Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Richard Laymon: Mess hall

Richard Laymon, Mess hall , Relatos de misterio, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales, Salomé Guadalupe Ingelmo


JEAN DIDN’T HEAR footsteps. She heard only the rush of the nearby stream, her own moaning, Paul’s harsh gasps as he thrust into her. The first she heard of the man was his voice.

“Looks to me like fornication in a public park area.”

Her heart slammed.

Oh God, no.

With her left eye, she glimpsed the man’s vague shape crouching beside her in the moonlight, less than a yard away. She looked up at Paul. His eyes were wide with alarm.

This can’t be happening, Jean told herself.

She felt totally helpless and exposed. Not that the guy could see anything. Just Paul’s bare butt. He couldn’t see that Jean’s blouse was open, her bra bunched around her neck, her skirt rucked up past her waist.

“Do you know it’s against the law?” the man asked.

Paul took his tongue out of Jean’s mouth. He turned his head toward the man.

Jean could feel his heart drumming, his penis shrinking inside her.

“Not to mention poor taste,” the man added.

“We didn’t mean any harm,” Paul said.

And started to get up.

Jean jammed her shoes against his buttocks, tightened her arms around his back.

“What if some children had wandered by?” the man asked.

“We’re sorry,” Jean told him, keeping her head straight up, not daring to look at the man again, instead staring at Paul. “We’ll leave.”

“Kiss goodbye, now.”

Seemed like a weird request.

But Paul obeyed. He pressed his mouth gently against Jean’s lips, and she wondered how she could manage to cover herself because it was quite obvious that, as soon as the kiss was over, Paul would have to climb off her. And there she’d be.

Later, she knew it was a shotgun.

She hadn’t seen a shotgun, but she’d only given the man that single, quick glance.

Paul was giving her the goodbye kiss and she was wondering about the best way to keep the man from seeing her when suddenly it didn’t matter because the world blew up. Paul’s eyes exploded out of their sockets and dropped onto her eyes. She jerked her head sideways to get away from them. Jerked it the wrong way. Saw the clotted wetness on the moonlit trunk of a nearby tree, saw his ear cling to the bark for a moment, then fall.

Paul’s head dropped heavily onto the side of her face. A torrent of blood blinded her.

She started to scream.

Paul’s weight tumbled off. The man stomped her belly. He scooped her up, swung her over his shoulder, and started to run. She wheezed, trying to breathe. His foot had smashed her air out and now his shoulder kept ramming into her. She felt as if she were drowning. Only a dim corner of her mind seemed to work, and she wished it would blink out.

Better total darkness, better no awareness at all.

The man stopped running. He bent over, and Jean flopped backward. She slammed something. Beside her was a windshield plated with moonlight. She’d been dumped across the hood of a car. Her legs dangled over the car’s front.

She tried to lift her head. Couldn’t. So she lay there, struggling to suck in air.

The man came back.

He’d been away?


Jean felt as if she had missed a chance to save herself.

He leaned over, clutched both sides of her open blouse, and yanked her into a sitting position. He snapped a handcuff around her right wrist, passed the other bracelet beneath her knee, and cuffed her left hand. Then he lifted her off the hood. He swung her into the car’s passenger seat and slammed the door.

Through the windshield, Jean saw him rush past the front of the car. She drove her knee up. It bumped her chin, but she managed to slip the handcuff chain down her calf and under the sole of her running shoe. She grabbed the door handle. She levered it up and threw her shoulder against the door and started to tumble out, but her head jerked back with searing pain as if the hair were being torn from her scalp. Her head twisted. Her cheekbone struck the steering wheel. A hand clasped the top of her head. Another clutched her chin. And he rammed the side of her face again and again on the wheel.

When she opened her eyes, her head was on the man’s lap. She felt his hand kneading her breast. The car was moving fast. From the engine noise and the hiss of the tires on the pavement, she guessed they were on the interstate. The highway lights cast a faint, silvery glow on the man’s face. He looked down at her and smiled.

The police artist sketch didn’t have him quite right. It had the crewcut right, and the weird crazy eyes, but his nose was a little larger, his lips a lot thicker.

Jean started to lift her head.

“Lie still,” he warned. “Move a muscle, I’ll pound your brains out.” He laughed. “How about your boyfriend’s brains? Did you see how they hit that tree?”

Jean didn’t answer.

He pinched her.

She gritted her teeth.

“I asked you a question.”

“I saw,” she said.

“Cool, huh?”

“No.”

“How about his eyes? I’ve never seen anything like that. Just goes to show what a twelve-gauge can do to a fellow. You know, I’ve never killed a guy before. Just sweet young things like you.”

Like me.

It came as no surprise, no shock. She’d seen him murder Paul, and he planned to murder her too—the same as he’d murdered the others.

Maybe he doesn’t kill them all, she thought. Only one body had been found. Everyone talked as if the Reaper had killed the other six, but really they were only missing.

Maybe he takes them someplace and keeps them.

But he just now said he kills sweet young things. Plural. He killed them all. But maybe not. Maybe he just wants to keep me and fool with me and not kill me and I’ll figure a way out.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked.

“A nice, private place in the hills where nobody will hear you scream.”

The words made a chill crawl over her.

“Oooh, goosebumps. I like that.” His hand glided over her skin like a cold breeze. Jean was tempted to grab his hand and bite it.

If she did that, he would hurt her again.

There’ll be a world of hurt later, she thought. He plans to make me scream.

But that was later. Maybe she could get away from him before it came to that. The best thing, for now, was to give him no trouble. Don’t fight him. Act docile. Then maybe he’ll let his guard down.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Tell me.”

“The Reaper.”

“Very good. And I know who you are, too.”

He knows me? How could he? Maybe followed me around on campus, asked someone my name.

“You’re Number Eight,” he said. “Just think about that. You’re going to be famous. You’ll be in all the newspapers, they’ll talk about you on television, you’ll even end up being a chapter in a book someday. Have you read any books like that? They’ll have a nice little biography of you, quotes from your parents and friends. The bittersweet story of your brief but passionate relationship with that guy. What was his name?”

“Paul,” she murmured.

“Paul. He’ll get a good write-up, himself, since he’s the first guy to die at the hands of the Reaper. Of course, they’ll realize that he was incidental. You were the intended victim, Paul simply an unlucky jerk who got in the way. He got lucky, then he got unlucky. Good one, huh? Maybe I’ll write the book myself. He got off and got offed. Or did he? Which came first? Did he go out with a bang?”

“Why don’t you shut up?”

“Because I don’t want to,” he said, and raked a path up her belly with a single fingernail.

Jean cringed. Air hissed in through her teeth.

“You should be nice to me,” he said. “After all, I’m the one making you famous. Of course, some of the notoriety may be a trifle embarrassing for you. That book I was telling you about, it’ll have a whole lot about today. Your final hours. Who was the last person to see you alive. And of course, it won’t neglect the fornication in the park. People read that, a lot of them are going to think you were asking for it. I suppose I’d have to agree with them. Didn’t you know any better?”

She had known better. “What about the Reaper?” she’d asked when the movie let out and Paul suggested the park.

“He’ll have to find his own gal.”

“I mean it. I’m not sure it’s such a great idea. Why don’t we go to my place?”

“Right. So your demented roommate can listen through the wall and make noises.”

“I told her not to do that anymore.”

“Come on, let’s go to the park. It’s a neat night. We can find a place by the stream.”

“I don’t know.” She squeezed his hand. “I’d like to, Paul, but . . .”

“Shit. Everybody’s got Reaperitis. For god-sake, he’s in Portland.”

“That’s only a half-hour drive.”

“Okay. Forget it. Shit.”

They walked half a block, Paul silent and scowling, before Jean slipped a hand into the rear pocket of his pants and said, “Hey, pal, how’s about a stroll in the park?”

“Didn’t you know any better?”

His hand smacked her bare skin.

“Yes!”

“Don’t you ignore me. I ask you a question, you answer. Got it?”

“Yes.”

The car slowed. The Reaper’s left hand eased the steering wheel over and Jean felt the car slip sideways. It tipped upward a bit, pressing her cheek against his belt buckle.

An off-ramp, she thought.

The car stopped, then made a sharp turn.

A cold tremor swept through Jean.

We’re getting there, she thought. Wherever he’s taking me, we’re getting there. Oh, Jesus. 
“You thought it couldn’t happen to you,” he said. “Am I right?”

“No.”

“What, then? You were just too horny to care?”

“Paul would’ve kept on pouting.” Her voice was high, shaky.

“One of those. I hate those sniveling, whiny pouters. Take me, for instance—I never pout. That’s for the losers. I never lose, so I’ve got no reason to pout. I make other people lose.”

He slowed the car, turned it again.

“I hate pouters, too,” Jean said, trying to keep her voice steady. “They stink. They don’t deserve to live.”

He looked down at her. His face was a vague blur. There were no more streetlights, Jean realized. Nothing but moonlight, now.

“I bet you and I are a lot alike,” she said.

“Think so, do you?”

“I’ve never told anyone this before, but . . . I guess it’s safe to tell you. I killed a girl once.”

“That so?”

He doesn’t believe me!

“Yeah. It was just two years ago. I was going with this guy, Jim Smith, and . . . I really loved him. We got engaged. And then all of a sudden he started going with this bitch, Mary Jones.”

“Smith and Jones, huh?” He chuckled.

“I can’t help it if they had stupid names,” she said, and wished she’d taken an extra second to think up names that sounded real, damn it. “Anyway, he spent less and less time with me, and I knew he was seeing Mary. So one night I snuck into her room in the sorority and smothered her with a pillow. Killed her. And I enjoyed it. I laughed when she died.”

He patted Jean’s belly. “I guess we are two of a kind. Maybe you’d like to throw in with me. I can see some advantages to an arrangement like that. You could lure the pretty young things into my car, help me subdue them. What do you think?”

She thought that she might start to cry. His offer was just what she had wanted to hear—and he knew it. He knew it, all right.

But she went along, just in case. “I think I’d like that.”

“That makes it an even fifty percent,” he said.

The front of the car tipped upward. Again, Jean’s cheek pressed his belt buckle.

“You’re the fourth to try that maneuver. Hey, forget about killing me, I’m just your type, let’s be partners. Four out of eight. You’re only the second to confess a prior murder, though. The other one said she pushed her kid sister out of the tree house. I sure do pick ’em. Two murderers. What are the chances of that?”

“Coincidence,” Jean muttered.

“Nice try.”

His right hand continued to fondle her. His left hand kept jogging the steering wheel from side to side as he maneuvered up the hill.

She could reach up and grab the wheel and maybe make them crash. But the car didn’t seem to be moving very fast. At this speed, the crash might not hurt him at all.

“Let’s hear the one about your rich father,” he said.

“Go to hell.”

He laughed. “Come on, don’t ruin the score. You’ll make it a hundred percent if you’ve got a rich father who’ll pay me heaps of money to take you back to him unscathed.”

She decided to try for the crash.

But the car stopped. He swung the steering wheel way over and started ahead slowly. The car bumped and rocked. Its tires crunched dirt. Leafy branches whispered and squeaked against its sides.

“We’re almost there,” he said.

She knew that.

“Almost time to go into your begging routine. Most of them start about now. Sometimes they hold off till we get out.”

I won’t beg, Jean thought. I’ll run for it.

He stopped the car and turned off the engine. He didn’t take the key from the ignition.

“Okay, honey. Sit up slowly and open the door. I’ll be right behind you.”

She sat up and turned toward the door. As she levered the handle, he clutched the collar of her blouse. He held onto it while she climbed out. Then he was standing, still gripping her collar, knuckles shoving at the back of her neck to guide her around the door. The door slammed shut. They passed the front of the car and moved toward a clearing in the forest.

The clearing was milky with moonlight. In the center, near a pale dead tree, was a ring of rocks that someone had stacked up to enclose a campfire. A pile of twigs and broken branches stood near the fire ring.

The Reaper steered Jean toward the dead tree.

She saw wood already piled inside the wall of rocks, ready for a match.

And she felt a quick glimmer of hope. Someone had laid the fire.

Right. He probably did it. He was up here earlier, preparing.

She saw a rectangular box at the foot of the tree.

A toolbox?

She began to whimper. She tried to stop walking, but he shoved her forward.

“Oh please, please, no! Spare me! I’ll do anything!”

“Fuck you,” Jean said.

He laughed.

“I like your guts,” he said. “In a little while, we may take a good look at them.”

He turned her around and backed her against the tree.

“I’ll have to take off one of the cuffs, now,” he explained. He took a key from the pocket of his pants and held it in front of her face. “You won’t try to take advantage of the moment, will you?”

Jean shook her head.

“No, I didn’t think so.” He shot a knee up into her belly. His forearm caught her under the chin, forcing her back as she started to double. Her legs gave out. She slid down the trunk, the barkless wood snagging her blouse and scraping her skin. A knob of root pounded her rump. She started to tumble forward, but he was there in front of her upthrust knees, blocking her fall. She slumped back against the trunk, wheezing, feeling the cuff go away from her right wrist, knowing this was it, this was the big moment she’d been waiting for, her one and only chance to make her break.

But she couldn’t move. She was hurting and dazed and breathless. And even if she hadn’t been disabled by the blow, her position made struggle pointless. She was folded, back tight against the tree, legs mashing her breasts, arms stretched out over her knees, toes pinned to the ground by his boots.

She knew she had lost.

Strange, though. It didn’t seem to matter much.

Jean felt as if she were outside herself, observing. It was someone else being grabbed under the armpits, someone else being lifted. She was watching a movie and the heroine was being prepared for torture. The girl’s arms were being raised overhead. The loose cuff was being passed over the top of a limb. Then, it was snapped around the girl’s right hand. The Reaper lifted her off her feet and carried her out away from the trunk. Then he let go. The limb was low enough so she didn’t need to stand on tiptoes.

The man walked away from his captive. He crouched on the other side of the ring of rocks and struck a match. Flames climbed the tented sticks. They wrapped thick, broken branches. Pale smoke drifted up. He stood and returned to the girl.

“A little light on the subject,” he said to her. His voice sounded as faint as the snapping of the fire behind him.

This is okay, she thought. It’s not me. It’s someone else—a stranger.

It stopped being a stranger, very fast, when she saw the knife in the Reaper’s hand.

She stood rigid and stared at the dark blade. She tried to hold her breath, but couldn’t stop panting. Her heart felt like a hammer trying to smash its way out of her chest.

“No,” she gasped. “Please.”

He smiled. “I knew you’d get around to begging.”

“I never did anything to you.”

“But you’re about to do something for me.”

The knife moved in. She felt its cool blade on her skin, but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t cut. Not Jean. It cut her clothes instead—the straps of her bra, the sleeves of her blouse, the waistband of her skirt.

He took the clothes to the fire.

“No! Don’t!”

He smiled and dropped them onto the flames. “You won’t need them. You’ll be staying right here. Here in the mess hall.”

Somewhere in the distance, a coyote howled.

“That’s my friend. We’ve got an arrangement. I leave a meal for him and his forest friends, and they do the cleanup for me. None of this ‘shallow grave’ nonsense. I just leave you here, tomorrow you’ll be gone. They’ll come like the good, hungry troops they are, and leave the area neat and tidy for next time. No fuss, no bother. And you, sweet thing, will be spared the embarrassment of returning to campus bare-ass.”

Squatting beside the fire, he opened the toolbox. He took out pliers and a screwdriver. He set the pliers on the flat top of a rock. He picked up the screwdriver. Its shank was black even before he held it over the fire. Jean saw the flames curl around it.
“No!” she cried out. “Please!”

“No! Please!” he mimicked. Smiling, he rolled the screwdriver in his hand. “Think it’s done yet?” He shook his head. “Give it a few more minutes. No need to rush. Are you savoring the anticipation?”

“You bastard!”

“Is that any way to talk?”

“HELP!” she shouted. “HELP! PLEASE, HELP ME!”

“Nobody’s going to hear you but the coyotes.”

“You can’t do this!”

“Sure, I can. Done it plenty of times before.”

“Please! I’ll do anything!”

“I know just what you’ll do. Scream, twitch, cry, kick, beg, drool . . . bleed. Not necessarily in that order, of course.”

He stood up. Pliers in one hand, screwdriver in the other, he walked slowly toward Jean. Wisps of pale smoke rose off the shank of the screwdriver.

He stopped in front of her. “Now where oh where shall we begin? So many choice areas to choose from.” He raised the screwdriver toward her left eye. Jean jerked her head aside. The tip moved closer. She shut her eye. Felt heat against its lid. But the heat faded. “No. I’ll save that for later. After all, half the fun for you will be watching.”

She shrieked and flinched rigid as something seared her belly.

The Reaper laughed.

She looked down. He had simply touched her with the nose of the pliers.

“Power of suggestion,” he said. “Now, let’s see how you like some real pain.”

Slowly he moved the screwdriver toward her left breast. Jean tried to jerk away, but the handcuffs stopped her. She kicked out. He twisted away. As the edge of her shoe glanced off his hip, he stroked her thigh with the screwdriver. She squealed.

He grinned. “Don’t do that again, honey, or I might get mean.”

Sobbing, she watched him inch the screwdriver toward her breast again. “No. Don’t. Pleeease.”

A rock struck the side of the Reaper’s head. It knocked his head sideways, bounced off, scraped Jean’s armpit, and fell. He stood there for a moment, then dropped to his knees and slumped forward, face pressing against Jean’s groin. She twisted away, and he flopped beside her.

She gazed down at him, hardly able to believe he was actually sprawled there. Maybe she’d passed out and this was no more than a wild fantasy. She was dreaming and pretty soon she would come to with a burst of pain and . . .

No, she thought. It can’t be a dream. Please.

A dim corner of her mind whispered, I knew I’d get out of this.

She looked for the rock thrower.

And spotted a dim shape standing beside a tree on the far side of the clearing.

“You got him!” she shouted. “Thank God, you got him! Great throw!”

The shape didn’t move, didn’t call back to her.

It turned away.

“No!” Jean cried out. “Don’t leave! He’ll come to and kill me! Please! I’m cuffed here! He’s got the key in his pocket. You’ve gotta unlock the cuffs for me. Please!”

The figure, as indistinct in the darkness as the bushes and trees near its sides, turned again and stepped forward. It limped toward the glow of the fire. From the shape, Jean guessed that her savior was a woman.

Others began to appear across the clearing.

One stepped out from behind a tree. Another rose behind a clump of bushes. Jean glimpsed movement over to the right, looked and saw a fourth woman. She heard a growl behind her, twisted around, and gasped at the sight of someone crawling toward her. Toward the Reaper, she hoped. The top of this one’s head was black and hairless in the shimmering firelight. As if she’d been scalped? The flesh had been stripped from one side of her back, and Jean glimpsed pale curving ribs before she whirled away.

Now there were five in front of her, closing in and near enough to the fire so she could see them clearly.

She stared at them.

And disconnected again.

Came out of herself, became an observer.

The rock thrower had a black pit where her left eye should’ve been. The girl cuffed beneath the tree was amazed that a one-eyed girl had been able to throw a rock with such fine aim.

It was even more amazing, since she was obviously dead. Ropes of guts hung from her belly, swaying between her legs like an Indian’s loincloth. Little but bone remained of her right leg below the knee—the work of the Reaper’s woodland troops?

How can she walk?

That’s a good one, the girl thought.

How can any of them walk?

One, who must’ve been up here a very long time, was managing to shamble along just fine, though both her legs were little more than bare bones. The troops had really feasted on her. One arm was missing entirely. The other arm was bone, and gone from the elbow down. Where she still had flesh, it looked black and lumpy. Some of her torso was intact, but mostly hollowed out. The right-hand side of her rib cage had been broken open. The ribs on the left were still there, and a shriveled lung was visible through the bars. Her face had no eyes, no nose, no lips. She looked as if she might be grinning.

The girl beneath the tree grinned back at her, but she didn’t seem to notice.

Of course not, dope. How can she see?

How can she walk?

One of the others still had eyes. They were wide open and glazed. She had a very peculiar stare.

No eyelids, that’s the trouble. The Reaper must’ve cut them off. Her breasts, too. Round, pulpy black disks on her chest where they should’ve been. Except for a huge gap in her right flank, she didn’t look as if she’d been maimed by the troops. She still had most of her skin. But it looked shiny and slick with a coating of white slime.

The girl beside her didn’t seem to have any skin at all. Had she been peeled? She was black all over except for the whites of her eyes and teeth—and hundreds of white things as if she had been showered with rice. But the rice moved. The rice was alive. Maggots.

The last of the five girls approaching from the front was also black. She didn’t look peeled, she looked burnt. Her body was a crust of char, cracked and leaking fluids that shimmered in the firelight. She bore only a rough resemblance to a human being. She might have been shaped out of mud by a dim-witted child who gave her no fingers or toes or breasts, who couldn’t manage a nose or ears, and poked fingers into the mud to make her eyes. Her crust made papery, crackling sounds as she shuffled past the fire, and pieces flaked off.

A motley crew, thought the girl cuffed to the limb.

She wondered if any of them would have enough sense to find the key and unlock the handcuffs.

She doubted it.

In fact, they didn’t seem to be aware of her presence at all. They were limping and hobbling straight toward the Reaper.

Whose shriek now shattered whatever fragile force had allowed Jean to stay outside the cuffed stranger. She tried to keep her distance. Couldn’t. Was sucked back inside the naked, suspended girl. Felt a sudden rush of horror and revulsion . . . and hope.

Whatever else they might be, they were the victims of the Reaper.

Payback time.

He was still shrieking, and Jean looked down at him. He was on his hands and knees. The scalped girl, also on her knees and facing him, had his head caught between her hands. She was biting the top of his head. Jean heard a wet ripping sound as the girl tore off a patch of hair and flesh.

He flopped and skidded backward, dragged by the rock thrower and the one with the slimy skin. Each had him by a foot. The scalped girl started to crawl after him, then grunted and stopped and tried to pick up the pliers. Her right hand had no fingers. She pawed at the pliers, whimpering with frustration, then sighed when she succeeded in picking up the tool using the thumb and two remaining fingers of her other hand. Quickly, she crawled along trying to catch up to her prize. She scurried past Jean. One of her buttocks was gone, eaten away to the bone.

She gained on the screaming Reaper, reached out, and clamped the pliers to the ridge of his ear and ripped out a chunk.

Halfway between Jean and the fire, the girls released his feet.

All six went at him.

He bucked and twisted and writhed, but they turned him onto his back. While some held him down, others tore at his clothes. Others tore at him. The scalped one took the pliers to his right eyelid and tore it off. The burnt one snatched up a hand and opened her lipless black mouth and began to chew his fingers off. While this went on, the armless girl capered like a madcap skeleton, her trapped lung bouncing inside her rib cage.

Soon the Reaper’s shirt was in shreds. His pants and boxer shorts were bunched around his cowboy boots. The scalped girl had ripped his other eyelid off, and now was stretching his upper lip as he squealed. The rock thrower, kneeling beside him, clawed at his belly as if trying to get to his guts. Slime-skin bit off one of his nipples, chewed it, and swallowed. The girl who must’ve been skinned alive knelt beside his head, scraping maggots off her belly and stuffing them by the handful into his mouth. No longer shrieking, he choked and wheezed. 
The dancing skeleton dropped to her bare kneecaps, bent over him, and clamped her teeth on his penis. She pulled, stretching it, gnawing. He stopped choking and let out a shrill scream that felt like ice picks sliding into Jean’s ears.

The scalped girl tore his lip off. She gave the pliers a snap, and watched the lip fly.

Jean watched it too. Then felt its soft plop against her thigh. It stuck to her skin like a leech. She gagged. She stomped her foot on the ground, trying to shake it off. It kept clinging.

It’s just a lip, she thought.

And then she was throwing up. She leaned forward as far as she could, trying not to vomit on herself. A small part of her mind was amused. She’d been looking at hideous, mutilated corpses, such horrors as she had never seen before, not even in her nightmares. And she had watched the corpses do unspeakable things to the Reaper. With all that, she hadn’t tossed her cookies.

A lip sticks to my leg, and I’m barfing my guts out.

At least she was missing herself. Most of it was hitting the ground in front of her shoes, though a little was splashing up and spraying her shins.

Finally the heaving subsided. She gasped for air and blinked tears out of her eyes.

And saw the scalped girl staring at her.

The others kept working on the Reaper. He wasn’t screaming anymore, just gasping and whimpering.

The scalped girl stabbed the pliers down. They crashed through the Reaper’s upper teeth. She rammed them deep into his mouth and partway down his throat, left them there, and started to crawl toward Jean.

“Get him,” she whispered. “He’s the one.”

Then Jean thought, Maybe she wants to help me.

“Would you get the key? For the handcuffs? It’s in his pants pocket.”

The girl didn’t seem to hear. She stopped at the puddle of vomit and lowered her face into it. Jean heard lapping sounds, and gagged. The girl raised her head, stared up at Jean, licked her dripping lips, then crawled forward.

“No. Get back.”

Opened her mouth wide.

Christ!

Jean smashed her knee up into the girl’s forehead. The head snapped back. The girl tumbled away.

A chill spread through Jean. Her skin prickled with goosebumps. Her heart began to slam.

It won’t stop with him.

I’m next!

The scalped girl, whose torso was an empty husk, rolled over and started to push herself up.

Jean leaped.

She caught the tree limb with both hands, kicked toward the trunk but couldn’t come close to reaching it. Her body swept down and backward. As she started forward again, she pumped her legs high.

She swung.

She kicked and swung, making herself a pendulum that strained higher with each sweep.

Her legs hooked over the barkless, dead limb.

She drew herself up against its underside and hugged it.

Twisting her head sideways, she saw the scalped girl crawling toward her again.

Jean had never seen her stand.

If she can’t stand up, I’m okay.

But the others could stand.

They were still busy with the Reaper. Digging into him. Biting. Ripping off flesh with their teeth. He choked around the pliers and made high squeaky noises. As Jean watched, the charred girl crouched over the fire and put both hands into the flames. When she straightened up, she had a blazing stick trapped between the fingerless flaps of her hands. She lumbered back to the group, crouched, and set the Reaper’s pants on fire.

The pants, pulled down until they were stopped by his boot tops, wrapped him just below the knees.

In seconds they were ablaze.

The Reaper started screaming again. He squirmed and kicked. Jean was surprised he had that much life left in him.

The key, she thought.

I’ll have to go through the ashes.

If I live that long.

Jean began to shinny out along the limb. It scraped her thighs and arms, but she kept moving, kept inching her way along. The limb sagged slightly. It groaned. She scooted farther, farther.

Heard a faint crackling sound.

Then was stopped by a bone white branch that blocked her left arm.

“No!” she gasped.

She thrust herself forward and rammed her arm against the branch. The impact shook it just a bit. A few twigs near the far end of it clattered and fell.

The branch looked three inches thick where it joined the main limb. A little higher up, it seemed thin enough for her to break easily—but she couldn’t reach that far, not with her wrists joined by the short chain of the handcuffs. The branch barred her way like the arm and hand of a skeleton pleased to keep her treed until its companions finished with the Reaper and came for her.

She clamped it between her teeth, bit down hard on the dry wood, gnashed on it. Her teeth barely seemed to dent it.

She lowered her head. Spat dirt and grit from her mouth. Turned her head.

The Reaper was no longer moving or making any sounds. Pale smoke drifted up from the black area where his pants had been burning. The charred girl who had set them ablaze now held his severed arm over the campfire. The slimy, breastless girl was pulling a boot onto one of her feet. The skinned girl, kneeling by the Reaper’s head, had removed the pliers from his mouth. At first Jean thought she was pinching herself with them. That wasn’t it, though. One at a time, she was squashing the maggots that squirmed on her belly. The rock thrower’s head was buried in the Reaper’s open torso. She reared up, coils of intestine drooping from her mouth. The rotted and armless girl lay flat between the black remains of the Reaper’s legs, tearing at the cavity where his genitals used to be.

Though he was apparently dead, his victims all still seemed contented.

For now.

Straining to look down past her shoulder, Jean saw the scalped girl directly below. On her knees. Reaching up, pawing the air with the remains of her hands.

She can’t get me, Jean told herself.

But the others.

Once they’re done with the Reaper, they’ll see that bitch down there and then they’ll see me.

If she’d just go away!

GET OUT OF HERE!

Jean wanted to shout it, didn’t dare. Could just see the others turning their heads toward the sound of her voice.

If I could just kill her!

Good luck on that one.

Gotta do something!

Jean clamped the limb hard with her hands. She gritted her teeth.

Don’t try it, she thought. You won’t even hurt her. You’ll be down where she can get at you.

But maybe a good kick in the head’ll discourage her.

Fat chance.

Jean released the limb with her legs. She felt a breeze wash over her sweaty skin as she dropped. She thrashed her feet like a drowning woman hoping to kick to the surface.

A heel of her shoe struck something. She hoped it was the bitch’s face.

Then she was swinging upward and saw her. Turning on her knees and reaching high, grinning.

Jean kicked hard as she swept down.

The toe of her shoe caught the bitch in the throat, lifted her off her knees and knocked her sprawling.

Got her!

Jean dangled by her hands, swaying slowly back and forth. She bucked and tried to fling her legs up to catch the limb. Missed. Lost her hold and cried out as the steel edges of the bracelets cut into her wrists. Her feet touched the ground.

The scalped girl rolled over and crawled toward her.

Jean leaped. She grabbed the limb. She pulled herself up to it and drove her knees high but not fast enough.

The girl’s arms wrapped her ankles, clutched them. She pulled at Jean, stretching her, dragging her down, reaching higher, climbing her. Jean twisted and squirmed but couldn’t shake the girl off. Her arms strained. Her grip on the limb started to slip. She squealed as teeth ripped into her thigh.

With a krrrack!, the limb burst apart midway between Jean and the trunk.

She dropped straight down.

Falling, she shoved the limb sideways. It hammered her shoulder as she landed, knees first, on the girl. The weight drove Jean forward, smashed her down. Though the girl no longer hugged her legs, she felt the head beneath her thigh shake from side to side. She writhed and bucked under the limb. The teeth kept their savage bite on her.

Then had their chunk of flesh and lost their grip.

Clutching the limb, Jean bore it down, her shoulder a fulcrum. She felt the wood rise off her back and rump. Its splintered end pressed into the ground four or five feet in front of her head. Bracing herself on the limb, she scurried forward, knees pounding at the girl beneath her. The girl growled. Hands gripped Jean’s calves. But not tightly. Not with the missing fingers. Teeth snapped at her, scraping the skin above her right knee. Jean jerked her leg back and shot it forward. The girl’s teeth crashed shut. Then Jean was off her, rising on the crutch of the broken limb.

She stood up straight, hugging the upright limb, lifting its broken end off the ground and staggering forward a few steps to get herself out of the girl’s reach.

And saw the others coming. All but the rotted skeletal girl who had no arms and still lay sprawled between the Reaper’s legs.

“No!” Jean shouted. “Leave me alone!”

They lurched toward her.

The charred one held the Reaper’s severed arm like a club. The breastless girl with runny skin wore both his boots. Her arms were raised, already reaching for Jean though she was still a few yards away. The rock thrower had found a rock. The skinned girl aswarm with maggots picked at herself with the pliers as she shambled closer.

“NO!” Jean yelled again.

She ducked, grabbed the limb low, hugged it to her side and whirled as the branchy top of it swept down in front of her. It dropped from its height slashing sideways, its bony fingers of wood clattering and bursting into twigs as it crashed through the cadavers. Three of them were knocked off their feet. A fourth, the charred one, lurched backward to escape the blow, stepped into the Reaper’s torso, and stumbled. Jean didn’t see whether she went down, because the weight of the limb was hurling her around in a full circle. A branch struck the face of the scalped girl crawling toward her, popped, and flew off. Then the crawling girl was behind Jean again and the others were still down. All except the rock thrower. She’d been missed, first time around. Out of range. Now her arm was cocked back, ready to hurl a small block of stone.

Jean, spinning, released the limb.

Its barkless wood scraped her side and belly.

It flew from her like a mammoth, tined lance.

Free of its pull, Jean twirled. The rock flicked her ear. She fell to her knees. Facing the crawler. Who scurried toward her moaning as if she already knew she had lost.

Driving both fists against the ground, Jean pushed herself up. She took two quick steps toward the crawler and kicked her in the face. Then she staggered backward. Whirled around.

The rock thrower was down, arms batting through the maze of dead branches above her.

The others were starting to get up.

Jean ran through them, cuffed hands high, twisting and dodging as they scurried for her, lurched at her, grabbed.

Then they were behind her. All but the Reaper and the armless thing sprawled between his legs, chewing on him. Gotta get the handcuff key, she thought.

Charging toward them, she realized the cuffs didn’t matter. They couldn’t stop her from driving. The car key was in the ignition.

She leaped the Reaper.

And staggered to a stop on the other side of his body.

Gasping, she bent over and lifted a rock from the ring around the fire. Though its heat scorched her hands, she raised it overhead. She turned around.

The corpses were coming, crawling and limping closer.

But they weren’t that close.

“HERE’S ONE FOR NUMBER EIGHT!” she shouted, and smashed the rock down onto the remains of the Reaper’s face. It struck with a wet, crunching sound. It didn’t roll off. It stayed on his face as if it had made a nest for itself.

Jean stomped on it once, pounding it in farther.

Then she swung around. She leaped the fire and dashed through the clearing toward the waiting car.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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