The basement hallways are so bright that Gemma staggers for most of her wandering and runs her hand along the walls to find the turns. Carnival music is playing from speakers in the ceiling, the black boxes creating thick beams of shadows that the detective can step into to give her eyes a rest. None of the doors have handles, each one with a single word on it that range from yogurt to anvils. The glint of pipes and metal panels shows through areas that have lost their blinding white paint. An electric hum can be heard from the damaged sections, which shiver whenever Gemma walks too close. The sound also emanates from red doors that are all marked as paperwork and leave crimson paint on the fingers of anyone who touches them. Sniffing at the coating, the detective picks out the aromas of cherries and blood.
Flickering lights and the creaking of a distant door gives enough of a warning that Gemma can brace herself for a cackling wind. It strikes her from behind and rattles the speakers, which briefly switch to a solitary violin playing a mournful tune. The gale becomes strong enough to shove her down the hallway, a violent whip pushing her around a corner. She is knocked off her feet and sent rolling while tiny studs grow from the floor to make it a painful journey. With the slam of an unseen door, the wind stops and Gemma skids to the edge of a pit that she would have missed if not for her foot dangling over thin air. The white sides make it impossible for her to gauge the size of the hole, so she turns back to retrace her steps. After a few feet, she slams into a mirror wall that is blocking her path.
Not wanting to alert the kidnappers, Gemma covers her mouth to curse against her hand and returns to the pit. She slides her feet to avoid falling in, the opening still difficult to see even though she knows it is there. With her injured eye itching from the strain, she puts the bandages back on and is surprised to see the hallway get darker. Slightly unnerved by the sudden change, the detective sees that the pit is only four feet across, but the other side is nothing more than a thin ledge. The gaping mouth of a slide is in the far wall, which is decorated to look like the entrance to a circus tent.
“No other way to go,” Gemma whispers as she puts her gun away. Wiping her hands until they are dry, she backs up enough to get a running start. “Leap, dive in, and slow my descent to avoid getting noticed. With the way things are going, I’d probably come launching out in the middle of the kidnappers.”
Stretching and bouncing on her toes, Gemma takes a final look around to make sure there are no other paths. Releasing a long held breath, she sprints toward the pit and leaps as close to the edge as she can. A rush of hot air hits her from below and she swears there is a churning cloud of steam at the bottom of the shaft. Before she can think any more about it, the detective plunges through the opening and hits a plastic slide. The slick tunnel prevents her from getting a grip, so she races into the depths from where she can hear the carnival music and children laughing. Flashes of gawking faces appear along the walls, each one of a man with jet black hair and tight, pale skin. Attempting to stop herself, Gemma spins and takes the rest of the slide with her back to whatever is waiting for her. To the tense woman’s surprise, she silently lands in a pit of foam shapes that is surrounded by a low, padded wall.
Shielded from view by the obstacle, Gemma carefully moves to get a look at what is an immense play area. Climbing nets, obstacle courses, ball pits, and every manner of entertainment you would find in a children’s entertainment facility can be seen. The detective hunkers down a little more when she spots zip lines of various heights, several kids happily soaring from one end to the other. A collection of trampolines in the floor makes running from one station to another fun, especially when the one of the circular spots spouts colorful bubbles. Even with the joyous atmosphere, Gemma notices that the children slip into brief moments of shivering fear. Their eyes routinely search out the nearest kidnapper, the six men dressed like pirate clowns and one out of place mime. If the kids stare for too long, the irritable criminals shout at them and brandish a blunt object to threaten them. Only the mime has a firearm, which he is repeatedly checking to make sure it is loaded and the safety is off.
Drawing her own weapon, Gemma is about to slip behind a nearby playhouse when an argument breaks out. Too far away to hear the words, she watches the mime flail and sign to the clowns. They hurry to herd the twenty children into one of the bouncy castles and use large padded blocks to create a wall in front of the entrance. Still unhappy about something, the mime continues ranting without speaking and smacks two of the clowns for laughing. Sensing that tensions are running too high, Gemma steps out of her hiding place and prepares to yell at the criminals. Her voice stops when she sees their leader point his gun at the bouncy castle, the children inside screaming and hurrying to the back. Without a second thought, the detective raises her own weapon and shoots the mime in the head. The five clowns jump back in surprise as the man utters a curse and falls onto a trampoline that launches the corpses onto one of the zip lines.
“This is the police! Surrender and nobody else will get hurt!” Gemma shouts, praying that they will listen. Clenching their blunt weapons and making squeaks with every step, the criminals spread out to rush the detective. “I don’t want to shoot any of you, but I will if you threaten me or the kids. Drop your weapons and put your hands above your head. This is your last warning!”
The clowns sprint toward Gemma, so she aims and shoots at the one who is furthest away from the bouncy castle. Her gun makes a strange click and falls apart in her hands, which causes the criminals to laugh and slow down. Not wanting to get cornered, she runs toward the climbing wall and scales it in the hopes of jumping to the top of a large playset. A pink-haired clown attempts a running swing with his bat, the polished wood skimming her exposed calves. The glancing blow makes her skin burn, but she ignores the sensation and curls her legs to draw him closer. Using only her arms, it is more difficult to climb and the criminal easily gains on her. When he gets within reach, Gemma kicks him in the face and watches him fall to the mats below. To her surprise, the padded ground pivots down to drop the man into a black pit that swallows him whole.
Leaping to the playset, the detective clambers into what is a kitchen playset and sees that a sad-faced clown is already inside. The man lifts his bat to hit her, but the chamber is so small that he hits the ceiling and drops the weapon. Kicking him in the groin and elbowing him in the face, Gemma spots a slide and shoves the criminal down. The clown sails off the far end and hits a climbing nets, which shreds him into pieces like it is made out of razors. Scrambling down the ladder, the detective vaults over another enemy and hits a trampoline that gives enough for her to land comfortably. The fat clown cautiously moves around the circle and waves for his friends to help cut off the woman’s escape. Gemma jumps over a swing aimed at her knees and is sent flying into bouncy castle by the trampoline. Behind her, she can hear the man choking and gagging as his throat is filled with sticky bubbles that become acid when they pop.
“The hell kind of play area is this?” Gemma asks as she watches a short clown crawl into the bouncy castle. Not wanting to fight with such awkward footing, she scrambles out a door in the back. “This place is insane. What is going on here?”
As if in response to her question, the inflatable house rapidly deflates and traps the clown inside its folds. The man flails and shoves in an attempt to get out, but his movements become slower and less noticeable as the seconds tick by. A hissing runs along the edge of the collapsed structure, which fuses to protect even oxygen from getting inside. What little is inside is release through the last hole that is sealed by a faint spark. His bat manages to break free right before he runs out of air and stops moving, the weapon remaining still on the ground.
The final criminal is unsure if he should continue chasing Gemma or retreat through one of the double doors on the other side of the room. Backing away from the detective, he trips over a toy train and plunges into a ball pit. With a muffled scream, his hand bursts from below and tries to grip the edge of the hole. A loud sucking sound echoes throughout the room as the man is swallowed and the plastic orbs gradually stop shifting. Staring at the ravenous ball pit, Gemma makes her way to the where the children are trapped and frees them. The entire time, she gets the sense that something is watching her and laughing at the fear growing in her chest.