Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Janz
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
On the way up the mountain, Ben Shadeland flirted with the idea of killing Eddie Blaze. The problem was, Ben could barely breathe.
“Good lord,” Eddie said. “You sound like an obscene phone caller back there.”
Ben ignored him. Between ragged breaths, he asked, “We still on your dad’s land?”
“Only a small part is residential. Sonoma County owns the rest.”
Ben looked around. “So we’re not supposed to be here?”
“Not after dark,” Eddie answered, and in the moonlight Ben saw him grin.
Great, he thought. Trespassing on government land at one in the morning. Trekking around the wilderness was fine for hardcore fitness freaks, but for out-of-shape guys in their late thirties, this kind of hike was a surefire ticket to the ER. If a heart attack didn’t get him, a broken leg would.
As if answering his thoughts Eddie said, “You want me to carry you?”
“Go to hell.”
When Ben risked a look ahead, the toe of his boot caught on something. He fell awkwardly, his outstretched palms pierced by thorns. He lay there a moment, riding out the pain but relishing the momentary rest.
“You still alive?”
Rather than answering he rolled over and examined his torn palms. The blood dribbling out of his wounds looked black and oily in the starlight. He rubbed them on the belly of his shirt and pushed to his feet.
When they reached the cave Ben had to kneel for several moments to avoid passing out. This was the price he paid, his only physical activity lifting weights and chasing his three-year old son around the yard.
Of course, that was before the divorce. Now he only played with his son on weekends, and when he did he was haunted by the specter of returning Joshua to his ex-wife. The lump in his throat caught him off guard.
He spat and glanced up at the cave. “So what’s the story?”
“It’s a good one,” Eddie answered.
“It better be.”
“Come on,” Eddie said and switched on a large black Maglite.
“You had that all along?”
Eddie started toward the cave.
“What, we’re going in?”
“Don’t you want to retrace Arthur Vaughan’s steps?”
He stared at Eddie, whose face was barely visible within the cave. “You’re kidding.”
“I knew that’d get your attention.”
Hell, he thought and cast a glance down the mountain. It wasn’t too late to go back. He thought he remembered the way, though he’d been too busy trying not to break his neck to thoroughly memorize the terrain.
“This is perfect,” Eddie was saying. “One of the most prolific serial killers in California history?”
“I’m not in the mood for a cannibal story right now.”
“The deadline’s in two months.”
“I know when the deadline is.”
“Then stop being a pussy and come on.”
With a defeated sigh, he did.
Immediately, the dank smell of stagnant water coated his nostrils. As he advanced, he couldn’t shake the sensation of sliding into some ancient creature’s gullet, a voluntary repast for its monstrous appetite. The cave serpentined left and right, and several times branched into different tunnels. Ben was reminded of all the horror movies he’d seen with cave settings.
They never ended well.
At least the tunnel was large enough that he could stand erect. In addition to his fear of heights, sharks, and his ex-wife, he was deathly afraid of tight spaces. He remembered fighting off panic attacks whenever he ended up on the bottom of a football pile.
So why the hell was he going to a place where his claustrophobia could run amuck?
Because they were desperate.
“Arthur’s first two victims,” Eddie said, “were a couple of teenagers named Shannon Williams and Jill Shelton. They were out here hiking and decided to explore the caves.”
It was actually Shannon Shelton and Jill Williams, but Ben let it go. Eddie was a good storyteller as long as one didn’t get too hung up on facts.
“Little did they know,” Eddie said, “they’d wandered into the den of a beast.”
Despite the fact that they’d mined for inspiration in eerie places several times, Ben felt the old thrill. Sometimes the tale inspired him, sometimes it was the setting. Often, the music didn’t come until days later, when a specific memory triggered his imagination.
Lately, it didn’t come at all.
“Who was murdered first?” Ben asked.
“Don’t rush it,” Eddie said. “I’m coming to that.”
They moved up a curving incline that, to Ben’s infinite dismay, narrowed gradually until he had to shuffle forward in a stooped position. When the tunnel opened up, he groaned.
The gap between where Eddie stood and where solid ground resumed couldn’t have been more than five feet, but to Ben the space yawned terrible and forbidding, an impassable expanse.
“This was where she fell,” Eddie said, gesturing with the Maglite into the darkness. “Jill made it over, but Shannon ended up down there.”
Ben stood next to Eddie and peered into the chasm. The flashlight’s glow barely reached the bottom. He estimated the distance was sixty feet or more.
The image came unbidden, but once it settled in his mind, it dug in with the tenacity of a tick. He imagined the poor girl leaping and realizing halfway she wasn’t going to make it. The hands scrabbling frantically on the grimy cave floor. The amplified scraping of her body as it slid downward. A fingernail or two snapping off. Then the endless, screaming tumble into the abyss.
He hoped it killed her. Goodness knew being eaten alive by Arthur Vaughan was a far worse fate.
“You ready?” Eddie asked.
“Hell yes,” he answered. “Ready to go back.”
Without another word, Eddie leaped over the expanse and landed with room to spare.
“Your turn,” Eddie said.
“I’m not jumping.”
“I don’t have a death wish.”
“It’s only a few feet.”
“And a hundred more to the ground.”
“Stop letting fear rule your life.”
Classic Eddie. Put him in a bad situation and mock him for reacting sanely. Like last month, the double date that turned out to be a pair of hookers. What’s the difference? Eddie had asked.
So Ben sat there listening to one girl’s stories about her clients’ sexual quirks while Eddie got it on with the other in a hot tub.
“Look,” Eddie was saying. “I went first so you’d know it was safe.”
Ben turned. “I’m going home.”
The cave went black.