A Christmas Harrow (in the Bedville Series)

Bedville Series, Horror, Humor, Thriller, Writing

I began pursuing my undergraduate degree in Studio Arts in 1994 from a well-known conservative evangelical Christian college in the midwest.

In those days of yore, a good friend and I used to write collaboratively, utilizing an early website for hypertext fiction authors called Addventure. It’s staggering to recall that we were using dial-up modems in the dorms back then, and queuing up in the computer labs to get the better connection. Heck, the internet was just in its infancy for us.

Our writing is still there after all these years. My username at the time was The Author.

Anyway. We also used to nip off to a local arcade/bowling alley/pizza joint in the early afternoon when it was virtually empty and do classwork as well as write together in the party room. After graduation, we spent a few years living around the college town and managed to write more together in that time. All up we surely had several dozen stories written, mostly focusing on the absurd, sci-fi, thriller-type scenarios set in places very similar to our quaint evangelical college town populated by characters very similar to people we had known there.

In our stories, we called this town “Bedville”.

Here is one story from that time.

 

ONE

STEVE TRAPPER SLOWED HIS CAR to a crawl and eased it into an empty parking space across from Bedville’s old art supply store.  Christmas wreaths and red ribbon bows were hung from every streetlight and telephone pole, while a soft drift of snow obscured the brick and stone landscape.  An old man clad in black perched on an old cast-iron bench, hands in pockets and white breath billowing out.  Steve eyed the man cautiously as he locked his car door and strode toward a large red brick building across the street.

As he stepped into the Bedville Public Library, Steve felt the temperature difference and began to sweat.  He whipped off his mountaineer’s cap, gloves, scarf, and unbuttoned his thick coat.  There, near the end of the row was an open computer at the free internet station.  Steve slipped into the swivel chair, brushed his light brown hair back, and jabbed at the keyboard with his warming fingers.  To his right sat a yellow notepad upon which he wrote down the date and time and signed his name.

Steve looked across from him.  There sat an older man with a full, scraggly beard and moustache, eyes wide and focused on the screen.  A big smile was slathered across his face while crooked teeth peeked out from the corners.

“Heh heh heh heh heh,” the man rumbled, obviously a heavy smoker. He was indifferent or oblivious to the disturbance he was causing.  “Oh that’s the real thing right there, that’s the thing I’m talkin’ about. Heh heh heh.”

Steve watched cautiously for a few more moments, and when the man seemed to be completely engrossed in his own world, turned his attention to the stream of email messages that had filled his inbox.  With a click of the mouse, he was scrolling down the subject column until he came to the one he was looking for. It read, “re: Possible Buyers, from blackpaw@underworld.org”. Steve clicked on the icon, and the message expanded to full screen.  Steve scanned the message and a deep grin began to grow on his face.  He clicked on the print icon at the top of the screen, and as the print job started, he logged out, walked to the printer, and began to button up his coat.

The reference librarian appeared. She pointedly walked over to the computers, looking down at the sign-in sheets. The bearded man cringed and pretended to be absorbed in the screen.  “Excuse me, sir, but you haven’t signed in,” Steve heard the librarian say to the man as he strode away.

Outside, while the snowflakes fell, Steve looked over the printed list. His mind whirled with the possibilities. Things were going well. Almost too well, he thought. The man on the phone had said this would be easy… but it just seemed too good to be true.  Only two weeks before, Steve had met with his advisor in Bedville College’s financial aid office.  A quick look at the estimate of his educational costs over four years, plus a possible post-graduate year of study had sent him hurrying over to the career office where he sorted through the list of holiday jobs hung on a dirty bulletin board.  Answering a rather cryptic, yet tantalizing offer of making $500-1000 in one week had eventually brought Steve to the place he was now— only a few steps away from collecting his payment.

A car horn blared and Steve jumped back out of the intersection he’d just stepped into. An old, beige station wagon, rusted and dirty, slid slowly forward. The driver stared silently at him for a good ten seconds. It was eerie. She was a housewife, it seemed, judging by the kid asleep next to her and her casual clothes. Her eyes glared at Steve, barely visible under her overflowing ball of dark brown permed hair. Finally she accelerated through the intersection and drove away.

Steve walked shakily down the street and began to unlock his car. Down at the next stoplight he could see the station wagon with its right turn blinker on. Although he couldn’t see the driver, the kid, a boy, had his face pressed to the rear window in a wild grin. Steve shivered, climbing into his own car, a handed-down Volkswagen Rabbit. He flipped on the defroster as the engine struggled to wake, and carefully backed out of the parking space. His finger jabbed at the tape player on the dash. Hopefully, the days of debts were coming to an end soon, and he would be able to finally afford a CD player in his car.  Such hopeful thoughts filled his mind as the historic jams of Kool Moe Dee rose and filled the tiny car over a scratchy pair of front-only speakers.  Steve sighed, slipped the car into gear, and began to motor down toward the intersection.

CRUNCH! Steve lurched forward in his seat. Someone had hit him from behind! He looked in the rearview mirror. Driving a few feet behind him was the station wagon woman, and she was inching closer. Her kid was leaning out of the window holding a toy gun.  Steve panicked. He wrestled with the wheel to keep from sliding on the snow-covered road. BLAM! Steve’s rear window exploded in a thousand pieces as he instinctively ducked beneath his seat. With a jerky glance in the mirror, Steve realized that the kid wasn’t aiming a toy gun— it was real, and he was about to take another shot! BEEP! Horns blared from the left as Steve accelerated through a red light. He convulsed and threw the car into a hard right. The car shook and swerved, pressing painfully down on the side shocks. Steve cut it back to the left and sped up, checking his mirrors again.

The station wagon wasn’t there.

“Maybe it got held up at the light,” Steve thought. What just happened?! Some crazy lady and her kid—Steve’s heart was thumping out of his neck.

BOOM! A loud blast rocked Steve’s ears and he ducked again. In the mirror he saw the station wagon again, but this time the mom was hanging out the passenger side window, trying to steady a shotgun at Steve, while the kid was driving!  Steve hunched down in his seat and floored the gas. The little four-cylinder engine geared up and raced through a four-way stop. From his mirror, Steve could see the mom cracking down the shotgun barrel and loading two new shells. She raised the shotgun and took aim. Steve wrenched the wheel to one side, and an explosion followed by a shredding of metal came from behind. Steve shot a glance into his side mirror… just in time to see the gun jerk upward with a roar.

Steve felt his limbs go numb as he slumped into the steering wheel. The little Volkswagen careened off the street, crushed a mail drop box, and was stopped dead by a brick wall. The engine sputtered and died while thick smoke rose from the hood— dark against the silent, white snowdrifts.

Just a short distance away, the old station wagon pulled to a stop and the short figure who Steve had taken to be a young boy yanked the parking brake up. From the passenger’s side stepped the woman, shotgun at her side. She took a quick look through the window of the battered car to make sure the occupant was dead, then spat on the crumpled body and angrily smashed the side-view mirror with the butt of her 12-gauge.

Yanking the keys from the ignition, she made her way to the trunk of the car and opened it. She hurriedly rummaged through a pile of rectangular boxes and lifted one in triumph. Striding viciously back to her own car, she passed the shotgun and box to the driver and took the wheel. “De naza dena grianza,” she muttered as they pulled away from the smoking wreck.

 

TWO

DETECTIVE CHARLIE, FINGERS FOLDED across his stomach, patiently listened to the young officer in his doorway.

“Never seen anything like it, sir… whole chest gone… car destroyed. Shotgun blasts.”

Detective Charlie frowned. “Gangs?”

“No idea, sir, no clues like that. That’s why Chief wants you on this,” Officer Burns continued. “In the trunk, we found some stuff, but… it doesn’t seem important.”

Detective Charlie waited, but Officer Burns needed some encouragement.

“Well?” the Detective finally said.

“There was a bag.”

Detective Charlie watched Burns. He was building up to something.

“And in the bag…?”

Burns coughed and shifted his stance. Detective Charlie leaned forward and lifted his cup of coffee from the cluttered desk.

“We found numerous dolls.”

“Dolls?”  Detective Charlie took a sip.

“Yes, sir.”  The young officer’s eyes grew large. “Pikinchu dolls, sir.”

Detective Charlie returned the coffee cup to its place.

“What the hell are Pikinchu dolls, Burns?”

Burns fully entered the office, closing the door behind him and sat down in a chair. “They’re just a craze this Christmas shopping season, sir. Pikinchu dolls. All the kids want them. They’ve got a computer chip built into their heads.”

Detective Charlie shifted his weight.

“The chip enables them to receive fax… and e-mail. I tried to get some for my kids this year… but with my schedule and all…” Burns trailed off. “Anyhoo, this poor guy had at least a dozen of them in his trunk. Untouched, apparently.”

“How does this relate to the shooting?”

“We don’t know if it does, sir. It’s just interesting.” Burns leaned forward.  “All these Pikinchu dolls. Just sitting around down in impound. Probably get auctioned off in six months.” He coughed. “Long after Christmas is over. Long after a dozen kids are disappointed on Christmas day because the stores sold out and their parents didn’t have flexible enough schedules to shop for them in the first place. Anyhoo…” Burns leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling.

“Were they out of the package, Burns?” Detective Charlie asked.

“No, sir. Look like they just came off the shelf.”

Detective Charlie crossed his arms. “Would you like one, Burns?”

“Oh, yes sir, I would. I would love one… maybe two if I could, because I have two kids, you know, and what if the one—”

“Just tell processing to bump up the… what’re they called again?”

“Pikinchu dolls, sir. “Perfect Pikinchu for you,” that’s their slogan this month.”

“Just tell processing to bump up the order to top priority. They’ll finish it up today and you’ll take two home with you, okay?”

“Okay, sir… very okay. Thank you, sir!”

The young officer scampered out of the office and Detective Charlie finished his cup of coffee.

It was too late in the day to do much more than leaf through the folder that had been drawn up on the new case. The old officer lifted the edge of the folder with a finger and dropped it open. Things had been so peaceful in the past month… a few cases of vandalism, a theft down at Maverick’s Art Supply, but nothing like this. Bedville hadn’t had a murder since ‘72. And it was three days before Christmas, to top it all off. It sure wasn’t going to look good in the papers. Inside the folder were a few photographs of the Pikinchu dolls found in the victim’s trunk.

Charlie flipped through them and looked at the report. “Steve Trapper…” Detective Charlie muttered, taking a sip from his coffee, and then frowning when he realized he had already finished it off. “Sophomore year at Bedville College, interdisciplinary major, marketing and ancient languages, hmmm…”

A commotion outside drew his attention from the folder and he stood. Officer Burns was pulling on his coat and happily yelling something about the Pikinchu dolls.  Detective Charlie smiled. He was glad that the grisly murder had at least brought a little cheer to someone’s Christmas.

 

Andy Applebell worked the winch, watching the shattered Volkswagen Rabbit draw up slowly onto the large flatbed wrecker and silently cursed his luck. The wreck had been a murder, which meant the police would want the vehicle impounded. Otherwise, the tape deck and scattered cassettes would be considered salvage as long as his boss allowed. And he always did.

Andy was the sixth Applebell to be in the towing business. His great, great, great grandfather had towed broken down Amish buggies in Greensburg, PA back in the olden days, and every Applebell male had towed since.

Andy’s cell phone wiggled. “Yeah?” he muttered into the small, black hunk of plastic.

“And-ee.” It was Andy’s wife, Heleena. “You should come home early today.”

“Why’s that?” Andy locked the chains in place.

“I have news.”

Andy thought it over. “Yeah. Okay.”

“And pick up some toilet tissue on the way home.”

“You mean… toilet paper?”

“Yes. As much as you can get.”

Andy’s wife was from Romania, so he didn’t bother to argue.

“Are you cooking some special Christmas dish tonight? ‘Cause I’m hungry, babe.”

Heleena paused. “Yes. Special dish. To vitalize my husband,” she added.

“Okay,” replied Andy. “I’ll be home soon.” He didn’t understand half of what his wife said most of the time, but figured he should play along.

“And And-ee? Don’t forget the toilet tissue.”

“Right.” He hung up.

Forty-five minutes later, Andy’s baby-blue Caprice crept slowly up into the driveway of the house he and Heleena called home. The ancient car’s headlights snapped off, and a moment later Andy stepped gingerly from the vehicle, steadying his feet in the snow while lugging a Jewel-Osco grocery bag from within.  Andy threw the heavy door closed, and journeyed across the short but perilous length of the driveway to the side entrance.

“I’m home,” said Andy, pulling the door closed behind him. A long strip of vinyl siding had been duct-taped along the top edge of the door in conjunction with some blue foam in an attempt to help insulate and seal the old door. Andy and Heleena rented their half of the house from an old couple they had met at Heleena’s Romanian Orthodox church, and they had taken some liberties in fixing it up over the first half year. “I said I’m home,” repeated Andy, dropping the groceries on the couch, since the small space of the kitchen counter was already occupied with Heleena’s cooking.

Down the narrow staircase scampered an equally narrow woman. A woman with dark brown hair and a perm. She hit the bottom step and sprang forward into Andy’s chest, latching onto his body with her long, spindly arms and sank two delicate, ivory-colored fangs into his neck.

 

THREE

THEY APPEARED OUT OF THE WHIRLING SNOW in silence, the yellowed headlights of their Chevys and Fords piercing the dark night and illuminating the heavy drifts which circled to the asphalt below. In file, the five vehicles angled through the vast and empty parking lot by way of a narrow trail which had been plowed only an hour before. Near the entrance to Sears, they pulled from formation and slid into a section of the lot which had been cleared for them.

Inside a dull grey Cavalier, Jibbs threw the gear selector into park and shut off the radio. Beside him on the empty passenger’s seat lay a large thermos and a flashlight. Wearily, he leaned over and grasped the two items. Pulling the keys from the ignition and dropping them into his coat pocket, he heaved his door open and stepped out into the cold night.

To his left was another temp, forcing his small, Hispanic body through the door and dragging a military duffel beside him. Their eyes met and Jibbs nodded beneath his hat and muffler. He wasn’t happy about his Christmas break being spent like this, but he had agreed to it. In the past few months, Jibbs had seen his Visa bill rise with every new “Advanced Offices & Warehouses(tm)” add-on module purchased from the little gaming shop in downtown Bedville. It was time now to pay the piper.

Jibbs shook his head and shut the car door. Up ahead was another Bedville student he thought he recognized jogging toward the entrance doors with his hands jammed deep in his pockets.  The figure caught up with the first two guys who had pulled into the massive lot. One was an older, dad-like guy, while the other looked something like a librarian or history professor.

Jibbs shuffled through the falling snow, his mind focused on finishing the task ahead of him. It was supposed to take five hours by the temp agency’s estimate to cover the whole mall, and if they could keep it to that figure he would still have time to arrive, albeit late, at the party. And late was better than never, especially when Charity Larson fit into the picture.

The guy from the temp agency that had given them the job pulled open the glass doors from within, and the group slipped inside.

An empty mall.

When the temp agency dude had first described the job to him, Jibbs had silently mouthed the word “sweet”. He had always wanted to be in the mall after hours ever since he had seen “Day of the Dead,” and here was a way to live that dream and get paid twenty-five bucks an hour doing it.

“Alright, follow me,” said the temp agency dude, letting everyone in.

The Hispanic guy was flat against one wall, staring rigidly back and forth. The temp dude, whose name Jibbs remembered as Dave, slipped through the inner doors into the darkened Sears and headed toward the interior of the mall. He held a flashlight in one hand that guided his way.

Jibbs flipped on the flashlight he had been told to bring and followed Dave. One of others was up ahead of him now, moving along the rows of washing machines in the low light and talking good-naturedly with Dave about something or other. Jibbs looked to his left and admired the mountain of television screens lying in dead silence. During the day they would be hooked up to videocameras which sat nearby, beaming out images of one’s own face staring blankly back into the screens.

Jibbs paused for a moment by one of the cameras on display. It was a tiny Japanese model— no larger than a box turtle. Jibbs lifted it and turned it over, trying to find where the tape was inserted. It seemed to record onto cartridges only slightly larger than a credit card.

“Like that one, man?”

Jibbs turned.

“They got it out just before Christmas this year. It’s a good model. Not the best, but…” The Bedville student Jibbs had recognized lifted his hands and looked around him. “…Hey, it’s Sears.” He reached forward and lifted the camera from Jibbs’ hands.  “Nice, though.”

“Yeah. It’s nice.” Jibbs looked at the full display. “We should get going.”

“Can you imagine how easy it would be to lift some of this stuff? Nobody here. You could just slip a few things into a bag and nobody would even know the difference.”

Jibbs frowned. “Yeah, except it’s against the law.”

The other put the camera down and followed Jibbs ahead.

“Hey, man, I remember you from Art Survey. Everybody called you something like… Scabs, or Jumps—”

“Jibbs.”

“Yeah, Jibbs. That’s right. Ha, ha. My name’s Lance. Lance McCormick.”

They quickly shook hands, and Lance laughed. “Look at all this stuff, man.  All just sitting here.” Jibbs watched as Lance slipped a few bars of scented soap into his coat pocket from the display counter behind him. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Lance would have signed the same paperwork that he had at the temp agency. According to the employment contract, Jibbs would be breaking the law if he didn’t report the theft.

“What are you doing?”

“Relax, Jibbs,” said Lance, raising his hands in defense. “They’re free samples— see?” He pointed to the sign nearby.

The metallic gate lifted above Dave’s head, and the crew shuffled into the mall. They moved silently, ritually, down the interior and along a tiny side hallway and through a door simply marked, “maintenance.” Dave fit a key into the lock and drew open the door. In a moment, light broke from a string of single bulbs draped along the ceiling and the crew made their way inside. Half a dozen floor buffers were lined up against one wall.

“Alright, guys. Pick out a winner, haha. And they’re ALL winners,” said Dave.

Everyone picked a buffer, the Hispanic guy being the last. Jibbs found a machine with a stenciled number 3 on it, and rolled it from the small room.

After going over the controls of the buffers and answering all of their questions, Dave had let the crew loose. Jibbs could hear Phil Collins above the noise of his buffer, so Dave must have turned the Muzak on over the mall speaker system as he had promised.

Jibbs imagined Charity Larson having arrived at the party by now. She was probably sitting with her roommates Sheila and Renee. All the soccer guys were probably crowding around them, talking about their win over Rivercity College last year— a story Jibbs, at least, had heard more than enough times. Ivan, the exchange student from Minsk was probably upstairs showing everyone the breakdance moves he had learned as a pre-teen from MTV, beamed into Mother Russia and received by a homemade satellite dish that his father, a scientist in the Russian space program had hand built. Jibbs’ roommate, Chappie, was probably arriving late from the Conservatory, where he practiced his drumming and electronic music. But Charity— Jibbs’ thoughts returned to her and her long, dirty blond hair. He tried to pick up his pace a little.

Wayne Groman was throwing the party at his place. Wayne was one of the more popular students at Bedville, but Jibbs only knew him a little. The party had been publicized for weeks now. Everyone that was staying on campus over the break was sure to be there. Wayne had even made up posters in the art department after hours on Dr. Shelby’s printing presses to advertise. It was definitely a big deal.

Jibbs wondered when the snow would stop. He had shoveled the driveway in front of his townhouse to pull out that evening, but it was falling heavily… and steadily.  Outside, his Chevy Cavalier was being covered in a rich, silent blanket of winter. He wanted to ask Charity to go sledding with him at Birkwell Forest Reserve this weekend.  He had known her for almost a year now and had asked her out a few times over the past month… just a dinner on campus or a coffee in downtown Bedville here or there. Nothing serious, but Jibbs had grown to like her more and more. Her parents were missionaries on Guam, so along with all the others at the party tonight, she wasn’t going home for Christmas.  It would be a perfect snowfall— deep and soft. Jibbs imagined the hillside that was built up just for sledding. It snaked through the woods in a furrowed trail, leading down, down… down to the steep decline which broke from the woods and emptied into a long, steady ride which leveled off far, far down the hillside near the old barns. He imagined holding Charity loosely in her winter coat as they sledded together down the hill.  Then he imagined them hitting a bump and tumbling out together, rolling over in the snow and laughing— Charity’s warm breath billowing out, eyes sparkling, and long hair frosted with snow. Then his buffer clipped a bench and broke a long strip of wood paneling from it.  Jibbs leaped off the machine and looked around to see if anyone had witnessed his clumsiness. He leaned the strip up against the side of the bench and started buffing down the opposite direction.

Jibbs was now working near the center of the mall, between the main corridors and the food court. For the Christmas season, Santa’s workshop had been erected between the huge pillars which rose to the skylights above, decorated with a snowy landscape and surrounded by a miniature train track which was run by wooden elves. Santa’s plush red chair was conspicuously empty, its owner long since having gone home and taken a hot shower and most likely several drinks to calm the nerves rattled by the children he entertained. The scene was unearthly in its silence, and Jibbs got a slight tingle down his spine as he stared at the lifeless scene.

By 10:32, he was ready for a break.

The crew sat in a ring within the food court, munching away at what food they or their wives or whoever had packed. Lance was the first to start a conversation.

“They’ve got those multi-cultural popstar singing frogs everywhere.”  He bit into a peanut butter sandwich.  “You know, the ones who do the little dance?  All the toy stores got ‘em, and then they’ve got the calendars, shoes and t-shirts and board games and all kinds of stuff with their pictures all over them. I guess they’re pretty popular with kids.”

The younger of the two men that Jibbs hadn’t known, but had introduced himself as Neil, turned a page in the entertainment magazine he had brought along. “My kids have been asking for those Piki-whatsit dolls since September.”

“Perfect Pikinchu,” said the older man, Norman.

“Yeah, right,” continued Neil. “I tried to get a couple of ‘em a few weeks ago. Found a place in the phonebook that said they had a new shipment coming in. The store opened at ten a.m. I got there at ten-ten… there wasn’t a single damn Pinkichow–”

“Pikinchu,” Norman corrected.

“Yeah, not one friggin’ Pikinchu left on the shelf. Guy said there was a line of people waiting since the night before. Parents… camping out on the sidewalk, with generators and little propane stoves. Can you believe that?”

“Well, it’s something new each year that my grandkids want,” said Norman.

“Last year the Freaky-Freezies,” agreed Neil. “The year before that, those… the, uh…”

“Wet Weasel.” Lance threw in.

“…Yeah, the Wet Weasel. And the Knockleheads.”

Jibbs poured himself some hot vegetable stew from his thermos. He wasn’t so keen on the idea of a “Wet Weasel.” And who were “the Knockleheads?”

“Those toys are too expensive, anyway,” Neil said, and turned a page.

Jibbs looked over at the Hispanic guy. He was eating some cold chicken in silence. Jibbs sipped from his thermos cup and looked off to the low windows covering the far wall of the court. Snow was still falling. So peaceful from inside.

“Well, it’s back to work for me,” said Neil, standing.

Norman stood up as well, clearing his place. The two disappeared down the access ramp, and for a moment, there was silence.

And then, Lance spoke.

“Okay, Pepe.” He checked his watch. “It’s about eleven.” He turned to Jibbs.  “Are you in, Jibbs, or what?”

The Hispanic man stood, clearing his food and lifting the duffel bag Jibbs had seen him carrying earlier.

“What?” Jibbs frowned.

“You want a piece of this, or what?”

“What are you talking about, man?”

“I’m talking about a little Santa Claus action.”

Jibbs closed his thermos and got up to go. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but no… I’m going back to work.”

“No, you’re coming with us, Jibbs.” Lance smiled and nodded in the direction of Pepe.

Jibbs turned to see that the Hispanic had drawn a silenced pistol and was pointing it at him like they were in Goldeneye or something.

“It’ll be fun.”  Lance motioned with a nod of his head, and without a choice, Jibbs was led out of the darkened seating area and into the heart of the mall once more.

It was 10:55, and Jibbs’ heart was beating like a drum.

 

The three stood at the gate to the toy store. Bending down with a massive pair of bolt cutters in his gloved hand, Lance snipped the thick lock as if it were a strand of spaghetti. At the same moment, Pepe strained and lifted the metal gate upwards. It crashed into the top of its track with a bang, and the men froze in their steps. Lance turned to Jibbs and whispered.

“Jibbs. Get in there first. Pepe will be right behind you.”

Jibbs looked at Pepe’s pistol, then nodded and slipped into the inky blackness that was the toy store. The Hispanic was not far behind him, duffel bag in tow. With a glance in both directions, Lance pulled the gate down behind them.

Inside the store was a warm silence.

Do these guys think they’re going to get away with this? Jibbs thought to himself as he watched Lance head back into the dark rear of the store. A few crashes and smashes later, Lance returned.

“Pepe.  La bolsa.”

The Hispanic tossed the duffel bag in the air, and Lance caught it.

“Come on.” Lance motioned Jibbs to follow, and he did. When they reached the back of the store, Jibbs realized that Lance had broken down two doors to get to a tiny office. Lance dropped the duffel bag next to a refrigerator-sized safe that was against the far wall.

“Estas listo, mi amigo?” asked Lance, and Pepe nodded.

The two quickly changed positions, so that Lance now had the pistol. Pepe knelt down next to the safe and lifted a stethoscope from the neck of his jacket.

“Open the bag, Jibbs.”

Jibbs followed the instruction. Pepe’s focus narrowed. Jibbs could hear the man’s slow, regulated breathing and the sound of the safe’s tumblers falling into place, one by one. When the last fell, Pepe whipped the stethoscope up and pulled the door open with a heavy jerk. There, filling the lower half of the safe were stacked a reserve of Pikinchu dolls. Their dark, shiny eyes reflected the flashlight beams which played across their silent faces.

Lance looked through the stack quickly, then suddenly snatched one from the pile and ripped open the cardboard box. He lifted a blue Pikinchu with a space helmet and squeezed its midsection. From somewhere within its electronic components the doll’s voice crackled in a high, Japanese-English scream.

“Perfect Pikinchu!  Power of Dragon-fire! A ha ha ha ha ha!”

The toy’s laughter faded eerily into the darkness. Lance turned and grinned.  “It’s the real deal, baby.” He tossed the opened doll to the floor and kicked at the duffel bag. “We’ll make it look like a regular robbery, right, Pepe?” Pepe nodded, and Lance turned to Jibbs. “Fill it up, Jibbs. NOW.”

At gunpoint, Jibbs got to his knees and obeyed.  Moments later, the bag was full of the one foot tall dolls.

“Pepe. La foto.”

Pepe laid his duffel bag on the floor and drew the zipper back carefully. His large hands went down and moments later lifted a Polaroid camera.

Lance waved the pistol at Jibbs. “Pick up the Pikinchus.”

Jibbs paused.

“Pick ‘em up!” Lance growled.

Jibbs did, and almost immediately the camera flash exploded, illuminating the dim store.

“Now put the dolls in the bag.”

Jibbs did. Another flash.

“Alright, let’s go.”

The three slipped under the metal gate and stood for a moment in silence. Jibbs could hear his breath matched against his companions’.

“Alright, Jibbs. Good working with you,” said Lance as Pepe handed the Polaroid photo to Lance. “And if you feel the urge to report a theft tonight, just remember whose baby blues are blinking at us in the photo. A copy will end up at the Bedville P.D. if you try anything stupid, Jibbs.”

Pepe nodded. “En la foto es la verdad, amigo.”

“Season’s greetings.”

Lance winked and jogged down the hallway with the duffel bag. Pepe grinned and was gone in the other direction.

Jibbs stood in the silence of the hallway for a moment, his heart pounding.  He took several deep breaths to calm his nerves, and spotted a nearby telephone. One foot in front of the other, he strode toward the side hallway which housed the bathrooms and payphones. A single light in the ceiling, burning twenty four hours, remained lit. Jibbs made his way to the farthest phone. His hands found the receiver, and he lifted it from its cradle. What had just happened? Whatever was going on, he had to report it. His fingers fell across the numbers.

“Information. What number are you looking for?”

“Hi. Could I have the Bedville Police Department, please.”

“One moment, please.”

Jibbs jammed himself further into the corner and waited, running his fingers through his short hair.

“Bedville P.D.”

The gruff voice on the other end of the line caused Jibbs to freeze. A knot formed in his throat. Would they believe him? If he turned in Lance, could he prove his own innocence? Would they arrest him in any case?

“Hello, Bedville P.D.” the voice repeated.

Jibbs swallowed hard and returned the phone to its cradle. He stood there for a moment in the gloom, shaking. He would have to think about this a bit more. He needed to know what exactly he was going to tell the police

 

FOUR

JIBBS’ CHEVY CAVALIER SWUNG into one of the empty parking spaces at the Booze-Mart and pulled to a stop. Jibbs had decided he would clear his head at Wayne Groman’s Christmas Party while figuring out what to tell the cops, and strangely enough, drinking alcohol fit into that picture for him.

The Booze-Mart was part of a curious loophole in state law. The state strictly regulated the sale of hard liquor, but let grocery stores sell beer or wine at their discretion. Stores that sold hard stuff weren’t allowed to be open late. Now, the Booze-Mart had one aisle of shrink-wrapped snacks like Twinkie imitations or sticky buns in four-packs, but the rest of the large shop was all hard liquor. The one aisle of food had a piece of construction paper taped to it that read “Jim’s Foods,” and it was listed, incorporated, etc., as a separate store. Once inside “Jim’s Foods,” you could happen to wander over to The Booze-Mart, which was technically “closed,” and the helpful workers at Jim’s Foods would be happy to sell you the finest single malt whiskeys or a liter of Tia Maria and officially ring it up at 8:01 the next morning. All perfectly legal— for the time being.

All that to say, the Booze-Mart welcomed Jibbs with her warm embrace as he slipped in at a little past midnight. The white linoleum floors were heavily scuffed from the drunken shufflings of many a customer over the years, and Jibbs followed one of the darker trails toward a row of cheap vodka. The best stuff was right at eye level, in colored glass bottles covered with German expressionist paintings, Russian architecture and other nifty designs. Progressively further toward ground level, the quality and price of the vodka took a nosedive toward something more in line with Jibbs’ budget. The plastic bottles with screw-off caps that hunched up against one another in the gloom of the dusty bottom shelf looked more like refugees than their proud, noble counterparts in the penthouse suites above.

Jibbs knelt and lifted one bottle with a label reading “Grotowski” and a balding man’s head circumscribed by some ornamental ring and the date 1452 stamped below. Some government official in some tiny eastern European province, no doubt— most likely picked out of some obscure genealogy of a distillery owner in Michigan, which was from whence the flimsy bottle originated. As Jibbs got to his feet, his eyes met Andy Applebell’s.

Andy stood on the other side of the shelf with a bottle of champagne in his hand. His eyes were red and glazed over and the slack that punctuated his bearded jaw lent a certain prehistoric quality to the man. He didn’t seem to notice Jibbs, but simply turned and dragged his way to the front counter. Jibbs watched as he pushed the bottle onto the checkout counter and dropped several bills and coins from his pocket. The man at the counter keyed in the item, watching out of the corner of his eye, and before he could even count the money, Andy had picked up the bottle and headed for the door.

“Sir.  I haven’t checked you out, yet, sir.”

The bells tinkled as Andy disappeared into the snowdrifts.

What a strange night, thought Jibbs. He made his way to the counter and placed the vodka next to the worker, who was counting the change that Andy had left.

“Son of a Mastodon,” muttered the man. “Gave me some Russian money or something.” He threw the bills down and looked at Jibbs. “That all you got?”  he growled.

Jibbs nodded shakily.

“Friggin’ nutcases like that comin’ in here at all hours and they won’t let me carry a gun.” He rang up the bottle of vodka. “Temp agency, my ass. Last time I try to make some extra bucks over the holiday.”

Jibbs eyes darted up at the mention of the temp agency, but he restrained himself and just nodded. “Seven eighty-three,” said the man. Jibbs hastily counted out the bills and handed them over.

“Tell you one thing, kid. It always gets ugly before the storm passes, and it’s gonna get a whole lot worse before this one is over with.”

Jibbs paused, unsure if he should push further. “What do you mean?

“What I mean, kid, is take a look around you. Look at the faces of the people passin’ by you. Look at the color of the sky. You can smell it in the air. All this Christmas rush, the shopping sprees, the last minute trips to the mall. Gettin’ more and more hectic every year. People sellin’ their souls for a bit of shiny ribbon and some wrapping paper. All this negative energy builds up, you know? Convergence of the astral waves.” The man ran his fingers through the air. “Psychic energy, dimensional fluxes.  Yeah, you’re thinkin’ it’s a big joke, but if you don’t believe me, just take a walk by the Bricklayer’s lodge after midnight any night. Oh, they’ll leave a light on for ya, I guarantee.  They’re not stupid. They’ve locked themselves up in there for the past week, trying to manipulate the energy patterns pulsing through this town.” The man put Jibbs’ vodka in a bag. “Of course you heard about the murder downtown, right? I’ve definitely got my ideas about that, but I won’t bore you with my speculations.”

“Murder?” Jibbs hadn’t heard of it yet.

“Oh, yeah. Thought you might know. You look like a student ta me. Some poor sap— second year of college and gets buckshot in the chest for Christmas this year.  No refund on that one, kid. Just left him bleeding out of his Volkswagen down there on Main. Just came from the library. Guess he should’ve returned those books on time, eh?” The man grunted out a laugh.

Jibbs grimaced and took his bag.

“You just keep your head on this year, you see?” said the man.

Jibbs nodded and made his way out into the cold night.

 

“And you can record up to five minutes of video with the expansion slot, if you buy the wireless cam.” Burns was working the arms of the Pikinchu doll in Detective Charlie’s office.

“That’s great, Burns. Aren’t your kids going to notice you’ve opened their gifts?” said Charlie.

“My kids…?” Burns frowned. “Oh, yeah, yeah. Right. My kids…”

“Sir?” The dispatch officer was in the doorway. “We got a break-in at the Mall, sir. Toy store.”

Burns’ eyes lit up. “Really?”

Charlie slowly turned to the young officer. “You wanna check this one out, Burnsie?”

“Yes, sir. I think that’s a good idea, sir.”

“Alright. I’ll go with you,” Charlie stood and pulled on his coat. “It’s on the way home.” He picked up the murder case file from his desk. “What a way to ring in the holidays. Let’s go, Burns.”

 

FIVE

WAYME GROMAN PRESSED HIMSELF up against the wallpaper. His head was rushing, his heart pounding, his temples throbbing, his hands clammy. For a moment his beer almost slipped from his hand, but he tightened his grip and managed to prop himself up with the other hand.

“Yo, Wayne!”

Seth Doogan was waving to him from the other side of the room. The stocky defender was entertaining a small group of girls along with several of the other guys from the soccer team.

Wayne’s head swam and he tried to make out the distance between his position and theirs. Seth was looking at him, pointing, and laughing. Everything seemed to be moving in some strange, muddled pattern and all the words of all the people surrounding him washed together into a pool of confusion.

“You alright, man?” Seth’s face seemed to twist up.

Wayne could feel his blood boiling. He stumbled forward, pitched, and crashed through the mass of bodies filling the kitchen and out the back door. The storm door slammed shut and rattled for a moment. The cold gust of Christmas air Wayne had let in was swallowed up by the warm skin that filled the house.

At that moment on the front porch, Jibbs clumsily pushed the door open and shouldered his way in. He saw a few people he knew in the hallway, and a whole lot of guys from the soccer team he had never actually met. The team was supposed to be flying down to Cuba a few days after Christmas for some soccer invitational they had qualified for, so many had stayed over the break while the rest would be returning soon.  Jibbs wondered if Coach Beans would appreciate their lack of discipline just days before the trip, but was not planning on bringing the question up.

He scanned the crowd in the living room and didn’t realize anyone right away. Just a blur of faces, and it was hard to focus on anyone. Chappie’s empty DJ table stood in one corner, vinyl records spilling from a laundry hamper on the floor. Bodies were moving ever so slightly to the low thumping of some unseen stereo. There was just too much noise, too much movement. And not enough light— was Wayne trying to save money or something? If only he could find Charity. He’d notice her tucking her wavy blond hair behind an ear, approach her just as she broke off talking to some other would-be-suitor who didn’t pass the test, surprise her a bit by looking her right in the eyes and saying—

“De naza dena grianza! A ha ha ha ha ha!” the lo-fi voice crackled over through the din of the party. Inescapably, Jibbs slowly turned toward the sound, though he already knew what he’d find.

There, on a brown La-Z-Boy, sat Sheila Coleman. She was holding a Pikinchu with green armor and a long, forked sword. Jibbs stared at the tiny doll, not moving a muscle. He felt goosebumps race down his arms and the back of his head tingle.  The party whirled around him— girls laughed, glasses clinked, pants and blouses zipped as bodies squeezed by one another— but Jibbs did not move.

Suddenly, a body bumped into Jibbs, and he turned.

“Jeff!”  It was Renee, one of Charity’s roommates.

“Renee!  Hi.”  Jibbs managed.

“Did you just get here?” Her momentum was still carrying her forward, toward Sheila. She had two beers in her hand.

“Y-yeah.  I was working late tonight.”

“Have you seen Charity yet?”

“No. Is she here?”

“I dunno. I drove separate. She said she had some things to do first. Well, lemme know if you see her, okay?”

“Sure. Okay.”

Jibbs watched as Renee slid forward and away, over to Sheila, who received one of the two beers gladly. The Pikinchu just stared at him with its dark, glazed eyes.

Jibbs felt suddenly sick. The sound of the doll brought him back to his moment at gunpoint. The tiny, chirping voice of the creature was forever embedded in his memory. And then remembering Lance— he imagined him holding the pistol, waving it lazily back and forth, with Pepe standing behind him, hand on his shoulder, a contented smile on his face…. Jibbs turned and stumbled in the direction of where he thought the kitchen would be. He needed a drink.

Passing through the thick of bodies on the way, Jibbs spotted his roommate, Chappie. The dark, good-natured musician lit up and slid through to Jibbs.

“Hey, man. How was the mall?”

Jibbs shook his head. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Cool… Did you hear about the murder?”

Jibbs had almost forgotten, but checked himself at the last minute. “Yeah.  Some guy at the Booze-Mart told me a little about it. Shotgun… in his car?”

“Yeah. Nasty. A couple guys here knew Steve. I only knew about the guy.  Kind of a recluse. Supposedly he stole Houston House’s leather furniture over Easter break last year and sold it at a private garage sale. Hung out at the Stables a lot. ”

The Stables was an unsavory bar a few miles west of the campus. It was situated along an older county road surrounded by farmland and county owned property and was a good place to get your teeth knocked in on any given day of the week.

“Police were all over the area. Real mess. What do you think it could have been?”

Jibbs shook his head. “I dunno, man.”

Chappie shrugged, then abruptly changed the subject.

“Hey dude. I saw Charity come in about fifteen minutes ago.”

“Yeah?” Jibbs wasn’t sure how to feel at that moment.

“Yeah. She went straight upstairs, I think. She was with Wayne– looked kind of serious or something. You better take a look.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Peace out, bro. I’m gonna go get this party jumpin’.” Chappie skipped out toward the living room to get on his DJ table.

Jibbs pulled himself into the kitchen. It seemed to be the one place that was deserted, and that was because almost all of the other booze was gone. He sighed and drew his vodka out of its paper bag and looked through the fridge for something– anything to mix with it. His head spun for a few seconds and he held on to the fridge door for support. Too much was happening. A murder, a robbery– both involving Bedville students. Was there a connection somehow? Or was it just a grisly coincidence? Alcohol, yeah— that would help him think straight.

Jibbs pulled a half-drunk bottle of apple juice from the fridge and set it next to his vodka. There were no clean glasses left in the shelves, so Jibbs sighed and reached for the least dirty of the glasses littered atop the counter. He squirted a stream of dishwashing liquid into the glass and began to wash it out. From the living room came a group cheer, and the sound of a beat dropping in from Chappie’s turntable. Chappie had begun to spin.

“Yo Jibbers!” Seth Doogan was at his side, breathing hot rum into his face.  “Merry Christmas, baby!”

“Thanks, Seth. Happy holidays and what not to you, too.”

“You washin’ Wayne’s dishes?”

“Just the one I’m going to use, Seth.”

“That’s what they all say— that’s what they all say!” Seth threw an arm around Jibbs. “You know that Sheila Coleman, right?”

Jibbs nodded.

“She is HOT, man! I never noticed it before!”

“Maybe the Captain helped you see the light, Seth,” said Jibbs, trying not to drop his glass under the extra weight of the soccer player’s half-limp body.

“The Captain?” Seth cocked his head, grinning. “What the hell are you talking about, Jibbsy? You’re drunk, aren’t you? You’re drunk!”

“Captain Morgan, Seth. Captain Morgan.”

Seth doubled over, pulling Jibbs with him.

“Ah-ha ha ha ha!” he laughed. “Captain Morgan!” And then Seth threw up on Jibbs’ feet.

Jibbs yelped, jumped back, and kicked off his shoes. The bottom section of his pants was soiled. Jibbs cursed and looked around for a towel or something to clean himself up. Realizing it was worse than a towel would solve, he turned and headed out into the hallway, leaving Seth doubled over on the floor.

Jibbs made his way through the horde of bodies and up the stairs to the second floor. He was hoping that Wayne or one of his roommates who lived in the house would have a pair of pants he could snatch. He made his way to one of the rooms furthest down the hall and tried the knob.

The door eased open and Jibbs realized that it was empty. Stepping inside, he spotted a chest of drawers to one side of the room and stripped his pants, making sure he locked the door with his free hand. Kicking the pants to one side, Jibbs stepped over to the chest and reached for the top drawer.

As his hand drew back on the handle, he realized that someone was sitting on the floor, hunched up against one side of the bed with a cordless phone in her hand. Jibbs turned, embarrassed, to see Charity Larson nestled up in a ball.

“Oh-hhh, Ch-Ch-Charity!  I was just getting some pants— I got some… stuff on mine, and—”

“Jibbs!”

Charity’s eyes were wide, and her face was flushed.

“Charity? Are you okay?”

“Just… sit down. I have to tell you something.”

Still embarrassed, Jibbs sat down on the bed in his underwear.

“Did you hear about Steve Trapper?”

Jibbs nodded.

“Do you know why they killed him?”

Jibbs shook his head.

“I know what happened to Steve. And I think I know what’s happening to this town, Jibbs.”

Jibbs shook his head. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll understand in about half an hour.”

“I will?” Jibbs managed, painfully aware of his extremely exposed legs.  They were very white. He made a motion with his arm, trying to look natural, and covered himself as much as he could. Charity didn’t notice any of it. She was staring straight ahead, eyes wide open. She spoke as if half-asleep.

“Jibbs.”

“Charity.”

“Can I call you Jeff?”

Jibbs paused. “Please.  Please.”

She turned to him. “Jeff. I need something from you.” She placed her smooth hand on his thigh.

Jibbs jumped up and back involuntarily then tried to cover for himself. “Heh heh, yeah, Charity, I’m just…I just gotta go to the b-b-bathroom here, and I….” Jibbs swung the door shut of the attached bathroom and locked it. “What do you need, now?” he said through the door.

Charity replaced the phone in its cradle and reached under the bed. When her hand came back out, it was holding a handgun.

“Oh hey, I found some pants here, these are perfect. Hold on a sec,” Jibbs muttered.

Charity held the gun up to the light. She made sure the safety was on, then slipped the gun into the pocket of her black dress pants.

“Jeff. Will you go downtown with me? There’s something I have to do and… I can’t do it alone. I don’t want to do it alone. I… trust you, Jeff. Can you help me? Can you come with me for a little while?”

The bathroom door whipped open. Jibbs was wearing a pair of black Adidas tear-aways. “One size fits all, I guess!” he chuckled.

“Jeff,” she said again. “Will you come downtown with me?”

Jibbs lost his breath and couldn’t find it again. The moment was even better than he’d imagined, in spite of the robbery, the murder, the pants— in spite of everything.  He felt so much desire to just be with her, or at least to remember this moment forever.  That would be good enough. Her eyes seemed to luminesce. She was crying.

“Sure,” Jibbs said. “Of course.”

 

Officers Burns stood, staring at the floor and shaking his head. An opened Pikinchu doll was lying there, right in front of the small safe.

“I can’t believe they left this one behind,” Officer Burns said once quietly, then, raising his head, said it again so his boss could hear. “I can’t believe they left this one behind!” But Detective Charlie, as usual, wasn’t really listening to Burns. He was squatting by the safe, looking for… whatever detectives look for. Clues.

The old detective scanned the area, whipped out a tiny notepad and scrawled something quickly. After a moment, he changed his mind, scribbled it out, and whipped the pad back into his coat pocket.

“Hand me that list again, Burns.”

The lieutenant nodded and passed a printout to Detective Charlie. On it was the list of temp workers that had buffed the floors that night. Charlie’s eyes ran over the names quickly.

“Any names pop out to you, Burns?”

Burns put the doll down. “Sorry, boss. I was looking at this Pikinchu doll.  What did you say?”

“I said: Did any of these names pop out to you?”

Burns scratched his head. “The Mexican one. But that’s just ‘cause I had chimichangas for lunch yesterday, I guess. What are you thinkin’?”

“I’m thinking you’re right, but for the wrong reason.”

Burns frowned. “What do you mean?”

Detective Charlie put the sheet down on the office desk. “Okay. Take the name Pepe de Silva. Rearrange the letters. What do you come up with?”

Burns screwed up his face as he mixed the letters. “Elvis peed on papa?” he guessed.

Detective Charlie smacked him over the head with a nearby manual. “Vladi Peepes.” He waited for a response.

“Vladi Peepes?”

“Vladi Peepes.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, sir.”

Detective Charlie hit him over the head with the manual again.

“Go dust for more fingerprints or something, Burns.”

Burns brightened up. “I’ll take a closer look at the Pikinchus.”

“You do that, Burns.”

Vladi Peepes. Little Vlad the Urinator. Detective Charlie bit his lip. The Transylvanian butcher. A five-foot tall actor turned criminal when the reviews for his Esperanto version of Hamlet had gone sour. A man deft at disguise, able to affect dozens of languages and mannerisms. The European Chameleon. If this Pepe de Silva were Vladi, what could he possibly be doing in Bedville of all places?

Burns was crouched next to the Pikinchu doll, handling the opened box with both hands. “I can’t believe they left this behind,” he said, letting his voice trail off, then fixing his eyes contemplatively on the doll.

Detective Charlie took a quick look at the young lieutenant then glanced at his watch. He didn’t have one. If he were to find answers about Peepes, he knew exactly who to ask.

I just can’t believe they left this one behind,” said Officer Burns, walking over to Detective Charlie with the Pikinchu in his hand. “It’s one of the rarer models. Really hard to find. Wow. Anyhoo.”

Detective Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Bring the doll with you, Burns.”

Officer Burns’ eyes lit up.

“You sure, sir?”

“Yes, I’m sure, Burns.”

“I’ll just handcuff it to my wrist here, then. To be sure myself.”

Detective Charlie rolled his eyes and turned from the office.

“One more stop tonight, Burns.”

  

SIX

JIBBS DIRECTED HIS CAVALIER through Bedville’s downtown. Inches of snow crunched underneath. His headlights lit up a small area in front of him, the light diffuse throughout the heavy moisture in the air. A lot of snow had been plowed up onto the sidewalks, several feet high in some places. The small storefronts reflected his car lights back on each side. Everything seemed to be glowing from within.

Jibbs pulled into the new, multi-level parking lot as Charity asked him to and circled up to the top. Jibbs was dead silent. He’d gotten his nickname because of his tendency to start jabbering, or speaking “jibberish,” when he was nervous. But now, he was beyond nervous. It took all of his effort just to remember to breathe. He was driving the girl of his dreams around the beautiful, snowy downtown of Bedville on Christmas Eve.  Robbery, murder, vomit on his pants— none of it mattered now, Jibbs thought. Jibbs glanced at the clock. It was 1:37 in the morning.

Jibbs put the car into park. He looked out over the old rooftops of the small city. “Merry Christmas, Charity,” he said, looking over.

Charity was quietly loading her handgun.

Jibbs threw open his door and gave up the contents of his stomach to the white ground below. When he again gulped in a chestful of fresh air, he was kneeling on all fours in the cold snow. Charity had slipped from her side of the car and was walking around to him.

“Jeff, get up.”

She slipped the gun into her pocket and headed for the stairwell down.

“Charity—what the—w-w-what are you doing?!?”

“Jeff, I need your help. And I need you to be a man.”

“Be a man…?”

“This is no joke. If we don’t do something about what’s happening here in Bedville… tonight… NOW, we won’t have a Spring semester to look forward to. No ultimate Frisbee, no intramural ping-pong, no coffeehouse concerts.”

Charity pushed open the door to the stairwell and Jibbs followed.

“Tell me what’s going on Charity! I don’t understand—“

“You know my major, don’t you?”

“Ummm… science, right?”

“Physics. And last semester I began my senior thesis project. It was a study of energy flux. Energy buildup within control groups.”

“Ah… right.”

“Basically, how potential energy increases exponentially as the number of individuals increases within the group. There are ways to gauge levels in an individual or group, and I was doing exactly that for a variety of populated areas throughout Bedville.”

They had begun their descent to the street level.

“Do you remember the political canvassing we did for Jim Ronin, State’s Attorney during the Fall? Crawling all over the suburbs knocking on doors, handing out pamphlets?”

“Yeah. We never got that pizza party they promised.”

“Well, I used that as a platform for testing my hypothesis.”

“Charity, what does all this have to do with the fact that you’re carrying around a semiautomatic pistol on Christmas Eve?”

“When I looked over the test results, I realized there was an anomaly… a spike in levels that didn’t make sense. I isolated the source. And what I found was terrifying.”

“Terrifying?”

“Do you know about the Bricklayer’s Guild?”

“Well, sure. They’ve got a lodge next to the movie theatre.”

“Do you know what the Bricklayers do, exactly?”

“Umm… civic service? Clean up roadsides… bring food to old people’s homes?”

“Oh, Jeff. I wish that was all they do.” Charity pushed open the door which led to the street.

“What do you mean, Charity? Would you please just—“

Charity turned and fired a quick round into Jibbs’ left thigh. Jibbs screamed out in pain and crumpled to the ground, howling and clutching his leg.

“Too much talk, Jeff. Or should I say… Jibbs. Let me make this easier for you.”

“Char—aghhh!!!”

“Jibbs, I want you to trust me,” said Charity.

“T-t-trust you???”

“Yes.” Charity nodded. “And I want you to remember something very important. If we are later separated, you can find me at Birkwell Forest Reserve.”

Charity knelt beside Jibbs and bared a set of glimmering white fangs. Jibbs recoiled, but Charity had wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. Before he could scream out for help, he felt her deftly latch onto his neck in one swift bite… and then he felt very warm…

And then he didn’t feel anything at all.

 

SEVEN

A WINDOW IN THE SMALL SHOP advertised the name “Madame Mystic” in fluorescent purple letters with a glowing crystal ball beneath.

His back to the interior of the window, Detective Charlie folded his hands in his lap and narrowed his eyes. Beside him, Burns did the same thing, then changed his mind and posed the Pikinchu in the same position as Detective Charlie.

“Burnsie.”

“Yeah, yeah, what’s up, boss?” Burns fumbled with the doll.

“Leave that dang thing alone.”

“Yes sir. Just making sure it’s working properly.” Burns sat the Pikinchu carefully next to him in his chair.

“Let me ask you a question, Burns.”

“What’s up?”

“Have you ever heard of a ‘Knocklehead?’”

Burns’ eyes grew big.

“Did you find a Knocklehead? I was looking all over for them last Christmas.”

“Yes, Burns,” said Detective Charlie, patting the younger officer on the head. “I think I did.”

A beaded curtain in front of the two police officers parted and an elderly, dark-skinned woman wearing a headdress and a loosely flowing skirt emerged from the back room.

“Please, to follow,” she said.

Detective Charlie felt his cell-phone vibrate and he took a look at the text message as he stood.

“Burnsie.”

“Yeppers?”

“Looks like we got a match on the prints.”

“Yeah, huh?”

“Another Bedville student.” He sighed. “These kids just keep popping up, don’t they? White male by the name of Jeff Lamprey. What the fudge kind of name is that? Hope he’s an oceanography major.”

Detective Charlie returned the cell phone to his pocket and entered the back room through the beaded curtain.

Burns laughed, and made the Pikinchu look like it was laughing, too.

“Good one, boss.” He picked up the doll. “Let’s go, little buddy.”

Detective Charlie’s eyes slowly adjusted to the dimly lit back room of Madame Mystic’s. Jugs half full of yellow liquid and unidentified objects appeared out of the darkness, lining a series of wooden shelves while hammered metal ornaments loomed at odd angles from the walls. In the center of the room was a low round table covered with red cloth and dominated by a purple crystal ball on a black felt dais. A cheap boombox was playing some eastern European techno-trance from one corner.

Charlie stepped into the room a bit and paused. Behind him, Burns let out a tiny yelp. Madame Mystic had unscrewed the lid of a shelved jar and drawn a dripping item from it.

“The pork knuckle?” she asked, offering the fleshy object.

“Ma’am, we’re not here for the delicacies. We need some information.”

Madame Mystic returned the meat to the jar. “Waz iz to know?” she said, shrugging her shoulders and frowning.

Detective Charlie strode to the table and dropped his notepad on the red cloth. The name “Vladi Peepes” was written on the open page.

Madame Mystic’s eyes glanced at the page and widened. “Where you get thiz notebook?” she hissed. “So nice cover… pretty.” She ran her hand over it.

“I believe you know a colleague of mine. Homicide Detective Max Shreck, ma’am. He told me you threw up a lot of theatrics, but you could tell us what we need to know.” The detective placed a crisp 50-dollar bill on the table. Officer Burns hiccupped. “I need to know if Vladi Peepes is operating out of Bedville now.”

Madame Mystic sat down at the table and folded her thin, veiny hands together. Then she clacked her gummy lips and rolled her eyes around in their sockets.

“Jeeplies!” whispered Burns. Detective Charlie elbowed him in the ribs.

Madame Mystic’s eyes narrowed and her jaw dropped open with the rest of her head lowered. “Iz true. Vlad the Pisser iz here in Bedville.”

Burns stifled a laugh, “Did you hear that, boss? She said ‘pisser’!”

Detective Charlie grabbed the notepad from the table and swung it casually, but with force in the direction of Burns’ crotch. The officer let out a sharp grunt and reeled back a bit. He flipped open the notepad and readied a pencil.

“Ma’am, we have reason to believe Peepes is involved with a robbery that occurred earlier this evening. Do you know where we can find him?”

“I dooooooooo…” her clammy mouth drooled. Burns wrinkled up his face. “But iz going to cost you much more than fifty dollar.”

“How much?”

Madame Mystic’s eyes turned to Burns.

“Wha—what? No way, boss. I’m not ending up in one of her pickle jars!”

Her eyes lowered to the Pikinchu clasped at the officer’s chest. “Perfect Pikinchu… for meeee!” she cackled, a bony finger pointed jerkily now at the doll.

“Boss, NO!!!” Burns’ eyes had gone wide, and the color had drained from his face, “I love this little guy! He’s helping out with the case, you know!? What’s that, little buddy?” Burns lowered his ear to the Pikinchu. “You have some friends who might know where Sven Peeples is? Boss! He can help us find this guy! I promise! Don’t let her take him from me! We can crack this case ourselves!”

Detective Charlie smacked Burns over the head with his notepad. “Hand over the frickin’ doll, Burnsie. Before I get angry.”

Burns took one more look at the doll, whispered “I’m sorry,” and held it out to Madame Mystic. “He’s sensitive. Try to be gentle with him. He’s an orphan.”

Detective Charlie hit him again and jerked the doll from his hand.

“Alright, ma’am. Where’s Vladi Peepes?”

 

EIGHT

JIBBS WOKE, NOT WITH A START, but with something of a false start. The real start came when a bucket of cold water hit him square in the face.

“Holy frick!” he let out, and another bucketful hit him. “I’m awake already!”

“Hey buddy! How’s it going?” The grinning face of Lance McCormick came into view above him, bucket in hand. “You want another? You still look a bit sleepy.”

“I’m awake, I’m awake!”

Lance frowned. “Cool, I’m supposed to bring you into the temple room, then.” He grabbed Jibbs under the arm and began to yank him into a standing position.

“Wait—my leg—“ Jibbs began, but strangely found his leg fine as his feet found themselves below him. He looked for the wound… the hole was there in the left thigh of his track pants, but the flesh seemed fine below.

“Wait, my leg! My butt!” Lance jeered back. “What was that you said?”

“I just—“

“Your what hurts?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, really? A rash? You should try a medicated herbal rub.”

“What the frick are you talking about, Lance?!”

Lance jerked him to one side and threw open the door of the stuffy storage room he had been lying in. “Oh, you’re a big-time gaypants, too? Oh, okay. I didn’t know. I’ll be sure to let everyone know.”

Lance dragged him down a long stony corridor with hanging bulbs until they reached a thick door at the end. The image of a Sphinx in a top hat smoking a cigar was above the door, with a crescent moon and a smiling cockroach. Jibbs recognized the symbol immediately from all the times he had visited the buck-fifty move theatre in downtown Bedville. The Bricklayer’s Lodge! He realized he must be inside the big, creepy, and poorly-lit building now.

“Hey, Jibbs. Do you want me to let you go? If I take you in here, some guy with a horned crown and skulls around his neck will probably rip your beating heart out and force you to drink his grandmother’s pee or something… would you rather I just let you go through door number two instead?” He nodded toward another door on the side of the corridor. “Blue Bird Grill is just outside. You could get yourself a cheeseburger and triple-sticky banana milkshake and call it a night. Whatta ya say?”

“Wha—what? You’d let me go?”

“Wait… what was that? I don’t think I heard you…”

“Yes! Let me go, Lance! Let me go and I won’t tell anyone anything! I haven’t yet, I swear.”

“I’m sorry?” Lance frowned in disgust. “Did you say it fell off??? Well, why didn’t you go to the hospital once the swelling set in? Geez, Jibbs, that’s disgusting. I guess I’ll just take you in to meet the Master Bricklayer, then.”

Lance chuckled, threw open the large door, and pushed Jibbs in.

If Jibbs was expecting something from a Steven Spielberg set, he was very much disappointed. The Bricklayer’s “temple” room looked more like an old middle school auditorium, complete with wooden stage, musty red curtains, and a podium. On the podium was the Bricklayer’s crest again. But what was downright creep-i-fying were all the hooded goons filling the room in purple robes. And up on stage were three raised sarcophagi with wrapped figures in two of them. The third sarcophagus was empty. Jibbs squinted to see better and recognized the two figures almost immediately. One was Wayne Groman, the host of the party, and the other was Andy Applebell, the strange bearded character who had been in the Booze-Mart with him earlier that night. Both were wrapped tightly like mummies, their faces uncovered, but their arms folded over their chests.

“Welcome!” A scratchy voice squealed over the PA system, and Jibbs turned to see one of the goons in a purple velvet smoking jacket striding up to the podium with microphone in hand. He tapped the mic a few times with the palm of his hand and squinted toward the back of the room. “All good, Len?” Another goon at the soundboard adjusted the level of the microphone. “Ahem. I would like to thank our many guests here tonight. Those from towns outside of Bedville… Cathy’s Stream, Schmeerburg, Aurala. Welcome. And now, with no further whoo-bub, I would like to offer the stage to our emcees for the night, the marvelous Transylvanian siblings of delight, Master and Mistress Peepes!”

The room erupted with applause, and two figures mounted the stage. The first Jibbs recognized as Pepe, the Hispanic who had held him at gunpoint earlier that night– what was going on? The woman with him, a permed, young-looking housewife was not anyone he knew. Suddenly, Jibbs’ eyes fell upon another figure, unrobed, near the back of the stage. Charity!

“Thank you, Mister Vice Collaborator.” Pepe, or Master Peepes, was speaking now, with no trace of a Spanish accent at all. In fact, he sounded more like some old Shakespearean actor, his voice moving up and down, pausing and launching into the next word for dramatic emphasis. “We are assembled here… at an historic moment for our organization. With the astral signifiers aligned tonight… at the stroke of three a.m., we will draw the imprisoned spirits of Pik, Inch, and Yu from their soul-sleep within their plastic avatars… and usher in the new age!” The hooded crowd applauded. One goon lifted a can of Mr. Pibb in the air in some kind of salute.

Peepes motioned to one side, and Jibbs watched as three Pikinchu dolls were carried ceremoniously by robed women onto the stage and placed before the sarcophagi.

“It has been a long and difficult process… but we have recovered all three avatars.  And now, with the addition of a third… host, nothing stands in our way.”

Peepes eyes burned through the room and came to rest on Jibbs. His arm rose in a graceful gesture and beckoned.

Lance chirped up, “Hey, this ‘host’ has a big-time rash on his johnson. Is that going to be a problem??”

The room tittered with stifled laughter. Peepes frowned and narrowed his eyes. “Bring him forward… and I shall examine him.”

Jibbs struggled, but another two hooded goons helped Lance move him up onto the stage. They dragged him within a few feet of the short Peepes. “You’re not wrapping me up in your frickin’ toilet paper. Good luck trying to get me to hold still,” Jibbs spat out.

Peepes looked up and down Jibbs’ face and smiled. “Oh… but we won’t …need… to force you, you will let us wrap you in this ‘fr-rrricking toilet paper’.” His hand reached out and latched onto Jibbs’ neck. Jibbs giggled a little because he was ticklish, but tried to jerk away at the same time. Peepes turned his neck to the side where Charity had bit him. “Behold!” He proclaimed, turning back to the audience. “The mark of a Lady Cockroach! He has been turned!” The room launched into applause again. Some dude opened another can of Mr. Pibb, and Jibbs thought he heard one of the goons on stage let out a discreet fart amidst all the covering noise.

Master Peepes took a few steps backward and turned upstage. Jibbs watched as Charity made her way forward. Even under these horrible circumstances, she still looked really good to Jibbs… the way her hair moved back and forth and her own purple robe fit the contours of her body– And then Jibbs was under a different kind of trance. Whatever link Charity had made with him through the “mark”, she was now able to influence his actions. As if in a dream, he felt himself lurch directly to the center of the stage and hold his arms out at his sides in order to allow the mummification process to begin. Some album by Deep Forest that Jibbs vaguely remembered from Freshman year started to play over the PA system, and Jibbs thought that the whole thing might actually be a pretty chill experience if it weren’t for the fact that he was about to become the living host for either Pik, Inch, or Yu; some new-age Bricklayer spirits. When his body had been covered with the first layer of mummy-wrap, he involuntarily folded his arms over his chest, and the process continued. He looked into Charity’s eyes. Somewhere deep inside, he could still control his thoughts, though not his actions. Charity had told him to trust her. Had that just been her way of gaining his confidence? “Lady Cockroach”? Sounded like some Asian brand of menthol cigarettes. Jibbs stepped backwards and fit himself into the third and final sarcophagus. It felt quite cozy, actually. There was even a headrest made of nice and soft purple velvet.

“Behold! Perfect Pikinchu…” Peepes was at it again, his arms spread wide to the audience. “We call to thee. The group of Bricklayers shuffled about, lifting old purple hymnals from the seats and flipping open the pages. The one thirsty dude had to put down his can of Mr. Pibb, but then he thought twice about it and managed to hold both the hymnal and the can at the same time.

“Perfect Pikinchu, in form and appetite expressed, come with thine presence and rest upon thine host, de naza dena grianza… grianza deza denaza. Ah ha ha ha!” The goons were swaying back and forth now, their hips in time with the chanting. One dude had lifted his hands up and was clapping in rhythm. Another dude was trying to snap his fingers, without much luck. The Deep Forest track was still playing in the background.

“Unleash thine might, unleash thine will upon thine willing host…”

Jibbs looked down and saw his Perfect Pikinchu, staring up at him through plastic eyes, a set of silver nunchaku in gloved hands. Was this for real?

“Hands in the air, everybody! This is for real!”

Jibbs’ concentration buckled for a moment and his eyes rolled to see the forms of Detective Charlie and Office Burns striding uneasily down the aisle of the auditorium. Burns had a pistol drawn, and was squinting with one eye and his tongue jammed into the corner of his mouth; Detective Charlie was behind him, his eyes wide open and taking in the scene. Jibbs saw another movement out of the corner of his eye, and watched as Lance McCormick slipped past Charity and behind a curtain offstage, disappearing from sight.

“What is this??” intoned Peepes, draping a length of purple gown over his arm and striding regally to the forestage. “Who is this who inter-rrrrupts us!” Mistress Peepes, or whatever her name really was, stood behind him, her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes narrowed.

“That’s right! We’re interrupting you all right!” yelled Burns, waving his gun back and forth. “Cultus interruptus, to be precise!” Burns looked back at Detective Charlie for a bit of affirmation.

“Burnsie, holster your firearm before you hurt yourself,” said Charlie, elbowing the younger officer in the ribs. He moved past Burns and faced down Peepes. “Alright, Grimace. Start explaining this bunch of garmented grapes.”

“We are r-rrrehearsing for a production to open tomorrow night, and you are inter-rrrrupting!”

“Rehearsing, eh? At this time of night?”

“Obviously, you do not know show business.” Peepes sniffed in the air.

“Yeah, maybe I don’t,” said Charlie, “But I hear there’s no business like show business, unless it’s some wacked out cult doing that business… and then it becomes my business, see?”

Burns gave a nod. “That’s right. The neon lights are bright… on Broadway.”

Charlie gave Burns a frown.

“What are you insinuating, sir?” said Peepes.

“Exactly what show are you rehearsing with the mummies there?”

Peepes took a look at the sarcophagi, then back to Charlie. “Antony and Cleopatra. It’s William Shakespeare.” He placed the back of his hand on his forehead and rolled his eyes. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh yeah? Try me.” Burns pointed to one of the goons onstage. “Hey, third Olivier from the left, what’s your line?”

The goon cleared his throat. “I’m a supernumerary, sir. I have no lines.”

“And you?” Burns pointed to another.

“I… ummm… I play a tree.” The goon lifted his arms above his head like branches.

“Alright, you thespic clowns, let’s see some identification. We’ll start with you, Orson Welles.” He motioned to Peepes.

“Hmmm…” said Peepes. “It will be hard for you officers to identify anyone… with the lights OFF!”

He intoned the final words, raising one arm and motioning quickly to the goon named Len near the back of the auditorium. The goon cocked his head to one side and frowned. Then he shrugged his shoulders.

“The lights, you fool!” Peepes shouted.

The goon’s eyes registered recognition and he flicked off the bank of switches running along the back wall. The room dropped into a dark inky blackness and Jibbs could hear Detective Charlie curse and Peepes laugh again, deeply and with a bit of a quaver, almost as if enjoying it a bit too much. An audible fart echoed through the auditorium. Flashlight beams snapped on, and Jibbs could see the two policemen struggling to find their way to the stage like an old comedy routine. Suddenly, he felt something at his side. It was Charity.

“Jeff! I know you can hear me. I promise I will explain everything when this is all over, and I’m sorry it has to happen this way… remember what I told you, Jeff.”

And with that, Charity slipped offstage, and Jibbs felt his body lurch forward and his arms rise in front of him in the classic Frankenstein pose. His feet clumped along as he moved forward toward the two entangled officers who had ascended to stage level.

“Alright, buddy, just hold it right there!” Detective Charlie had drawn his gun now, and was pointing it at Jibbs.

“Go for the head! That’s how you stop a mummy! Headshot!” shouted Burnsie, whose gun was pointing in every direction.

“Just shut yer flap, Burnsie! No one’s getting a headshot today if I can help it.” And with that, Detective Charlie aimed in the air and fired two rounds. Something sagged and snapped above, and Jibbs felt a heavy fabric come down over his head, and then he was out cold again.
Lance McCormick clattered down the steel steeps illuminated by gritty bulbs above. He turned a corner and looked back to see if he was being followed. He wasn’t. He drew a heavy key from his pocket with a cockroach molded to the handle and fit it into the lock at the end of the small corridor. The cold, stone walls around him echoed the sound of its movement followed by the lock freeing itself. Lance turned the handle and slipped into the room, flipping a switch beside the door with familiarity. In moments, a string of fluorescent tubes ignited in the ceiling and cast an unnatural glow on the workspace he had entered. Several banks of dormant computer screens filled a center console in the middle of the room, while below them could be seen the faint green glow of the terminals themselves.

“Alright you gaywads,” said Lance, dropping himself into the console chair, “Let’s just see what this thing can do.”

For someone known to be the class clown, Lance moved over the main keyboard with a speed and dexterity that would have made any self-respecting RPG player suspect a loaded die. He entered a stream of command lines, checked them twice, and pushed a large plastic key labeled ‘execute’. A bank of vintage electronics along the back wall came to life, humming and chirping with delight.

Suddenly, the door burst open and Master and Mistress Peepes entered breathlessly,

“Have you begun the sequence?”

“Does a vampire avoid the produce aisle?

Peepes frowned. “I will bypass this query and assume the answer is yes?”

Lance nodded. “Barry ought to on his way now. Seven distinct sedimentary layers to pass through, but that shouldn’t be a problem for his independently-moving tusks. Got the dolls?” Peepes raised his arm on one side to reveal the duffel bag. “Good. Charity’s outside with the Range Rover; let’s make tracks. We’ve still got time for plan B to work out. The Stables is only two miles from here.”

Lance switched off the computer monitor, and a green diagram of something which looked like an elephant faded from the screen as the trio departed.

 

“There we go… he’s coming around now.”

Jibbs spluttered and coughed, and found himself sitting on the now-deserted stage of the Bricklayer’s Lodge. Detective Charlie and Officer Burns were beside him. The young officer was munching on a candy bar.

“Jeez Whillikers! You gave us a scare there, buddy!” said Burnsie, taking a bite of nougat.

“What happened to you there, son?” asked Detective Charlie. “You were doing a pretty decent Bela Lugosi impersonation.”

“We had ta shoot out the tapestry!” said Burnsie, proudly.

“We, nothin’!” retorted Detective Charlie. “If you had discharged your firearm, this kid would have been a bit ‘holier’ for the experience, Burnsie.”

“I-I-I gotta get out of here. I have to find Char—“

“Hey, whoah, buddy! Take it easy. You just rest there a minute. An ambulance is on the way. We want to make sure you haven’t received a concussion, or been drugged, or anything like that.”

“What about the short guy? The actor?”

Detective Charlie nodded. “Vladi Peepes. He skidaddled like a spider in a Teflon frying pan. But don’t you worry… we got this place surrounded. None of these robed rascals will be making an exodus to Egypt this year, if you catch my drift.”

Suddenly, there was a deep rumbling, and Jibbs felt the ground beneath him shake. The two policemen stood, grabbing their caps to keep them on.

“W-w-what the–??”

Before Detective Charlie could finish his sentence with an expletive or an old-fashioney word, a giant beige tusk pierced the worn, wooden floorboards and sent the trio skittering to opposite corners of the stage. As they watched with a mixture of horror and amazement, a huge Mastodon, all bone and no sinew, rose from the earth beneath, destroying the stage and auditorium in its wake. An eerie, green glow surrounded the animated bones as they articulated and brought the historical beast to life. If Jibbs weren’t seeing it with his own eyes, he would have blamed it on the night’s cheap drinking.

Outside the Bricklayer’s Lodge, the surrounding police force cringed behind their vehicles and barricades, realizing that something was amiss. The ground beneath shook, and bricks from the corner of the lodge rightly dis-lodged and fell to the ground where they continued to vibrate like plastic tight-ends on an electric football board. Then, with a bellow/shriek, Barry the Mastodon burst through the roof of the lodge and wheeled his fierce and hollow skull toward the assembled officers.

Inside the building, Jibbs realized his only escape was through the stage wing where Charity had also vanished. Seeing the two officers struggling to avoid falling debris on the other side of the roof, Jibbs scrambled to his feet and stumbled against the shaking walls as he angled down the darkened wing and hallway until he discovered a stage door which led to a back alley. He threw his weight against the pushbar and stumbled down the exit steps to the alley. Beyond, at street level, he watched a group of people fleeing from the unfolding rampage. Craning his neck above, he cringed as the bony midsection of Barry passed over the lodge and the structure’s wall gave way as the beast freed itself.

Whatever was happening now, it was out of Jibbs’ control (as if anything ever was in his control), but he remembered Charity’s last words to him… Birkwell Forest Reserve. Hearing the screams around him and still somewhat dazed by the scene of a giant green mastodon skeleton terrorizing downtown Bedville, Jibbs raced back toward the parking deck where his car sat, leaped in, and started ‘er up.

Detective Charlie and Burnsie scrambled out of the collapsing lodge and scurried to the cover of a nearby squad car. All around them, buildings were quaking and the noise of the animated creature filled the night air.

“Whatta we got here?!” he yelled to the officer who cowered behind the vehicle. “We were inside when that dang thing came through the floorboards. What are we lookin’ at here?!”

The officer shouted back. “Mammut americanum, by the looks of it, sir! More informally known as a mastodon, though that name is now technically obsolete as a referent to genus. A member of the order Proboscidea, if memory serves right.”

“Genus and order be-deviled, son! What’s it doing here in Bedville?”

Mammut americanum lived in herds and were predominantly forest dwelling animals,” shouted the officer. “They fed on a mixed diet of browsing and grazing with a seasonal preference for browsing– in contrast to the related species of elephants today that are mostly grazing animals. I’m not sure exactly what a mastodon would be doing here in the middle of a suburban town, at this time of night, though, sir.”

“How comes it’s all skele-fied?” piped up Burnsie.

“Well, mastodons disappeared from North America due to a mass extinction of most of the Pleistocene megafauna… which was part of their diet.”

Burnsie nodded and scrunched up his face.

“That extinction is widely presumed to have been a result of rapid climate change in North America, as well as the sophistication of stone tool weaponry used by the Clovis hunters in this area which may have caused a gradual attrition of the mastodon population. If I had to wager an educated guess, I’d guess this big guy was one of the last in the area who died from lack of nutrition or from human hunting. Looks like he’s back now, though, and hungrier than ever.”

No sooner had the officer said those words than the mastodon’s tusks ripped through the roof of Blue Bird Grill across the street and dragged the large hamburger sign away in its wake.

“Jeeplies!” cringed Burnsie.

“How do we defeat an animated mastodon skeleton?” Detective Charlie shouted.

“They didn’t cover this one in training, that’s for sure, sir.” The officer frowned. “Well, lemme see here… the big guy’s made up of bones…”

“I know, sir! We get Clifford!” shouted Burns. “The big red dog, sir! Clifford!”

“Burnsie! Shut yer yap!”

“It’s plausible that the bones are able to be articulated due to some kind of force field, sir,” said the officer. “Perhaps… an electromagnetic field?”

“Hmm… and how do we break that kinda field, son?”

“If there are electrically charged particles keeping that thing in action, you might be able to disrupt them with something as simple as water, sir.”

Detective Charlie grabbed Burnsie by the scruff of his uniform and dragged him toward the opposite alley.

“Alright, I gotta plan, Burnsie. You wanna be Han or Luke?”

“Ummm… can I be Luke? And do I get a lightsaber?”

“You get something even better, Burnsie,” grinned Detective Charlie. “But we gots ta hop to it! That mastodon’s headed straight for the college campus, and all the poor saps staying here for the break are looking down the barrel… of a tusk right now. It’s just you and me that stands between them and that prehistoric abomination.”

“Alright, sir! Ya got me pepped up!” shouted Burnsie, clapping his hands together. “Whoopie! Let’s do this like Lucas!”

 

NINE

JIBBS SWUNG INTO THE DARKENED PARKING LOT of Birkwell Reserve and rolled down the empty rows looking for any sign of Charity. The Reserve served as an escape for Bedville students in its nearly 1000-acre wooded expanse, boasting a sizeable lake and a giant man-made hill which had been unofficially dubbed “Crapperhorn” due to its construction atop an earlier landfill. Many times in the Spring, when he had an afternoon free from classes, Jibbs had driven out to the Reserve to “study”, which usually meant falling asleep on a grassy area surrounding the lake and then having dinner at nearby California Taco. Jibbs had daydreamed about taking Charity here to sled down Crapperhorn, but now he only dreamed of her telling him what the frick was going on, and what the frick they were going to do about it.

And there she stood– just as she had said.

Jibbs brought the car to a halt as Charity strode to the passenger’s side and clambered in.

“Charity—“

She cut him off, as usual.

“Jeff. I’m so sorry about all of this. I didn’t plan to get you involved like this. You happened to show up at the party when I was waiting for someone else… and I guess I just ran out of time.”

“Oh. That’s okay, Charity. I-I-I—“ Jibbs was jibbering.

“I had to produce two hosts for the ceremony. Originally it was just one, and that turned out to be Wayne Groman. But when you found me at the party, Peepes had just called. Their third and final host had left town for break, unannounced. He was some philosophy major whose parents lived on a farm up in Wisconsin… unpasteurized milk, free-range geese… apparently he got homesick or something. Anyway, I had to find a replacement host and you happened to walk into the room at that very same moment.

“Charity, I know you said you had discovered something strange going on at the Bricklayer’s Lodge with your physics experiment, but how did you end up a… ‘Lady Cockroach’? How did you end up finding ‘hosts’?? And how the heck did you end up with fricking fangs??? Or am I imagining all of this?!”

Charity sighed. “Well…“ She shuffled her hands in her lap a little. “I kinda got into the goth-punk scene in high school. I know that might be hard to imagine now, but I had my canine teeth filed down to a point. It’s a look.”

“And how is it that you bit me, I fainted, and woke up with no gunshot wound?!”

Charity blew through her lips. “How much did you have to drink tonight, Jeff? I’m pretty sure I didn’t shoot you in the leg.”

“I didn’t say you shot me in the leg, Charity.”

“Okay, OKAY! Fine, Jeff, I’m a vampire. Is that what you wanted to hear? You dragged it out of me. Yes, I’m a real-life VAMPIRE. I can bite and hypnotize and fly a little bit… I’m not that good at the flight part yet, really, but anyway… yeah, I’m a chick vampire. A vampire chick. Whatever.” She threw her hands up and looked out the window.

Jibbs frowned for a brief moment; then shrugged.

“Well, I mean… that’s cool.”

Charity turned back to him. “I infiltrated the Bricklayer’s Lodge months ago and was caught by Mistress Peepes. They were having an open bingo night, but somehow she noticed there was something different about me. Turns out she was a vampire, too. The real deal, from Transylvania. My Mom’s side of the family is Eastern European, but my Dad is Danish. Maybe that’s why I can’t fly so good, but I seem to have a big appetite for butter cookies. To be honest, the whole mind-control thing I’m usually pretty crap at, too. Maybe there’s some kind of vampire school to develop this stuff in, but I didn’t even know I had it until senior year of high school.”

“So they recruited you in the Bricklayer’s?”

“Yeah. Turns out it’s actually not too hard to get in. Half those guys are just middle-aged Dads who got bored cycling around Bedville in flashy lycra or dusting their tools in the garage or whatever. They joined up for a little action, I suppose. They’re pretty decent folk, when you get down to it.”

“Charity! These guys tried to possess the bodies of three very unwilling hosts less than an hour ago with some kind of fricking spirits!”

“Oh, yeah. But at the beginning it wasn’t like that. AT least I didn’t get that impression. I was just curious about the spike in energy levels. Things got a bit crazy later when I was allowed into the more secret, upper level meetings. Those top guys are all vegetarians and they drink a lot of Mr. Pibb. Really weird characters. Tell a lot of puns, have really bad gas because of all the vegetables and the carbonated drinks. I thought there was a link to the energy flux there at the beginning, but–”

“Charity– what do we do now?”

“Jeff, if I can ask you for one more favor, I promise it will be the last.”

“Okay, what is it…?”

“Do you know where the Stables is?

Jibbs did indeed know. Its name, within the generally conservative Bedville College community, was synonymous with wretched scum and villainy, for all students had signed a contract upon admission to neither dance, smoke, nor drink during their enrollment, and those students who at times frequented this hive were fragrantly breaking their contractual word. Of course, such prohibited activities were technically permissible while on break, which is why it always exploded in the form of parties such as those Wayne Groman had thrown earlier that night.

“Yeah. I know where it is.”

“Are you familiar with… its basement floor?”

Now Jibbs had heard of the Stables’ basement, but he didn’t know whether these stories were fact or fiction. This is where all the classic Bedville College chapel pranks had supposedly gestated, fermented and brewed with the coming together of some of the most rebellious and prank-ful student minds. The lab rats launched from the tennis ball machine… a horse dressed as Hitler… Jesus’ second coming. These pranks and more had (purportedly) been planned in the secrecy of the Stables’ basement.

“Yeah, I’ve heard the stories, Charity.”

“This is where the top Bricklayers are now. It’s where I just left them. It’s where they are trying to finish what they started back at the lodge.”

“Did you know there’s some kind of prehistoric mammoth skeleton loose downtown right now?”

Charity cocked her head. “The Bricklayers have access to arts unheard of. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to deal with that now. We’ll have to leave that to the local authorities. Because we have to stop this threat directly at the source. We need to go to the Stables.”

“What exactly are the Bricklayers doing there?

“You must have also heard that beneath Bedville… the college, the older town buildings… everything, are remnants of an underground railroad?”

Jibbs had heard these rumors as well, and half-nodded. It seemed the night was going to filled with rumors coming true in some way or another.

“There are tunnels running beneath the Stables. And these connect to all of Bedville College’s older buildings, including the main boiler room. Because the Bricklayers were unable to bring Pik, Inch, and Yu into physical form through the ceremony you witnessed, the next best thing will be to release their dark spiritual energy into the environment of Bedville– through the showers. A kind of demonic baptism. Every dorm room and college-owned off-campus house will be affected. All the students still on campus will become hosts of a different kind. They are all highly susceptible right now to possession because they are here for the Christmas break rather than at home with family, doing events with their church, anything more ‘properly’ social. The party tonight has primed them for such possession. You know the Bedville Pledge students have to sign, saying they won’t drink, dance, or cuss?”

“Of course.” Jibbs grinned. “I signed it with my left hand.”

“That Pledge was drafted by early opponents of the Bricklayers. Back in 1860, these conservative evangelical freedom fighters were battling Pik, Inch, and Yu in their human manifestations. They knew that all kinds of deviant behaviour like playing cards or riding tandem bicycles opened a soul up for potential possession, and it was for this reason they put the Pledge into formal writing—to protect future generations.” Charity looked at her Casio watch. “We have only about an hour left before it will be all too late.”

“Well, what are we doing out here? Let’s get to The Stables!”

“I snuck away and came out here for two reasons, Jeff.” Charity pulled something from her pocket. “I needed a single, pristine feather from a white-bellied nutsucker thrush. And Birkwell just so happens to be a nutsucker habitat.” Charity put the feather away again.

“And why do you have that? Is it part of some ritual we are going to enact?”

“I hope you won’t have to see why, Jeff. But the other reason I came here and asked you to meet me is that I know you wanted to ask me here to sled down Crapperhorn. In fact, you’ve been sharing that fantasy so often and so publicly with people we both know like Chappie and Sheila… Renee, Dave, Brucie. Thomas, Jennifer, Harry, Hutch, Linda. Amy… and Karl, to name a few off the top of my head–” Jibbs’ face grew bright red. “–That in some ways I’m required to respond.”

“Oh. I, uhhh. T-t-that was something I, uhh—“

“Jeff. Don’t jibber right now. I’m telling you that’s a very sweet thing to fantasize about. In fact, in today’s day and age, it’s probably one of the few fantasies a girl might hear coming from a guy that wouldn’t turn her stomach. It’s quaint… it’s sweet.” Charity stood on her tiptoes and kissed Jibbs on the cheek. “I’m sorry I had to shoot you, and bite you, and control your mind and all that. And there’s a bit ahead I haven’t filled you in on yet, either.” Jibbs frowned. “But I need you to be a man and to help me save Bedville because you think it’s the right thing to do. Not because you have a crush on me. And not because I’m controlling your mind anymore. It has to be your own choice.”

“Well, I uhhh… I mean, I’m up for saving the world and such.”

“Great, Jeff. Great.” Charity smiled. “Because I also don’t have a car.”

“How did you get here, then? You flew?”

“It was a bit rough, Jeff. So, yeah, let’s go. Chop, chop! Talk on the way. It’s cold out here!

 

TEN

DETECTIVE CHARLIE BURST THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR of the fire station and passed a volunteer at the front desk who was playing some PC game with a large headset clamped firmly over his ears. He barely registered the policeman’s entrance. Charlie pushed his way into the engine garage with Burnsie at his heels.

“Soup ta nuts, Burnsie! We gotta commandeer an engine! That one over there!” Charlie pointed at the nearest vehicle that was parked next to the large roll-up station doors and headed for the wheel. “You wanna be Luke, huh, Burnsie? Hop on the water cannon then!”

Burnsie’s eyes grew wide and he whooped with delight.

“Hey there, Charlie! What’s going on here?!” an older fireman with a bushy moustache and thick glasses strode forward from an adjoining room. On his chest was pinned a shiny badge reading “Fire Chief”, which looked like the real deal.

“Have you heard the commotion in town, Ted?” yelled Detective Charlie.

“What commotion?”

“Hop in, Chief! I’ll give you the lowdown on the way! Let’s get those doors open!”

The Chief waddled over to the passenger’s side of the engine and lifted his heavy frame upward and in.

“There’s no fire tonight, but we’re gonna need some water anyways,” said Charlie.

“Hey Chief Nuffles!” Burnsie was waving from his position atop the engine.

“Does that bonehead know how to operate the hose?” asked the Chief.

“Hmmmm.” Detective Charlie smacked his lips. “He barely knows how to operate his own legs, Ted.”

The fire station doors were up, and Charlie had started the engine. He clanged the bell; he blew the horn. Burnsie sprayed a short jet of water at the surprised volunteer who had stepped from the front desk, somehow now noticing all the activity.

“Let’s hit it!” Charlie mashed his foot on the pedal and the engine hurtled forward and onto the streets of Bedville. Burnsie hollered and cheered from above.

 

The night was colder and much more bitter now—or was that just Jibbs’ imagination? His car was parked unobtrusively off the side of the county road as he waited for Charity to return. He couldn’t shake the feeling that things had somehow gotten darker… and that this night was dipping more toward the grim with each passing moment.

There was a quick tap at the window, and Jibbs turned to see Charity looking in. He opened the door and stepped out into the biting night air.

“Okay. Things look the same as when I left.” Charity motioned off to the side of the road. “You see that drainage pipe?”

Jibbs nodded.

“I’m not going to ask you to crawl through it, but I am going to say there is some pretty hilarious graffiti in there done by Bedville students I should show you at some point in the future– if we survive this night, that is. However, what you do need to do is follow the stream coming from the pipe down that a’way through the woods. It passes by the other side of the Stables. When you see the back light flash on and off three times, that means it’s all clear. Come on up and I’ll meet you at the rear entrance.”

Jibbs nodded, flipped on his flashlight, and descended from the shoulder down to the stream which spilled from the large pipe running below and through the road. From there, he began to make his way carefully along the edge of the water through the bramble and scramble of the woods. After a time, he thought he could make out some lights ahead, and pressed further on. Just ahead, a bit of scrubby grass appeared and he could make out a long open expanse that led upwards to the lights he was following. And those dim lights looked like they belonged to the Stables.

Jibbs crouched down and flipped off his flashlight. He shivered in the cold for a moment, then jammed his hands deep into his armpits and breathed out a cloud of warm, steamy breath. Up ahead, one of the lights blinked off and then on again. Three times. Jibbs stood up and began to advance on the hill until he saw the clear outline of the old bar begin to form, and there in the dim light– Charity.

Charity stood beside a heavy metal entrance which was built into the ground at an angle. One of the entrance’s two grey doors lay open, exposing a set of crumbly stone steps which descended into the unknown. Charity nodded silently, and Jibbs entered the space, feeling his way in the dark with hands and baby steps. After about eight steps down, Jibbs watched the rectangle of light above shrink and then disappear as Charity pulled the door closed above her. Another twelve steps or so, and Jibbs felt the ground even out and lead to what felt like a wooden door. After a moment, Charity was there by his side, whispering.

“Okay, Jibbs. Now, what you are going to see in there may surprise you. It may scare you. It may even make you laugh. Or… it may bore you. But at no point must you turn away. From this point forward you and I are the last defense for Bedville. Take my hand and open the door.”

Jibbs fumblingly found Charity’s hand and with his other, the old doorknob. With a twist and a shove the wooden door groaned and swung open, and Jibbs stepped through, guiding Charity with him over the threshold into this ancient, rumor-laden site.
“Dang it, Chief! This engine’s mighty hard to steer!” Detective Charlie was already panting and grunting as he tried to negotiate a turn. It was a good thing there was no traffic at this late hour.

“Well, let me help you,” said the Chief, climbing over and getting his mitts onto the wheel. “You really gotta get a feel for the old girl… it doesn’t come easy—“

Suddenly, Barry the Mastodon appeared on the road before them, its bearing still headed toward the campus. The creature’s massive head swiveled and took in the fire engine with a green, fiery gaze. It seemed to snort and puff, as if in a challenge to the vehicle.

“Hopi smoke signals!” yelled Burnsie from above. “Are we gonna try and ram that thing?!”

Charlie mashed on the brakes and shouted back as the engine skidded to a stop. “No way, Burnsie! I’ve got no idea what that green, glowin’ field might do to us if we did! You just get that water hose ready and spray away when I give you the word!”

Burnsie nodded and grabbed at his controls. Detective Charlie put the engine in reverse and began to retreat.

“Ring the bell, Chief!”

Chief Ted nodded and began to ring the fire engine bell and blow the horn. Up ahead, the mastodon just watched in apparent puzzlement at the shiny vehicle. But with this new commotion of noise, the beast suddenly turned to fully face its enemy, lowered its head, and began to charge.

“Give ‘em the hose, Burnsie!” shouted Charlie as he watched the creature near.

A thick stream of water erupted from the water cannon atop the engine in the direction of the mastodon, but fell a good distance short.

“Up, up!” shouted Charlie, referencing to Burns’ aim, but suddenly there was a horrible noise and the two older men within the engine’s cab were thrown against their seats. A giant utility pole behind them splintered and broke away from the sidewalk, its great lines snapping above.

“Down, down!” shouted Charlie, and Burns jumped from his perch to the street below. But when the power lines came sparking down after, Charlie shouted again, “Up, up! Onto the engine, Burnsie!” The broken lines struck the pavement, found a pool of water and slushy snow, and the giant mastodon, now only a dozen yards away and treading through the spilled water, was engulfed in a giant dancing pool of electricity.

The mastodon’s head lifted, it bellowed a great prehistoric shriek, and suddenly whatever force had kept its skeletal integrity intact gave way, and a massive array of bones clattered to the street below in a wonderfully percussive melody of victory for the engine crew.

And with that, the power dropped out on the entire block.

 

There, illuminated by cheap Target floorlamps, was the infamous Stables basement. What looked like the some old boardroom table was in the very center of the space, surrounded by mismatched dorm chairs that looked like they had been sampled from different decades over the past century. A cheap, flimsy bookcase filled with what looked like paperbacks stood in one corner. A KISS poster was affixed to the far wall. And at the very center of the table itself were the three Pikinchu dolls, staring straight ahead with dull, black eyes.

Jibbs stepped to the bookcase and lifted one of the paperbacks: It was a novel by Hal Lindsey. Jibbs scanned the other shelves– all Hal Lindsey. Jibbs’ eyes suddenly fell on something else along the wall behind the bookcase, but before he could say a thing, he heard the sound of a toilet flushing off to the left.

“Under the table!” hissed Charity, and the two scrambled onto all fours.

A moment later, one of the few doors in the room opened and a pair of Converse All-Stars poking out beneath a purple robe shuffled out of what must have been the bathroom.

“Ahhhhh… much better,” came the contented voice of Little Vlad the Urinator. From above came the clatter of more footsteps and then the sound of another door opening.

“Got some brews here, boss!” called Lance. It sounded as if he and Heleena were setting down a number of glasses on the tabletop above their heads. “Nothing like a sip of Satan’s suds to ease the edge, right?”

“Verrrry good,” said Peepes. “Shall we toast the coming age of the Perfect Pikinchu?”

The glasses were lifted and the three figures chanted in unison, “De naza dena grianza… grianza deza denaza!” then sculled their booze and slammed the empty glasses down on the table. Jibbs jumped.

“Lance!” Vlad intoned. “You know the layout of Bedville well, yesss?”

“Of course, dude. Played a lot of sock-tag in my day. I know the ups and downs of all the campus buildings. Could walk ‘em in the dark if I had to.”

Charity poked Jibbs in the ribs and gave him a worried look, motioning with her hands that they had to do something, and fast.

“Good. Then you will lead the way. Each of us will take one Pikinchu. It should take us less than half an hour to reach the boiler room. And from there, we make history.” Peepes let out a deep belly laugh, paused… then laughed again. “Nothing can stand in our way now.”

“Oh yeah?!” Jibbs scrambled out from beneath the table, hitting his head on the way. “How ya like me now? How ya like me now?!”

The three Bricklayers froze as Jibbs and Charity appeared from below the table. It was unclear if they were more shocked by the emergence of the two from under the table or by Jibbs’ uncanny use of the lyric.

“What is this– amateur night at the Apollo?” Peepes bellowed. “Charity! What the—you’re with this—?!?” faltered Peepes. “How long have you been down there?!”

“Long enough to know your blood alcohol content is higher than mine in a foot race!” shouted Jibbs, snatching one of the dolls from the tabletop.

“Put that doll down, you big gaywad!” growled Lance, who had moved to block the way they had entered from outside.

Suddenly, the lights dropped out in the room and several colorful cuss words rose up from the Bricklayers.

“Charity!” Jibbs pulled her close. “I’m taking this one into the tunnel! When the light comes on and they make a move for me, escape upstairs with the others!”

Jibbs scrambled toward where he remembered the bookcase to be. In all the rumors he had heard of the Stables’ basement, there was one he remembered that spoke of a secret tunnel behind a fireplace. There was obviously no fireplace, but perhaps the bookcase was what the rumor referred to—he had noticed an amount of crumbling on the wall earlier and he now hoped that he was right about this hunch.

The Bricklayers were still arguing and fumbling in the dark as Jibbs found an edge to the bookcase. He pushed with all his weight, and the tall frame pitched forward and fell to the ground with a crash.

“What the frick, man!” yelped Lance. “Watch it with the stuff!”

“The tunnel!” screamed Peepes. “They’re trying to escape!”

Jibbs placed the flashlight upwards on his chin and flipped it on. Only a few feet in front of him stood Lance, clambering over the fallen bookcase. When Lance saw Jibbs’ eerily illuminated face, he yelped with fright.

“Holy crap! It’s the ghost of Bud Armstrong!”

“You fool! It’s the jibbering one—and he’s escaping!” shouted Peepes.

Jibbs turned and pointed his beam down the tunnel entrance, which headed directly away in a straight line. With a deep breath, he began to run with the Pikinchu beneath his arm.

At the same moment, Charity was creeping for the stairway which led to the Stables top floor with the other two Pikinchu dolls in tow. But as she reached the bottom step, Heleena’s head turned.

“Do you theenk I cannot see you in thee dark?!” the woman hissed, and rushed forward.

Charity clattered up the steps as fast as she could and reached the main floor. Bar stools, tables, and chairs formed a crazy, creepy maze to navigate as Charity made for the front door. But before she could reach it, a pair of thin yet powerful arms pounced onto her shoulders and dragged her to the floor.

“Bingo!!” screeched Heelena, pinning Charity from above.

“Get off of me! Your breath reeks!!” shouted Charity, swinging her arms and trying to connect with the creepy Transylvanian. “Ugh!”

Heleena simply laughed and began to slide her hands up toward Charity’s neck while her knees pinned her arms down securely. Charity could barely move, but she managed to reach into her pocket and lift the nutsucker thrush feather and brush it against the Romanian’s exposed thigh.

“Aghhhh!!!” cried Heleena. “Eeet burns, eet does!” She slapped the feather from Charity’s hand and stared fiercely into the pinioned younger woman’s eyes. “Where did you get thees, you leetle nasty–?!”

“I can do a bit of research, you know!” Charity struggled to break free from Heleena’s hold. “Transylvanian vampires don’t like to be tickled by white feathers, do they, now?”

“Don’t struggle, leetle one…” Heleena’s fingers latched onto Charity’s neck and began to squeeze tightly. Charity continued to fight back, but she could feel her head becoming lighter. “It weel all be over for you in one moment… De naza dena gr—“

Suddenly, the front door crashed open and a short, stocky frame masked the bright light thrown from a pair of headlights outside. Both Charity and Heleena froze with their eyes fixed on this new interloper. The figure strode forward into the room and the bearded face of Andy Applebell appeared in the gloom. He stood with a stake and hammer in each hand like some bizarre Soviet sculpture.

“And-ee?!” hissed Heleena, cocking her head to one side.

“Surprised to see me, babe?” said Andy, and jammed the stake into the vampire’s chest. She fell backwards with a shriek and Charity rolled out of the way. Andy knelt on one knee and expertly drove the stake into Heleena’s heart with a single, mighty blow. Steam billowed from the wound as the vampire writhed and wriggled, shrieking hideously while pinned to the Stables’ wooden floor– and with a final burst of smoke and bright light, she was gone.

“Consider this a divorce,” said Andy, standing and wiping the stake on his Carhartt jacket. “You alright there, little lady?” Andy offered his hand to Charity as she got to her feet.

“The ringleader… her brother… he’s still down below…” said Charity weakly.

“Leave this to me.”

Andy strode toward the door of the basement, but a sudden flurry of motion from the stairway sent him backwards as a dark shape angled through the space and whirled around the room for a moment before settling on the bar itself. When Charity got a good look, she could see what the shape was: a hideous looking black bat with glowing red eyes. The bat bared its yellowed fangs and hissed, then hobbled over to a half-filled glass of beer and dunked its head directly into the contents. Charity and Andy both watched as the liquid was drained and the bat lifted its head once again.

“Tough night, huh?” quipped Andy to the bat. “But I wouldn’t recommend drinking and flying. The cops are always out in droves on the holidays.”

The bat screeched and made a beeline for the front door, missing by several feet and crashing into the wall. It fell to the floor in a heap… wheezed like an asthmatic, and then became very still.

“He might be able to keep his booze down in human form,” said Andy, walking over to the fallen creature, “but as a bat…?? Good luck passing a sobriety test.”

Andy lifted one bat wing and let it drop.

“He’s alive. And in perfect hibernation. Let’s look for a box or a crate or something while he’s out of it.”

Charity nodded and began to search around the bar. “I recognize you from the lodge… who are you?”

Andy grunted. “Yeah, I recognize you, too. Andy Applebell. You were on the other team last I remember… with my undead, ushering-in-the-end-of-days ex-wife. How is it you were both wrestling it out on a dirty barroom floor after midnight? I usually have to pay for that kind of entertainment.”

“I’m sorry about all of that. I’m sort of… undercover. Yeah. And I’m sorry about your wife turning out to be a vampire and all.” Charity lifted a wooden crate. “Not that vampires are all bad… I mean, not that I know many, but I don’t want to make a blanket statement based on one who just happened to be trying to usher in a new age of darkness. That would be prejudiced.”

Andy took the crate and moved over to the stunned bat. “Yeah, well… life, right?” He laughed lightheartedly. “It’s got its ups… and it’s got its down. Just ask this guy here.” Andy dropped the limp creature into the crate and sealed the lid. “Anyway… teaches me not to trust easternbloc-match.com anymore, heh heh.”

“How did you know to come out here anyway?” asked Charity.

“Ahhh… everybody knows the Stables is where the dirty business goes down. I mean, this is a pretty conservative town, you know? I even thought the Bricklayer’s was a pretty decent bunch up until tonight, heh heh. If you’re tracking a skunk, you follow the scent.” Andy had found the phone behind the bar and lifted the receiver. “Hmmm. No dial-tone. I guess we’ll have to take this guy downtown ourselves and drop him off with Bedville P.D.”

Charity turned toward the basement door and thought of Jibbs. She hoped he was managing his part of this fight, but there was nothing she could do now except alert the police and hope they would believe her. With two Pikinchu dolls and two Bricklayers out of the way, they were closer to saving Bedville. But even one Bricklayer spirit released was enough to bring the town to its knees. Charity shuddered.

“Okay, Andy. Let’s get going.”

Andy lifted the crate containing Bat-Peepes.

“Whoo boy. The cops are gonna love this one.”

 

ELEVEN

JIBBS ROUNDED THE CORNER and drew himself against the dirt wall, breathing heavily. The Pikinchu doll was still clutched tightly in his hands. Frick! Didn’t I just pass through this section?! He thought.

“Hey Jibbs!” The mocking tone of Lance McCormick trickled down the tunnel. “Are you sure you know where you’re going, ya big gaywad? You’re looking like the rat in the maze we had to study for Psychology, haha! Why don’tcha just come on out and we’ll talk for a minute? All this running around is bad for that rash of yours. Just aggravates the condition.”

Jibbs pushed himself away from the wall and continued on. He was keeping his flashlight low and trying to use it sparingly. But to be honest, Lance was right. He was feeling like a rat in a maze.

Suddenly, up ahead, a faint light appeared. For a moment Jibbs thought it might be Lance, but then remembered that he was the only one with a flashlight. No—it was a room. The first he had come across. And if Charity had been right about the tunnel system, it would mean that Jibbs was back on campus.

The light appeared bright to his eyes now after being sometime underground, and it took a moment for them to adjust. But when his eyes did, Jibbs realized where he was… and it wasn’t the Bedville campus.

Molly Knoll Ladies College was an abandoned series of structures that sat between two growing suburbs adjacent to Bedville. It wasn’t Bedville proper, so Jibbs realized he had travelled some distance underground to have reached the old college now. The facilities had been built sometime in the 1920s: first as some kind of seminary, then later as a women’s deportment campus when the seminary had failed. Years after, it failed again and been left to decay and become home to vermin and the occasional intrepid adventurer who could find a loose window board or other entry point. But few did enter, for Molly Knoll was a terrifying place to behold after dusk. Its empty hallways and broken windows created an experience more harrowing than most would voluntarily take on. Besides, a chain-link fence had been erected around the site and a private security firm in tandem with local police kept watch for trespassers, making entry difficult indeed. But some, of course, had done just this.

Jibbs knew it was Molly Knoll, for the room he had entered through a small cast-iron hinged door had been photographed by a senior art student named Sam Spooner as part of his final exhibition last year. The series consisted of about a dozen large black-and-white prints of the collapsing building’s interiors which had hung in Alan Hall for over a week. Jibbs had dropped in to see the exhibition at one point, and now he recognized the room he was in. Jibbs moved his light around the edges of the eerie, hexagonally shaped chapel. Above were an impressive series of high ceilings and broken stained-glass windows through which bright moonlight seeped, illuminating the space within. A little theme music and it would have made a pretty decent boss stage in Castlevania.

“Hey, Jibbs!”

Jibbs snapped out of his trance and turned to see Lance emerge from the small access door behind him.

“Jeez man, that was a workout. How are you feeling? I’m a bit winded.”

Like some kind of creepy Bond villain, Lance leaned against the wall and breathed in and out heavily while still maintaining his evil, in-charge persona.

“Whooo-ee! What a night, right?” Lance shook his head and smiled. “Coffins, prehistoric beasts… evil spirits inside Japanese dolls… buffing the floors of a mall?! It’s crazy, right? The things people do for a little cash.”

“You mean you’re doing all this just for… money, Lance?”

Lance frowned. “Of course, dude. Well… that and a bit of resume building. What… did you think I do this just for kicks? ‘Cause I’m bored? No… I gotta get a Playstation, man. Gotta feed the beast, bud.” He stood up again, as if having fully recharged his health meter. “So let’s just get this over with. Hand me the doll and we don’t have to let things escalate.”

Jibbs looked at his watch. “Lance, it’s five minutes until 3am. You’ll never get this thing to the boiler room in time to release the evil spirit within, or whatever, even if I just handed it over to you. It’s over, man.”

Lance’s face squirmed into a strange look and then he began to laugh.

“What are you talking about, Jibbs? I’ve always been in it just for the dolls. Whatever these guys were planning on doing with them, I was promised I’d get the dolls afterward. I’m not gonna release some Bricklayer spirit into Bedville, you joker, you! Haha! I just want these stupid fricking dolls to resell. Come on, now. Let’s get this over with.” Lance was moving forward with his hand out. “Like you said, the time’s up on the whole Bricklayer plan. Just give me the Pikinchu and we call it even-steven. No hard feelings.”

Jibbs frowned and eased up a bit. “Alright. But man… what were you thinking? Those guys are pure evil! And you almost helped them accomplish their plan!”

“Jibbs… to be totally honest… I don’t know what you’re jibbering about half the time.” Lance was right in front of him now, and he quickly snatched the doll from his hands. “But I can tell you this much… DUDE, YOU ARE A FRICKIN’ SUCKER! Hahhhaha!!” Lance was moving back toward the center of the room toward a strange, altar-shaped object. “Why would I need to go the boiler room when we are here… right at the center of the Bricklayer’s foremost site of power! Molly Knoll Seminary, bro! You led us right to it. All magical artifacts receive a +12 bonus here, you know.” Lance chuckled.

Jibbs quivered, imagining he had just been so easily duped, as it appeared. Then he shook a little, followed by another quiver.

Lance placed the doll down on the strange altar and began to chant, “Perfect Pikinchu, in form and appetite expressed, come with thine presence and rest upon thine host, de naza dena grianza… grianza deza denaza. Ah ha ha ha!”

He lifted his hands upward and began to repeat the chant while Jibbs stood, transfixed and shuddering. What could he do now? Rush Lance? Duke it out? Lance was much stronger than Jibbs, but he had to try something.

Jibbs strode up to the nearly entranced Lance and kneed him directly in the nuts.

“Awww frick, man—“ Lance groaned, crumpling to the ground.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay there,” said Jibbs, suddenly whipping his flashlight up in the air and turning it on. The beam rose and played over the windows lining the chapel walls and ceiling.

“Now… I’m gonna kneel here on one knee as one does…” wheezed Lance, “and catch my breath. But when I’ve caught it, I’m gonna stand up and give you a proper beat-down… Virtua Fighter style.”

“You might do that…” said Jibbs, directing his flashlight down now. “But it’s more likely you’ll be leaving with these guys in a few minutes, not having done much of anything at all.”

“These guys?? What the—“

From the far side of the room a pair of separate flashlight beams emerged along with a jingle-jangle of keys and a strong and clear voice calling out, “Hey, in there! We see your light, all right. Just freeze where you are. You’re trespassing on private property!”

And with that, Jibbs smiled and raised his hands in the air.

 

EPILOGUE

 THEY APPEARED OUT OF THE DRIFTING SNOW laughing and pulling a bright orange, plastic sled bought from the hardware store on Main Street. Charity’s cheeks were rosy and Jibbs’ mouth was jibbering away, just how both had imagined it. Crapperhorn stood in the haze of a light New Year’s snowfall, and few students save the ones who hadn’t left for break were still on campus, so the sledding runs were only lightly trafficked this Saturday morn as these two figures trudged hand in hand up the slope.

From behind a copse of evergreens, another pair of figures lay in hiding, decked out in secondhand white snowsuits and a set of department-issue binoculars.

“Hand ‘em over bonehead,” whispered Detective Charlie, knocking the younger officer over the head with a padded mitt. “You’re hoggin’ the specs.”

“Cripes, boss…” whined Burnsie. “Ya didn’t hafta go and pound my throbbin’ head! I’m still sufferin’ post traumatic stress misorder, you know.”

Detective Charlie snorted. “The doc said you checked out fine, Burnsie… thanks to the rubber wheels of the engine, nobody took a shock that night.”

“Well… maybe it’s just post-apartheid depression, then,” sighed Burns. “I never got over the loss of that little guy.”

“What? You mean the bat? The dang vampire-bat that got boxed up and left on our doorstep?”

“No, no—not that guy. My Pikinchu.”

“YOUR Pikinchu? What in the hell are you yappin’ about, Burnsie? You said you were gonna give that stupid doll to your kids anyway.”

“Well… yeah, sure. My kids. But… I guess I got a bit attached to the little guy after the whole adventure we went through together.”

Detective Charlie patted Burns on the head. “Don’t worry there, Burnsie. I’m sure there will be some new dang fad in the New Year for you to obsess over. Already I’ve seen a commercial for some… voice controlled penguin that’s supposed to teach you yoga and quote the Koran or something. Geesh. What will they think of next…” Detective Charlie heaved himself up to his knees and brushed off the snow. “Whatta ya think, Burnsie? Do we let these lovebirds go? Or do we bring ‘em in?”

Burns shrugged. “’Tis the season…??”

“Sure, Burnsie. ‘Tis the season. Let’s call this sting off and grab a hot eggnog cappa-whatsit latte. Sound good?”

“Right on, boss! Now yer talkin’ my love language!”

Detective Charlie sighed and began to trudge back in the direction of their patrol car.

“Let’s hope this season starts out a little more dull than the last, eh? We sure could use a bit more boredom in this dang town.”

 

Thanks to: Jamin Bogi & Andy Apel

__________________________________________________________________________

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