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Chapter 25: UNDER THE SKIN

ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE, read the sign on the cabin’s door.

Having walked around the small structure, the Fear Leaders found that there was only one door, and all the windows had been boarded up. There was no sign of The Fear Master – no sign of life at all – and whatever he had led them to, it seemed this was the setting for the endgame. Their “final exam” waited just beyond the door.

“Ladies first,” said Keith, making a mock-bow.

“I wonder what Cutter Cade would make of this?” said Betty.

“I wonder,” said Keith, “what this will make of us?”

Debbie looked away.

Stevie nodded. “Fine with me – ladies first.” She walked up and grabbed the doorknob. It turned. And the door opened.

“Disappointing,” said Keith. “I was expecting a blood-and-guts groan, not a piddly little creak.”

“He’s making it easy for us,” said Betty.

“Like a trap,” murmured Debbie, “the way he’s got everything boarded up.”

“Let’s find out,” said Stevie, stepping inside.

The heat hit them first, followed by the smell – an odour of staleness mixed with something like rotting meat. Debbie covered her mouth.

What hit them next, in the first room of the sparse cabin, with its bare walls and exposed beams, made them gasp – a shrine to the Butcher of Benton. Black candles surrounded a framed front-page of the Herald trumpeting the news: KILLER CAUGHT! On the walls in various stages of turning yellow was just about every newspaper article ever printed about the Benton murders.

“This place should be condemned,” muttered Betty.

“It hasn’t been condemned,” said Keith in a flat voice. “We have.”

The noise came from the next room – muffled, incomprehensible, desperate.

“Vic!” Stevie rushed in.

In the adjoining room, in front of the fireplace, they saw something that made them instantly forget the shrine to the Butcher.

Betty made a sound partway between a sigh and a cry.

“Is it …?” Stevie’s eyes filled with tears.

Vic, mouth taped, hands tied in front of him, was standing on a stool that looked none too steady; dangling from one of the exposed rafters was a rope, its noose around Vic’s neck.

Startled by their arrival, Vic whimpered and almost lost his footing on the stool.

“Hang on, Vic – no, I mean … don’t move! Stevie, hold the stool.” Keith freed Vic’s neck and untapped his mouth.

“I was so worried!” Stevie hugged his bony knees.

Jumping down off the stool, Vic wiped his mouth on his sleeve and took Stevie’s hands as she tried to untie his. His tic working overtime, Vic kissed her.

Debbie turned away. She felt she was witnessing something too private even for her prying eyes. Staring into the cold, empty fireplace, she rested her hand on the dusty mantelpiece – and froze.

She’d touched something. She knew what that something was. She’d rather touch a snake or tarantula than that. She turned back to face the others. Everyone was hugging Vic. Except the figure n the doorway.

He wore a pig-mask, chef’s hat and a bloody butcher’s apron that read KISS THE COOK. In his hand was a large, gleaming cleaver.

“The little girl in The Exorcist told the astronaut he was going to die up there – but, as it happens, you are going to die up here! I said I was going to have you for dinner – and so I am! If only I had skewers, I could serve you en brochette! But first - now that I have your attention - I’d like to throw the discussion open. Anyone have a question, a comment? If so, make it quick – I’m feeling peckish!”

“Why?” Stevie looked like all the blood had drained out of her face.

“Why not?” said The Fear Master. “After I set up that simpleton Laurie Naughton for my crimes, I knew I couldn’t hunt any more of the Benton locals. I had to find my sport somewhere else. Enter the Fear Leaders. Subjects I could tease, cajole, play with, and ultimately lead here. Not to play another game – to play the game. Everything until now was just the lead-in. so, here you are, five kids from Bakers Hill, about to become one of the great unsolved murder mysteries. Your generation lives for fame. Well, you’re going to be famous! On TV, all over the internet. Your images, anyway. You, unfortunately, will never be found.”

“There’s got to be more to it,” said Keith.

“Sorry, Scoop – there isn’t. It was all … just for fun. You met me but didn’t know what I looked like. You visited my house but don’t know where I live. Now, you’ve been to both my houses.”

“You still haven’t explained yourself,” said Vic, rubbing his neck with one hand. His other arm was around Stevie.

“I told you before we are all monsters – we all wear masks – concealing our true natures. Ed Gein – the model for Norman Bates – you know what they said about him? That he had one face he showed to the living, and one face he showed to his victims. Why do you think I gave you those particular books to read? What do they have in common?”

“They’re horror classics,” said Betty softly.

Debbie shot her a look.

“They are, but more than that,” said their pig-faced host. “They’re all about monsters – from Dracula to Mr Hyde to Reagan MacNeil, they’re all monsters under the skin.”

Keeping a grip on the cleaver with his right hand, he used his left to knock off the chef’s hat and grab the pig-mask. “Care to take a look?”

“Go on,” said Stevie evenly.

“We know you’re a monster,” said Vic.

“Take it off,” taunted Keith.

Debbie moved slowly back to the mantelpiece. She didn’t want to – wasn’t even sure that she could – but if it came down to it …

“It’s your graduation – you’ve all earned the right to see what’s under the mask. Come on, Stevie – let go of Twitchy there – come on over here and kiss the cook!”

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