Once upon a halloween, p.12
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       Once Upon a Halloween, p.12

           Richard Laymon
 
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  Bret grabbed his treat bag and sprang up grinning.

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  The lashes seemed to be over. Finally. Shannon had lost track of the count, but she thought there'd been more than the twenty.

  Done flinching and thrashing, Laura seemed limp. She didn't move much except for the gasping and sobbing.

  "Now get up," Fain said.

  Shannon, herself weeping quietly, didn't move fast enough.

  "A lash for pokiness," Fain announced.

  Shannon heard the familiar krak! Laura jerked rigid and cried out.

  "Stop it!" Shannon yelled. She kneed the ground, twisted her body and rolled onto her side, taking Laura with her. Then she brought her legs toward her chest, bucked, lurched, tried to fling herself off the ground and sit up. Couldn't.

  She'd managed to sit up before. Then, however, Laura'd been helping.

  "You've gotta try," Shannon told her.

  Laura kept crying.

  "Come on."

  "Incoming!" a man called out.

  Fain reached down, grabbed the rope binding Shannon's upper arm to Laura's, and gives it a powerful pull. Shannon went with it, fighting Laura's weight. For a moment, ropes tore her in opposite directions. Then she was sitting up, cool grass under her buttocks.

  Fain stepped back. "Now stand up."

  Nodding, Shannon took a deep breath. She wasn't ready for the struggle to gain her feet, but...

  Fain turned away to look at something.

  Shannon glanced toward the others. They all seemed to be staring in the same direction as Fain.

  Shannon looked, too.

  Someone was coming.

  Incoming.

  One of theirs, she supposed. But maybe they weren't completely sure. With the darkness and the distance, the person striding their way was hardly more than a pale shape.

  A pale, strange shape.

  Carrying something over its shoulder?

  Coming closer, closer. Vanishing in darkness, reappearing in moonlight, changing course to avoid trees and tombstones.

  The shape became a woman.

  A woman carrying someone over her shoulder.

  For a confused moment, Shannon thought this might be a mother bringing her dead child into the cemetery for a secret, nighttime burial. It shocked her, saddened her.

  Then she realized the burden was larger than she'd first thought. Not a small child, at all. Maybe a teenager... a brunette wearing what appeared to be a black dress.

  The woman seemed to be naked.

  One of them, and she's got a kid. A prisoner to join the others.

  Fain glanced back at Shannon. "Stay," she said, then walked over to her group.

  Nobody seemed to be speaking. While the seven captured kids remained on their knees, Fain and the robed adults walked closer to the woman.

  In their midst, the woman bent forward and unloaded her burden, The kid flopped off her shoulder, fell, and landed back-first on the ground.

  Shannon winced.

  "What?" Laura whispered.

  "They've got another kid."

  The kid lay sprawled on the ground, not moving.

  Something familiar about the woman looming over her. There wasn't enough light to make out the features of her face, but Shannon was certain she'd seen her before: blond hair, wide shoulders, large breasts, slender waist, strong-looking arms and legs...

  Her!

  One of the three who'd attacked them in the living room.

  I didn't just see her before, I fought with her.

  Shannon remembered being thrown to the floor by her, wrestling with her and Bryce while Simone held Laura at bay with a hatchet. This had been the one with the rope. But she hadn't tied them with it; she'd gone upstairs after Hunter.

  Just before taking them away, Bryce had called upstairs to her, Called her by name. Lenore? No, that wasn't quite it. Eleanor. She'd told them to go on without her, and Bryce and Simone had smiled about it. Smiles nasty with the knowledge of what Eleanor intended to do with Hunter.

  Probably along the same lines of what they did to us in the woods Shannon thought.

  But this isn't Hunter.

  Did she kill him?

  "What's... happening?" Laura asked. She didn't seem to be crying anymore, but Shannon heard pain in the low huskiness of her voice.

  "One of our pals is here," Shannon whispered, "The big blonde."

  "With the sword?"

  "Yeah. But no sword now."

  "How's Hunter?"

  "Don't know. He's not here. She has some girl with her."

  "Connie?"

  "Who?"

  "Hunter's... girlfriend."

  "I don't think so. She looks too young."

  One of the robed figures bent over the girl and grabbed her by the wrists. As he dragged her to the line of kneeling kids, Fain and Eleanor turned away from the other two members of their group. They walked side by side toward Shannon and Laura.

  "Here comes trouble," Shannon muttered.

  Laura moaned.

  Fain had a flashlight in one hand, her belt in the other. She led Eleanor in a circle around Shannon and Laura, shining the light on them.

  "These are the two from the house," Eleanor said.

  "But you didn't bring them here?"

  She shook her head. "Bryce and Simone. I stayed behind to take care of the kid."

  "So these two belong to Bryce and Simone?"

  "Right."

  Fain bent down and picked up her robe. Putting it on, she said, "They almost got away. I found them way over there."

  "Would've been too bad for the dynamic duo."

  Fain chuckled. She bent over, pulled the sheathed dagger out of her boot, and slipped it onto her belt.

  "Where are they, anyhow?" Eleanor asked.

  "No idea. Looks like they just came back to dump their catch, then took off again."

  "Looks like they did more than dump 'em off."

  "They like their fun."

  "Don't we all."

  "Have you seen them around?"

  Eleanor shook her head. "They probably went into the streets to look for some younger stuff."

  "Don't blame them. These two're getting up there."

  Up there? I'm twenty-six!

  "My kid's a little older than I'd like," Eleanor said, "but she sorta fell into my hands. I want to go back, myself. She was with some other kids. Three of 'em. They'd be good. Girls maybe seventeen and thirteen, and a little boy around seven or eight. We get them, we'll be all set no matter what the others bring in."

  "Want some help?"

  "Long as I get the boy."

  "No problem," Fain said. "I've already got a six-year-old for myself."

  Still talking, they began to walk away.

  Shannon caught bits and pieces of their conversation,

  "... always use more..."

  "... younger..."

  "... no telling how many..."

  "... or none at all..."

  "... to have extras..."

  "... weed out the older stuff..."

  Though Shannon was tempted to call out and ask what had happened to Hunter, she remained silent rather than draw unnecessary attention to herself and Laura.

  Besides, maybe it was better not to know.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

  When Rhonda pushed the doorbell, Mandy heard it ringing inside the house.

  "They gotta come to the door," Bret said.

  "They don't gotta" Mandy told him. "They didn't last time."

  "That's 'cause they didn't know it was me." He set down his bag of candy, cupped his hands to the sides of his mouth and shouted, "LAURA! SHANNON! IT'S ME, BRET WILSON! YOU HOME? OPEN UP, OKAY?"

  "Don't say that," Mandy warned him.

  Bret shrugged.

  No sounds came from inside the house. The door stayed shut.

  Rhonda called out, "HELLO? I'M RHONDA GALE! I'M WITH BRET AND MANDY. WE'RE LOOKING FOR SO ME MISSING KIDS!"

  The moment Rhonda's voic
e stopped, Mandy heard the metallic snik-snak of a deadbolt snapping back. Through the screen, she saw the wooden door swing open. A boy stood in the doorway holding a towel in one hand. He looked old enough to be a high schooler. He didn't have a shirt on, but he was wearing a paisley scarf around his head and a shiny green lash around the waist of his jeans, so Mandy figured maybe he was supposed to be a pirate. He even had a wound on his chest, but it wasn't bleeding. A beat-up pirate at the end of a hard battle.

  "Rhonda?" he asked.

  "Hi," she said.

  "I'm Hunter Gordon."

  "I've seen you around school," she said.

  "You have?" He seemed surprised.

  "A junior, right?"

  "Yeah." He pushed open the screen door and stepped out onto the porch.

  "These are my friends, Bret and Mandy."

  "Hi," Hunter said. He nodded at Bret, then looked at Mandy and smiled. "Nice to meet you. Both of you."

  Suddenly feeling strange, Mandy said, "Same here."

  "We came to see Laura and Shannon," Bret said.

  "They aren't here right now."

  "What'd you do to them?"

  "Bret, stop it." Blushing, she looked into Hunter's eyes. "I'm sorry. Bret can be..."

  "But he must've..."

  "I didn't do anything to them," Hunter said. "They got abducted."

  Bret's mouth fell open. "By aliens?"

  Hunter shook his head. "Humans." To Rhonda, he said, "They went after Connie Harris, too."

  "I know her. She tried out for cheerleaders."

  "Well, they chased me and her. Earlier. I got away, but I think they might've caught Connie. And I know they grabbed Shannon and Laura. You said some kids are missing?"

  "My brother and two of his friends."

  "Gary, Rosie and Doug," Bret tossed in.

  "They might've gotten taken, too."

  "What do you mean?" Rhonda asked.

  "I don't really know what it's all about, but there's this weird cult over in the graveyard. I think they're grabbing people for some sort of special midnight ceremony. A sacrifice. They're planning to sacrifice everyone they can find."

  Rhonda's mouth hung open. "You mean like kill them?"

  "I think so."

  "Tonight?" Mandy asked.

  Nodding, Hunter looked at her. It gave her a funny feeling, and she liked it.

  Rhonda said, "What for?"

  "I don't know. But they're really interested in young people, This gal said maybe I could get Connie and Shannon and Laura back by trading little kids for them."

  "They want to sacrifice children?" Rhonda seemed appalled.

  "Yeah, that's the idea."

  "Do you know where?" Mandy asked.

  His eyes turned to her again. "The graveyard." His eyes strayed to Rhonda.

  Of course, Mandy thought. Why would he look at me when he can be looking at Rhonda? She's only like the most popular girl at Beaumont High and I'm nothing but an eighth-grader. Not to mention she's beautiful and stacked and here I stand holding, this dumb bag of Halloween candy like some kind of kid.

  Mandy suddenly felt guilty for having such thoughts at a time when her dad and Phyllis and a lot of other people were missing and someone might even end up dead.

  Anyway, she thought, Hunter's too old for me. He's got to be at least three years older, so even if we wanted to see each other, Mom and Dad wouldn't allow it in a million years.

  Did Dad get abducted, too?

  That wouldn't make a lot of sense, not if they're after kids. With her mind wandering, she'd missed most of Hunter's explanation about where the ceremony would be taking place.

  But if I tell him, she thought, he'll know I wasn't paying attention. He might think I'm an idiot.

  "To the rescue!" Bret blurted.

  Rhonda glanced at him. "Not so fast. I'm in charge here. I'm supposed to take care of you, and your father said we shouldn't go anywhere."

  "But we can't let 'em kill everybody!"

  "We have plenty of time," Rhonda said. She slid a sleeve of her sweater up her forearm and checked her wristwatch. A nice forearm - lightly tanned, free of blemishes - a little too furry in Mandy's opinion-but Hunter looked as if he might want to lick it. "Not even nine yet."

  "They might start early," Bret warned.

  "I doubt it," Hunter told him. "If it's supposed to be at midnight, that's probably when they'll do it."

  "Maybe or maybe not."

  Before Hunter had a chance to respond, Mandy stepped in. "Rituals have to be done a certain way." Hunter was watching her, nodding in agreement. "Step by step. Or they don't work. That's why they call them rituals."

  "So?" Bret asked.

  "So they won't start early."

  "But they might."

  "Anyway," Hunter said, "I don't want to wait any longer. I was just about to leave. Nobody..."

  From inside the house, someone called, "You were just about to get me out of here!"

  Hunter turned his head and called back, "Just a second." To Rhonda, he said, "That's Charles."

  "Get me outa here!"

  "Why can't he come out himself?" Rhonda asked.

  "He's a little wrecked up."

  "I've got a broken leg!"

  "I'd better bring him out," Hunter said. "I'll be right back. Can you wait here?"

  Rhonda nodded.

  Hunter opened the screen door and stepped into the house.

  As the door began to swing shut, Bret lurched forward, grabbed it and threw it wide. He rushed in, yelling, "LAURA? SHANNON?"

  "Get back here!" Mandy demanded. She swept his treat bag aside with her foot, dropped her own bag near his, leaped over the threshold and reached out for him.

  Behind her, Rhonda gasped, "Hey! You shouldn't..."

  In the foyer, Bret skidded to a stop. Mandy almost collided with him, but veered aside just in time.

  Hunter whirled around and spread his arms. A pained look on his face, he shook his head and muttered, "No, you weren't supposed to..."

  "Welcome to the funhouse." The grown-up man who said it was sitting on the floor of the entryway, back against a wall, legs out in front of him. Like Hunter, he was bloody and looked as if he'd just finished a battle. Though he wore a shirt, it was torn open. One of his legs was crooked.

  The other man, curled on the floor near the foot of the stairs, wore a gray robe like a monk in a horror movie and he was bloody all over and Mandy knew right away that he was dead. She didn't know how she knew, but she knew.

  But maybe it really is a funhouse and its all a fake to scare trick or treaters...

  Behind her, Rhonda let out a yell. Not a scream like in the movies, but a loud, quick, "YAHHH!"

  "He's one of the bad guys!" Hunter blurted.

  "Another in the living room," said Charles, seeming pleased with himself.

  Mandy turned, sidestepped past Rhonda, and looked into the living room. A woman was sprawled on her back. She wore a gray robe like the man in the foyer, but it was wide open and she seemed to have nothing else on except a leather belt and a pair of sneakers.

  Mandy walked toward her.

  "She's one of them, too," Hunter called. "One of the kidnappers."

  Her long, dark hair was fanned out around her head. Her eyes were wide open, but had an odd, flat look. Her gray face was colored here and there by small swipes of blood.

  All over her front, her bare skin was smeared with blood. Mandy saw no wounds, just blood. Crimson smudges. Streaks made by fingers. Imprints made by hands. On her throat, her breasts, her belly and groin and thighs.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

  From where he stood in the foyer, Hunter heard Mandy gagging Bret and Rhonda turned their heads toward the living room, but didn't go to investigate.

  "You all right?" Hunter called.

  She answered by gagging some more.

  "You shouldn't look at that," he called.

  "Too late," said Charles.

  "If you hadn't told her..."

&nbs
p; "You should've gotten me out of this house when I told you to."

  To Rhonda and Bret, Hunter said, "You weren't supposed to come in and see all this."

  They both stood there, dull-eyed, jaws drooping, looking stunned and disoriented.

  "I know it looks awful," he said. "I had to do it, though. See that knife there?" Hunter pointed at it. "That guy came after me with it. He would've killed me. And the other one, that's her hatchet." He pointed toward the hatchet embedded in the wall. "She was gonna kill Charles. Then she threw it at me. I had to... do this."

  Rhonda looked at him. She took a deep breath, blinked and muttered, "It's so... horrible."

  "I know," Hunter said. "I know it is. I wish it hadn't happened. But these are the two who kidnapped Shannon and Laura."

  Bret seemed to come alive. "They are?"

  "Yeah. There were three of them. One chased me upstairs and these two... they took Shannon and Laura away. They must've... I don't know, delivered them to where the ceremony's supposed to be... then come back. Maybe to look for Eleanor... I don't know."

  Mandy walked slowly out of the living room, rubbing her chin with the back of a hand. She looked pale, shaky. The front of her poodle skirt was stained by some bloody fingerprints.

  "Are you okay?" Hunter asked.

  "She's so... bloody." Mandy raised her own bloody hands. "I slipped and..." She shook her head.

  "I'm sorry."

  "What happened to her?"

  "She... she wouldn't stay down. I got her with my sword, but... she got up again and fought me. I finally... I had to strangle her." He lifted his hands, looked at them. "It was awful."

  He saw Mandy staring at his hands, too.

  "I washed up," he explained. "I had her blood all... all over me."

  Bret tugged on the sleeve of Rhonda's golden cheerleader sweater. "We'd better go to the rescue now."

  She still seemed to be in a daze.

  "Rhonda!" Bret tugged again, harder this time, jerking the sweater again and again, stretching its neck hole down over Rhonda's shoulder.

  Hunter saw her bare shoulder, the white strap of her bra.

  "Stop pulling on her," Mandy said.

  He let go. Turning to Mandy, he asked, "We've gotta go to the graveyard."

  "I don't know," she said. "Dad wanted us to..." Her voice trailed off. Looking Hunter in the eyes, she said, "Maybe we should call the police."

 
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