The Black Heart Crypt is a part of the A Haunted Mystery collection.
Perfect for Halloween! From the New York Times bestselling author of Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library and coauthor of I Funny and Treasure Hunters, comes a series of spine-tingling mysteries to keep you up long after the lights go out.
Halloween is near, the one day of the year when the ghostly plane is close enough to the human plane to allow mischief and mayhem. But the ghosts who have their eye on Zack aren't thinking mischief, they are thinking murder.
In the fourth volume of Chris Grabenstein's popular Haunted Mysteries series, Zack must yet again do battle with malevolent spirits. And with perseverance and pluck, and the assistance of three dotty aunts, he must save his town from a 200-year-old threat.
Once again Chris Grabenstein proves his mastery of the frightening and funny tale. Young readers, especially reluctant ones, have been inspired to read by Grabenstein's quirky characters and deadly situations.
An Excerpt fromThe Black Heart Crypt
Zack Jennings did not want to chase a slobbering black dog with glowing red eyeballs up into the Haddam Hill Cemetery three nights before Halloween.
It was Zipper’s idea.
They were in the backyard after dinner, playing with a squishy yellow ball, when Zipper picked up the other dog’s scent and went tearing down the highway after it.
“Zipper? Halt! Stay! Come!”
Zack wasn’t exactly sure which command to use to stop his dog from chasing after the thundering black beast, which had to be some kind of hellhound; otherwise its eyes wouldn’t be a pair of red-hot coals.
But Zipper did not halt, stay, or come. The small dog slipped through the cemetery’s wrought-iron railings to pursue the monster, which had so many rippling muscles Zack figured it must belong to the Gym for Gigantic Dogs.
Of course he couldn’t squeeze between the railings like Zipper had, and he wasn’t much at scaling fences, especially when his glasses got all foggy, so he dashed around to the back of the cemetery, where he knew there was a gate because one night, back in June, he and his friend Davy had hidden in this very same cemetery to escape a knife-wielding nut job whose body was being controlled by an evil ancestor.
A dead evil ancestor.
Yep. Ghosts can do that. They can slip their souls into the bodies of family members and totally take them over.
Zack yanked open the gate and shuffled through the sea of leaves smothering the ground between tombstones. A chilly autumn nip was in the air. The moon was hidden behind a pile of angry dark clouds. The sky was a murky black. Three nights before Halloween, this cemetery was creepier than ever.
“Zipper?” Zack’s voice echoed off a marble monument. “Where are you, boy?”
Finally, his dog barked a quick volley of yaps to let Zack know he was extremely busy.
Then Zack heard a deep, throaty rumble. The demon dog!
“Hang on, Zip! I’m coming!”
Zack swung around a concrete angel and raced over to a tomb the size of a small cabin--the biggest, darkest mausoleum in the whole Haddam Hill Cemetery. Its arched wooden doorway was sealed tight with a black heart-shaped lock. Even in the gloom of night, Zack could read the name carved into the stone slab over the entryway:
“Zipper?” No answer.
Zack trotted around the stone building, which sort of looked like a miniature church made out of gray Lego blocks.
He heard a weird whimper that sounded like a weary sheep bleat.
His dog came padding around the corner of the blockhouse with a bewildered grin on his snout.
“The big black dog disappeared on you, didn’t he, boy?”
Zipper wagged his tail excitedly, as if to say, Yeah, yeah. It was freaky.
Zack bent down to rub his buddy’s head.
“Well, maybe next time you’ll listen to me when I tell you not to chase after devil dogs.”
Zipper leapt up to lick Zack’s face. Zack laughed.
That is, he laughed until he heard the sharp slice of a shovel blade digging into dirt.
Someone else was in the cemetery.
Zipper hunkered down on the ground in pounce mode.
Zack pressed his back against the Ickleby family crypt in an attempt to disappear into the shadows.
Sticky cobwebs attacked the back of his head, making him feel like he’d just brushed up against a giant wad of cotton candy. Peeling away the gooey strands, Zack peered over at a cluster of grime-streaked headstones, where he saw a burly man with a bushy beard, who was dressed in coveralls, sinking his shovel blade into the ground, digging up rocky clumps of dirt. A softly glowing lantern propped atop a nearby headstone projected his hulking shadow up into the tangled tree branches, where it loomed like a floating ogre.
Fortunately, the guy wasn’t a ghost. Zack could tell. Ever since he’d moved to Connecticut from New York City with his dad and stepmom, he’d learned a whole bunch of junk about the spirit world--what ghosts can do and what they can’t. He probably knew more than any eleven-year-old should legally be allowed to.
For instance, he knew that a ghost could take over the body of its blood relative, but unless it did that, it couldn’t do much besides wail and moan and try to scare you into hurting yourself.
A ghost couldn’t hold a shovel, and in Zack’s experience, digging a hole in the ground by lantern light wasn’t exactly something an evil spirit took over a relative’s body to do. He felt pretty confident that the dude digging the hole wasn’t a ghost or a possessed person.
The man started singing as he dug, a tune Zack recognized from recess on the playground:
“Don’t ever laugh when a hearse goes by, For you may be the next to die.”
Zack looked at Zipper and put a finger to his lips. They would try to tiptoe out of the graveyard without being seen or heard.
“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout.”
Zack and Zipper crept closer to the gate. The man kept digging, kept up his steady stomp-slice-shook-flump, stomp-slice-shook-flump.
“There’s one little worm that’s very shy, Crawls in your stomach and out your eye.”
Zack and Zipper made it to the graveyard gate.
The digging stopped.
“Isn’t that right, boy?”
Okay. Zack didn’t remember those lyrics. He pushed open the squeaky gate.
“Freeze!” the gravedigger shouted.
And this time, Zipper obeyed, too!
Somewhere in the distance, Zack heard a stray cat meowing at the moon.
Then he heard boots clomping up behind him.
“I heard you callin’ to your dog, boy,” said the man, who kept coming closer. “Zipper. What kind of name is that for a dog?”
Slowly, Zack turned around.
The man was standing six feet behind him, holding his clay-draggled shovel like a knight’s lance with one hand, the flickering lantern with the other.
“Well,” said Zack, wishing his throat weren’t so dry, “Zipper is very fast and . . .”
“Dogs ought to be named Fido, Duke, Sparky. What you two doin’ here, anyway? Cemetery’s closed.”
“Um,” said Zack, “Zipper chased a cat up the hill from the highway.”
“A cat?” The creepy gravedigger raised the lantern up beside his craggy face. “You sure it weren’t a dog? A big black dog?”
Zack gulped. “Pardon?”
The gravedigger bugged out his eyes. “A big black dog with fiery-red eyeballs. What some folks call a Black Shuck, a ghostly black beast what guards graveyards from foul spirits.” The man grinned menacingly. “Wonder why he let you two in.”
“It was just a cat,” said Zack.
The stray cat yowled again. With its strangled cry, it sounded like a baby screaming for its bottle.
“Well, we better get going.”
“Yep. You should. Ain’t very wise to be in a boneyard this close to Halloween unless, of course, you’ve got some serious business to attend to, such as digging a new grave.”
Zack was scared but also confused, so he said, “Huh?”
The gravedigger nodded toward the hole he’d been scooping out. “Mr. Henry H. Heckman has arrived just in time for Halloween, when he’ll crawl up out of the ground to go take care of whatever business he left undone when he died.”
“That’s what I said, boy. Putting him in the family plot. There’s all sorts of Heckmans buried up here on Haddam Hill.”
Yeah, Zack wanted to say. He had met one of them back in June: a dead bus driver named Bud Heckman.
“Yep,” the gravedigger went on, “Heckmans have lived and died in these parts since before the Revolutionary War.”
“Just like the Icklebys, huh?”
The gravedigger lost his sly smile. “Icklebys ain’t from around here, boy.”
“Really? I saw their name on that big tomb over there, so I figured . . .”
“Icklebys don’t belong here and neither do you two! Git!”
The gravedigger raised his shovel. “Git!”
“We’re ‘gitting,’” said Zack.
“Good! And don’t never come back here no more!”
“Don’t worry,” said Zack. “We won’t.”
Because a graveyard was the last place Zack Jennings wanted to be this close to Halloween.
Too many worm-eaten ghosts with pinochle cards up their snouts.
Thirteen demons stared at the gravedigger through the cold stone walls of the Ickleby crypt.
“Let us out!” screamed the youngest soul trapped inside. “Let us out, you grody gravedigger, or I’ll ice you, man!”
His elders shook their heads. They knew that all the gravedigger would hear of the young man’s rant was the howl of a distant wind.
“Quiet, boy,” rasped Barnabas, the family patriarch and the oldest Ickleby entombed on Haddam Hill. “The gravedigger cannot hear you.”
“I don’t care, man. Someday, I’m gonna bust down these walls and break outta here!”
“Ah, you’re all wet, ya sap,” said the ghost of Crazy Izzy Ickleby, a gangster who had made his fortune running rum with Al Capone during Prohibition. “Besides, it ain’t the stones locking us in.”
“It is the spell,” said Barnabas. “The cursed spell!”
Barnabas, who had died in 1749 and, even as a ghost, still wore his bandit mask and tricornered hat, kept an eye on their unexpected visitor, the young boy in the glasses, as he disappeared down the hill with his dog.
“That child.” His voice was the husky croak of a strangled crow.
“What about him?” snapped the tough-talking gangster.
“When he leaned up against the wall, I felt a most peculiar chill. He is a Jennings.”
The twelve other demons hissed when he said the name.
The Icklebys hated the Jenningses.
They had hated them ever since the day thirty years ago when certain members of the Jennings clan had confined these thirteen Ickleby souls to this cramped crypt.
“We shall have our revenge on that boy,” said Barnabas. “And soon. Very soon.”
“They’re not out there, George,” said Judy.
Zack’s dad and stepmother were standing in the kitchen, looking out through the big bay window into the backyard.
“Come on,” said George. “Zack and Zip might be in trouble.”
“Or they might just be in the front yard,” said Judy.
“The veil grows thin!”
Judy shook her head to clear out her ears. “What?”
“Halloween. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest on October thirty-first!”
Oh, boy, thought Judy.
Ever since George had learned that Zack could see ghosts (the same way George had been able to when he was a boy), he had been spending a little too much time on his daily commute to and from New York City reading books about the spirit world.
George grabbed a flashlight. He and Judy hurried out the back door.
“What’s that?” George swung his beam across the yard, pausing at a half-buried lump in the grass. “It looks like a head. A shrunken head!”
“That’s Zipper’s ball,” Judy said calmly.
“Are you sure? Maybe a ghost shrunk Zack’s head.”
“That’s not Zack, sweetheart. His head isn’t yellow and squishy.”
George tilted up his flashlight and moved the beacon across a flurry of swaying branches.
“There’s a ghost up there, waving at us! See him?”
“That’s a tree, hon.”
“Ghosts don’t have that many limbs. Or bird nests.”
“But trees can have ghosts hidden inside them. Zack told me about the tree that crashed into the backyard, how the ghost trapped inside broke free and went on an all-out evil spree.”
Judy took George’s arm and cuddled up against him. “That ghost is all gone.”
“I know. But maybe he’ll come back.”
“I don’t think he can.”
“On Halloween, anything is possible. They all get a hall pass on Halloween.”
George kept on going. “Communicating with ancestors and departed loved ones is easiest near Halloween, the night when souls once again journey through this world on their way to the Summerlands, which is what ancient Druids called the afterlife.”
“You ever think about going back to reading mysteries and military histories?”
“Why? Do you think I’m going overboard with this stuff?”
“Maybe. A little. Kind of.”
“I’m just trying to make sure Zack is safe. Halloween isn’t easy for a guy who sees ghosts, trust me.”
“Look, I’m sure if Zack sees anything paranormal, he’ll tell us.”
“I hope so. Maybe he should wear a disguise so the wandering spirits don’t wreak revenge on him.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. They’re dead. They’re not thinking straight.”
Judy heard leaves crunching.
“What’s that?” George swung his flashlight toward the forest.
And practically blinded his son.
“Hey, Dad. Hey, Mom.” Zack had to shield his eyes with his forearm. Zipper stood at his side, merrily wagging his tail.
“Are you two okay?” his father asked.
“Yeah. Zipper went chasing after a devil dog.”
“A what?” said Judy.
“A big black dog with glowing red eyeballs. He chased it all the way up to the Haddam Hill Cemetery.”
“Ah,” said his father. “A Black Shuck! They guard graveyards. I read about those.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?” asked Judy.
“Yeah. The dog-beast vanished.”
His father nodded knowingly. “They’ll do that.”
“But,” said Zack, “we might want to keep an eye out for Henry H. Heckman.”
“The baker on Main Street?” said George, who had grown up in North Chester and knew everybody in town.
“Yeah. He just died. The gravedigger figures he’ll be up and walking around on Monday night, seeing how it’s Halloween and all.” Zack yawned. “I’m pooped. Think I’ll head up to bed.”
“You still want to go pumpkin picking tomorrow?” his father asked, his brow wrinkled with concern.
“Yeah. And Malik and Azalea are really looking forward to it, too.”
“Great,” said Judy, smiling warmly. “Good night, hon. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
“I won’t. Come on, Zip.”
The two of them headed into the house.
“Okay,” said George, “that does it. We’re going to need reinforcements. I’m texting Aunt Ginny.”
Judy, who had only married George five months earlier, was still a little foggy about his family. “Which one is she?”
“Virginia. The youngest of my father’s three sisters. She helped me when I was Zack’s age and could see ghosts.”
“She made them go away.”