sally Starnes. I know you’ll be off duty, but if you have the time it might be good to watch.”

I’ll be there… I wouldn’t miss it.”

The council meeting was packed, standing room only. Des and Gary sat front row and center so the mayor would be forced to look at them when he faced the audience. Gary noticed Des was holding a document boldly marked ARREST WARRANT that the mayor could not possibly miss from his council seat once he entered the room. Gary gestured. “Something I should know, Chief?”

Des grinned and held up the ‘warrant’, which was blank except for the title. “A few minutes into the meeting, I’ll hold this up so he’ll see the heading. I’ll nudge you before I do it so you can gauge his reaction.”

As Gary tried not to smile at the ruse, the council members filed in and sat at their respective seats. The dispirited-looking mayor immediately noted Des and Gary’s presence and looked like he wanted to jump out a window.

A few minutes into the meeting, before Des held up the ‘warrant’, the mayor heard the same noise from the previous night, before he’d seen the dark figure moving in his den. The squishy sound grew louder, though he was unable to determine the direction and no one else seemed to hear.

The sound ceased as he felt a light touch upon his shoulder. He turned to see a drowned, lifeless Sally Starnes looking down on him through straggly hair with eyes glazed and unseeing. Screaming like a madman, the mayor bolted from his seat, through the doors and out of the building, setting off a stunned outburst from the crowd.

Wow,” said Des. “I didn’t even show him the ‘warrant’ yet!”

Gibbering and half out of his mind, driving his Maserati at a maniacal pace, the mayor soon found himself on the road skirting the reservoir. It was dusk and with the speed of his vehicle, he easily over drove the range of his headlights. As he rounded a sharp bend near the canoe launch entrance, Sally Starnes stood directly in his car’s path. Jumping on his brakes, he careened into the parking area and spun to a halt. No sooner had he stopped when he felt a hand upon his shoulder once more. This time he didn’t bother to look behind as he tore out of the car and into the arms of Sally Starnes. He screamed at the finality of the embrace.

When the mayor dashed out of the council meeting, Gary turned to Des. “Want me to chase him down?”

Des calmly shook his head. “He’s not going anywhere.” “With that car? Are you serious?”
Don’t worry. I placed a GPS in his wheel well last night.” “Really? I didn’t notice.”

Things like that are best done surreptitiously. Don’t worry though, the GPS was listed in my search warrant affidavit.”

When the two policemen left the building, Des pulled a GPS tracker from his pocket. “Guess where the mayor’s heading?”

Swimming River Park?”

Good job, Detective. Let’s go find him.”

Des and Gary found the mayor’s car in the canoe launch parking lot, engine running, door ajar, headlights engaged, but no mayor. Shining their flashlights around the tree line and the water’s edge, there was no sign of the man. “Let’s go find the duty ranger and see if he’ll give us a peek at what’s on the trail cam,’’ Des said.

The men met with Mack, the duty ranger, at the park’s IT building. The ranger was young, like Gary, and excited at a break from the routine.

After a few minutes, the screening from the trail cam was set to go. “Chief, is it okay if I watch too?” Mack asked hopefully.

You bet.”

The men watched as the Maserati spun to a halt. As the mayor leapt out of the car, he seemed to run into an invisible barrier, thrown to the ground and then grabbed by the rear of his collar, kicking and thrashing as he’s pulled backwards by an unseen force into the dark water. After a moment of white froth, he’s yanked under. They watched the scene loop several times in silence. Finally, Des spoke. “Mack, can you make me a few copies of that and then come back with us to the launch?”

Yes, sir!”

An hour later, the County Major Crimes Bureau had deployed their investigative dive unit to the canoe launch. Floodlights illuminated the water’s edge and depths while the entire area now swarmed with police. The dive unit’s truck displayed a large screen TV streaming footage from what the body cam equipped divers below were seeing firsthand. Des, Gary and Mack watched intently along with the unit’s supervisor and county detectives.

They’re about 50 feet down now,” the headset-clad supervisor advised. “A few feet out from the water’s edge there’s a sheer drop. Towards the middle, parts of this reservoir are over 100 feet deep.”

Sally Starnes’ car was visible, resting on the murky bottom. As the lead diver re-positioned himself, the mayor’s body came into view, arms dangling lifelessly, seemingly stuck belt high to the vehicle’s trunk.

Can we get both him and the car up tonight?” Des asked.

Sure, Chief,” the supervisor answered. “The dive unit has a few more photos and measurements to take, and then we’ll start the extraction process.”

After Sally Starnes’ car had been painstakingly hauled out and the trunk opened and drained, the bodies were photographed and removed. Frowning, the M.E. examined the corpses at rest upon a tarp near the water’s edge; the mayor’s raincoat belt still stuck fast in Sally’s clenched fist.

That’s what I call a death grip… what is it, Doc? What do you have?” Des asked.

These bodies have been underwater more than 24 hours… more like 48.”

Des pointed at the mayor’s body. “That guy was at a council meeting less than 2 hours ago!”

I know what I know, Chief,” the M.E. said. “I’ve handled enough drownings to tell you… whatever you saw a few hours ago… wasn’t this guy.” He pointed towards the mayor’s corpse, staring up with glazed, sightless eyes.

Des exchanged bewildered looks with Gary and Mack, then shook his head and moved towards his car. “I’ll be back in a little while, Gary. Time to let Mrs. Starnes know what happened to her daughter.”

Chief, would you hold up a minute?” the dive supervisor called out with a hand to his headset. Des turned back and took a few steps towards the man. “What’s up?”

Visibly distraught, the supervisor approached and whispered to the chief. “The lead diver just called up… they’ve located other bodies anchored to the bottom of the reservoir… some cars too. A few bodies are relatively fresh but most have been submerged for a long, long time.”

Gary sauntered over. “What’s happening, Chief?”

Des sighed and shook his head. “I’ll tell you one thing.”

What’s that?”

I’m sure glad I drink bottled water.”

Continue to the 1st place story

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