Single White Psychopath Seeks Same
The second book in the Andrew Mayhem series, 2003
This book is dedicated to my sister, Wendy,
despite her wondering how we can possibly share the same parents.
SOMETIMES you wake up in the morning and you just know it’s going to be the kind of day where you end up tied to a chair in a filthy garage while a pair of tooth-deprived lunatics torment you with a chainsaw. So as I struggled against the ropes, I can’t say I was all that surprised.
This was actually my second time being tied to a chair and threatened with a cutting instrument, which I think is pretty impressive for a guy in his early thirties. Last time I had a burlap sack over my head, and to be honest I really would have appreciated one this time around. I mean, I know it’s what’s inside that counts, but these guys were seriously ugly. And their combined breath could probably be used as a Drano substitute.
The larger lunatic, whose tee shirt was decorated in a fashionable tobacco stain motif, sighed with annoyance as the smaller lunatic gave the chainsaw cord yet another tug. They’d been trying to start it for about five minutes. “Maybe it needs gas,” he suggested.
“I told you, it’s got gas!” his partner snapped.
“Then tug harder.”
“I’m tuggin’ as hard as I can!”
“Here, give it to me,” the lunatic offered, extending his hand.
“You keep your nasty hands off my chainsaw!”
“Then start it!”
I guess it reflects poorly on me that I allowed myself to be kidnapped by these gentlemen, but I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I’d been relegated to the couch for breaking the living room lamp. Actually, I didn’t break it, my son Kyle did, but it was while playing basketball in the house, a rule that I was too busy watching television to enforce. Helen was less upset about the lamp than the fact that I encouraged both of our children to lie about the cause of its destruction. I really don’t know what made me think a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old could carry off the ruse (which involved a stray Doberman), but it earned me a sleepless night on the Fold-Out Bed of Misery.
So, anyway, I was pretty much out of it when I stepped out of the house that morning. One chloroform-soaked rag to the mouth later, I awoke to find myself with my hands, feet, and torso tied to a chair in a filthy garage while a pair of tooth-deprived lunatics tormented me with a chainsaw.
“Try this,” said the larger lunatic. “Put it on the ground and brace it with your feet, then yank the cord with both hands.”
“Maybe you should grease the pistons,” I suggested.
“You shut the hell up! Nobody asked you to say anything about greasing any goddamn pistons!” Large Looney was shaking with rage, his mighty beer gut wobbling to and fro like the waves on a beautiful moonlit Caribbean beach.
Small Looney set the chainsaw on the cement floor. “Why don’t you read him the statement?”
“Because, you frickin’ little moron, we agreed to cut off his arms first to get his attention! That’s why I need you to start that worthless chainsaw! You’re making us look like a couple of idiots! That’s how Andrew Mayhem is gonna die, thinking we’re a couple of idiots! Real nice. That’s just super. Makes my day.”
“Actually, I was thinking that you were never Boy Scouts,” I said, holding up my free hands.
Okay, no, I didn’t really say that. Despite their chainsaw-starting inadequacies, these two maniacs knew how to tie a darn good knot. I was struggling as much as I could, but it didn’t appear that I’d get to use my clever Boy Scout comment any time soon. As sweat dripped into my eyes, I hoped I’d at least be able to say something wittier than “AAAHHHH!!! MY ARMS, MY ARMS!!! AAAHHHH!”
Small Looney placed both of his feet on the chainsaw, gripped the cord tightly, gave it a good tug, said an extraordinarily bad word, and landed solidly on his butt. Large Looney was too furious to recognize an example of outright hilarity when he saw it, and proceeded to kick his partner in the side.
He snatched up the chainsaw and tugged on the cord. The motor roared to life, and I found myself making unheroic, borderline feminine noises as he walked toward me. I continued to struggle against the ropes, suddenly realizing that I could turn my left wrist a little further than before. This information still left me totally screwed, but you’ve got to appreciate the tiny victories in life.
He positioned the chainsaw blade inches above my left shoulder, and then said something very dramatic that I couldn’t hear over the motor.
“What?” I asked.
He repeated it, louder, but I still couldn’t hear him. Though I’m pretty good at reading lips, enunciation was not one of his stronger skills, nor was keeping his personal saliva contained within his mouth.
Large Looney shook his head with frustration. For a moment, I allowed myself to believe that he was so sensationally, spectacularly, stupendously stupid that he’d shut off the chainsaw in order to make himself heard. He wasn’t and didn’t. He lowered the blade toward my shoulder.
The roar of the chainsaw abruptly turned into the sputter of a dying chainsaw, followed immediately by the silence of a dead chainsaw. Large Looney stared at it for a long moment, and then touched the blade to my shoulder anyway. Not much happened.
Large Looney screamed out a rather confusing variation on the f-word, and then flung the chainsaw across the garage and against the wall. “You idiot!” shouted his partner, rushing over to retrieve it. “Maggie’s gonna have my butt if I don’t get the firewood cut tonight!”
“Who the hell cuts firewood in Florida?” Large Looney demanded.
“It’s seventy degrees out!”
“Maggie likes a warm house!”
“Maggie’s a fat cow!”
“What does that have to do with liking a warm house? Why are you always saying things that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about? You’re always doing that! Always, always, always! I oughta chainsaw your face.”
I realized that I could rotate my left wrist even more. If they continued arguing for the next three or four hours, I’d be home free.
Large Looney closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. “We need to focus,” he said, opening his eyes again. “Let’s just collect our thoughts and reflect upon our purpose. We’re not here to fight with each other; we’re here to kill him. So let’s do it.”
He walked over to a shelf and picked up a very large drill. I’m not really a drill expert, but this one looked more than sufficient to create a hole in my head. I hoped it would go the chainsaw route and refuse to start, but one quick push of a button and the bit began whirring in a menacing, your-skull-is-toast kind of way.
I repeated the variation on the f-word, which actually made perfect sense in a mindset of pure terror. And somehow I’d managed to contort my wrist into a position where I couldn’t move it anymore. My morale was not high.
Small Looney laughed, picked up the chainsaw, and walked over to join his buddy.
“Okay, I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” I said, as Large Looney brought the drill slowly toward my face. He obviously appreciated the fine art of suspense.
“What about the statement?” asked Small Looney.
“Forget the statement. Let’s just kill him.”
“No, no,” I said. “I’m terribly curious about the statement. If you went to all the trouble to write one up, it seems like a waste to-”
“Shut up,” said Large Looney, continuing to move his drill forward. I now had less than six inches separating the very soft flesh of my face from the very unsoft bit of the drill. I wondered if I could bite it off.
Small Looney obviously wanted to help out, so he hoisted the chainsaw to chest-level and gave the cord a tug. Right after he did so, three things happened very quickly. First, the chainsaw motor started up again. Second, the brain of the lunatic registered surprise that the chainsaw motor had actually started. Third, the hand of the lunatic reacted to this surprise in the unfortunate manner of releasing its grip on the chainsaw.
The running blade bounced off his leg. While it didn’t lop it off or anything like that, it certainly created one doozy of a flesh wound. Small Looney fell to the floor, shrieking and scooting away from the chainsaw as if it were alive and might stampede after him like a wild predator. Large Looney hurriedly lowered the drill and rushed over to him.
Small Looney clutched at his leg and continued screaming. I stupidly wasted a couple of seconds struggling against the ropes, as if I might suddenly turn into Superman and snap them, and then proceeded to lean to the side, successfully tipping the chair over but hitting my head on the cement floor harder than I’d anticipated.
“You’ll be okay, you’ll be okay,” Large Looney said over the screams. “It looks worse than it is!”
The chainsaw was on its side, still running, only inches from my right hand. I frantically worked my legs as hard as I could, trying to scoot toward it. Now, the art of severing ropes with a chainsaw is a delicate one, especially when the ropes are currently binding one’s hands, but I was on a pretty tight schedule.
I managed to scoot another inch forward, half expecting three or four of my fingers to twirl up into the air. But instead, blade met rope…and blade won! It didn’t cut all the way through, but with a Jimmy Olsen-like burst of strength I snapped what remained of the ropes and freed my left hand.
Large Looney looked over from his medical examination and noticed me. Then he picked up the drill.
I grabbed the chainsaw by the handle and quickly touched the blade to the ropes binding my other hand. This time I cut all the way through the rope and the top couple of skin layers of my wrist. Now both of my hands were free. If the rest of my body hadn’t still been tied to an overturned chair and there weren’t a lunatic walking toward me with a power drill, I would have been in a celebratory mood.
Large Looney snarled as he walked out of sight behind me. Well, I couldn’t actually hear him over the chainsaw and the drill, but it really did look like a genuine snarl. I let out a grunt as he kicked the back of my chair, and then promptly set to work trying to cut the ropes on my feet. I saw his hand reach over in an attempt to shove the drill into my side, but an intimidating swing of the chainsaw got him to reconsider.
As the ropes around my left foot fell away, the chainsaw died again. This allowed me to hear that Large Looney was drilling through the back of the chair.
While I’m not a weightlifter type by any means, I’m still in pretty good physical condition, and the adrenaline was pumping freely. I let go of the chainsaw, slammed my hands against the floor, used my free foot to brace myself, and shoved as hard as I could, trying to flip the chair over, thus snapping the drill bit and hopefully crushing Large Looney’s fingers.
That didn’t work. The chair didn’t budge.
I grabbed the chainsaw again, swung it over my shoulder as hard as I could, and bashed Large Looney with it.
He let out a yelp and I heard the drill hit the floor. I frantically began clawing at the ropes, trying to get myself free before…
I looked over and saw Small Looney limping toward me, his leg still bleeding.
He was holding a concrete block of the type used for building construction, elegant furniture for college students, and dropping on the heads of people.
Though I had two hands and a foot free, no way was I getting the rest of myself loose before he got in block-dropping range. I tugged on the chainsaw cord. It snapped.
This was certainly bad, but I’d been in a worse situation than this and came out alive. Not very alive, but alive nevertheless. And though chainsaws weren’t known for their aerodynamic qualities, I’d have to give it my best shot.
I flung the chainsaw at him.
It didn’t even come close.
But Small Looney had just been savaged by that very chainsaw, and even though it was a pretty pathetic throw by any standards, he still took a quick step back. Just a small step, but enough to slide his foot along the trail of blood he’d been leaking.
He slipped and fell, much as he did earlier when he’d been trying to start the chainsaw. That time, however, he wasn’t holding a concrete block. He hit the floor, and the block hit him. I’m not going to tell you where. Just cringe on his behalf and be glad you didn’t see it. He shrieked a few times, and then lost consciousness.
I didn’t like Small Looney much, but there were tears in my eyes as I worked to untie the ropes. I could hear Large Looney whimpering softly, but he didn’t seem to be coming after me anymore.
The door to the garage burst open, and two familiar figures entered, guns raised.
It was Sergeants Tony and Bruce Frenkle. They were identical twins, though you could identify Tony by the small mole over his left eyebrow.
“Freeze!” one of them shouted (I was too far away to see the mole). “Nobody…uh, move…” They stepped inside and glanced around the garage.
“Wow, Andrew, you messed them up pretty- oh dear Lord in heaven what happened with that concrete block? ”
“What is it with you guys?” I demanded. “Why can’t you ever show up before the situation is taken care of? What, do you sit and wait outside for everything to be hunky-dory? I almost had a drill go through my back! Have you ever almost had a drill go through your back? I bet you haven’t, have you?”
“Chill, Andrew,” said Tony, crouching down to help untie me while Bruce took out his handcuffs and went to take care of Large Looney. “It wasn’t easy to find you here. We had to follow-”
“I don’t give a sweet shit,” I said. “Just untie me.”
“White people are so rude,” Bruce remarked.
Before long I was free and the bad guys were being loaded into an ambulance. I picked up the statement they’d planned to read me, curious as to their motive.
“ Andrew Mayhem we hate u now your going 2 die.”
Great. Sherlock Holmes got Moriarty; I got these guys.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be long before I was reminiscing about the good old days when all I had to worry about were a couple of lunatics with malfunctioning power tools.
AFTER THE hospital staff decided I was fine, if a bit obnoxious, Tony drove me home. I was pretty rattled from my experience, and was looking forward to some tender loving care from Helen.
“Oh, what a pleasant surprise!” she said as I opened the front door. “It’s so nice that you were able to come home before noon. I’d hate to think of you being all miserable and actually having to put in the full eight hours at your job. Oh, wait, I almost forgot, you didn’t go! But hey, the temp agency just called and said not to come back, so you don’t have to worry about that inconvenience any more!”
“It wasn’t my-”
“But that’s okay. I’m sure the reason you played hooky was to help care for your children. Oh, no, wait, now that I think of it, it was me who got woken up by a call from Kyle’s teacher to pick him up, not you! But hey, I work night shift, I’d gotten in a good twenty minutes of sleep already…why should I complain? It’s all worth it to know that my dear husband had a good time with his friend.”
“I wasn’t with-”
“Oh, by the way, they shut off our water. I know how difficult it is to remember to write checks when they send those funny-looking pieces of paper in the mail, but some people in this country refer to it as paying bills. I suppose that since you rarely bring any money into this household it’s naturally not going to be in your thoughts, but for five minutes a month even you should be able to handle it.”
“Yeah, well, sorry helps.” She stormed out of the living room and into the kitchen.
Helen hadn’t been in a sunshiny mood lately. A year and a half ago, I’d gone through a horrible ordeal that eventually involved our children being kidnapped and almost murdered, and me nearly dying from arrow and gunshot wounds. Helen already had a stressful job as a registered nurse, so this didn’t help her ulcer situation. The silver lining to the whole nightmare came when I was offered a substantial amount of money to tell my story, which I then lost when my financial advisor fled the country with all of our money and a pair of lingerie models named Monique and Taffy. The fact that Helen had told me several times not to trust him did not go unobserved.
So I’d figured it was time to become an upstanding, responsible citizen. I’d registered with several temp agencies and gotten a job organizing filing cabinets for a horrible, horrible woman with fangs. I reported to work three unbearable days in a row, but then I decided that somebody who’d rescued his children from a vicious killer and broken up a snuff film production company didn’t need to deal with some ghastly crone whining that McReady came before Madison. So I walked out and went to visit my friend Roger. I probably should have notified the temp agency. Helen was not pleased.
I’ve probably made Helen sound like she walks around in a bathrobe with her hair in curlers and beats the crap out of me with a rolling pin. Physically, she’s not intimidating at all. Actually, she’s a fairly tiny person. Over the past year she’d let her straight brown hair grow well past her shoulders, and before my book money completely vanished she’d traded in her thick glasses for laser eye surgery, yet she somehow retained her owlish appearance, which was kind of weird.
I almost followed her into the kitchen so I could give my side of the story, but I decided to let her simmer down a bit first. Instead I went upstairs into Kyle’s room.
He was sitting on his bed, playing with his Captain Hocker action figures. He looked up at me as I entered. “Mommy’s on the warpath again,” he said.
“Shhhh…I’ve told you not to say that anymore,” I reminded him. “It just makes her madder.”
I sat down on the bed next to him. He was small for a seven-year-old, though not quite into runt territory. I’d fought against his current buzz cut and been on the path to victory until he’d managed to get three whole pieces of chewed gum in his hair, so it all had to go.
Considering what he’d been through, the little guy was doing as well as could be expected. Not as well as Theresa, who now seemed mostly unaffected save for occasional nightmares, but not too bad. Upon the recommendation of several doctors, we’d put Kyle in a special school for emotionally disturbed children, but most of the time he seemed perfectly fine.
“So what’d you do?” I asked.
“They just called Mom for no reason?”
Kyle shrugged. In his hands, Captain Hocker saved a planet from the dreaded Gleeker Force of Doom.
“C’mon, buddy, you can tell me.”
“How many people?”
He shrugged again. “A lot.”
“Why did you do that?”
“You just decided, hey, I’ve got some extra slobber, might as well share it?”
I sighed. “Look, buddy, you know that stinky kid in your class that nobody likes?”
“Yeah, Stinky Joey the Skunk Boy. Well, spitting on other kids is kind of like smelling bad. People don’t like it. And remember how I told you that they don’t let stinky kids become astronauts because it messes with the oxygen system? If you spit, it floats around the space shuttle and gets in the gears and people die. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“So you won’t spit on anyone else?”
“Shake on it.”
We shook hands, and then I gave him a hug.
“Andrew, get down here!” Helen called out from downstairs.
“She’s on the warpath again,” Kyle said.
“Don’t say that anymore. I mean it.”
“You said it first.”
“That’s exactly why I don’t want you to say it!” I stood up and hurried out of his room and downstairs.
Helen was seated on the couch, holding an ice pack to her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to yell, but it’s just so frustrating. Where were you today?”
I shrugged. “Nowhere.”
THE NEXT night was Wednesday, which meant Helen’s parents took care of the kids. I tried to convince Helen to take the night off, so we could go out to a romantic dinner, but she was still mad at me for letting her yell at me for so long without explaining that I’d been kidnapped by lunatics.
So I drove over to Roger’s apartment. He greeted me at the door with three scratches that ran from his left eye down to his jaw. The ones on the other side of his face were healing nicely.
“I don’t want that cat anymore,” he told me.
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” I said, stepping inside. Reverse Snowflake lay sleeping peacefully on Roger’s couch, the sides of which the black cat had lovingly shredded. “This precious animal saved my life.”
“So you take it! It scratches me all the time. It sheds all over my furniture. It chews on my ears at night. I found cat hair in a carton of milk that I just opened!”
“Is my Reverse Snowflake a pretty kitty?” I asked, scratching him behind his ears. “Yes he is! Yes he is! Yes he is!”
“I’m serious, Andrew! There’s kitty litter all over my bedroom! You’re the one whose life it saved!”
“Yes, but because he saved my life, I was able to save your life, remember?”
“If that cat had been smart enough to let you die, my life would never have been in danger,” Roger said. “Take it. For the love of God, take it.”
“Helen’s allergic to cats. And they scratch up everything…I mean, look at this place.”
“I’m not kidding around! The cat meows all night and I think it’s trying to impregnate one of my pillows.”
“All right, all right, I’ll see what I can do,” I promised. “My in-laws might take him. But he’s such a sweeeeeeet kitty!”
“You’re a rotten person,” Roger informed me.
WE DROVE over to The Blizzard Room, a coffee shop where we usually spent our Wednesday nights complaining that we didn’t have anywhere better to spend our Wednesday nights. The place had virtually nothing to recommend about it besides the fact that it wasn’t on fire, and yet we almost never missed a week.
“Why do we come here?” I asked. “The coffee isn’t any good, the table shakes when you-”
“Andrew, we go through this every time,” said Roger with a sigh. “Every single Wednesday you sit there and count off everything that sucks about this place, and every single Wednesday we come right back.”
“And don’t you find that depressingly pathetic?”
Roger shrugged. “It’s our destiny. Our path has been chosen, and there’s nothing we can do to alter it.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I took a sip of coffee. “Maybe next week we’ll go bowling.”
“We could get up right now and go bowling.”
“Didn’t think so.”
After a few more minutes of intellectually draining conversation, Roger got up to use the restroom. I reminded him that the restrooms were far below average, especially the air hand dryer that was about as effective as having somebody pant on your hands. He informed me that he was well aware of the inadequacies of the restroom facilities and that it would please him greatly if I would keep my opinions locked up in my brain where they belonged. I said okay.
A couple minutes after he left, the door swung open and a woman entered. She looked about sixty. She’d obviously had a facelift, which was probably supposed to make her look younger but really just made her look like a sixty year-old with her skin yanked back. Her hair was blonde, too blonde, and piled high above her head. She wore an expensive-looking blue dress and high heels, and carried a blue purse that matched the dress exactly.
She scanned the coffee shop for a moment, clearly not impressed, and then saw me and walked over to my table.
“Andrew Mayhem?” she asked. I’d expected her voice to be the ultimate in snottiness, but it was actually quite soft and pleasant.
“May I have a seat?”
“Sure. Here, let me get you a chair with all four legs.” I reached out and dragged one over from the next table. The woman took a seat and gave me a hint of a smile.
“Thank you. My name is Patricia Nesboyle. I’m a busy woman and I’m sure you’re a busy man, so I’m going to get right to the point. I’d like to pay you to accompany me to a party tomorrow night.”
“What kind of party?”
“A dinner party. A simple affair, just myself and four friends.”
“I see. May I ask why you want to pay me for this?”
She nodded. “I’ve read about you, the way you handled that awful situation with those atrocious people. You’re something of a celebrity amongst my friends. They would all be very impressed if you were there, and then you could protect me.”
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “One of my friends plans to kill me tomorrow night.”
She leaned back, offended. I immediately realized what I’d said. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I was just asking if…okay, I was asking if it was just one, but not in a way that I meant it should be more, I mean, it shouldn’t be any as far as I’m concerned, but-”
“Will you do it?”
“How do you know somebody wants to kill you?”
“It’s very complicated. Suffice it to say that I overheard something I shouldn’t have.”
Something about her tone of voice made me suspect she wasn’t telling the whole truth. Not that I would put much faith in my own instincts, being a bumbling incompetent and all.
“Okay, so, I’m not really sure what good I would do,” I admitted. “I’m not a bodyguard.”
“He’s right, he’s not,” said Roger, walking up to the table. “You should see what happened to my body.”
“I did,” said Patricia. “It was quite grotesque. Would you mind excusing us?”
“Not at all,” said Roger. “I was just about to sit by myself at that corner table anyway.”
He left. I ran a hand through my hair and took another sip of coffee. “Look, Ms. Nesboyle, I’m flattered, but I’m really gonna have to pass. How much are you offering?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“And what exactly do I have to do?”
“Nothing,” she promised. “Simply show up at the party. With you there, nobody will try anything.”
“Why not just cancel it?”
“I can’t. It’s a…special party.”
“Special parties are the best kind. But seriously, if your life is at stake, shouldn’t you hire a real bodyguard or a cop or something?”
Patricia shook her head. “That wouldn’t be as much fun, now would it?”
There was something deeply wrong with this lady. “So let me get this straight. I show up at the party. I mingle with your friends. I go home. Is that correct?”
“That is correct.”
Around this time, my inner voice decided to speak up. “Hey, Andrew, buddy, this lady’s completely nuts! Don’t get involved with her! Remember last time you let some strange lady pay you for a favor? Huh? Remember it? You remember it, don’t you? Wasn’t all that much fun, now was it? If I were you, which I am, I’d tell her to MMMmmmpph! ” I mentally gagged my inner voice and spoke up.
“Six hundred, plus one hundred for my friend to watch my kids.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Five hundred, plus the hundred for your friend.”
“Six hundred, plus nothing for my friend.”
“All right, sounds good,” I said, offering my hand. She shook it, making only the lightest contact with my fingers.
“I need to be going,” she said, digging a small card out of her purse. “Be at this address at eight o’clock sharp tomorrow night. Dress nicely.”
“I can handle that,” I told her, hoping I still had the suit jacket I’d bought six years ago during my half-week stint as a lounge singer.
“Very good. I look forward to seeing you.”
She got up, nodded politely, and walked out the door. Roger returned and took her spot.
“Who was that?”
“Patricia. Can you baby-sit tomorrow night?”
Roger’s eyes lit up. “Kyle will bring his Nintendo, right?”
“Sure, yeah, I can manage that.”
“Plus I made you a hundred bucks.” Damn guilt. That was a pretty darn generous babysitting fee, but I still felt bad that Roger never got the ten grand we were each supposed to make when I talked him into accepting the graverobbing gig last year.
Roger looked suspicious. “And what exactly are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Just a party.”
“Just a party?”
“Just a party.”
“You’re not getting yourself into trouble again, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I hope not.”
“ANDREW Mayhem, gigolo,” said Roger, adjusting the radio station in my car. “Nice ring to that.”
I slapped his hand away. “I’m not a gigolo. I’m a bodyguard.”
“I dunno, I’m picking up some serious gigolo vibes from this whole setup.” He waited for me to grip the steering wheel, and then began messing with the station again.
“She’s probably sixty years old!”
“And you’re a strapping lad of thirty-three! She’s probably looking for somebody to stretch more than her face.”
“Don’t be sick,” I said, slapping his hand away. “It’s just a party.”
“It’s a naked party!”
“Gee, I wonder where my seven year-old gets his immature behavior? I need to find a new babysitter.”
“Are you going to tell Helen?”
“Of course I’m going to tell Helen!”
I WOULD have told Helen, but there weren’t any good opportunities aside from breakfast, dinner, and the hour or so we spent watching television before she left for work. After she was gone, I dug my suit out of the closet, decided against eating the chocolate bar that had survived in the pocket all these years, and drove Theresa and Kyle over to Roger’s apartment.
Patricia’s home was on the far west side of Chamber, Florida. The neighborhoods get richer and richer the further west you travel, and I became more and more self-conscious in my boxy grey sedan that was only a couple of notches up from something that required a wind-up mechanism.
At eight o’clock sharp, I pulled into the long, circular driveway of an immense two-story home with a well lit, perfectly maintained lawn and a huge fountain in the center that sprayed water in perfect rhythm to the classical music playing from speakers on the sides.
Then I checked the card Patricia had given me and realized that I was at the wrong place.
At eight forty-four sharp, I pulled into the long, circular driveway of an immense two-story home with a dimly lit, possibly well-maintained lawn and an ugly statue of a naked kid with a missing buttock. I parked behind five much finer automobiles than my own and hurried up to the front door.
After I rang the doorbell, Patricia answered. She glared at me. “I could be dead by now,” she whispered.
“Sorry,” I said. “I read the address wrong.”
I entered the house and she led me to the exquisitely furnished study, where four other people were standing around having drinks. They all looked to be about Patricia’s age, two men and two women. The men were dressed in suits that made my own feel like an old piece of burlap with dead moths pouring out of the sleeves.
“Our special guest is here,” Patricia announced. “Everyone, this is Andrew Mayhem.”
“ The Andrew Mayhem,” said a gentleman with bushy white eyebrows and a handlebar mustache. “How interesting.”
Patricia took me by the hand and walked me over to him. “Andrew, this is Malcolm. He worked with my husband.” She said this in a way that implied I was supposed to pretend I had some vague notion who her husband was, so I said “Ahh.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Malcolm, shaking my hand. He gestured to the sharp-featured woman standing next to him. “This is my wife Donna.”
Donna nodded politely at me, but it was obvious from her expression that she fully expected me to start picking my nose and igniting farts.
“Hi,” I said, hoping my breath didn’t offend her.
Patricia led me to the other couple. The man was extremely short and thin, but carried himself like a drill sergeant. “It’s an honor, Andrew,” he said, shaking/crushing my hand. “I’m Stephen.”
“Vivian,” said his wife, who stood a head taller than Stephen but appeared to be painfully shy.
“So Andrew, how much of what you wrote in your book was true?” Stephen asked.
“Oh, you’ve read it?”
He shook his head. “I wanted to hold off until I knew how much of it was true.”
“Well, let’s put it this way. If I’d made it up, I certainly wouldn’t have made myself so stupid.”
I grinned. They didn’t.
I stopped grinning and returned my attention to Patricia. “Thanks for inviting me. You have a beautiful home.”
While I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure I heard Donna whisper “Yeah, like he would know,” to her husband.
“Thank you,” said Patricia. “I hired the decorator myself. Would you care for a drink?”
I was tempted to decline on the basis that I’d just finished sampling some moonshine from my homemade still, but I didn’t think she’d be amused. “Sure. I’ll have whatever she’s having,” I said, gesturing to Donna.
Patricia went to the bar and poured me a glass of white wine. Temptation struck again, but I behaved myself and didn’t ask for a straw. Messing with the minds of these people wasn’t worth losing my five hundred bucks.
I ate weird crackers with salmon gook on them and made small talk with the guests for about fifteen minutes, during which I’m pretty sure I overheard the word “inbred” being used by Donna in two separate sentences. Malcolm was pleasant enough, I guess, but I was still far out of my social element. However, snobbish as they were, none of the guests seemed like a potential murderer.
Finally, Patricia clapped her hands for attention. “Shall we begin?”
“Certainly,” said Stephen, and the others acknowledged their agreement.
“Wonderful. Let’s head to the dining room, then.”
Patricia walked out of the study and the other guests followed. I took up the rear, right next to Malcolm. He smiled at me, a glint of mischief in his eye. “Tell me, son, how much is she paying you?” he whispered.
I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a secret or not, so I decided to play it safe. “She’s not paying me anything.”
“Oh, come now. You’re not sleeping with her for free, are you?”
“I’m not sleeping with her at all!”
“Really? Then you’re the first.” He winked at me. “Don’t worry, it won’t leave this house.”
Somehow I just knew that word was going to get back to Helen that I’d become a male prostitute who serviced middle-aged women. That’s the kind of luck I have.
We filed into the dining room. A small circular table was covered with a black tablecloth, and there were five thick white candles burning. A larger rectangular table had been shoved against the wall, and was bare. This was apparently not a dinner party like I’d been told.
“What exactly are we doing?” I whispered to Malcolm.
“Didn’t she tell you?” he asked. “We’re going to have a séance.”
Great. Just great. Not only was my life going to be ruined by a gigolo misunderstanding, but I was going to have people pissed at me from beyond the grave. I vowed never to return to the Blizzard Room.
As the guests took their seats around the table, I approached Patricia. “A séance, huh?”
“That seems like a tidbit of information you might have considered sharing with me last night, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean, whatever for? It’s a séance!”
There was no debating that logic. I lowered my voice. “So what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. Just watch. Carefully.”
She sat down. I didn’t really want to sit at the table in case the ectoplasm started flying, but it didn’t matter because there weren’t any extra seats anyway. I leaned against the wall.
“Tonight, we contact my departed husband,” Patricia announced. “Everyone take a deep breath to clear your mind.”
They did so, and then joined hands.
At this point, I started to feel a bit queasy. Apparently the salmon gook hadn’t agreed with me. If I got food poisoning from this job, I was demanding an extra twenty bucks.
After a few minutes of mind clearing, everybody closed his or her eyes, and Patricia began to speak in a firm, steady voice. “Charles. Charles Nesboyle. Are you there? Can you hear me?”
I was feeling incredibly sick now. I wiped some perspiration from my forehead and tried to focus on something else, like how ridiculous they all looked sitting there holding hands trying to conjure up ghosts, but all I could think about was how I desperately needed a lavatory.
“Charles Nesboyle, if you can hear me, speak! Speak to the others through me!”
She kept this up for another few minutes. My need was becoming more and more unbearable. If I didn’t get to the bathroom very shortly I was going to have an accident right there on the dining room floor. They probably assumed I wasn’t potty-trained anyway, but I still wanted to avoid that particular faux pas.
I was sure I could find it on my own, but I couldn’t just walk out and leave Patricia there with her eyes closed and a potential killer sitting next to her. It wasn’t likely that anybody could try something when all of them were holding hands, but I still had to give her some warning.
I managed to hold out another minute, and then walked over to Patricia and leaned down next to her ear. “Patricia?”
“Charles!” she gasped.
She opened her eyes and gave me a dirty look. “What?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but could you direct me to the restroom?”
“Go back the way we came, down the hallway, and it’s the first door on the left.” She was staring at me in disbelief, as were the other guests.
“Thanks.” I gave an apologetic smile to the others. “Sorry. Couldn’t be helped.”
I hurried out of the room and made it to the bathroom. I closed the door and prayed for sufficient soundproofing.
A few minutes later I felt much, much better. I flushed, turned on the fan, and washed my hands. My face was covered with sweat, so I turned on the faucet and splashed some water on it. I looked terrible. I wiped my face off on the towel, and discovered that it was the softest, most heavenly towel I’d ever felt in my life. I wiped my face again. I was in love.
I noticed that the first flush had only been about eighty percent successful, so I gave it a second one. My bliss from the towel suddenly transformed into raw, heart-stopping terror as the water began to move in exactly the opposite direction that I desired.
“No…no…” I said, clenching my fists as the water continued to rise. “Please, no. Stop…stop…”
It didn’t stop. Two more inches until overflow.
I frantically grabbed a bath towel from the rack and threw it around the base of the toilet. The water was still moving upward…upward… forever upward…
“Oh dear God and all that is holy please, please, I will never ask you for another favor ever again if you do this one thing for me, just let the water stop, that’s all I ask.”
The water reached the seating portion of the toilet.
I cringed and awaited the moment of truth. The pounding in my temples was unbearable.
The water ceased its horrific ascent. The level remained steady for several seconds, and then began to sink. I almost wept with relief.
And then I heard a scream.
I immediately rushed to the bathroom door and tried to pull it open, but it wouldn’t budge. I made sure it was unlocked on my side, and then tugged on it as hard as I possibly could. It wouldn’t open.
“Patricia!” I shouted. “Patricia, are you okay?”
No response. Suddenly the door popped open, and I stumbled backwards, almost falling but regaining my balance just in time. A narrow strip of wood that had obviously been wedged under the doorknob dropped to the floor with a crack. I rushed out of the bathroom, down the hallway, and into the dining room.
Patricia and her four guests were still seated around the table, just where I’d left them.
The only difference was, all of them were missing their heads.
I SLAMMED a hand over my mouth and felt my knees go weak. Being sick from bad salmon gook was nothing compared to seeing five decapitated bodies all at once. I staggered away from the sight, doing my best not to pass out.
I bit the side of my cheek to force my senses back into sharp focus. The killer had to be close. Heads didn’t just fall off by themselves without a darn good reason.
The front door slammed shut.
I rushed out of the dining room, down the hallway into the foyer, and threw the front door open. I quickly looked around the front yard. No sign of anyone.
No way in hell was I going out there. Maybe Patricia and the others had their eyes closed and maybe they were distracted by their séance babbling, but still…five heads neatly severed without them even moving out of their chairs…
I shut the door, locked it, and began searching for the nearest phone.
I SAT ON the couch in the living room while cops swarmed the house. Tony and Bruce Frenkle were also there, Tony on the couch next to me, Bruce in the easy chair.
“You certainly do get yourself into some peculiar situations,” Tony remarked.
“Yeah, I’d say five missing heads qualifies as peculiar,” I muttered.
“They aren’t missing,” Bruce pointed out. “They’re on the floor.”
“No, two of them are on the table,” corrected Tony. “Well, they were before the one rolled off.”
I shook my head in annoyance. “You two are evil incarnate, I hope you realize that.”
“Just trying to help you cope,” said Bruce.
“Yeah, well, you can help me cope by letting me go home.”
“We still have more questions.”
“You’re not asking questions. You’re making jokes about the heads.”
“Those weren’t jokes,” said Tony. “Those were observations. Joking would be insensitive at a time like this. So, Andy, tell us again why you were here.”
“Don’t call me Andy.”
“Patricia Nesboyle was going to pay me six hundred dollars to come to this party. She thought that one of her friends was going to kill her, and that if I were around it wouldn’t happen.”
“Was Patricia the head on the table or one of the ones on the floor?”
“On the table.”
“So she’s the one that rolled off,” said Bruce. “It was a man’s head that was still there when I left.”
I told them the whole story again. Because I was in a lousy mood, I made sure I was as disturbingly graphic as possible about my adventure in the bathroom.
After about half an hour of questioning, they told me I could go home. “So am I a suspect?” I asked, getting up from the couch.
The Frenkle brothers exchanged a surprised look. “ You? ” asked Tony. “Andrew, buddy, I hate to be blunt, but we’re looking for somebody clever.”
“Bite me,” I said.
“See, now, the individual responsible for these murders would have a much more clever retort than ‘bite me.’”
“I’m going home.”
As they walked me out the door, I heard a thump from the dining room. I really didn’t want to know what it was.
BRUCE CALLED me the next morning. They hadn’t found any fingerprints or any other sign of the decapitator. However, they had found a bottle of arsenic in Malcolm’s jacket pocket, so apparently he’d been the one who wanted to kill Patricia, for what it was worth.
Because of my traumatic experience, it didn’t seem like a good day to go out and look for a job. I also didn’t think it was a wise idea to be scanning the classified ads in my weakened mental condition. It did, however, seem like a perfect day to sit on the couch and watch television, perhaps something educational.
Around the sixth extramarital affair, Helen came downstairs in her bathrobe and sat down on the end of the couch, propping her legs in my lap. “How’re you holding up?” she asked.
“Not too bad. I do keep checking my neck to make sure it’s still there, but I think that’s probably a normal reaction.”
“Probably. You haven’t had such a great week, have you?”
I shrugged. “I’m getting in some good TV viewing.”
“Well, I’m going to call off work and send Theresa and Kyle to stay overnight with my parents. It’s going to be just you and me. We’ll go out to dinner, then come back and relax.” She smiled.
“Relax in what kind of way?”
“The best way.”
“Oooh, I think I can work that into my schedule.” I picked up an imaginary daytime planner. “Let’s see, I think I’ve got some free time in between being mauled by a wild boar and getting carried away by a hurricane. Sound good to you?”
“Sounds wonderful. How about we make reservations at Hugo’s?”
Hugo’s was one of the fanciest restaurants in Chamber, a restaurant of such high caliber that the salad fork was a different size than the dinner fork. “Can we afford that?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
“Works for me.”
AS WE DROVE to Hugo’s, we set the ground rules for the evening. There would be no discussion of work, children, kidnappings, or quintuple decapitations. Over salad, we discussed politics for about twenty-three seconds, upcoming movies we wanted to see for about forty-one seconds, and sex for about eight minutes, fifteen seconds. We both agreed that it was an activity well worth participating in that evening.
Though we did keep our voices as low as possible, I was still surprised that Helen was willing to have this discussion in a crowded restaurant. She was usually very uncomfortable talking about such things. And she was blushing like never before, but that didn’t stop her from describing positions and actions. When she started describing spectators, I dropped my fork in surprise and splattered ranch dressing all over my shirt.
“I was kidding, sweetie!” she said through her laughter.
“I know,” I insisted, wiping myself off with a napkin. “I’m just not used to my innocent little wife being this way.”
She grinned, narrowed her eyes, and then began to eat her next bite of salad in a slow, sensual manner. Well, she tried, anyway. I mean, it was a forkful of salad-not a lot of eroticism to work with. Although by this point she probably could have dropped to the floor and started hacking up a chicken bone and it would have been a turn-on.
We skipped dessert and hurried out to the car. I had quite a bit of trouble getting the key in the lock, which I refused to view as an omen. As I started the engine, Helen leaned over and nibbled my ear.
“Let’s go somewhere fun,” she said. “Find a place where we can make out like teenagers.”
My first thought was to drive her to a beautiful hilltop, where we could enjoy a glorious view of the city lights as we groped each other. But you don’t get a lot of those in Florida. You do get a lot of beaches, unless you’re in Chamber, which was a good two hours from any sand. Swamps were plentiful but not particularly romantic.
But then I got an idea.
Fifteen minutes later, we were parked behind the Chamber Planetarium. It was a large metallic building with white stars painted on the sides that seemed to twinkle in the lights. Not as romantic as real stars, but not bad on a cloudy night like this.
I shut off the engine and immediately leaned over to kiss her. My ravenous passion was briefly interrupted by the sharp tug that came from failing to unfasten my seat belt first. I felt like an ass, but that was okay, because Helen wanted us to make out like teenagers and I’d felt like an ass many times during those years.
We freed ourselves of the safety restraints and immediately wrapped our arms around each other and began kissing. She shoved her tongue in my mouth. I shoved my tongue in her mouth. Our tongues slapped against each other a few times, then returned to their mouths of origin.
“We need music,” said Helen. I turned the key in the ignition, and then turned on the radio.
“ Gonna bitch slap yo’ momma, gonna bitch slap yo’ sister, gonna bitch slap yo’ ho ’-”
I began flipping through the stations, finding nothing but commercials, talk radio, and religious sermons.
“What tape is in there?” Helen asked.
I pushed the tape all the way into the player. “Weird Al” Yankovic began singing “Eat It.”
“I guess that’ll have to do,” Helen said, and then pulled the lever and reclined her seat all the way back.
“HOW’S YOUR neck?” Helen asked.
“Are you sure? Do you want me to make an appointment with a chiropractor?”
“No, no, it’s okay. It’s more of a numbness than pain anyway. Now where were we…?”
“IT’S OKAY, sweetheart,” said Helen.
“It’s not okay. I’m too young to be having back problems like this.”
“Well, it’s a small car.”
“It’s not that small.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to make an-”
“I’m sure! We just need to rearrange things a bit.”
HELEN WINCED as I touched the top of her head. “You’re definitely going to have a lump,” I told her. “Sorry.”
“It’s my fault,” she said. “I got carried away.”
“Should we head back home?”
“No. You and I are going to have sexual intercourse in this vehicle if it breaks every bone in our body! Now lean back down and don’t move!”
“WHOA,” I said.
Helen kissed me gently. “Do you think we flattened the tires?”
“I’m surprised we didn’t break right through the transmission.”
We kissed for a moment longer, then decided that as enjoyable as our escapade had been, there was no sense ending it on a sour note by getting arrested for nudity outside a structure of learning. We put our clothes on except for my boxers, which were wedged so far under the seat that they appeared to be lost for good.
“We’ll have to do this again sometime,” I said.
“Oh, we’re not done,” Helen informed me. “We’ve still got the bathtub and the kitchen table.”
“The kitchen table won’t hold…” I trailed off as I thought I heard movement outside of Helen’s door.
I put a finger to my lips. A second later something smashed through the passenger window, spraying Helen with safety glass. She shrieked and dove toward me, face bleeding from several small cuts.
A figure stepped into view. It was tall and dressed in black denim, with a mask that looked like it was made of thick spider webs. Though I couldn’t see the face clearly, it was obvious when the figure broke into a leering grin. It held up a large scimitar with red jewels on the handle.
I threw open my door and scrambled out of the car, Helen following right behind me. The figure lunged forward, thrusting the blade through the shattered window and missing Helen by inches.
The figure withdrew his scimitar and ran around to the front of the car. Helen and I moved to the back. The figure gave us a friendly wave, and then spun his scimitar like a circus performer.
He feinted to the left, and then rushed back around the passenger side of the vehicle. Helen and I darted back to the driver’s side. The figure stopped at the broken window and waved again. We stared at each other for a long moment.
“What the hell are you supposed to be?” I asked.
“I’m your bestest friend in the whole wide world!” he said in a high-pitched, little-boy voice. Then he began to laugh, a maniacal cackle that probably would have shattered the window had it not already been broken.
I wanted to turn and run, but just based on the pursuit so far I could tell that this guy was fast. And if this was the same person responsible for the slaughter at Patricia’s house, I didn’t think highly of my chances to escape him.
I had to fight him.
He tossed the scimitar into the air. It flipped end-over-end a couple of times, and then he caught it by the handle. “Not too bad, eh? I’m gonna cut ya. Gonna cut ya all up!”
Helen was trembling and was breathing so rapidly I thought she might hyperventilate. I reached inside the car and removed the keys from the ignition.
“Whatcha gonna do with thoooooose?” asked the man, scratching his head with exaggerated confusion. “Can’t drive the car without the keys! Nope, gotta have the keys or ya can’t drive the car, that’s the way the world works!”
I put my hand on Helen’s shoulder. The man leaned his head through the window. “Guess what?”
“What?” I asked.
“That’s what!” More laughter. The man pulled his head out and waved again. “Guess what?”
“I’m gonna getcha!” He took off running around the car, as Helen and I sped in the opposite direction.
He was fast. And as he ran, he raised the scimitar above his head.
We darted around the front of the car. He was only a few steps behind us.
And then only a couple.
Then I could hear the swish of the scimitar, and caught a glimpse of the silver blade, flying toward Helen’s neck.
I SLAMMED my hand against Helen’s back and shoved her forward. She fell to the ground as the scimitar blade sailed across where her neck would have been.
I then tripped over Helen’s arm and landed face-first on the ground as well. Without hesitation, I rolled onto my back and sat up. Helen was frantically scurrying away from the man, who stood over her, scimitar at his side.
He shoved his foot against her back, pushing her flat onto the ground, and then raised the blade above his head once again. I lunged at him as he brought it down with both hands.
There was nothing I could do to stop its descent. My only hope was to get between the blade and my wife.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I felt the warm metal connect with the back of my neck.
It didn’t break the skin. He’d stopped his swing at the precise moment to avoid chopping off my head. I could almost feel the man staring at me through his mask, and then he lifted the blade out of the way and kicked me in the stomach. I collapsed onto my side, unable to believe that I was still the proud owner of a head.
The man returned his attention to Helen, now ready to slam the scimitar down like a spear. I dove at her again, and the tip of the blade scraped against my throat but still didn’t draw blood.
“Get out of the way,” he said. This time he wasn’t using the little-boy voice.
I grabbed the dull edge of the blade with both hands, keeping it pressed against my neck. For whatever reason, he was going out of his way not to kill me, and I was going to use that to my advantage.
Helen crawled forward out of immediate danger, and then twisted herself around so she could see what was happening. She gasped as she saw my predicament, which I’m sure looked like I was struggling to keep from getting stabbed rather than trying to hold the weapon in place.
“Get out of here!” I shouted. “Run!”
The man gave the blade a sharp tug, but I held on as tightly as I could. Unfortunately, there was just no way to maintain my grip, and with his second tug the blade slipped free.
His head rocketed back as Helen punched him in the face. It was an unbelievable punch, one that made me vow to stay on her good side for the rest of my natural life. The man stumbled backward a couple of steps but didn’t drop the scimitar.
“ Now run!” I shouted. “He doesn’t want to hurt me! He’s after you!”
I couldn’t be absolutely certain that was true, but it seemed like a safe bet. Helen took off running toward the car, while I charged at the man and slammed my elbow into his gut. He let out a groan and doubled over. I brought my fist down between his shoulder blades, knocking him to his knees.
Then I jumped back as he took a swing with the blade. It wasn’t a very fast swing, but I had to revise my theory about him being unwilling to hurt me. Maybe he wouldn’t sever my head, but perhaps a limb or two was at risk.
He pointed the blade of the scimitar at me, and then swung it again. I was well out of range, so it was meant to be intimidating rather than lethal. I was intimidated.
I glanced back at Helen, who opened the driver’s side door and reached inside. The lid of the trunk popped open. That’s exactly why I’d taken the keys in the first place…the trunk held the only thing in the vehicle that could pass for a weapon, besides Captain Hocker’s submarine torpedoes.
The man got to his feet. I might have been able to knock him back down before he sliced me in half, but I wasn’t certain enough about that to take the chance.
“Andrew!” shouted Helen. I held up my hand, and she tossed me the tire iron.
As it sailed through the air, it became obvious that this heavy object was much less likely to gracefully land in my hand than it was to bash in my skull, so at the last instant I stepped back out of the way and let it fall to the ground with a loud clatter.
The man stood there, his chest heaving as he breathed deeply. About five feet separated us. The tire iron was right in front of me.
“Is she really worth dying for?” the man asked.
“She has her moments.”
Right after I said it I realized that my smart-ass answer to his question was certainly going to reduce the likelihood of future passionate romps in our car, but that’s just the way my stupid mind works.
He pointed the scimitar at me. “I hope it won’t bother you to end up like your friends at the séance.”
“It probably will, but thanks for your concern.”
We stared at each other for a long moment. I was tensed and ready to grab the tire iron, but he looked ready to strike and I wasn’t sure I could beat him.
“Who are you, anyway?” I finally asked.
“You can call me the Headhunter.”
“Not a bad name.”
“Are you sure it hasn’t already been taken?”
The Headhunter shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Nobody who hears it gets to live long enough to look that up. So are we going do this or what?”
“I was waiting for you.”
“No, pick up your weapon. I’ll give you a shot at beating me. I love a good challenge. You’ve got to the count of three to grab it. One…”
I bent down for the tire iron.
The Headhunter turned and ran toward the car. Helen screamed. I cursed and snatched up the tire iron by the handle.
I saw Helen reach into the trunk. The Headhunter was almost upon her when she flung the car jack at him, smashing him in the face. He began to stagger toward me, free hand over his mask, drops of blood falling to the pavement.
I hurried forward, ready to deliver the final crushing blow, but the Headhunter tripped and fell. He lay on the pavement next to his scimitar and didn’t move.
My first instinct was to mosey on over there and whack him seventeen or eighteen times with the tire iron, perhaps asking a rhetorical question like “How does that feel, huh? Huh?” while I did so. But I wasn’t entirely convinced that he wouldn’t spring back to life before the first whack, so instead I gave his body a wide berth as I walked over to Helen.
She threw her arms around me. “Do you know this guy?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I was hoping you did.”
Seconds later, a sleek black car with tinted windows pulled around the planetarium and stopped behind my own less-than-sleek automobile. A short, heavyset man in a grey business suit got out of the passenger side and did a speedy waddle toward us. His movements sort of reminded me of those old toys called Weebles, which the commercials proclaimed would wobble but not fall down. When I was a kid I’d bet my next-door neighbor that I could get my Weeble to wobble and then fall down forever, but his mother had come in and canceled the bet before I had a chance to use the hammer.
“Is he dead?” he asked. “Did you kill him?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
“Oh God…oh God…oh God…” the man whimpered as he Weeble-walked over to where the Headhunter lay, wringing his hands nervously. Keeping a safe distance from the body, he knelt down and peered carefully at him.
A gentleman who looked exactly like the FBI agents in the movies-black suit, sunglasses at night, stone features, perfect hair-got out of the driver’s side.
“Why is the cavalry always late?” I asked. “You know, there’s this concept known as the nick of time that you might want to look into.”
“Please control yourself, sir,” said the gentleman. “I’m Thomas Seer, Federal Bureau of Investigation.” He flashed his badge at me.
“He’s still breathing, I think,” said the heavyset man. “Thank God!”
“You’re right, it would be a shame for a stand-up citizen like him to die,” I said. “Think of all the children he has yet to teach the wonders of literacy.”
“You don’t realize what you’re involved in,” Thomas informed me, politely but firmly, “so I recommend that you keep the unprofessional comments to yourself.”
I rolled my eyes and put my arm around Helen. Thomas reached inside his suit and removed a pair of handcuffs.
“Watch yourself, he’s good with that sword,” I said. “And he’s probably faking. I wouldn’t go near him.”
Thomas motioned for the heavyset man to back away, which he did, and then began to slowly advance upon the Headhunter.
“I’m really serious,” I said. “At least give him a good blast of pepper spray first!”
“I have something even more effective.” Thomas took out a revolver and aimed it at the Headhunter.
“Sir, I have a.44 Magnum pointed at your head,” he announced. “This is the exact same weapon that Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry uses, and while it can’t blow your head clean off as discussed in the first movie, it can unquestionably be fatal. If you are not really unconscious, I very highly recommend you admit to it and spare yourself some unpleasantness.”
The Headhunter didn’t move.
Thomas took another step forward. “It’s a trick,” he said. “I’m putting a bullet in his leg.”
“Okay, okay!” shouted the Headhunter. “Take a pill, for crying out loud! Damn, you people are uptight!” He raised his arms behind his back, allowing Thomas to handcuff him without incident.
I ASSUMED we were heading over to the police station for yet more fun-filled questioning, but after loading the Headhunter into the back of his car, Thomas asked Helen and I to follow him to his motel.
“Shouldn’t we go to the police station?” asked Helen, a woman after my own heart.
“Please, this is very important,” said the heavyset man, almost whimpering. “I really need your help.”
“Why?” I asked. “We already caught him.”
“We’ll explain everything when we get there,” Thomas assured us. “And we need to get going.”
I shrugged at Helen, and we returned to our car.
WE FOLLOWED them for about six miles to the motel, during which my conversation with Helen focused entirely on how much we both really, really, really needed a vacation.
I SAT NEXT to Helen on one of the twin beds. We both had our feet up on the mattress to keep the possibility of them being overrun by bloodthirsty cockroaches to a minimum. No matter whose standards you used, this was one incredibly lame motel.
Thomas had taken the unmasked Headhunter (blonde fellow, kinda dopey-looking) into the bathroom and shut the door, but not before I glimpsed a coil of metal wire and what looked like jumper cables resting on the sink. The heavyset man started to pace around the room, sweating profusely, constantly wiping his hands on his pants.
“So…what’s the story?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just a little frantic, that’s all.” He took a deep breath. “My name is Craig Burgin, and I desperately need your help.”
“You’ve said that.”
From inside the bathroom, there was a cry of pain that was quickly muffled.
“What’s he doing in there?” Helen demanded.
“He’s getting information.”
“Does his FBI training manual include torture techniques?” I asked.
Craig smiled nervously. “He’s not FBI. He’s this private investigator who’s helping me find my wife.”
“Private investigator from where? What exactly is going on here?” I got off the bed and stood up, hoping my legs wouldn’t be devoured.
“Just let me explain, okay? Please?”
There were some more muffled cries of pain from the bathroom, and then a dull thump.
“Forget this,” I said. “We’re outta here.”
“No, no, I’m going to tell you everything.” He took another deep breath, and then exhaled slowly. “About ten months ago, my wife Charlotte was kidnapped. No ransom note, no demands, no nothing. Some drops of blood on my kitchen floor were the only evidence anything had happened. The police got involved, the FBI, the IRS, we offered this huge reward for any information, and we found nothing.”
“The IRS?” I asked.
“Sorry, no, not the IRS. Another one. Just let me talk, okay?”
He wiped his nose off on his sleeve. “One month to the day after she vanished, I got this videotape in the mail. It was a two-minute video of my wife, taken against this white backdrop. She was tied up and gagged…covered with cuts and bruises. There was this message on the backdrop that said ‘She’s still alive, but you can’t have her.’“
Craig’s voice cracked, and it took him a few moments to regain his composure. “Obviously we studied every second of the tape, but there wasn’t anything to go on besides the postmark, which was from Los Angeles. The next month, I got another tape, this one with a Pittsburgh postmark. There she was, tied and gagged, her bruises and cuts healed. She had this copy of USA Today on her lap to prove it had been taken the week before. Same message on the backdrop.”
I sat back down on the bed. Helen scooted close to me.
“It’s gone on like this for almost a year now. Every month I get this video, every month Charlotte ’s got this newspaper, but every couple months they add to the message on the backdrop.”
I waited expectantly, but he just went on pacing and didn’t continue. “What did they add?” I asked.
“It was meant to be funny, I guess,” said Craig, shaking his head. “After the first two months the message said ‘She’s still alive, but you can’t have her. Nyahh, nyahh!’ Two months after that they added ‘Neener, neener!’ Then ‘Nanny nanny boo boo!’”
I stared at him. What kind of kidnappers were these?
“Money, I could understand,” said Craig. “But turning it into this joke…that’s just, it’s just evil.”
There were some more muffled shrieks from the bathroom, these much louder than the ones before. They faded out quickly, and I swore I could hear faint sobbing.
“Sounds like evil is being punished,” I noted.
Craig shook his head. “It wasn’t the Headhunter. He was strictly after you.”
“Oh, well, that’s reassuring.”
“It’s the truth. Let me back up. Three months ago, I got this call from Thomas, who I didn’t know at the time. He said he had information that might help me find my wife. I didn’t hesitate to meet him, of course, and he explained how he’d been helping this other client search for her missing sister. Her sister was heavily into drugs, and she was scared she might even be dealing, so she never called the police. Sadly, Thomas only managed to find her head.”
The bathroom door opened. Thomas stepped out and closed the door behind him. “Have you explained everything yet?” he asked.
“Not yet, I’m getting there.”
“No, wait,” I said. “Before you get back into the story, I want to know what’s going on in there.”
“Actually, I don’t suspect you do,” Thomas informed me. “And even if I’m wrong, I’m certain your wife doesn’t. I can’t imagine that either of you have any great love for the man in the bathtub.”
“No, but that doesn’t mean I approve of him being tortured!”
“Tell me something, Andrew. When that maniac abducted your children last year, would you have approved of a little torture if that helped you find them?”
“This is different.”
“Certainly, it’s not your family.”
“No, it’s not that, it’s…forget it, I’m not getting into a discussion of sadism ethics here. Craig, continue.”
Craig closed his eyes, clearly trying to get back into his train of thought, and then began speaking again. “Anyway, the story gets fairly involved, Thomas can fill you in on a lot of the details, but he ended up breaking into the Headhunter’s car.”
“This was in Manhattan,” Thomas said.
“Yes, Manhattan. He only had a minute or so to search, but he found this letter. It was typewritten-”
“Not typewritten, printed out on a computer,” Thomas corrected. “There was no name on it, but the letter was addressed to the Headhunter. It discussed how the person writing the letter looked forward to meeting him for the big party. Everything was purposely vague, but the closing of the letter was, and I quote, ‘Until next time, nyahh nyahh and nanny nanny boo boo!’ Now, that information as it related to Mr. Burgin’s case had been withheld from the press, as things always are to filter out those unhappy individuals who confess to crimes they didn’t commit, but I knew all about it. So I contacted Mr. Burgin and he graciously agreed to fund my investigation.”
He checked his watch. “Pardon me, I need to get back to work. Please continue,” he said, gesturing to Craig as he re-entered the bathroom, again closing the door behind him.
“So he tracked Ned-that’s the Headhunter, Ned Markstein-for a couple weeks. He snuck into his apartment, went through his things, all that stuff. He found more letters, nothing that identified the kidnapper, but there was enough evidence in them to prove that the person writing them had Charlotte. Last week, he hacked into the Headhunter’s personal computer and found this letter in progress. It’s here somewhere…”
Craig opened a briefcase, flipped through a couple of files, and then took out a manila folder and handed me the printout of the letter inside.
Time’s getting close, isn’t it? It’s been too long since I’ve had a nice vacation. I’ll definitely bring my share of the party favors, but I’ll take it one step further. I’ll bring you Andrew Mayhem and Roger Tanglen. And then we can ”
“Can what?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. We never saw the finished letter.”
“So how do two people like this meet? What, did he take out a personal ad? Single White Psychopath Seeks Same?”
“I think it started on the Internet, actually.”
“It’s always the Internet, isn’t it?” I said, annoyed. “So why the hell didn’t you go to the cops? My wife and I almost got killed!”
“Thomas told me not to. He said we couldn’t let the Headhunter know that we were on to him, or he wouldn’t lead us to Charlotte ’s kidnapper. So we followed him down to Chamber.”
“And let him kill all the party guests.”
Craig bit his lip. “He wasn’t easy to keep track of. We weren’t expecting him to do anything like that. I think he was just trying to show off before he brought you to the kidnapper, make himself look better.”
“You didn’t even think to warn us?” I was furious. “My wife almost got her head chopped off, too!” A horrible thought occurred to me. “How do I know he didn’t get Roger?”
“Oh, no, no, Roger’s fine. Really, he wasn’t going to kill you, just your wife. He needed you.”
“This certainly makes me feel special,” Helen muttered.
Craig stared to reply, but seemed to sense that he was losing control of the conversation. He knocked on the bathroom door.
“I’m just a bit busy,” said Thomas from inside, annoyed.
“I need you to explain the plan.”
“You know the plan.”
“But I need you to explain it to them.”
There was a moment of silence, and then the toilet flushed. Thomas emerged, wiping his hands on a towel. We all stared at him.
“What?” he asked.
We continued staring at him.
“Oh, grow up. So what’s the problem?”
“Just tell them what we need,” Craig said.
Thomas tossed the towel aside. “Andrew, we need you and your friend Roger to serve as bait.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “First of all, if I understand Craig’s story right, Helen and I acted as bait this evening, and we almost died.”
“Not you, just Helen.”
“You know, this is starting to piss me off,” Helen said.
“I apologize, ma’am; that was unprofessional. Here’s the situation. Three days from now, our friend in the bathroom is supposed to meet the man who kidnapped Mrs. Burgin in New York City. Queens, to be specific, and he’s supposed to have you-” he pointed at me “-and your friend with him. Naturally, he won’t be showing up. I will. The kidnapper doesn’t know what the Headhunter looks like, so I’ll be playing his part. You and Roger will be safe in the car, pretending to be prisoners. Once I’m satisfied that he’s the right individual, he’ll find a gun in his face, and then he’ll go through the same line of questioning the Headhunter did. He’ll tell us where Charlotte and the others are, don’t worry.”
“Others?” Helen asked.
“Oh yes. Apparently there are several others. At least ten, though we don’t know how many for certain. Most likely they all have families who are going through the same mental anguish that Mr. Burgin here is suffering. You can see what it’s done to his ability to outline a simple plan.”
“If you know all this is happening, why don’t you go to the police?” I asked. “Why do this by yourself instead of letting the NYPD handle it?”
“It’s bad enough that your wife has to know about it,” said Thomas. “Listen to me, Andrew. I don’t know who the kidnapper is, but I do know that he thinks this is all a big game, a way to have a few laughs. He doesn’t care if Charlotte or the others live or die. But I can make him care. Believe me, the NYPD might not be able to get him to reveal where the prisoners are, but I definitely will.”
I didn’t doubt that.
“Why does he want me?”
“Why wouldn’t he? From what I understand, you were responsible for quite a few deranged individuals getting what they deserved. Maybe this deranged individual had a friend among them, or maybe he just wants to strike a blow for his fellow deranged individuals, I’m not certain. But I promise you, you won’t be in any danger.”
“Like behind the planetarium?”
“That was a less controlled situation,” Thomas explained. “We were the ones in pursuit. This time the culprit is coming to us.”
“Please,” said Craig. “You’ve got to help us. I’ll pay you anything.”
“Naturally, my client doesn’t have the financial resources available to pay you anything,” said Thomas. “But you will certainly be generously compensated, and you’ll get a free New York City vacation out of it, though naturally you won’t be permitted to leave the hotel until after the meeting. But this isn’t about money or vacations; it’s about bringing these poor people back to their families. And all you have to do is sit in the car.”
“Is it safe to sit in a car in Queens?” I asked.
“Not really,” Thomas admitted.
I knew perfectly well that, left on my own, I’d end up accepting his offer. I’m not all that heroic, and I don’t devote my life to the betterment of mankind, and I’ll occasionally pretend that I don’t have any change when the Salvation Army Santa Clauses are standing outside of shopping malls ringing the hell out of their red bells, but to refuse to help people who’d been kidnapped by an obvious sicko just wasn’t going to cut it. I mean, it’s not like I had to worry about missing work.
However, I made sure to get the opinion of the person who kept the Mayhem household supply of common sense. “What do you think, Helen?”
“I think you’re going to do it no matter what I say.” She turned to Thomas. “If you put my husband in danger, the guy in the bathroom won’t be the only one looking to chop off your head.”
“Thank you so much,” said Craig. His tone of voice made me concerned that he might drop to the floor and start slobbering all over my shoes in gratitude, but fortunately he didn’t.
“So what’s the next step?” I asked.
I NOTICED that Roger had a new scratch as he opened the door. He frowned as he saw Craig and Thomas standing behind me.
“What have you gotten me into?” he asked.
“So, Rog,” I said, giving him a reassuring smile, “got any plans this week?”
NEW YORK, New York. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. Spider-Man’s hometown. I assume it’s a pretty cool place to visit, when you’re not stuck in a fleabag motel for three days cramming for finals week in the psychopath exams.
“Where were you born?” I asked for about the ninety-second time.
“ Cleveland, Ohio,” said Thomas, spitting out his answer like he was in basic training.
“What’s your favorite food?”
“Ham and cheese on rye.”
“When will this nightmare be over?”
“Two hours, twenty-six minutes.”
“Can we quit now?”
“No we may not.”
I set the stack of papers on the bed, which was almost completely covered with pages of personal information about Mr. Ned Markstein, alias the Headhunter. We’d been going over it non-stop. This would’ve been a pretty miserable experience regardless of the information involved, but it was made worse by the fact that we were mostly working with descriptions of grisly murders. Fourteen of them, counting the mass decapitation. How I longed for the good old days of biology finals. Except the dissections.
I did find out that whomever the Headhunter was corresponding with hated me because one of his close friends had been sent to prison because of me. He didn’t identify the jailbird, not that it would have helped.
My own proposal was that instead of Thomas pretending to be the Headhunter, we should use the real Headhunter and make him very much aware that Thomas was pointing a gun at him, but Thomas said it was too risky. “One wink of his eye and the whole plan could be ruined,” he explained, using a tone carefully calculated to let me know that I was a blithering idiot.
So Thomas, Roger and I sat in a motel room making sure Thomas knew everything he possibly could about the Headhunter. The actual Headhunter was back in Florida, heavily drugged while being watched over and re-drugged by Craig. Roger and I weren’t allowed to leave the room, because we didn’t know if anybody was watching us. Thomas was scared of a bug or something being put on him, so the only place he went for food was the hamburger place next door, where the ketchup burned your mouth and the mustard had hard little chunks in it that hurt your teeth. I commented that our room was filled with so many bugs that one more couldn’t hurt, but Thomas didn’t find that comment particularly humorous.
The whole memorizing-every-detail-of-the-Headhunter’s-life thing seemed like kind of a waste to me. I mean, if the kidnappers didn’t know what the Headhunter looked like, how would they know his shoe size? I pointed this out, too, but once again it was explained to me that I was a blithering idiot, which is apparently not a good type of idiot for a person to be.
“Day three,” said Roger, speaking into his miniature tape recorder. “Morale is low. Television programs have continued to be poor, but we remain ever hopeful that reception will improve. Body odor maintains its downward trajectory.”
“Put that away,” I told him.
“Andrew continues to be a substantial penis,” he narrated. “For the record, this is not new behavior, but it’s rare that I have the agony of spending three days in his company without time for recuperation.”
Roger had decided that he was going to take notes on our entire adventure. Because I got the big book deal last time, he figured it was his turn. I tried to explain that there would be no adventure, that we were going to sit in a car and do nothing, but his response was “Yeah, right,” which was a little disconcerting since I was thinking the same thing.
About an hour later, Thomas opened a black briefcase. “It’s time to go,” he announced, taking out a pair of handcuffs. He proceeded to snap the bracelets around his wrists, and then held out his arms toward us. “If matters don’t proceed as planned, here’s what you do. Twist your hands in opposite directions like this, then pull your wrists forward like this.” The handcuffs unhinged and fell to the floor. “Understand?”
“Do you have those in fur-lined?” I asked.
“Pink fur, if you’ve got it,” Roger added.
“You know,” said Thomas, “I used to be appalled at the workings of the minds of individuals like the Headhunter, but after being around you two I’m starting to understand the desire to kill.”
“Hey, Thomas, you made a funny!” I said. “Congratulations! Welcome to humanity!”
“I wasn’t joking.”
AFTER WE each did a practice run with the trick handcuffs, which wasn’t all that easy with our hands behind our backs, Roger and I were separately led out to Thomas’ rental car. He was pressed up right against me, since if the kidnappers were watching it had to look like he was trying to hide the handcuffs from the general public. To anyone else, it probably would have looked like we’d had too much fun with the handcuffs, but fortunately the parking lot was empty.
Roger and I sat in the back seat, behaving ourselves, while Thomas drove us the half hour to our destination. I hadn’t seen snow in quite a while, but it was pretty much the same as I remembered it (white) and the thrill wore off quickly. He parked outside of a large six-story brownstone with lots of chunks missing.
Thomas turned around to face us. “Okay, I would now like to apologize to you gentlemen, since I haven’t been completely honest about the situation.”
I frantically began twisting my hands in the trick cuffs.
“No, it isn’t like that. The plan is exactly the same, merely a bit more involved. Not a lot. Barely at all. It’s simply that the meeting is inside this condemned building, and you’ll have to come with me.”
“You turd!” I shouted.
Thomas frowned. “Did you seriously just call me a turd?”
“Sorry. I have a seven year-old. But yes, you’re a damn bastard turd! What do you mean we’re coming in with you?”
“Like I said, I apologize. I had no choice. Your wife wouldn’t have let you come if she’d known.”
“My wife hasn’t been around for three days! You haven’t even let me call her!”
“Right. Well, you might not have come either. I promise you, the danger is minimal. Almost non-existent. The situation has barely changed from the scenario that you both agreed to.”
“Actually, I don’t remember being given all that much choice, if we want to get picky,” said Roger.
I sighed angrily. “So what other information have you kept from us? Should I learn how to defuse a nuclear warhead?”
“Nothing else, I assure you,” Thomas insisted.
“And why should I believe that?”
“Because,” Thomas said, pointing a gun at my face, “you don’t have a choice.”
“Aw, c’mon! Why would you do that?” I asked. “All this time I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself, putting myself at risk to help some poor guy get his wife back, and now you’re forcing me to do it, which means I can’t get any personal satisfaction out of it. Thanks a hell of a lot!”
Thomas lowered the gun. “I apologize. I just needed to ensure that you didn’t walk out on me.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Well, I’m putting the gun away, then.”
“What good does that do?” I asked. “I still know it’s there. I still know I’m being forced into this. You can’t exactly give a Boy Scout points for helping an old lady cross the street when he’s doing it at gunpoint!”
“There’s no gun,” said Thomas, holding up his empty hands. “I won’t shoot you. You have free will. Go as you please.”
“Just shut up and take us inside,” I said.
“I for one would be happy with merely the outward appearance of free will,” Roger complained.
“All right, let’s go.” Thomas unlocked his door, started to open it, and then looked a bit embarrassed. “Of course, I have to take you in there at gunpoint anyway to maintain the illusion. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
THE APARTMENT building may have been condemned, but it certainly wasn’t vacant. Homeless people were sleeping on the floor, some with blankets, some with newspapers. Several fires burned in coffee cans, providing some light and warmth, but not enough of the latter. A couple of the inhabitants rolled over and groaned as Thomas shone his flashlight around the room, which had obviously been several rooms back in the days when it had walls. A pair of youths, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old, were sitting on the stairs, ignoring us as they shared a hypodermic needle. I won’t even discuss the smell.
“Should we double-check the address?” Roger asked.
“Quiet!” Thomas whispered, prodding us to move forward. There had to be at least forty people on the ground floor alone, sleeping or huddled together. Most of the ones who were awake watched us closely.
Thomas slid his foot along the floor, wiping away some shards of broken glass. “Kneel here,” he said.
We did so without a word, and then waited.
A grey-bearded man under an Indian blanket rolled over on his back and began sobbing in his sleep. The man next to him kneed him in the side and he went silent.
“Place looks like it’s about to collapse,” muttered Thomas, a definite hint of fear in his voice.
We waited for a good ten minutes, not saying a word. My hands were freezing. I wondered if the kidnapper was in the room right now, watching us.
At the sound of footsteps, Thomas swung his flashlight toward a man in a dirt-covered, formerly yellow raincoat. He looked about forty, with a thick beard that hadn’t been trimmed in months.
The man spoke when he was about ten feet away from us. “You’re n-not here for n-nothin’ good, are you?”
“We’re just minding our own business,” said Thomas.
“Okay, I know w-when I’m n-not wanted,” the man said, coming closer. “I’m n-not here to h-hurt you, I was j-just hoping you could h-h-help me out a bit.”
“Sorry, we don’t have any money,” Thomas told him.
The man broke out into a rotten-toothed grin. “Aw, s-sure you do. I don’t n-n-need a l-lot, just a quarter or somethin’, buddy.”
“Don’t t-tell me you’re s-sorry. You’re not fuckin’ sorry. You don’t c-c-c-care about me. C’mon, buddy, one l-little quarter.” The man walked up right beside Thomas.
“All right, let me see what I’ve got,” said Thomas, digging in his pants pocket.
“J-just one quarter, I m-m-mean it’s not that b-big of a deal. Just a quarter.”
“Look, here’s some change,” said Thomas, holding out a small handful. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we have important business to attend to.”
“Thanks, buddy, I d-didn’t wanna be a b-bother,” the man said, taking the change with his right hand. His other hand moved before I had a chance to shout out a warning.
Thomas’ mouth dropped open, a broken bottle sticking in his side. As Roger and I quickly got to our feet, the man grabbed Thomas’ gun and yelped with delight.
“Bitchin’! Awesome p-piece, man!” He took off running toward the exit.
Thomas wrenched the glass out of his side, cursed loudly, and began to stagger after him.
I did the necessary hand twists and the handcuffs dropped to the floor with a clatter. I started to run after Thomas, but my foot came down on a large piece of glass, making me lose my balance and fall to my knees with a gasp of pain.
“I can’t get these cuffs undone!” said Roger, desperately twisting his hands.
I pulled the piece of glass out of the bottom of my shoe. It stung a bit, but hadn’t punctured deep. Thomas and the man were gone. I got up and glanced around at the people in the building, all of whom were staring at us now. If one of them was the kidnapper in disguise, we might be in some pretty serious trouble. Actually, even if one of them wasn’t, our current situation wasn’t exactly joviality and high spirits.
“Give me your hands,” I told Roger. I twisted the cuffs the way we were supposed to, and then gave them a tug. They didn’t come undone. “Aw, great.”
“People are tryin’ to sleep!” a woman shouted angrily.
I twisted the handcuffs again, but they still wouldn’t open. “Okay, bit of a problem,” I said. “Let’s just get out of here.”
As we turned to go, I saw that the two junkies from the staircase were now standing in front of the door. This didn’t strike me as a good development.
We walked toward the door, hoping the junkies were just there to open it for us. Roger continued to struggle with the handcuffs while we walked. I noticed a couple more guys to our left were moving toward us, one of them holding a baseball bat, the other holding a strip of wood with thick nails in it.
“Happy thoughts,” I whispered. “Just think happy, happy thoughts.”
We were almost to the door, and it was clear that the junkies had no intention of letting us go. “Hi there, gentlemen,” I said in my most cheerful manner. “If it’s all right with you, we’d like to go help our friend. He was the one who got the broken bottle stuck in his side. If that helps.”
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere,” said one of the junkies.
“Oh, give me a break,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “You don’t really think you can take me, do you?”
The junkie pulled out a switchblade. He snapped the blade open and looked very pleased with himself.
“Oh, give me a break,” I said, trying to keep my pants dry. “You don’t really think you can stab me, do you?”
“I dunno,” the junkie replied, giving it a twirl. “What d’you think?”
“I think this is all ridiculous. We’re all adults here…well, not you two, but you’re close enough. There’s no reason for violence.”
“Not if you give us your wallets,” the second junkie said.
I reached for my wallet, and then my stomach took a plunge. “Okay, you know what, even though you did present an extremely valid, workable solution to our conflict, unfortunately I wasn’t really planning on making any purchases tonight, so I left my wallet in the motel room. Sorry.”
The guys with the baseball bat and nail-laden wood walked up next to us. I couldn’t see them clearly, but I was pretty sure the nails were rusty and would hurt going in.
“What ‘bout him?” asked the junkie, nodding at Roger.
“Mine’s at the motel, too. Right next to Andrew’s on the dresser. I was going to bring it but I thought, no, I’m going to be handcuffed, I won’t be able to reach it anyway.”
“Then maybe we sell your blood,” said the first junkie, waving his switchblade.
“Now you’re just being silly,” I said. “Nobody would buy my blood.”
“I said, people are trying to sleep!” shouted the angry woman. “Don’t make me come over there and kick your asses!”
“Let’s just kill ‘em!” whined the guy with the baseball bat. “Lemme break his head in!”
The junkie with the switchblade nodded. The guy raised his baseball bat, and then lowered it in surprise. “Holy shit! It’s him!”
“Who?” asked three different people at once, including me.
“Him! That guy! You know those death movies? Those things? You know?” He began slapping his palm against his forehead, trying to concentrate. We all watched him. A moment later, his eyes popped open. “Anthony Mayhem! That’s who you are!”
“Andrew Mayhem, actually,” I corrected.
“Yeah, yeah! Remember those messed-up dudes who were makin’ tapes of people gettin’ cut up an’ shit? He stopped ‘em! I saw all ‘bout that on TV! It was fuckin’ sweet!” He began gesturing excitedly. “Dude, tell ‘em what you did with that skull!”
“I’d love to,” I said, “but I really need to help my friend.”
“Your friend’s cool, dude, he didn’t get stabbed that bad. C’mon, tell about the skull!”
“Really, this isn’t a good time, but-”
“Tell us,” said the guy with the nail board.
“SO I WAS climbing up the ladder,” I said to the fifteen or so people seated in a circle around me. “Now, I didn’t know what I’d find in that attic, but I knew it couldn’t be anything good. I knew that this might just be the day that I died. Let me tell you, being confronted with your own mortality in that way, it really changes a man.”
I checked my watch for the forty-fifth time in the past forty-five minutes. “I know I’ve said this quite a few times already, but can I go now? I’ll come back to finish the story, I promise.”
Thomas hadn’t returned, which was disturbing enough, but the kidnappers would be here any minute. At least I had my new friends to protect me.
“Dude, quit interrupting yourself! I wanna know what happened!”
“Okay, so, I was being confronted with my own mortality. Then I-”
The door flew open and two men burst inside. “How’s it going, you bunch of degenerates?” shouted the first, a tall, athletically built man in blue jeans and a heavy brown leather jacket. His short black hair was slicked back, and he had perfect movie star looks and a thin mustache. “Don’t mind me, trolls. I’m just here to meet a friend.”
His partner was a bit shorter, a bit more muscular, and a lot uglier. He was bald, wore a parka, and was carrying what looked unnervingly like a semi-automatic rifle. He looked a bit embarrassed by his associate’s behavior.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Nail Board demanded.
“I’m the Magic Man. I’m whoever you want me to be,” the first man informed him. He looked around the room, and then held his nose. “Whoa! How many rotting corpses have you got stored in this place? Haven’t you heard of the tradition of burying your dead? Or does that not apply to druggies? That was uncalled for, wasn’t it? Please accept my apologies, trolls.”
He continued surveying the room. I wanted to scoot away, but that would have drawn attention to myself. It didn’t matter, because a moment later his eyes met mine.
“Ooooh, just the person I wanted to see. And Roger, too. And who might your captor be, hmmm?”
Nobody spoke. The man peered at the people around us, and frowned. “Speak up, speak up, whoever you are. Insane minds want to know.”
More silence. The man shrugged, and then patted his partner on the arm. “Let’s get them out of here.”
The people who’d been listening to my story moved out of the way as his partner walked through them and pulled Roger to his feet. Without thinking, I quickly stood up. I glanced over at Nail Board. He gave me a slight nod, which I hoped meant, “Give me the signal, and I’ll whup ‘em.”
The two men exchanged a confused look. Then the second man shoved Roger aside and pointed his rifle at me. The first man took a pistol out of his jacket pocket and also pointed it at me. I raised my hands in the air.
“You’ve got about two seconds to explain this,” asked the first man. “Where’s the guy who brought you here?”
“It’s simple,” I said, trying to subtly wink at Nail Board. He shook his head, set down his board, and stepped back out of the way.
“Then let’s hear it.”
I said the only thing I could think of. “I’m Andrew Mayhem, also known as the Headhunter.”
“I BEG your pardon?”
“You heard me,” I said.
“No, I’m pretty sure I missed something.”
“I’m the Headhunter. I promised to bring you Andrew Mayhem, and I did. Just not the way you expected.”
The man appeared completely flabbergasted. “So, what, you’re saying that you’re…him?”
“I’m him. He’s me. We’re we.”
Yes, the “we’re we” part was pushing it, but I had two guns in my face disrupting my concentration.
He shook his head. “No, that’s not possible. That’s completely ridiculous. There’s just no way.”
“I showed up for the meeting, didn’t I?” I gave him my broadest smile. “Surprise!”
The man gestured at me with his gun. “I do believe we need to go somewhere to talk. Let’s go.”
I shrugged and headed for the door. The other man grabbed Roger by the back of the neck and roughly led him to the door as well. As we left the apartment building, I noticed that Thomas’ rental car was still there. We walked along the sidewalk for a few feet, until the first man shoved me against the building (which miraculously didn’t come crashing down) and pressed the barrel of his gun to my throat.
“Now, what do you mean, you’re the Headhunter?”
“I mean, I’m the Headhunter. Fourteen victims in three years, the last dozen all killed by decapitation, and all by the same scimitar. I was going to call myself the Buccaneer, but that didn’t sound quite as menacing. The highlight of my life was killing off all five of those decrepit partiers at once. My turn-ons include women with pierced tongues, the scent of vanilla, and road kill. My turn-offs include law enforcement officials, asparagus, and shallow people.”
The man stared at me in disbelief. Then his expression changed to pure delight. “That is the coolest thing I have ever heard in my life! What a fantastic fake-out! Oh, wow, we have got some serious stuff to talk about, my friend.” He removed the gun from my neck and extended his hand. “Daniel Rankin.”
I shook it, which was a bit difficult since my hand was numb from the cold. “Nice to meet you.”
Daniel pointed to the other man, who was still holding Roger. “That’s Curtwood Foster.” Curtwood didn’t react to the introduction.
“And what’s up with Roger here?” asked Daniel. “He didn’t know about you, did he?”
I hurriedly tried to come up with a way to get Roger out of this, but how could I explain away the handcuffs? “Not a thing.”
“That is so cool! Foster, put him in the van.”
I avoided looking at Roger while Foster dragged him toward a parked black van. If I was going to be the Headhunter, I couldn’t let any guilt show in my eyes. As it was, I could feel my legs trembling a bit, and my stomach acids were flowing like Niagara Falls. Things were without a doubt getting out of control, but any heroics at this point would just get both of us shot. I had to keep playing this out and wait for a chance to escape.
“I don’t want him hurt,” I said.
Daniel gave me a quizzical look.
“Not yet,” I amended.
“Well, of course. Gotta keep him in good shape for the games, so we can really hurt him. But you’ll learn all about that later.”
Foster slid open the van door, shoved Roger inside, and got in after him. I flinched as he slammed the door, and prayed that Daniel didn’t notice.
“Where’s your suitcase?” Daniel asked.
Thomas had packed a suitcase, just for show. But it was in the trunk of the rental car, and Thomas had the key. “One of those bums stole it,” I said angrily. “I would’ve gone after him and sliced his homeless head off, but I couldn’t leave Roger. Why did you have me waiting in there, anyway?”
“Just wanted to get your vacation off to an exciting start. I promised you a wild time, and I aim to deliver. Did you lose anything essential?”
“Just clothes.” I pointed to some spots of blood that led down the sidewalk. “Looks like he left a trail, though.”
Daniel grinned. “Wanna go after him?”
“You better believe it.”
Daniel started running down the sidewalk. I took a step and nearly slipped. I was wearing sneakers, which weren’t the best footwear for sprinting down icy sidewalks. While my chances of getting the gun away from Daniel were better if we were out of sight of the van, it wasn’t exactly credible that a serial killer who could decapitate five people so effectively couldn’t run down the sidewalk without falling on his ass. I took another step, nearly lost my balance again, and decided to give it up.
“Nah, don’t worry about it!” I called after him. “He’s long-gone. Everything he took is replaceable.”
Daniel slid to a graceful halt. “You sure? We could cause him some big-time pain. It’d be fun.”
“I got here early, so it’s been almost an hour. Actually, I’m freezing to death out here. I hope we’re going someplace warm.”
“I don’t wanna wreck the surprise. Let’s get in the van.”
WHILE I feel guilty admitting this, the simple truth is that I’m a darn good liar. Now, Helen does tend to catch me on occasion, and I know I’m caught when I’m treated to The Gaze, but when my spouse isn’t involved, I can fib with the best of them. I am certainly not proud of this, and if I could change my ways I would, but the fact remains that I’m a good liar, and Daniel was buying my story.
Well, he acted like he was buying it, anyway. But he also made no secret of the fact that he still had a gun, as did Foster in the back. Even if I could wrestle the gun away from Daniel, which I probably couldn’t, I’d end up taking a few rounds of semi-automatic fire from Foster. Some might say that it would serve me right for all that lying, but that’s beside the point.
As Daniel drove, I explained how everything I’d become famous for was really a distortion of the truth. Yeah, I’d stopped the snuff film creators and distributors, but only because they tried to screw me out of my share of the profits. Nobody left alive knew the truth, not my wife, and especially not Roger. And I told them all about Ned Markstein, my second identity in Manhattan, complete with four (count ‘em, four!) girlfriends. Then I told them about the murders. I’d spent three days quizzing Thomas, so the details weren’t difficult to recall, though getting the attitude right was tough. I basically just tried to sound very proud of my accomplishments, as if I were talking about the time I caught sixty-three pieces of popcorn that were tossed across the room in my mouth, and really only missed the sixty-fourth because of a bad throw on Roger’s part.
Roger remained silent in the back of the van. I sincerely hoped he knew I was making up the story to help us both get out of this, and not to save my own butt. He wasn’t trying to sabotage my web of lies, so I assumed that he knew. I still felt like a total bastard.
“So why didn’t you tell me who you were beforehand?” asked Daniel. “You almost got yourself shot!”
“I love surprises. Besides, you had something special planned for me, you weren’t just going to shoot me.”
“Yeah, but what if my hatred for Andrew Mayhem was greater than my admiration for the Headhunter?”
“Then I’d end up slicing your head off and might feel bad about it the next day.”
“You don’t have your scimitar.”
“I have my ways.”
Daniel chuckled. “I think we’ll get along fine.”
WE ENDED up driving for three hours. I was exhausted, and a bit worried about blabbing my story in that state…I could make a continuity error and give myself away. So I reclined the seat and pretended to doze. Every so often I would steal a quick peek at Daniel, but unfortunately at no time was his gun resting on the dashboard with a little sign saying, “Take Me, Andrew!”
When we finally stopped, it was at a small, deserted-looking airport. I could barely even call it an airport, since it wasn’t much more than a runway and a building the size of a shed. I continued to avoid looking at Roger while we got out of the van. I wanted to give him some kind of signal that I had things under control (even if the signal would continue with the current tradition of ridiculous lies), but it wasn’t worth the risk.
There was only one small jet on the runway. “What do you think?” asked Daniel.
“It’s nice,” I replied, not sure how enthusiastic I was supposed to be.
“I own it.”
Daniel nodded with pride. “I own a lot of stuff. You’ll see it soon.”
The door to the building opened, and three people exited. The first, a woman, rushed across the runway, ran the hundred or so feet over to us, and threw herself into Daniel’s arms. They kissed passionately. I thought they were going to start chewing each other’s faces off. It probably would have been a good opportunity to catch Daniel by surprise, but Foster had his gun out and pressed against Roger’s back.
Daniel pulled away from the woman. She had black curly hair, wore blood-red lipstick, and was just a bit pudgy. She wore an orange halter-top and shorts.
“Andrew, meet my wife, Josie,” said Daniel.
Josie regarded me closely. “Isn’t that-?”
“Yeah. He’ll explain everything later.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Better than being hot.”
The other two men walked over to us. The first was wearing a parka, had long, greasy hair, and looked like he’d shaved recently but missed quite a few spots. He wore a nicotine patch and had a carrot stick sticking out of the side of his mouth. He nodded at me. “Ain’t that-?”
“Yeah. He’ll explain everything later.”
“Andrew, this is Stan Tringet. He’s kind of let himself go over the past couple years, but he’s still a good guy. How many hours without a cigarette, Stan?”
Stan gave him a lopsided smile. “We’re back to minutes.”
The second man was also in a parka, but also wore a hat, scarf, earmuffs, and heavy mittens. His wide face was red from the cold. “I’m Samuel Striker,” he told me.
“Don’t be a dick,” said Daniel. “Give him your real name.”
“How do I know he’s not working for the cops?”
“If he’s working for the cops, we kill him.”
“Ooooh, that’s your solution to everything,” said Josie, slipping her hand seductively inside Daniel’s jacket.
“Fine, fine. I’m Mortimer. Can we get on the plane now?”
“Are the other prisoners on board?” Daniel asked.
“Of course they are. Locked down and ready to get out of this place. So let’s go!”
“Okay, then, let’s go.”
We walked toward the jet. Foster shoved Roger a lot more roughly than I appreciated, but I didn’t let my anger show. “So now can I ask where we’re going?”
“ Seattle,” said Daniel. “First.”
“Nope. We’re on our way to the Last Frontier. And that’s where the real fun’s gonna start.”
“WELCOME to Rankin Airlines,” said Daniel into the microphone. “Before we take off, I’d like you to observe some safety precautions. One, please contain all firearms, knives, bludgeoning devices, and electric chairs in the overhead bins until we’ve reached our cruising altitude. Two, in the unlikely event of a water landing, your seat cushion functions as a floatation device. However, your seat cushion also has the scent of blood, so expect to be devoured by sharks shortly after impact. If you are seated next to one of the emergency doors, you will be required to assist the other passengers. Since I can see that Stan is seated next to one, it’s fairly obvious that we’re all screwed. Thank you, and enjoy your flight.”
ROGER HAD been taken down below, with the luggage. Daniel and Josie sat across from me, making out, while Mortimer leaned back and listened to his headphones as he slept. Foster was flying the plane, none too smoothly. Stan sat in front of me, holding his carrot stick between his index and middle finger while he stared out the window.
So, I was going to Alaska. Wonderful. I had nothing against Alaska, never having been there, but any control I had over the situation was pretty much gone. What could I do? Maybe I could swipe Daniel’s gun while he was distracted, except that it was now inside his jacket and he’d most likely notice a third hand squirming around in there next to his wife’s. I didn’t know if Mortimer had a weapon, but I wouldn’t exactly have time to do a thorough search before a few dozen bullets ripped through my face. And for all I knew, there was somebody else down below guarding the prisoners. Maybe several somebodies.
Of course, there was nothing stopping me from gathering more information.
Daniel spat out a mouthful of cleavage. “What’s up?”
“How many prisoners have you got down there?”
“Are they secure?”
“Nah, we’ve just got them running around down there with machine guns. Gee, I hope the bicycle lock on the door holds.”
“Hey, I trust you,” I said. “I just like to know how things stand.”
“You’re right, that’s understandable. But don’t worry about it. You’re on vacation. Leave the details to me. Get some sleep.”
I really wanted to ask if I could go down and check things out, but I didn’t dare push the subject. Daniel resumed his slurping.
There was nothing I could do. I hated that. The only really smart course of action would be to move my seat far from its upright and locked position and get some sleep. I had a feeling the next day was going to be fairly eventful.
Sorry, I guess that’s not the most eloquent way to start this, but it really does seem appropriate. If I had a notepad or something I could probably come up with something poetic, or witty, or…I don’t know, I think “shit” pretty well sums it up.
Shit, shit, shit.
I’ve got a lot of intro stuff on my first tape, but that’s back at the motel in New York, and for all I know nobody will ever find it, so I’ll start over. I’m Roger Tanglen. Thirty-three years old. I would lie and say I’m this handsome stud muffin, but I’m sure they’ll find some picture to go with this, so I’ll be honest and say that I’ve got a big nose. Now that I think of it, if they’re showing the picture, you don’t need me to say that I’ve got a big nose, you’ll be able to see it for yourself, so I’ve just wasted about twenty seconds of your life telling you this. But I’m not gonna rewind because I’m trying to keep this thing honest. So expect all kinds of babbling. Like what you’re hearing right now.
The other people down here are giving me really dirty looks, so I need to get back on track. Right now I’m on a plane bound for who knows where. I’m sitting on the floor, and my feet are locked into these metal things…they’re sort of, I don’t know how to describe them…metal things that clamp over your ankles. I’m trying to think where I’ve seen them before. Well, it doesn’t matter; all that’s important is that I can’t go anywhere. There’s also a metal band around my neck, which is chained to the wall. The chain is starting to feel pretty heavy, to tell you the truth, but it’s not really restricting my movement, though if I managed to get my feet free it would keep me from escaping.
At least my arms are free. The guy who locked me down here searched me, but was nice enough to let me keep the tape recorder. He’s probably interested in hearing what I say. If I were really clever, I’d break it apart and make some sort of device to pick the locks, but I’m not all that clever. I don’t even know what these metal things are called.
There are three other people here with me. One is next to me, but not close enough to touch, and the other two are on the opposite side. Actually, how about you all call out your names and where you’re from? We never know where this tape will end up.
“I’m Mary Bendever, and I’m from Detroit.”
“Susan Piccinini. Also Detroit. ‹sobbing›”
“My name is Rodney Telfare, and I’m from Phoenix, Arizona, and if my wife and kids are listening to this I want them to know that I love them, and that Daddy will be home soon!”
So that’s the crew. My best friend Andrew is on the plane, I’m pretty sure. I still can’t believe it. He was the Headhunter all along. And you know, I think I even suspected it, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I feel like a total idiot. I can’t believe he murdered my cat. My precious Reverse Snowflake, killed by that monster.
I don’t want to talk about him any more.
I wonder if this flight will have beverage service?
“AH, SMELL that fresh air,” said Daniel, beating on his chest and breathing deeply. “That’s the first thing that’s gotta go.”
We were in Alaska. According to Daniel, we were about thirty miles out of Fairbanks, not that I would have known any different. Local temperature was ten below zero, just super for a thin-blooded Florida guy. It was two in the afternoon, but Daniel told me that darkness would be falling very shortly.
We’d landed at another small runway, almost identical to the other one. Then we’d divided into two vans, one with Foster and the prisoners, and one with the evildoers and myself. A long drive through some treacherous, virtually non-existent, roads later, we arrived at our destination.
The centerpiece was a huge mansion. Patricia’s place was undeniably large, but this was one serious mansion. It was two stories, and almost as big as the Chamber Mall. “Forty-eight bedrooms,” said Daniel, as the iron gates swung open.
Behind the mansion was an immense metal structure, which from the outside sort of looked like an airplane hangar. A twenty-foot-high iron fence surrounded the entire area. A couple of dead birds lying in the snow next to it made me believe that it was electrified.
The gates closed behind us. Foster’s van veered to the right, and a sliding door opened at the entrance to the metal structure. As Foster backed the van into the structure, Daniel drove us right up to the front doors of the mansion and shut off the engine.
“Home, sweet, home!” he announced. We all got out, and then he made the comment about the fresh air and how it was the first thing that needed to go. Nobody laughed. I think they’d all heard it before.
“Nice place,” I said. “So what exactly is your day job, anyway?”
“I’m in the inheritance business.”
“Ah. Good work if you can get it.”
Daniel entered a code into a keypad next to the door, and there was a loud click. He swung the double-doors open and gestured grandly. “Welcome to my humble abode! Please wipe your feet before you enter.”
We walked inside. The foyer was enormous and elegantly decorated. There was a red-carpeted staircase leading upstairs that sort of looked like the one Clark Gable carried Vivian Leigh up in Gone With the Wind. There was a golden chandelier that sort of looked like the one in the Walt Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, though in real life and not animation. The whole place was overall very, very, very impressive.
“Wow,” I said, indicating that I was impressed.
“I’ll take you to your room,” Daniel told me. “We’ll eat dinner in about an hour, if that’s okay.”
Daniel led me upstairs and down a long, red-carpeted corridor. The walls were covered with a light gold-colored wallpaper. The doors were spaced about thirty-feet apart, so I assumed there was plenty of closet space.
“Do you get a lot of visitors?” I asked.
“Oh, sure. Not like you, of course. Most of my visitors are of the non-homicidal variety. That’s why I’ve gotta keep things reasonably tasteful, at least in the mansion. But you get the special guest room.”
We stopped at a door that looked much like the others. Daniel tapped it. “That’s mahogany,” he said, proudly. He swiped a yellow plastic card through a reader next to the door, and then swung it open. I stepped inside the room.
There were dead bodies everywhere.
It was the tackiest decorating scheme I’d ever seen.
Every square inch of wall space was covered with pictures of corpses. Corpses in very bad shape. Some of the pictures were black-and-white newspaper clippings, while others were full-color and poster-sized. One of them looked like it was in 3-D. The four-poster bed had several fake heads resting on the pillows.
“Whaddya think?” Daniel asked.
Daniel patted me on the shoulder. “I know it’s a bit much, but you’re a virgin to this place and you’ve gotta get the whole treatment. Don’t worry; we’ll move you to another room tomorrow. Go ahead and take a shower, enjoy the Jacuzzi, whatever you want. There are bathrobes in the closet, but I’ll bring you some clothes right before we head down for an early dinner. Is there anything else you need?”
“A vomit bag?”
“You’ll be interesting to have around,” said Daniel. Then his expression turned serious. “Now, I don’t want you to take offense to this, okay?”
“You’re new here, we only know each other through letters, so you’ll understand if I have to take some precautions, right?”
I nodded. “Absolutely. It takes time to feel you can trust a homicidal maniac.”
“Great. So don’t freak out when I lock you in here, all right?”
“Not a problem. I understand completely.”
“To make more bubbles, just turn the black knob to the right. Sometimes it sticks a bit, but you’ll figure it out. See you in an hour.”
Daniel left the room, shutting the door behind him. A soft click proved that I was now a prisoner, too.
WHEN I was little, my dad used to say, “Son, guilt doesn’t make a very fluffy pillow.” It was not a statement that will ever make it into any of those best-selling books of quotes, but that didn’t stop him from saying it on a regular basis. My mom would occasionally try to intervene, insisting that it was only confusing me, but my dad would explain that he was trying to teach me a lesson. It didn’t really work.
The only long-lasting effect of his lesson is that, in times such as these, when I was wracked with guilt, I’ll often think to myself “You know, Andrew, guilt doesn’t make a very fluffy pillow.” It’s annoying as hell. I’m terrified that someday Kyle will misbehave and I’ll say it to him before I realize what unholiness I’ve unleashed.
So, anyway, I had that stupid quote running through my mind while I turned on the water in the Jacuzzi. I had no intention of actually relaxing in it, but I hoped the noise of the whirlpool would cover the sound of me poking around, as well as convince anyone who happened to be listening that I was perfectly relaxed in my demented environment.
I did, however, take a hot shower. I felt guilty while I did it, since Roger no doubt was not currently enjoying a cascade of soothing water, but I couldn’t exactly go downstairs to dinner reeking of nervous sweat.
After I was done, I turned on the whirlpool, took one of four white bathrobes from the closet, and then began to search the room, hoping to find either a weapon or an escape route.
I eliminated the escape route idea fairly quickly. No secret doors under the bed, under the rug, or in the closet. At least no obvious secret doors. I could possibly kick a hole through the wall, given sufficient time and better shoes, but I wasn’t going to pursue that option quite yet.
Next I searched for weapons, something that could be easily concealed. The bedroom was a dead end. Some of the corpse posters looked like excellent paper cut material, and perhaps I could smother somebody with one of the fluffy pillows, but I needed something more substantial.
There was a shaving razor in the bathroom, but unfortunately it was electric. The best I could come up with was a pair of fingernail clippers. I slipped them into the pocket of the bathrobe. You never know.
In an emergency, I could break the mirror on the medicine cabinet and use the shards of glass, but beyond that I seemed to be pretty much stuck with the fingernail clippers.
I continued to search, and jumped when there was a knock at the door half an hour later. I waited as long as it would have taken me to get out of the Jacuzzi and towel off, and then went over to the door.
“It’s Foster. I’ve got your clothes.”
The lock clicked, and then Foster opened the door, holding some neatly folded clothes.
“Great, thanks,” I said.
“No problem. Too bad yours got stolen.”
“Yeah, well, things happen.”
“Uh-huh. By the way, I don’t believe for one second that you are who you say you are, and it will be my great pleasure to gouge your eyes out very soon. Then I’m going to rip out your throat and make you eat it.”
“But you’ll spare my nose, won’t you?”
“Just keep thinking this is funny,” said Foster. “Pretty soon it won’t be.”
He thrust the clothes at me, and then shut the door.
“What a prick,” I said to the shirt.
I got dressed in the designer jeans and green polo shirt Foster had so thoughtfully provided. I transferred the handy fingernail clippers to my jeans pocket. I’d just tucked in my shirt when Daniel arrived to escort me to dinner.
“SO, ANDREW,” began Mortimer, stuffing a bite of prime rib in his mouth, “what’s the story? I’m talking about the whole Headhunter thing? Daniel explained part of it, but I’m still confused.”
I shrugged. “Not much to tell. Have you read my book?”
“Lies. From beginning to end.”
“You don’t say.” Mortimer thought about that for a moment. “So you actually worked for Ghoulish Delights?”
“That’s right. They tried to rip me off, and I have it on good authority that they regretted it.”
Daniel chuckled. “Excellent lobster, honey,” he said to Josie. “You’ve outdone yourself again.”
“Just call me Mrs. Domestic.”
“And while you were with Ghoulish Delights, you were also going around killing people as the Headhunter?” asked Mortimer.
“Busy son of a bitch,” muttered Foster.
“Idle hands do the devil’s work.”
“So, you’re part of Ghoulish Delights, and you’re the Headhunter,” said Mortimer. “You’ve got this fantastic cover story that you’re Andrew Mayhem, the family man who stopped a bunch of sadistic killers and their fans. Why would you tell anyone your secret?”
Thomas had posed that same question to the Headhunter. “Because,” I said, taking a sip of my red wine, “Daniel here promised me one hell of a party.”
“And you’ll get it,” said Daniel.
“Besides, who’d believe it?” I asked. “I’ll just tell the press that you wackos kidnapped me.” I laughed in what I hoped was a convincing manner.
“What about Roger? I thought you two were best friends from childhood.”
I took a much larger sip of the wine. “We were.”
“Then what happened?”
“No kidding. They must’ve changed quite a bit for you to bring him here. What did he do?”
“Let’s just say that when I came home early one day, I decided to be a little more creative than running for the shotgun.”
Mortimer nodded his understanding. “Gotcha.”
“Lost three wives that way,” said Stan, not looking up from his dinner. Daniel had forbade him from smoking at the dinner table, but an unlit cigarette stuck out of the corner of his mouth as he chewed his steak.
“So when do I find out the big surprise?” I asked. “There’s only so much suspense one guy can take, you know.”
“Then we’ll get right into the overview,” said Daniel. “You’ve probably guessed that all of us sitting here at this table are…well, we’re sickos. Just like you. Without trying to get into the psychological explanations and theories about our mothers and all that crap, it’s safe to say that we very much enjoy torture and murder. We like the suffering, we like the pain, we like the whole visual spectacle. Simply put, we’re a bunch of freaks.”
“Here, here,” said Josie, raising her wine glass.
“The thing is, it’s not the most convenient hobby to enjoy. The dangers are incredible. Even a sniper puts himself at risk, but we want the up close and personal element. We don’t want it over quickly. We want them to know what’s happening, and what’s going to happen. Sometimes we even love to rub the family’s face in it…not literally, though that would be fun, too.”
Just keep smiling, I told myself. You like what he’s saying… you like what he’s saying… you like what he’s saying… at least don’t puke on the lobster…
“Anyway,” Daniel continued, “I am, if you haven’t already guessed, extremely rich. I did not murder my father to get my inheritance, I earned it the good old-fashioned way: lung cancer. So I had this wonderful house built. Like it?”
I nodded. “It’s roomy.”
“That it is. It’s tastefully decorated, except for your room, of course, and quite frankly the type of place you’d feel perfectly comfortable using to entertain royalty. But I assume you noticed the other building?”
“That’s are where the fun begins. I have created what I like to call the Psychopath’s Paradise. ‘Psychopath’ may not be the most accurate word, if you really get into the medical definitions, but it works well enough. A place where people like myself, and Josie, and Foster, and Stan, and Mortimer, and Andrew Mayhem the Headhunter can have themselves the most outrageously entertaining kill-fest imaginable, without worrying about all those annoying interruptions like family members walking in, or cops showing up, or having to constantly say ‘Scream and you’re dead! Scream and you’re dead!’ Let me tell you, Andrew, you’re in for a treat.”
Thirty years of pretending to love that disgusting, slimy fudge my Aunt Patty makes every year at Christmas wasn’t nearly enough practice for the feigned delight I had to show at this moment.
“Sounds fuckin’ awesome!” I said, hoping gratuitous profanity would make my joy more believable.
“So, anyway, every year we’re each responsible for bringing three victims, though Josie and I will usually snag some bonus prey. Those like myself, who capture them early, get the extra enjoyment of inflicting mental torture upon their families. Then there are losers like Stan, who wait until the last minute and nearly get themselves shot.”
Stan hadn’t been paying attention. He looked up at the sound of his name, shrugged, and returned to his dinner.
“And you invite a special guest each year?” I asked.
Daniel shook his head. “You’re the first. So we have lots of special surprises for you, my friend. In fact, let’s all finish up our meal so we can move on to the first.”
I had absolutely no interest in finishing my meal. “What are we doing first?”
“What else, new guy? Initiation.”
THIS CONTINUES the sad, sad tale of Roger Tanglen. They still haven’t taken away my tape recorder, not that I offered it to anyone, so I guess I’ll just keep talking until they take it away, or they kill me, or my fellow prisoners tell me to shut the hell up before they beat me senseless.
“Shut the hell up before we beat you senseless!”
That was Rodney, my cellmate. As you can hear, we haven’t completely lost our sense of humor yet. Which is good, I mean, if you quit laughing, you might as well be dead, right? Wow, that sounds profound. Laughter is the best medicine. Clown noses and whoopee cushions will get us out of this, I’m sure of it!
Yes, I’m babbling again. I apologize to whoever ends up transcribing this mess. Should that be whomever? Whatever.
Let me get down to the important stuff. Right now I’m in a room about…oh, a hundred square feet. Eighty, maybe. It’s set up like holding cells at a jail, at least the way they look in the movies, since I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one in real life. Five cells on each side. There are two doors in the room, one on each end, metal doors with a handle like the kind you see inside of a meat locker, I think. You know, one of those long handles that you pull down. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been inside of a meat locker. I’m using movies for reference again. And I’m babbling again.
There are eighteen other people in here, mostly two to a cell. Like I said, I’m with Rodney Telfare from Phoenix, one of my co-passengers on the trip here. When I’m done I’ll pass around the recorder and let everyone say their name, just for the record. I only have one other tape, so I hope I don’t run out, but everyone deserves to have their name on the tape so there’s some chance that their families will find out what happened.
Actually, I hope I do run out! That means I’m alive longer than the length of the tapes! I take back my previous comment.
Believe it or not, these cells aren’t all that uncomfortable. There are two beds, with comforters and fluffy pillows. We’ve even got a water cooler. No refrigerator, though. Every cell has its own bookshelf, but every single title on ours is either a horror novel or true crime. Just getting us in the mood, I guess.
Oh, and I can’t forget the inspirational slogan painted on the wall: “Today is probably the last day of your life.” Cute, huh?
I think I’ll hand this over to Rodney now, so he can…no, wait, I think somebody’s unlocking the door.
[Sound of door opening. Footsteps.]
“Hey, dead meats, how’s it going? I’m coming for one of you! One of you gets to die tonight! Whoever could it beeeee? I just don’t know, there are so many fine candidates to choose from! Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a tiger by the toe, if he hollers…oh, no, I like this one. Big and strong. What’s your name, sir?”
“He asked you your name, asshole!”
“Now, Foster, that’s no way to speak to a dying man. You really do need to learn some manners when conversing with people who are just moments away from a ghastly, hideous, unbearably painful death. Again, what’s your name, sir?”
“Rodney Telfare! Well, Rodney, YOU’RE GONNA DIE!!! I hope that hasn’t ruined your evening. All right, Foster, get him out of here and bring him to the ring. I’ll meet you there.”
“Yeah, it would be a shame if you had to do anything around this place.”
“Ah, quit yer dad-blasted bellyachin’. You love using that cattle prod and you know it.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Ta-ta, everyone! Keep looking over your shoulders! You never know, I could be coming for YOU next!”
[Sound of door closing.]
“What a dick. All right, Rod, you can make me work for this, or you can be nice. See this gun? One of your fellow prisoners gets shot for every second of annoyance you cause me, starting with your cellmate. Come over to the bars. Good.”
[A cry of pain. Sound of a body falling.]
“Heh heh, look at him twitch. And if you don’t want to be in his place, you just stay right back there where you are.”
[Sound of cell door sliding open. Body being dragged. Door slamming shut.]
“Damn, what did we feed this guy?”
[Sound of door opening, then closing.]
I’m…I just…I’m turning off the tape now.
THIS SHOULD have been the time where I got over being Mr. Cautious and did something. Maybe I could’ve grabbed a steak knife or a lobster claw and tried to use Stan as a hostage. I knew it wouldn’t have worked, but I was still furious at myself for not trying.
Now, of course, I was in absolutely no position to try anything. Daniel and Foster had gone on ahead. Josie had blindfolded me, and she and the others led me to wherever we were going. They didn’t say anything as we walked, and I didn’t know whether to worry more about my upcoming initiation or the fact that they very well might have known all along that I wasn’t who I claimed to be. For all I knew, I was to be their first victim of the season.
We walked for about ten minutes, stopping at one point for a door to be opened. There was a huge rush of cold air and wind as we walked outside, and then another door opened and we walked back inside, no longer on a carpeted surface. Two minutes later I walked onto what felt like sand, and after a few steps Josie put her hands on my waist.
“We’re here, sweetie,” she said.
She pulled off my blindfold, and I found myself standing in a scaled-down version of a Roman gladiator arena, maybe thirty feet across. The walls were about eight feet high, so there was no chance of climbing out, at least not without a few minutes of privacy. Josie left, closing a metal gate behind her. I saw Mortimer and Stan take their seats above. Stan held a bag of popcorn.
Daniel was directly above the far wall of the arena. He sat on a throne, wearing a king’s robe and jeweled crown. Josie appeared above and sat down in the front row.
Daniel picked up a horn and blew into it, making spitting sounds but very little music. He set it aside, and then gestured grandly. “Welcome, filthy peasants, to the Initiation! This evening, Andrew ‘Headhunter’ Mayhem shalt prove that he is worthy to stand among us! He shalt battle a prisoner, a strong and mighty foe, until one of the two hath fallen dead!”
The gate on the far side of the arena opened, and a tall, muscular, but scared-looking black man was shoved forward. The gate slammed shut behind him.
“Come forth, Almost Initiated One, and choose thy weapon!” Daniel said, pointing to me. “Choose well, for it will be thy only source of defense!”
My legs trembled as I walked forward. Even if I were willing to fight an innocent man to carry off this ruse, I wasn’t even sure I could beat him! My mind raced through every possible escape method, but save for somehow managing to kill all of the bad guys from my spot down here in the arena, there didn’t seem to be one.
Daniel lifted a large brown box to the ledge. It displayed a sword, a mace, a short spear, some other bladed weapons I didn’t recognize, and a stapler. “Choose now!”
“I choose the sword,” I said.
“The Almost Initiated One chooseth the sword!” Daniel announced. He removed the sword from the display box, made as if he were about to throw it, and then grinned and put it down.
“Thy King rules that the Almost Initiated One isn’t going to get off that easy!” he said. “He hath far too much experience with his weapon of choice. Choose again!”
“Hey, he’s cheating!” I said, trying to sound amused. “What kind of crooked operation are you running here? Gimme the sword!”
“Thy King’s word is final! Thou must choose again!”
“What, are you just gonna make me run through the whole box of weapons until I pick the one you want?”
“Nay, Almost Initiated One! Thy next choice will be thy weapon! Thou hast my word as King!”
“Then I choose…” I said, as a sudden idea came to me. “I choose as my weapon…knowledge of the periodic table of the elements!”
There was a long silence.
“I beg thy pardon?” asked Daniel.
“Any man can fight with blades of steel, or maces of…steel. But true wisdom is the finest weapon of all!” I pointed accusingly at the prisoner. “I challenge thee to a duel of wisdom, a duel in thy knowledge of the periodic table of the elements!”
Daniel looked utterly confused. Then, after a moment, he shrugged and sat down. “Okay, sure, go for it.”
Now, of course, I had to hope that I still remembered. I’d wanted to be a chemist for about three weeks back in high school, but I’d had that stupid table hammered into my skull so deeply that it could never escape.
The prisoner looked even more baffled than Daniel. “Speak!” I shouted. “Prove thy worthiness at this battle of wisdom!”
“Uhhhh…” said the prisoner.
“Thy knowledge is miserable! Victory will be mine!” I flexed my muscles in glory.
“No, wait. It goes, H for hydrogen, He for helium, Li for lithium, Be for, uh, beryllium, B for boron…”
My mouth dropped open.
“…C for carbon, N for nitrogen, O for oxygen…”
I just stood there, flabbergasted, as the prisoner rattled off the entire list. As he progressed, his voice took on a singsong pattern, as if he’d memorized the elements using a song like the ABC’s.
“…and Lr for lawrencium,” he finished.
The spectators above exchanged questioning looks.
“Okay, well, I guess you have great wisdom,” I admitted.
“All right, enough of this intellectual crap!” said Daniel, standing up again. “Let’s see some blood! Andrew, pick your weapon!”
“But I won!” the prisoner insisted.
“You didn’t win squat. He was just messin’ with you. Andrew, weapon! C’mon, c’mon, let’s move, his royal majesty is getting impatient!”
That annoying little voice in my head began to speak again, forcing me to consider the option of fighting to the death. After all, if I killed the prisoner, I’d earn their trust, and then I’d have a better shot at rescuing Roger and the others. One would die so others could live. It was a worthy sacrifice, wasn’t it?
No. I couldn’t do it. There had to be another way.
“The stapler,” I said.
Daniel leaned over the side of the wall. “Okay, Andrew, I know I’m standing here dressed like some dipshit king and we’re making this into a fun little game, and we’re trying to be all silly by sticking a stapler in the weapon display case, but you do notice the element of danger here, right?”
“I notice it. I choose the stapler.”
“Okay, whatever, it’s your funeral. Stapler it is.”
He removed the stapler and tossed it onto the sand next to me. I picked it up and held it in a menacing manner. I was still hoping to find some way to get out of this mess without either of us getting hurt. If the prisoner didn’t feel he was in serious danger, maybe we could figure something out.
“Prisoner, choose thy weapon!” shouted Daniel.
Damn. The annoying voice told me that now I was going to die so that the others could die, too.
Daniel picked up the sword and tossed it onto the ground next to the prisoner. I immediately rushed at him, arms outstretched. I had to keep weapons out of this as much as possible.
The prisoner moved out of the way, and then kicked me in the shin. I flew forward, landing on my stomach and ending up with a mouthful of sand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up the sword.
I quickly got up, spitting out the sand. I wiped my mouth off on my sleeve as we stood there, six feet apart, trying to stare each other down.
“Gooooooooo Andrew!” shouted Daniel. “Staple him to death!”
“You can do it, Andrew!” Josie pitched in. “The Wench Brigade has faith in you!”
The prisoner stepped forward and took a quick swing with the sword. I moved back out of the way, wishing I had my trusty tire iron. And that my car was between us. And that one of us was back in Chamber.
I unhinged the stapler, ready to fire staples at the slightest provocation. I hoped I looked ridiculous, but the prisoner’s expression remained serious and wary. Did he really think they’d let him go if he killed me? Had they even promised such a thing?
He dashed at me, and I let loose with a mighty storm of staples. I tried, anyway. The stapler jammed after the first one. I dodged his attack, and then fled to the other side of the arena.
Daniel cupped his hands over his mouth. “Boooooooo!!!”
“Release the lions!” shouted Josie.
It would not have surprised me one bit if real lions suddenly rushed into the arena, but fortunately none appeared. I lifted my foot in the air and made comical kung-fu noises while I contorted my body into ridiculous fighting positions. I had to get this prisoner to relax. And I didn’t want the others to know I was terrified.
“I’m rootin’ for the prisoner,” Stan declared, flicking popcorn into the ring at me. “Gooooooo prisoner!”
“Gooooooo prisoner!” Mortimer chimed in.
“Kiiiiiiiss my ass!” I replied.
The prisoner ran at me again. I stood there, arms casually folded, and then let myself drop just as he swung the sword. It smashed into the wall, and I quickly wrapped my arms around his legs. He fell to the sand.
I began pressing the stapler against his right leg. It wasn’t working, but they probably couldn’t tell that from above. “All fear the mighty stapler!” I shouted, trying to grab for the sword with my other hand. The prisoner rolled on his side and swung the sword, slashing my shoulder.
The sting was incredible. I cringed and reflexively pushed my hand to the wound. For a split second I felt nothing but pure fury. It faded instantly, but perhaps that was something I could use.
“I’ll kill you!” I screamed, diving upon him and pummeling him with my empty fist. But I pulled my punches at the last instant, hoping it looked convincing from above. I was really hitting him, but he had to notice the effort I was making not to hurt him. The prisoner tried to swing the sword again, but I bashed his arm with the stapler, hard, sending another jolt of agony through my injured shoulder.
“You’re dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” I grabbed for his throat and screamed in his ear. “Dead!” Then I whispered “please stop fighting,” followed by another “Dead!”
He seemed to get it. He made another halfhearted swing with the sword, which I easily blocked. I pretended to struggle much more violently than was necessary, and then wrenched it out of his grip. Then I tossed the stapler aside and began bashing on his head with both fists. I continued to pull my punches, but a couple were harder than I’d intended. We hadn’t exactly rehearsed this.
Then the prisoner stopped moving. I assumed he was faking, but I couldn’t be sure. I got up off him, then went over and picked up the sword.
“Yeah! Cut his head off!” Daniel shouted.
I lifted the sword above my head, screamed in rage, and then slammed the blade down into the sand next to him.
I stood there, panting.
“You, uh, missed,” Daniel pointed out.
I looked down at the prisoner and kicked him in the side. “Forget it. He’s no fun to kill like this.”
Stan began to boo and fling popcorn again. “Whatta rip-off! G’wan, kill him!” Mortimer and Josie began to join in.
“No,” I said, clutching my injured shoulder. “I’m not killing some unconscious guy. That’s no challenge. You guys are here for fun, right? Well, let’s chop him up when it’s fun!”
“Quiet!” snapped Daniel. “If he wants to save him for later, that’s his choice.” He gestured dramatically. “Thou hast proven thyself worthy! Thou art Initiated! Welcome!”
He began to applaud. The others joined in, half-heartedly.
“Thank you, thank you,” I said. The gate opened and Foster entered, holding a metal prod. “Long have I dreamed of joining such a fine-”
“No speeches,” said Daniel, removing his robe. “I realize it’s only about four, but it’s bedtime. We all need to get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be one busy, exciting day.”
Foster jabbed the stick against the prisoner. His body jerked as if electrified. Foster jabbed him again. I didn’t think the prisoner was feigning unconsciousness this time.
I reached for the sword. “Leave it,” said Foster. “I’ll take care of it.”
“I can help out,” I said.
Foster took out his revolver. “Get the hell away from it. You’re lucky I don’t blow off your kneecaps anyway.”
The gate behind me opened. “Whoa, Foster! Put the piece away! Show some respect to our newest initiate!”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Foster, pocketing the gun.
Daniel patted me on the injured shoulder, none too gently. “Don’t worry, it may hurt but it’s not deep. I’ll send Foster to your room with a first-aid kit.”
As we left the arena, we stepped into a hallway that split off into three directions. “Take off your shirt,” said Daniel. “Don’t wanna drip blood all over the place.”
I took off the shirt, almost shrieking in pain. I pressed the cloth to my cut, and Daniel motioned for me to head down the hallway to the left. “Congratulations on your victory,” he said.
“Mind if I speak freely?”
“Not at all,” I told him.
“I didn’t want to make you look bad in front of everyone, but you really should have killed him. I know you may not think it’s sporting to waste an unconscious victim, but I think you cost yourself some respect from everyone else. And I think you cost me some, too, for bringing you here.”
“Sorry. That’s just not the way I work.”
We stopped at a door. Daniel swiped his card. The door opened and we stepped outside into the cold, behind the mansion. The next door was only a few feet away, and after Daniel opened it we were back in the red-carpeted hallway.
“I can understand that,” Daniel admitted. “And your act was entertaining and all, but you’ve got to realize that these people don’t know you. That karate stuff was kinda funny, a little, but there has to be a payoff. Beating the guy up doesn’t cut it. You should’ve chopped his head off. You’d be a hero. Now they all think you’re some fake.”
My stomach did a flip-flop, but I tried not to let my anxiety show. I stopped walking. “I don’t much appreciate being told who I have to kill.”
“Oh, don’t give me that, Andrew! These are games! That’s why I invited you here! I kept the details secret, but you knew what was involved! We’re supposed to be having fun! If you’re going to let some ridiculous moral code get in the way of everything, you might as well go home. I’ll have Foster fly you home tonight. How about that?”
The way he looked at me, I knew flying home was not an option, even if I’d been willing to leave Roger and the others behind. I put my hand to my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I really am. I’m not thinking right. I’m tired and my shoulder hurts like hell. I just thought it would’ve been more fun to kill him when he was awake to see what was happening, like you said at dinner tonight, but you’re right. I should’ve killed him.”
“Yes, you should have.”
“I could run back there and finish him off, if you want.”
Daniel appeared to relax. “Nah. We’ll get him later. This was nothing, anyway, just a prelude. You’ll have plenty of time to redeem yourself tomorrow.”
I SAT ON the edge of the bed (having moved those phony severed heads to the closet, facing the wall) trying to look at something besides the corpse pictures. God, I missed Helen. And Theresa and Kyle. If I managed to get out of this, I was never going to leave my house again, so I couldn’t get into trouble. Well, that wasn’t true-I got into all kinds of trouble without leaving the house, or even my bed, but at least not potentially fatal trouble.
Guilt or no guilt, I needed to soak in the Jacuzzi. No matter how dangerous it was, I was going to have to make my move tomorrow, so I had to be in the best shape possible. I turned on the hot water as there was a knock at the door.
I almost told Foster to get lost, but I did need the bandages. Of course, if he decided to make good on his kneecap threat…
The door opened. It was Josie, holding a first-aid kit. “Hiya,” she said. “I come bearing gifts.”
“Hey, it’s just what I’ve always wanted,” I said, crossing the room.
“Foster said that for all he cared you could bleed to death, so I volunteered.”
“You’re very generous.” I reached for the first aid kit, but she held it behind her back.
“Don’t you want me to patch you up?”
“Nah, I’ve got it covered.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. I know what sissies you men are. I’ll do it.” She closed the door behind her. “Nice wallpaper, huh?”
“Yeah. I’ll have to buy some for the kids’ romper room at home.”
“Danny just likes to mess with his friends. You’ll get used to it. Not for a few years, but you’ll get used to it. Oooh, the Jacuzzi sounds like a good idea. Mind if I join you after we finish?”
“Danny might not approve.”
She opened the first-aid kit. “Danny might not find out.”
“And then Danny might not remove my heart with a can opener. I think I’ll pass.”
“Your loss. I’m scrumptious in the nude.”
Now this was disconcerting. I wasn’t sure if she was serious, kidding around, or if Daniel was waiting right outside the door to find out what I’d do.
“I’m sure you are,” I said.
“C’mon, you’re getting even with Roger, don’t you want to get even with your wife, too?”
“I don’t consider being slaughtered by your husband getting even.”
“What if I told you Danny was okay with it?”
“I probably wouldn’t believe you.”
“You’re not very trusting.”
“If you provided me with a signed, notarized statement that he was okay with it, then I’d be perfectly happy to have you be nice and naked in my hot tub. As it is, the fact that I get locked in here when nobody’s around indicates that we haven’t crossed all the trust barriers yet.”
“All righty, then.” She patted the bed next to her. “Let’s get that shoulder bandaged up.”
“Really, you can just leave the kit.”
“Andy, sweetie, you don’t have to worry. I may bite, but I’m not venomous. The big, strong serial killer isn’t afraid of a waif like me, is he?”
She wasn’t exactly a waif, but pointing that out seemed like a really good way to get hurt. I sat down on the bed next to her, and she removed a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some cotton swabs from the kit.
And then I realized that while I was standing there being extremely uncomfortable with her in the room, I was overlooking a perfect opportunity to strike. Daniel might be a horrible, vicious murderer…but he also might be willing to release the prisoners to save his wife. It was a risk, sure, but there clearly wasn’t going to be an easy solution to my problems.
Josie pressed the alcohol-soaked cotton swab against my cut. I forced myself not to wince. Instead, I put my hand gently on her leg.
She continued cleaning the cut, but there was a definite hint of a smile.
I slid my hand upward just a bit as she set aside the cotton and alcohol and took out a bandage. I peeked into the kit. No scissors. No sharp objects. The rubbing alcohol wasn’t even in a glass bottle.
I’d just have to do this without a weapon.
Now that the excess blood had been wiped away, my cut didn’t look all that bad. It was barely even bleeding anymore. I wondered if Josie thought I was a complete wimp.
She tore open the bandage wrapper.
I slid my hand down her leg, and then up again, beginning to knead the flesh.
She gently put the bandage on my shoulder.
I slammed my hand over her mouth and wrestled her down onto the bed. I grabbed the first aid kit to bash against her head, but she got a handful of my hair and tugged hard.
Damn! Why hadn’t I thought to turn on the whirlpool first, to cover the noise?
She bit down on my hand, but I pulled it away before she could draw blood. “ Danny!” she screamed.
I got ready to slam my fist into her face, but the door burst open. Daniel and Foster entered; Foster with his gun.
I raised my hands in the air. “Don’t shoot!”
Foster pointed the gun at my face, ready to do just that.
“No!” said Daniel. “Josie, come here.”
Josie got off the bed and rushed over to Daniel, throwing her arms around him. Foster looked like he wanted to shoot me so badly that he could barely keep from wetting himself, but he didn’t pull the trigger.
“What’s the story, Mayhem?” Daniel asked.
“We weren’t doing anything,” I insisted.
“Oh, really? And what were you doing?”
“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” I said, getting to my feet. “She came in here saying all this stuff.”
“That she looked good naked, and did I want her to join me in the hot tub? She said you didn’t mind!”
“And you believed her?”
“No! Well, yeah. I mean, c’mon, Daniel. You built a freakin’ gladiator stadium in your backyard so you could watch people kill each other. I figure somebody that depraved isn’t going to get all bent out of shape over a little wife-swapping.”
“I’m missing where the ‘swapping’ portion comes into play.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“Come on, Daniel!” said Foster. “Why are we listening to him? Let me blow his face off.”
“In a second.”
At that moment, water began to spill over the top of the Jacuzzi. “Aw, for crying out loud,” muttered Daniel, walking over to turn off the faucet. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“Can I shoot him for that, at least?” asked Foster.
“No, you may not. Give me the gun. You’re getting all worked up; you’re gonna hurt somebody.” Daniel walked back to the doorway and grabbed the gun out of Foster’s hand. I lowered my arms.
“But he tried to kill Josie!”
“He didn’t try to kill Josie, you jackass! He tried to get off! Get out of here for a minute, all right?”
Foster punched the wall, then stepped out into the hallway. Daniel closed the door, and pointed the gun at me.
“All right, look. I knew she was gonna come on to you, and I’m cool with it. Share the wealth, know what I mean? Maybe I don’t provide her with a signed, notarized statement, like you said, but I’m happy to let her do her own thing. My only question for you is, why was my wife screaming my name?”
“Isn’t that what you’d want?” I asked, trying to smile.
“This is not the time for jokes,” said Daniel, keeping the gun pointed at me. “This is the time to think very carefully about one’s own mortality, especially when one could very well end up with the other prisoners.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really, I am. I thought she liked it a bit rough.”
“Mmm-hmm. And did you ask her?”
“It’s not something I’m used to asking.”
“Well maybe you should consider it in the future. If you have one.”
I leaned forward and cracked my knuckles. “Can I ask you a question?”
“You invited a man who has killed fourteen people into your home. You did it for the express purpose of letting him help kill even more people. And now you’re telling me you were expecting a well-behaved houseguest? Are you some kind of idiot?”
“Watch yourself,” said Daniel.
“No, you watch yourself. You invite me here into this hedonistic sociopath paradise where we can do whatever we want, so hell yeah I’m gonna dive at your wife when she tries to seduce me. Now, I apologize for getting rough. I didn’t hit her or anything; I just put my hand over her mouth. I won’t do it again. But come on, Daniel, I turned my former best friend over to you for who-knows-what kind of torture…did you think you were inviting Mr. Rogers?”
Daniel pulled the trigger.
I flinched at the sound of the gunshot. I turned and saw that a bit of smoke billowed from a bullet hole about six inches from my head, in a color photograph of a skinned body.
“You’ve got a point,” he said.
Josie started to protest, but he waved her silent. “I guess we need to go over some house rules. Do whatever you want to the prisoners. Respect the guests. Understand?”
“I’m sorry to say that you’ve cost yourself an incredible couple of hours. Believe me, I know what you’re missing. But tomorrow we’ll start fresh. How does that sound?”
“That sounds fine,” I said. “Josie, I’m sorry. I got carried away. You should be a little less irresistible.”
“Jerk,” she muttered, opening the door and leaving.
“You’re not making friends here,” Daniel informed me. “I suggest you soak for a long time, then take a cold shower, get a lot of sleep, and hope things go better.”
“They will,” I promised.
“I’m counting on that. Sleep tight.” He left. I heard the door lock, and then promptly rushed into the bathroom and vomited.
After I’d recovered, I reached into the hot tub and turned the knob to drain some of the water. The bathroom had plenty of towels, so I used those to soak up the spilled water.
Now they were going to be watching me even more closely than before. I’d screwed up my chance. Possibly my only chance. And I hadn’t even gotten any use out of the fingernail clippers. Things had seemed pretty much hopeless before, but now…
I looked over at the bed.
No. No way.
I hurried over to it.
A yellow card key. Josie must have lost it during our struggle, along with a stick of chewing gum.
Would she notice? If she stuck with Daniel, she might not need to use it. It had been a few minutes already. She could be in their bedroom. Or she could be on her way back.
Should I sneak out now, just in case, or wait for a better opportunity during the night, when everyone was asleep?
If they heard me leave, and there was an extremely strong likelihood of that happening if I went now, I’d be screwed. If she came back for the key, I’d be no worse off than I was before discovering it (which was pretty darn bad, admittedly, but I was trying to think positively). But if she didn’t come back, I might be able to find the prisoners. Find Roger.
I decided to wait.
I SPENT almost an hour in the Jacuzzi, doing my best to relax. Nobody had returned for the key.
I got out and got dressed in the old clothes. Looking at my watch, I saw that it was about five o’clock Alaska time. If they got a full night’s sleep, the mansion residents would probably be waking up to start their new day just after midnight. Appropriate.
An hour didn’t seem long enough to wait, but I was scared to doze off for fear that I wouldn’t wake up until they came to get me. An alarm clock would’ve been nice. Instead, I quietly paced around the room, breathing deeply, trying to get myself in a jolly state of mind.
The next hour passed very slowly, and I spent most of it checking my watch to see how quickly the hour was passing. Finally, I decided it was time to go. If the card worked.
I held the card up to the reader. There was a beep, followed by a click. I pulled the door open, carefully peered down both ends of the hallway, and stepped outside my room.
I HAD A cover story ready-Josie had dropped her card during our scuffle, and I got bored and decided to take a stroll-but if they caught me I probably wouldn’t have a chance to use it. The usual variety of Andrew Mayhem screw-ups was no longer permissible. Bumbling incompetence would be fatal.
I shut the door behind me. I didn’t know exactly where the prisoners were being held, but it was certainly in the metal structure and not the main house. The mansion was practically a maze, but I could probably find my way back the way we’d come earlier.
And, hopefully, locate a telephone along the way.
In fact, looking for a phone was probably the best place to start. My room hadn’t been equipped with one, but the other bedrooms might. Probably any room that wasn’t specifically intended to store homicidal maniacs who hadn’t completely earned Daniel’s trust would have a way to contact the outside world, right?
If I accidentally opened a door where one of the others was staying, I was dead, but that wasn’t likely to happen. Not with this many rooms. Though that didn’t mean somebody in a nearby room wouldn’t hear me.
I decided to tiptoe to the end of the hallway before checking any rooms. I turned the corner and pressed my ear against the first door on the right. No noise from inside, so I waved my pass card in front of the reader.
The door unlocked. I took a deep breath, and then opened it. I stepped inside and shut the door behind me before turning on the light.
“ Surprise! ”
The colorful banner with that word hung across the bedposts. The floor was covered with balloons, though most of them were only half-inflated anymore. Wrapping paper littered the bed.
So not all celebrations in this house were completely demented. And they really needed a housekeeping staff.
I searched the room quickly, kicking balloons out of my way, but there was no phone. Nor any useful weapons, unless I wanted to use the balloons to smother somebody.
I shut off the light and exited.
I unlocked the bedroom next to it. It was similarly furnished, though without the surprise party decorations. No phone. Nothing helpful.
As I returned to the hallway, I heard a door open.
I ducked back into the room, closing the door quickly but softly. I considered hiding in the bathroom, but decided to stand by the doorway, ready to strike if somebody came in to investigate.
I stood in the dark for a minute.
It didn’t appear that they’d heard me…unless they were waiting outside the door for me to come out.
But I couldn’t just stay in here all night. I had to get moving before somebody decided to check out my room.
I slipped back into the hallway. It was empty.
I didn’t like the idea of wandering around the mansion when there was a good chance that somebody else was roaming the halls, but I couldn’t give up. There had to be a phone somewhere. Or a way to free the prisoners.
I continued down the hallway. I turned another corner, and saw a door much larger than the others, made out of different wood. I unlocked it and went inside.
It was a huge office. A black desk took up almost a quarter of the office by itself, and the walls were covered with maps of various cities. As I walked over to the desk I glanced at the bookshelf, which was filled with encyclopedias, almanacs, and numerous other reference works. I wondered what kind of work was done here.
The desk drawers were locked, so I couldn’t get into them, but the top of the desk had all the usual office accessories: pens, pencil sharpener, tape, calculator, hole puncher, stapler…everything but a phone.
It did, however, have a fax machine.
I flipped on the power switch. It began to hum, a little too loudly for my comfort, and a digital message read, “WARMING UP…PLEASE WAIT.”
This was perfect. I could write down all the necessary information and fax it right to the cops. I might not know exactly where I was, but this place was pretty big, and if they sent out some helicopters in a thirty-mile radius of Fairbanks they were bound to find it, sooner or later.
It would’ve been a foolproof plan if I knew their fax machine number.
Or any fax machine number.
I’d sent a few faxes during my temp jobs, but that was it. There was not a single fax number I knew off the top of my head. I couldn’t even guess at them. The machine was useless.
But then I remembered something. One time at the corporate slave temp job I’d answered the phone and been greeted with an annoying high-pitched beep. The nose-picking guy in the cubicle next to mine explained that somebody was mistakenly trying to send the fax to my phone number, and that I should just forward the call to the fax machine.
Who could I send it to who would know to forward it?
It had to be a business. But I didn’t have any business numbers memorized.
Pudgy Pierre ’s Pizza, back in Chamber. They would fax their menu to you if you requested it. I’d gotten in trouble for having them send one to work.
Could I count on Pudgy Pierre?
No, no, no! I smacked myself in the forehead. I was making things too complicated. Just send it to 911! If you dialed 911 and didn’t say anything, they’d still send somebody out to investigate, so the same might be true if I sent a fax.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Andrew Mayhem has a plan!
The display read “ENTER USER CODE.”
There went the plan.
I tugged on the drawers again, in case they’d decided to unlock themselves. They hadn’t. There was a small notebook on the corner of the desk. I picked it up, and saw that the pages were filled with various doodles, including smiley faces and naked cartoon characters. A handwritten note in the inside cover read: “ Fax: 1113.”
Finally, I was getting a break. I entered it.
“INCORRECT USER ID. PLEASE RE-ENTER.”
But maybe he changed it regularly and just didn’t write it in the notebook. I typed in “ 1114.”
“INCORRECT USER ID. PLEASE RE-ENTER.”
Yes! Fantastic! I tore out a sheet of the notebook paper, grabbed a pen, and quickly scribbled: “ Trapped 30 miles out of Fairbanks. Many people have been kidnapped. Kidnappers are armed and extremely dangerous. Please send help to a huge brown mansion, surrounded by fence, with a large metal building behind it. Owned by Daniel Rankin. This is not a joke!!! Andrew Mayhem. ”
I put the paper into the fax machine, punched in 911, and pressed the “send” button. The paper went through the feeder without crumpling up, like so many faxes had at my temp job.
The machine beeped to show that it was ready to send the fax. Then another message showed on the display. “NO DIAL TONE.”
I hit “cancel,” then tried again.
“NO DIAL TONE.”
I tried Pudgy Pierre.
“NO DIAL TONE.”
I picked up the paper, crumpled it up, and shoved it into my pocket. The fax machine was officially useless.
I RETURNED everything to the way it had been before I’d entered the office, and snuck back into the hallway. It was possible that some part of the mansion had phone service connected, but I needed to put that idea behind me and see if I could find the prisoners.
I quietly made my way through the corridors, finally reaching the staircase leading down to the main foyer. I felt extremely vulnerable walking down these stairs into such a wide-open area, but I didn’t have a choice.
As I walked down, I couldn’t help but glance at the front door. My pass card probably worked on it. I could get out of this place, go for help, and bring back the cavalry to rescue everyone.
It sounded nice and simple. If I had the keys to either of the vans. If I could get the electrified gates open. If I had any clue where to drive. If there wasn’t a good chance of a mass prisoner extermination after I was discovered missing.
Without the van, I could possibly find a way to get through the gates. Maybe the part that opened and closed wasn’t electrified, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know much about electric fences. But running around in sub-zero temperatures in the dark this far away from civilization in the least-densely populated state in the union (I don’t know where I remembered that factoid from) didn’t seem likely to get me anywhere. And how hard would it be for them to follow my tracks in the snow?
Nope, exiting through the front door was a lost cause.
This line of thinking did make me wonder what exactly I planned to do with the prisoners if I was able to free them…but I’d worry about that later.
I crossed the foyer and walked down a short hallway, stopping at the sound of music. Country music that might have been halfway decent on its own, but was currently being sabotaged by the non-melodic voice of Mortimer.
It was coming from the dining room.
Though it was impossible to be certain, the way this place was set up, I was pretty sure I had to pass the dining room to get to the other building. Even if I didn’t, I was getting really nervous about the amount of time I’d spent away from my room already. I had to get moving.
Very, very slowly I tiptoed over to the dining room entrance. Mortimer’s singing got louder and worse.
“ Oooooh, why you done left me, I just don’t know, but when y’all come back, your head off I’ll blow…”
Being as careful as humanly possible (for a loser like me), I peeked into the dining room. Mortimer sat at the table, back to me. In one hand he held an enormous turkey leg, in the other a Fudgsicle. Even from behind, it was not a pretty sight. I quickly darted past the doorway and continued on.
I followed some more winding corridors, not completely sure if I was going the right way but at least not feeling hopelessly lost. And then I reached the doorway to the other building.
I felt an incredible sense of relief, while at the same time my sense of terror cranked up a few notches. I waved the pass card, opened the door, and stepped out into the cold.
It was absolutely freezing, as well as snowing heavily. Though the short path to the other building had been recently shoveled, I had to keep swiping my foot back and forth behind me to remove my tracks. I waved the pass card in front of the reader, shivering.
I waved it again.
Wonderful. My whole expedition had been a waste.
I tested the door handle, but unfortunately nobody had been brain-dead enough to leave it unlocked. Perhaps extra keys were stored someplace, but the mansion was just too big to search for them. I felt sick to my stomach as I turned around and returned to the other door.
My pass card didn’t work on this one, either.
I tried it again with the same result.
Now this was really, really bad.
I folded my arms and blew out a cloudy breath. With all the potential for dying inside, I was going to end up freezing to death out here. Maybe I could find a window to break or something. Of course, even if nobody heard that, they’d see my tracks and know something was up.
Perhaps I should just walk around to the front and ring the doorbell. Maybe they’d be nice and shoot me instead of putting me through whatever else they had planned.
My best course of action would be to stand by the door and wait to ambush somebody as they came out. Except that I didn’t think anybody was planning to come out for a few hours, and I wouldn’t be able to move my hands in a few minutes. The best fight I’d be able to put up would be to topple over and let my frozen body shatter on them.
I tried the card once more. No good.
I wanted to just sit down and cry.
I STOOD there for a couple of minutes, just feeling sorry for myself. Roger and the others had it worse, undoubtedly, but after all I’d been through I deserved a bit of self-pity.
Then there was a sudden light to my right. I spun around and saw a flare on the far end, by the fence. The figure was much too far away to identify, but it was waving both hands over its head.
Who the hell…?
I was still concerned about leaving footprints, but it wasn’t worth worrying about at this point. I began to run toward the figure, as well as I could through two feet of snow.
As I got closer, I saw that it was Thomas.
He was wearing a parka and earmuffs, but as I ran up to the fence I could see that he had a huge gash over one eye, and his face was bright red. He’d been out here a while.
“Andrew! I can’t believe it!”
“How did you find me?” I asked, but I knew the answer before I even finished saying it. It wasn’t at all surprising that somebody so concerned about being bugged would have the resources to do it himself.
“I bugged both of you,” he said, slurring his words just a bit, no doubt because his face was numb. “On your shoes. Where’s Roger, is he all right?”
“Yeah. At least I think so. They would’ve told me if they did anything to him. They think I’m the Headhunter.”
“No.” I gave him a thirty-second condensed version of the story.
“That’s incredible. I’ve been staking out this place for the past two hours. I could hardly believe it when I noticed you coming outside through my binoculars.”
“Yeah, well, seeing you was a nice surprise, too. But please tell me you’ve contacted the police. They know you’re here, right?”
Thomas shifted a bit, looking somewhat uncomfortable.
“You told somebody, right?”
“There wasn’t time.”
“Oh, that is bullshit!” If there weren’t an electrified fence between us, I would’ve punched him. “So tell me, did you intend for things to work out the way they did? You meant for them to take Roger and I away so you could follow us, didn’t you? Where did you go after you got stabbed?”
“I swear, I didn’t lie to you. At least not after I lied about having to go inside the building. I chased the man for a few blocks and then I had a dizzy spell and passed out. I woke up to a pair of prostitutes trying to steal my jacket. But I got here as quickly as I possibly could.”
“Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but why didn’t you bring somebody!”
“I needed to investigate the situation beforehand.”
“Look, I don’t know what your frame of mind is, but it appears to me that you want to be some big-shot hero, and that’s not what’s gonna get us out of here! I’m locked outside the house, I’ll be murdered or worse as soon as they find me, and they may very well execute all of the prisoners if they think somebody is on to them. So it would be really nice to have the cops or the military or the Justice League of America around here to save the day!”
“I understand that,” Thomas said. “But there’s a problem. I’m not used to driving in these conditions and my car went off the side of the road about two miles back. I had to walk here.”
I squeezed my eyes shut in frustration. “You have a cell phone, right?”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve got one, but the battery died. I thought I’d recharged it, but I’ve had a lot on my mind recently, as I’m sure you can understand, and-”
“Do you have a gun?” I interrupted.
“Do you have bullets for this gun?”
“Sarcasm isn’t necessary. Yes.”
“Good. Give it to me.”
He shook his head. “I have a more effective plan. I’ll pretend to be a stranded motorist.”
“It won’t work. They’ll kill you.”
“You don’t know that. I just need to get over the fence.”
“Have you tried the front gate?”
“Yes. It’s the only part that’s not electrified, but the bars are too narrow to squeeze through, and too slippery to climb.”
“Maybe you could climb one of the trees and jump over,” I suggested. “Even though you’d probably break your leg.”
“I tried that. I shouldn’t have tried to climb with mittens. I lost my balance, bashed my face into a branch,” he pointed to the gash above his eye, “and fell. I can’t tell because it’s so numb from the cold anyway, but I think I broke my foot.”
I sighed. “How are you possibly going to get over the fence with a broken foot?”
“I’m not certain. I’ll figure something out. And even if I can’t, if I stand by the front gate they’re bound to see me.”
“Not necessarily. And if they do, it’ll be after you’ve frozen to death.”
“I’ll be fine.”
I leaned my face closer to the fence. “Just give me the gun, Thomas. There are only five of them. If I can catch them off-guard, I might be able to take them out.”
“No, I’ll get in there. I promise.”
“Thomas, I’ll make sure you get your share of the goddamn glory! This is no time to be a hero! Now give me the gun!”
“You don’t have experience with guns. I do. Trust me, I’ll get you out of there. I promise I’ll get you out of there.”
“Your hands are going to be frostbitten! You’ll barely be able to hold the gun, let alone shoot it accurately!”
“Andrew, I came here to do a job, and I’m going to do it.”
“So, what, you essentially called me over here to say that you don’t want my help? Me, the guy who’s on the inside, who they all think is one of them. How can you possibly be so stubborn?”
“No, I didn’t say that I don’t want your help. I want all the information you can provide.”
“What information do you need if your big plan is to pretend you’re a crippled, stranded motorist and start shooting?”
“I need the layout of the place, where the kidnapped people are being held, that type of knowledge.”
“I don’t see how that’s going to…” I trailed off, and then decided it wasn’t worth arguing. I told him what I knew, which wasn’t much.
“Do you think you can arrange to be with them when they answer the doorbell, or at least when they go outside?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to be locked in the bedroom at this very minute. So no, I can’t promise you that.”
“Why are they locking you in the bedroom if they think you’re the Headhunter?”
“They’re not big on trust. Listen, why don’t you try to get over the fence right now? If by some miracle I can get back inside, we can find the prisoners, then pick off the bad guys when they show up.”
“How did you get locked out?”
“I have no idea! The card stopped working!”
“So it’s an electronic lock?”
“Yeah.” I held up the card for him to inspect.
“I had my tracking device on when you came out,” he said. “Maybe it was interfering with the access system.”
“Would it do that?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it’s possible, I suppose.”
“Is that tracking device good enough to pinpoint an exact location? Like, could we tell exactly where Roger is right now?”
Thomas shook his head. “No. It’s very general.”
“Then why did you have it on?”
“Because if they discovered the bug and destroyed it, I’d lose the signal. I’ve just been making periodic checks.”
“So you were just checking to see if we were still alive?”
“Well, your shoes, anyway.”
“I am so glad I met you. How about you start climbing a tree, okay?”
A couple of feeble attempts made it clear that there was no way Thomas was getting over that fence with a broken foot. As he landed on his back the second time, I almost fell to my knees. “Please, Thomas. Give me the gun.”
“I’ll make it over.”
“No, you won’t. Accept it.”
I’d been out here way too long already. Though Thomas could conceivably provide some assistance-maybe they would think he was a stranded motorist and be taken by surprise-I had to assume I was on my own again.
“If the card works this time, I’ll investigate the other building,” I said. “Try not to kill yourself.”
I waded back through the snow. The snowfall was getting heavier, so it would probably cover my tracks, but to help things out I kept pushing snow over them. It meant that the trip back to the door seemed to take forever, and by the time I got there my arms were completely numb and soaking wet, but if I was lucky things wouldn’t seem too out of place.
I had trouble even getting the pass card out of my pocket, but managed to wave it in front of the door to the metal building. Nothing.
I tried it again. A beep and a click.
The problem may have been interference, or it may have just been a system glitch, but either way, I was in!
IT DID NO good.
The first thing I encountered were two doors, one to the left and one to the right. Both of them had number pads instead of card readers. Keeping with my trend of self-delusional optimism, I tested the handles on each door.
I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t open.
I was soaking wet from the snow, which blew my cover story about just getting bored and going for a walk. I hadn’t found anything useful in the mansion so far, and they could check my room any minute.
As much as I hated to admit defeat, it was time to head back and hope that a different opportunity presented itself. Or that somehow, despite his maddening stubborn streak, Thomas came through for me.
SURPRISINGLY, I managed to get back to my room without incident, save for an easily retraced wrong turn. I stripped out of the wet clothes and wrung them out as best I could, and then draped them over the hot tub. They probably wouldn’t be dry before anyone showed up, but I’d just say that I’d taken Daniel’s advice and went straight for the cold shower, not bothering to get undressed. It was weak, I know, but I’m sure they thought I was the kind of guy who would do something like that.
I debated long and hard over what to do with Josie’s pass card. When she discovered it was missing, she’d know for certain it was in my room. I didn’t think that trying to deny it would go over very well, and I probably couldn’t hide it anywhere that they wouldn’t find it. Somewhere else in the house, perhaps, but they’d have me locked up with the other prisoners long before I could retrieve it.
No, as much as it pained me to give it up, I had to pretend I’d never found the card. I set it on the floor, under the bed but poking out enough that anyone walking into the room would be able to locate it easily. I’d have to find another way.
I took a quick hot shower, toweled off, and got in bed. I was absolutely exhausted, and wasn’t going to get anywhere if I started keeling over from lack of rest.
I fell asleep right away. It was a deep sleep, the kind I used to enjoy in study hall. My unconscious mind was generous enough to give me pleasant dreams out of deference to my conscious nightmare.
I AWOKE several hours later to a knocking at my door. It opened, and Josie stuck her head in.
“Rise and shine. You don’t want to miss the fun.”
I rolled over, groggily, and noticed that a fresh new set of clothes rested on the dresser, folded neatly. The old ones had been removed. I leaned over the side of the bed and saw that the card was gone. Since I wasn’t presently dead, I guessed that they didn’t think I’d noticed it.
I got up, stumbled into the bathroom, and took another shower. The hot water seemed to help a bit.
Then I jumped as if somebody had snapped a bullwhip right by my ear. Every last remnant of grogginess I felt vanished as I realized that I’d left the fax in my jeans pocket.
I WASN’T going to panic.
I wasn’t going to drop dead of a heart attack.
I was going to be fine. Perfectly fine.
I washed clothes with stuff in the pockets all the time. Almost every time I do laundry I wash some paper currency (this is but one reason Helen rarely asks me to do laundry). One time I ruined several of Helen’s favorite shirts by washing them with a pair of Kyle’s pants that had two full packs of bubble gum in the pockets.
They’d have no reason to check.
They probably weren’t even going to wash the jeans yet.
I probably wasn’t dead meat.
I shaved, got dressed, and paced around the room while I waited for somebody to show up. Five minutes later, Josie did.
“I really want to apologize,” I told her as we walked out of the room and down the hallway. “I was a total jerk last night.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. Her voice didn’t sound completely like I shouldn’t worry about it, but at least she was trying to be friendly.
We entered the dining room just as Daniel was stepping out of the kitchen, wearing a “Kiss the Chef” apron and holding a plate with an omelet on it, which he set in front of Stan. “Hi there!” he said. “I’m just making my world-famous ham and cheese omelets, without fingers this time, since the cannibal in our group has moved on to bigger and better things. Have a seat!”
I have to admit, it was an incredible ham and cheese omelet. If Daniel ever got bored with torturing and murdering he and Josie could open up a fantastic gourmet restaurant.
Conversation was relaxed, or at least as relaxed as it can be when you’re in a room with five sadistic killers. Well, kidnappers anyway. I had yet to witness a murder. And I hoped I hadn’t jinxed myself by thinking that.
There didn’t seem to be any hint that they’d found the note or noticed the tracks in the yard. And I wondered if perhaps Josie had been the one to bring me new clothes, had discovered her card under the bed in the process of delivering them, and hadn’t said anything to anyone for fear of pissing off Daniel. It was possible.
So where was Thomas?
Maybe dead under that same tree.
We finished our meal, and Daniel stood up. “All right, everyone, last night we had a successful Initiation, so now it’s time to let the games begin!”
“‘Bout time,” said Stan, breaking the hook off of a candy cane and popping the long end into his mouth.
Daniel ignored his comment. “And guess what we’re starting with?”
“Darts?” Mortimer asked, hopefully.
“Darts is correct! Let’s go!”
IT WAS STILL snowing as we stepped outside. I wanted to look over and see if there was any sign of my tracks, but I didn’t want anyone to follow my gaze. We entered the metal structure, and after Daniel punched in a code we went through the door to the right.
Daniel, wearing a lightweight leather jacket, broke into a jog, and the rest of us followed as we headed down a corridor past the gladiator ring. We passed through a crossway, and then he opened another door and we entered a large room.
An immense clear plastic cube took up most of it, about thirty feet square and ten feet high. Inside it looked like a playground jam-packed with equipment: a slide, hanging bars, a climbing rope, and a tire swing. There were also about five large punching bags hanging from the ceiling. Several blue flags and several red ones were randomly placed throughout the cube. The side facing us had a clear plastic door with a sliding lock.
A man, about twenty-five years old with glasses and a black goatee, sat on the bottom of the slide, wearing a blue shirt. A blonde woman who was a few years older was standing in the corner, sliding her hands along the plastic as if searching for a weak spot. She wore a red shirt.
Each side of the cube had what looked like two cannons mounted on it, like the kind in carnivals where you spray the stream of water to make your horse win the race. Each cannon was about ten feet from the nearest corner, with about fifteen feet separating the cannons that shared a side. Beneath each cannon was a small cardboard box. Daniel stepped ahead of us, and then turned around to face us and gestured for us to stop.
“And here we are at our first event, darts. The rest of you know how the game works, but I’ll explain it for Andrew’s benefit. We’re divided into two teams. Josie, Foster, and I will be the red team, and you, Stan, and Mortimer will be the blue team.”
He approached one of the cardboard boxes and reached inside, pulling out a thin metal spike, about three inches long and half an inch thick. “These are the darts. You load them into the shooter as so.” He slid the spike into a hole in the back of the cannon. “To fire, pull the trigger.”
He pulled the trigger, and with a loud snap the spike shot across the cube, striking the far wall and dropping to the floor. “Nice and simple. The people inside, who can’t hear us, by the way, have been told that the first one of them to collect all ten of their flags will be set free. They won’t, of course. That’s just to keep them moving. The game gets pretty boring if they just sit there.”
“And, what, the object is to kill them before they can get the flags?” I asked, wondering how I could possibly put a stop to this.
“Of course not. That would be way too easy. As long as your person is still moving, you get a point every time you hit them. The object is to rack up the most points, which means you have to shred your person bit-by-bit. Hit a vital organ too soon and that’ll cost you the game.”
“Cool,” I said, nodding my understanding. That nod was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life.
“Everyone grab a spot!” said Daniel. The others hurried to their places, Foster on the far side of the cube across from me, Josie and Mortimer to the left, Stan to the right. I took the spot next to Daniel. “It works like this,” said Daniel, swiveling his cannon up and down, left and right. “Since you only have enough maneuverability to cover about half of the cube, you need to use teamwork.”
I swiveled the cannon. If only it weren’t fixed to the cube. “What if you hit the wrong person?” I asked.
“You no longer get to shoot, and your team loses five points. Don’t do it.”
I had to do something to stop this, but once again I was stuck with no options. At least no good ones. I did have a box full of the darts, but Daniel was fifteen feet away, and I didn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t still have his gun. Could I stroll on over to him before I got shot?
Could I stab him with the spike and get a hold of his gun?
Or could I press a spike to his neck and force him to order the release of the prisoners?
The first option wasn’t likely. Even if I could pull off the stabbing portion, there’s no way I’d have time to go through his jacket before the others got me.
The second option didn’t seem much better, but I had to do something. I could stand here all day, watching them kill off prisoners one by one, and never get a good opportunity. This problem wasn’t going to be resolved by getting a prisoner to feign unconsciousness. If I didn’t act, and soon, they were going to die excruciatingly painful deaths.
“The game of darts is about to begin!” Daniel announced. “On the victim’s side, being shot at by the blue team, unable to hear me but being introduced anyway, we have Trevor Winford!”
“Wenford,” Foster corrected.
“I’m sorry. Man, that’s tragic. The last time he’ll ever be introduced and I screw up his name. Oh well. Let’s hear it for Trevor Wenford!”
Everyone applauded with great enthusiasm. I joined them, while crouching down to pick up a spike.
“And being shot at by the red team, let’s give a warm welcome to Susan Picci…Piccini…how do you pronounce it again?”
“Sounds like ‘pitch-a-ninny,’” said Stan.
“Ah. Why the hell do you always kidnap people with such hard names to pronounce? Let’s hear it for Susan Piccinini!”
“All right, everyone, load your first dart!”
The others began to load their cannons. I clutched the spike tightly in my hand, wondering if I should just rush over there.
No. I couldn’t be stupid about this. Daniel would be much more distracted once he was playing the game. They were purposely trying to avoid killing the prisoners, so I had some time. Not much, but some.
I slid the spike into the cannon, and then picked up another.
“Let me ask you something, Daniel,” I said. “I know the money portion isn’t a problem, but how do you get something like this built? I mean, you can’t just hire local construction workers, right?”
Daniel chuckled. “Actually, yeah, you can for a lot of it. Well, the designers weren’t local, but a lot of the workers were. I just have to do my own modifications. For example, this thing was built to be a paint ball game, and then I turned it into something a little more fun. As far as the construction crews know, I’m building the world’s biggest indoor theme park…most of which is a haunted house. They just don’t know that I’ve made it lethal. It’s still a lot of work, even with an outside crew doing most of the manual labor. But wait’ll you see what we’ve got underground. It’s mostly functional but not completely finished yet, so it won’t be part of this year’s games, but it’s amazing. You’ll be astounded, I promise.”
Daniel tapped the side of the cube. Trevor and Susan looked in his direction, and Daniel held up his hand, counting down on his fingers.
“Ready to begin in five…four…three…”
I looked across the cube at Foster, who was smiling at me, as if he knew how little I wanted to be here.
The prisoners leapt into motion as there were five simultaneous snaps, and then loud slamming sounds as the darts struck the opposite sides of the cube. A spike tore across Trevor’s upper arm and he cried out, though I couldn’t hear it. I saw that Susan also had an arm wound, much worse than Trevor’s, and a spike protruding from her thigh.
“Foster! What the hell are you doing?” shouted Daniel, hurriedly pulling out another spike. “You’re gonna cripple her already!”
“The aim’s off on mine!” Foster protested.
“Don’t blame the cannon!” Another dart grazed Susan’s shoulder. “Nice one, Josie!”
I quickly began to walk toward Daniel.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Stay by your cannon!”
“Mine’s not working,” I insisted.
“Just pull the trigger! C’mon, your teammates are counting on you!”
Trevor crashed against the cube right next to me, the bottom of his ear gone.
“Shit! You made me miss that hit! Who did that? Mortimer?”
“Hell yeah, baby!” Mortimer announced.
“You know very well that you weren’t aiming for his ear,” Josie informed him.
“It’s not the intent, it’s the action!”
“Yeah, kiss mine!”
“I just need you to-” I began.
“Goddamnit, Andrew, you pull the trigger! Don’t make me shoot you!”
He returned his attention to the game, firing a spike that grazed Susan’s leg, but I’d lost any possible element of surprise. I should’ve just rushed him…except that I’d have ended up dead.
I went back to my cannon. My heart nearly stopped as a spike struck the wall right in front of my face. Foster grinned and waved.
I had to play the game. Not well, of course, but I had to play. I had to shoot to miss, and pray that it would be over quickly.
Trevor had gathered three of the flags. I swiveled the cannon to the left, aiming it in his general direction but making sure it would miss, and then pulled the trigger. The spike struck the slide, twirled up into the air, then came down on Trevor’s foot.
“ Sweet! ” said Daniel. “I know you’re not on my team, but that was sweet! ”
I reloaded the cannon and fired another spike that became imbedded in one of the punching bags. I flinched each time a spike hit the cube wall, even though most of the hits were nowhere near me. My head was pounding.
Susan fell to the ground, a spike protruding from her side. “That was Stan!” Josie shouted. “Stan hit her! He’s outta here!”
Stan spat out his candy cane, smacked him palms against the cube wall, and stepped away from his cannon.
“Get her up!” Daniel shouted. “Foster, she’s out of my range! Put a dart in her arm! Hurry!”
Mortimer fired a dart that took a chunk out of Trevor’s lower leg. Trevor let out a silent scream and dropped his flags.
I aimed at Susan. If I hit her, I’d be disqualified and no longer have to participate in this horror.
But before I pulled the trigger, I realized that I couldn’t do that. That was selfish and cowardly. Why should my whiny moral anguish be more important than the agony the prisoners in the cube were suffering? I had to do something else. Susan and Trevor were going to die. That was for certain. I had to make their deaths as quick and painless as possible.
A spike fired by Foster grazed Susan’s arm. Sobbing, she got to her feet and staggered toward the closest flag.
I turned the cannon toward Trevor. He was in range, facing the other way. I aimed for the back of his skull and fired.
Instead, the spike sliced across the side of his neck. He clutched at the wound, trying to stop the bleeding.
“ Nice one!” shouted Mortimer. “You guys don’t stand a chance!” He fired a spike that missed Trevor and struck another punching bag.
I loaded another spike, aimed at the back of Trevor’s skull again, and fired.
Trevor turned his head, and the spike ripped off his ear.
“Oh my God!” Mortimer shouted. “Both ears gone! Blue team rules! Blue team rules!”
“Yeah?” asked Daniel. “Well, watch this.” He fired a shot at Susan that missed completely.
“Watch what?” Mortimer inquired. “I was watching, but I didn’t see anything. Andrew, what were we supposed to watch? I guess I wasn’t watching closely enough, because I just don’t recall seeing anything worth watching.”
A spike tore through Susan’s thigh, close to where the very first spike had hit her. “How about that?” asked Josie.
“That doesn’t even come close to both ears gone!” Mortimer insisted. “You guys are losers! Lo-ho-ho-sers!”
“All right, everyone, pay attention!” said Foster. “This dart is going to knock that other dart right out of her side!”
“Oh, yeah, right,” said Daniel.
“Hey, support your teammates!”
“Sorry. Go, Foster, go! Shoot that spike right out of her side! Go, go, go!”
Foster fired. The spike sailed through her throat and slammed into the wall in front of Daniel.
“Foster, you jackass!” he shouted.
Susan clutched at her throat with both hands. By now her entire body was covered with blood. She dropped to the ground and lay still.
“I told you, the aim is off!”
Josie stepped away from her cannon. “Nice going, jackass.”
“It’s the aim! Come over here and check it out!”
“Your cannon’s fine, jackass,” said Mortimer.
Foster made like he was going to walk over and hit him, but then grinned. “But that was a pretty good throat hit, huh? I’d like to see you try that.”
“No way, it’s seven to one, we still need more points to make up for Stan’s dumb move,” said Mortimer, putting another spike in his cannon.
Trevor had been staring at Susan in horror, and suddenly realized that he needed to continue gathering the flags. Mortimer’s shot missed him completely.
I blinked and felt a tear trickle down my cheek. I hurriedly wiped it off on my sleeve before anyone saw.
Another shot by Mortimer lodged in Trevor’s stomach. I had to put the poor guy out of his misery. I fired, missing his head yet again and instead striking his shoulder blade.
“Ooooh, vicious hit by Andrew!” Daniel declared. “That boy is dangerous behind the cannon!”
Mortimer fired. Trevor dropped to the floor, a spike jutting from his forehead. “Ooops.”
“Smooth move, jackass,” said Foster.
Mortimer shrugged. “We still would’ve won if it weren’t for Stan. But that’s okay. Daniel, Foster, Josie, I salute you. Very nice shooting Andrew, especially for a first-timer.”
“Absolutely,” said Daniel. “You did great. Should’ve put you on my team instead of the jackass.”
The others applauded. I stood there, doing everything I could to hide how miserable and sick I felt. I looked away from the bloody corpses and stared at the spike in my hand.
I couldn’t pocket it, not with everyone walking toward me.
I could certainly lunge at Daniel.
But no. I’d earned some respect. Maybe not a lot, but it might be enough. I had to play it smart. Now I’d just find a way to get Daniel alone. Then I’d break his neck, get his gun, and finish off the rest of them.
I tossed the spike back into the box.
“Mind if I pump a few more into ‘em?” asked Stan. “For practice?”
Daniel shrugged. “Be my guest, you sick bastard.”
“I’m up for a rematch,” said Mortimer, coming around to our side of the cube. “How about you snag a couple more prisoners?”
“No, no, no,” said Daniel. “It’s time for the really gruesome, hands-on, one-on-one stuff. And we’ve got lots of new props this year.”
Snap! Stan fired a shot, and then loaded another spike.
“Great! Who gets to go first?”
“It’s Foster’s turn this year.”
Mortimer looked over at Foster. “I hope you’re not going to take three and a half hours again. You know, there’s a point where you just have to kill them and move on.”
“Then maybe I’ll do four hours,” Foster told him. “Maybe four and a half. Maybe, and this is only an unverified rumor, so don’t say anything, but maybe I’ll do five.”
“The jackass joke is long gone. Why don’t you go with it?”
Mortimer started to say something, but apparently decided that his comment lacked the wit of the current conversation thread and decided against it.
“However,” Foster began, “I think Andrew should go first.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I’d rather see how it’s done. Whatever it is.”
“It’s nothing you haven’t done before. This’ll be your chance to prove you can do it well. What do you think, Daniel?”
“If you want to trade him spots, that’s fine with me.”
“Good. Yes, I’d like Andrew to go first. It should be interesting.”
“Don’t I get any choice in this matter?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Daniel. “New Initiates have no rights. C’mon, let’s go make a mess!”
THINGS AREN’T going well.
I’ve been trying to conserve tape space, so I haven’t been talking much, but things are getting really bad. A couple hours ago, the bald guy, Foster, came in here and took away Susan Piccinini and Trevor Wenford.
Ten minutes ago, he brought them back on a big cart. I couldn’t even tell how many stab wounds they had, not with all the blood, and they had a bunch of metal things, about the size of pencils, sticking out of them.
Foster pushed the cart really slowly. And he was whistling.
He took them through the other door. I don’t know what they’re planning to do with the bodies. He was only gone for about half a minute, so I guess they’re just storing them for now.
Then he took Charlotte Burgin.
That was five minutes ago.
I want to go home.
THOUGH nothing had been explained to me yet, I had a feeling that this next event was going to be far worse than the game of darts.
I was in a small room with a white tile floor. An operating room, to be specific. The kind with the glass-enclosed spectator gallery above, which is where everyone but Foster was seated.
The walls were lined with eight different carts. One of them did indeed contain surgical tools. The others were filled with more different types of weapons and tools than I can even begin to list completely. There were the standards: hammer, screwdriver, nails, and wire cutters. Then hedge trimmers, a chainsaw, and a weed whacker. Knives of all shapes and sizes. Clubs. A blowtorch. A bottle labeled “hydrochloric acid.” Lots of frightening instruments that I’d never seen before or even imagined existed.
And (I swear this is true) there was a lawnmower in the corner.
Foster wheeled in a gurney, upon which lay a woman I recognized well from pictures Craig Burgin had shown me. It was Charlotte, his wife. Physically, she was quite the opposite of her husband, tall and slender instead of short and chubby. She looked about ten years older than her photos, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t because they were old pictures. Nevertheless, there was a definite sense of dignity about her, even now, that she’d somehow managed to retain for all these months.
I’d completely forgotten that the original purpose of my involvement was to aid in her rescue. I wondered what Craig was doing right now. Hopefully he wasn’t being a slacker about keeping the real Headhunter medicated.
She was on her back, her wrists and ankles tightly bound to the corners of the gurney with leather straps. Her face was tearstained but I could tell she wouldn’t be begging for mercy. Foster saluted, and then left the room, shutting and locking the door behind him.
“All right, Andrew,” said Daniel, speaking into a microphone. His voice, blasting through speakers, echoed throughout the operating room. “This is your big moment. The fulfillment of a life-long fantasy. You have every kind of weapon you could possibly want. You have a helpless victim. You have a captive audience. Do your worst. Entertain us.”
I was so appalled that I stood there staring at him for nearly ten seconds before I caught myself. “Sorry. What exactly am I supposed to be doing?”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Use your imagination. Let it all out. Ruin her.”
There wasn’t truly every kind of weapon I could possibly want. What I really wanted was a trusty submachine gun, to take them all out. Or any kind of gun. But there wasn’t one, and somehow I didn’t think hurling a hammer through the glass was going to solve my problem.
“Okay,” I said, wiping my perspiration-soaked hands on my pants. There had to be a way out of this. There had to be. If I could stall long enough, I’d find it.
“However, I think we’re going to impose a new rule this year,” said Daniel. “If members of the audience get restless, they will express their displeasure using the good old-fashioned thumbs-down. If this vote becomes unanimous, you will then have thirty seconds to regain their approval. If you don’t, you die. Gunshot to the head. Bang.”
“Say what?” I demanded. “Are you threatening me?” I tried to sound more angry than scared.
“Andrew, c’mon. We’re just making things more interesting. This should be a cakewalk for you.”
“I don’t like being threatened,” I said.
“Yes, well, Mr. Headhunter, you’re down there and we’re up here, and it’s my lair of torture, and what I say goes. I have to say, you’re not quite the party animal I envisioned.”
“I’m not taking part in this. Open the door and let me out of here.”
Foster held out his hand, giving me thumbs-down.
“Uh-oh, looks like you’ve got audience displeasure already. Might wanna get started.”
“I’m serious, Daniel! Open the door!”
“I’m serious, too. Serious about fun! And you’re not having any, so have some, willya? This place was expensive.”
“This is your last warning!”
“Well, it looks to me like my dear wife has just given you your second warning, so I’d strongly suggest putting an end to the whining and start cutting! Or sawing, or burning, or poking, or something! ”
Okay, fine. I’d keep them entertained while I figured something out. There was a solution to this problem. I just had to hope that my own substantially-less-than-flawless brain could work it out.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This whole thing is totally surreal. I wasn’t expecting anything quite so elaborate; it’s got me totally weirded out.”
“No need to apologize, my friend,” said Daniel. “Just relax and enjoy yourself.”
Well, the first part of his advice was good, at least. Relax. Relax. Relax. You’re on a sunny beach, sipping a drink with multiple umbrellas in it, with Helen standing there in a bikini, the red one with the cutout-no, that’s lewd, focus on the problem at hand.
At the very least, I could keep myself occupied for a while going through the weapons. And so I did, holding them up, inspecting them, and describing in great detail what I could do with them. There’s no reason for me to share exactly what I said, but it was graphic and vile beyond belief. I don’t even know what diseased part of my mind came up with those descriptions, but I had no choice.
The whole time, I kept trying to find a way out.
The door was locked. I had plenty of tools on hand, and given enough time and a little privacy, I could probably get out. But I didn’t have time or anything resembling privacy.
Even without the glass barrier, there wasn’t much I could do to the spectators, unless they all promised to sit there quietly and not move while I threw knives at them.
Of course, I could’ve killed Charlotte and been home free, but that wasn’t even remotely an option.
She looked terrified to the point of shock.
I continued going through the weapons, chatting away. There was no way to escape, so I needed to figure out how to get Daniel to end the event without Charlotte ’s death, and without my own death immediately afterward.
How could I reasonably not be expected to continue, even by Daniel’s standards?
A hostage. That was the only way.
“Y’know, now that I’m getting into this, it really is a fantasy come true,” I said. “But I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve got an even better fantasy.”
“And what would that be?” Daniel asked.
“I can’t think of anything in the world more fun than to shred this beautiful, helpless woman with the assistance of another beautiful woman. And I think I see one right now. Josie, would you like to come down here and help out?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, Andrew, it’s your show.”
“Oh, come on! I’ll take one end, you take the other! You can’t tell me that won’t be a thrill!”
“It probably would,” she admitted. “But this is your moment to shine, sweetie. Show us what you’ve got.”
“You’re not seriously going to refuse my number one fantasy in the entire world, are you?” I looked over at Daniel for support. “Back me up here.”
Daniel shrugged. “It’s up to her.”
“Sorry,” said Josie. “Maybe next year.”
“All right, fine. What about you gentlemen? Mortimer? Wanna grab a lawn mower and help me out?”
“Nah, I’m saving my energy for my turn.”
“Uh-uh. Not how we do it.”
It wasn’t even worth the effort, but I looked over at Foster. He gave me a second thumbs-down.
There would be no hostage.
“Guess I’m on my own, then,” I said.
What could I possibly do? They weren’t going to let me out of here until Charlotte was dead.
I continued looking through the weapons, trying to focus. There had to be a way. There just had to. Then, miraculously, the idea came to me. But for it to work, I’d have to distract the others.
And the only way to sufficiently distract them was to do some horrible things.
Charlotte would probably hate and be repulsed by me forever, but if this worked, she’d be alive.
I’d been talking for ten minutes. It was time for action, before they got bored.
“I feel bad about wimping out like this, with such a fine selection,” I said, “but I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with that reliable old standard, the knife.” I picked up one with a narrow, four-inch blade. “Now, where to cut, where to cut? Hmmmm…”
I looked up at the spectators. “You know what? We’ve got a really serious problem down here.”
“And what would that be?” asked Daniel, annoyed.
“The victim down here. She’s wearing far too much clothing.”
Daniel perked up. “Then by all means, take care of the problem.”
“Oh, I will.”
Charlotte squeezed her eyes shut as I slid the dull edge of the blade across the side of her neck, and then cut her blouse down the front.
I was absolutely mortified while I did it, but I had to think of myself as a magician, drawing the audience’s attention away from the secret of the trick. Because for this to work, I’d have to do something almost unbelievably idiotic in their eyes, and it had to look like an accident.
They had to be completely distracted, and what could be more distracting than getting Charlotte naked?
So I didn’t stop with the blouse.
Or the bra.
In fact, when I was completely done, I spun the gurney around in a slow circle, giving everyone a perfect view. It was humiliating for me, probably excruciatingly so for Charlotte, but it was working. They were watching with appalling fascination. Even Josie.
“Much, much better,” I said, forcing myself to choke out the words. And then I set the knife down next to Charlotte ’s shoulder and returned to the carts.
“What next…ooooh, how about a blowtorch? I know just where a blowtorch would be the most fun, too. But no, how about something even more painful? How about pliers?”
I picked up the pliers and returned to the gurney. “You are incredible,” I told Charlotte. “I don’t know about the rest of the audience up there, but I’m less interested in killing you than other things, if you know what I mean.” I leaned down and bit her ear, hard enough that she let out a gasp.
Then I whispered to her.
I stood back up. “But, I’ve got work to do. Let’s get to the action. It’s time for this lovely lady to lose some fingers.”
I opened the pliers, and held the jaws over Charlotte ’s index finger. “Whoops, gotta play to the audience.” I unbuckled the strap binding her wrist, then held her arm up high for everybody to see. Then I got ready to close the pliers over her finger.
“No!” I said, my eyes wide as I pretended that an incredible idea had just occurred to me. “Forget the pliers! I wanna use the acid!”
I dropped her arm and turned around excitedly.
Then I tensed my whole body, praying both that Charlotte would act and that she would do exactly what I’d told her.
An instant later, I let out a howl as she plunged the knife I’d left on the gurney deep into my right buttock.
I stumbled forward, purposely knocking over the cart of weapons. The pain was too great for me to think clearly, but I did manage a bit of relief that she’d followed instructions. She could’ve stabbed me in the back.
I launched into a screaming fit of obscenities. Daniel and the rest were laughing so hard they could barely contain themselves. Perfect. I gave them all the finger and continued cursing.
I wrenched the knife out and threw it to the ground. “Lousy bitch.”
“Thumbs-up! Thumbs-up!” Foster declared.
“Yeah, yeah. Ha ha ha. Real hilarious.”
“I think you and the toilet seat are going to have a very bad relationship for a while,” said Daniel, laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Oh, man, I’m sorry, but that’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in my whole entire life!”
“Yeah, well, do you think I could get some medical attention?”
“Don’t you wanna finish her off?”
“Not standing here with my ass bleeding, no!”
Daniel tried to respond, but then he broke into another fit of hysterical laughter. It took several moments for him to control himself enough to gesture to Foster. “Go ahead, get him out of there. Oh, shit, I need a drink! I think we all do! I’d give anything to have been taping that!”
The others got up, still laughing. I was in a lot of pain, but this wasn’t over yet. Because Foster was going to have to open that door, and I had a hell of a lot of weapons waiting for him.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t conceal any of them. Josie remained in the spectator booth, watching me intently as she wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. I picked up a machete, pretending like I was having trouble keeping myself from using it on Charlotte.
A couple of minutes later, Foster opened the door. He had a small plastic bag in one hand, and a gun in the other. Pointed at me, of course.
“If I got stabbed in the ass by a tied-down naked woman, I’d want somebody to put me out of my misery,” he said. “Would you like me to help out?”
“Just get me a first-aid kit and shut up.” I pointed to Charlotte. “And take her back to wherever you got her from. After I get patched up she’s going to get a lot worse than a knife in the butt, believe me.”
“Whatever you say.” He wasn’t lowering the gun.
“Could you maybe put that down?” I asked. “I’m in enough pain without having you point that thing at me.”
“I could, but you know what, I don’t feel like it. I kind of like holding you at gunpoint. Makes me feel nice and powerful inside.”
“Whatever makes you happy.”
“It does, thanks. And it would also make me happy if you put back that machete. It’s private property.”
I set the machete back on the cart.
“Much appreciated. You know, I’m the one who has to clean up the mess you made in here. I should shoot you just for that.”
“I’m sure Daniel would have something to say about that.”
“You’re absolutely right. He pays me well, and he lets me kill people. Wouldn’t want to lose that gig. That’s the only reason you’re still alive, though I don’t think that will last very long.”
“And what exactly does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s a surprise. I think you mentioned that you like surprises. Come on, let’s go. Your ass is leaking all over the floor.”
He stepped back as I walked out of the room, not letting me get close. He kept the gun pointed at me as I walked down a short hallway.
“In there,” he said. I entered a small room containing nothing but a wooden bench and an overhead light. He tossed me the plastic bag. “There’s gauze and tape in there. Enjoy.”
He slammed the door shut.
So, was my situation better or worse? Obviously I’d lost some of their respect, but had I erased any of their doubts about me?
At least Charlotte was still alive.
And I had a plan.
When they brought out the next victim, I’d be sitting up there with the other spectators, and this time there wouldn’t be a giant plastic cube separating us. I’d arrange to sit next to Josie. When the others were distracted by the show below, I’d put the knife to her neck, before any of them got a chance to pull those damn guns on me. Daniel wouldn’t risk his wife for the sake of some prisoners. At least I didn’t think so.
If I couldn’t sit next to Josie, I’d go for Daniel.
If I had to, I’d use one of the others. I wasn’t sure Daniel would surrender to save somebody like Stan, but I had to try. Regardless, no matter what, I was going to act.
I taped myself up, padding my pants with the gauze. It was too painful to sit, so I paced around the room, waiting for them to come get me.
Half an hour passed. They were probably still having convulsions of laughter. Bastards.
Another full hour passed before the door opened. Foster again, still holding his gun. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’re about to have an emergency meeting.”
I WAS TAKEN back inside the mansion, to a large, nicely furnished den. Daniel shut off the wide-screen TV with the remote control as Foster and I entered. He was sitting next to Josie on a loveseat, while Mortimer reclined in an easy chair, sipping a bottle of beer. Stan sat on the floor, leaning his back against a small couch as he chewed on a pencil.
“Welcome back, Andrew,” said Daniel. “How’s the ass doing?”
“It’s fine,” I said. I glanced around the room approvingly. “Very nice.”
“Thanks. Why don’t you have a seat? We’ve got something to discuss.”
“I’d rather stand, for obvious reasons.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’d rather you sit.”
Foster pushed a metal folding chair behind me. I sat down with a wince.
“Care for a beer?” Daniel asked.
“Nah, that’s all right.”
“Sorry, I guess that’s soda to you southern folk.”
“I knew what you meant. No, no soda, thanks.”
“Bottled water? Anything?”
“You sure? Okay.” Daniel leaned forward. “All right, Andrew, I’m going to be straight with you. I don’t think this is working out. You’re not enjoying yourself, and you’re not fitting in.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I thought I was going to be giving you the vacation of a lifetime. I’ve put so much hard work and energy into this place, and I can’t share it! It’s frustrating. And so I leapt at the chance to bring in a new person, but I didn’t think it through, and I’ve treated you horribly, and for that I apologize.”
“I’m sorry, too,” I said.
“We’ve all discussed this, and we feel it’s best if we take you home. I’ll let you decide what you want to do with Roger. I’d prefer that you leave him here for us, but that’s up to you. Do you think we can end this without hard feelings?”
“Would you mind filling out one of our customer satisfaction surveys before you leave?” Daniel asked. “No, I’m kidding, but I do have one question. Did you honestly think we weren’t going to find out that you’ve been lying to us all this time?”
THERE WERE many possible responses to that query, but I went with the most generic. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Now, see, that’s the kind of thing that really bugs me,” said Daniel. “I’m not stupid, and I’d like you to respect my intelligence. You’re not the Headhunter, you never were. You’re Andrew Mayhem, happily married with two kids and a best friend you’d give your life for. I’m assuming you managed to get the real Headhunter to blab his whole story, and you thought that you’d pass yourself off as him to be a great big hero and rescue all these poor innocent victims. Now tell me, is that a reasonable assessment of the situation?”
I remained silent.
“I’m not playing around anymore. The games are on hold. I asked you a question, and I expect an answer.”
“No, it’s not a reasonable assessment.”
“Is that a fact? Okay, then, Mortimer, would you like to show Exhibit A?”
Mortimer held up the piece of notebook paper I’d tried to fax. The writing was smeared, but still legible, even with my lousy handwriting.
“Exhibit A, found in the pants pocket of a Mr. Andrew Mayhem, one hour ago by Mortimer, who was so kind as to say yes when I asked him to throw some clothes in the wash. Not a very promising sign of your loyalty to our little group, now is it?”
“I can explain,” I said. I desperately wanted myself to just shut up, but the lame comments kept spewing out of my mouth.
“I’m not interested in your explanation quite yet. Ready for Exhibit B?”
“I’m ready for Exhibit B,” said Foster.
“Alas, there is no real Exhibit B. Exhibit B is simply the agreement by all of us that your story is complete bullshit. To be totally honest, you were pretty questionable from the beginning, to some of us more than others, but I think even without Exhibit A we’d still be in this same spot, having this same conversation. Without the references to Exhibit A, naturally.”
“Or Exhibit B,” Josie added.
“Right, though the gist of Exhibit B would remain, it simply wouldn’t have been referred to as Exhibit B, since there would have been no Exhibit A to follow. Do you understand what I’m driving at, Andrew?”
“Just that you people are totally sick in the head.”
Daniel frowned. “Now, that’s another one of those things that really bugs me. I’m not asking you to throw yourself at my feet in tears or anything, but it wouldn’t hurt you to be polite.”
“You expect me to be polite while you’re accusing me of this nonsense?” I’d developed such an unbearably bad headache that I now had an escape plan. I’d simply wait to my head to explode, and then use the distraction to flee.
“Okay, now we’ve gone past the point of things that bug me into the realm of things that piss me off. We’ve caught you, Andrew. You’re dead. You’re history. In fact, when you find out what we’ve got planned for you, you’re going to wish you’d been one of those poor souls we tore apart with the darts.”
“I wholeheartedly agree with that statement,” said Foster. “Your death is not going to be a nice one.”
“No, it’s not,” Josie added. “I’ve never considered myself a squeamish woman, but just thinking about what’s going to happen to you makes me want to squeam.”
Daniel chuckled. “So shall we get to it?”
“Whoa, hold on,” I said, barely able to hear my own words. “Don’t I get to tell my side of it?”
Daniel shook his head. “No. You do not.”
“You can’t do this. You can’t drag me all the way to Alaska for your little party and then treat me like this.”
Daniel slammed his fist against the armrest, making Josie jump. “ You are not the Headhunter! ” he screamed. “Stop insulting my intelligence! You are dead! D-E-A-D! And there’s not a single thing that can save you! Do you understand?”
The doorbell rang.
“What the hell?” asked Daniel.
“People know where I am,” I said. “Cops, FBI, the whole works. I’ve got a tracer in my shoe. They’ve known where I was from the beginning. So I strongly recommend that you behave yourself.”
“Foster, check it out,” said Daniel. Foster nodded and hurried out of the room.
“You’d all better just give up now,” I told everyone. “Things are going to get ugly.”
“Things are already ugly,” Daniel informed me. “And you don’t have to worry, no matter what happens I will make sure you die. And get your hand away from your pocket before I shoot it off.”
I didn’t have anything in my pocket, but he didn’t have to know that. “I’ve seen your shooting at darts. I wasn’t impressed.”
Daniel’s face darkened. “You can not possibly imagine how much I am going to enjoy what we’ve got planned for you.”
There was a gunshot.
“Mortimer, Stan…see what the deal is,” said Daniel. They quickly left the room.
“Gee, I hope Foster’s all right,” I said. “He was always my favorite. He gets those cute little dimples when he smiles. Doesn’t he just light up the room when he enters?”
“Doesn’t sound good, does it?” I asked.
“Foster!” Daniel shouted. “Hey, Foster! What the hell is going on out there?”
“Mortimer?” he called out.
“I hope Morty’s not dead yet,” I said. “He was a good teammate.”
Then I heard laughter. Multiple voices.
My heart sank.
Mortimer entered the room. “It’s taken care of.”
Foster and Stan followed, dragging Thomas. He was severely frostbitten, barely conscious, and had a bullet hole in his leg.
“Well, well, what have we here?” asked Daniel.
“I have no idea how he managed to get through the fence,” Foster said. “He tried to pretend like his car broke down. Dumb fuck could barely hold the gun.”
“Was he alone?”
“Looks that way.”
“Take him to the operating room. Use whatever it takes to get the whole story. Don’t be gentle.”
This was the moment where I had to go for broke.
“Stan? Put Andrew to bed.”
Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my neck. I plucked out a tiny dart, and then immediately became dizzy.
I lunged at Mortimer with my bare hands, but missed by a good three feet. I stumbled forward, hit the carpet without feeling a thing, and was overtaken by darkness.
WHEN I woke up, I was in a large, chilly room with a dirt floor. The plaster ceiling was about ten feet high and held several fluorescent light bulbs.
I was seated in a wheelchair, wearing only my boxer shorts, strapped in so thoroughly that the only thing I could move was my neck and head. Roger was seated in a wheelchair next to me, fully clothed but also strapped in.
“Roger! I’m so sorry!” I said.
Roger nodded. “At least we get to see each other again. Makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, yeah, kissy kissy,” said Daniel. He was in front of us, seated on an oversized pine coffin, next to which were a series of freshly dug graves. Josie, Foster, Mortimer, and Stan were standing around, while Thomas kneeled on the ground in front of them, duct tape over his mouth and his arms tied behind his back.
“This is the burial room,” Daniel explained. “We don’t use headstones, for obvious reasons, but this is where we keep the corpses when we’re done with them. As you can see, our good friends Susan and Trevor are awaiting their last rites.”
He gestured to a cart next to the door, where a pair of bloody, unrecognizable bodies lay. “I’m pleased to announce that we’ll be adding to today’s body count. Roger, we listened to your tape. Very entertaining, as we knew it would be. Nice attempt to cover for your buddy. I admire that kind of loyalty. Therefore, you get to watch your friends die, then we’re putting you back in your cell. You’ll die later, of course, but at least you can enjoy this plane of existence for a short while longer.”
Roger didn’t respond.
“Andrew, you’re not going to get off quite as easily. But that’s for later. First, I’d like to address the problem of our little intruder.” He tapped Thomas on the back with the toe of his shoe. “Foster was so kind as to be our official gatherer of information. I personally would have been more vicious with my technique; after all, I’d think that a blowtorch on frostbitten fingers would be rather soothing, but Mr. Thomas Seer did speak freely when properly coerced. As you already know, Andrew, there are no reinforcements. Nobody knows you’re here. Sucks to be you, huh?”
He took his revolver out of his jacket pocket. “As I admire Roger, I also admire Thomas. He put a lot of effort to get to where he is today, and therefore I have decided that his death will be quick and painless.” He held the revolver against the back of Thomas’ head.
“You don’t have to do this!” I insisted.
Daniel lowered the gun. “I have no admiration for you, and I especially have no admiration for your asinine comments, so please do us all a favor and shut up.”
“There are reinforcements. Didn’t you see his tracer?”
“I know all about his tracer. I even know that it’s stolen property. I know everything there is to know about the situation, even more than you do.” He returned the gun to Thomas’ head. “Ready to die, Tommy?”
Thomas’ body shook, as if he were sobbing without tears.
“I’ve never been shot myself, but I expect that it won’t be too painful. Should be over fairly quickly. But the whole suspense thing has gotta be pretty agonizing, huh? I mean, your life is going to be over any second now, but you don’t know which second it’ll be. Could be now. Could be…now. Man, oh man, that’s gotta be rough.”
“Please-” I began.
“Enough! One more word out of you and we’re putting on a gag, okay? You’re only making things worse for Tommy by stretching this out. Ooooh, I almost pulled the trigger that time. When, oh when, will it happen? Now? No. Now? Maybe. Could be now. Wait for it…wait for it…”
Then he lowered the gun again. “You know what? I’d like to hear what Tommy has to say about his approaching death. What do the rest of you think?”
The others murmured their approval. Mortimer had a hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter.
Daniel ripped off the duct tape. “So, Tommy, how are you feeling at this unpleasant moment?”
“I’m gonna kill you!”
“No, actually, you’re mistaken. I am the one who will be killing you. And I lied. Nobody in my house gets away with a gunshot to the head.” He tossed the revolver away, then reached behind the coffin. “Mr. Seer, meet Mr. Hatchet!”
He held up a small hatchet in his right hand, and then walked around in front of Thomas so he could see it, too. “Mr. Hatchet is nice and sharp, but he’s kind of small. It will take a lot of work to get the job done. Good thing I’m not afraid of an honest day’s labor.”
Daniel walked behind Thomas again. “Now, now, where to chop first? Right here?” He touched the blade to Thomas’ ear. “Here?” He touched Thomas’ nose. “So many places. Decisions, decisions.”
He lifted the hatchet high above his head. “I think I’ll start…here.”
Daniel swung the hatchet down, slamming it into Thomas’ shoulder. Thomas let out a wail that echoed throughout the room. Daniel wrenched the hatchet free, and then slammed it down into the same spot.
I looked over at Roger. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
Thomas continued screaming.
The others were laughing.
“Whooooo-weee!” exclaimed Daniel. “I’m gonna work up a good ol’ sweat!” He brought the hatchet down again.
I closed my eyes.
Thomas’ screams were deafening, but I could still hear every impact of the hatchet. And the laughter and cheering.
The hits and the screams continued. The hits came faster and faster, and the screams grew louder.
I can’t even begin to guess how many times the hatchet fell before the screams faded.
Finally, they faded away completely. The hatchet hits continued.
When they finally stopped, I opened my eyes. Thomas was no longer recognizable as…anything. Daniel was completely drenched.
“That was fuckin’ exhilarating! ” he proclaimed, tossing aside the hatchet and whipping his head back and forth like a dog shaking itself off after an unwanted bath. “Don’t ever say I don’t know how to party!”
“YOU DA man!” Mortimer proclaimed.
“Come on, it’s Andrew’s turn, let’s do it,” said Daniel, waving the others over to him.
“Don’t you want to clean up first?” asked Josie.
“Not at all.” He grabbed a handful of his shirt and wrung it out. “This is great. This is so great. I keep forgetting how much I love this.”
Stan came up behind me and pushed my wheelchair forward. My body was completely numb. I couldn’t have spoken if I’d tried.
“Okay, Andrew, we’ve got a special treat planned for you,” Daniel said, wiping some blood away from his mouth. “We had planned this for when we thought you’d be showing up as the Headhunter’s prisoner, so I’m glad it won’t be wasted. When you ask people what kind of death they fear most, you’ll get a lot of responses. Being eaten by a shark, dying of a lingering disease, getting chopped to bits with a hatchet-none of these are popular ways to go. But there’s one that really creeps some people out, and I think you in particular will appreciate it.”
“And what could that possibly be?” asked Mortimer, as if he were on an infomercial.
“Why, I’m glad you asked! The answer is…being buried alive!” Daniel gestured dramatically at the coffin. “What could be a more suitable punishment for a past graverobber?”
Oh, please God, no, I thought.
“Being buried alive is certainly a nasty way to go,” Mortimer remarked. “But don’t you have anything worse?”
“Worse?” asked Daniel, in mock dismay. “What could possibly be worse?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not convinced that his death is all it could be. I’m afraid you’ll have to do better than that. What do the audience members think?”
“Make it worse!” Josie shouted. Stan and Foster pitched in as well.
“But…but…but…I’m only a simple businessman! I can’t possibly do anything worse than bury him alive!”
Josie, Stan, and Foster began to boo.
“Then I’m sorry, but we’ll just have to let him go,” said Mortimer, shaking his head sadly.
“No wait, let me think! There has to be a way!” Daniel snapped his fingers, sending a couple of drops of blood into the air. “By golly, I’ve got it!” He bent down and threw open the lid of the coffin. “It’ll be a double occupancy!”
Inside the pine box was a partially decomposed corpse, its mouth frozen open in a shriek of unrestrained terror. Maggots chewed its eyes. It looked vaguely male, but I couldn’t tell much beyond that from its grotesque appearance.
Thank God I couldn’t speak. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything but blubber for mercy.
“Andrew, meet Wesley. Wesley, Andrew. He was one of my own captures, but he was a very naughty little boy and we had to shoot him. It seemed like a waste at the time, but I think you’ll be pleased to see that we’re making good use of him.”
Mortimer walked over to assist as Foster began undoing the straps on the wheelchair. “That thing is nasty,” Stan said from behind me. “Sure glad I’m not the one being buried with it.”
Daniel grinned and wiped his bloody hands off on his bloody jeans. “Look at those babies squirm in those sockets! I don’t know how they’ll be able to contain their excitement when they get nice, fresh, live flesh!”
And then I found my voice. I don’t even remember what I said. It probably made no sense. But even though my conscious mind was telling me to shut up (Just shut up!You’re only entertaining them!) I couldn’t stop. I was babbling and whimpering and tears flowed down my cheeks and I couldn’t make myself be quiet.
Have I mentioned that I’m incredibly claustrophobic?
I thrashed and flailed and screamed as Foster and Mortimer grabbed my legs, and Stan grabbed my arms. I struggled with every last bit of strength I possessed, but I couldn’t get away as they lifted me out of the wheelchair and held me over the coffin. Daniel was saying something, but I couldn’t hear him over my own screams.
Then they gently lowered me into the coffin.
On top of the corpse.
I could feel it giving way beneath me, the flesh of its chest splitting under my bare back. The smell was so far beyond putrid that I can’t even explain it. My screams faded to an abrupt gasp as my head pressed into the corpse’s face.
I could feel cold teeth against the back of my neck.
I struggled to get free, but the lid slammed shut, giving me about an inch of room above my nose. As I worked my hands into a position where I could pound on the lid, I heard the click of padlocks snapping shut.
Things were squirming underneath my back.
I pounded and pounded as I felt the coffin being dragged forward. Then lifted, then lowered…dropping the last couple of feet with a jolt that drove me further into the corpse.
Then I heard a sound that could only be dirt being tossed onto the lid. Moments after that, my mind couldn’t cope with the horror anymore…
…and I found myself thinking of my parents…
…and the first time I met Helen, at the movies when she had to rush out of the theatre during a special screening of The Exorcist…
…and Theresa being born…
WHAT A cheap piece of junk. Who made this thing? You can’t even tell if it’s recording or not.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe we’ve heard the last of Andrew Mayhem. It’s too bad the special guest thing didn’t work out, but I’ve got only myself to blame for that. My lovely wife and my not-so-lovely associates warned me, and they were right. Oh well. Live and learn.
Hey, Mortimer, say something for posterity. C’mon! Oh, don’t be such a chickenshit, just talk into the recorder! You people are so paranoid it’s not even funny! Fine, fine. For those of you who are only listening to this, Mortimer has just made an obscene gesture and left the room.
I guess healthy paranoia is good. You can’t be too careful. Foster is convinced that Andrew is gonna break out of his grave like some flesh-eating zombie, so he’s hanging out in the burial area with a paperback, just in case. He’ll miss out on some of the fun, but hey, whatever floats his boat, right?
What? Oh, you can barely see it! It’s not blood, it’s water. Yes, I used the peach shampoo. Nag, nag, nag.
Again, for those of you who aren’t really here, my lovely wife is getting all bent out of shape because my hair is dripping. If it were up to me, I’d still be covered in blood, but she’s like “No blood in the house!”
Hey, knock it off! [Laughter.] My lovely wife is now grabbing for the tape recorder, but she’s far too short and weak to succeed at such a task. Back! Back, you cur!
Uh-oh, she seems to be trying a new technique. Don’t let the youngsters listen to this! So we’ll finish up here, and then head back to the operating room! I can’t wait to see what Stan has in store for the chick that gave Andrew that ass stabbing!
This is Daniel Rankin, of Rankin Bloodbaths, signing off.
MINUTES LATER? Hours?
My eyes flew open and took in only darkness.
Forget being calm! I’m buried alive with a rotting dead guy!
I began to scream.
If you don’t control yourself, you’ll run out of oxygen!
Do I even WANT to stay alive down here?
The stench was so awful that I could barely breathe. I pushed up on the lid, knowing fully well that it wasn’t going to open. The corpse’s ribs had broken away and I’d sunk into it deeply enough that I could feel its spinal column digging into my back.
And I could still feel its screaming mouth against my neck. I stopped pushing on the lid and brushed off the writhing maggots that were crawling up onto my stomach.
The coffin felt like it was shrinking around me, becoming smaller and smaller until it crushed me to death.
It was only my imagination, of course, but I also thought I could hear the corpse-Wesley-laughing at me, ready to bite down on my neck and rip out a huge mouthful of flesh.
“ We’re gonna die together Andrew, you and me together forever so let’s make the most of it, shall we Andrew? ”
I began pounding on the lid with both fists, screaming and blubbering like a child.
Stop it! Stop it! Control yourself!
I was not going to die down here! If I had to rip the lid of the coffin apart splinter-by-splinter I was getting out of this thing! I’d figured out a way to keep Charlotte alive, and I could sure as hell figure out a way to keep myself alive!
“ Didn’t do so well with Susan or Trevor, though, did ya? ” asked Wesley. “ And what about Thomas?He’s in worse shape than I am! ”
I continued pounding on the lid.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
My situation wasn’t hopeless. It was bad, it was really bad, but it wasn’t hopeless.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
I wondered what was happening to Roger. Were they killing him now? Was he strapped to the operating table at this very moment?
Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!
I instantly ceased my pounding. Had I broken part of the lid?
I slid my hands along the top of the coffin, and then raised my legs to what little extent I could and began to slide them along the wood as well, gathering splinters but searching desperately for an imperfection. There didn’t seem to be one.
I braced both hands against the lid and pushed up as hard as I could, pushing until my arms felt like they might snap in two. I could feel blood trickling from the cut in my shoulder.
The lid had definitely split somewhere. The maggots and decaying flesh soaking my skin were abruptly forgotten. I continued searching for the break in the wood.
Then I found it. It was directly above my navel. I tested it with my index finger-it was small, but definitely there. Daniel should’ve invested a bit more of his fortune into the coffins.
I continued pushing on the lid.
I wished I had some kind of tool, but that didn’t matter. I’d claw at that break in the wood until there was no skin left on my fingers, and then I’d keep clawing at it with exposed bone, if that’s what it took.
I felt along the corpse until I located its right hand. I tested each finger. They’d all been partially devoured by the maggots, but the middle finger was the closest to being completely skeletal. I wrapped my own fingers around it tightly, and then tried to bend it backwards. After considerable strain, the finger snapped off.
After a moment of blind panic where I was unable to locate the crack in the wood, I did find it and pushed the finger bone against it. As a kid, I’d broken my arm once when I’d been standing too close to the batter while playing baseball, but this pine lid was nowhere near as sturdy as a wooden bat.
I pushed the tip of the bone against the crack, desperately hoping that the wood would break first.
The bone snapped in half.
I stared at it in dismay, even though I couldn’t see anything in the darkness.
I didn’t scream. There were other bones. I had all the time in the world. Until I suffocated.
YOU WOULDN’T think that maggots squirming on your body were something a person could get used to, but I was so focused on the task at hand that it wasn’t long before I didn’t even notice them. With a twist of the corpse’s rib, the wood began to break away. I was moving the bone slowly, deliberately, but the sound of wood splintering was enough to make me want to giggle with maniacal glee.
Then a small chunk of the wood broke, and I felt some dirt trickle in and pour on my waist. I set the rib aside and fingered the gap. It was about an inch square. I dug my thumbs into the dirt on the edge and tried to pry it apart even further.
MY THUMBS were raw and bloody, and I’d gone through three more ribs, but more bits of wood had broken away. Now the gap was large enough that I could fit all of my fingers into it.
As I struggled with it, there was another cracking sound. I slid my hand along the lid, and realized that a foot-long split had appeared, stretching from the square gap in a straight line toward my face.
I continued pulling on the edge of the wood.
IT FELT LIKE it took forever, but I don’t think it was more than a few minutes before I managed to break away a long strip of the wood. More dirt poured onto my chest.
At this point, I had to start being really careful. I wasn’t sure how deep I’d been buried, and if too much dirt came crashing down the coffin lid might cave in and squash me like a…well, like a maggot.
Slow and steady.
My arms were agonizingly sore, forcing me to take a break. I rested them at my sides, closed my eyes, and tried to breathe easy.
I imagined Wesley snarling at me. “ Get a move on, ya slacker! ”
After a few minutes, I managed to break off another chunk of wood, and then began to vigorously scoop out handfuls of the exposed dirt and toss them to the foot of the coffin. Dirt was raining down on my face in small quantities, and I spit it out to the side.
I HAD DUG as high as my arms would reach. The digging part was pretty easy, since the grave had just been filled in and the dirt hadn’t had time to pack itself down.
Now I had more room to maneuver, and I set about breaking away more of the coffin lid.
THOUGH IT was hard to breathe, my spirits were high as I sat up, scraping my already-injured shoulder badly against a jutting portion of the lid, but certain that I was home free.
Sticky flesh clung to my back. I ignored it.
I’M GOING to make it!
I was filled with hope and energy. Despite this horrific ordeal, despite the fact that my chances of survival once I reached the surface might be slim, despite the fact that I might never see Helen, Theresa, or Kyle again, I felt recharged. I was getting out of here.
Sitting up straight, I dug with an incredible fervor. My arms could stretch almost to their full length over my head, so I had to be getting close.
I wondered if anybody was waiting above.
Would they bother to have somebody guard a grave?
There was only one way to find out.
MY HAND burst through to the surface. The cold air felt absolutely fantastic.
My other hand broke through, and I clutched the smooth ground above. It took several tries to work up the strength, but finally, I pulled myself out of the grave.
After being in complete darkness for so long, my eyes burned in the light. I just lay there, panting, completely exhausted.
I’d made it!
Then I heard somebody applaud.
“Now that was impressive. Nice work!”
Roger! It was Roger! But had he escaped, or was he still a prisoner?
I shielded my eyes from the light and turned around. “Rog!” I gasped.
“Ummm, nope, not Roger. Your traumatic experience has left you a bit delirious. This is your good friend Curtwood Foster.”
And it was. Foster sat on a folding chair, a paperback novel in one hand, and a martini in the other.
I just collapsed to the ground.
“Aw…is the poor guy tired?”
Foster set his book and drink aside, and then stood up and began to walk toward me. He cracked his knuckles. “You are so, so, so very dead.”
“You know, Foster,” I managed to say, “you were always my favorite of the group.”
“Isn’t that sweet? You know, I could take you into the operating room, but I’m really an old-fashioned kind of person at heart, so I’m going with the traditional beating to death.”
I pushed myself up. A violent kick to the side sent me right back down. I groaned in pain and rolled onto my back.
“No, no, don’t get up for me,” Foster said. “I have to say, the whole time I sat there I was hoping you’d make it out somehow. I almost dug you up myself. Because I really wanted to do this.” He kicked me in the side again. I wondered if my own ribs were going to look like Wesley’s by the time this was over.
Foster stepped away from me and raised his fists like a boxer. “Let’s make this fair. I’ll give you a couple of moments to get up. Maybe I’ll even give you a free punch. How’s that sound?”
“How about you…” I had to pause to take a breath, “…give me your gun?”
“I might, I just might. Get up. Fight like man.”
My muscles felt like they were being ripped from the bone as I got to my feet, but I couldn’t just lie there and let him kick me to death. I raised my fists, and then lost my balance and fell back to the ground.
“Now that’s just pathetic,” said Foster, taking out his gun. “Maybe I oughta blow off your kneecaps like I said, huh?”
I resumed my effort to get back to my feet. “Sure, if you want to bring the others here.”
“I don’t know, I think this place is pretty well soundproof. Should we test it?”
My legs buckled beneath me, but I kept from hitting the ground. “Sure…if you don’t think you can beat me.”
Foster extended the gun toward my face, and then strode over to me, keeping it pointed between my eyes the entire time. Right before the barrel connected with my face, he smacked the barrel of the gun against the side of my head, hard. I accidentally bit the side of my mouth and dropped to the ground yet again.
“Having a bit of trouble with your balance, aren’t you?” Foster asked. “Could be an inner ear problem.”
I wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of my mouth and made another effort to get up. Though in my current condition, even if I could get a punch in it probably wouldn’t be enough to knock a bird off its perch.
“You do have willpower, I’ll give you that,” said Foster. “Make you a deal. I’ll end this. One shot to the gut, one shot to each leg, one shot to each arm, and then I’ll put the barrel in your mouth and put you out of your misery? How’s that sound?”
I forced myself to shrug. “Will Daniel…reimburse you for the…extra bullets?”
“Probably not, but in this case, it’s my pleasure.”
I stood up as straight as possible. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…”
I motioned for him to wait while I caught my breath. “But why do you need a gun to fight me? Isn’t that kind of sad?”
“Now, see, you’re trying to convince me to throw away the gun to make this more of a challenge, but what you’re not realizing is that I’m the type of person who’s happy to torture and kill a helpless person strapped to an operating table. So while I appreciate your attempt, it’s not going to work.”
He lowered the gun so it was pointing at my belly.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “I’ve always been kind of proud that I have an outtie instead of an innie.”
“Well, now, you’ll just have to learn to be proud of your brand new, amazingly deep innie.”
“Nah.” I took a step to the side, and fell back into the open grave. My bare feet slammed down upon Wesley’s jaw, but I withheld the scream as I pushed myself down as far as I could go while I hurriedly searched through the coffin.
“Uh-oh,” I heard Foster say. “Andrew’s hiding from me! Where could he possibly be?”
His head popped into view. “Peek-a-boo! I see-”
Thrusting upward with both hands, I slammed Wesley’s rib into Foster’s throat. It wasn’t the most accurate hit, but there was no lack of momentum.
His eyes widened, he let out a weak gasp, and the gun dropped into my lap.
A COUPLE of minutes later, I stood above ground again. There I was, wearing nothing but boxer shorts with a revolver protruding from the waistband, totally covered with dirt, blood, and assorted corpse residue, a gory rib bone in one hand and Foster’s martini in the other. Not the most attractive look, but not as embarrassing as my Prince phase.
After I gulped down the drink, I tossed the glass and rib aside and tried to untie Foster’s shoes, but he’d used some mutant knot that refused to come undone. I patted down his pockets, with no success, but after I pulled off his jacket I found two pass cards, and a set of regular keys in the inside pocket. I also found a birthday card from Daniel, but I determined that to be somewhat less useful than the pass cards and keys.
I put on the jacket and flipped open the cylinder of the gun. Six bullets. One for each psychopath, plus two remaining for party tricks. I snapped it back into place.
Though time was certainly a consideration, I’d be in much better shape if everyone thought I was still buried alive. So I took a few moments to push Foster into the grave and fill it with dirt. Not exactly a nice, neat job, but passable.
I was still tired and aching all over, but I had to go. I waved the pass card in front of the reader, and then opened the door just a crack, keeping the barrel of the revolver pointed into the next room.
Cells lined each side of the room. This was where they kept the prisoners. And thankfully, there weren’t any guards present.
I threw open the door and stepped inside. The first person I saw was Roger, directly to my left. He rushed over to the front bars of his cell. “Andrew! Oh my God!”
“Hi, Rog,” I said. “I figured if I could survive your lasagna surprise, I could easily survive being buried alive.”
Yeah, it was a weak joke, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’d actually thought of it back while I was searching Foster, but hey, any quip was impressive under these circumstances.
“You’ve got to get us out of here,” Roger insisted. “They took Charlotte about fifteen minutes ago, but the hatchet guy said that if anything else goes wrong, they’re just going to go ahead and execute everyone!”
“Don’t worry,” I said, holding up the pass cards. The first one was red, while the second was yellow like the one I’d borrowed from Josie.
Nothing happened when I tried the yellow card, so I held the red card up to the reader. After the click, I pulled Roger’s cell door open.
“Do I French kiss you or beat the shit out of you first?” he asked, leaving the cell.
“I’ll take the beating.”
“Cool. We’ll schedule it for right after you finish rescuing me. You have a fabulous plan for our escape, right?”
“Just to screw up as little as possible.” I waved the red card over the next cell’s reader. Instead of a click, we were treated to the sound of a blaring alarm.
The alarm was too loud for us to make the obvious comment about screwing up as little as possible, so we settled for exchanging a look that indicated we were both thinking that obvious comment.
I hated to leave the prisoners behind, but we had to get out of there quickly. With me in the lead, we rushed out of the cell area, leaving the door wide open, and into a hallway. The alarm stopped moments after we began sprinting down the corridor, passing the gladiator ring, and nearly colliding with Josie. Daniel, Mortimer, and Stan were right behind her.
Without hesitation, I threw my arm around Josie’s neck and pulled her toward me, pressing Foster’s gun to the side of her head. “Stop!” I shouted.
Daniel stopped, and waved for the others to do the same. I began to back away, putting about ten feet between us.
“I strongly recommend that you let her go,” Daniel said.
“No, I strongly recommend that you let the others go,” I told him. “Now! Open every one of those cells or I’ll blow her head off!”
“And where does that leave you?” asked Daniel. “Holding my headless wife while I put a few bullets in your face.” He pointed his gun at me.
“I’m serious, Daniel!” I took another step back, forcing Josie to follow.
“Oh, I’m sure you are. But I’m certain that you’ll understand my position here. I can’t let the prisoners go. It’s just not going to happen.”
He was trying to act casual, but it was obvious that Daniel was concerned. I pushed the gun more tightly against Josie’s head.
“I’ll pull the trigger!”
“Really? So will I.”
Daniel fired a shot. It sailed safely past my face, but Josie gave a violent shudder and Roger pressed himself more closely behind me.
Mortimer and Stan raised their own guns.
“You’re gonna get her killed!” I warned.
Daniel fired again, coming close enough that I could feel the air move as the bullet passed. “Let her go and I promise you can have your own coffin this time.”
I couldn’t believe this. Was he really going to let everyone open fire, blowing Josie away along with Roger and I? If I made it home alive, I was going to make it very clear that Helen could have done much worse in her selection of husbands.
Obviously, Roger believed that we were moments away from a bloody free-for-all, one where everybody took hundreds of slow-motion bullet hits and died with a chanting chorus in the background. He took off running in the opposite direction. “Come and get me, you sissies!” he shouted, rounding the corner.
Daniel glanced over his shoulder and nodded to Mortimer and Stan. “Take him out.” They turned around and went down another path.
I took another step back. Daniel kept the gun pointed at me. “So, it’s just us now,” he said. “You have no idea how much it pains me to have to shoot you and your friend instead of doing something more elaborate, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
He fired another shot. I wondered how long I had before he tried to shoot at me through Josie.
I removed the gun from her head and pointed it at Daniel. Just as I squeezed the trigger, Josie smacked my arm away, and the shot went wild, hitting the ceiling. As we struggled with the gun, we stumbled through an open doorway.
We were in the darts room. I was still sore and tired from the beating I’d taken from Foster, so while I fought vigorously against Josie, she kept moving me toward the clear cube. Another wild shot pounded into the floor.
Daniel followed us, but from his angle Josie was in front of me, and he didn’t shoot.
Josie slammed me against the cube wall and the gun fell out of my hand. She wrapped her hands around my neck and began to squeeze, her eyes like a crazed animal, as we slid along the surface of the cube.
Then the wall ended, and I tumbled backward into the open entrance, pulling Josie back with me. We both struck the floor of the cube, sending a jarring memory of my butt wound tearing through my body, and continued our frenzied scuffle. Her hands were still firmly clenched around my neck.
Daniel slammed the clear door shut and fastened the lock.
When she heard this, Josie released her grip and turned around. Daniel slid a spike into the cannon, and motioned for her to get out of the way.
Daniel swiveled the cannon toward us. I lunged for Josie, but she shoved me back with both hands. “Get away! ”
The cannon was pointed right at me. Instead of going for Josie, I jumped the other way.
A punching bag jerked forward as the dart struck it. While Daniel reloaded, I rushed back at Josie and tried to throw my arms around her. She took a swing at me that glanced off my shoulder, but since it was my injured shoulder the pain was excruciating.
I don’t even know how close the dart came, but the sound of it slamming against the wall of the cube was ten times louder from the inside. My ears started to ring.
Daniel was putting another spike in the cannon. Now, I could’ve kept myself alive for a while by just running from one side of the cube to the other, forcing Daniel to keep trading cannons, but I didn’t see that as the most astute tactical decision. I had to keep myself as close to Josie as possible.
She punched my shoulder again and my eyes filled with stinging tears. But then I delivered an amazing blow to the jaw that knocked her against the slide. As she struck it with a clang, it occurred to me that my day’s activities had included punching out a woman and stripping another one naked without permission. Chivalry was dead in the Mayhem household.
She got up and came at me, but I shoved another punching bag at her. She let out an ooommph and staggered against the slide again.
I let out a yelp as the spike ripped across the top of my shoulder. The same freaking shoulder. Any doctor examining me was going to think I had some sick masochistic shoulder fetish. Daniel clapped his hands together and did some obnoxious cheer that I was thankful I couldn’t hear, then flexed his muscles.
Hadn’t Roger killed off Mortimer and Stan yet? I needed help!
As if in response to my mental question, Stan entered the room. Daniel said something to him, and he took a position at the next cannon. I began to reminisce about the good old days when all I had to worry about were a couple of lunatics with malfunctioning power tools.
Snap! A spike fired by Daniel struck the far wall.
Snap! A spike fired by Stan also struck the far wall.
I dove at Josie yet again, managing to get her in a bear hug. My shoulder hurt so badly that I couldn’t even start to enjoy the sensation of being snuggly. I spun around, getting her in front of me, and then fell back against the slide, Josie ending up on my lap.
She began to claw at my arms with her fingernails. I gritted my teeth and refused to let go. Then she smashed the back of her head against my face. The second time she did that, I let go.
I made a grab for her leg as she tried to run off. I caught her thigh, lost it immediately, and then got a hold of her ankle. I yanked her toward me, and then lost my balance and toppled backwards.
A dart struck Josie in the leg, plunging deep into her thigh. She let out a glass-shattering shriek, though unfortunately not a plastic cube-shattering one. Daniel stormed over and punched Stan in the chin, knocking him completely off his feet, and let loose with a barrage of shouted observations that I suspected might include some profanity.
Screwing up my chivalry status even more, I sat on Josie’s back, wrenched the spike out of her leg and pressed the tip against the side of her neck that faced Daniel. If my body were to, say, engage in any sort of locomotion, such as the type that might occur when a fast-moving projectile struck it, the spike would be driven into her neck.
Daniel apparently got it. He reached into the cardboard box, took one spike in each hand, and went over to the door.
He said something that was probably very intimidating and dramatic, but of course I couldn’t hear him. He switched the spikes to his left hand just long enough to unlock and open the cube door, and then stepped inside.
“All right, Andrew, it’s just you and me,” he said.
I shook my head. “Um, no, actually I’ve got Josie right here.”
“Let her go.”
“I’d rather not do that. I think she’s swell.”
“Maybe we can work something out.” Daniel slid the spikes against each other as if sharpening them.
“Oh, gee, what made you change your mind? Seeing your wife’s blood? There’s a lot of it here, huh? Watch out you don’t slip.”
Daniel’s smile looked more like a grimace as he walked toward me. “I’m impressed. You can be just as cruel as we can. Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
“That depends. Does your insurance plan cover spouse and children?”
“But of course. You stand to make a good hundred grand in life insurance after we massacre them.”
“Funny, funny, funny. Not the best negotiating tactic, though.”
“I’ve decided not to negotiate.”
“You asshole!” Josie sputtered.
“I really suggest you stop moving,” I told Daniel. “You’re gonna kill her.”
“That’s the chance I’ll take.” He was only a few steps away from us now.
I pressed the spike more tightly against Josie’s neck. She let out a whimper, and Daniel stopped.
“Why’d you hesitate?” I asked. “Not quite the uncaring husband you’d like to portray, huh?”
“You know, I didn’t mention this before, but those are some cute boxers,” said Daniel. “Where’d you get them?”
He couldn’t fool me. He was scared.
“Wal-Mart,” I replied. “They were kind of pricey, but the tag said they were burial-resistant, so I figured it was worth the cost.”
“I’ll have to pick some up.”
“I’ll sell you these if you want. Make me an offer.”
“I’m going to have to pass, but I do appreciate your generosity.”
“That’s okay. Keep it in mind.” I glanced at something behind Daniel. “Boy, Stan just doesn’t learn, does he?”
I couldn’t believe this actually worked, but Daniel spun around to see what I was referring to. Stan was standing outside the cube, nowhere near the cannon, massaging his chin.
I pulled the spike away from Josie’s neck and flung it at Daniel. It twirled, end over end, directly at his face.
And to my astonishment, it struck him in the forehead.
This would have been cause for celebration, except that the side hit him and not the point. Still, his head flew backward, and the noise he made seemed to indicate that it really hurt.
I leapt over Josie and ran as fast as my pain-wracked body could move. Daniel still had his gun and he was far from mortally wounded, so I didn’t try to tackle him. Instead I sprinted for the door.
I did, however, shove a punching bag at him, hitting him in the side. Those things were turning out to be darn useful.
Stan stepped into the doorway to block me. Before he could raise his gun, I slammed the door into him, knocking him out of my way. I got out of the cube and pulled the door shut just as Daniel fired a shot that would have went through my belly had the plastic not been there.
I took a swing at Stan and missed, but a blow with my other hand struck him in the chin, almost exactly where Daniel had hit. I could hear footsteps behind me…Daniel rushing for the door.
A brutal knee to the groin took away a good portion of Stan’s savagery. He still held the gun, but didn’t look like his aim was going to be all that it could be, so I hurried back to the cube door and fastened the lock an instant before Daniel reached it.
A bullet ricocheted off the door right next to me. I didn’t see anybody in the hallway outside, but unless Roger had gone loopy it had to be Mortimer. I ran toward the wall and around the corner of the cube, cursing myself for it before I’d finished my second step. I should’ve fought for Stan’s gun.
Mortimer entered the dart room. “You take the left, I’ll take the right,” he said. Stan nodded weakly and began to limp around the cube in the opposite direction that I was running.
I ran around to the far side of the cube. No other exits except the way I came in. Armed bad guys moving in on each side. Bummer, bummer, bummer.
I THINK it’s safe enough to say that I’d had my share of bad luck during this whole ordeal, so as I watched Mortimer and Stan move closer I decided that it was high time for a bit of good luck to come my way.
Of course, that’s a really stupid thing to decide when you’re in a situation like this. Sort of like the thunderstorm that always follows “So what else could possibly go wrong?” As soon as I thought it, I expected a suffer a fatal coronary, or for a slab of the cube wall to drop off and squish me, or for the floor to crack open revealing the pits of hell and six hundred and sixty-six demons ready to drag me down to my fiery demise.
As it so happened, I lucked out.
Roger entered the room, still uninjured. He saw my predicament, and began waving his arms over his head. “Hey! I’m still around! What’s the matter, you can’t find someone in your own place?”
Mortimer and Stan each turned toward the sound of his voice, but they didn’t go after him.
“Damn it, Roger, forget about me!” I shouted. “Get out of here! Unlock the rest of the cells!”
Roger left the room.
Stan and Mortimer exchanged a concerned glance. For all they knew, Roger had the pass card. After a moment’s hesitation, Mortimer went after him.
I truly hated sending them after Roger, but it wasn’t like he could get out of here without my pass card. Okay, so, he could have somehow taken out one of the bad guys and got a pass card of his own, but still…it was a wise strategic decision.
And the fact that Mortimer had gone after him revealed an important piece of information. Even though the alarm had gone off and the second cell door hadn’t opened with the pass card, they still believed we might have the means to get the prisoners out. So maybe we did.
I went around the corner on Mortimer’s side just as he exited the room and just before Stan appeared on my end. I ran toward the door. Stan followed me, but he was still shaky from the gonad pounding and engaged in a lackluster pursuit.
Daniel was crouched next to Josie, wrapping his shirt around her leg, not really paying attention to what was going on outside the cube.
I left the dart room, took a split second to recall the layout of the parts of the structure that I’d visited, and hurried down the hallway away from the cell area. After crossing through an intersection, I waved the pass card, opened the door, and stepped into the operating room.
Charlotte was strapped to the table, fully clothed this time. Her eyes widened as I shut the door behind me.
“I’m here to help!” I insisted. “I promise, I’m not some deviant rapist…despite my lack of pants.”
“What on earth is going on?” she asked. “Who are you?”
“It’s really kind of complicated,” I explained, unfastening the straps. “Your husband hired me to help rescue you, but things worked out kind of goofy.”
I cringed as I unfastened the strap binding her left wrist. Her arm was covered with five or six long cuts, stretching from the back of her wrist to her elbow. She noticed my concern.
“It’s nothing-don’t worry about it,” she said. “You look a lot worse.”
“Yeah, it hasn’t been a good day for my body.”
“I saw them wheel you through the place where they’re keeping everybody. I take it they don’t think you’re one of them anymore?”
I shook my head. “It was nice while it lasted.”
I finished the final strap and she got off the table. I knew we had to hurry, but we could most definitely spare a moment to gather some supplies. There were a lot of great weapons in here.
Charlotte grabbed a spiked metal club and a short spear. I went for the machete. “Could you take these?” I asked, handing a screwdriver and small knife to Charlotte. “I don’t have pockets.”
“Thanks. Let’s get out of here.”
There wasn’t a window in the door, so I opened it as silently as possible and peeked out. The hallway was empty. We left the operating room and began to quickly but softly move down the corridor. Our first job was to get to the cell area and hope that Mortimer hadn’t been able to catch up to Roger.
Hoping we wouldn’t get lost, I turned at the intersection. I didn’t particularly want to walk by the dart room, and I assumed there was another way around. The cell area was on the far left side of the structure, so if I just kept heading that way…
A gunshot. One that sounded like it came from the far left side of the structure. I picked up my pace, and Charlotte followed.
Off in the distance, I saw Mortimer run across an intersection. He didn’t see us, or even look in our direction.
We began to run even faster.
We reached the cell area. Roger immediately spun around and pointed a gun at us, but relaxed when he saw who we were. “Give me the card! Quick!”
I tossed the red card to him. He caught it in the air. The other prisoners were pressed against the cell bars, anxiously waiting to be set free.
“Are they right behind you?” he asked.
“Not at the moment, but pretty soon, yeah.”
“What do you think made the alarm go off?” he asked.
“I have no idea. Try a different cell this time.”
“If it goes off, what do we do?”
“We run. I’ve got some keys, and I’m pretty sure they belong to the vans that brought us here. We can smash through the gates and drive somewhere to get help.”
“Then everyone else will die,” Roger said. “I told you, they’re going to execute the prisoners if anything else goes wrong!”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Well, there are four of them out there. Josie’s hurt pretty bad. What about Mortimer?”
“I might have broken his nose,” said Roger. “I knocked the gun away from him, but he ran away before I could use it.”
“He could come back with something worse.”
“I’ve got a gun. There’s only one way they could come in. We can keep them from getting in here, can’t we?”
“But nobody knows we’re here. They had Charlotte for months. They could just lock the place up, leave us to rot for a couple weeks.”
“Can we please stop talking and do something?” asked Charlotte.
“Try it,” I told Roger.
He waved the card over a cell reader, across the path from the one that had previously set off the alarm.
The cell didn’t unlock. The alarm went off.
“Shit!” Roger shouted.
“We’ve gotta get out of here!” I said. “Give me the gun!”
Roger handed it to me. I headed for the doorway, and then held the gun out to a heavyset, redheaded man in the cell closest to the exit. “Don’t let anyone through that door. We’ll be back for you. I promise.”
The man gave a grim nod and took the gun. Roger, Charlotte and I fled the room and ran down the hallway.
“Don’t worry,” I told Roger as we ran. “We’ll get everybody out of here.”
“Hell yeah, we will,” Roger said. We ran without speaking for a few seconds. “Hey, Andrew?”
“Will you promise not to be offended if I share something with you?”
“You smell really bad. I mean, nasty beyond description. I’d almost rather be back in the cell.”
“I’ve missed you, Roger.”
“I missed you, too, Andrew.”
WE REACHED the far right end of the structure, which stopped at a wide white door. The pass card worked on it, and we went through.
Beyond the door was a small garage. Surprisingly, it looked like any other filthy garage, although standard equipment like a vice certainly carried a foreboding aura.
The van was there.
“I think we’re saved!” I said, unable to contain my relief even though it was far too early to relax. After a couple of tries I found the correct key on Foster’s key ring, and we all got inside, me in the driver’s seat, Roger and Charlotte in the back.
“Anything useful back there?” I asked, setting my machete on the passenger seat while I started the engine.
“Some chains, big metal clamps, something that looks like a cattle prod…”
I reached under the visor. There were two garage door openers. I pressed the button on the first one, and the door behind us began to open with a loud hum. It opened slowly, almost maddeningly so.
“Come on…come on…” I whispered, because you never know when a slow-moving garage door will hear comments like that and decide to speed things up a little.
“I’m not seeing anything good back here,” Roger said.
“Come on…come on…” Charlotte said to the garage door, obviously working under the same theory I was.
I expected a pair of legs to become visible in the gap any second. Or, more likely, for the white door to fly open. I revved the engine. The door was about three-quarters of the way up.
The white door flew open.
I slammed my foot on the gas pedal. The tires squealed and the van shot forward. There was a horrible screech as the roof scraped against the rising door, but then we were outside the garage. I turned on the headlights and kept the accelerator floored.
I pressed the button on the second remote, praying that it opened the gate. Nothing happened. I pulled it from the visor, and then slammed on the brake. “It’s got a code!”
“Just ram the gate!” Roger shouted. He scurried to the back of the van and peered through the rear window. “The front door’s opening!”
The rest of the fence looked quite a bit less sturdy than the main gate, but I couldn’t exactly work up any speed plowing through a couple of feet of snow. I fastened my seat belt, and then turned the van toward the main gate, backed it up about ten feet, and then floored the gas pedal again.
“Hold on!” I warned. Roger and Charlotte both grabbed something to brace themselves. I gritted my teeth, waiting for the impact.
The van smashed into the gates, safety glass from the windshield flying everywhere. The air bag inflated in front of me. The gates didn’t budge.
I put the van into reverse and backed up again. “Three of ‘em are coming out the front,” said Roger. “And another one, the one whose nose I broke, he’s coming out of the garage!”
“That’s the whole party,” I said.
“I’m not a weapons expert,” Roger admitted, “but the things they’re carrying look a lot like machine guns.”
At that moment, there was a loud series of clanging and shattering sounds as machine gun fire ripped through the side of the van. Roger and Charlotte dove for the van floor, glass raining down upon them.
I returned my attention to the gate, ducked down as far as I could, and then floored the accelerator. It was hard to steer the van with the air bag in the way, but I managed as well as I could.
As machine gun bullets continued to hit the van, it struck the gate a second time. I heard Charlotte grunt as she smacked against the back of my seat. The gates held firm.
Then the machine gun fire ceased. After a moment, Roger peeked through the broken rear window.
“I don’t want to be Mr. Doom and Gloom,” he said, as the van’s engine began to sputter and it began to sink on its deflating tires, “but they seem to be passing out grenades.”
I PUT THE van into reverse again. Even though I had the accelerator against the floor, it seemed to be struggling to hit five miles per hour. I wondered what my chances were of taking all four of our pursuers out via vehicular homicide.
Something slammed against the side of the van, followed by Daniel’s charming voice shouting “You idiot!”
There was a huge explosion that rocked the van.
I kept the accelerator down, and by some miracle the van kept moving.
I heard something land in the back. Something rolled along the floor.
“Move your head!” Charlotte ordered.
I did so. She flung the grenade out where the front windshield had been. It struck the gate, and for a heart-stopping instant I thought it was going to bounce back at us, but it dropped straight down to the ground and exploded.
No damage to the gates.
I swerved the van to the left, steering it back toward the garage. I couldn’t run anybody over going this slowly, and the gates were a hopeless cause.
In what remained of the rear-view mirror, I saw another grenade fly into the back of the van.
Then a second one.
A third one sailed in as Roger grabbed for the first. Charlotte scooped up the second and threw it past my head again. It landed on the ground and exploded, sending a huge blast of snow into the air.
The van was picking up speed. Not much, but a little.
Roger threw his first grenade out the window. Charlotte began to frantically look around the rear of the van. “Where’d the other one go?”
“By your foot!”
Charlotte grabbed it and threw it again. But she was so frazzled that the throw went wild, hitting the top of the windshield, bouncing off the dashboard, and into my lap.
I’d played Hot Potato many times as a kid, but never a version with such high stakes. I grabbed the grenade and whipped it out the window. It exploded in mid-air, barely clearing the front of the van.
Then the machine gun fire started again.
I ducked down and blindly drove the van, hoping I wouldn’t go off the mostly-cleared path and get us stuck. I was amazed that the van was still functioning, even at this fairly pitiful level. Another grenade exploded, but this one hadn’t made it inside.
The machine gun fire didn’t stop, so I couldn’t tell if we were leaving them behind or they were running after the van. I sort of hoped they were running after us. Slipping on a patch of ice while firing a machine gun could cause one heck of a nasty accident.
After an endless minute, the van reached the garage. I attempted to turn into it, but instead crashed against the side of the doorway. While Roger and Charlotte climbed over the seats toward me, I grabbed the machete and scrambled through the front window and onto the smashed hood.
More machine gun bullets hit the van as the three of us hurried through the garage. I opened the door and we rushed back into the hallway. As I pulled it shut, the door began to twitch with the impact of machine gun fire.
“Any great ideas?” I asked.
“Run between the bullets,” Roger suggested.
“How can you be a smart-ass at a time like this?” Charlotte demanded.
“We could die at any second,” Roger explained. “I’d like my final words to be something clever.”
We swerved down another corridor just as they began firing again. It was readily evident that this had been one of my typical bad decisions, because the corridor had a door at the end but no other options.
“Piss,” Roger remarked.
I unlocked the door, flung it open, and we rushed through, finding ourselves in a small, dimly lit room. A small room with a bearskin rug on the floor, and nothing else. No windows, no doors, no portable teleportation devices, nothing.
“Piss, piss,” Roger added.
“Okay…problem…” I mumbled, shutting the door. Maybe we could smother them with the rug.
“I hope you’ve got your clever comments ready,” said Charlotte.
Why was there a bearskin rug in an otherwise empty room anyway? I slid it aside, half-expecting it to try and bite my foot off. There was a trapdoor underneath.
Bullets began to tear through the door. The three of us dove to the floor. I unlatched the chain on the trapdoor and lifted it. It was too dark to see anything but a slide leading down.
“Looks good to me,” said Roger.
Then I remembered what Daniel had said about his latest project, the underground one that wasn’t completely functional but would be amazing.
“You know what, I don’t think we want to go down there.”
More bullets tore through the door.
“Okay, yeah, we do.”
Roger jumped down into the trapdoor and vanished from sight. Charlotte followed. Just as the door broke apart from a violent kick on the other side, I went after them.
I slid down for about ten seconds, and then kicked somebody in the back as I landed. It was pitch black down here, as well as hot and humid, almost like I was back in Florida.
“Everyone still alive?” I asked.
“Not dead here,” said Roger.
“Here either,” said Charlotte.
I got to my feet. I couldn’t see a thing except for a faint light from the trapdoor above, but if any of the others slid down here, they were going to run into the machete.
The trapdoor closed, cutting off all the light.
“Okay,” I said, “our situation does not seem to have taken much of an upward turn.”
“Why is it so hot down here?” asked Charlotte. “What is this place?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “but I have a strong feeling that it’s not going to be fun.”
“What’s that noise?” asked Charlotte.
“Okay, I don’t need questions like that,” said Roger. “When you ask something like ‘what’s that noise?’ it really makes me nervous, and I’m plenty nervous already, and I’d just rather you-”
We all shut up and listened. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but there was some sort of noise coming from the darkness ahead of us. Something too soft to make out accurately. Almost like a buzzing.
“We can’t stand around here,” Roger said. “If there’s a way out, we’ve got to find it as soon as possible. How long do you think the other prisoners can defend themselves with that one gun?”
We spent a few minutes trying to find a light source. There was a wall right behind where the slide had dropped us off, but sliding our hands along it turned up no light switch.
“Forget it,” I finally said. “We’ll just have to do it in the dark.”
Slowly, cautiously, we began to walk forward. I had my arms out on front of me, and assume the others did, too. The floor was smooth, possibly cement. The sound got a bit louder as we moved forward, but was still impossible to identify.
Then I slipped on a wet patch and pitched forward, smacking into something at waist-level. It felt like one of the carts in the operating room. A second later there was a huge crash-glass breaking against the floor. I tried to move away and smacked into something similar. It also toppled over in an explosion of shattering glass.
There was a long silence.
“Smooth move,” said Roger.
I could feel a large shard of glass pressed up against one of my bare feet. Now it was officially time to move very, very slowly, unless I wanted to leave large strips of my feet behind. I carefully slid my right foot forward, pushing away the glass in front of it. I did the same with my left.
The noise was much louder now, and this time I could identify it.
Rattling. And hissing.
I very much wanted to take off running across the room, screaming at the top of my lungs, but the presence of the broken glass made that a poor decision.
“Are those fucking snakes? ” asked Charlotte.
“Everyone stay calm,” I warned.
The hissing continued, and now I could hear slithering coming from at least four places around me.
“What is the problem with these people?” Roger demanded, his voice panicked. “Who keeps rattlesnakes in their basement in Alaska? Where the hell did they get them? When do they feed them? I’m having a really hard time with all of this!”
“Be quiet!” snapped Charlotte. “Just don’t make them mad!”
I moved my toe forward, past something sharp and into something soft and wet. The open mouth of a dead snake. Unable to control myself, I rapidly stepped back, crushing a small, scaly mass that had come up behind me, and then I lurched forward again.
I bit down on my knuckles to keep from shrieking. Of course, with my knuckles muffling my shriek, I could hear the rattling and hissing and slithering perfectly well.
Then Charlotte shrieked for me.
“What? What happened?” asked Roger.
“It went over my foot! The snake went over my foot!”
There were loud pounding sounds that were apparently Charlotte beating the ground around her feet with the spiked club.
“Everybody calm down!” I said, pulling my hand out of my mouth. “If we don’t get bit we’ll be fine! Just keep moving forward!”
There was definite writhing behind me, and I was starting to think there were well more than four active snakes on the floor. I slid my foot forward, hooking my toe underneath the dead snake whose mouth I’d explored and flipping the creature out of the way. Not toward Charlotte.
The snake behind me brushed across the back of my foot. I hadn’t killed it when I stepped on it, and it seemed to be freaking out, twisting back and forth wildly. Hopefully it would slice itself to death on the glass, or at least not dig its fangs into my heel.
I kept moving forward. There was a sudden stinging pain in my toe. I screamed.
“What? What?” demanded Roger.
“I got bit! One of the snakes bit me! I got me right-okay, no, that was a piece of glass.”
“Listen to me, both of you,” said Roger. “No more screaming. None!”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not barefoot.”
“I mean it!”
We continued walking. The glass on the floor thinned out quickly, but I still couldn’t see anything in front of me. After a few more steps I stopped worrying about the snakes, though I figured I’d have plenty of other things to worry about before too long.
“Ow!” said Roger.
“I bumped into the wall.”
I touched the wall as well. Now we had to figure out if we were in a completely sealed-off room, in which case we were totally screwed, or there was a way out, in which case we were only close to totally screwed.
“Hey, everyone, guess what I found?” asked Roger. “Let there be light!”
“I’m going to be really annoyed if you just released some wild animals into the room,” I said.
But then there was a low hum, and some fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling lit up with a dim glow. A second later, they switched to full power, completely lighting the room.
The walls, ceiling, and floor were cement. There was a camera mounted in each corner…naturally, Daniel and his good friends would want to watch what was going on below. There were two other carts with glass aquariums containing rattlesnakes that I hadn’t knocked over. I also observed that rattlesnakes hadn’t been the only occupants-in addition to the snakes slithering through the broken glass, there were several tarantulas.
In fact, Charlotte had one on the back of her leg.
I tensed up, and then forced myself to relax and act casual as I walked over to her. “I need you to stay very, very still and very, very calm,” I said. I held the machete out toward her leg, ready to scrape the spider off, hoping my spider-phobic hand wouldn’t be twitching so badly that I severed her limb.
Charlotte glanced down at her leg, picked the spider up between her fingers, and tossed it with the others. “They’re not venomous, you know.”
“I know,” I admitted. “But they’re…big.”
“The one on your leg isn’t all that big.”
I swear to God I almost chopped my leg off. I spun around a couple of times, searching for the dreaded arachnid. There was nothing, and I sighed with relief.
“Real funny,” I said.
“It crawled up to your waist,” Charlotte explained.
I came very close to ripping the boxer shorts right off my body in panic. But there was no tarantula there, either.
Charlotte shrugged and grinned. “Just in case I die now.”
“I don’t think that was very clever. But I’m glad we’re keeping our sense of humor instead of getting all mopey. Now we should probably get moving.”
There was a long tunnel ahead, with brick walls rather than the cement. It was about eight feet tall and six feet wide, but the light from this room didn’t illuminate far enough for me to tell how far the tunnel stretched.
Walking side by side, we moved into the tunnel. There were two more video cameras, and numerous quarter-sized holes in the walls, irregularly spaced, and a sprinkler on the ceiling just ahead. The floor had a slight downward angle as it extended forward, and was completely covered with a thin layer of dry leaves.
“What do you think?” I asked, pointing at the sprinkler. “Death trap or safety precaution?”
As I took my next step, there was a sudden roar and I spun around to see the passage behind us closed off by a sliding cement door, casting us into complete darkness again.
“LET’S LOOK at the bright side,” said Roger. “At least the rattlesnakes can’t get at us.”
We continued walking, the leaves crunching under our feet. Then a dart shot out of one of the holes in the wall, visible because of the unpleasant fact that its tip was on fire. The dart sailed across the tunnel, moving at a downward trajectory-it hadn’t been shot with much force. It hit the ground and the leaves underneath began to burn. We stepped over it and moved on.
Hey, I’d survived the other dart room with its cannon fire, I figured I could handle some flaming darts.
The sprinkler activated above us. It was a powerful one, shutting off after a couple of seconds but managing to do a fantastic job of soaking us in that time.
Unfortunately, the liquid we were soaked with wasn’t water, it was gasoline.
My nostrils burned and my various wounds (especially that damn shoulder) took on a searing new agony. Charlotte ’s sharp cry made it clear that the gasoline didn’t feel much better on her cut-up arm.
Now flaming darts seemed a bit more problematic.
One of them shot out in front of us. Fortunately, this situation had a fairly obvious plan of action to follow. Run like hell.
Roger and I seemed to understand this in unison, and took off down the tunnel. Darts continued to fly at us with every other step, but they weren’t firing quickly, and by running at top speed (or as fast as I could go in bare feet) we were able to avoid them. After a nice hundred-meter dash we reached the door at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, Charlotte had elected for a slow and steady dart avoidance tactic, and we’d left a good dozen or so fires burning in her path.
A dart came so close to her that for a split second I had a hallucination of her bursting into flames.
“Just run!” Roger shouted.
Now the darts were firing more frequently. And faster.
Hot ashes from the burning leaves were swirling up into the air. How could we have been so stupid as to leave her behind? How could she have been so stupid as not to follow us?
And then I noticed a small control panel in the corner. I couldn’t be sure it was for the darts, but there wasn’t time to debate. I slammed the tip of the machete into it, sending out a flurry of sparks and half-expecting to be electrocuted.
The darts stopped firing. I remained unelectrocuted, though the gasoline fumes were making me sick and a little lightheaded.
Charlotte still stood there, soaked with gasoline in a burning hallway. There was no way she could avoid all of those ashes, so she hurried back the way we came. She leapt over the area where the sprinkler had drenched us, and I waited for it to go off, touching one of the flames and engulfing Charlotte in an inferno.
The sprinkler went off.
It touched one of the flames.
And Charlotte vanished into a huge inferno.
Roger and I stood there, absolutely stunned.
The ball of fire disappeared as quickly as it had come. And we saw Charlotte pressed tightly against the closed entrance, looking utterly freaked but miraculously devoid of sizzling flesh.
“Fuck both of you!” she shouted.
This appeared to be a fair statement, so we didn’t argue. Charlotte got down on her hands and knees and began shoving away the leaf cover, creating a gap that would let the fires burn themselves out before they reached her.
“What next?” I called out.
“I’m not going anywhere for a few minutes,” Charlotte replied. “You guys might as well go on ahead.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“Obviously I have no clue what’s a good idea in this place. But if the two of you want to check out the next room, that’s sure fine by me. I’ll just hang out here.”
I looked at Roger and he shrugged. “All right,” I called out to Charlotte. “Follow as soon as it’s safe.”
My immediate concern was that another sliding door might seal her off, but that didn’t seem likely since there was a regular door at the end of this tunnel rather than another open entrance.
I opened it. More darkness beyond. Wonderful.
“Enjoy yourselves!” Charlotte said, waving.
With the machete out of front of me, I walked into the next room. Another sprinkler went off, drenching us again. But this time it was ordinary water. Kind of refreshing, actually.
“How considerate,” Roger remarked. “I guess they’re not such bad chaps after all.”
“Yeah, I guess it wouldn’t be much fun if their victims passed out from gas fumes before the really nasty stuff could happen.”
While it would have been nice to take some water back to Charlotte, we certainly had some explosive residue left on us and the risk of running back down the tunnel was too great. So we opened the door and walked into the next room.
As we entered, some lights came on. Bright, colorful lights. Carnival music began to play. The room was huge, and the first thing we saw was a large, multi-colored banner: “Welcome to Deathworld!”
“All the effort he must’ve put into this place, and the guy can’t come up with anything better than Deathworld,” Roger muttered. “What a sad state of affairs.”
Two wooden poles held up the Deathworld banner. Each pole had an artificial corpse tied to it, the arms stretched out like scarecrows, the throats slit and the eye sockets hollow. There was a small yellow Post-It note attached to one of them.
I pulled it off and read it out loud to Roger: “ Replace with the real thing.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to make us beta test this place,” said Roger. “We should file a complaint and ask to be let go.”
“Hey, if we see them around, it’s worth a shot.”
We walked under the banner and into the main part of the carnival. It consisted of one sawdust path, with exhibits on each side of it. In the center of the path stood a life-sized plastic clown with oversized shoes, a purple and pink wig, and a big red nose. The clown was holding a wooden sign that said “Press My Nose!”
“I don’t want to press its nose,” said Roger.
“I think we probably should press its nose,” I remarked. “It’s all part of the game. Otherwise, we won’t be able to get out.”
“Make you a deal,” said Roger. “You press the nose and I’ll tell you what a good job you did.”
There wasn’t time to argue. I pressed the nose.
“Good job,” said Roger, patting me on the back.
The clown’s eyes lit up, and it let out a loud giggle as its head began to turn back and forth. “Hi there, kids!” said the clown in an incredibly annoying, high-pitched voice. “Welcome to Deathworld! I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun if you follow a few simple rules. Rule number one: Don’t litter! If you lose an arm or a leg or a head, pick it up and take it with you…leave Deathworld as beautiful as you found it!”
“I hate clowns,” said Roger.
“Rule number two: No outside food or drink! You don’t want to pass up our brain burgers, esophagus dogs, or blood shakes, now in type A negative! Rule number three: Watch your step, because at any moment you could…” The clown’s head began to spin around three hundred and sixty degrees, and its voice transformed into a low demonic roar. “…DIE DIE DIE DIIIIIE!”
It laughed hysterically for about ten seconds, and then its head stopped spinning and its voice returned to normal. “If you ever want to leave, you’ll have to get the four keys! Win them! Find them! Sniff ‘em out! Have fun! Bleed well!”
The light in the clown’s eyes went out and it stopped moving. I almost chopped its head off with the machete, but gratuitous destruction just seemed wrong. We started down the sawdust path.
To the left, a mechanical skeleton fired at a shooting gallery consisting of mechanical puppies and kittens. If I saw a Post-It on that one, I was going to be seriously outraged.
Suddenly the skeleton swiveled 180 degrees and fired with machine-gun rapidity as Roger and I ducked out of the way. After a moment, the skeleton swiveled back around and resumed shooting at the gallery.
On the other side, there was another artificial-I think-corpse resting in the seat above a dunking booth. A sign read “ Dunk The Stiff And Win A Key! ” But it wasn’t really a dunking booth…rather than water, the aquarium under the corpse was filled with spikes.
I assumed that corpse would be replaced with the real thing, too. And then I had a horrible thought. What if the actual keys weren’t part of the exhibits yet?
Well, not worth worrying about until I found out for sure. Boards covered with needles to discourage cheating surrounded the area ten feet around the target. I picked up a baseball-sized squishy eyeball from the bucket next to the sign, leaving two more inside. “You want to try or should I?” I asked.
“You go first,” said Roger.
I took aim, and then threw the eyeball as hard as I could. It splattered against the aquarium, missing the target by a good three feet.
Roger picked up the second eyeball, spent a ridiculously long moment planning out the perfect angle at which to throw, and then hurled it. It hit almost exactly where mine had.
“Stop distracting me,” said Roger, taking the last one.
He threw the eyeball…and almost hit the target, but not quite. Appalling fake eyeball goo slid down the wooden display.
“Are we allowed to cheat?” asked Roger.
“I don’t see why not.”
He picked up the bucket and threw it, striking the target. The corpse fell onto the spikes and practically exploded into an outrageously disgusting display of reds and yellows that made me think it had been filled with water balloons.
There was a sound like a cash register opening, and then a small golden key dropped into a slot where the bucket had been.
“Wasn’t so hard,” Roger said.
We walked past a slow-moving carousel with a black canopy. Mechanical children were on the fire-breathing horses, their bodies shriveled and covered with cobwebs, and their echoing laughter sounding through a pair of speakers.
Next up was a Test-Your-Strength game. At the top of the pole rested a severed head. Maybe fake. A strong enough hit upon the plate would send a dagger sailing upward into the head’s mouth. On the pole, the mallet hits were ranked as Goner, Dead Meat, Cooked Goose, Shit Out Of Luck, and Potential Survivor (But Probably Not).
“Time to cheat again,” I said. Roger nodded, and on the count of three we both jumped into the air as high as we could and came down upon the metal plate with both feet, sending the dagger all the way to the top and ringing a bell. Another golden key dropped into a slot down by the plate.
“Half done already,” I noted.
“We bad,” Roger agreed.
On the other side was a “Guess Their Weight” display. About nine or ten hugely obese fake corpses were lying in a giant pile. Next to them was a small booth with a four-digit readout in red numbers, currently 0000. A metal joystick apparently let you raise or lower your guess.
“Where in the world does he buy all these corpses?” Roger asked. “These things aren’t cheap, you know. I’ve priced them around Halloween.”
I turned the joystick to the right, increasing the number on the display. Ten corpses at, what, four hundred pounds each? Of course, they didn’t necessarily weigh as much as a real body, but I had to start somewhere. When the display read 4000 I pressed the button on the joystick.
And got an electric shock so severe I fell to the ground, gasping for breath.
After Roger helped me up, I saw that the display now showed an arrow pointing up. “Your turn,” I told Roger. “Guess higher.”
Roger took off his shirt, wrung it out, and wrapped it around the joystick. I nodded with approval. “Oh, sure, everybody knows electricity and water are a delightful combination.”
He glared at me and put his shirt back on. “Fine, whatever.” He increased the display until it read 5000, then pressed the button.
After his yelp, he ended up on the ground as well. The display now showed a down arrow.
“So what, we just do this until we’re baked?” he demanded.
“We could wait for Charlotte.”
“Wait for Charlotte to what?” she asked, scaring the absolute living shit out of us.
“Hey, in the mood for a nice refreshing electric shock?” I asked, when I could breathe again.
“I’m always in the mood for a nice refreshing electric shock,” she replied.
We explained the setup to her, and she set the display to 4500. She pressed the button, and a third golden key dropped into the slot.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not fair,” Roger observed, flexing his aching hand.
At the end of the path was a large, gold plated door. There were four locks, one on top of the other, but we only had three keys.
We went back down the path, but as far as we could tell we’d hit all the available games. The carnival probably wasn’t finished yet. The shooting gallery skeleton tried to kill us again, but we were expecting it and ducked well before the bullets came our way.
“So…” said Roger. “What next?”
“If we could get those overweight corpses rolling, we could probably break the door down with them,” I said.
“Did anybody check to see if the door was actually locked?” asked Charlotte.
“Of course the door is locked.”
“Uh-huh. I take night classes…well, I did a year ago when I had a life…and I’ve seen groups of twenty-five people standing outside of an unlocked classroom door because they all just assumed that the first person was standing there because it was locked.”
“That’s a fascinating insight into human psychology,” Roger said. “I vote we test it out.”
We returned to the gold-plated door. It was locked.
I inserted the three keys into their proper locks and tested the door again, but it still wouldn’t open.
“So what do we do?” I asked. “It could be hidden somewhere around here, or it could just be missing altogether. Maybe when he adds the Bumper Car Bloodbath it’ll have the fourth key.”
“Maybe the clown knows,” said Roger.
“Maybe you should…” I trailed off as I thought of something. “Maybe you’re right! Remember what the clown said?” I asked, hurrying back down the path.
“He said ‘die’ a few times,” Roger recalled.
“He also said to find them, to sniff them out.” We stopped, ducked under the skeleton’s fire, and stood in front of the clown. Its red nose popped right off. Inside was the fourth golden key.
“You are the coolest human being on the face of the earth,” said Roger.
It fit the fourth lock, and we moved into the next area.
It contained only a small passageway, low enough that we’d have to crawl through it. Another fake corpse was standing over the entrance, so we’d have to crawl between its legs. I never wanted to see another artificial cadaver for the rest of my life.
Dripping red letters proclaimed “Welcome To The Fun-Filled Maze Of Amusement And Splatter!”
“I’ll go first,” I said in a moment of bravery that passed as quickly as it had come. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled into the tunnel. Roger followed, and Charlotte followed him.
I crawled for about ten feet, and then emerged into a very small room that allowed me to stand. The walls were a combination of heavily tinted Plexiglas and mirrors, and there were three possible exits. Colorful lights flashed from the ceiling, giving the place an atmosphere like a disco. I guessed that when the place was finished, Daniel would add the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever in the background.
We took the exit to the left. It twisted and turned a couple of times, and then broke off into two more possible paths.
I scraped an “X” on one of the mirrors with the machete. “So we’ll know where we’ve been,” I explained.
We followed the path to the left again. Through some of the plexiglass walls, I could see other parts of the maze, but there was no way to tell at this point how large it was.
There was a knock.
Daniel stood next to us, separated only by the clear wall. He pointed at me, and then ran his index finger over his throat, letting us know that it was curtains time.
THERE WAS a loud rumble behind us. Daniel winked at me, then moved out of sight.
That was okay. I knew I was going to have to face him again, and better here than in an open space where he could mow us down with his machine gun, not that I noticed him carrying it. Much better to be trapped in a confusing maze.
At the next intersection, I scratched another “X” on the mirror and we took the path to the right. After about twenty feet and six turns, it dead-ended. We heard more rumbling.
“See if you can kick through the mirror,” I suggested to Roger.
He kicked the mirror several times, and though the glass cracked it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to break through. So we went back the way we came, returning to the intersection.
The “X” was gone.
“Did I miss something?” I wondered aloud. “I marked it, right?”
“You marked it,” said Charlotte. “I know what that sound is. The maze is moving.”
Okay, that was most definitely not cool, but again, I had to look on the bright side. Daniel and the others would be just as disoriented as we were. Maybe.
We continued to weave through the maze. At one point I could see Stan, enthusiastically smoking a cigarette about three panels of Plexiglas away. Seconds after that I saw Josie, limping.
Our next path twisted for approximately fifty feet without any new options. After rounding a completely mirrored corner we came face-to-face with a human-sized stone gargoyle. It was an imp-like creature with unnecessarily large fangs and clawed hands raised high over its head. As per the Daniel Rankin touch, it was also wearing headphones. There was just barely enough room to squeeze past it.
Three separate foot-long blades burst out, one from the gargoyle’s head, one from the chest, and one from the leg, all in a vertical line, blocking the path. A second later, the blades snapped back and another set of similar blades burst forth, these about five inches to the left of the first set. As these retracted, yet another set popped out, followed by the original set, and so on in that delightful sequence.
Beyond the gargoyle, separated by a panel, I saw Mortimer, with dried blood under his nose. He noticed us and shouted. “They’re by the southeast gargoyle!”
If we turned back they’d have us trapped. So I moved as close to the source of the nearest set of blades as possible without getting in their way. The blades popped out. The instant they retracted, I moved forward.
I beat the second set of blades. They snapped out right behind me, grazing the back of Foster’s jacket.
And I beat the third set of blades, nearly falling over as I lunged into the next part of the maze.
I turned back toward Roger and Charlotte. “Just follow my lead and-”
“Look out!” Roger shouted.
I spun around, machete raised, and nearly ended up with a meat hook through my face. Stan held one in each hand, and lashed out with the second one, slashing across my cheek before I could deflect it. I took a swing with the machete, clumsily batting it against the maze wall since there was so little room to maneuver.
I wondered what happened to the machine guns. Most likely the van was easily replaceable, but Daniel didn’t like the idea of damaging his precious maze of death.
Stan’s next swing was a downward slice. Though I tried to move back, the meat hook tore through the jacket, slashing across my chest in the process, and became lodged in the material. Stan yanked on the meat hook, pulling me toward him.
I tried to jam the machete through some part of his body, but again there wasn’t room. So instead I leaned forward and tried to bite him. He had the same idea at the same moment, and our teeth collided with a clack.
We stared at each other, a little embarrassed.
Then he smacked me on the side of the head with the non-pointy side of the other meat hook, and shoved me toward the gargoyle. I tried to resist, but with my bare feet I couldn’t get enough traction. I could hear the blades snapping right behind me.
I kneed him in the groin again. It seemed almost unfair to handle the situation in such a way, but these weren’t exactly times to be worried about fighting honorably. As he moaned in agony, I twisted our bodies around, forcing him to be on the side with the gargoyle.
He punched me in the stomach. Hard. I doubled over with dry heaves. And then I looked up to see him raise the free meat hook high above his head.
Reaching over the gargoyle, Roger grabbed the meat hook and tried to tug it out of his grip. Stan refused to let go…and that’s when the floor started moving. The entire section with the gargoyle and the rest of us shifted, throwing everybody off balance, and causing Stan to topple against the gargoyle.
The third set of blades burst forth, the center blade going right through his side. Stan opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. His lit cigarette dropped to the floor. As the blades retracted, he stumbled back another step and was caught by all three of the second set of blades. When those snapped back, his body fell onto the first set. While he should have fallen to the floor at this point, his meat hook was caught on the gargoyle’s arm, causing the first set of blades to get him a good half-dozen more times before Roger freed it.
Stan was quite dead.
Another section of maze began to slide next to ours. I got the impression that the maze was set up like one of those puzzles where you slide one square piece at a time until you’re able to correctly arrange them into a picture. Whenever I try to do those I end up with some kind of pseudo-Picasso surrealist nightmare.
Though this would have been a fine time to stand there and just gag for a few hours, we had to move. Roger squeezed his way through the blades, getting a nasty cut on his elbow but suffering far less than Stan. Charlotte made it through just as we saw Daniel running down our old path. Since the maze had shifted, he’d have to take a slightly different route to the gargoyle, but Stan was definitely visible through the clear walls from his vantage point.
We didn’t stick around long enough to see his reaction to Stan’s closed-casket-funeral body, though we did hear his scream of fury. We selected the center path of three and continued moving through the maze.
“You’re dead, Mayhem!” Daniel screamed. “ Corpus delicti! ”
His words chilled me. Which was pretty weird, considering that after all I’d been through so far, the simple fact of Daniel informing me that I might perhaps be in a spot of trouble shouldn’t have been much of a mood-breaker. Must’ve been his delivery.
After a couple more turns, we reached a narrow wooden door. I didn’t especially feel like seeking out more keys, but this one didn’t appear to have a lock. I opened it and immediately saw hundreds of razor blades falling toward me. I got out of the way right before the razor blade-lined ironing board fell. It was classic slapstick: the unexpected ironing board dropping out of the closet, smacking the poor bozo on the forehead. Thank goodness I’d been able to avoid the uproarious facial lacerations.
We retraced our path and moved on. The maze was undeniably disorienting, but I felt confident that we were at least moving in the same general direction. Well, until we found ourselves back at Stan’s body.
Naturally, Roger had a smart-ass comment, but in his anxiety he completely messed up the timing and the phrasing, so it’s not worth repeating.
“Okay, so, what do you think about splitting up?” I asked. “If one of us finds the exit, they can call out to everyone else, sort of guide them in the right direction.”
“And give away our position,” Charlotte noted.
“Right. But we have no idea how big this thing is, or where we’re supposed to be headed. We could be wandering around for days.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” said Roger. “As long as I’ve got my trusty meat hook, I should be okay.”
“All right, then,” I said. “Everyone pick a path.”
I had a very strong temptation to give Roger a good-bye hug in case I never saw him again, but I resisted it. We each took our separate paths, myself to the right, Roger straight ahead, and Charlotte to the left.
My path quickly came to a dead end, so I cheated and went down Roger’s path, just as he was returning.
“Yours a dead end, too?” he asked.
I nodded. Together we followed Charlotte ’s path, which very shortly separated into two. I took the right and Roger took the left.
I peeked at myself in one of the mirrored walls. Ugh. Not a glamorous sight. If Helen ever saw me like this, I’d be practicing forced abstinence for the rest of my life.
Two turns and a quick glimpse of Mortimer later, I was at another door. Now, past experience told me that I probably did not want to open this door, but then again, it could also be the way out. All these risks were doing wonders for my machismo. There wasn’t room for me to stand to the side of the door when I opened it, so I settled for turning the doorknob carefully and easing it open inch by inch.
When I was satisfied that nothing sharp or heavy was going to drop out on me, I opened it all the way. Inside was a mummy. A pretty darn cool mummy, almost a dead-on replica of Boris Karloff in his dusty bandages, but it didn’t seem to have any function beyond just standing there, being a mummy.
I closed the door and moved on, promptly walking into a wall. It was bound to happen with all these clear walls and mirrors, so I could only be thankful that it had happened while I was alone.
After another half-minute or so of wandering, the floor began to move under my feet. As it slid, it revealed another section of the maze…where Daniel stood.
I raised my machete, and he raised his revolver. The tip of my weapon was practically touching the barrel of his.
“Well, well,” he said. “You’re pretty damn impressive, I’ve gotta give you that. How’d you like the gasoline shower?”
“Is that what was that was supposed to be? All it did was trickle a little bit,” I said, just to piss him off.
Daniel frowned. “That’s fine. It wasn’t really completely ready to go yet.”
“So where’d your fancy machine gun go?” I asked, trying to keep him occupied while I waited for a good chance to run for cover.
“The last thing I need is for you or your friends to get a hold of a machine gun, don’t you think?”
“I thought you just didn’t want to shoot up the maze.”
“So what’s up with the mummy? Was it supposed to attack me or something?”
“It’s a placeholder. That’s where the rattlesnakes are going to go.”
“Cool. I hope they weren’t too hard to smuggle into Alaska, because we accidentally killed a few of them.”
“Why would you kill innocent snakes in an aquarium?”
“It got knocked over. Sorry about that.”
“As long as you didn’t do it on purpose. So, have you formulated some brilliant escape plan while we’ve been talking? There’s not a chandelier above my head, is there?”
“Nah,” I admitted. “I’m pretty well screwed, actually.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And now I’m going to shoot you.”
I instinctively held the machete in front of me, like a very narrow shield, as Daniel pulled the trigger.
Now, if somebody had said to me last week, “Andrew, guess what? You’re going to be standing in a big maze, and the main bad guy is going to have a gun pointed at you, and you’re going to gab for a while, then he’s going to fire. But you’ll have instinctively held this machete in front of you, and not only will the bullet hit the machete right around where you heart would’ve been, but the bullet will ricochet off the blade and hit the main bad guy in his gun-shooting arm. Oh, yeah, and you’ll really look like crap,” the only part I would have believed was the part about me looking like crap
But it happened. Daniel fired. The bullet struck the machete blade, knocking the flat edge against me with painful force, and then ricocheted off and struck Daniel in the upper arm. His hand opened, and the gun dropped out of his grip.
I was, to put it lightly, pretty damn surprised. Almost too surprised to take a swing at Daniel with the machete. Unfortunately, with my hands throbbing violently from the fact that they’d been holding the machete when it took a bullet, it wasn’t a very good swing.
It was, however, a good enough swing to convince Daniel that he needed to get out of there. And so he turned and ran through one of the maze paths. I picked up his revolver, trying to count how many times we’d played musical guns since the vacation began.
The maze split off into two paths again, but I could hear Daniel’s footsteps to the right. I followed him, smacking into a mirror this time, but continued the pursuit.
NOT ONLY did I have the sound of Daniel’s footsteps to follow, but he was also emitting a stream of outrageously creative profanity, so I was able to keep on his trail.
A door opened and slammed shut just ahead.
I promptly hit a dead end, but quickly retraced my path, took the other branch, and found the door. Though the plan was to regroup at the exit, I didn’t want to lose my chance when Daniel was on the defensive. So I let out one of those piercing whistles I used to love so dearly in elementary school silent reading time to help guide Roger and Charlotte in the right direction, and then opened the door.
The next room was the largest one yet, and looked like nothing so much as an underground warehouse. The room was probably two hundred feet square, and filled with piles and piles of machinery, vicious-looking implements of torture, and props. There was a stack of artificial corpses that must’ve been fifteen feet high.
I saw Daniel duck behind an electric chair and fired, but the bullet struck the arm of the chair. Keeping a safe distance in case he’d somehow armed himself, I ran to the side to get a better shooting angle, but he was gone.
A three-foot scorpion flew through the air at me. Without thinking, I blew the plastic creature away, which had obviously been Daniel’s intent. I had three bullets left, at the most, so I had to be careful.
A slightly larger octopus was launched at me from behind a display of ballerina bodies impaled on lances. It landed on the ground in front of my feet with a splat. “Dude, you’re throwing rubber mollusks,” I pointed out. “It’s time to give up.”
“Never!” Daniel shouted as he hurled a football over the display. I didn’t get a very good look at it, but I’m pretty sure it had squished roaches stuck to it.
The football hit the ground and black smoke began to pour from each of the ends. I hurried away from it, taking cover behind a medieval stretching rack with a large replica of Gumby on it.
The door opened, and Mortimer entered. As he shielded his eyes from the smoke, I took aim and fired. And missed. Mortimer turned toward the rack in surprise, and I pulled the trigger again, only to be rewarded with a click.
“He’s out of bullets!” Daniel shouted from behind the smoke cover. “Get him!”
Mortimer, holding a butcher knife, ran toward me. I tossed the gun aside, stood up and grabbed the first thing I could use as a shield, a very large teddy bear with a slashed-open stomach and innards that were most definitely not stuffing.
“Hello, I’m Bernard the Bear!” said a jolly voice. “Will you be my best friend in the whole world?” Three-inch claws burst out of the bear’s paws. “Or do I have to mess you up? ”
I swung the bear around just as Mortimer arrived. His knife got Bernard in the chest. I lunged with the machete, missing, but twisted Bernard so that his claws slashed Mortimer’s arm. Mortimer struck with the butcher knife again, stabbing Bernard in the face.
“ Be my friend, yes sir-ee, or I’ll hunt your family…” sang Bernard in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Daniel’s.
My next swing with the machete missed, and Mortimer got in a rock-solid uppercut to the jaw that sent Bernard and I stumbling backwards, smashing into the stack of corpses.
“Hey kids, have you ever wanted to take a bath with Mr. Hair Dryer?” asked Bernard.
I tossed Bernard aside as Mortimer charged at me. Though he stopped well out of range of the machete, he threw the butcher knife. I moved my head out of the way and it stuck in the nose of an unfortunate artificial cadaver.
I was distracted enough by the knife that I wasn’t able to stop Mortimer before he pounded his fist into my chest. I bashed against the corpse stack again, flinching as one of the plastic hands goosed me.
Then I slammed my head forward, connecting with Mortimer’s forehead. In the movies, this only hurts the defensive head and leaves the offensive head in tip-top shape, but in real life it makes the offensive head feel like it’s about to split open like Humpty Dumpty.
However, Mortimer was certainly in pain as well, and he backed away, hands to his forehead. I lashed at him with the machete, getting in a great hit that slashed across both of his upper legs. He went down, howling.
Then I realized that I had a very big problem behind me. I hurriedly got out of the way as the stack of corpses began to topple. Mortimer tried to scoot out of the way, but with his injured legs he simply couldn’t move fast enough. The fifteen-foot pile of plastic carcasses came crashing down upon him. The last thing I saw before turning away was an extended corpse hand slamming into his open screaming mouth.
I had a very strong feeling that Mortimer wouldn’t be getting up.
Bernard the Bear chuckled. “Remember, kids, that rabid squirrel and your sister’s sock drawer are a perfect match!”
“Come on out, Daniel,” I shouted. “It’s just you and Josie left, if she’s not already dead, too.”
Daniel came on out, holding a flamethrower. I got the hell out of the way as he let loose with a burst of flame that sent Bernard to his fiery demise. The machete had served me well up to this point, but it wasn’t going to be much of a match for a flamethrower, so I ran.
I passed several interesting props as I fled, including a full-sized guillotine, a dentist’s chair, an iron maiden in the shape of Homer Simpson, and a bubble gum machine filled with eyes, noses, and ears. I ducked behind a bullet-hole riddled baby crib with a tentacle protruding from it.
As Daniel came my way, I saw that he’d ditched the flamethrower in favor of a lawn edger, a lawn edger more appropriate for Jack’s yard after the giant beanstalk sprouted, but a lawn edger nevertheless. I shoved the carriage at him, catching him off guard, and wove through some piles of boring old lumber.
I heard the door open. Was it Roger, Charlotte, or Josie?
“Is he in here?” a voice demanded. Josie.
“He’s back here!” Daniel replied. “You cover the left; I’ll cover the right.”
I’d reached the end of the room, which contained a small pit, maybe eight feet deep, the bottom covered with mud. Six feet above this pit, hanging from a crane, was the most wicked-looking instrument of shredding I’d ever seen in my life…and I’d seen plenty of those things. It was essentially a wrecking ball adorned with drills, spikes, circular blades, pinchers, knives, corkscrews, and too many other things to count. It was overkill the likes of which I’d never witnessed.
“You like that?” asked Daniel. “I’ll be happy to give you a demonstration!”
I hurried across the edge of the pit. A shot rang out and a porcelain doll head shattered before I could tell for sure if it had vampire fangs. I couldn’t see Josie, but she could certainly see me.
Daniel pulled a handle on the crane. With a loud whirr, all of the drills, blades, and pinchers on the wrecking ball came to life. I made a mental note to avoid falling into the pit if at all possible.
I climbed behind a catapult with a large boulder in the cup, but it clearly wasn’t going to provide sufficient cover. Another shot splintered the wood right in front of my face, and I scrambled away from it behind another pile of lumber.
Josie came into view, limping. Behind her was a full-size dressing mirror with a cute picture of Satan drawn in lipstick, and a cardboard box that looked filled with handy weapons. At least, there were quite a few sharp edges poking out of the top.
“I just killed your friends,” Josie informed me. “You know, all you would’ve had to do is chop up one lousy person in the operating room and we would’ve continued believing you were the Headhunter. How does it feel to be so stupid?”
I had nothing to say to that. I didn’t know whether to believe her about Roger and Charlotte or not.
I could see Daniel circling in front of the catapult, his lawn edger ready for action. I picked up some pieces of broken lumber and tossed them over the pile, hoping to hit Josie through blind luck, or else get her to waste a bullet like I had with the scorpion. I didn’t get either result.
I was going to be trapped very quickly, so I scooted out from behind the lumber pile and back behind the catapult again. Daniel’s edger was immediately thrust toward my face, but I batted it back with my machete. With my other hand, I began to turn the winding wheel. If I could somehow get on top of the boulder, I might be able to catapult myself to safety. Yeah, I’d probably crash-land in a barrel of red-hot coals, but my options were limited.
Another shot splintered against the wood. There was no possible way I was getting on top of that catapult. My only hope was that Josie was standing right where the boulder would land. Daniel’s bullet hitting the machete had been a pretty nice miracle, and maybe I could squeeze in a second one.
I pulled the release cord. At least I hoped that’s what that thing was. It could very well be the let-the-rock-drop-on-whoever-is-underneath-it cord.
The arm of the catapult flew forward, heaving the boulder about fifteen feet across the room, sailing well over Josie’s head. It struck the top of the Satan mirror, causing the bottom to swing forward and send the box of weapons airborne. Lots of silver things flew through the air. Josie spun around and was treated to a half-dozen of them smacking into her, including the circular saw blade that took a cue from the Headhunter’s decapitating scimitar.
Daniel gaped in horror as his wife dropped to the ground in three places.
He let out a wail of grief and fury. I quite honestly couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sorrow for the guy, though that in no way stopped me from rushing out from behind the catapult and rushing at him while he stared at Josie’s remains.
I swung the machete back and forth, as fast and hard as I could. Daniel tried to parry with the edger, but my swings came too furiously, and he continued to steal glances at Josie. With one particularly intense blow I knocked the edger out of his hand. He continued backing away.
This was over. Now.
He looked over his shoulder and saw that he was dangerously close to the pit. But before he could move out of the way, I tackled him, hoping to knock him right over the edge.
Daniel kept his footing, grabbed a handful of my hair, and yanked. Then he drove his other fist into my throat. I tried to gasp for air, but I couldn’t breathe, and I felt Daniel spinning us, moving me closest to the pit.
I could feel my bare feet start to slip. I still couldn’t breathe. Daniel threw another punch at my throat, but I blocked it, grabbed hold of his wrist, and squeezed tightly, trying to dig my fingernails into his skin.
My heels slipped over the side of the pit.
I continued to struggle in vain for oxygen. My left foot dangled in mid-air.
Then, using every last bit of strength I possessed, I forced Daniel’s wrist up into the air as high as I could. Right into one of the twirling corkscrews on the wrecking ball.
Before he could even finish his scream, I pushed myself out of the way, and then slammed my elbow into his back.
Daniel pitched forward and fell into the pit, landing face-first in the mud.
He got up and trudged through the mud, screaming in fury. I was able to suck in the faintest breath as I staggered toward the crane.
Daniel put his hands on the edge of the pit and began to pull himself out.
I pulled down the second lever on the crane.
The wrecking ball began to lower.
“You son of a bitch!” Daniel shrieked, frantically trying to climb out in time. But the wrecking ball lowered quickly, and within seconds Daniel had to pull away to avoid it.
“You’re dead!” he screamed. “You’ll never get out of here! Never!”
And then the wrecking ball hid him from sight.
I walked away quickly, not wanting to hear the gruesome sound as Daniel Rankin met his doom.
IT TOOK about fifteen minutes of very annoying calling back and forth to guide both Roger and Charlotte to the exit of the maze. Josie had been fibbing about killing them, but I think she learned her lesson.
It didn’t take long to find an exit to the warehouse, though it did involve crawling up a spooky dark tunnel with some sort of unidentified insect life present, as well as a possible shrew or two. At the end we emerged from a trapdoor into the garage.
“Let me have your card key,” said Roger. “I’m going to check on the prisoners.”
“I’ll see if I can find a phone,” Charlotte offered.
“I’m just going to sit here for a few days,” I said, handing Roger my pass card, and then grabbing a lawn chair from the corner and unfolding it. “Bring me food and water every once in a while, will you?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll round up some medical supplies too,” said Roger. “Sit there and be a good boy until I get back.”
“Does comatose count as good?”
Roger and Charlotte left. I sat down on the chair, closed my eyes, and remembered my vow to never, ever leave the house again if I got out of this. That sounded good. I’d swipe some of Daniel’s furniture, sell it, buy myself a state of the art computer, take some lessons, and telecommute for the rest of my life. When Kyle was old enough to drive we’d send him out for groceries, but until then we’d survive on pizza delivery. Pudgy Pierre had twenty different toppings, so we’d have all the variety we needed. Ah, yes, life would be good.
A wooden plank struck me on the back of the head, knocking me out of the chair.
“You think I’m gonna die in my own trap?” demanded a mud-covered, bloodied Daniel, kicking the chair out of the way. “I’ve got escape routes all over this place!”
I gripped the bottom of the tool bench and slowly pulled myself up. Daniel chuckled without humor, and then wedged the plank under the doorknob so that nobody could get inside. He waved his hands around like a magician, and then did a not-very-good job of making a hunting knife with an eight-inch blade “appear” from his sleeve. “Think you’ll be able to see inside your stomach after I feed you your eyes?”
The only weapon within reach was a small screwdriver on the table. I grabbed it, though with my double vision it took two tries to actually touch it. Daniel picked up a tin of lighter fluid and squirted it at me, hitting my chest. “Too bad I don’t have a match,” he said, altering the angle.
The lighter fluid hit my eyes. The burning sensation was incredible. I consciously knew that rubbing my eyes was the worst thing I could do, but I couldn’t stop myself. When I finally forced myself to pull my hands away, I was blind.
I grabbed the tool bench to steady myself. “What’s the matter? Something in your eye?” Daniel asked. I could tell that he was walking toward me, and I could make out a faint figure, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to defend myself with any skill.
I threw the screwdriver at him. Daniel snorted a laugh. “Oh, give it up. This one’s for Josie.”
I couldn’t see it, but I could hear something swishing toward my face. I threw my hand up to defend myself.
The burning in my eyes was forgotten as the knife tore through my palm, burying itself all the way to the hilt.
Believe me, I made some noise. I could see the blurred tip of the knife protruding through the back of my hand, coming close enough to my eye to scrape the lashes.
I was blind, I was in excruciating pain, and I had a psychopath right in front of me.
But now I had a weapon.
I twisted my hand around, forced my fingers to wrap around the handle of the knife, and slammed it forward.
It definitely hit something.
Ignoring the pure agony, I pulled the knife free and slammed it forward again.
Daniel made a faint gasping sound.
With the third hit, he slid off the blade and fell to the floor.
I STOOD with my head in the sink, warm water rushing over me as Charlotte held my eyes open. Just getting to the door to the mansion had been a struggle, but I’d made it, got the plank out of the way, and called for help right before I passed out.
“How’s it feel?”
I pulled my head out of the stream and blinked a few times. “Better.”
“Can you see?”
“Not perfectly, but yeah. Thanks.”
“No, thank you.”
The rest of the prisoners were free. After a few tries, Roger had figured out that only one cell door would ever open at a time, so he had to close the last one before setting the next prisoner free. The former prisoners were currently raiding the kitchen. I planned to join them very soon. After a hot shower.
It had taken a while, but finally somebody had located a cell phone. A helicopter was seeking out the location of the mansion at this very moment. Personally, I would’ve liked to see them bring a battering ram or some dynamite to wipe out the front gate, but I suspected that they were going to try to get over it rather than destroy it. Oh well.
“Your turn,” said Roger, entering the bathroom and holding the cell phone out to me.
I thanked him and called Helen.
“SO WHO saved who in this situation?” asked Roger, taking a gulp of root beer while we sat on the couch, watching a bad situation comedy on the wide screen TV.
“I saved you,” I said.
“I don’t think so. You would’ve definitely died behind that big cube thing if I hadn’t shown up.”
“And you would’ve participated in one of their games if I hadn’t been working to get you free. I don’t even want to know what special events I missed.”
“Okay, point taken, but let’s think back and consider how much danger I would have been in if you hadn’t dragged me into this whole thing to begin with. Hmmmm…how about, none?”
“You’re wrong. I saved you from a couple days of attacks by Reverse Snowflake,” I pointed out.
“You’re going to take that stupid cat, right? You promised.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Are you two just going to sit there and argue until they find us?” asked Charlotte. She was trying to sound annoyed, but knowing that she was going to be reunited very soon with her husband had made her giddy beyond belief.
“Of course,” Roger said. “What else would we do?”
“You could shut up and let me watch TV in peace,” I said. “My hand hurts, and my shoulder hurts, and my eyes hurt, and I’d rather you just went someplace else.”
“I love you,” Roger told me.
“I love you, too. Go away.”
Roger patted me on the non-injured shoulder and left the room. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and dozed until I heard the rescue helicopter overhead.
Roger’s Final Word
HEY, I found the tape recorder! It doesn’t look like there’s much tape left, so I’d just like to say that we made it. Not all of us, I’m sad to report, but most of us.
Gosh, I really don’t know what I should say to sum up this whole adventure. There were quite a few moments when I didn’t think I was going to make it out alive. It really does give you a new perspective on things, coming that close to death.
Actually, I do know what I want to say, if you’ll forgive me getting all deep and meaningful. All of you out there, please, make a promise to yourself that no matter what happens, no matter what path your life takes, you’ll never forget that the most important thing is-
Jeff Strand grew up in Alaska, where he his parents insist that he had a normal childhood, no matter what you might think after reading his novels. His outrageously warped books include Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary), Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, How to Rescue a Dead Princess, Elrod McBugle on the Loose, and Out of Whack.
He’s President of the Electronically Published Internet Connection, an international organization of professional authors, which he rules with an iron fist and a wooden paddle. He’s also “host for life” of the annual EPPIES awards banquet, which gives him the opportunity to act goofy in front of a large audience and wear a tuxedo, not necessarily in that order.
Jeff lives in Tampa, Florida with one wife and one mentally questionable cat. In his day job he’s a remittance processing analyst, which is even more exciting than it sounds. He’s currently working on the third Andrew Mayhem novel, Casket For Sale, Only Used Once. Plot details remain top-secret, although he does confide that the third installment “may be a bit weird.”