To solve a brutal murder, Nick must face the monster who has corrupted his neighborhood.
I awoke in the dark to hideous screams. I was disoriented at first; I hardly knew where I was. Everything looked different. The screams went on and on as I struggled to figure out which direction they were coming from. They were so loud, they echoed inside my head. I don’t usually leave my post, but I was supposed to be the guard around here, and the pitiful cries compelled me to move. It sounded like they were coming from my left, so I slipped off, shook the pole out of my sleeves, and headed that way at a run.
Then they stopped. My footsteps were suddenly the only sounds in the dark garden. I pictured some wild animal crouched among the rows of corn, hiding, listening to my approach, its jaws dripping, its eyes hot with hunger. I stopped.
This used to be a nice neighborhood: quiet, peaceful. There was no crime, really, except for the usual penny-ante theft by the kind of scavengers that haunt pretty much every neighborhood. Ever since the old man died, early in the summer, the place had gone downhill fast. The scavengers were taking over; even in broad daylight, nobody felt safe. At night… well, let’s just say that the night had become… inhospitable. The regular citizens were getting jumpy. They were scared, and they counted on me for protection. I was willing enough, but ineffective. I lacked the tools to do more than intimidate the small-timers, and that wasn’t enough anymore, not by a long shot. Something bad was coming; we could all feel it in the wind. Everybody was looking over his shoulder, waiting for it to happen. It was only a matter of time.
Now it looked like the time had come.
I shored up my courage and continued on down the row toward the place where I thought the trouble was, now stepping slowly, quietly. The garden remained as silent as a grave.
I strained to catch any sound; any warning that someone or something was about to leap at me from behind the screen of stalks to either side. I peered into the darkness to the left and right; I looked back over my shoulder so often that I was in danger of tripping over a rock, or even over my imagined attacker. Butterflies were fluttering around in my belly. I opened a button on my shirt and they flew out.
As I approached the end of the row, the sound of weeping reached me. I inched out into the open, ready to leap back into concealment if some predatory type was waiting to jump me.
I looked around carefully, but there was no slavering monster. At least, not now, there wasn’t. There was only poor Thelma Pumpkins, sitting in a tangle of vines, crying. She was spattered with gore from the steaming pile of entrails on the ground before her. I rushed to her side and knelt.
“Thelma! Are you okay? What happened?”
She jumped a little at my touch, but when she saw it was me, she rolled into my arms, sobbing hysterically. “Oh, Nick! He – he just kept stabbing and stabbing… John tried to fight him off… but his… i-innards spilled out… and… and…”
“All right, sweetheart, calm down. Who did this?”
“He,” she choked out between sobs, “he said his name was Jack.” She coughed, sniffled, and snuggled further into my chest. I had to admit, I kind of liked her there, despite the fact that my gloves were sticking to her skin and she was getting her husband’s guts all over my shirt. Guts. There were guts strewn all over, but…
“Where’s the body?” I pulled Thelma away from my shirtfront and looked her full in the face. “What happened to John’s body?”
“H-he took it.”
“Took it? Why the blazes would the killer take his victim’s body?”
“I d-don’t know, Nick. I don’t!” The waterworks started again; she dove back onto my shirt and resumed irrigating the material.
“Do you have any idea why somebody would want John dead?”
“W-well, John is – was,” she said, her face pressed against my platen, “spending a lot of time at the speakeasy run by that awful Desmond Ontidae. I just know that’s where he got into trouble.”
I pried her off of me when I saw the murder weapon, half-buried in John’s entrails. I lifted it out of the gore. A fancy pocketknife, with the initials “WL” carved into the dark wood handle. Not Jack’s, then, I thought.
Thelma was some cute tomato, round and firm in all the right places, but something about her story just didn’t ring true. John Pumpkins was a stand-up guy. I’d trusted him to watch my back plenty of times. I couldn’t see him running afoul of a vampire like Ontidae. He was too smart.
But why would Thelma lie? What was her angle? Was she trying to cover for herself? She wouldn’t be the first dame to hire somebody to off an inconvenient husband. I had a hunch it was something else, though. Something strange. I was determined to find out what.
Like most bloodsuckers, Desmond Ontidae worked at night. I was headed toward the entrance to his joint – what used to be the old man’s barn, before he and his vermin friends took it over – when he fluttered down in front of me. It seemed that he was expecting me. He flapped his wings in my face a few times to stop me, then his bat body swelled up, the brown fur retracted into his skin, except for what was on top of his head, which turned greasy and slicked back, parting in a perfect, straight line above the leftmost of his pair of beady black eyes. The skin around those eyes was shiny and just a little pinker than the rest of his pasty skin; they looked like burn scars. He grew a tuxedo from someplace, and his wings turned into a black cloak with a red silk lining. He wore shiny black shoes and a shiny white fake smile.
“Good evening,” he said, his German-accented voice as oily as his hair. “To vhat do ve owe the pleasure of this visit from the illustrious Nick Scarecrow?”
He looked down with an ever-so-slight grimace at my gore-stained plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. “I see that you have dressed for the occasion in your most formal attire.”
“Look, Ontidae, you know I don’t go in for fancy clothes, and I’ve got no time to bandy words with you. I’m investigating the murder of John Pumpkins.”
If I’d expected him to blanch with guilt, I would’ve been disappointed. For one thing, his face was already paste-white. For another, he seemed genuinely shocked and concerned. If he was acting, he had a future in the flicks.
“Pumpkins? Vhat – vhen did this happen?”
“Maybe an hour ago, across town, right in front of his home. And his wife.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Mr. Scarecrow. John vas… a good fellow. I considered him a friend.”
“You did, did you?” Maybe Thelma was right, after all; maybe John was mixed up with the vermin.
“It must have been awful for poor Mrs. Pumpkins, as vell,” he added with a sad shake of his head.
“You could say that.”
“I shall send her a note vith my sincere condolences.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate the thought.” Actually, I wasn’t sure of anything, especially where it concerned the contents of Thelma’s heart. I needed more information if I was going to get anywhere, and Ontidae was the person to supply it. “What, if you don’t mind me asking, was your relationship with him?”
Two patrons slipped past us: Joey Cuke and some tomato. She was a bit unsteady on her stems, sniffling and talking non-stop, while Joey winked at Ontidae as they passed.
“Hey, there, Mr. O,” said Joey, while his escort continued to blather. I figured she’d been snorting powdery mildew. That stuff would turn a fruit into a vegetable pretty darn quick. Joey glanced at me nervously. I nodded, but he didn’t bother to say hello.
Ontidae gave them a “good evening” and a strained smile. After they had gone on, he said: “Come into my office, Mr. Scarecrow. Ve can continue our conversation there, avay from prying eyes und ears.” He turned, his cloak flaring out at the bottom, and moved quickly through the entrance. Having little choice in the matter, I followed.
The last time I was here, back in the carefree days when I was first stuffed, before I assumed my post, the barn was a nice, warm comfortable place. There were bales of straw stacked along one wall, and more straw strewn on the dirt floor. The hay wagon was parked in the middle of the space. The old man’s horse was stabled in the corner, where he could stick his head out of the top half of the pasture door and catch the breeze and maybe shoot it with me or one of the other citizens of the garden. The post-and-beam framing was exposed; the horse’s tack hung from nails driven into it, and you could see the underside of the old slate roof way up high. The loft above was always filled with hay, or so it had seemed to me. Birds used to nest in the eaves, and mice lived amongst the hay and straw. After the old man died, the bats drove them all away.
Now, the place was unrecognizable. The dirt floor had been packed down and a squadron of bees was constantly waxing it. Toadstools and toadtables of various sizes were scattered around the floor to accommodate the crowd of plants and animals who were playing the fixed games that Ontidae used to draw them in and bleed them out. Raccoons in red vests and bowties dealt cards, spun wheels and raked in corn-kernel chips for the house. There was a bar along the wall where the straw bales used to be, with a crew of bat bartenders mixing drinks: corn liquor, mixed with fruit juice for the animals, or with Miracle-Gro for the plants. At the far end of the bar was a glass-topped table, where a weasel was cutting lines of powdery mildew. Joey Cuke and his tomato were there. She sniffed a fat line through a reed and leaned back, laughing, with her nose held up high. Beyond them, in a dark corner, some cats sat at a table, passing around a pipe full of catnip and eyeing the mouse waitresses hungrily. The hay wagon had been pushed against the far wall, and was being used as a stage, where a cute bird was chirping out a song, accompanied by a band of crickets and frogs. The stall where the horse used to live had been converted into a backstage area. The horse was out to pasture, permanently. It had wasted away after the old man’s death. Probably died of loneliness.
Ontidae took a quick left and led me up a flight of stairs to his office, in what had been the hayloft. The place was hay-free, swept clean, and blackout drapes made from an old tarp covered the window where the hay got loaded in. The shutter must have been open to help cool the place; a slight breeze stirred the cloth. There was a big, shiny desk in front of the drapes, with a comfy-looking swivel chair behind it. Ontidae took a seat in this. He waved me toward a hard-seated bone-bruiser set before the desk. I declined the offer, and instead walked to the balcony rail that overlooked the whole gaming floor, and gave a great view of the stage. The bird had finished her number, and as I watched, another singer stepped onto the stage. It was Thelma Pumpkins. The tight little arrangement of vines she was almost wearing barely kept her gourds from popping up out of their leaves.
“What in the blue blazes–“
“Yes, Mr. Scarecrow,” said Ontidae, as he came to stand beside me. “Mrs. Pumpkins is aware that, since her late husband can no longer vork off her debt, she must do so herself. That is the one bright spot in the current sad situation. I have missed her voice.”
“So, John was working for you?”
“Yes. He did some… settling of delinquent accounts. He vas quite effective, Mr. Scarecrow, a valuable employee. So you see, I had no motive for murdering him.”
She began to sing, and I could see what he meant. Her voice was… remarkable. She was doing a torchy little number about lost love, and it was enough to rip your heart out. We fell silent, and by the time she was done, I didn’t know whether to run home and cry, or run down there and carry her off with me. As it happened, I did neither.
Instead, I watched as Ontidae walked back and sat down behind his desk. He leaned back in his chair, looking at me. Finally, he said: “As you can no doubt see, Mr. Scarecrow, since I arrived here a few short months ago, I have made a great many changes to this place.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“It is obvious that you do not approve. I understand completely. Vere our positions reversed, I vould most certainly feel as you do. Nevertheless, vhat vas yours is now mine. I have made it mine own.”
“It was never mine. It belonged to the old man.”
He smiled coldly. “Ah, yes, the old man. Tell me, vhat do you know of him?”
“Well, I—“ What did I know about him? Not much, I realized. “He took care of this place. He loved it, and everything in it. If he were still here, you would never have been able to take over.”
“Possibly.” His smile grew even colder, and his black eyes drilled into me, trying to see into my soul. “But, tell me; vhat happened to him? Vhere did he go?”
“He—he died. Right around the time that you—“ Instead of Ontidae seeing into my soul, he gave me a glimpse of his. “You killed him.”
“Yes. Very good, Mr. Scarecrow. Very good, indeed. Now, for the difficult qvestion: Vhat do you remember about the time before his death?”
“Before? Well, I’ll tell you one thing; this place was happy then. It was healthy and alive. Now, you’ve twisted it, made it like you: living death.”
“How poetic. But vhat do you actually remember, Mr. Scarecrow? Name me an event, an experience.”
I couldn’t. There were plenty of feelings; there were even echoes of memories, like when I was stuffed, right here in this barn. But it was like seeing myself from outside, not like a real experience.
After a long silence, Ontidae nodded. “That is vhat I thought. You see, vhen I killed Wieland Löweinneres, the one you refer to as ‘the old man’, this vas a simple farm, like any other. You, mein freund, vere a mere sack of straw, hung upon a vooden post to scare crows avay from the corn.”
“But…” I couldn’t think of a comeback, because I knew what he said was true. I sank into the hard chair, stunned speechless for a moment. Then, like a good investigator, I asked a question instead. “How could this have happened?”
“Wieland Löweinneres vas a vampire hunter, back in Austria. He vas also a powerful vizard. Had he been a mere human, he vould not have survived his first hunt. By the time he came here to retire, of course, he vas far past his prime.”
“So you had a beef against him, and you figured he’d be easy prey.” I looked at the little man behind the desk, and I realized how scrawny he was, how weak, and I began to get an inkling of why he had stuck around. “But he wasn’t easy meat, was he? You killed him, but he messed you up pretty good, too. That’s why you didn’t leave afterward. You can’t, can you?”
“Very perceptive, my dear Scarecrow. It is true that Löweinneres nearly killed me before I finally ripped his throat out.” Ontidae was beginning to show emotion for the first time. Old anger was welling up in him, seeping out through his voice as he continued. “He und his protégés destroyed my entire coven, Mr. Scarecrow. Drove stakes through their hearts, even the little ones. My Nina… he caught her outside at dawn. He incinerated her! I had to vatch from the darkness as she burned to death in the sun!” He rose and walked to the balcony rail, where he stood for a moment. Thelma was singing a happier, more up-tempo tune. He listened for a moment. With his back to me, he spoke. “Yes, Mr. Scarecrow. I had, as you say, a ‘beef’ vith him.”
“So, you’ve had your revenge. Are you happy?”
“Happy? No, I vould not describe myself as happy. But I am tired. I vish to leave this place. But I cannot. I am held here, veak, vith only these pitiful little animals upon whom to slake my thirst. The vizard has bevitched me. He has put his power und the power he took from me in our duel, into this farm. That power is vhat has bestowed intelligence upon you und your friends. I vant it. I vant mine own, und his as vell. I deserve it; it is the spoils of var, after all. I have searched for the key, the answer that vill unlock the power und allow me to draw it off; so that I may heal myself at last.”
Slowly, he turned to face me, his gaze intense. I rose from the chair, ready for whatever came. “Those clothes… they belonged to the old man, did they not? He vore them out before he used them to construct you.” He took a step toward me. I took a step back, and bumped into the desk. “You are the guardian of the farm, the protector of the plants.” He took another step. I slid along to the corner of the desk. “I vonder,” he said, as he took another step and I backed up some more, “vhat sort of heart beats vithin your flannel breast?”
He lunged at me, and I dove for the drapes. The shutter was open, as I thought; I plunged through the hay window and the ground rushed up at me. I hit hard, rolled, and came up on my feet, already running. Memories were flashing through my mind, and I was in two places at once: running in the here and now, and—
It was just before dawn. I was going to feed old Festus (that was the horse’s name? I never knew) when I was jumped from behind. Having been attacked after leaving the warded safety of my house, I was fighting for my life against a huge vampire, way bigger than the Ontidae I knew. I fought my way to the onion patch, and then I pulled out a silver crucifix and cast a spell. Then, holding it across my knuckles, I slammed the talisman into the vampire’s chest. There was a flash and a concussion. I was thrown back a step, but there didn’t seem to be any damage to the vampire. He laughed at me and came on again. I cast the crucifix from me; it vanished into the pre-dawn gloom. The vampire crashed into me, bore me to the ground and bared his fangs. But I had chosen my battleground carefully. I reached out and yanked a full-grown garlic plant from the ground and smashed it into his eyes. There was a hiss of burning flesh, and he screamed.
At that moment, the sun broke the horizon. I thought that I was saved, but even though his entire body was smoking, even though he was still howling in pain, the vampire raised his hand, claws extended, and brought it down in a savage slash.
Abruptly, the memory ended. I had just experienced the old man’s death. I ran as fast as I could, my worn-out clodhoppers fairly flying over the barnyard and into the cornfield. I had some thought of losing him in the rows of tall stalks. There was one flaw in my plan, though, and it became painfully clear when he dropped out of the sky onto my head.
We tumbled together through the cornstalks. He ended up on top of me, but I had a clodhopper in an advantageous position. I drove it as hard as I could up between his legs. I didn’t know if that sort of thing affected vampires, or if it worked merely because Ontidae was so diminished, but I was pleasantly surprised. He gasped and rolled off of me. In an instant, I was up and running again. An instant later, he was up and after me. I was nearly to the center of the field, where my watch-post stood waiting. I wished that I were up there now, back in the peaceful days, with the post up the back of my shirt, and the crosspiece through my sleeves.
Ontidae tackled me from behind. This time, I was down; he had me firmly in his grip. He grabbed my shoulders and twisted me around. My top half turned, but my bottom half stayed where it was. It was weird, but it didn’t hurt. He tore open my shirt and began to dig into my straw innards. With a triumphant laugh, he pulled out a silver crucifix, dangling from a fine-linked chain.
“This is it! This talisman is the key! He spelled it to funnel both our energies into this cursed farm! But now, I shall have it all! I shall be the greatest vampire ever to valk the night!” He laughed like one of those mad scientists in scary stories.
The corn stalks began to glow with orange light. Ontidae looked up. His eyes widened in shock. I craned my neck in the direction he was looking. There, coming up the rows, was the corpse of John Pumpkins, with fiery eyes and grinning mouth, carried high by a short man with a long, gray beard.
“Desmond Ontidae,” a hollow voice intoned, “your time has come.”
“No! It cannot be! You are dead, vizard! Dead!” Ontidae began to transform, to fly away. I grabbed hold of the crucifix. He yanked it and snapped at me with his razor-sharp, scoop-like fangs, but I held fast. Finally, he just took off with me holding on.
Half man, half bat, Ontidae nonetheless struggled into the air. I dangled beneath him, holding on to the crucifix for dear life.
The wizard’s voice spoke a strange word, a word of power. The crucifix flared. Suddenly I was getting sleepy. I couldn’t hold onto the crucifix any longer. I fell, and felt my post slide up my shirt and out of my collar. The last thing I saw was Desmond Ontidae falling onto the sharpened tip of the post. His final scream faded away with my consciousness.
The sun was rising. Jack awoke to find himself kneeling in a cornfield, a carved pumpkin between his knees.
“What the heck?” The last thing he remembered was trick or treating in town. He looked around for his goodie bag, but it was nowhere to be seen. Just an old scarecrow, its canvas face staring blankly, slumped down on its post. There was a little steam rising from the pointy, blackened tip.
“Shoot,” he muttered, and got to his feet to look around. He was on Old Man Löweinneres’ farm, miles from town. His Gandalf costume was covered with pumpkin guts. The jack-o-lantern was pretty cool, though. He picked it up and started the long walk home. He’d been out all night. Mom was going to kill him.
In the straw within the scarecrow’s shirt, something silver glinted in the sun.