You asked for it, I promised it, and you waited a heck of a long time. Sorry about that. Here’s Part 7 of ParaDice Point, a free short fiction story I’ve been working on for a while. If you haven’t read the previous parts, check them out first so you have context.
“It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
― Albert Camus
The Head of the Dragon (ParaDice Point, Part 8)
The lights in Farrah’s eyes were blinding.
Dozens of piping, childish tunes clanged around her, and she gritted her teeth against a headache she was trying to ignore. The trap was laid. The traveling carnival with its lure of fried food, sticky sweets, and gut-jarring rides were a magnet for kids – and the kids were the bait.
Four kids were missing from ParaDice Point. Three from the town before, two before that, and one from the town before that. He was escalating.
And then he was there, across the way, staring Farrah directly in the eyes. A chill spread over her insides and dragged claws against the inside of her spine. It was a trap. She knew it just as surely as she knew her own name, but it didn’t matter.
He ducked into a passing crowd of high-octane teenagers and she started to run. She bumped into a woman, righted her, and started again. A passel of children holding hands crossed in front of her, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get past them until they were all gone. When she finally got to the place she had seen him, he was gone.
In his place was a playing card. She plucked it from the ground and turned it over, looking for a message, expecting something cryptic. Nothing.
She turned in a slow circle and took in her surroundings. He was nowhere to be seen.
She stared ahead the way she thought the teenagers had gone and when her eyes landed on the Hall of Mirrors, her stomach plummeted to her feet.
It was a trap, all right. And she was headed straight for it.
She darted past a couple trying to reason with their identically dressed kids and ducked into the Hall of Mirrors. It was quiet. If she didn’t know any better, she would think it was deserted. But she knew better, so when the hand clamped over her mouth, she didn’t even cry out in surprise.
“You really think she’s worth the risk?” a voice whispered in the darkness.
The sound of flesh against flesh echoed through the room like a gunshot and brought Farrah more to her senses.
“Defiance doesn’t look good on you,” another voice, his voice, answered.
Farrah peeled an eye open just far enough to see the room around her and was met with a dim room sparsely treated with enough chairs for three, a card table, and a box of tools. Her stomach clenched at the sight. Anyone else would think it an ordinary set, but she knew better. She had seen the kind of damage he inflicted with the kind of tools others used to maintain their homes or cars.
A man with a red handprint on his face sat farthest from her. He scowled into his lap, indignant, while the other leaned down and shuffled through the toolbox. On the table he had spread a handful of tools. Farrah winced despite herself.
The slight movement caught the cronie’s eye, and he tapped his boss on the knee. “Hey, she’s back.”
He turned, weapon in hand, and she pulled back as if struck. A smile spread across his face. “You’re right. Welcome back, Farrah.”
“Where am I?” she asked, knowing she wouldn’t get a straight answer but plying for time.
“Under the carnival grounds,” he answered.
“What are you going to do?”
“Whatever pleases me and Him.”
He smirked. “You’ll see Him soon enough.” With one hand, he plucked a pipe wrench off the table, raised it over his head, and brought it down on the top side of her skull like an ax.
Everything went black.
When she woke, she knew she had been moved. She was further underground and she wasn’t alone. She opened her eyes and let them adjust to the underground chamber as she took in her surroundings. A shackle around her neck was adhered to the wall with a deceptively thin metal chain, and a couple of feet away on every side, she was encased in the metal bars of a cage. She lifted one hand to her head, touched the fingertips to her skull where he hit her, and when her hand was back in front of her eyes, she was surprised to find it dry. Only a thin crust of dried blood betrayed the injury that was already starting to heal. It had been longer than she expected since he knocked her out.
“Hello?” she called. Even if it was he who answered, she had questions.
A small voice whispered beside her, “Help me.”
She turned, then hissed at the pain in her head and neck. The pull of a blackout was still on the edge of her consciousness, but she refused to let it overtake her. She squinted into the dim light until the shapes nearby came into focus. Children.
“When did he take you?” she asked.
Another voice said, “Today.”
Another cried, “I want to go home!”
“I know,” Farrah said. “I do, too. How many of you are there?”
Farrah took a moment to be thankful for small miracles: he hadn’t taken any others since she had been out.
“Why did he take you?”
She inspected the chains, then the cage. She didn’t see a way out, but she knew that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. “I was trying to catch him.”
“We’re never going to get out of here!” the child wailed, and Farrah raised one hand to block the ear closest to her.
“No, you’re not.”
He was back, and his voice had taken on a singsong quality. It was one of the things she disliked about him when he was trying to date her niece. That and the fact that he was too old, too sleazy, and too downright creepy.
“What are you going to do to us?” the child asked, her voice a breathy moan.
Farrah arched her neck to see him as he leaned close to the cage the child was in. He kept his hands behind his back and he was smiling, but to Farrah, he still looked like a predator poised for attack.
“I’m giving you a great gift: I allow you to honor St. Peregrine.”
The child twisted her body away from him and clung to the back of her cage. “I will not honor false idols,” she recited through her tears.
His face twisted and his arms dropped to his sides. “St. Peregrine is not a false idol. He is the Patron Saint of Cancer, and he is to be venerated.”
“Do not turn to idols or make any god of cast metal!”
“Quiet, child!” He shook the bars of her cage. “Bite your tongue.”
The child’s voice was stricken and raw. “You shall have no god before me.”
He tore open the cage, grabbed the girl by the hair, and pulled her out of the cage.
Farrah jumped to her feet. “Stop! Let her go, John.”
“Or what?” he spat.
He pulled the girl by the hair out of the room as the rest of the children cried and screamed. Farrah watched the door, but his form didn’t appear again. In the distance, she heard the girl shriek – then the sound died quickly.
Hours later, Farrah fought the haze of exhaustion that threatened to fall over her. She didn’t know how long it had been since he had taken the girl, but the empty cage said she wasn’t coming back.
Farrah jerked awake some time later. A boy cried softly in the cage beside hers, but otherwise, everything was quiet. She bent down close to him.
“How long have I been asleep?”
He didn’t turn toward her. “Hours. Days. I don’t know. We’re all dead.”
“We aren’t dead. What’s your name?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You can’t say that. You can’t give up.”
He finally turned toward her. His face was streaked with dust except in the places his tears had run. “Look around you, stupid. We’re the last ones left, and he’s not going to take you first. If he was going to do you first, you would have been first. He hates you.”
Farrah glanced at the other cages. The boy was right: every one but theirs was empty. She turned back. “How long did he take between them?”
The boy turned back to the frayed knee of his jeans he had been picking at. “An hour. A day. I don’t know.”
“Even intervals?” she asked, wondering if she could find the pattern.
He shrugged again. “Don’t fight it. He just beats you if you fight him.”
“Smart boy,” John said, and the child clambered against the back of his cage. John smirked, then turned to Farrah. “If they were all so smart, your niece would be with me, and I never would have come to this place.”
“Leave her out of this.”
He loped toward her as if he had all the time in the world. When he leaned down, she could smell charred meat on his breath. “I think you didn’t want her to be with me because you wanted me for yourself.”
Farrah didn’t answer.
He nodded. “I’ve decided to give you what you want.”
“You’ll let me go?” she asked, not hopeful.
He tilted his head to one side, then the other. “Yes and no. I will let you out of the cage, but you won’t be leaving my side.”
“Will you let the boy go?”
He smiled. “I will spare him.”
Despite her better judgment, Farrah stood. “Let me out. You don’t need to do this anymore.”
He studied her a long moment, then pulled a bolt at the top of the solid top of the cage.
The door popped open. “Don’t do anything stupid, Farrah.”
She glanced at the boy, then back at their captor. “I won’t.”
Late into the night, Farrah closed herself off in the bathroom. She knew better than to lock the door, knew he would bust through it if she did, but at least closing it gave her a modicum of privacy in which to salvage her dignity.
She washed away the smell of him, pulled the tangles out of her hair, and soothed her sore muscles with a spray of hot water. Then she dried, found an untapped well of courage deep within her, and went back to him.
When she slipped back into his bed, he threw an arm over her. “I wondered if you were coming back.” He smiled. “I would have hated to have to kill you.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I do.” He studied her face: the bruise on her jaw she had seen in the bathroom mirror, the gray hollows below her eyes. “You need your rest.”
“I’m fine -” she started, but as soon as she opened her mouth, she knew it was the wrong move.
With one swift punch, he knocked her out cold.
When she woke again, one of the carnies – the little man with the smirk – was dead and lying across the bottom of the bed.
“Good morning, beautiful,” John said.
“Why did you kill him?” she asked.
He settled his weight on the bed beside the little man, careful to keep his freshly laundered clothes away from the dirty carnie.
“Was he your last sacrifice to Peregrine?”
John chuckled. “You are beautiful, Farrah, but you’ve never been smart enough. You are always two steps behind me.”
The dread was back and it puddled in her stomach. “The boy.”
He tapped his finger to his nose. “I regret having to lie to you, but it was the only way I could get you out of that cage without a fight.”
“They’re easier to catch.”
“You won’t get away with this, John.”
He shook his head and snapped his fingers. “I already have.”
There was a thump on the back of her head, and everything went black again.
The motion of the car woke her. This time it was harder to open her eyes, and once they were open, it felt almost impossible to open her mouth. She stared at the dash of the Bugatti she knew would be the same as the one Dylan and Derrick Highmore had gone missing in weeks before.
“You’re awake,” John said.
She licked her lips, but no words would come. Her brain was working too slowly, too hard. She closed her mouth.
“Cat got your tongue?”
She let her head drop back to the seat and surveyed her surroundings. There was no one in sight, and no other cars on the road. If the pink bands in the sky were any indication – and she couldn’t be sure they were with her head injury – it was almost dawn. They weren’t far from the ocean, but she couldn’t see the water from where she was sitting.
“Everything is done,” he said.
She opened her mouth to try again, then closed it when she realized her capacity for speech still hadn’t returned. She squeezed her fists close, then let them release. Her hands were working fine, and so were her wrists, she found as she rolled them.
“I know what you want to ask. What did I do with the boy?”
She shook her head and gagged when bile climbed the back of her throat.
“The bodies?” he guessed.
She let her head loll toward him and stared. She raised one foot and found it worked as well as it had before she had been taken.
“No,” he said, and watched her eyes rolling in her head. “Where are we?”
She opened her mouth and let out a breath.
“That’s it. You want to know where we are.” He glanced around. “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, it would be close to home.”
Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away. If he meant what she thought he meant, her family was in danger. No matter how many miles she put between them and herself, it was never enough to keep them out of the messes she made.
“We’re going to pay a visit to your niece.”
When he turned his head back to the dirt road, Farrah popped her seatbelt and launched herself across the seat at him. The two struggled for control of the wheel and she dodged his attempts to crack her in the head again. Instead, she turned the wheel and pressed down on his foot on the gas pedal. The last thing she saw was the pier. She aimed the car toward it and squeezed her eyes shut with effort.
Two days later, Farrah launched herself out of the hospital bed screaming. It took two nurses to get her back into bed, sedated, and calm enough to be reasoned with. A few minutes later, her niece and nephew came in together.
Her niece, Amara, handed off her hospital coffee to her brother, launched herself across the room, and landed an inch from her aunt’s IV. She hugged Farrah hard, then pulled away and looked into her eyes.
“I am.” Farrah smiled at the young woman, then winked at her nephew. “Rylan.”
“Aunt Farrah,” he said, then dipped his head to watch the floor as he walked to her bed. “We wondered when you would wake up.”
“I’m awake now,” Farrah said, and pushed herself gently up to take in her niece and nephew. “John?”
Amara scowled. “They didn’t find him.”
Rylan put the two coffees on a table by the bed. “The cops said he must have drowned.”
“We all know he didn’t,” Amara said.
Farrah put a hand on her arm. “You can’t think that way. He’s tangled with us twice and lost. If he did survive this one, he won’t be coming back for more.”
“We need to find him,” Amara argued.
Farrah squeezed the girl’s arm. “Don’t go looking for him. Promise me.”
Amara waited a long beat before agreeing with a nod. “I promise.”
“Good.” Farrah pointed to the side table. “Are my things in there?”
Rylan bent down, pulled out a drawer, and pulled out a waterlogged plastic bag with Farrah’s name on it. He handed it over with an uncomfortable smile. Farrah looked through it a moment, then pulled out her keyring. She picked through them, then detached two from the ring, connected them to each other, and slipped the set into Amara’s hand. Amara gasped.
“I’m leaving the agency to you.”
“What?” The girl settled heavily on the edge of the bed.
Farrah looked from her niece to her nephew and back. “To both of you. I can’t do it anymore.”
“I am not private investigator material,” Rylan said.
Amara clenched the keys in her hand, then leaned over and gave Farrah a hug. “I’m qualified enough for the both of us. Thank you, Aunt Farrah!”
When she pulled away, Farrah leveled a hard stare at her. “Promise you won’t go after John Ayer.”
Amara stared back at her, then sighed and broke eye contact. “I promise.” Then she looked back to her aunt with a smile. “You won’t regret this.”
“I will,” Rylan said.
Farrah gestured for both of them to come in for a hug. If there was anything good that came from John Ayer’s involvement in their lives, it was this: having her two remaining relatives with her again.
The story continues next year with my supernatural cozy mystery series starring Amara and Rylan Gray.