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The Laughing Man

By SandyT All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Horror

Chapter 1

Jake hit the rail faster than intended. The rough iron burned his sweating palms but its stillness and solidity calmed his racing heart. Lungs gulped the cold February air as an icy breeze whistled past his bare ears. Red and green marker-buoys bobbed into and out of sight as rolling waves rose and fell on the sea. Jake really didn’t want to be out on a night like this, but the homeless had no choice.

‘Oi! Gypo – here!’ Jake turned, heard pounding feet beneath the wind. Three, four pairs? Eight feet to do the kicking. Luckily his were faster. The spindly fifteen year-old pushed away just as dark figures appeared in the stark white pool of streetlight on the concrete promenade.  His acceleration surprised his four pursuers who had already begun to slow in anticipation of capturing their elusive prey. The tall, shaven-headed leader’s colourful expletives were lost on the wind before he changed direction and the pack followed.

Jake knew to plan ahead: never run from, always run to. A natural athleticism enabled him to hurdle various street furniture that waylaid his pursuers. Hurtling along the sea-front, dark void of roaring ocean to his right, wind rushed to meet him, the fact he could no longer hear his pursuers made him run all the faster.

A group of four cars and a bus headed towards him: he glanced over his left shoulder to see two vehicles coming up behind. Without checking his stride he turned and pelted in front of the first, which immediately braked with a screech and an angry stab at the horn. From the corner of his left eye he saw a flash of warning from the oncoming car but continued undaunted. He stumbled across the far pavement but managed to keep his feet. Without checking to see if his plan had worked he bounded off, almost floating, turning left down the access ramp beneath the Pleasure Beach. The welcome darkness of the tunnel swallowed him. For a second Jake slowed, instinct taking control. What was it? Just the dark, he thought, a friend to clothe him. A little alarm bell rang, but a bigger one reminded him of what would happen should he be caught; this provided the impetus to get him moving once more.

Sheltered from the wind he could hear clearly and what he could hear was silence. Blissful, safe, silence. No footsteps, no abuse. He leant on his knees, panting. A distant shout reassured him he hadn’t been spotted; now to get out of sight and hole up for the rest of the night. Beside him the peeling posters of the summer season’s attractions were decaying: ‘Vince Sparkle’s Ice Spectacular’ seemed even less appealing in the half-lit gloom than it had back in August. And the ‘Bobby Bloom Comedy Circus’ was eerie in its cheery insistence despite water damage and a missing lower quarter, the remaining tatters billowing, as if bitten off by some angry creature. Maybe it had seen the show, thought Jake, grinning for the first time that night.

Why they chased him didn’t matter – it was a given, like the weather. It was enough to know he didn’t want to be caught, not after last time. Three of them had got hold of him in an alley behind the Tower. There were names and accusations and bravado. Then he’d been kicked and punched and kicked again and there was blood and pain till he passed out. The next time, a week later, he’d been smarter – you learned through your mistakes in this game.  He’d seen them down by the station. Not fast enough to avoid being spotted he’d at least had the wit to know when to make an early escape. They’d chased him for most of an afternoon, dividing into pairs to try and corner him. It had been an accident of course, but he wasn’t sure if that would stand up in court. It certainly didn’t stand up in the court of the streets. Either way it had happened. One of their number less quick witted than his comrades had lost a battle with a forty-tonne Scania destined for Asda. He’d survived, but lost a few teeth and the use of two limbs for six months.

They weren’t happy. But then the excitement of the death at the Pleasure Beach had come, right at the end of the season in October and he hadn’t seen them for three months. After lying low in Lytham for a few weeks – not easy amid the BMWs and iron gates – he’d returned. From what he picked up from other members of Blackpool’s homeless community they were a particularly nasty gang from up the coast at Fleetwood. He figured they’d found a new hobby – throwing stones at old ladies possibly.

The murder had taken Blackpool by storm. Had it happened in the summer then maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big thing, but the town really did go to sleep in the winter, saving all its remaining energy for Saturday stag and hen-dos. The other nights were grim – quiet, cold and still. The discovery of a mutilated body in the shut-up amusement park grabbed the headlines but for Jake it just meant one more nutter out there; he’d met plenty. So tonight, out of practice, he’d been taken unawares. As he stood regaining his breath he suddenly realised that whilst the tunnel leant the safety of darkness he was trapped should they come at him from both end. Looking round for shelter he saw the familiar shuttered entrance where they’d used to enter when he’d come as a child. Those memories were the ones that had led him here when he’d first run away, but he’d fast learned you could regain the place but never the time: that was what had been special. Running to one without the other wasn’t enough: Blackpool without his family was just any other lonely seaside town.

He examined the wall – smooth, no openings. His anxiety rose as he glanced up the road. There must be a way in. He heard a voice: then a shadow across the mouth of the tunnel, briefly illuminated by a passing bus. Jake pulled frantically at one of the chipboard panels then, when it refused to budge he pulled harder.

‘Come on, please come on!’ he hissed. With a half-hearted final yank of resignation it came away from the frame. He imagined half a dozen rusted nails at his feet and pushed the board as far from his ankles as possible before threading his way inside. But not far enough – as he fell forward into an empty space behind the panels his right foot refused to join him, and when he pulled the tearing was not of denim but of skin. Pain seared up his leg and he fell to the floor. Tears involuntarily came to his eyes but he bit his lip and told himself he couldn’t look at it yet - safety first. Jake limped through the darkened space towards a chink of light a few yards off. Despite the town being his home these last eighteen months it was his first time inside in four years since it all happened. Oh well, here he was out of necessity rather than choice – if ever there was a time to lay the ghosts...

‘Gotcha!’ a violent push on both his shoulders propelled him through the gap where he stumbled, his damaged leg immediately giving way.

‘Right, pay-back time, you scummy little f**k!’ Jake span and tried to re-gain his footing; a dark figure approached with something more than menace. It was a crow bar. ‘You did for Ronnie, so now we do for you, pal.’ Jake looked up from the ground seeing only a silhouette against the light from a newly uncovered moon. He felt his bladder ache.

‘It was an accident – honest!’ he stammered, knowing the truth was unlikely to help. ‘He ran out – I was just...’

‘Trying to get him killed!’ One of the others had found a voice and Jake realised he was surrounded. ‘He was a good lad, Ronnie.’

‘No he weren’t – he was a t**t!’ said one, which drew laughter from the others. ‘But that ain’t the point. Point is he was one of ours, and no-one goes down in my crew without there being casualties on the other side.’ This last was stated as if a prelude to action and Jake waited for his life flash before him, determined at least to enjoy the good bits second time round.

The leader came forward then dropped to one knee right in front of him. Jake braced himself but instead of a fist he heard a guttural whisper by his right ear:

‘This is where they found him, you know.’ His breath stank. Jake opened his eyes. What was he talking about? Then it hit him and he realised he’d forgotten: funny how the world shrinks when you’re in the s**t. ‘Right here. Know what happened to him?’ Jake had heard a rumour. ‘Had his head taken off.’ The leader clearly relished this detail. ‘Not clean, like you’d cut meat – the wound was jagged – torn. Like it had been ripped off.’

Jake’s mouth had gone very dry and he was shaking from head to foot. Why was this relevant, why would...? From the shadows Jake heard a horribly slow, metallic scraping.

‘And you know the best bit? They never found it yer know, the ‘ed. They never caught ‘em yer know…wonder where they are...?’

Jake reacted to the horrific inference and by scrabbling behind him with both hands and feet. For one glorious moment he nearly gained his footing – in his mind he could actually see himself disappearing magically into the night, his escape the subject of future tales of daring, then…he hit something hard and unyielding: head first.

‘No no no. No escape this time, matey.’ Jake could see the moon run a glinting silver along the edge of a long, sharp blade.

And then there was a wrong sound. Something happened which Did Not Belong.

There was laughter: not from the figures around him, but from behind, and above him. A harsh, metallic, laughter. Jake froze, as did he attackers. Before the spell could break the scene was illuminated: from the same source as the laughter shone a beacon, lighting the four stunned faces in front of him. They stared behind him – he stared upwards. They were the Close Encounters scientists gawping stupidly at the mother ship. Jake realised exactly what it was that was making that odd, inhuman cackling sound. And he acted first.

Keeping low so as not to break their line of sight he dived sideways, springing around the circular plinth. Not waiting to look back he slid into the shadows towards the nearest buildings. Only having gained the security of a doorway did he turn to see the four figures standing before The Laughing Man.

A no doubt cute and novel idea when dreamed up in the thirties this larger-than-life human puppet sat perpetually encased within a cylindrical glass cabinet, slowly revolving upon a golden throne. Operated by some kind of primitive electronics he rocked and swayed from side to side, slapped his hand on his knee and all the while laughed such a huge and hearty laugh that the whole thing shook in sympathy. Upon his knee was a smaller version of himself – a three-foot puppet of a puppet, who also laughed and swayed even more wildly than his master. Like the rest of the amusement park the both looked shabby and basic after years of neglect – plasterwork throne chipped, face blotched and pitted, clothes showing signs of repair upon repair. Jake had always regarded it as a childish device, sat amid a throng of people and noisy rides it was an archaic irrelevance. Yet tonight, as it shone alone in the darkened park it gave him the creeps; and he wondered whether he’d always steered clear on purpose. Disney it definitely wasn’t. As he watched the tableaux turned away from the watchers and towards him, and as it did he heard his pursuers awake.

‘He’s escaped! Get ‘im...!’

The Laughing Man slowly turned.

‘Which way did he go?’ Jake withdrew into the shadows, suddenly realising the light from the cabinet was about to illuminate his hiding place. He stared hard at the laughing puppet, willing it to stop. And it did.

‘S***! That’s all we need. Who’s got a light on their phone? Come on!’ A small light appeared, far too weak to find him. Thanking this second piece of luck Jake pushed his way back into the doorway and felt something give. More voices in the darkness:

‘Right. Scud – go round the back and guard the walkway to the other side of the park – it’s easier to get out that way. Shocker – hunt round to the right. I’ll take the other side. Oh and Dud – stay here and guard the gate mate.’

Murmurs and stifled laughter.

‘Dudley bricked himself when that puppet started laughing!’

‘’K’off, Scud!’

‘Leave it – get moving. I ain’t letting that scumbag go this time.’ Then running footsteps faded. Time to move.

A musty haze filled Jake’s nostrils, the smell of damp and decay. Around him hard, cold walls; beneath his feet rough, short pile carpet. Jake had thought he was breaking into the lavatories but there were no tiles, no smell…Where was he?

It had been fifteen minutes since he’d broken in – broken being too strong a word – more like ‘fell’ in – the door had not been properly closed let alone locked – anyone could have gotten in. Which of course meant they could too. No windows afforded light and he felt his way around what seemed like a maze in pitch darkness. Cold, straight walls, odd corners... Then it hit him: it was a maze – a maze of mirrors. Now he remembered - he’d been in here many years ago. He recalled how the maze had mirrors and plain glass and odd lighting so that you ended up more lost that you thought possible in such a confined space. It wasn’t big, as the phrase went, but it was certainly quite clever. Or at least it had been to a nine year old. In the dark he saw little.

A sudden wrenching sound alerted him to the fact that he was no longer alone.

‘Hello scumbag – I know you’re in there!’ A pathetic opening gambit – he knew nothing of the sort – but it made Jake jump. He bumping his head against one of the mirrors, bit his tongue, felt the pain and blood swell up in his face. Standing stock-still in the darkness he prayed his pursuer did not have a torch.

Then there was a sudden light and Jake nearly cried.

*

Alan ‘Shocker’ Shockman, 18, did not have a torch. He had a phone that emitted such a feeble light it barely illuminated his gaunt face. Its three-foot diameter glow reached a couple of black walls and a tatty black curtain before petering out into darkness. Then the light went out.

‘Pants.’ He stabbed at it with quick-bitten fingers but it failed to cooperate. ‘Hey – s**t-face,’ he called. ‘Look, come out, I’ll give you a bit of a kicking then let you go before Trev gets you, how ‘bout that? Then we both go home, right?’ The words were muffled – no echoes. The space was limited in size. ‘I wanna go home, it’s cold and we’ve been chasing you for hours. Come on out.’ Shocker held his breath and strained his eyes wider and his ears farther, probing the room for give-aways. Was the boy here? ‘Come on – you’re just putting off the inevitable.’

Silence.

‘Look, if you get out and Trev gets you…’ Shocker hoped the trailing sentence contained sufficient menace to make his offer more palatable. ‘He’s a bit of a nutter he is, but you don’t argue like,’ and he chuckled to add what he hoped would be a note of camaraderie. Would he let the little runt escape from Trev if he did get him? Probably not. Everything he’d said was true – and more: truth be told he himself was scared of Trev, that’s why they all hung round with him – better the devil who knows you. And him bringing the bloody blade out with him: well that was a step too far.

He was getting mighty angry having to hunt round in here instead of them being down the pub or home watching porn with a six-pack. Hmm…the decision was deferred for the time being.

‘Right, I’m not counting to five or ‘owt. You just sodding well come out now or I’m coming in. And I’m armed,’ he added as an afterthought.

One, he thought to himself, two…five. He pressed the phone to activate the light, holding it out in front of him, hoping to catch the runt by surprise. But what he saw in the quarter-light took him rather by surprise instead.

‘Boo,’ said a low, gravelly voice.

The pathetically limited reach of light fell upon a face not three feet from his own. He had been crouching yet this face was below his eye line. It was a hard face, a mean face: a grinning face. A face made from plaster and coloured in blotchy, touched-up paint.

It was the face of the Laughing Man’s puppet.

Shocker froze. For a split second his brain seized, not wanting to absorb the evidence before him. Two seconds later his mind concluded this must be a spare puppet kept in a store cupboard; but then the face broke into a slow, wooden grin and raised its hand to its face. Shocker opened his mouth ready to yell but the puppet beat him to it.

‘Shh!’ it insisted, white-gloved finger pressed comically to its horrible, red lips. Its eyes twinkled, the only part which looked alive. The finger withdrew and slowly the mouth opened with a mechanical clicking. Inside something glinted, and as the wooden orifice widened Shocker was mesmerised by rows of razor-like teeth that sat, row upon row, waiting.

He just registered a warm trickling sensation down his leg before the face shot towards his own.

*

Jake heard the scream. It came from the door, and as he looked he thought he saw a faint glimmer of light illuminating what his mum would have called a ‘kerfuffle’. There was a snapping sound, another scream; then scrabbling, thumping, and running footsteps diminishing outside in the concourse. He had no idea what had happened – maybe the bloke had been spooked – but either way he breathed a slow sigh of relief. It was a minute or so before his own sense of the creeps forced him from his hiding place.

The concourse was quiet and dark. The moon afforded just enough light for him to gain his bearings but didn’t help him penetrate the many shadows where an attacker may lurk. Yeah, good word for them – lurkers. And the cylindrical glass case containing the laughing puppet had also returned to darkness after its spontaneous malfunction. Jake thought of what the guy in the maze had said – so Trev was the leader, and there had been how many? Three others? And one had possibly just done a runner. He wondered what to do: hole up again, make a run for it, or try to pick his way through the shadows to safety? Holing up was most sensible but something made him decide against it, something he’d sensed in the mirror maze. Run, then? He knew he could out-run them – his speed and agility had been his greatest asset on the streets, keeping him out of trouble on more than one occasion. But with numerous pursuers in a confined space – easily cornered. He was regretting coming here now – usually he kept out in the open for just this reason. The long broad seafront was his battleground – but here numbers counted against him. Stealth it would have to be.

Jake examined the scene, planning a path around the shuttered shops towards the west exit with its low fencing. He fancied his chances of scaling this but would need time to do so. He had to get there unnoticed. He set off at a crouch, watching his footing but moving with speed. This beat hiding; already he felt better.

*

Dud had been left to hold the fort and was proud of it. Trev would only have left his best lieutenant in charge of this site, the Centre Of Operations (Dud’s capitalisation).

‘You just stay here,’ had been his specific instruction after giving the others theirs. This had made Dudley Marsden, 19, very proud. He wasn’t very bright but the others tolerated him, as he was often the one who’d happily do the jobs no one else wanted to do. Of course they didn’t tell him that. Currently he was engaged in removing the putty from some metal-latticed windows.

Unlike Shocker, Trev’s outburst and sudden production of the machete hadn’t fazed him - mainly because he wasn’t able to make the connection between it and the murder he’d read about in the paper. Unable to establish fast links between long and short-term memories things like this often passed him by, but it did make the others laugh. And anyway he had other people to help him do that – mum, Trev…mainly those two – so what did it matter? What he did have, however, was damn good eyesight – though no one knew it – so he actually made a top-notch lookout. And what he saw creeping through the shadows across the far side of the concourse made him grin broadly.

‘We-ll hel-looo scumball!’ he hissed softly. ‘I’ll show you who’s boss…’ and without waiting or thinking to alert the others he followed his instinct.

*

Jake was pleased with his progress – it wasn’t as far as he thought and so far there was no sound. He thought he’d heard a shout or two over the other side of the park, near the ramp the one named Scud was guarding, but that was it so on he went. He resisted the temptation to speed up – haste would be his undoing – but he did think he could risk a short dash across the frontage of the small-kids Alice-in-Wonderland ride.

He darted up onto a bench and over the low wall that surrounded the ride then inside one of the card-characters which arched its back across the track. Again the darkness struck Jake, a stark contrast to its daytime cheeriness, and once more a shiver ran down his spine. He looked out across the remaining five yards and rose to cover it. As he did so he intuitively glanced left and instantly saw the bulky figure that had just broken cover not ten yards away. The pose – shoulders hunched, hands wide open on outstretched forearms like some Scooby-Doo villain – should have been comical, but in his current predicament and with the glimmer of light on that machete blade still fresh in his mind Jake didn’t find it at all funny.

The pair stopped and stared at each other for a near-comical second before Jake’s greater presence of mind told. He ran. The concave frontage of the ride entrapped him and again he was backed up against wooden doors. This time though no pounding was required – they just opened – and without time to wonder how or why Jake pelted inside with the sound of heavy footsteps in pursuit.

*

Dud wasn’t happy; a few more steps and he’d have had him. He was a big bloke, and holding him there while he shouted Trev would have been easy. That would have showed them. But now he’d have to go in and drag the little s**t out. He looked up as he entered the doorway. ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ he read.

‘Going on the baby rides are we?’ he called softly into the darkness, ‘Come on then baby, let’s play.’

*

Jake wasn’t happy either. If he’d been a bit quicker, not paused under that card to congratulate himself…But no time for that now; now he was in hiding again. Better find another place to…

But he got no further in his planning because that was when the lights came on. Suddenly he wasn’t in darkness but a moderately well lit tunnel. It was decorated with plastic flowers that arched over his head before it turned into a brick well as he ran along the thinly spaced tracks. He sped up - at least he could see his footing. Out of the tunnel into a grotto and scenes lit one after another – the white rabbit, the mad hatter; the two stripy fat twins whose names escaped him. Then came a mechanical grinding sound. Jake glanced round to see one of the ride cars coming towards him. An ugly little fibreglass contraption rumbled up to his shins and he had to throw himself onto one of the displays, wiping out the tea-party in the process. Dazed he slipped down the sloping scene coming to rest amongst the hidden lighting and speaker cables in the hidden gulley behind the frontage. The car rumbled away and he suddenly panicked that the big bloke was right behind. Jake held his breath, listening. At first he heard nothing – no footsteps or shouts, just the faint rumbling of the car as it wound its way off through the other galleries. Then Jake realised there was something else, something very soft, but definitely out of place. A low, laboured breathing; controlled to keep the noise down, but definitely breathing. And it was very close. Jake imagined the bulky figure standing just on the other side of the low barrier, imagined that if he happened to look over it or made a noise the game would be up. Nowhere to run to, as the song said.

The breathing was punctuated by what sounded like a licking of the lips. The man was considering his next move and Jake could do nothing but remain perfectly still. His own quickening pulse pounded in his ears. And something else: a new sensation, from his back – a warm, prickly feeling. It took a moment before he realised that his t-shirt had ridden up and the bare flesh on his back was resting against one of the arc-lights. And it was burning. Pain seared across his lower back and side, then there was a smell – singeing hair and skin. Jake bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut. Agonising moments passed. Then some more. Then…A sigh, footsteps moving off in the direction of the car. They receded, then disappeared. Jake waited - a minute, then two. The pain was intense. Then one more minute for luck, before finally he risked a tentative look over the parapet.

All was clear. Jake bounded softly back off the track, feeling his burnt skin flex painfully. He let out a large but extremely silent breath.

*

Dud followed the car, figuring rightly that it would cover any sound he might make. He saw the king and queen of hearts, playing cards, the March Hare and of course the bloody white rabbit countless times, but no runt. Half way round he started to lose his breath and the car so decided to take a rest. As with Jake, it was as the rumbling of the car receded that he realised he was not alone.

‘You may have noticed that I’m not all here.’

Dud whipped round, nearly breaking his neck in the process. What the hell…? He saw no-one, had heard nothing, so how…? After a pause for thought he dropped for cover, just as nothing happened. More nothing happened over the next minute before he risked raising his head.

‘He went that-a-way!’ said the voice. Dud followed it, and for a good few seconds his brain refused to play along.

A broad grin hung in mid-air, seemingly illuminated from within.  Dud moved his head to establish that it really was there, three-dimensional, just hanging. The teeth were large, almost cartoon-like, and between them very realistic and oddly red spittle oozed. The air seemed to fizz and swim – Dud assumed it was a heat haze until he realised it was icy cold in here. Then before he got any further the haze coalesced into something familiar – a sort of face. An animal’s face…a cat, in fact.

‘...that’s Cheshire Cat to you, numb-nuts!’ the face suddenly blinked into being accompanied by a cartoonish popping sound. Dud’s jaw literally fell open. The face hung alone for a few seconds before the haze produced a body to go with it with pink and purple stripes. It looked like one of those fabulously detailed CGI films where you can actually see the fur move in the breeze. Dud was mesmerised.

‘What-yer-doing-Dudley?’ the cat shouted in Trev’s voice, and as it did so the face started moving closer - no, floated closer. ‘You’re supposed to be chasing that little rodent!’

Dudley collected his few thoughts and answered Trev who had somehow taken on cat-like form.

‘Erb…er…well…I…’ But he got no further. The purple stripes gave a shimmer, like a magician changing the silk handkerchief into a pigeon. The colours snapped into blue and green, the face shrunk into that of a familiar plaster puppet with a manic grin and a small, golden crown. The blank, white teeth with the traces of blood narrowed and sharpened into pointed fangs that glistened in the artificial light. The paw, which had become a white glove rose up to lips which just managed to close over those vicious looking teeth – slicing and ripping as they did. He noticed shining silver claws protruding three inches through the virgin white fabric.

‘Shh!’ he heard it utter in a compelling whisper, which he just had to obey; before the face and claws shot towards him, teeth bared, eyes hungry.

*

Jake had twisted his ankle. A fork in the tracks caught him out and he’d slipped between the rails in the darkness. He was sitting rubbing it when he heard the scream. It seemed to flow down the tunnels like a sewer flood: he heard it first then felt it race towards and then over him. Another piercing scream that set his teeth on edge; then a wailing which quickly diminished. Sounded like his pursuer had come a cropper too but what on earth had happened to him? But twice now he’d escaped through dumb good luck, which made a change. Jake picked himself up and limped on: which way now?

*

Scud heard the scream, and bored as he was guarding the walkway, ran to see what was going on. Didn’t sound like the boy, sounded more like…

‘Dud? Dud! Where the hell are you off…?’ No answer. He watched Dud disappear round the far side of the dodgems and heard the big man’s distinctive foot-slaps continue into the distance. Then he heard footstep, smaller ones. What the hell had happened there? This was when he wished Trev had a phone: brain cancer he claimed – idiot. With a shrug and a self-satisfied shake of his long, greasy blonde hair he walked forward, determined to find out what had sent Dud into a panic.

*

Jake reached the end of the tunnel and peered out from the comfort of the shadows into the now moon-lit concourse. The cold, cylindrical cabinet sat silently in the centre of his vision, the only thing he didn’t see. It must have been getting on for an hour since he’d first stumbled into the park and he was all of fifty yards away from that same entrance.

He saw Scud amble across the scene, unconcerned at who saw him. He was a lightly built, wiry character and Jake knew him to be the fastest of the bunch so he could take no chances. Luckily he seemed to merely be wandering rather than searching. He looked up at the moon, across at the Alice-in-Wonderland ride then off to the right where (unknown to Jake) he’d seen his partner high-tail off.

‘Trev! Trev!’ Scud hollered. ‘Dudley’s buggered off!’ He half shouted, half sang this. Far away he heard a muffled answer. ‘He’s s**t himself and ran off, the soft sod!’

No reply this time and Scud stopped dead in his tracks not ten feet from where Jake stood. Jake froze, not even risking trying to sink further back into the safety of darkness for fear his movement should registered on the youth’s peripheral vision. He held his breath – something he practiced regularly. Body tensed he felt the pulse well up in his ears so loudly he felt sure it would give him away. Or burst. Then Scud moved on, seeming to make his mind up.

Jake continued to hold his breath for a while, just to be on the safe side.

*

Trev was having no joy. The little runt had outsmarted them and he didn’t like it. When he thought how close they’d been… He’d been fully prepared to give him what was coming there and then in front of that bloody puppet but what happened? Some power-surge and they’d all stood like Muppets while he ran off. He’d get double for that.

He heard a scream and shouted to ask if the others had got him, but when nothing came back he stood station, ready to catch the runner. When none came he fume all the more, hacking at some old wooden beams with the machete. He imagined, as he often did, the damage it would inflict upon human flesh.

*

Scud was in fact not only the quickest but also the smartest of the bunch, no matter what Trev might think. It wasn’t saying much given the competition – and god-forbid he’d never say anything to Trev himself – but quite often it was Scud who stopped them doing something monumentally stupid.

So it was Scud who was the only one to out-smart Jake that night. Realising Jake would be in hiding, and roughly figuring the area in which he must be hidden he acted as if to move off then ducked under one of the vending vans when he was out of sight of the concourse. From his vantage point he could a wide area but he himself was invisible in the shadows. Once more he dreamed of that future in the Paras: guts, glory and an automatic rifle.

*

The concourse was quiet when Jake eventually emerged, limping. His right leg pulled him along just fine but his left hung at an odd angle – ligaments possibly. Not permanent but with speed gone stealth was his only weapon.

He slipped silently back along the front of the Alice ride, amid the cards and the 3D rabbit and the colourful rendering of the Cheshire Cat. The air had turned icy as the sky cleared and Jake cursed as it flood-lit the open spaces. Maybe they’d got bored? He quickly shook the notion from his head – complacency would be the death of him, he thought, then regretted it.

He worked his way painfully back to the wooden shop-fronts opposite the Ghost Train – a very old and rotted hulk which had never scared him even as a youngster. Now it was everything outside which scared him. The wood was rough and splinters fought for access to his skin and under his nails but he didn’t notice. Senses heightened, counting the feet and inches he made his way carefully, legs taut and ready to run, or hobble, in either direction. Unavoidably there was the risk they they could box him in but there was nothing he could do bar climb the shallow buildings behind him. Twenty, thirty, fifty feet and he could see the next open area – smaller and darker than the last. He was half way there – half way out.

In the centre was another cylindrical kiosk, this one for selling tickets. He froze, certain he’d seen movement. His mind balanced on a knife-edge: part whispered ‘stay still, be safe’; the other yelled ‘run!

‘Run!’ came a shout from very close by. Before he could gain traction a hand grasped his collar and pushed him sharply. Jake floundered and sprawled painfully onto the asphalt. He hit a bench and had the presence of mind to roll beneath it as a mane of blonde hair brushed his cheek and a dark figure fell beside him, cursing. A hand grabbed his leg and pain raced up his body in response. A kick elicited a sharp crack and a cry. He didn’t wait for a medical update and just ran.

It’s amazing what adrenalin could do thought Jake, as he sprinted from the scene, using his damaged left ankle and knowing he’d pay for it later. He was away, across the open tarmac – no time to think tactics, a straight race – just how he liked it. Past an ice-cream kiosk – hurdle a bench – ankle screaming - swerve past the litter-bin. A shout behind, lost on the breeze. Pounding footsteps: you’ve got a head-start, don’t look back. Ahead was the fence – six feet of wooden slats followed by a further three of wire mesh and barbed rollers. Thirty-yards, twenty-five…fifteen. He plotted his trajectory… Head clearing he breathed deeply, counted off the steps: onetwothree…

…and failed to see Trev.

Gotcha!’ The larger youth shoulder-charged him.

Whoof! The breath was forced out as though he’d been squeezed by a garden roller. Up became down and left became right, his internal gyroscope jarred to hell. Tumbling, a flash of the moon and then…

Thwack! His head struck something hard. Lucky: the same impact against the concrete paving would have killed him. His face scraped a rough surface, hands scrambling for purchase. A fist struck his jaw, then a foot met his shin. Pain flared hotly and strangely blue as if he could see the electrical impulses bringing pain to his brain.

‘That!’ another boot, ‘s for Ronnie. And this,’ A kick from the right this time, ‘is for making me waste my bastard night chasing you round this f****g dump of a fun-fair!’

Jake lay foetal on the freezing floor. His world span when he closed his eyes. He saw a shiny black boot drawback and clung his hands tightly across his face.

‘Right – no messing this time…prepare to bleed…’ And he heard the ominous ‘shing’ of a blade being unsheathed followed by conspiratorial laughter muffled by his sleeves across his ears.

‘Trev – are you really going to…? Hang on, Trev. Trev, hang on…!’

But then he is up on all fours and mechanically he grabs a rail and pulls himself through just as metal strikes metal. Jake’s second wind carries him through the gap and he rolls across a floor which gives beneath him. Above him a canopy, around him groping hands grab air. Now what?

Ca’m ‘ere!’ bellows a voice beyond anger. It is something altogether more primitive. Another ‘clang’: he crawls painfully across the man-made floor, suddenly aware that his left hand won’t work properly – it just sort of flops forward, shattered. But there is no pain – why no pain?

No time passes – he crawls, and crawls. Nothing stops him. At any moment he expects a hand, a foot – a burning, slicing blade. He looks up and sees a faint, blurred glittering ten yards ahead. His mind wants to identify this place for him but his body is otherwise occupied – all power to main engines!

Jake is delirious – happy, hysterical, broken and in pain. Some part of him remains separate and observes. Observes the hands – one reaching one flopping – one over the other padding blindly towards the glittering lights. Observes the two shadows that stalk their quarry maimed, laughing. They are laughing.

And all of a sudden the laughter is not that of two youths but of that horrible, deathly mannequin encased in its glass prison. Jake can see it clearly rocking back and forth and side to side as the plinth slowly rotates. But that’s not here, he’s not there…he’s…

Pad, pad, hand over hand…how many more until he reaches those glittering shapes? Pad, pad; his good hand reaches out – at first he thinks his eyes have misjudged the distance but then he feels the cold hard glass of a headlamp, feels its roundness fill his palm. It is reassuring: it feels like success.

Then he is blind. For a second he mistakes it for pain – thinks it the blade, come to lop off a limb or a head…But he turns his head and it fades. It shines behind him, starkly illuminating two figures suddenly struck dumb, no longer laughing, strangely uncertain. Jake is still trying to assemble the situation; he hears a rumble, an electrical whine and then…music.

‘Let’s twist again, like we did last summer…’ Is it real? He thinks of Clive and his records, the old thirty-threes in the loft, the musty evenings just the two of them…and he is crying. The comforting hardness is advancing – a shape pushes him roughly out of the way and falls to the floor. As it does the light fades and he sees two more dodgem-cars behind this one, and senses at least one more behind him.  Jake falls onto his back, canopy over-head, music and lights filling his mind. Again he turns, this time inside his head. He sees the four of maybe five dodgem cars move in a line toward the far end of the rink. There are gaps in the line and the two scared looking figures, stumbling backwards in retreat, seek them. One succeeds but gets trapped. Two more part as if taunting the other man who picks his moment – Jake sees fear, indecision in his face. The man, runs between the two cars, towards Jake, but they swerve and collide.

Snap! Just like that – a leg. Trev goes down listing like a toy battle ship. The first man is still stuck. The two cars imprisoning him pull back, as though to free him then suddenly come back with force, meeting in his abdomen. Muffle cracks which may be ribs; a half-hearted scream which peters out into a gargle as the body crumples to the floor. But the dodgems do not stop, they continue their ballet, interweaving, running into and over their prey time repeatedly. And now Jake sees the drivers: small, colourfully dressed little puppets with small gold crowns and immaculate white gloves. Five puppets, five grins. Ten eyes – innumerable teeth. How can they possibly have so many teeth?

One passes close-by and a white finger rises to its lips and utters a soft, almost sighing:

‘Shhh…’

*

Jake wakes some time later: the night is colder than ever. Strangely he finds he is standing, and he sways as he thinks this, unsteady on an ankle he can feel is three times its recommended size. His memories ooze back into place and a dozen improbable images dart across his mind’s eye. His left hand aches dully and cannot be moved. One eye is half closed and he cannot move his neck. His right hand, his good hand…

…is clasping something; something soft, something small. He looks down to see a hand: a small, white-gloved hand. He follows the arm up to a shoulder and from there to the face of the Laughing Man’s puppet, smiling its ancient and cracked, grease-paint smile.

‘Shh!’ it says, and beckons for him to turn around.

He knows instinctively what he will see, and the instant the thought forms so the laughter starts – or possibly he notices it, as he thinks it may have been there all along. The plinth rotates inside the case; the large, seated figure slowly turns to face him. He sees first it’s jovial profile before it slowly, inexorably turns its terrible gaze upon him.

The rotation halts but the laughter continues. The face looks directly at Jake and Jake suddenly feels a coldness engulf him. The large figure stands. Without hurry it moves to the edge of the cabinet and ‘pop’…moves through the glass as though it were water. He sees this puppet is huge, far larger than any living man. In fact as he looks it grows like a picture reformatting to widescreen.

And the laughter is louder, louder now and inside his head and Jake wants to scream but can’t because of…

‘Shhh…’

…the darkness. He can only stare into that huge, horrible face as it comes towards him, he can only stare at the head as it is thrown back with renewed laughter and the mouth widens and the teeth oh the teeth and Jake knows he knows what comes next and when it does he watches and all he can do is wait he cannot speak he is back back in the attic and the mouth widens impossibly wide and from it there is thunder and light and heat and he is looking into an oven now a roaring volcano and feels the heat singeing his hair as the bloodied lips stretch slowly over his head and he can see down the never ending throat as the teeth lightly scratch his neck then settle just above his shoulder blades and…

* * *


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