"Thanks. Happy hunting."
She went on into her building, waving to a few of the people she knew as they entered their little niches.
She saw Tony going in; he was in an alcove before the long velvet black-lit hallway with "family" portraits that preceded her own area.
Lights were on. Thayer Harding, one of the technicians, greeted her. "Hey, Darce, how're things going?"
"Great, Thayer." He was checking out the springs on her pressed wood-and-cardboard coffin. "How are the wife and kids?"
"Fine, just fine. Thanks for asking. How is school, young lady?"
"Great. I think I made the dean's list."
"Good for you! Pop on in. Maybe the bosses will let us celebrate later. I'll take you out for a shake!" She laughed. "But I did turn twenty-one. You can buy me a beer."
"Not if you're driving. Hop on in. We're about to open."
She grinned and crawled in, then tested the new springs and hinges he had just put in the coffin. Blue lighting on the ground was a safety measure, and she also knew where the switches were for the main lights and the sprinklers. The trail through the haunted house twisted and wove, and there were more kids up ahead in various little alcoves like her own. There were also walkie-talkies at blue-lighted areas along the walls, just in case there was ever a problem.
Other than with Tony, she had never heard of any problems. The place was a gold mine for its owner and his investors, but it was well run, with safety the number one priority.
"You in tight and snug, Darcy? That was it, my last repair. We're opening."
"I'm in. Snug as a bug. Take you up on that milkshake later."
Thayer left. Darcy closed her eyes, shut into the velvety warmth of her pseudo coffin. She wasn't afraid of the dark.
She had a big speech coming up for English lit. She began to practice, mentally planning the intonations in her voice, her gestures, and her movements. Time began to pass. She knew when people were coming. A little sensor caused a tiny red light to appear in her coffin.
She sprang out. A mom with two ten-year-olds jumped and laughed delightedly.
The ten-year-olds screamed and giggled. She bared her teeth at them and made a noise. They giggled at her and moved on.
She closed the lid to her coffin and went back to practicing her speech.
Jimmy Erskine loved haunted houses. They were guaranteed to make girls shriek. And with Cassie on his arm tonight...
Such a cute little chicken. She had a thing for him to begin with. Why not? He was an upperclassman, tight end on a winning team, in the perfect frat. She had a crush on him, but she was reserved. Careful, a brain, so into her books for so long that she hadn't taken a lot of time to date. A waste. She was small and slim-maybe ninety-nine pounds, and according to the guys at his frat, it seemed as if ninety of those pounds must be breasts. She had cleavage that didn't quit. What it did to his libido and concentration was sad. So tonight was it-he'd even taken a bet on his abilities to get her to bed, so he had to come through. He couldn't afford to lose the fifty he'd put on himself.
This had been the right place to come. He was going to be the rough-and-ready hero, laughing his way through the horror house, holding her tight, making her cling. He'd started off by buying some Halloween Jell-O shots- blue, purple, and bright orange-to get her courage up, so he'd told her. She was wobbling and holding tight, and unaware of the way he was touching her when they began walking through the vampire place.
It could be pretty creepy. They had one girl who lay in a glass coffin all dressed up like a sleeping princess- except that she let real rats run all over her. Every once in a while she turned in the glass case and bared her teeth. The whole place was filled with fog, foam tombstones, black lighting, and characters that jumped out here and there. He teased Cassie all the way through, making sure she saw the dark, the fog, the eerie, the unreal, and then buried her head against his shoulder. He made a point of, letting others get ahead of him, and falling back so that they'd be alone, so that a crowd of little wise-ass kids didn't come running in around them to spoil all the effects.
They turned around a curve, and for a moment he didn't see the coffin in front of him. It creaked open with a startling sound. The girl who appeared did so with a sudden burst of energy that caused him to jump.
"Oh.Jimmy!" Cassie gasped. He immediately felt stupid. His face turned red. He saw the vampire chick smile, aware she'd startled him.
"Bad teeth!" he muttered. "Bad dress, bad coffin, looks like a cardboard jewelry box!"
"Jimmy," Cassie said.
The girl just went back into her coffin and closed the lid.
"Come on," he told Cassie brusquely.
They started walking again. He was irritated. Things had been going so well.
Then he stopped dead. Up ahead there was a tall, thin guy dressed as a vampire, with the flowing cape, the whole stupid bit.
"Watch out, here I come," the fellow said. And he started toward them.
Cassie let out a little cry of fear, winnowing against him. It was just what he had wanted, but he still felt unnerved.
And now this idiot was actually reaching toward them.
He was almost on top of them. The air around him seemed worse than foggy. It was cold.
Uncomfortable. And the guy's fingers . . .
The nails were long. Bluish, or black. Weird. He didn't like the guy. Not one bit. He'd like to sock him in that skinny jaw, take him down and beat him to a pulp.
"You're not allowed to touch me," Jimmy said.
"Really?" the guy inquired.
"Yeah, really," Jimmy said belligerently. "So get away from me, you fake-looking, slimy jerk! Did you get those fangs out of a Cracker Jack box? A gum machine?"
"A Cracker Jack box? A gum machine?" the guy repeated, and started to laugh. "Um, yes. The better to eat you all up, and lick my chops."
"I'm going to break your chops, moron, "Jimmy warned.
"Jimmy, don't!" Cassie pleaded. "Don't. This guy is obviously some kind of a psycho. Let's just get past him."
But Jimmy was a tough guy. Everyone knew it. And he was mad as hell already because the other two-bit park employee had scared him.
"No," he told Cassie, shaking his head. "Come on, man. Come on. I play first-string tackle at State.
You're a goner, buddy."
"I think. Come on. Come on, ass-wipe. Put your money where your mouth is."
"Jimmy, no," Cassie pleaded.
The vampire smiled-a wicked grin. "Poor little girl," he told Cassie. Then he spoke straight to Jimmy.
"All right. All right, gonna take me on, are you? Yeah, yeah. A hotshot football player. A tackle, no less.
You come on. Tackle me."
The creature's grin deepened as Jimmy fell for the bait.
Jimmy charged hard, and with true aim. He knew his business. He'd broken a few bones in play. Hell, he meant to take it to the pros.
But it seemed that the guy moved like mercury. Jimmy struck, but he struck pure air. He went flying himself, crash-landing hard into a pile of rot meant to signify a burial mound. His head had struck something. Dazed, he shook it. He rose. His opponent was next to Cassie. Impossible. No one could have moved that quickly across the narrow space. Not past him.
Cassie was standing dead still now, pale as a ghost, her eyes wide and luminous on the phony vampire.
Jimmy let out something like a snarl. His girl was looking at this freak as if he were some kind of a god.
"You're really toast now, jerk," Jimmy threatened. He rose and charged the vampire, half afraid that if he didn't do so quickly, the fool would disappear into thin air again.
This time the vampire didn't move.
Jimmy slammed into him. It was like slamming into solid rock. Cold rock. He was instantly paralyzed.
Every nerve in his body, every muscle, seemed to tremble with a strange, chilling numbness.
He'd broken his neck, he thought, and the concept was so stunning that he didn't even feel pain, grief, or horror at first.
Then he felt the creature pick him up. He felt something like a breath of fire against his cheeks. He saw the eyes.
And looked into an abyss-stygian fire, touched by a hint of bloodred flame.
The grin on the creature's face deepened. Jimmy was totally helpless. The vampire-thing opened its mouth. The Cracker Jack fangs dipped into his neck.
Jimmy never screamed. Warmth surged through his broken body. He could hear the creature slurping as the warmth was drained, as total cold set in.
Until the very end, he could hear the slurping sound. A lapping . . . Cassie . . .
When he was finished with Jimmy, the vampire- refreshed, energized, renewed-lifted the football player as if he were a rag doll. He caught hold of the big head and the shoulders and twisted.
The head came off with a pop.
Cassie still stared, a low, terrified, monotonous whine coming from her open mouth.
The vampire tossed the pieces of Jimmy aside.
She was lovely.
And so, with Cassie, he took his time.
The next group of thrill seekers who came through were a mother, father, aunt, three teenagers, and a great-uncle. They clung together, scared, having fun, ducking the wafting fabric that teased from above them, jumping from each spring-loaded special effect that popped up at them. They saw the body parts.
They oohed and aahed with delight. Terror Town had done a great job. It was so incredibly grisly. The blood and guts were so very real looking.
They walked through, unmolested.
There was a tap on her coffin.
"Darcy, come on out. We're closing."
Darcy popped open her lid. It was Tony. Garish makeup made his cheeks gaunt, his eyes large. He smoothed back dark hair. "I just got a call on the walkie-talkie. They're having trouble with the lighting, and someone thinks some kids are hiding out-they came in and didn't reappear. There weren't that many people outside, so they've given rain checks. Let's go. Give me a hand, honey. I'll help you out of there."