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Chapter 23: THE MAP


The note lay underneath the bodybag.

“What do you think?” Keith was looking over Betty’s shoulder at Debbie, who was doing her best to comfort Stevie.

“Do I think he’s dead?” asked Betty. “Don’t you? They were right. He didn’t bring us all the way out here for nothing. He’s a hunter. He’ll pick us off one at a time.”

“Not if we stay together.”

“We can’t stay here.”

“Then we go back.”

“What about her? She won’t leave him.”

“If she thinks he’s alive, she might. Just don’t tell her what we talked about.”

“So we should lead her to believe Vic is alive?”

Keith shrugged. “Maybe he is. There’s no body. No blood.”

“And no reason to think he walked away of his own free will.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“I don’t think he walked away at all.”

They decided to follow the road back to Benton. The forest offered concealment, but since no one was familiar with the area, it also posed the greatest number of threats. By following the road, they were at least traveling toward a known destination.

And while the chances of flagging down a passing motorist seemed remote, there was always the chance someone might see them and report their presence to the local authorities.

For most of the journey, they walked single-file: Betty, Stevie, Debbie, Keith. It cut down on the need for idle chatter (which no one felt like making but everyone felt compelled to make, at least at first) and focused attention on the task at hand – putting one foot in front of the other.

Since breaking camp, no one had mentioned Vic. Before they’d left, everyone had reassured Stevie that her boyfriend was alive. Just look at all the tricks that had been played on Debbie, they pointed out, and she was still alive. “Still in one piece,” said Debbie, “even after the InSinkerAtor incident. And Vic’s in one piece too. Somewhere.”

“What’s that?” Betty saw the shiny object first. It was small and reflected the light, and looked to be made of gold and glass.

“Vic’s glasses!” cried Stevie.

Keith pushed to the front and picked up the glasses. “Look – tied to them … it’s a piece of map!”

They trudged in silence, following the line on the map. It was two hours since they had found Vic’s glasses, and were all beginning to wonder the same thing – had Debbie been right? Were they walking into a trap from which there would be no escape?

Keith had at first sided with Debbie, arguing that if they followed the road, they would arrive in the township of Benton well before dark. The Fear Master, human or inhuman, seemed to be a creature of darkness, and leaving the road only perhaps to find themselves in the forest tonight, would leave them completely at his mercy. And mercy had not so far proven to be his strong suit.

“Do what you like,” Stevie had told them tearfully, “but I’m going after Vic.”

“No,” Debbie had told her. “You’re not going to Vic. You’re going to The Fear Master. Vic’s the bait. If you wanna stick your head in a trap, that’s no reason for the rest of us to get killed too!”

“Vic’s alive – you said so,” Stevie reminded her.

“You said that we should stick together,” said Betty.

“All right – so – what – you wanna go haring off into the … unknown like a buncha robots because some creep in a clown suit left a bit of map on the road?”

“He may be crazy,” said Keith, “but this guy’s no dummy. He took Vic to make us follow; while we follow, he’s not going to harm us. And that gives us time to make plans. He must have considered we might ignore the map and keep walking back to Benton. And what if we did? Who’s to say a hearse wouldn’t come tearing round the corner and mow us all down before throwing us in the back like dead meat?”

“So let’s all give in and do whatever her wants because that’s what would happen anyway?” said Betty.

“He’s covered his bets,” said Keith. “No way he’s letting us walk away. If we do what he says, it might just be another of his dumb games. But if we anger him – and we don’t even have a Swiss Army knife to defend ourselves, remember – well … is that risk anyone wants to take? I don’t.”

The silence had been palpable, full of anger and frustration and fear; but no one had further dissented.

And so they began to follow the piece of map that had been tied to Vic’s glasses. And Keith tried to convince hi self that the game in the cemetery had been only a game, that the grave-robbing had been an unrelated incident, and that this trek through the forest was just an other of The Fear Master’s eccentric pranks.

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