Chapter 1: FEAR LEADERS
Debbie Dawe, a big-boned beauty with shoulder-length dark blonde hair and painted lips, saw the notice first, and maybe that made it all right, or at least understandable, the way it ended (if it ever did end) because she’d finally taken charge and faced down her greatest.
Debbie smiled, almost laughed. Was this some sort of joke? It must be. Had to be. Too bad Stevie wasn’t here to appreciate it. They’d have a great time laughing at it. That was the thing about Stevie – she always liked what Debbie liked; that’s why they were friends. Best friends, Debbie thought with a warm glow. The only other person she’d ever come close to liking half so much was that Tony Linseed she’d gone out with a couple of times last year. Until he’d thrown her over for some skinny wannabe dancer, some nobody – but forget her, because now Debbie had the chance to become somebody - a Fear Leader!
Whatever it was, it sounded like fun. Maybe some group that would play pranks on people and get them back for things they’d done … a kind of revenge group. Debbie liked that idea. Though only sixteen, Debbie had a lot of scores she’d like to settle. Especially with stupid Tony Linseed, for the way he’d treated her, the way he’d made her feel (like garbage); and Stevie would go along because Stevie did whatever Debbie told her to; that’s why they were besties.
A little smile twisting her pouty mouth into a look of cruel satisfaction, Debbie curled one chubby fist around the black pencil that dangled by a string from the notice on the school bulletin board. She noticed with a giggle that on the non-writing end of the pencil was a small white skull with red glass eyes.
This was gonna be fun, no matter what being a Fear Leader meant. Debbie would instruct Stevie to sign up at once, and then they’d have fun together. Like they always did. Debbie reckoned she and Stevie would have fun even if they joined hands and jumped through the gateway to Hell!
What the hell was a Fear Leader? wondered Keith Bliss as he stood studying the notice on the bulletin board. His beady brown eyes took in and weighed up every word with what he liked to think of as his reporter’s instinct. Tall and broad-shouldered with an athletic build and wavy brown hair, Keith was the editor of Bakers Hill High School’s newspaper, Bakin’ It, and always on the lookout for something more interesting than a dance or cake sale to report. And although the notice gave no clues as to what being a Fear Leader would entail, it had to be more fascinating than the local go-kart rally he’d been forced, for lack of more exciting fare, to put on the front page last month.
Keith started to print his details in the space provided. Maybe it was some kind of reading group, like a book club, and maybe he could bring along his current obsession, Laurence Salmon’s Wraith Tales, a collection of loosely-connected ghost stories by the man critics called “the master of quiet horror.” Actually, Wraith Tales had come out two years ago, and Salmon had published nothing since. Keith was reading the book for the third time, and thrilled that he kept finding subtle new meanings and connections in it. He wondered what it would be like to write something like that, how it would feel.
But even if this turned out to be something other than a book club, maybe it would give him not just a story for the paper, but the basis for a fictional short story. Because that was what he really wanted to do – write horror. Not the blood-and-guts stuff, but the sunlit terrors of Mr Salmon, whose best work recalled the classic ghost stories of M.R. James. Fans of rival author Cutter Cade invariably called Salmon’s work boring. Cade, with his vampires, werewolves and shapechangers, commanded a huge readership. But for Keith, Laurence Salmon was the writer he wanted to be. And maybe writing something inspired by The Fear Master would get him on his way.
So I’m going to be a Fear Leader, thought Betty Quinn, pushing her red-dyed fringe out of her eyes, as she started her third circuit of the bicycle track on her nightly run. It was not only a way of keeping fit, but a way of getting out of her parents’ tiny flat in that rundown building on that rundown street. And, best of all, it was a way of punishing herself.
For not being good enough. For never being good enough. When she’d failed to qualify for the inter-school athletics championship by a fraction of a second (she’d gone out for pizza the night before instead of training) she’d been crushed. It had been her fault; it could have been avoided. So these days (and nights) she never let a chance go by, and that was why she’d signed up to become a Fear Leader (whatever that meant) because maybe it was something wonderful, and if she went back tomorrow and they’d taken the notice down, she’d miss out, and that was not acceptable.
Especially if it turned out to be an appreciation society for the works of Cutter Cade, the rippingest-tearingest horror writer to come along since Clive Barker. Cade was nothing like that tedious Laurence Salmon with all his tiny details and hidden meanings that nobody got but so many raved about; Cade was the Jack the Ripper of his craft, and Betty loved him for it. Give me a killer clown any day, thought Betty, and suddenly recalled the Cade short story about a car that ran down pedestrians and stole their souls. She smiled. It was a silly idea. But what if some lunatic had read the story and it had given him an idea? She would make an easy target, jogging along the side of the road by herself late at night. She glanced at the misty watch on her sweaty wrist (eleven o’clock) and looked toward the road, where she saw no one. She would be alone, all right, going home. Normally she was fine with that, but tonight it gave her a qualm. If something did happen, no one would see; Bakers Hill went to bed early on week nights (school tomorrow; work tomorrow) and you didn’t have to live in a big city - there were plenty of weirdoes in out-of-the-way places – just look at that creepy farmer who had been the inspiration for Norman Bates and Leatherface.
Jogging slowly onto the shoulder of the empty road, Betty glanced up at the moon – a thin sliver like lemon rind – and wondered what would be waiting for her when she got home. Most likely she would be asleep – avoiding like always – and he would be drunk; friendly and expansive, then angry and accusing, blaming the world for his failures. I will never be like that, thought Betty. I’m no loser – I’m a winner … and if that soul-sucking car shows up, send it on over and I’ll kick its tail-pipe all the way back to Cutter Cade country!
Betty could handle it; she could handle it all – the deadbeat parents, the dump of a dwelling, the so-called friends who laughed behind her back – because now she was a Fear Leader, and Fear Leaders (she felt sure) feared nothing!
The girl looked incredible – at least from the back – and that’s why Vic Jacobs, with his shaggy hair, thick glasses sliding down his long nose, and general air of panic at being late for class, stopped to check out the talent. Tall and slim with long black hair falling halfway down her back, she was slightly crouched, writing something on the bulletin board.
Maybe it’s her phone number, thought Vic, stepping into the stairwell to observe, feeling as jerky and unco-ordinated as ever. When she had finished writing and walked away (and what a walk), Vic found to his delight that she had written her phone number. Her address. And her name: Stevie Weaver.
Never thinking he would be smitten by someone named Stevie, Vic (the nervous tic he thought he had grown out of starting again at the corner of his left eye) scribbled his name under hers and hoped it might be a sign of just how close they were going to become – Stevie Weaver and Vic Jacobs – the Romeo and Juliet of Bakers Hill High, perhaps; but definitely, in the short term, Fear Leaders.
The Malice Palace was a dump. The owners had spent a fortune making it look that way. And as Debbie and Stevie observed as they arrived to take in a Saturday-night double feature of Rabid and Hellbound, they had succeeded shamelessly.
“It looks like we’re inside the Psycho house,” said Stevie with a smile.
“More like a castle,” Debbie corrected.
“They’ve even got stuffed birds on the wall, like in Norman’s office.”
“And a suit of armour – like in a castle.”
A big man in a boilersuit and hockey mask stepped forward to tear their tickets.
“Jason Voorhees,” whispered Stevie.
Debbie shook her head pityingly. “Freddy Krueger.”
Inside the cinema, fake cobwebs festooned an other-worldly environment that looked like it had been designed by Morticia Addams. Stevie took a handful of BloodCorn from the cardboard bucket she held and smiled at her friend, who was already biting into her Hot Dead Dog, as they took their seats.
“I got to tell you something,” said Debbie as the lights dimmed and a trailer came on advertising an upcoming season of black-and-white classics, everything from A Place of One’s Own to Dead of Night. “Yuck! Who’d wanna see a movie in black and white? That wouldn’t be scary at all!”
“Psycho was in black and white,” whispered Stevie.
“I don’t think so.” Debbie gave her friend an I-can’t-take-you-anywhere look. “I remember all that blood running down the drain!”
“Chocolate sauce,” said Stevie.
“You’re thinkin’ of that zombie pitcher – where the boy tries to scare his sister in the graveyard and the dead people all pop up and come after ’em.”
“Maybe,” said Stevie, giving in. When Debbie decided to make a point, no matter how wrong she might be, it was easiest just to agree. Stevie knew.
“Now that we’ve got that settled, I gotta tell you about this thing at school – a kinda club or somethin’ … I don’t know, but you gotta join – it’s gonna be great – a buncha fun people playin’ pranks and stuff. It’s called Fear Leaders and it’s run by this really weird guy called The Scary Dude. Tell ’em Debbie sent you – it’s gonna be great!”
Turning away, Stevie smilingly sipped her Soylent Soda. She didn’t dare reply that she’d already signed up and had been going to suggest it to Debbie; easier to let Debbie think it was her idea and Stevie was just tagging along. “Sounds great,” she said. “I’ll look into it.”
“I didn’t say look into it – I said do it.”
“Sure, Deb, anything you---”
“Shhh – the movie’s startin’!”