The traveling vampire sh.., p.25
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       The Traveling Vampire Show, p.25
 

           Richard Laymon

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Slim waited in the driveway while I ran into my house and placed the two full bottles of beer in the refrigerator. I was almost weak with relief as I hurried back to her car.

  I climbed into the passenger seat. “That’s it,” I said.

  “Beautiful,” she said. “Pulled that off without a hitch.”

  We looked at each other and grinned.

  Then she backed out of the driveway and steered for Rusty’s house. “When we get there,” she said, “maybe you’d better go in without me.”

  “You sure?” I was hoping to have her there for moral support.

  “I can do without Rusty’s mom and dad. Besides, they’ll start asking me a lot of questions if I go in. I’m sure they must’ve heard about my ‘disappearance.’”

  “Probably.” The real reason she wouldn’t go into the house with me, I figured, was because she didn’t want Rusty’s parents to see how she was dressed. They were used to seeing her in T-shirts, not fancy blouses. Plus, her shiny, long-sleeved blouse didn’t exactly go with her ragged cut-off jeans. Rusty’s mom and dad were sure to wonder why she’d dressed so strangely.

  “Just say we’re in a hurry and I’m waiting in the car.”

  I nodded. With Slim waiting in the car, I might be able to get out of the house faster.

  Too soon, we reached Rusty’s house. Slim pulled up to the curb and stopped. “I’ll even leave the engine running,” she said.

  “Sure you don’t want to come in?” I asked.

  “You’ll be fine.”

  “Okay. See ya.”

  I climbed out of the car. Somebody must’ve been watching for us, though, because the front door opened before I could get there. Bitsy came out. Rusty, still in the doorway, called “We’re going now!” to his parents.

  An answer came from somewhere inside the house, but I couldn’t make it out.

  Rusty shut the door.

  All right! I wouldn’t have to face the parents, after all.

  As Rusty followed his sister down the porch stairs, I said, “Hi, Bitsy.”

  Smiling and looking shy, she said, “Hi, Dwight. Thank you for inviting me to the movies.”

  “Oh, you’re welcome. Glad to have you.”

  She had dressed up for the occasion. Instead of her usual T-shirt and cut-off jeans, she was wearing a sleeveless sundress. Instead of being barefoot, she wore sandals. Hanging from one shoulder was a white, patent leather purse.

  “You look very nice tonight,” I said. What was I supposed to say?

  “Thank you, Dwight.”

  “You’re a life-saver,” Rusty told me.

  “No sweat.”

  He hurried ahead. I’d left the passenger door open. He climbed in.

  Smiling at me, he said, “Maybe you two lovebirds should sit together in the back.”

  “That was the plan,” I said.

  Sure it was.

  I opened the back door and held it for Bitsy. Then I got in and shut the door.

  “Hey, Slim,” Rusty said.

  “Hey, Rusty.” Looking over her shoulder, she said, “How you doing, Bitsy?”

  “Oh, just fine, thank you. Thank you for asking me to come with.”

  “Our pleasure,” Slim told her. Facing forward again, she took off.

  Bitsy smiled at me from her side of the back seat, but didn’t try to come any closer. “I’m sorry to hear about your father’s accident,” she said.

  Thanks for reminding me, I thought.

  “Thanks.” I said.

  “Is he going to be all right?”

  “I guess so. They’re just keeping him overnight in the hospital to be on the safe side.”

  “I’m sure that’s a good idea.”

  “Hey, Bitsy?” Slim said.

  “Yes?”

  “We’re stopping by Lee Thompson’s house before we head over to the drive-in.”

  “Really? What for?”

  “Don’t be such a nosy pain in the ass,” Rusty said.

  I said, “Leave her alone” at about the same moment Slim said, “Cut it out, Rusty.”

  Even though there wasn’t much light in the back seat, enough came in through the windows for me to see Bitsy turn her head toward Rusty and cast a self-satisfied smile in his direction. I saw the smile, but he didn’t. He was looking straight ahead.

  To Bitsy, I explained, “My brother’s out of town for the weekend. We just want to drop in on Lee and make sure she’s okay.”

  “Is something wrong?”

  “A lot of weird stuff’s been going on today,” Slim said.

  “Like what?”

  “Come on, guys,” Rusty said, a pleading whine in his voice. “She tells. I don’t want my mom and dad knowing all my business.”

  “I won’t tell,” Bitsy said.

  “Bullshit,” Rusty said.

  Slim stopped the car. Looking out the window, I saw that we were at the curb in front of Lee’s house. Her pickup truck was parked in the driveway.

  The windows of her house were dark.

  “Doesn’t look like she’s home,” Rusty said.

  “I’ll go see.” I opened my door.

  “I’m coming with you,” Rusty said, opening his.

  “Me too,” said Bitsy.

  Slim shrugged, shut off the engine and killed the headlights. Moments later, all four of us were walking toward the front door of Lee’s house.

  “Did Lee go somewhere?” Rusty asked in a hushed voice.

  “We don’t know,” Slim said.

  “It’s funny the lights are off,” I muttered.

  “Maybe she’s taking a nap,” Rusty said.

  “We tried to call a couple of times,” I told him. “I don’t think she slept through the ringing.”

  “Might’ve,” Slim said. “But not likely.”

  On the front stoop, I reached for the doorbell but Rusty grabbed my wrist. “Don’t,” he whispered. “What if somebody’s in there?”

  “Like who?”

  “You know. Like them.”

  “You mean Julian?” I asked.

  “Yeah. Or some of his gang.”

  “Who’s Julian?” Bitsy asked.

  Slim went, “Shhhh.”

  When I lowered my arm, Rusty released my wrist. I stepped up to the screen door, put my nose against it, then cupped my hands on both sides of my eyes to block out the faint glow of light from the street.

  I could just barely see in.

  The main door was wide open. Beyond it, I saw only blackness and shades of gray.

  “LEE!” I shouted, startling everyone.

  Rusty gasped. Bitsy sucked in a quick breath, making a high-pitched “Uh!” Slim grabbed my arm but didn’t make any noise.

  Only silence came from inside the house.

  Though I hated to raise my voice again, I yelled, “LEE! YOU HOME? IT’S DWIGHT!”

  After my shout, a long silence.

  Rusty broke it, whispering, “Maybe she went over to a neighbor’s.”

  “Maybe.”

  “Who’s Julian?” Bitsy asked again.

  “From the Vampire Show,” Slim said.

  Bitsy did that “Uh!” again.

  “Tell her everything, why don’t you!” Rusty burst out in an angry whisper.

  “I’m going in,” I said.

  Slim, still gripping my arm, gave it a squeeze. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” Then she let go, whirled around and ran back to her Pontiac. Bending over behind it, she opened its trunk.

  “What’s she doing?” Bitsy asked.

  Slim reached into the trunk, then took a step away from it and swung her quiver of arrows behind her back.

  Rusty groaned.

  “What?” Bitsy demanded.

  “Nothing.”

  Slim bent over the trunk again. This time, she came up with her bow in one hand. I couldn’t exactly see what she had in her other hand, but knew it must be the two knives.

  She came running toward us, leaped
up the stairs and lurched to a halt. “Here, you guys.” She held out the knives. Rusty took the sheath knife and I took the pocket knife.

  “What’s going on?” Bitsy asked.

  “Why don’t you go and wait in the car?” Rusty said.

  “Fat chance.”

  “Go on. It might be dangerous.”

  “So?” Turning to me, she said, “I don’t have to wait in the car, do I?”

  “Might be a good idea,” I said.

  Slim gave a quick shake of her head. “We don’t really want her in the car by herself.”

  “No,” said Bitsy. “We don’t.”

  “If you stay,” Rusty told her, “you’ve got to do everything we tell you to.”

  “I’m not taking orders from you.”

  “Just stick with us,” Slim told her, then whipped an arrow out of her quiver, fit it onto her bowstring and drew the string back a few inches.

  “Who’s in there?” Bitsy asked.

  “We don’t know,” I said. “Maybe nobody.”

  Rusty put his face close to Bitsy’s. “Maybe a vampire!”

  She straightened her back. “No such thing.”

  “Keep telling yourself that, squirt.”

  “There isn’t.”

  “Let’s go,” Slim said. “Me first. Dwight, you wanta get the door?”

  First, I opened the pocket knife. Holding it in my right hand, I used my left to pull open the screen door.

  Slim walked in. Rusty followed, staying close to her back. Bitsy went into the house behind him. I took up the rear and eased the screen door silently shut.

  In the foyer, we stopped moving. We listened.

  There were a few quiet sounds of the sort that houses always make: creaks, clicks, humms and buzzes from some sort of appliances. I heard breathing sounds and hoped they came only from us.

  Slim’s black shirt moved like a shadow in the darkness. She seemed to be swiveling slowly, scanning the living room, ready to shoot.

  All of a sudden, my left arm got grabbed. I flinched and gasped, then realized it was only Bitsy.

  Only.

  She clung to my arm with both hands and pressed her body against it as if she’d mistaken my arm for a pole she hoped to climb. My upper arm was clasped against one of her breasts so tightly that the small, soft mound seemed to be mashed flat. My forearm was pressed to her belly. I could feel her heartbeat and breathing. She wore a flowery perfume so sweet I almost gagged.

  It wasn’t exactly the same as if she’d been Slim.

  I resisted the urge to push her away.

  “Somebody get a light,” Slim whispered.

  “Let go,” I told Bitsy.

  She held on. I made my way toward a wall switch, anyway, with Bitsy clinging to me. When I got within reach of where a switch should be, I said, “Let go. Come on, I need my arm.”

  At last, she released me.

  Without her body mashed against it, my arm felt strangely cool. I raised it and flicked a light switch. Two lamps came on in the living room, one at each end of the sofa.

  No Lee.

  No strangers.

  No one at all.

  Everything looked just the same as usual.

  “Okay,” Slim whispered, “let’s check the rest of the house.”

  Again, she led the way, walking slowly, her bow partly drawn back, ready to let an arrow fly if we should come under attack.

  Chapter Forty

  We made our way through the entire house, turning on lights in every room, looking in closets, glancing behind furniture and drapes. In the bedroom, I dropped and peered into the space between the bed and the floor while Rusty checked the adjoining bathroom.

  Lee was nowhere to be found.

  Nobody seemed to be in the house except the four of us.

  Done with our search, we returned to the living room. Slim swung her arrow over her shoulder and dropped it into her quiver. Rusty sank onto the sofa. I folded my knife shut and stuffed it into a front pocket of my jeans.

  “Can we go to the movies now?” Bitsy asked.

  We all looked at her.

  She frowned. “What?”

  “We’re worried about Lee,” Slim explained.

  “Don’t you think she just went someplace? I mean, people go places. We don’t want to miss the movies, do we?”

  “Screw the movies,” Rusty said. “We were never gonna go to the movies anyway.”

  “Were, too.” She gave me a betrayed look. “We were, weren’t we? You said so.”

  I nodded to Bitsy, but spoke to Rusty. “We figured to head on out to the Moonlight and take in the first one, anyway.”

  “Why not both?” Bitsy asked.

  “We’re supposed to be back here by ten-thirty…”

  “Dwight!” Rusty blurted.

  “We might as well tell her the truth.”

  “She’ll tell on us.”

  “Will not,” she protested.

  “Like hell.”

  Slim said to Bitsy, “This has to be a secret, okay? We’ve let you come along tonight, but if you ever want to do anything with us again…”

  “Ever in your whole life,” Rusty added.

  “…you’ll have to keep quiet about what goes on. We can’t have you going home and telling your parents about everything we do.”

  “About anything we do,” Rusty said.

  Bitsy raised her right hand as if taking an oath. “I promise.”

  Looking disgusted, Rusty shook his head and muttered, “She’ll tell.”

  “Will not.”

  I gave Slim the nod.

  She nodded in return, then said to Bitsy, “We think somebody’s after us. Maybe someone from the Traveling Vampire Show.”

  “What for?”

  “To shut us up,” Rusty said.

  “We don’t really know what they’re up to,” Slim explained. “I saw them…do something horrible to a dog today. Maybe they want to scare us into keeping quiet about it. The thing is, weird stuff has been happening ever since. Someone was in my house this afternoon. They chewed up a book in my bedroom…”

  “Like a dog,” Rusty added.

  “The book was Dracula,” Slim pointed out. “Which is about vampires.”

  “Not that we think a vampire did it,” I said.

  “But maybe someone from the show. Also, there was this flower vase in my mother’s room. It had yellow roses in it. Somebody broke the vase and took the roses. Then one of the roses turned up in Dwight’s room.”

  “At your house?” Bitsy asked me, looking shocked.

  I nodded. “They put it on my pillow.”

  “Now we’ve got this with Lee missing,” Slim continued. “She and Dwight drove over to Janks Field this morning looking for me and Rusty, and they talked to the main guy of the Vampire Show.”

  “Julian Stryker,” I said.

  “Lee bought tickets for tonight’s performance, but she paid with a check. The check had her name and address on it. So Julian and his bunch had an easy way to find out where she lives.”

  “You think they took her?” Bitsy asked.

  The question made me go cold inside.

  “We don’t know,” Slim said.

  “She ain’t here,” Rusty added.

  “But there’re no signs of foul play.” I wanted to talk myself and the others out of believing that Lee had been taken away.

  “Not unless you count the open door,” Slim said.

  “She might’ve left it like that for the breeze,” I said. “Anyway, she isn’t expecting us for a couple more hours, so maybe she did go somewhere.”

  “Without her truck?” Slim asked.

  “She might’ve walked over to…”

  “Without her purse?”

  “Purse?” I asked.

  “It’s on a counter in the kitchen.”

  “I saw it,” Bitsy threw in.

  Slim said, “I think Lee would’ve taken it with her if she’d gone off on her own.”

  “You hardly ev
er take a purse with you,” I pointed out.

  “Yeah, well…I’m a little different. Most women take their purses everywhere.”

  “Maybe she took a different one,” I said. “She has more than one.”

  “Let’s have a look,” Slim said.

  All of us followed her into the kitchen. Nodding at Lee’s brown leather purse, she said to me, “Why don’t you do the honors? You’re family.”

  “Sure.” I moved Lee’s purse from the counter to the kitchen table, where the light was better. Then I frowned at Slim. “Do you really think we oughta do this? It’s sort of invading her privacy.”

  “I’ll look,” Rusty volunteered.

  “No you won’t,” I said. “We don’t need you going through her stuff.”

  “Oh, yeah? What’s…?” He shut up, no doubt suddenly afraid I might tell what he’d done that afternoon in Slim’s mother’s bedroom.

  Slim said, “We just need to see how full it is…if maybe she went off with some other purse.”

  “It feels pretty heavy,” I said.

  “Would you rather have me look?” Slim asked.

  “Yeah, maybe so.”

  I stepped aside. Slim handed the bow to me, then opened Lee’s purse. As we all watched, she lifted out the billfold. Holding it out of the way, she bent over the purse and peered in. “Checkbook, lipstick, keys…” Then her lips moved, but she said nothing. She reached down into the purse.

  Her hand came up holding four stiff red papers the size of postcards cut in half lengthwise.

  The first time I’d seen them, they had been in the hand of Julian Stryker when he came out of the bus at Janks Field.

  Then I’d seen Lee tuck them into her purse.

  Slim studied one of them. Meeting my eyes, she said, “Tickets for tonight’s performance of the Traveling Vampire Show.”

  “All right!” Rusty blurted.

  Slim and I looked at him. He seemed delighted.

  “The tickets, guys. We can still go.”

  “Not without Lee,” I said.

  “Go where?” Bitsy asked.

  Rusty scowled at her. “To the Traveling Vampire Show.”

  “What about the drive-in?”

  “Screw the drive-in.”

  Bitsy glanced hopefully from me to Slim and back to me again. This time, neither of us came to her defense. Her face turned sullen, lower lip bulging out.

  Slim set the tickets on the kitchen table. “Guess Lee didn’t switch purses. This one has all the main stuff in it.” She put the billfold back inside. Leaving the tickets on the table, she closed the purse. Then she turned toward me. She looked worried.

 
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