Once upon a halloween, p.10
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       Once Upon a Halloween, p.10
 

           Richard Laymon
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  "I don't."

  Charles tipped back his head and frowned up the stairway. "Tony!" he shouted.

  No answer came.

  "TONY?" he shouted again.

  When silence answered this shout, too, Charles lowered his eyes to Hunter and raised the sword off his shoulder. "What's going on?"

  "I don't know."

  He saw the look in Charles's eyes.

  "I don't!" he insisted. "But some weird stuff happened up there with Eleanor. She got... she almost got hanged, but nobody was there."

  "What're you...?"

  "It was like someone invisible put a cord around her neck and he was dragging her across the floor with it."

  "But no one was there?"

  "T know it sounds..."

  "Old man Witherspoon?"

  "I don't... no, it wasn't anybody. Nobody was there."

  "He's supposed to be a ghost," Charles explained.

  "Huh?"

  "I don't know. Shit. Laura and Shannon, they say they've got these ghosts. But... TONY!" he shouted.

  Again, no answer.

  Gazing up the stairway, Charles muttered, "Shit."

  "Can ghosts hang people?" Hunter asked.

  "How do I know? No. They've never done anything to Laura or Shannon... scared 'em a few times... if they even. thought maybe the gals were pulling our legs... TONY!"

  Gripping the banister, Hunter rose to his feet. "We'd better go up and look."

  Charles glared at him. "Is this some kinda trick?"

  "I wish."

  "I don't know if we oughta go up there. TONY! DAMN WHAT'S GOING ON? ARE YOU OKAY? ANSWER ME, DAMN IT!"

  Tony didn't answer.

  "I'll go up," Hunter said.

  "You're supposed to stay here."

  "Give me the sword."

  "No." Raising it high, Charles backed away from the stairs, "You've got your knife. I'll keep the sword."

  "You coming?"

  "Yeah. Okay. But you go first."

  Pulling Eleanor's knife from its sheath, Hunter raced up the stairs. He stopped at the top. Stopped and looked around.

  Charles, halfway down, asked, "What're you doing?"

  The hallway was dark. So was every doorway. The lights in every room seemed to be off.

  "Where was he going?" Hunter asked.

  "Shannon's bedroom."

  "It's dark," he said. "They're all dark. There were lights on when I was up here before."

  "When I came up, too," said Charles. "I think almost every room was lighted."

  "You didn't turn any off?"

  "No."

  Remaining at the top of the stairs, Hunter called out, "TONY?"

  He stood motionless and listened. He heard only the sounds of the old house creaking, the sounds of the wind sighing and howling outside.

  And the pounding of his heart.

  No reason to be scared, he told himself. Whatever it is, I've dealt with it before. I saved Eleanor and it didn't hurt me. It let both of us go.

  From halfway down the stairs, Charles said in little more than a whisper, "Shannon's room's the second doorway from..."

  "I know where it is."

  He took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, then stepped around the banister and walked down the dark hall to Shannon's room.

  Standing in the doorway, he gazed in. Shapes of black. Shapes of gray. No light at all except for a dim, dusty paleness coming in from the windows.

  "Tony?" he asked. Quietly.

  No answer.

  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Charles motionless at the top of the stairs.

  "Go on in," Charles whispered.

  Hunter moved the knife to his left hand, wiped his sweaty right hand on a leg of his jeans, then leaned into the room and felt along the wall until he found the light switch.

  He flipped the switch.

  Tony lay sprawled on his back in front of the dresser, his deerstalker hat on the floor nearby. His face looked gray. His eyes bulged and his tongue stuck out.

  Around his neck, a thin black noose.

  Hunter knelt beside him for a closer look.

  The noose was a wire clothes hanger. Someone must've spread it open, dropped it over his head, then viciously twisted it tight from behind.

  "Oh, my God."

  Hunter looked around. Charles stood in the doorway, a hand to his mouth.

  "He's dead," Hunter said.

  Suddenly gagging, Charles lurched out of sight. Moments later, Hunter heard choking sounds, gushes and splashes.

  He rose to his feet and looked around. Just in front of Shannon's closet, a pink robe lay on the floor. It looked like the same one she'd been wearing when Hunter first saw her.

  The robe she'd taken off and hung in her closet before roaming

  around naked.

  The closet that had frightened Eleanor so badly.

  Hunter glanced down at Tony.

  The guy must've been standing at the dresser when his killer crept up behind him with the hanger. In spite of the mirror, he hadn't seen anyone coming.

  Of course not, Hunter thought. Nothing to see.

  The top drawer of Shannon's dresser still stood open.

  Hunter stepped over Tony's feet and looked in.

  A tumble of colorful bras and panties... and a pistol.

  That's what he came up here for! Tony had planned to help rescue the gals, all right, and he'd come up here to get Shannon's pistol.

  This'll save the day.

  Though it was partly hidden under a pair of glossy blue panties, it appeared to be a semi-automatic. Maybe a.380 or a 9 mm.

  "I'm calling the police!" Charles yelled from somewhere in the distance.

  "Don't!"

  Hunter reached in, brushed aside the panties, and saw the shiny chunk of metal around the pistol's trigger guard.

  What's that?

  He picked up the pistol and looked more closely.

  The strange attachment had three small wheels with numbers on them.

  What is it, a combination lock?

  "Oh, Jesus," he muttered.

  Then he heard an outcry of alarm followed by heavy thuds and tumbling sounds.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  "Dad?"

  Jeff glanced back at Mandy, then slowed down. She caught and ran alongside him.

  "This is weird," she said.

  "You're telling me."

  "No. I mean we're going... where we were going."

  "Huh?"

  "You know, to look for the kids. Rhonda's brother... the others."

  Rhonda had obviously realized it, too. A few strides ahead of Jeff, she turned her head to the right. Then she veered in that direction, stopped running and gazed toward the corner.

  Must be where she lost them, Jeff thought.

  Nobody was there now. In fact, except for Phyllis and the sheet woman far ahead, nobody else was anywhere in sight.

  Where are all the trick or treaters? Jeff wondered.

  Gone.

  Almost as if the neighborhood's been evacuated. Nobody left but us.

  It's just getting late, that's all.

  Jeff stopped beside Rhonda. Mandy stopped, too.

  Rhonda cupped her hands to the sides of her mouth and shouted, "GARY! DOUG? ROSIE?"

  Bret came up from behind and stood with them. "They're getting away!" he gasped, pointing down the street with his slingshot.

  Just as Jeff looked, the sheet woman cut to the left in front of the dead-end barricade, Phyllis close behind her. "Wait!" he called out.

  They both glanced his way but kept running.

  He muttered, "Shit."

  Bret said, "Quick or we'll lose 'em!"

  "Everybody just hold your horses." Jeff bent over and put his hands on his knees and panted for air. Sweat streamed down his face, dripped off his nose and chin.

  "Dad!" Bret warned.

  He straightened up and wiped his face. The sheet woman and Phyllis were gone.

  "Hang on. Hang on. I've gotta think. They
were supposed to wait, damn it."

  "Like Phyllis is gonna listen," Mandy said.

  "Rhonda?"

  She turned to Jeff, eyebrows lifting.

  "Look," he gasped, "why don't you... stick around here and... look for your brother? I'll go ahead and see... what I can do about that." He flapped a hand in the general direction of the dead-end.

  "They're getting away!" Bret blurted.

  "Take it easy," Mandy told him.

  "But..."

  "You two." Jeff glanced from Bret to Mandy, saying, "Stay here. Stay with Rhonda. Help her look for..."

  "Gary, Doug and Rosie," Bret rattled off.

  "Yeah." Including Rhonda in his glances, he said, "I'll go after Phyllis and that woman and... do what I can. But I want you three to stay out of it. Don't come after us. Stay on the street here. Stay where it's well lighted and keep your eyes open. I'll come right back here... as soon as I can." To Rhonda, he said, "Keep an eye on them?"

  "I sure will."

  "And if anything... I don't know... strange starts to happen... like anyone fishy comes along... get the hell away. Stay away from everyone, okay?"

  A grim look on her face, she nodded.

  To his kids, "Stay with Rhonda and... do exactly what she says. She's in charge till I get back."

  Bret looked pouty.

  "You be careful, too," Mandy said, looking worried.

  "I will." He took off running. As he raced toward the end of the street, he glanced back. Rhonda and his kids were standing in the street, watching him. Bret waved good-bye with his slingshot. Jeff returned the wave. As he faced front and picked up speed, a sick feeling swept through him.

  What if something happens to them?

  They'll be fine. I'll be right back.

  Yeah, sure, he thought. What the hell am I doing? Going up against three guys? To help this Julie, whoever she is? I don't even know her.

  But he would want someone to do this if Mandy ever got into such trouble. Or Sue. Or Bret, for that matter.

  At least they're out of it.

  I hope.

  Running past the end of a driveway, he realized this must be where Rhonda had stopped to tie her shoe. The driveway of the Witherspoon house. Where Bret's pals lived.

  They hadn't come to the door.

  But the kids had heard sounds from inside

  And Rhonda'd said the woman had told her something about a boy being chased.

  A lot of weird shit going on around here, Jeff thought.

  Nearing the barricade, he veered to the left and slowed down. He glanced back. The kids were close together in the well-lighted intersection, walking slowly and looking around.

  They'll be fine, he told himself.

  He stopped at the end of the barricade. Ahead of him, a footpath sloped upward into an area of bushes and dense woods. A few yards up the path, the glow of the nearest streetlight vanished into darkness.

  This must be the way they went, he thought.

  Damn it, why didn't they wait?

  Stepping over the curb, he wondered if he would even be able to find Phyllis and the sheet woman.

  Might be lucky if I can't.

  I've got to find Phyllis, he thought. She's my responsibility. I have to get her home safe even if she is an obnoxious snot.

  If she'd listened to me...

  Bending over slightly to avoid overhanging branches, he started up the path.

  He fought against an urge to call out.

  Surprise'll be our only advantage.

  Won't be much surprise, he thought, with all this noise I'm making.

  The path was ankle deep with fallen leaves. They crackled and crunched with every step he took.

  A short distance up the path, he halted and listened. The wind sighed and moaned all around him. He was surrounded by the dry hissing sounds of leaves being shaken and rubbed against each other by the wild wind. But he heard no crunching noise of footfalls.

  He resumed walking, but slowly. Though he set his feet down gently on the carpet of leaves and twigs, the effort seemed wasted. He might've been trying to sneak through a field of cornflakes.

  Maybe it doesn't matter, all this other noise.

  If I don't hurry, he thought, I'll never catch-up to Phyllis and that woman.

  Did they even go in this direction?

  He couldn't be sure.

  But the woman had said the men grabbed her and Julie at the dead-end and intended to take them to the graveyard. Jeff knew the graveyard was somewhere in this general direction and not terribly far away. This path probably led to it.

  And these thick woods won't last forever, he told himself. The trees'll thin out by the time I get to the graveyard.

  He'd wandered through the cemetery a couple of times - though not recently - and remembered it was shady with numerous trees but had plenty of open ground... plenty of graves, tombstones, burial vaults, statues. Not at all like this.

  Pausing to rest and listen, he looked all around. In every direction he saw the dim shapes of bushes and tree trunks lit by flecks and dabs of moonlight. He also saw great slabs of blackness.

  A bit of the moon showed through the high, blowing, branches. If the Headless Horseman puts in an appearance, he thought, I'm gonna shit.

  For a few moments, Jeff consoled himself by considering that the Headless Horseman couldn't possibly come galloping down this particular path; the low branches would rip him off his saddle.

  That's one thing I don't need to worry about.

  He resumed walking, this time trying to move faster than before, both hands out in front of his face to guard against low branches,

  Staying on the path wasn't very difficult. Though his eyes gave him no more than vague hints of where it must be, he encountered hushes or a tree trunk or rises in the ground each time he strayed to one of the path's borders.

  I oughta just give it up and turn hack, he thought. Get back to my kids. If anything happens to Mandy or Bret while I'm in here looking for Phyllis and these strangers...

  My God, I can't go home without Phyllis.

  She can't be that far ahead. Just tough it out.

  When Jeff finally noticed a dim gray shape ahead of him, he thought it was moonlight. Perhaps he was approaching a break in the woods, maybe an edge of the graveyard.

  All right!

  As he trudged nearer to it, however, the paleness seemed to possess the general size and form of a person standing motionless on the path in front of him - someone draped in a sheet.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  Jeff's heart lurched with a heavy, sick thud.

  Calm down, he thought. It's just the woman. She stopped to wait for me, after all.

  Though the sheet fluttered in the wind, the person underneath it didn't seem to be moving at all.

  Jeff intended to walk right up to it, but his legs wouldn't let him. They stopped him several paces short of the sheeted figure.

  "Is that you?" Jeff asked.

  No answer came.

  "Where's Phyllis?"

  He heard nothing except the wind and all it was blowing through.

  "Phyllis!" he shouted.

  No answer.

  Frightened but growing angry, he said, "Where is she? Where's Phyllis?"

  Nothing.

  He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, hoping to clear his vision. Eyes open again, however, his sight didn't improve. Still, he could see only the faint, blowing shape of grayness surrounded by the dark.

  This sucks so bad, he thought.

  Does she think she's being funny?

  Not at all.

  I knew she had a screw loose the minute I saw her running around naked under that sheet... I KNEW it... should've gotten the hell away from her... .

  Probably is no Julie, he thought. This nutjob probably made up

  the story to lure us in.

  "What's going on?" he demanded. Though he trembled inside,

  his voice sounded good and stern. No answer came. "Okay," he sa
id. And strode forward. Am I out of my mind? Jostling in his vision, the gray blur grew larger.

  What if she's armed?

  She didn't seem to be making any move at all.

  He stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders through the sheet. They felt thick, hard, lumpy.

  He jerked the sheet away.

  Something dark, not a person. He ran his hands over it.

  Bark? Splintered wood? What was it, the remains of an old tree that had...?

  Crunching sounds came at him from behind.

  He whirled around and let out a startled cry.

  It was a woman. Probably the woman from under the sheet, but he couldn't be sure. All he saw was a large human shape rushing at him, a gray blur darker than the sheet but clearly a woman, a naked woman with her arms upraised.

  Something in her hands?

  He flung up his own arms to protect his head.

  But not fast enough.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  Walking was hard, lashed back to back, especially because of the difference in their sizes. Nor did it help that they were already in rough shape from the earlier assaults and worn out from so much rolling across the graveyard.

  Forced to return to their starting place, it would've been easier

  to roll than walk.

  When you're rolling on the grass, you don't fall down. When you don't fall down, you don't get smashed against the ground or ripped by the ropes or have to fight your way back to your feet to resume walking.

  For a while, they'd made some progress by sidestepping.

  Then the woman had pushed them, made them fall, and stood over them and taunted them. What a couple of klutzes. Don't you know how to walk? Come on, come on, get up. Don 't just lie there On your feet. We haven't got all night.

  Up again, they continued their journey but didn't get very far before the woman pranced over to Laura. Matching her sidesteps, she shined her flashlight up and down Laura, then reached out with one hand and clipped her right breast.

  "Don't."

  She squeezed.

  "Ow!"

  "Nice."

  Laura kicked. Her toes jabbed the woman's right leg just below the knee.

  "Hey!" The woman hopped away but came back fast, raising her flashlight, swinging it at Laura's face. She missed, but not by much.

 
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