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04193386

Have you been to Saint Augustine?

Many folks know that Saint Augustine is one of the oldest cities in the United States. But fewer know that it's a hotbed of paranormal activity. Countless "ghost" tours are peppered across the city in an effort to make a quick buck for a quick fright. You'll hear it all, too: How Henry Flagler divorced his insane second wife, and then had her locked away to die, or how little children were left to die outside of the city gates when it became overrun by a sudden outbreak of yellow fever.

I was always skeptical of these stories.

I'll be honest. I thought it was total bullshit.

But, besides the tourist traps, Saint Augustine is a wonderful city, and I would always do my best to make it out that way at least once a month. It was a simple trip, as I lived in Green Cove Springs at the time, not that far away. I've always had a blast in that old city.

My last trip was a bit different, though.

I was enjoying a bit of a vacation with my wife, traveling the east coast of Florida. We had gone straight to Daytona Beach and spent a few nights in one of the oceanfront hotels. On our way back home, we traveled through Saint Augustine, which is a pretty normal route to take.

Now, something you need to know about my wife: She's a paranormal freak. Seriously. If it's spooky, scary, or down right strange, she's interested. That's why we decided to book a room in Saint Augustine. And by "we", I mean her.

We stopped at The Cozy Inn, a small hotel next to the Florida School of the Deaf and Blind. Ray Charles went there, as you're sure to hear every single tour operator say as they pass by it. That's all they have to say about it.

The folks running the Inn were friendly enough, even took the time to show us the different rooms they had available. As I was paying for our room, the lady behind the desk asked, as most hotel clerks do, "So what brings you to Saint Augustine?"

Before I had a chance to answer, my wife, always looking for a chance to talk about her interests, practically screamed, "We're here to see some ghosts!"

I rolled my eyes.

"Well!" the clerk responded with a big smile, "You're in for a treat!" She reached over to a small brochure holder, taking from it a folded up piece of paper. "Have you folks heard of Ripley's, over in the Castle Warden?"

Now I, of course, have heard of it. It was another one of those tourist traps, catering to folks who wanted to see something freaky. Castle Warden was the site of Ripley's Believe It or Not, housing a small museum of oddities and relics. But, always the one to carry on a conversation, my wife answered, "What do ghosts have to do with that old museum?"

The clerk smiled again. "Well, they host a couple of neat ghost tours, including a train ride." She shifted through the brochure, then after finding what she was looking for, handed it to my wife. "That's the most popular one."

I looked over my wife's shoulder, and saw an advertisement for Ripley's "Haunted Castle Tour". Join a paranormal investigation team as they search the museum, seeking those who have passed on. They must have sucked at their jobs, considering they kept hosting the tour seven days a week. You'd have thought they'd have found something by now, right?

My wife practically squealed, and pushed the brochure into my face. "We're doing this tonight!"

Now, I could have said "No", but let's face facts: You want to be happy? Make the wife happy first.

So, after getting the keys and moving our luggage to our room, I called the number on the brochure. Nothing too crazy, except for the price. I sighed at that. Tourist traps, they get you every time. Simple instructions, too. Just show up at the Castle Warden at midnight and knock on the front doors. Who could mess that up, right?

After enjoying the night life, we were surprised to realize how quickly midnight was approaching. Since we were parked in the city's parking garage, we decided it'd just be easier to walk to the Castle. Our idea of how long of a walk it would be between the garage and the castle was a tad bit flawed, though. We didn't get to the castle until 12:30.

Approaching the Castle Warden, you would swear you just walked onto the set of an old horror flick. There she was, in all her glory. The stories of stone walls looming above you. The walkway, usually busy with tourists trying to squeeze in line for a ticket, now devoid of light and life. And the sound, or lack of it. I'll be honest,

I was unsettled by it. But it's a ghost tour. What ghost tour would be bright and welcoming?

Naturally, my wife was ecstatic, almost shaking with excitement. She practically left me behind in the museum's parking lot as she ran to the reinforced wooden doors of the ominous castle. With all the excitement of a child getting a brand new pet, she raised her fist to the door and knocked.

Nothing happened. Not one damn thing.

I approached the door, finally catching up to her. She was already fighting back tears.

"Honey," I sighed, as I peeked through the door's windowed front, "Don't get emotional." I checked my watch again. We were now 35 minutes late. I looked over to her.

She was now sitting against one of the stone pillars along the edge of the walkway, cradling her head in her hands.

Rolling my eyes for the second time in a day, I knocked on the wooden doors, using a bit more force than my wife.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from that. The doors stayed closed. Behind the large doors, there wasn't even a hint of movement.

My wife was pretty upset by now. She stood up and wiped her eyes. "Let's just go," she said, trying to hide a sniffle with little avail, "I didn't really want to do this anyway."

Now look, I'm old fashioned. One thing you're not going to do is make my wife cry, not without catching a bit of wrath from me. I turned back to that reinforced wooden door, the only thing separating us from a good time. Placing my shoulder against it, I pushed into the door.

To my surprise, the door unlatched, spilling me into the lobby of the museum.

I was picking myself up from the floor when my wife wandered into the dark lobby. Her eyes were wide with excitement as she looked around the empty shell of a room.

Dusting myself off, I started towards the stairwell. "Look," I said, approaching the front desk, "You stay here, honey." I jumped over the turnstile and made my way to the stairs that led up to the first exhibit.

Upset, more to the fact that she was about to be left behind, she asked, "Well where are you going?"

Halfway up the stairs, I turned back to her. "I'm going to see where the tour is. Just stay here and calm down a bit, okay?" Now granted, she could have come with me, but I wasn't about lurk around that dark castle, listening to her squeal at every creepy little display. No thank you.

She sighed and took a seat at the front desk. I quickly ascended the first set of stairs, entering a hallway. This was their optical illusion hall, making it appear that either the hallway was getting smaller, or you were getting bigger. Very Willy Wonka. Though, it was a bit eerie without the lights or sound effects. Already I was starting to get a bit unnerved and queasy. I wasn't used to this kind of atmosphere at all.

Making my way into another exhibit, I had found no sign of the paranormal "investigators" anywhere. The next room was dedicated to the execution methods of a medieval time. I would have been uneasy around this kind of stuff in the daylight, with other people and lights. Now, in the cold darkness, I felt a sudden wave of nausea hit me as I sunk to my knees and spilled my dinner across the floor.

After a few deep breaths, I got back on my feet. My jeans were covered with what I though was tonight's steak dinner, until I tried brushing it off. Pushing my hands down my legs, the waste felt more sticky, smooth, and wet, more so than I would have imagined it would have. Shocked at this, I pulled my hands close to my face in order to see what on Earth I had fallen in.

It was blood. Warm, crimson blood, covering my hands.

I stood there for far longer than I should have, but if I hadn't have stayed, I wouldn't have witnessed the horror that was about to unfold in front of my eyes.

Just across from me, I had failed to notice one of the torture devices. The Iron Maiden, proudly on display. Only this time, it had found its true purpose once again.

Being on an electrical track, the Maiden's doors automatically opened periodically to show its empty interior to the awestruck masses. This time, it seemed the Maiden was occupied by the mutilated remains of one of the tourists, only identifiable by the destroyed camera hanging from what was left of their neck.

Once again, nausea hit me, only this time I held it down as I broke into a run. I had to get back to my wife! I was a fool to leave her alone in that dark, abandoned lobby!

I was in full run as I rounded the corner into the Willy Wonka hallway, when I was stopped dead in my tracks.

Sitting against the wall, was my wife.

She was sitting against the wall, much like she was sitting against that stone pillar outside just mere minutes ago.

Against the wall, cradling her head in her hands...

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