Chapter 3: THE GAME BEGINS
The lights came on in a blinding fluorescent flash and a cowled (apparently faceless) figure cried: “Let the games begin!”
Debbie screamed. He looked like a mad monk, seeming to spin through the room like a whirling dervish, reaching up onto one of the shelves for a black cardboard box which he laid at his black-booted feet.
Stevie, Debbie noted, was hanging onto Vic’s bony shoulder.
“I am The Fear Master! And you are my subjects.”
“Subjects?” repeated Betty softly as The Fear Master threw several rolled-up sheets of paper onto the table.
“Some kind of disclaimer,” muttered Keith, opening and reading one of the five identical scrolls.
“Exactly,” whispered The Fear Master. “Saying you are signing up to be a Fear Leader of your own free will, and once you’ve signed, you’re in for the duration.”
“The duration?” asked Keith.
“Sounds like a course,” said Debbie.
“Your performance will be graded,” said The Fear Master, “but it isn’t possible to fail. The only thing you can’t do is drop out.”
“The way it reads,” said Keith, “we’re giving you an unconditional OK to scare us silly using any means you see fit.” He tried to lock eyes with the seemingly faceless figure.
Inside his disguise, The Fear Master shrugged. “If that gives you pause, Mr Bliss, maybe you don’t have the stuff to be a Fear Leader. Sign or don’t. Good night and goodbye.”
His voice sounded dark and flinty. Was he deliberately trying to disguise it? Keith wondered.
Tall, thought Betty. Medium build. With his face completely concealed, it could be just about anyone – a teacher, a neighbour, one of their fathers. Well, not her father – he’d be at home with a bottle or three. That was fear, Betty thought. Real fear. The fear of being alone. Betty found herself underlining her signature before she even realised she had signed.
“Well, it doesn’t say we’re giving you permission to kill us,” said Keith cheerfully as he signed his scroll.
The Fear Master chuckled. As Stevie signed. And Vic. Even Debbie, rolling her pale blue eyes as if this was the biggest bore in the world.
“Photo opp!” cried The Fear Master, arranging them around the table.
“Photo?” Debbie ran plump fingers through blonde tresses, then brushed off the black tracksuit that encased her pearshaped body.
“You look great,” Keith assured her.
Debbie looked at him. “Yeah? All right.”
Betty smiled at Keith.
Stevie smiled at Vic, who felt his left eye start to twitch.
“And now, class,” said The Fear Master, hurrying to the blackboard and starting to write, “since we have committed ourselves to become good Fear Leaders, let us define what fear is. Thoughts?”
“It’s like,” ventured Debbie, “when that old guy said, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’”
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” said The Fear Master. “Quite right. And what about another, quite different, fellow – Charles Whitman – who said this …”
Vic, who had taken his thick glasses off for the photograph, squinted at the writing on the board, and then, with a glance at Stevie, put his glasses back on.
“‘I’ve been having fears and violent impulses – life is not worth living,’” read The Fear Master. “After writing that in a note, he killed his wife and mother, went to the observation deck on the twenty-seventh floor of the University of Texas tower and opened fire, killing fifteen, wounding thirty. I guess you could say … the fear got him.”
If she had known him better, Stevie would have squeezed his hand. But she didn’t. So she contented herself with a we’re-in-this-together smile at Debbie, who looked away.
“What do you think?” The Fear Master asked. “What is fear? Is it being chased by aliens in outer space … or is it when your father has a heart attack?”
Betty smiled wryly. Her old man was gonna live forever. And if he did die, he’d be preserved in alcohol!
“That’s a rather enigmatic little smile, Miss Quinn. Share with us, won’t you, your views on our favourite four-letter word?”
“Right now, I’m reading Dracula – that you sent me … it’s pretty scary.”
“‘I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth.’”
“Yeah, right – that Stoker guy, he’s pretty cool. But for fear – real horror writing, I say you can’t beat Cutter Cade.”
“Ah. The new master of horror … so they say.”
“I know he’s only done five books,” said Betty, “but it’s like … he can take a situation, completely ordinary – and the next thing, some outrageous thing happens, and you don’t question it; you go with it.”
“Just like Laurence Salmon,” said Keith. “Only he isn’t a showoff like Cade. No splatter. Salmon has class.”
“And hardly any sales,” grinned Betty. “He hasn’t published a book in two years. Cade puts one out every nine months.”
“Just like a baby,” said Stevie, immediately feeling embarrassed.
Debbie’s laugh was nasty.
“So we have one Cade fan and one Salmon supporter,” said The Fear Master. “Personally, I like them both, though I do have a preference, which I won’t be telling you about tonight. Instead, I want you to tell me something – for next week … homework.”
Betty shot Keith an I-don’t-much-like-this-Debbie-chick look.
Debbie gave an exaggerated yawn.
Vic looked at Stevie. Stevie looked at Vic.
Silently, Debbie broke wind.
“H.P. Lovecraft, the father of modern horror writing, said that fear is our oldest and strongest emotion. So, tell me … what scares you? Correction: not what scares you – what scares you most? I want you to write down your greatest fear. That’s your homework. Bring it next week. And, believe me – I’ll know if you’re lying. In addition to not being able to drop out, you also cannot lie – at least, not to me. So, know this: liars will be dealt with.”
Debbie, who had stopped yawning, groaning and farting, knew she could not obey. She would never reveal her greatest fear. She had never told anyone – not even Tony Linseed – well, OK, she had told Stevie – but she certainly wasn’t going to expose her (tortured) soul to some guy in a cowl who didn’t even have the guts to show his face. No way. The Fear Master would have to go without.
And as the lights went out, The Fear Master was gone.