Chapter 14: DEBBIE'S PLEA
The envelopes were typed, the messages inside hand-printed:
Referring to his wife,
whose body he had buried
under the floorboards,
John Reginald Halliday Christie said,
“I thought it was the best way to lay her to rest.”
To help lay your fears to rest,
next week’s meeting will take place
in St. Sebastian’s Cemetery.
Bring your wallets. Mummy optional.
Debbie’s friendly overtures to Vic were taken as passes. Her sudden interest in everything Betty had to say was greeted with distrust. Keith looked at her like she wasn’t there. And Stevie wasn’t having her Little Miss Nice act.
Unable to engage with any of them individually, Debbie invited them all over that Saturday night. All she would say was that it had to do with the Fear Leaders and concerned all of them.
She spent all morning cooking and all afternoon cleaning and getting things ready. It wasn’t a party, she pointed out, just a quiet get-together, and they could leave any time they liked if they had plans (as no doubt Stevie and Vic would) to go out later.
Keith and Betty arrived first, followed ten minutes later by Vic and Stevie.
Although she had said it wasn’t a party, Debbie looked like she had dressed for one. Wearing a black dress, she had her hair up and just the right amount of flawlessly applied make-up. Although she wasn’t his type, Keith thought he could see what Tony Linseed had seen in her.
“You look nice,” Stevie told Debbie, and although she meant it, felt it had come out sounding insincere.
“You too,” said Debbie. It was true. Her friend (could she really still think of Stevie as a friend, no matter how much it might hurt to think of her as something else?) did look good – not glamorous, but good … wholesome – and that, Debbie thought, was exactly what Vic liked about her. Stevie had a lack of pretence, a refusal to try too hard, something that Debbie knew, in her own case, sometimes made her come off seeming desperate.
“So?” asked Betty, looking at Debbie.
“You said it concerns all of us,” Keith reminded her, grabbing a handful of nachos.
“I gather you’ve all received invitations to the next ‘meeting?’” Debbie asked.
“At St. Sebastian’s,” said Vic, nibbling on a slice of homemade pizza.
“Old home week,” muttered Betty, ignoring the food.
“As long as he doesn’t hold it in the old home,” said Keith.
“Why would he want us to meet in a cemetery?” asked Debbie.
“Uh, because he’s The Fear Master?” Betty looked bored.
“It fits the theme,” said Keith. “You wouldn’t expect him to take us bowling.”
“It’s just another spooky place,” said Stevie. “No special meaning.”
“Every other place we’ve gone was pretend-spooky,” said Debbie. “Even that wing of the morgue isn’t used any more. So why is he suddenly having us meet in a graveyard?”
“He wants to raise the stakes,” said Vic. “Not raise the dead. Each week, he lifts the bar a little higher.”
“Maybe he’s planning to lift the bar so high that next time, one of us won’t be coming home,” said Debbie.
Keith shook his head. “That’s a bit much.”
“Are you saying you think he’s going to try and kill one of us?” Betty looked at Debbie pityingly. “I don’t think so.”
“Me either,” said Vic.
“Deb, you’re overreacting.” Stevie’s smile was concerned.
“Is that why you invited us here?” asked Betty. “So you could … warn us?” She laughed.
“It does all seem a bit Cutter Cade-ish,” said Keith.
Place one plump hand on an ample hip, Debbie rolled her eyes and sighed. A practiced move designed to give her the floor, it had worked on her mother, it had worked on Stevie, and sometimes even worked on her teachers. But this audience wasn’t buying it. To them, she looked like a pushy fat girl on the brink of throwing a hissy fit.
“What if I told you he’d already threatened me?” asked Debbie. “Would that be enough for you to agree to break up the group? If we refuse to show up, just disband – now, before it’s too late, before something really bad happens – what can he do? Nothing!”
“You sound more like a Tear Leader than a Fear Leader,” sneered Betty.
“As if that think with the kitchen sink wasn’t bad enough, what if I told you he’d fired a gun down the phone – what if I told you he left a bullet in my bed?”
“Yes.” Debbie looked straight at Stevie. “What do you make of that?”
“A bullet?” asked Keith.
“Oh,” said Stevie. She looked down, but not before Debbie saw her eyes filling with tears.
“Can we see this … bullet?” asked Betty.
“You don’t believe me? After he stuck my arm down an InSinkerAtor, you doubt me?”
“He wasn’t really going to hurt you – not with all of us there,” said Vic. “But a bullet?”
“Oh God,” whispered Stevie.
“Be right back,” said Debbie, leaving the room.
“What do you think?” said Betty to no one in particular.
Keith leaned forward. “If we have a bullet that can be matched to a gun, and we can trace him through the number plate …”
“Number plate?” asked Vic.
“TFM 666,” said Betty.
“A friend of my dad’s said he’ll look into it. I couldn’t tell him the real reason I was asking, but maybe he’ll turn up something.”
“It’s so frustrating,” said Stevie, “to think that we were in his house and we have no idea where he lives.”
“In a movie, they’d be able to figure it out,” said Betty. “Did we cross a bridge, was there the sound of a creek, or the roar of cheering sports fans? We were blindfolded, so our hearing must have been heightened, but … I don’t remember anything that would help.”
“You can bet that he drove the long way around,” said Keith. “If only we could get back inside his car, look for clues – a driver’s licence, passport, anything.”
“I doubt if he carries his passport with him to drive around Bakers Hill in the middle of the night,” said Betty. “Oh – you got it?”
Debbie had returned. She stood in the doorway looking ashen.
Stevie looked at her.
Debbie shook her head. “It’s gone.”
Betty was on her feet. “Me too. I’m outta here. Keith?”
“But … it was there. Don’t you see? He came back and … took it.”
“So sad. Come on, Keith.”
“Oh, Deb.” Stevie put her arms around her friend. “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. That night – when you spilt the water on me and I ran out … I was so upset, I waited outside … and told him. About your father.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Debbie. “None of it matters now.”
At midnight, Debbie’s phone rang.
She’d been expecting a call and had no doubt who it was.
The flinty voice came scratching down the line. “Nobody drops out. Nobody. Submit.”
“Have a nice night,” said Debbie with a bitter laugh.