The man in rags was the first of them to reach Crabtree St. He crouched on his haunches in front of the little yellow house, sniffed the air, then grinned savagely. His teeth were as yellow as butter and filed to jagged points. He clapped his scarred and gnarled hands once and sang to himself in a low, tuneless voice, "Oh the sweets, oh the savory. The freshest treats. And they're all for me."
A thin, bright sliver of moon shone out through a gap in the clouds. The man in rags' nostrils flared as if he could smell the moonlight and he whispered, "But soft! They'll not be expecting once so stealthy. Clever me."
He made a complicated gesture with his right hand and then began to slither along the ground on his belly. His tongue darted between his jagged teeth, and his idiot grin grew wider. In the dappled shadows of the evergreen oak trees that lined Crabtree St., the man in rags wormed his way ever closer to the little yellow house.
The occupants of the little yellow house were asleep, except for two. One was up late furtively reading a book with a flashlight under his bedspread and another never slept. It was a quiet night. The only sounds Andy could hear were the rustle of the paper as he turned the pages and his own steady breathing. Even the wind was still.
Warm and comfortable beneath his covers, Andy felt his eyelids grow heavy and he began to doze when he heard a sound like breaking glass. His head snapped up and he whipped his covers off of him, craning his neck towards the sound. It had come from the window. For a moment, the world went blurry and the window seemed to radiate cracks in spiderweb patterns, with an awful blackness lying behind it. A terrifying, bestial laughter echoed through his head and he could taste something thick and salty on his tongue. Blood, Andy thought, and stared down at his sheets. In the pool of light from his flashlight, his sheets looked sodden and heavy and red. The world returned to normal and Andy shuddered and quietly crept out of bed.
His shadow loomed large against the far wall, then darkened, taking on a viscous appearance, like old motor oil. It smiled. The shadow had very white, even teeth. The shadow made a sound, as if clearing its throat and said in a deep, resonant voice, "So, Andy m'boy, what did you just see?"
Andy glared at the shadow, then placed his pillows lengthwise across his bed, plumping them and shaping them into something that almost approximated a human form.
"Your Mama musta taught you that it's rude not t'answer a question," the shadow persisted.
"I didn't see anything!" Andy protested as he grabbed his Rand McNally Globe and placed it on top of the pillow body.
"Y'ain't improved any as a liar, I see," the shadow chuckled, clicking its teeth together.
"Go away, Mr. Saturday!" Andy whispered fiercely.
"Fine. Don't come cryin' when you need my help."
The smile vanished. Andy eyed his pillow dummy critically before throwing the covers over it, gave a fearful glance at the window and crept out of the room.
The man in rags slithered beneath Andy's window, then made another gesture with his right hand. He got up onto all fours and sniffed the air. He tensed for a moment, then leapt towards the window with frightening speed, crashing through the glass and landing onto the bed just beneath. He snarled and then tore into the lumpen form beneath the covers with his sharp teeth. Foam and feathers sprayed into the air. The man in rags' eyes narrowed. He had smelled the boy, had heard the beating of his tender heart. His eyes lost focus for a second, then he nodded. He mumbled to himself, "Illusion. How? Boy should not know..."
Stealthily, he crept through the half-open doorway, sniffing the ground. The boy was still near. He could smell him, could smell the slick sheen of sweat the boy's palms had left on the doorknob, and places on the wall where the boy had touched. The man in rags salivated and followed the trail inexorably to its source.
Through a swinging door the man in rags crawled into a country style kitchen with copper pots hanging on racks above the stove and a butcher's block in the center. Huddled behind the kitchen table was the boy, clutching a butcher knife and breathing in quiet, panicked little gasps. The man in rags smiled and growled low and deep in his throat.
Andy shuddered at the growl, then leapt up and ran towards the opposite door. The man in rags was perplexed for a second then stood upright and crossed his wrists over his head, wriggling and splaying his fingers. The flesh in the palm of his right hand puckered grotesquely and a thick sticky cord spewed from the new orifice, striking Andy in the back. The man in rags chittered and pulled hard, forcing Andy to stumble backwards. The man in rags uncrossed his wrists and spun his right arm in a lazy circular motion, binding Andy's limbs to his side and dragging him closer. The man in rags circled Andy, winding the cord around him again and again, each turn moving nearer. He drew near enough that Andy could feel his hot, stinking breath on his cheek. Tears streamed down Andy's face. The man in rags' tongue flickered out to taste them. So intent was he on his new prize that that he did not notice how Andy's shadow seemed to be moving independently of the moonlight that streamed in through the kitchen window.
"Andy, this is bad business. You want to live? You got to trust me and open."
Andy silently nodded assent.
"Tasty, tasty, fresh and tender," crooned the man in rags. He did not notice that the terror had completely vanished from Andy's eyes or that his soft, childish face had taken on a distinctly calculating expression. Andy smiled widely, baring his teeth as if in challenge. There was no humor in that smile.
The man in rags hissed, "No smiling now! Crying!"
Andy smiled wider, then stared at the cord binding his limbs and tying him to the stinking bestial thing that slavered at him. The cord burst into flames. The man in rags jerked his hand backwards as the fire seared his palm and cried, "Hot!"
Andy stretched luxuriously, his limbs now freed and crooned, "Yes indeedy, fire is hot. Not much gets past you, cap'n"
The man in rags made a motion with his injured hand and crouched, baring his teeth. Andy yawned and said, "Stop."
The man in rags shivered and was still. Andy smiled again and clucked, "My, my, my. But you ain't the sharpest pin in the cushion."
The man in rags growled and twisted impotently, but was able to come no closer.
"Betcha a red injun penny I can guess what you're thinking. You're thinking you're a big ol' nasty tiger, and thishere's nothin' but a little boy. A little boy with bare 'nough meat on his ribs to qualify for a snack." Andy shook his head. "But thing is. y'ain't a tiger. Y'can growl and snarl all you want, but y'ain't much more than a pretty little butterfly."
The man in rags howled and clawed at the air. Andy pursed his lips blew a soft puff of breath. The man in rags fell backwards, as if knocked over by a great blow.
"And thing is, it don't take much more'n a breath to knock a pretty little butterfly off course."
Andy stepped up into the air and floated two feet above ground. "All kinds of bad things can happen to pretty little butterflies. Some nasty little boy could pluck off its wings." Andy nodded and the man in rags' arms flew out the side. "Or pin it up in a box for display." Andy gestured and the butcher knife he was holding flew through the air and hovered six inches above the man in rags' chest.
The man in rags snarled angrily. Andy placed a finger in front of his mouth. "Hush now. Folk are sleeping. Now, my pretty little butterfly, it'd be mighty he'pful to me if you'd give me a little hint as to who hired you. Promise I won't tell."
Andy pursed his lips. "Well, that's one way t'do it. Of course, y'could take the easy road and tell me what I want to know and die second. 'Scleaner that way."
"Kill me! Won't talk," snarled the man in rags.
Andy sighed theatrically. “Some folk just don’t know an out when they get one. Look here, I’m tryin’ my best to be a gentleman and not get real nasty, but you are makin’ it hard for me to keep my temper, and when I lose my temper I don’t quite think straight and I can’t be held responsible for what happens then, now can I?”
The man in rags shuddered and hawked up phlegm from the back of his throat. From his position prone on the floor, he attempted to spit at Andy. It missed and fell back onto his own forehead with a smack. Andy rubbed his chin and said, “Now, you’re being downright ornery? I’m afraid that a little saliva ain’t quite enough to grant you a quick death. Fact, why don’t I dry you off?”
The room began to smell like someone had left their ironing in mid-crease and forgotten it until scorch marks had ruined their trousers. White tendrils of smoke wafted up from the man’s rags. He twitched on the floor and howled.
“I took the liberty of putting a silence spell on this room since you ain’t got no respect for hardworking folks that’s got to get up early in the morning. Y’can scream just as loud as you want.” Andy bared his teeth in a gruesome parody of a smile.
“Fuck you,” said the man in rags.
The handle of the butcher knife slammed into the man in rags’ mouth hard enough to draw blood. “Didn’t your mama teach you to watch your language around impressionable youths?” chided Andy.
“Kill me!” The man in rags demanded.
The smoke was thick in the air, and the skin that was visible beneath the rags had begun to blister and crack. A stench of burning meat and a salty-sweet smell like pork cracklings wafted through the air. Andy hovered over the man in rags staring intently, trying to read his expression.
“Kill me!” The man in rags repeated.
“Still won’t stop me from getting what I need to know out of you,” growled Andy.
“Kill me!” The man in rags sobbed.
“Very well,” said Andy softly. He gestured and the butcher knife drove its point home between the man in rags’ eyes with a sickening, meaty thunk. Andy sighed, “See you in Hell,” and floated gently to the ground.
Andy closed his eyes and his shadow flowed out behind him like spilled ink. When he opened his eyes again he began to cry. Mr. Saturday said, “Now what you want to go and cry for? He’s taken care of.”
“We killed a man.”
“Why you want to take credit for something you ain’t a part of,” asked Mr. Saturday softly.
“You were in my body and I – we—he’s dead now,” Andy wailed.
“Yes, he’s dead. And I can’t say I’m sorry. He deserved it. And he’d have done a fair sight worse to you than what I did to him. We ain’t got time for you to mope and feel bad. This here means trouble.”
“Trouble?” Andy sniffled.
“Nothing but. This thing was a Manitou. Lots of meanings for that word, but here it meant he ate the souls of animals to give him their strength. Bad business. Mess you up in the head real good. And not only was he a Manitou but he was one of the Dread Hunters—"
“What’s a Dread Hunter?”
“Don’t interrupt, boy. Ain’t got time for cheek,” Mr. Saturday snapped. “The Dread Hunters are good ol’ boys that hunt down witches, houngans, shamans and those can conjure—that’s you, Andy—but not out of some sort of old time religion, but for a price. A high one at that.”
“Why would they come after me?”
“Dunno. Best guess is someone find out what you can do and that someone jes don’t like competition. Elsewise, they’d send golden retrievers to carry you back, not wolves a tear you t’ pieces.”
Andy cringed away from the dead man lying on his kitchen floor. “More like him are coming for me?”
“Oh, far worse,” said Saturday softly. “Wolfman Jack here was jes a tracker. His head went all soft like a rotten melon. Spent too much time tryin’ to be too many different things. The slower ones? They got their wits about them and they ain’t like to be outwitted by a half-trained conjureman and his imaginary friend.”
“You’re not imagin—"
Mr. Saturday grinned. “I know, Andy. But I ain’t got a whole lot of substance in this world. To them I might as well be a game of make believe.”
Andy put his head in hands. “My glamour only fooled the Manitou for a few seconds. I don’t know what to do. And I don’t want to be a part of killing anyone else. But I don’t want to die either.”
“Lemme help you, Andy. Has your old friend Mr. Saturday ever done you wrong?”
Andy glared at the shadow with silent incredulity.
Mr. Satuday spread his hands in supplication. “Jes ‘cause you don’ think something’s right don’ mean it’s wrong. We got to get to somewhere safe. It aint’ safe here.”
“Shh, boy. First, you know where there’s a mirror as big or bigger than you? Close?”
Andy thought for a second. “Cortland’s Menswear across Slauson’s the closest. Why? It’s closed this late, of course.”
“Locks ain’t no problem for us. We got to get there.”
Andy grabbed a hooded sweatshirt from his dresser drawer and pulled a pair of blue jeans over his pajama bottoms. He slipped his feet into a pair of scuffed tennis shoes without bothering to put on socks. He shook the broken glass from the comforter on his bed and grabbed his red flashlight from the place on the floor where he had left it. He tiptoed past his parents’ bedroom toward the front door. He whispered to his shadow, “What are we going to do about the dead body in the kitchen? Mom’s going to freak! Especially if I’m gone.”
“You let me worry about that,” said Mr. Saturday, “you just worry about getting us out of the house and to Cortlandt’s.”
Andy nodded and opened the front door just wide enough for him to slide through, taking care to avoid a creaky floorboard. The night air was brisk and blew a cool current through the slender opening. Andy wriggled out and pulled the door closed behind him. He ran across the lawn, flashlight beaming in one hand, and skipped over exposed tree roots and a hoop from an abandoned croquet set. The sidewalk was uneven and he shuffled his feet to avoid tripping on cracks and broken ground in places where the flashlight and the moon were inadequate illumination.
“Dunno how long before the next in that crew of uglies shows up thirsty for a drink of your blood, Andy m’boy, but I imagine it’d be in your best interest to hurry."
“I am hurrying, but I don’t want to trip and break my ankle. I’d have a fat chance of getting away then.”
Andy pulled his hood up and pulled it tight over his forehead. It shaded his eyes. He scurried past the big funeral home on the corner of Slauson and Crabtree st., giving it only a cursory sideways glance, and shivered. He had bad memories of that place.
Slauson was a major city boulevard, and even at that late hour, cars still milled over its surface. Andy walked over to the crosswalk and waited for the light to change from a red hand into a green running man. Mr. Saturday snorted in impatience and Andy said mildly, “I can’t get you to a mirror if I’m splattered all over the asphalt.”
When the light changed, Andy ran across Slauson, elbows and knees jackknifing the air. He ran all out until he reached the front door of Cortlandt’s where he stopped and doubled over, panting and out of breath. In the dark of the night, the huge display windows of the shop appeared to be a forbidding slate gray. Murky, indistinct humanoid figures lurked behind the gray, their limbs contorted into unnatural poses. Mannequins, thought Andy. Behind the plate glass doors of Cortlandt’s Menswear was a retractable iron gate, its middle was secured by a heavy combination padlock.
“You remember what I taught you ‘bout locks, doncha, Andy?”
Andy nodded his head and whispered, “nothing really wants to be locked up. It wants to be seen. Just give it some encouragement.”
Andy stared at the padlock and thought of flowers that open with the heat of the sun and oyster shells with iridescent pearls and fans that crack open with a sound like thunder. Aloud, he said, “open.”
The padlock glowed red for a second then fell to the ground in smoldering pieces. Andy gasped in surprise and Saturday said, “Not so much force, boy. It ain’t Fort Knox!”
Andy heard a click, and reached for the front door. It pulled open. The retractable iron gate parted with a squeal. In they crept through the silent store. Bulky, man-sized shapes loomed in the darkness, and Andy darted the beam of his flashlight around, sighing with relief every time what appeared to be a crouching, hulking figure waiting to pounce turned out to be a stack of khakis or a rack of polo shirts.
“Quit shinin’ that light ‘round so much,” said Mr. Saturday.
“I keep thinking that one of them is here,” said Andy.
“One of them was here, they’d know right how to find you. You want to jes send up signal flares while you’re at it?”
“Sorry,” said Andy, mollified.
“Where’s that mirror?”
Andy cautiously made his way to the back of the store, where several curtained changing booths stood in a row. Next to the booths was full length mirror. Andy stared at his reflection. His eyes were rimmed with red and his face was grubby. His hair was an unruly mess. The tops of his pajama bottoms peeked out of his pants. His mother, thought Andy, would have a fit if she could see him outside the house in such a condition. His mother would also have a fit if she found the dead man on the kitchen floor, Andy thought with a gulp.
“More of ‘em are close to the house now. We ain’t got much time,” said Mr. Satuday, breaking Andy’s chain of thought.
“How do you know?”
Mr. Saturday ignored Andy’s question. “Won’t be long afore they figure you won’t be waiting in the parlor for them to announce their visit. We got to get started. No time for niceties. I need your blood.”
“Ow!” Andy yelled as Mr. Saturday jabbed the ball of his thumb with a silver hatpin. Ignoring his protests, Mr. Saturday grabbed Andy by the wrist and used his thumb to trace a complicated pattern on the mirror’s surface.
“What’d you do that for?” Asked Andy indignantly.
“Whew. Being physical sure do take a lot out of one,” Mr. Saturday said. “I did that because we ain’t got time to argue and like I told you before, haunts don’t have blood. Most of the time I don’t even got hands.”
“What are you up to?”
“Takin’ you someplace safe from the Dread Hunters,” replied Mr. Saturday. “Now let’s get started."
Mr. Saturday pulsed and writhed in the gloom. His voice took on a rich baritone with none of his characteristic glibness as he intoned, “Hear me! Open the barrier so that we may pass. Open the barrier, I ask of you. Open the barrier so we may pass!”
As he spoke, the mirror began to ripple as if it were liquid. It pulsed with the rhythms of his voice and his shape. Mr. Saturday’s voice rose to a crescendo as he began to repeat faster and faster, “Open the barrier so we may pass. Open the Barrier, I ask of you! Open the barrier so we may pass!”
Andy gasped as the surface of the mirror flowed out onto the floor in a puddle, revealing behind it an old man standing in a long stone tunnel. The old man was leaning on a hand-crafted cane. His hair was white and crinkly like lamb’s wool. His skin was the color of pecans and was as wrinkled and gnarled as a walnut shell. He was frowning in displeasure, but his eyes seemed to twinkle merrily. He nodded at Mr. Saturday and said, “You have brought the living? Better come on then.”
He walked down the tunnel and Mr. Saturday followed. After a moment’s hesitation, Andy stepped through the hole that was once a mirror into the long tunnel. The hole re-sealed behind him.
The old man cleared his throat officiously, bowed at the waist to Andy and said, “Welcome to the World of the Dead.”