Fiends ssc, p.19
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       Fiends SSC, p.19

           Richard Laymon
 
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  ‘Same here. Especially laundry. It gets kind of spooky here.’ Her head turned. She wanted to stop it, couldn’t, kept turning until she saw the parked car and the grim face behind its windshield. She quickly looked back at Bradley.

  ‘If you get spooked, why do you come here so late?’ he asked. ‘No waiting for machines.' Then she added, ‘Famous last words.’ Bradley frowned. ‘What is it?’ He glanced toward the front, then scowled at her. ‘What’s the matter?’

  Kim felt her mouth stretch into a grimace. She shook her head. ‘Nothing.’

  ‘Is it that guy out there?’

  ‘No, it’s… He’s been watching me. Ever since I got here. He just sits there, staring at me.’

  ‘Oh yeah?’ Bradley glared in the man’s direction.

  ‘Don’t! Jesus! Just pretend he’s not there.’

  ‘Maybe I ought to go out and…’

  ‘No!’

  He turned to Kim. ‘You don’t know who the guy is?’

  ‘I’ve never seen him before.’

  ‘No wonder you’re worried.’

  ‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ she said, beginning to tremble again. ‘He probably just likes to look at women.’

  ‘I like to look at women. That doesn’t mean I hang around laundromats like a goddamn pervert.’

  ‘He’s probably harmless.’

  ‘Doesn’t look harmless to me. Who’s to say he isn’t some kind of freak like the Mount Bolton Butcher?’

  ‘Hey, come on…’

  Bradley’s face went pale. His eyes widened. They roamed down Kim, and returned to her face. ‘Christ,’ he muttered. ‘I hate to tell you this, but…’ He hesitated.

  The change in him frightened Kim. 'What?’

  ‘You… you’re a dead match for his victim profile.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘The Mount Bolton Butcher. He’s had eight victims, and they all… they were all eighteen to twenty-five years old, maybe not as pretty as you, but almost. And slim, and they all had long blonde hair parted in the middle just like yours. You look so much like the others that you could all be sisters.’

  ‘Oh shit,’ Kim muttered.

  ‘I was going with a girl who kind of fit the profile. Not as much as you do, but it had me worried. I was afraid, you know, she might end up raped and dismembered like… Is there a back way out of here?’

  ‘Hey, come on. You're really…’

  ‘I’m not kidding.’

  ‘I know, but… It probably isn’t him, right? I mean, he hasn’t…’

  ‘He hasn’t nailed anyone in two months, and the cops think he might’ve left the area, or died, or been jailed for something else. But they don’t know. They’re just trying to calm people down, saying stuff like that. Have you ever been up around Mount Bolton?’

  Kim shook her head. It felt a little numb inside.

  ‘I tell you, it’s one big mean wilderness. A guy could hide out for years if he knew what he was doing. So maybe he laid low for a while, and maybe now the urge has gotten the best of him, and… Not much of anyone goes camping up there anymore. If he wanted a new victim, he might have to come down into town for one.’

  ‘This is really starting to give me the creeps.’

  ‘Just sit there a minute. I’ll check the back.’

  Bradley walked up the aisle between the rows of silent washers and drivers. He stepped past the coin-operated vending machines where patrons could purchase drinks, snacks, detergent or bleach. He tapped out a rhythm as he walked by a long, wooden table where people earlier had separated and folded their laundry. Then he disappeared into a recessed area at the rear of the room. He was out of sight for just a second.

  When he stepped into the open again, he met Kim’s eyes and shook his head.

  Not once did he glance toward the man in the car as he came back to her. ‘Nothing but a utility room,’ he said. ‘The only way out is the front.’

  Kim nodded and tried to smile. She felt a corner of her mouth twitch.

  ‘You think your stuff is about ready?’

  ‘Close enough.’ She hopped off the washer. Bradley picked up his laundry bag and stayed at her side as she headed for the pair of driers near the front.

  ‘Your car’s in the lot?’ he asked.

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘I’ll get in with you. If he thinks we’re really together, maybe he won’t try anything.’

  ‘Okay,’ Kim said. Both driers were still running. She could see them vibrating, hear their motors and the thumps of the tennis shoes she’d tossed into the nearer of the two.

  She swung her laundry basket off the top of that machine, set it at her feet, crouched and opened the front panel. The motor went silent. Reaching inside, she lifted out a handful of warm clothes. They still felt a little damp, but she didn’t care.

  ‘If he follows us when we leave,’ Bradley said, ‘maybe we can lose him. But at least you won’t be alone. As long as I’m with you, he’ll think twice before he tries anything.’

  She dropped more clothes into the basket, and looked up at Bradley. ‘I really appreciate this.’

  ‘I’m just glad that I’m here to help.’

  ‘Do you really think he might be the Butcher?’

  ‘I hope we don’t find out.’

  What if you’re the Butcher?

  The thought came suddenly, and seemed to turn her stomach cold inside.

  No. That’s ridiculous.

  Looking away from him, she continued to unload the machine.

  What’s so ridiculous about it? Bradley seems to know a lot about the Butcher. And he wants me to take him in my car. Once we’re alone…

  For all I know, he’s been lying from the start.

  Maybe he’s with the other guy. They might be working together.

  Don’t let him in the car, she told herself. Walk out with him, but…

  ‘Oh shit,’ Bradley muttered.

  Her head snapped toward him. He was standing rigid, eyes wide as he gazed toward the front.

  Kim sprang up and whirled around.

  The stranger filled the doorway. Then he was inside, striding toward them.

  He wore a dark stocking cap. His face was streaked with black makeup. His black T-shirt looked swollen with mounds and slabs of muscle. The sling of a rifle crossed his chest. So did the straps of a harness that held a sheathed knife, handle down, against the left side of his rib cage. Circling his waist was a web belt loaded down with canvas cases, a canteen and a holster. He wore baggy camouflage pants. Their cuffs were tucked into high-topped boots.

  Bradley, fists up, stepped in front of Kim. His voice boomed out, ‘Stop right there, mister.’

  A blow to the midsection dropped Bradley to his knees. A knee to the forehead hurled him backward. He hit the floor sliding and lay limp at Kim’s feet.

  She whirled away and tried to run. A hand snagged the shoulder of her T-shirt. The fabric tugged at her, stretched and ripped as she was twisted sideways. Her feet tangled. She crashed against the floor.

  The man grabbed her ankles, tugged her flat. His weight came down on her back. An arm darted across her throat and squeezed.

  Kim woke up in total darkness. She lay curled on her side. Her head ached. At first, she thought she was home in bed. But this didn’t feel like a bed. She felt a blanket under her. The surface beneath the blanket was hard. It vibrated. Sometimes, it pounded against her.

  She remembered the man.

  Then, she knew where she was.

  To confirm her fears, she tried to straighten her legs. Something stopped her feet. She reached out. Her fingers met hard, grooved rubber.

  The spare tire.

  The car stopped. Kim had no idea how long she had been trapped inside its trunk. Probably for an hour. That’s about how long it should take, she knew, to drive from town to the wilderness surrounding Mount Bolton.

  Ever since regaining consciousness and realizing she was in the trunk of the man’s car, she had known whe
re he was taking her. After a period of gasping panic, after prayers for God to save her, a numbness had settled into Kim. She knew she was going to die, and there was nothing she could do about it. She told herself that everyone dies. And this way, she would be spared such agonies as facing her parents’ deaths, the deaths of other loved ones and friends, her own old age and maybe a lingering demise in the grip of cancer or some other horrible disease. Has its advantages.

  God, I’m going to die!

  And she knew what the Butcher did to his victims: how he raped them, sodomized them, tortured them with knives and sticks and fire.

  The panic came back. She was whimpering and trembling again by the time the car stopped.

  She heard the engine quit. A door thudded shut. Seconds later, a muffled jangle of keys came from behind her. She heard the quiet clicks of a key sliding into the trunk lock. The clack of a latch. Then, the trunk lid swung up, squeaking on its hinges.

  A hand pushed under her armpit. Another thrust between her legs and grabbed her thigh. She was lifted out of the trunk, swung clear of the car, and thrown to the ground. The forest floor was damp, springy with fallen pine needles. Sticks and cones dug against her as she rolled onto her back. She stared up at the dark shape of the man. He was a blur through her tears.

  ‘Get up,’ he said.

  Kim struggled to her feet. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. She lifted the front of her torn T-shirt, covering her right breast and holding the fabric to her shoulder.

  ‘What’s your name?’ the man asked.

  Kim straightened her back. ‘Fuck you,’ she said.

  A corner of his mouth curled up. ‘Look around.’

  She turned slowly and found that she stood in a clearing surrounded by heavy timber. There was no sign of a road, though she suspected they couldn’t be far from one. The car couldn’t have traveled any great distance through the underbrush and trees. She faced the Butcher. ‘Yeah?’

  ‘Do you know where you are?’

  ‘Got a pretty good guess.’

  ‘You’re a tough little thing, aren’t you?’

  ‘What’ve I got to lose?’

  ‘Not a thing, bitch. Look to your right. There’s a trail sign.’

  She looked. She spotted a small wooden sign on a post at the edge of the clearing.

  ‘Stick to the trail,’ he said. ‘You’ll make better time.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘You’ve got a five-minute headstart.’ He raised an arm close to his face. With the other hand, he pushed a button to light the numbers on his wrist watch. ‘Go.’

  ‘What is this?’

  ‘The hunt. And your time is running.’

  Kim swung around and dashed away from the man. She didn’t head toward the trail sign. Instead, she ran for the end of the clearing. This was the way the car had come. She might reach a road.

  He’s not going to let me get away, she thought. This is just part of it. A goddamn game. I’m not going to get out of here alive. That’s what he thinks.

  I haven’t got a chance.

  Oh yes I do, oh yes I do.

  She dodged a bush, raced through the gap between two trees, and shortened her strides when she met a downslope.

  Car couldn’t have come this way, she realized. The bastard must’ve turned it around before he stopped. Knew I’d try this.

  I’m running away from the road.

  She wondered how much time had passed. Her five minutes couldn’t be up yet.

  He won’t give me five, she thought. He’s probably already after me.

  But she couldn’t hear anything back there. She heard only her huffing breath, her heartbeat, her shoes crunching pine needles and mashing cones and snapping twigs.

  I’m making too much noise.

  Then a foot slipped out from under her. She saw her leg fly up. Saw the treetops. Slammed the ground and slid on her back, forest debris raking her shirt up, scraping her skin. When the skid stopped, she lay sprawled and didn’t move except to suck air into her lungs.

  I can’t run from him, Kim told herself. He’ll catch me easy. Gotta sneak. Gotta hide.

  Sitting up, she peered down the slope. It wasn’t heavily wooded. The dense trees were off to the sides. She stood. She glanced toward the top. No sign of him yet. But time had to be running out.

  In a low crouch, she traversed the slope. Soon, she left the moonlight behind. The dark of the forest felt wonderful - a sheltering blanket of night. She walked slowly, trying not to make a sound as she stepped around the trunks of spruce and fir trees, ducked under drooping branches.

  The place smelled like Christmas.

  Play it right, she told herself, and maybe you’ll see another Christmas.

  How good is this guy? she wondered. Is he good enough to track me through all this in the dark?

  He wouldn’t have let me go if he wasn’t sure he’d find me.

  There must be a way. I just have to be smarter than him.

  He’s after me by now, she thought. Even if he did wait the whole five minutes.

  Kim stepped behind a tree, turned around, and scanned the woods. Except for a few milky flecks of moonlight, the area was black and shades of gray. She saw the faint shapes of nearby trees and saplings. Nothing seemed to move.

  You won’t spot him till he’s right on top of you, she realized, recalling his dark clothes and makeup.

  She looked down at herself. Her legs were dim smears, her shorts dark, but her T-shirt almost seemed to glow. Muttering a curse, she pulled it off. She tucked it into the front of her shorts, so it hung from her waist. That was better. She was tanned except for her breasts, and they weren’t nearly as white as the shirt.

  Turning around, Kim made her way toward a deadfall. The roots of the old tree formed a clump nearly as high as her head. Bushes and vines had grown around the trunk. She considered climbing over the dead tree, but decided to bypass it, instead.

  As she neared the mound of dirt-clogged roots, she noticed a space between the trunk and the ground. Kneeling, she peered into the opening. It was exposed, but she would be out of sight if she squirmed to where a thick nest of bushes grew in front of the trunk.

  The idea of being trapped beneath the dead tree didn’t appeal to her. Probably a host of nasty creatures under there - ants, spiders, termites, slugs. They would crawl on her.

  Besides, she told herself, if it looks like a good hiding place to me, it’ll look like one to him. If he comes this way, he’ll check it out. And he’ll have me.

  Forget it.

  She hurried around the root cluster and headed to the right of the deadfall. With the barrier at her back, she broke into a run and didn’t bother moving from tree to tree for concealment. She dashed as fast as she could, staying clear of trees, dodging occasional clusters of rock, circling patches of underbrush. At last, winded and aching, she ducked behind a trunk. She bent over and held her sweaty knees and gasped for air.

  That little burst of speed, she thought, ought to put some ground between us. He can’t run all-out, not if he’s tracking me.

  How can he track someone in the dark? she wondered. It wouldn’t be easy, even in daylight, to follow her signs. What does he look for, anyway? Broken twigs?

  Kim pulled the T-shirt from her waist band and mopped her wet face, her dripping sides, her neck and chest and belly. As she tucked the shirt into her shorts again, she wondered if the Butcher might have a night-vision device. Maybe an infra-red scope, or something.

  That would explain a lot.

  He seemed so sure he’d find me.

  Maybe took it out of his car while he was giving me the headstart.

  How can I hide from something like that?

  They pick up body heat? she wondered.

  What if I bury myself?

  That idea seemed just as bad as hiding under the deadfall.

  Sighing, Kim leaned back against the tree. Its bark felt stiff and scratchy. A quiet scurrying sound made her flinch. But it came
from above. Probably a squirrel up there, she thought.

  What about climbing a tree?

  Even if the Butcher figured out that she had gone up a tree to hide, there were thousands. She could climb high enough to be invisible from the ground. The limbs and foliage might even offer some protection from a night scope, if he had such a thing.

  If he does find me, Kim thought, he’ll have a damn tough time getting to me.

  He could probably shoot me out of it. That won’t be easy if I’m high enough. And he might be afraid of the noise. The sound of gunfire would carry a long distance. Somebody might hear it.

  Besides, I’d rather be shot than taken alive. Quick and clean.

  If he doesn’t shoot me down, his only other choice is to go up after me. That’ll make him vulnerable.

  ‘All right!' Kim whispered. ‘Let’s make it even tougher.’

  She stepped out from under the tree. Crouching, she studied the ground. Here and there, the faint gray shapes of rocks jutted through the mat of pine needles. She gathered several, choosing those that were large enough to fill her hand - large enough to do some real damage. When she had six, she spread her shirt on the ground. She piled them onto the shirt, brought up its corners, and knotted it to form a makeshift sack.

  Swinging the load at her side, Kim wandered through the trees until she found a stand of five that were grouped very closely together. Their branches met and intertwined, forming a dark mass.

  Perfect.

  She hurried to the center tree, saw that it had no handholds within easy reach, and went to the tree beside it. The lowest limb of this one was level with Kim’s face. After the first limb, it looked as if the going would be easy.

  The shirt full of rocks presented a problem. Kim thought about it for a while. Then, she opened the knot and retied it so that the untorn sleeve was free. She pushed her left hand through the neck hole and out the short sleeve, then slid the bundle up her arm. With the weight of the rocks tugging at her shoulder, she swung the load out of the way against the side of her back.

  She shinnied up the trunk, struggled onto the limb, stood, and began climbing carefully from branch to branch. It wasn’t as easy as she had supposed. Soon, her heart was slamming and she had to fight for air. Stopping to rest, she leaned away from the trunk and peered down. She couldn’t see the ground - just a tangle of lower branches.

 
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