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Chapter 22: A WAITING GAME

The train left Bakers Hill for Benton Friday afternoon at five, and the five Fear Leaders were aboard.

During the two hours and twenty minutes the journey took, hardly anyone spoke. Just by showing up, they knew they had in a sense given in, submitted to a stronger will, given themselves up to an unknown purpose.

Even Debbie was strangely calm, seeming to Keith like an inmate on Death Row whose last appeal had failed. All that remained was to wait. For the end of The Fear Master’s game. Whatever that might yet turn out to be.

They were met at Benton Station by the hearse, bearing the number plate MrHYDE and driven by a sallow-skinned chauffeur. A tiny hangman’s noose dangled from the rear-vision mirror. The chauffeur had collar-length red hair, a matching goatee, and The Fear Master’s eyes and voice. “Where to?” he asked.

“Bates Motel,” said Debbie.

The Fear Master chortled and gunned the engine. “As you say, m’lady.”

No one noticed how long they travelled or when the bitumen road turned to dirt. Even Keith’s keen perceptiveness had been blunted by a dull acceptance that whatever happened next was beyond their control. He could observe like a spectator in the stands. But whether or not he got to be a player was another matter. If the opportunity was there, he would seize it. But the head games-player might have other ideas.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeverybody out!” The Fear Master turned to his passengers and grinned. It was not the sort of grin that invited backtalk. “Voila, Mesdames et messieurs – your camp awaits!”

And so it did. Just a few minutes’ walk away, three two-man tents had been set up around what would be, when lit, a first-class campfire. And close enough for them to hear it was a lazily winding creek.

“It’s perfect,” said Stevie as they unpacked.

“Too perfect,” mumbled Betty.

“I don’t trust him,” said Vic.

Keith and Debbie shared a look. Neither spoke. They didn’t need to; they were clearly thinking the same thing.

“And then the hook-handed horror burst out of the undergrowth and slashed them all to ribbons!” Vic threw back his head and howled.

Debbie felt a chill slide down her back. Vic might have overcome his fear of public speaking, but he was starting to remind her of The Fear Master. Mr E12 and E13. she wondered who the other ticket was for. What kind of friends did he have? Could he possibly be married?

The name of the play he was planning to see was Wait Until Dark. They had. And the campfire spook-stories were well underway. It should have been happy and stress-free; but the orange firelight threw jagged black shadows, and if The Fear Master had taught them nothing else, it was to look for the maggot in the apple. And here they were – in Benton – butcher country. The so-called Butcher had been caught. But The Fear Master had encouraged tem to believe that maybe he hadn’t been. Or maybe there had been a second killer, an accomplice, and the brains of the operation was still out there – maybe here – waiting … until dark.

“Cold, Debbie?” asked Keith, his brown eyes bright in the firelight.

Although she was almost sting on top of the fire, Debbie was shivering. She looked at Keith. He really was a nice guy, in spite of his friendship with the pushy Betty. “Someone just walked over my grave.”

“Maybe,” said Vic.

Stevie forced a smile. “You don’t think he brought us out here to …”

“Hunt us for sport?” asked Debbie.

“That’s enough,” said Betty sharply.

“Or maybe to use us as bait to lure out the real Butcher of Benton … the one that got away. He’d make a pretty fine trophy for someone who calls himself The Fear Master---”

Deb.” Stevie’s voice held a pleading tone.

“What are you saying?” asked Betty. “That he brought us here to kill us? He’s been in my house, and yours … why hasn’t he killed us by now if that’s his game?”

Debbie’s look was hard. “Because he hasn’t finished playing. The cat is still toying with the mice.”

“Whether he really is a threat or not, I think we should keep watch tonight. Three shifts of three hours – what do you think?” Keith looked around the group.

“I’m in,” said Betty.

Vic raised his hand. “Me too.”

Vic drew first watch. Between them, they only had two weapons – Keith’s Swiss Army knife, and Debbie’s butcher’s knife. Vic took both.

Stevie had kissed him on the cheek before she went to the tent she would share with Debbie. Keith and Betty, who would take the other two shifts, each took a separate tent.

“See you soon,” said Keith, turning in.

“Unless the Butcher gets me,” said Vic, pulling a face and holding up the Psycho knife. “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” he went, plunging the blade into empty air and imitating the movie’s screaming violins.

“Love your work,” said Betty, disappearing inside her tent.

“Love you,” whispered Stevie as she followed Debbie into their tent.

Vic smiled and gave a little wave. Meeting Stevie had been the best thing about becoming a Fear Leader. From the first, he’d known it would be.

Betty rolled over and yawned, putting her hand over her face to block the daylight. Damned sun, it came up way too early out here in the---

She sat up. What time was it?

Knowing her mobile phone would have no reception out here, she hadn’t brought it – besides, “he” would probably consider it some kind of betrayal – so she hunter about for her watch, trying to stay in control of a rising sense of dread. Wait – think … they’d gone to bed shortly after eleven, so Keith would have started his watch at two, and Betty’s should have begun around five. Even through the tent’s canvas walls, she could see it was later than that. Much later.

Finding her watch, she picked it up and shook it. Could that be right – seven-thirty? Crawling to the end of her sleeping-bag, she stuck her head out of the tent. Nobody on watch. Where was Keith? Slacker. He’d probably gone back to bed after the first five minutes of his shift. Maybe he hadn’t even gotten up. Vic might have woken him, gone to his tent, and Keith had rolled over and gone back to dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize. Dork.

Straightening up, Betty pulled on sneakers without lacing them up and shuffled over to Keith’s tent. The morning air smelt good, but that damn creek water was gonna be cold. Maybe she could get away with just a quick splash?

“Rise and shine, Rip!” bellowed Betty to the sleeping Keith.

With a groan, he opened one eye. “Hey – you’re not Keith.”

“Thanks for noticing.” She posed in her tank top and shorts, unable to resist the absurdity of the moment.

“Vic didn’t keep watch all night, did he? Stupid bugger. Where is he?”

“That’s what I’d like to know.” Taking another look around and seeing no one, she bellowed: “Viiiiiiiiic!”

“Now how about something in D minor?” said Keith, grimacing.

“Oh.” Betty had seen something.

“Not O – the key of D.”

“You’d better come and take a look.”

“What’s all the racket about?” grumbled Debbie, sticking her head out.

“Vic’s sleeping-bag,” said Betty.

“What?” Stevie was up. “What about Vic?”

Standing beside the dead fire, Keith picked up Vic’s sleeping-bag. Only it wasn’t Vic’s sleeping-bag. It was a body bag.

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