Fiends ssc, p.17
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       Fiends SSC, p.17

           Richard Laymon
 
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  So he decided to follow her. He crept closer to the building fronts, ready to duck out of sight if she should start to turn around, and made his way forward, matching her pace.

  Find out where she lives, he thought. She’s bound to head for home, sooner or later.

  He felt guilty, sneaking after her. Spying on her. It seemed like a betrayal. But he kept at it, knowing that if he quit he might lose her forever.

  ***

  It went well for two blocks.

  Then she stopped at a street corner. Though there seemed to be no traffic, she stood and waited for the light to change. As Allan watched, she began to turn around. He rushed forward, dodged into an entry way and stepped on the ankle of a derelict huddled in the darkness. The filthy old man flinched, moaned. With a gasp, Allan lurched away from him and staggered into the middle of the sidewalk.

  He jerked his head forward, spotted Ligeia at the corner.

  Facing him.

  ‘Ligeia!’ he called. ‘Please!’

  She flung herself around and leapt into the street. Without checking for traffic.

  ‘Look out!' Allan cried.

  The teenager bearing down on her yelped. Ligeia tried to lean out of his way. The teenager swerved, but not in time.

  The bicycle slammed into her, tumbled her to the pavement, twisted away and hit the curb, its abrupt stop hurling the kid against the handlebars.

  Ligeia, sprawled in the street, started to push herself up.

  As Allan ran to help, the kid jumped from his bicycle, let it fall, and hurried toward Ligeia. She was crouched, trying to stand, her back to him. ‘Geez, lady. You okay?’

  She looked over her shoulder at him. Her mask gleamed in the streetlights.

  ‘Yeeeah!’ he gasped, and bolted for his bike.

  Even before he got to it, Ligeia was up and running. The kid started to pick up his bike, but dropped it and scampered out of the way when he saw Allan bearing down on him.

  Allan hurdled the rear wheel.

  Ligeia had already made the other side of the street.

  ‘Wait!’ he called.

  She didn’t look back, didn’t slow down.

  She was fast. Not as fast as Allan, but almost. It took all his speed to gain on her.

  ‘Please! Stop!’

  She had to be hurting. A patch of skin over her right shoulder blade was scraped raw. Her skirt was torn, and drooped away from the scuffed cheek of her buttock. Her pumping arms showed Allan abraded elbows. Her whole body must be afire with pain.

  ‘Why are you doing this?’ he gasped.

  ‘Leave me alone!’ she cried out.

  ‘No! You need me! I need you!’

  ‘You… don’t know me!’

  ‘I know you’re lonely. I know I care about you. We can’t lose each other. Please.’

  ‘You’ll hate me!’

  ‘Bullshit!’

  ‘I’m…’

  ‘I don’t give a flying fuck if you look like Godzilla!’

  Reaching out, he grabbed her left arm. She tried to twist free of his grip. ‘Stop that!’ he snapped. And tugged her to a halt. Turned her roughly toward him.

  Clutching both her upper arms, he pushed her backward and pinned her against the accordion gate of a pharmacy. It rattled as she hit it.

  ‘Settle down.’

  She quit struggling. She gasped for air. Her breath gusted out the front of her mask.

  ‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

  She shook her head.

  ‘You shouldn’t have run.’

  ‘Obviously.’

  The remark made his throat tighten. He drew Ligeia gently against him. And her arms wrapped around him. He pressed his face against the mask, felt her cheek through its slick fabric. They held each other for a long time.

  Then Ligeia whispered, ‘I don’t want to lose you so soon. Before we’ve even…’

  ‘You won’t.’

  ‘You haven’t seen my face.’

  ‘It doesn’t matter.’

  ‘Think so, huh?’ She squeezed Allan hard against her, then eased him away. ‘I… I’ve got to show you.’

  He nodded. He felt as if his heart might crash out through his ribcage. ‘You don’t have to.’

  ‘I do. Better that you see it now, than…’ Ligeia quit without finishing. She raised her hand to the headband across her brow. Hooked it with her fingertips. Peeled it back. The mask slid up her face.

  More than her mask was coming off.

  Her hair, too.

  Oh God!

  Her arm dropped to her side, mask and wig clutched in her fist.

  Allan gaped at her.

  She stared at him. She caught her lower lip between her teeth. After a few moments, she said, ‘At least I’m not Godzilla.’

  She let the mask and wig fall. Reaching up with both hands, she unpinned her hair. She shook her head, ran her fingers through the flowing red tresses. Her green eyes shimmered with tears.

  ‘Maureen?’

  ‘Don’t hate me,’ she said in the voice he knew so well, a voice so different from the breathy tones of Ligeia. ‘Please.’

  ‘How could I hate you? But I don’t… Why? Why the mask? What’s going on?’

  ‘I just got tired of the buddy treatment, Allan.’ A tear fell from the corner of each eye. They made silver trails down her cheeks. ‘Day in, day out. You never… I’m not your buddy. I never wanted to be your buddy. So maybe it made me a little crazy and…’

  ‘A lot crazy. Something might’ve happened to you, wandering around at night like this.’

  She sniffed and rubbed away the tears. ‘I just wanted you to notice me.’

  ‘God, Maureen.’

  ‘I wanted to show you that I’m a woman.’

  His throat tightened. ‘I always knew you were a woman. But it never entered my mind that you might want to… get involved with me. You never said anything. You never gave me any reason to suspect it.’

  ‘I know. I know. I wanted to. I just couldn’t. But then… I guess it was seeing Phantom of the Opera a few weeks ago that gave me the idea. I thought, what if he doesn’t realize it’s me? What if I’m a stranger he meets in the night? A mysterious, seductive masked woman. The way you’re into spooky stuff, I figured it might work.’

  ‘It sure worked, all right.’

  ‘Too well, I guess. Back in the alley, I just couldn’t… let it go any further. It wouldn’t have been right. It wasn’t me you wanted. It was Ligeia. Not plain old ordinary me.’

  ‘She was… the most exciting woman I ever… She was fantastic.’

  ‘I guess you must be awfully disappointed.’

  ‘I don’t know. I suppose so. It was the mystery, you know? It was the unknown and being afraid of who she was, what she might look like under the mask. Now that it’s you…’

  ‘It was always me.’

  ‘Yeah, but…’

  ‘It was. It is. I am Ligeia.’ Crouching, she picked up the mask and wig. She put them on and took hold of Allan’s hand.

  ‘I don’t think that’ll work.’

  ‘Won’t it?’ she asked, her voice low and breathy.

  ‘I know it’s you.’

  ‘Do you?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘You know nothing.’

  Allan felt a chill crawl up his spine.

  She led him along the sidewalk. ‘Maureen is a spineless, pitiful creature of the light. I despise her.’

  ‘Hey, come on. You don’t have to do this.’

  ‘I belong to the night.’

  ‘Cut it out, okay? I’m glad you’re Maureen.’

  ‘I’m not Maureen. Call me again by that vile name at your peril.’

  ‘Oh, for godsake.’

  She pulled him into the darkness of an alley. She pushed him against a brick wall.

  ‘This is ridiculous,’ he muttered, his voice trembling. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

  She lifted his hands to her breasts. He felt them, warm and firm through the slick fabr
ic. She rubbed his palms against her stiff nipples.

  ‘You’re making me nervous. I wish you’d stop this. We’re gonna have to look each other in the face, Monday morning.’

  ‘You won’t be looking me in the face. I’m Ligeia.’

  ‘Come on, we both know you’re not.’

  She released his wrists. ‘Lift my mask,’ she whispered.

  His heart kicked. ‘What for?’

  ‘You’ll see.’

  ‘I don’t need to see. I know who you are.’

  ‘Then why are you afraid to lift the mask?’

  ‘You already took it off.’

  ‘That was in the light. I am a woman of the darkness.’

  He tried to laugh. ‘You’re pretty good at this. But I think we oughta get going.’

  ‘I showed you Maureen. I didn’t allow you to see Ligeia. The true face of Ligeia shuns the light. But you may look upon it now, if you have the courage.’

  ‘I’m not afraid.’

  ‘Then lift the mask.’

  He stared at the fabric draping her face, tried to see her eyes and mouth behind the black slots. ‘I know it’s you,’ he murmured. But he thought, What if it’s not?

  Ridiculous. Crazy.

  But he couldn’t force himself to lift the mask.

  ‘Who am I?’ she asked, her breath stirring the cloth.

  ‘Ligeia.’

  ‘Yessss.’ She pulled him forward against her.

  They embraced, they kissed, they squirmed breathless as they caressed and explored each other. She winced once when Allan touched the scrape behind her shoulder. He whispered, ‘I’m sorry’ into the warm pit of her mouth. Then he was on his back on the alley pavement. Maureen straddling him, bare to the waist. As he squeezed her breasts, she sank down and impaled herself.

  Afterward, she lay on top of him and kissed him through the mouth slot of her mask.

  He sighed. He’d known Maureen for three years. Three years wasted, he thought. So much missed.

  ‘I must leave you now,’ she whispered.

  ‘No. I’ll walk you home. Or we could go to my apartment.’

  ‘Not tonight, my darling.’ She pushed herself up, and Allan sighed with a feeling of loss as he slid out of her. Standing, she raised the top of her dress and arranged the shoulder straps. ‘Farewell.’ She turned away.

  ‘Hey! Don’t leave!’

  She ran from the alley.

  Allan knocked on the door of Maureen’s classroom ten minutes before the start of first period Monday morning.

  ‘Come in.’

  He entered. She pushed back her chair and stood up, smiling. She wore a sleeveless, yellow sundress. She looked radiant. The sight of her made Allan’s heart race. How could he have known her so long and never realized how beautiful she was?

  Her bright green eyes watched him as he approached her desk. ‘Good morning, Ligeia,’ he said.

  ‘Huh? Ligeia?’

  He grinned. ‘Still up to your tricks.’

  She frowned with confusion. ‘What?’

  ‘Saturday night was great. The greatest.’

  ‘Oh? You got together with your mystery woman?’

  ‘Sure did.’

  ‘Must’ve gone pretty well.’

  ‘You oughta know.’

  Her frown deepened. ‘How would I know?’

  ‘How about having dinner with me tonight?’

  The frown vanished. A corner of her mouth curled up. ‘Are you kidding?’

  ‘Not a chance.’

  ‘What about this other gal of yours? Ligeia? You just met her, and now you want me to go out with you?’

  ‘She won’t mind.’

  ‘She must be very understanding.’

  ‘What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I don’t think we’ll be seeing each other again. Not till next Saturday night, anyway.’

  ‘You some kind of a two-timer?’

  ‘Yep.’

  The door opened. A couple of students came in.

  ‘Look,’ Maureen said, ‘we can talk about this later. I’ve gotta get the spelling list onto the board.’

  ‘Fine.’

  He turned away, nodded a greeting to the kids, and paused at the door.

  He looked back.

  Maureen, facing the chalkboard behind her desk, wrote ‘fantasy’ with her right hand. Her left arm hung at her side.

  Allan stared at her elbow.

  She looked back at him. She raised her eyebrows. ‘Is something wrong?’

  ‘Your elbow,’ he murmured.

  She smiled. ‘Just had a little mishap over the weekend.’ She rubbed the dark crust of scab, then turned again to the chalkboard.

  EATS

  I’m a trained investigator, so I knew right away that the dame who walked into my office had class. How did I know? She had blue hair on her head and a poodle tucked under one arm. I took my feet off my desk.

  ‘My name is Mabel Wingate,’ she said.

  ‘Want me to stand up and cheer?’ I asked through my mouthful of sandwich.

  She tittered. ‘Isn’t he delightful!’ She put the question to the pooch, chucking it under the chin. ‘Do you think he might be good enough to share his sandwich?’

  It was salami and Swiss on an onion roll with lettuce and onions and plenty of mayo. I’d just bought it at Lou’s Deli down the block. I’d taken only one bite. I didn’t want to part with it.

  ‘This is my lunch, lady,’ I said.

  ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ she asked.

  ‘Are you planning to hire me?’

  ‘We shall see.’

  I’m not an idiot. If I didn’t fork over some of my sandwich to Snuggles or Snookums or whatever its name was, the old gal would find herself a different gumshoe. (I needed the work. Things had been slow lately, ever since I got on TV for plugging one of my clients. What can I say? Mistakes happen.)

  ‘You don’t watch much television, huh?’ I asked.

  ‘Please,’ she said. ‘The sandwich.’

  ‘Oh, sure.’ I set it down on my desk. She reached for it. ‘Ah ah!’ I snapped. ‘Not the whole thing.’

  ‘No, of course not. Excuse me.’

  She waited, hovering over my desk and watching while I scooted back, slid up my trouser leg, and pulled the shiv out of my boot. I pressed its button. The blade flew and snapped into place.

  ‘Dear me,’ Mabel said. She was impressed. Her mouth looked like a doughnut.

  ‘My toadsticker,’ I told her.

  ‘I do hope you’ve washed it.’

  I’ve seen what dogs eat. Washed or not, pooch wouldn’t care. I pinned the sandwich to my desk top and tried to keep its insides from slopping out as I cut. It made a real mess. ‘There you go,’ I said.

  Mabel snatched up the biteless half. ‘You’re a dear,’ she told me. She smiled at the dog. ‘Isn’t he a dear, Muffin?’

  Muffin licked its chops.

  But Mabel was the one who ate the sandwich.

  She wolfed it down, then eyed the remains of my half. I stuffed the last of it into my mouth before she could make a grab for it.

  ‘That certainly was tasty,’ she said. ‘I haven’t eaten properly in ages.’

  I had already noticed she was skinny, but I hadn’t given it much thought. After all, it’s chic to look like a cadaver.

  ‘Have a seat,’ I told her.

  She sat down. Muffin licked some mayo off her chin.

  ‘Someone,’ she said, ‘wants to poison me.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘It’s frightful. I hardly dare touch a bite. I’m withering away to nothing. You must help me.’

  ‘I charge three hundred beans a day,’ I said.

  ‘Three hundred what?’

  ‘Dollars.’ It was double my usual rate, but I figured she could handle it. She wore diamond earrings, a pearl necklace, and eight rings. I knew that none of the jewelry was fake because of her blue hair and poodle.

  ‘That sounds a trifle steep,’ she said.

&nb
sp; ‘You get what you pay for,’ I explained. ‘I’m the best.’

  She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling as if she doubted my word.

  ‘You don’t want to pinch pennies,’ I said, ‘when your life’s on the line.’

  ‘I suppose you’re right.’

  ‘Of course I’m right.’

  She set Muffin on the floor. It skittered under the desk and started chewing on one of my boots. I used my other boot to fend it off while Mabel took a checkbook out of her purse. Usually, I insist on cash. A lot of my clients (back when I had clients) were deadbeats. But I figured I could trust Mabel.

  She made out the check to Duke Scanlon, Private Investigator. Then she filled in the amount. I licked my lips and stopped kicking Muffin. She signed the check and slid it across the desk. It got mayo on it. ‘Will that be enough,’ she asked, ‘to retain your services for a week?’

  ‘Consider me retained. For starters, what makes you think someone wants to poison you?’

  ‘I don’t think someone wants to poison me, I know.’

  ‘Has there been an attempt on your life?’ I asked.

  She rolled her eyes again. She was good at it. ‘My dear young man - may I call you Duke?’

  ‘Duke it is, Mabel.’

  ‘Duke, now see here, had I been poisoned already I would hardly need your services. I would be pushing up daisies like my dear husband, Oscar.’

  ‘What happened to Oscar?’ I asked.

  ‘Why, he died, of course. That’s what happens when one is poisoned.’

  ‘Ah-ha,’ I said.

  ‘Ah-ha, indeed. It was dreadful. He barely had a chance to swallow. One moment he was complaining that the hollandaise had curdled, and the next moment he was in it.’

  ‘Eggs Benedict?’ I asked.

  ‘Precisely.’

  ‘When did this happen?’

  ‘April fifteenth,’ Mabel said. ‘That’s over a month ago, and I haven’t eaten properly since then. Whoever murdered Oscar, you see, intends to do the same to me.’

  Muffin tried to climb my leg. Smiling at Mabel, who couldn’t see what was going on, I bent over and patted the little cutie on the head and gave its ear a twist. It bit my wrist, then scampered away and hopped onto Mabel’s lap looking pleased with itself.

  ‘What did the police find?’ I asked.

  ‘The police? Ha! I told them and told them that Oscar had been poisoned, but would they listen? No. As far as they were concerned, poor Oscar simply dropped dead from a bum heart.’

 
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