With that, I pulled the door open so hard it slammed into the wall, and I was racing through the halls again. There was no time to be awed by my own nerve, because I was busy being amazed by their incompetence.
How could they let a first-grader just wander away?
With any luck she’d simply walked home on her own. I’d go home, and she’d be on the couch, munching on blood pudding and watching cartoons. Or maybe she hadn’t made it home yet. Maybe I could still catch her . . .
The back door of the school slammed shut behind me, and heads turned my way from the basketball court, where another aide was now rounding up the children to herd them inside. Moonlight glinted off the windshield of my car – the only one in the lot – as I pulled open the door and slid behind the wheel. I backed out carefully, watching for stray children in the red glow from my tail lights.
I went one block east then turned and flicked on my high beams, driving slowly as I scanned both sides of the road for Luci. I saw several children, most a little older than my sister and walking alongside older siblings or parents. They were bundled against the cold, their faces blurred by the darkness, except where the streetlights shone. But by the time I was two blocks from home, they had all reached their houses and gone inside, except for one trio of kids playing flashlight tag several yards down.
The street was practically deserted, as if people knew something bad was coming. The tightness in my chest had spread to both arms, filling me with an impending sense of danger, as if dawn was looming just over the horizon.
But the clock in my dashboard said it wasn’t quite three in the morning, and we had nearly four blessed hours of darkness before the sun would blaze a trail across the city, chasing everyone inside.
A block and a half from home, movement on the opposite sidewalk caught my eye, something flashing in the edge of the glare from my headlights.
I squinted, looking closer, and a small form came into focus. She had long white curls and wore a pair of fuzzy pink pants with lace around the hem. Luci. Thank goodness. The flash was from the silver bangle our father had given her the month before he’d left, as if he were already planning to disappear. I hadn’t seen her slip that on last night, but that was no surprise. She wasn’t allowed to wear it to school because Mom was afraid she’d lose it, but Luci had snuck it into her backpack more than once.
And I’d never been more thankful for her willingness to break the rules.
I rolled down the driver’s side window and stuck my face into the shocking cold. My mouth was open to shout her name when another car turned the corner from the opposite side of the street. It drove between us, and I waited for it to pass.
But it didn’t pass.
The car slowed, and finally stopped in front of Luci. I could barely see her pigtails through the other car’s windshield. The man behind the wheel leaned across the seat and said something to my sister that I couldn’t hear. A second later, her head bobbed. The man shifted into park, slid across the seat and leaned back to open the rear door.
To my absolute horror, Luci climbed inside. And that’s when I noticed the colour of the car. It was a light-blue, four door sedan.
“No!” I shouted through my open window, and the man looked up. For a moment, his eyes met mine from 100 feet away. Then he slid back across the seat and shoved the car into drive. He hit the gas, and the car rolled forwards.
It happened too fast. I couldn’t think. But I saw Luci very clearly. She waved to me from the back seat, her smile wide, tiny white fangs glinting in my high beams.
No! I stomped on the accelerator and twisted the steering wheel to the left as hard as I could. My car lurched across the street, perpendicular to the road, and hit a light pole. My skull bounced off the headrest and my forehead smacked the wheel. An instant later, the other car smashed into my passenger side, and this time the side of my skull hit the window.
I’d been T-boned in the middle of the street by what could only be the Midday Mangler, a block and a half from home. Where, I realized hazily, Titus’ car sat in the driveway.
Trying to clear my vision, I shook my head and fumbled with the handle until the car door swung open. I was up in a flash wobbling as I ran around the rear of my car to where my passenger side was now bent around the other car’s much stronger grill.
Screams split the air behind me, and seemed to cleave my throbbing head in half. The kids playing flashlight tag. Their footsteps pounded on the concrete and a door slammed shut. Distantly, I heard them yelling for their mother.
“Let her go!” I shouted at the driver, but my voice sounded weak and frail. I’d hit my head hard – twice – and my vision was blurry. There were two Luci’s staring at me now, their identical mouths open in surprise and fear, and two kidnappers, both of whom were shoving open a double set of driver’s side doors.
My vision finally merged, and the Midday Mangler stood in front of me, tall enough that I had to crane my neck to see him. He flashed yellowish teeth and a stained set of fangs in the instant before his fist flew. I barely had time to register the motion before it met my head.
Then everything went blissfully, frightfully dark. And quiet.
* * *
I woke up with Luci. That was the upside. The only upside, in fact. Luci was crying and shaking me and my cheek was wet with her tears.
“Kez, wake up!” she sobbed, and I opened my eyes to see her face hovering over mine. For a moment, I couldn’t remember where we were, or how we’d got there. But then the throbbing in my head slammed into agonizing focus and I remembered the driver of the other car, who’d apparently knocked me out.
“Calm down Luce.” I pushed myself into a sitting position and let my head rest against the cold wall at my back. “What happened? Where are we?”
“I don’t knoooowww!” she howled, shoving damp white curls back from her face. “Nobody got me after school so I walked home and a man said Daddy told him to pick me up and bring me to him, so I got in the car ‘cause I miss Daddy.”
The Mangler had certainly gotten lucky with that line.
“Then I saw you, and the man’s car hit your car, and you got out and you were walking funny, and the man hit you! And you fell dooowwwwnnn!” Her terrified summary dissolved into even more terrified tears, and I pulled her close, taking in our surroundings for the first time.
We sat on a thin, rough carpet in a small, empty room with solid white walls. The only window was covered in what looked like steel shutters, padlocked shut. No beam of light split them. It was still dark.
I reached into my pocket for my phone. I was irate – though not really surprised – to find it gone. “Where did the man go?” I asked, eyeing the door.
Luci wiped her tears from her face with the tail of her shirt. Her jacket lay on the floor, wadded up as if she’d used it for a pillow. “I don’t know. He put you in here and said if I didn’t go in the room with you, he’d k-kill you. Then he closed the door. I tried to open it, but it’s locked.
Of course it was locked. If he would lock the shutters, he’d lock the door. But I checked anyways, just in case.
The door wasn’t just locked; it was bolted. I could probably have broken a flimsy twist-lock, but I could do nothing against the deadbolt.
I inspected the window next. The shutters were steel, as were the hinges. And the padlock. We weren’t going anywhere until someone let us out.
Unfortunately, having seen the news recently, I was pretty sure I knew what would happen then.
I bit my tongue to keep from frightening Luci with a display of my anger and fear. Then I sat against the wall and she curled up with her head on my lap. I covered her with her coat and stared at the door, willing it to open.
I needed a plan.
But even worse than that, I needed a weapon.
* * *
The next couple of hours passed very slowly. I heard nothing from outside our prison room and, as far as I knew, whatever house we were in was completely empty besides us.
But even worse than the silence, broken only by Luci’s gentle sleep-breathing, was the steady lightening I could see between the halves of the shutter. At first I thought I was imagining it. But as the minutes continued to slip through my fingers, I knew it was real. Time had not stopped, and dawn would come.
And I was pretty sure we’d have a fantastic view.
Around 6.45 a.m. (based on the colour of that murky splinter of light) something creaked outside our room. A door opening, or maybe closing. Either way, we were no longer alone.
“Luce, wake up,” I whispered, but she only turned over. I shook her shoulder, and she groaned, her eyelids fluttering. “Wake up, Luci. Someone’s here.”
She blinked up at me. “Kez? What . . . ?” Comprehension surfaced behind her eyes and she sat up so fast her forehead hit my chin, snapping my teeth together. Her hand clenched around mine in terror, and she started to shake. I don’t know how much she’d heard about the dead children the police had found – four so far within a fifty-mile radius of the city – but she knew we were in danger, even if she didn’t know precisely how much.
“It’s OK,” I stroked her hair as I’d seen our mother do. Then I set her on her feet and stood between her and the door. “Just stay behind me.” I had no idea what I was going to do, but if we were going to die, I would do my best to take that kidnapping, child-murdering bastard with us.
Floorboards creaked beyond our room as footsteps grew closer. Then metal scraped wood as the deadbolt was pulled back slowly. The doorknob turned, and Luci’s teeth began to chatter behind me. Her hands gripped the tail of my shirt pulling it taut around me. I reached back with one hand and patted her, comforting her as best as I could with that brief contact.
The door swung open. The Mangler stood in the doorway, framed by what little I could see of the room beyond. He wore jeans and a dark sweatshirt. And he held a gun.
The gasp at my back said Luci had peeked.
“I’m sorry for the pistol.” The man waved the gun at me. “It seems so impersonal, I know, but you were a bit of a surprise, and I wasn’t sure how much trouble you’d be.”
I remained silent, unwilling to converse with our captor.
“I started to simply get rid of you – after all, your vintage is a bit aged for my average customer – but then I realized I might have a use for you after all.” His eyes wandered south of my neck, and I shuddered in revulsion.
“Not gonna happen.”
“Oh?” The man smiled, again showing me his stained teeth. I couldn’t suppress a chill at the knowledge that the latest dis-colourations had probably come from Phoebe Hayes’ veins. “Then I guess I can skip the pleasantries and just shoot you right here. In front of your sister.”
Luci sobbed behind me, clinging even tighter to my shirt. “No,” I said, at least as much for her as for me. I did not want my death to be the last thing she saw.
The man stepped to one side and motioned towards the larger room behind him. “After you.”
I turned and knelt beside Luci, tilting her chin up until her eyes met mine. “It’ll be OK,” I said, desperately hoping I wasn’t lying to her. “Just stay here until I get back. Ok?”
She nodded, tears trailing down her face, and I hated that bastard all the more for scaring her. If I got a chance, he was going to pay.
“Come on.” The man grabbed my arm and hauled me backwards, away from Luci, who cried harder. He shoved me out of the door into what should have been a family room, but came closer to resembling a torture chamber. “See that?” He tossed his head towards the centre of the room where an odd metal table took up most of the floor space. I recognized it from a special on the forensics channel. It was a fucking autopsy table.
What kind of sick freak has an autopsy table in his living room?
“That’s where we drain the little morsel and bottle the contents to be shipped all over the world. They go for quite a pretty penny online. But I get to sample the product first. Quality control, you know.” His eyes gleamed with excitement and my stomach roiled.
“You psychotic bastard!” My fist slammed into his head before I’d even realized it was in motion. My vision blurred with fury and unspent tears, and I could think of nothing but beating him senseless, grabbing Luci and running for our lives.
I hit him again, but I’d lost the element of surprise, and this time my fist only glanced his left cheek. Dimly, through the glaze of my wrath, I saw him raise the gun.
But then something else streaked across my vision: a small pastel-coloured blur, moving fast and furious.
A primal shriek tore free from her pink flower of a mouth, and she ran with her arms outstretched.
“Luci, no!” I thought she’d go for a direct hit – like tackling Oscar when they wrestled – and she stood no chance of knocking over a grown man. But she grabbed his wrist instead, mere inches above the hand holding the gun.
Her small hand wrapped around his arm, her grip white with tension. Her head dipped. Her mouth flew open, tiny fangs bared. Her expression was vicious, and her teeth were all business.
She clamped her mouth onto his wrist and bit down so hard that the delicate muscles in her jaw bulged with the strain.
The Mangler screamed. He let go of me and shoved at Luci’s head, his other hand still somehow clenching the gun by its grip. “Let go, you little demon!” he shouted.
She tossed her head, her mouth still clamped onto his wrist, and finally the gun thumped to the carpet. I wanted to grab it, but it had fallen behind them and I couldn’t get past. So instead I jumped onto his back and wrapped both arms around his neck, letting my weight choke him.
He stumbled backwards with the pressure on his windpipe and tore his arm from Luci’s grasp. Blood poured everywhere, arching from his ruined wrist onto the floor until he clamped his free hand over the wound.
And still he screamed.
The Mangler stepped back again, swinging around wildly, trying to dislodge me without letting go of his other arm. He couldn’t do it. But he didn’t have to. The first time he slammed me back into the wall, pain shot through my spine. The second time I nearly passed out.
The third time, he brought both arms up and used his free hand to prise my arms from his neck. We were both slick with his blood by then, and I could barely hold on to him.
With my grip broken, I slid to the floor. He spun and kicked me in the ribs. I crumpled to the carpet in the fetal position. When my eyes opened, I saw my sister standing in the bedroom doorway staring at me, her face streaked with tears and blood, both trailing to her ruined shirt.
“Run Luci!” I shouted. Only it came out more like a whisper, because he’d kicked most of the air from my lungs.
But she heard me.
Luci nodded once, then took off across the living room, on the opposite side if the autopsy table. The Mangler started to lunge after her, but I grabbed his foot. He went down hard, smacking his wounded arm on the edge of the metal table. I could tell at a glance that it was broken.
Luci twisted the deadbolt and threw open the front door, then screamed and recoiled in horror. I didn’t have to look up to see the problem. Light had poured in the moment she’d opened the door.
The sun was up, and we had nowhere to run. We were stuck inside some psychotic gingerbread house with a wicked witch who just happened to have a bad case of five a.m. shadow.
“Hide!” I shouted, with what little breath I’d regained. But Luci didn’t move. She cowered behind an armchair, the only normal piece of living-room furniture I’d seen so far. It was the only thing between Luci and a deadly dose of morning sunshine.
The rays shone in through the glass storm door, over and around the chair, passing a scant three inches above her hair. If we didn’t close the door before the sun got much higher, her curls would start to smoke.
At her age, even indirect UV light stung and a direct hit would blacken her skin in seconds.
I could take a little more, but
On the floor the man moaned and shoved himself to his feet with his good arm. That got me moving. I tiptoed around the edge of the room, sticking to the shadows. I was almost to Luci when a hand tangled in my hair from behind and jerked me back. I staggered, but he held me up.
“OK, bitch, let’s see how well you tan.”
He shoved me forwards, towards the front door. Light fell across my feet, and I was more grateful than ever for my boots, even if they didn’t give me much purchase on the carpet.
Another shove and the light slanted up my jeans. I had to throw my arms into the air to keep them above the rising line of light. One more push and I’d be extra crispy.
The Midday Mangler Meets his Match Page 3