by Norsebard


Contact: norsebarddk@gmail.com





This short-story is to be categorized as a Beyond Uber. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.

The story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.





Written: for the 2017 Royal Academy of Bards' Halloween Invitational.

- As always, thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur :)

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D


Description: What should have been a couple of easy-going days leading up to Halloween turns into a nightmare for author Caroline Prescott and her younger brother Jonathan when an unknown foe targets them for no apparent reason. As the tension escalates, the inevitable showdown draws nearer…





Shortly after eight-thirty in the morning on Sunday, October twenty-ninth, the lights were turned on in the kitchen of a regular two-storey house on a regular street in a regular neighborhood in a regular suburb to a regular, medium-sized city somewhere in a part of the world that could only be described as, yes, regular.

Yawning, the forty-three-year-old Caroline Prescott tied a knot on the belt of her quilted housecoat while her slippered feet found their way onto the cool, hard tiles in her kitchen. She wore a set of warm flannel PJs underneath the housecoat since she was no fan of any of the chilly seasons - in fact, the first thing she did in the mornings was to put on a pair of nice, comfortable hiking socks as a pre-emptive strike against cold feet.

Part of her sensitivity to the cold would have been alleviated if she'd had a sweetheart to share her house, couch, and indeed bed with, but she had long since resigned herself to the sad fact that she had become an official Old Maid. As an author whose workplace was her home, she had very few opportunities to meet eligible women of the lesbian kind, and she was far too much of an introvert - and far too old, according to herself - to even contemplate a return to the dreaded dating game.

Working on muscle memory alone, she found and prepared the toast, the jam, the chocolate spread, a neon-green PlastiqueFantastique bowl, and her beloved frosted flakes. Once she had poured a fair amount of cereal into the bowl and filled it to the brink with cold milk so the frosted flakes would turn nice and mushy, she shuffled over to the hallstand to don her heavy-duty winter coat.

The newspaper beckoned. Each morning, she hoped the paperboy would throw the rolled-up news onto her doorstep like she had asked the distribution company to do, but each morning, her heart plunged into her slippers when she realized she would have to drag herself down to the mailbox at the far, far, far end of her garden path. A quick look at the gloomy morning sky made her reach for an umbrella as well before she left behind the comfort of her home.

Down at the far end of the path, she opened her garden gate and stepped onto the sidewalk of the quiet residential street she lived at. Unlocking the aluminum mailbox, she took out the rolled-up newspaper and a letter sent by a distant relative. As a result of the damp weather, a colorful note had attached itself to the rear side of the newspaper, but she did not notice.

Two young mothers home on maternity leave pushed their baby carriages past the house, and the three women offered each other quick greetings before Caroline hurried back up the garden path to get inside.

Because of the close proximity of a large shopping mall, a natural lake and an award-winning play-park built adjacent to it, the entire neighborhood was swamped with young families who all seemed to have two or more children. During the height of summer, the happy noises produced by the children as they played on the closed-off streets seemed to suggest that each family had twenty kids or so, but though it could get loud at times, it still beat the drone and foul air produced by the kind of traffic congestion that could be found closer to the bigger cities.

As Caroline returned to the breakfast table with the day's edition of the world's typically depressing news, she found her early-morning privacy invaded by a younger man who sat at the table propping his head up on his arms. Unlike Caroline's outfit which was suitable for arctic conditions, the younger, less cold-sensitive man only wore a simple T-shirt and PJ pants.

She chuckled at the sight of her younger brother's wild hair and blurry eyes that offered strong hints that his oh-so-innocent night out had turned anything but somewhere along the way. He had just turned thirty-four, but his athletic frame and boyish charm made him seem a decade younger. "So, brother dearest," she said as she put the heavy-duty winter coat back onto the hallstand, "aren't you cold?  It's chilly in here."

"Are you kidding?  It's toasty," Jonathan Prescott croaked in a voice filled with gravel.

"Let's agree to disagree. Do you want me to fix you up with some bacon and nice, runny scrambled eggs-"

"God… no!"

Grinning at her brother's sorry state, Caroline put the envelope on the kitchen table and the newspaper onto the corner of the breakfast table. She kept looking at Jonathan while she did it, so she did not see the colorful note flutter off the back of the newspaper and onto the floor's cool, white tiles. "Okay. How about a grapefruit, then?"


"Muesli?  I have chunky berry-"


"Creamy yogurt?"


"You're not getting any of my cereal, Jon…" Caroline said while crossing her arms over her chest.

"I don't want that yucky, slushy mush you call cereal, Sis… how the heck can you even eat that?  Cereal is supposed to be crunchy…"

"If I wanted crunchy, I'd eat a carrot. The flakes are already rich in taste, but they get so much better once they've soaked in the milk for eight, nine, ten minutes or so. Like I told you yesterday… and the day before that."

Caroline rolled her eyes and turned back to the toaster. Instead of continuing the exchange that she and her brother had fine-tuned to perfection over the course of the past six days, she took two further slices of bread and shoved them down into the machine's slits. "Tell me again… how soon can you go back to your own place?  Is it today or tomorrow?" she said as she dusted off her hands.

"Oh, haw, haw… by Thursday or Friday. I hope. Damn painters…" Jonathan mumbled, rubbing his numb face. "Using the wrong damn paint so my whole, damn pad has to be fumigated or whatever the heck it is they're doing to it… and now we have to deal with the damn insurance companies and blah-blah-blah. God!  Hey Sis, wouldya mind making me some instant coffee as well?"

" 'Cos you just can't be bothered to get your bee-hind off the chair, right?" Caroline said and turned to the kitchen cabinet where the jar with her brother's favorite brand of instant had been put two seconds after he had moved in earlier in the week.


"At least you're honest. Late night?"

"Early morning…"

"Really?  I thought it was just supposed to be a get-together with a couple of old buds from school. What did you guys end up doing?  Go to a disco?"

"A disco?" Jonathan said and let out a croaking laugh. "What, you think it's still the 1990s or something?  It's called a club, Sis."

Caroline turned around and shot her kid brother a withering glare that was interrupted by the toaster dinging and popping out his slices of bread. "I'm sure the Y has a bunk for you if you're unhappy with your current accommodations!" she said, moving the toasts onto a plate so they could cool off.

"Truce!  I just want my coffee and toast… and some jam…" Jonathan whined, folding his hands into the age-old sign for praying to a higher being.

Caroline grunted as she turned back to the jar of instant coffee. "Mmmm. But I'm using all the hot water for my shower. You look like you could use a cold one."

Just as Jonathan opened his mouth to complain, Caroline sat down at the table and picked up her spoon. "End of discussion," she said and dug into her beloved, mushy-soft frosted flakes.


After the promised long, hot shower was over, Caroline padded up the staircase and into her bedroom on bare feet while she finished drying her hair. Moments later, her brother's shrieks from the bathroom a floor below reached her ears - he hit a perfect top C with no effort at all when the cold water rushed down upon him from the fixed showerhead. "My house, my rules… my hot water," she said with a devious grin as she laid out the clothes she wanted to wear.

With almost a decade between her and her younger brother, they had not been too close growing up though they had lived under one roof with their parents for a number of years. It had not been until several years after Caroline had moved to a different town to follow her dream of becoming a writer that her brother had confided in her: much to the chagrin of their parents, Jonathan and Caroline had both turned out to land on the gay side of the fence.

For Jonathan, the label 'fluid' was a better fit, but the whole deal had left him so confused and unsure of what he actually felt that he had spent most of his teen years hiding behind a brick wall he had put up around his soul. It took him until his early twenties to break free, and even then, it had only been with the help of his big sister.

Caroline returned to the present when the mortified shrieks from downstairs turned into happy singing. A quiet laugh escaped her as she slipped into a pair of soft blue jeans and closed the button.


Stepping into the kitchen a while later, Caroline caught a glimpse of a splash of purple hiding behind one of the table's legs. Though she had wanted to open the letter from her distant relative, the colorful object on the floor seemed more interesting.

She picked it up at once but could only furrow her brow at the odd sight. It was a piece of heavy, high-quality paper that had been torn from some kind of garish notepad. The page itself was held in a faint lilac, and several deep-purple hearts drawn in an abstract fashion had been scattered across the background to create a somewhat eye-pleasing contrast.

"Where could this have come from?" she mumbled, turning the page over to see the flipside. When her eyes fell on the chilling words that had been written in a clumsy, child-like handwriting using what appeared to be a white crayon, her breath hitched and her heart performed a painful double-beat. The note read, 'I saw wot U did.'

"What the hell is this?" she said in a hoarse whisper, flipping over the garish piece of heavy paper several times to look for clues. The only one she found was a smudge on the top-right corner on the page's reverse side, but that turned out to be a false lead as it was simply the ink from the newspaper that had smeared onto the garish note as a result of the dampness in the mailbox.

She forgot all about the letter from her relative and moved slowly though the living room and into the den that doubled as her home office. Sitting down on the swivel-chair in front of her computer, she could not tear her eyes away from the note that seemed to grow more threatening for each time she looked at it.

Working like an automaton, she turned on her computer though she knew she would be unable to get any work done before she had spoken to Jonathan. While the laptop booted - she had docked it to a large monitor and a proper keyboard - she leaned back on her swivel-chair with a thousand-mile stare in her eyes.


The minute she heard the tell-tale clunk in the pipes that indicated that the water had been turned off in the bathroom, she jumped up and strode through the den, the living room and the hallway until she reached the bathroom door. "Jon?" she said, tapping her knuckles on the door in a hurried fashion.

'You need to pee?'

"No. There's something I need to show you…"

'Okay?  Uh… hold that thought for two seconds…'

When Caroline felt she had waited long enough, she opened the door and stepped into the bathroom with no regard for her brother's half-undressed state.

"Hey!  That wasn't two seconds!" Jonathan said, wrapping a towel around his lower half though his sister had already seen everything there was to see down there.

Despite the serious note she clutched in her hand, Caroline let out a snicker at the sight of Jonathan's boyish cheeks and upper lip being covered in shaving foam. "Hello, Santa!" she said at his white beard.

"Haw, haw…" Jonathan said, picking up the six-bladed titanium safety razor he always used. "When are you gonna shave off your own mustache?  Or do you want me to do it for you?"

"No thanks. Didn't you have hairs on your chest when you were younger?"

"Silky-smooth is hot in the circles I travel in," Jonathan said, running an index finger across his well-defined pectoral muscles.


Snorting, Jonathan made a half-turn to let his eyes glide down over his sister's frame. "I'll bet you're as hairy as a yak!"

Rolling her eyes, Caroline returned to the serious matter she held in her hands. "Look at this… I think I got some hate mail today… either that or it's a really nasty Halloween prank. It says, I saw what you did…"

"What?  Let me see that," Jonathan said, putting down the razor at once. He grimaced as he read the brief collection of poorly written words before he looked up at his older sister. "Wow… that's way creepy if it's a prank. Do you get a lot of hate mail?  I mean… you write lesbian novels and stuff. Some of the holier-than-thou people just hate that."

"Once in a while…" Caroline said, studying the strange piece of paper. "But as e-mails. Never like this."

"Why is it written like in a kid's hand?  Way, way creepy," Jonathan said and turned back to the mirror so he could start shaving before the foam would turn dry and crusty. "What do you think it means?  Saw what you did… did you do anything?" he continued as he started shaving his left cheek working his way down from the lower edge of the tiny sideburn.

"Of course not…" Caroline said, once more staring at the note. "Did you?  Perhaps last night?"

Jonathan moved the razor away from his left cheek to look at his sister in the mirror. "Oh, come on. It's not like that movie where a bunch of hung-over guys wake up with a dead hooker in the Jacuzzi. Steve, Rachel and me had dinner-"

"Steve, Rachel and I, Jon."

"Oh, that's funny… were you there too?" Jonathan said, winking at his sister through the mirror. "Whatever. Steve, Rachel… and me… had dinner. A delicious slow-food Coq au Vin. Then we had a little more wine. And maybe a little more wine. And a little more wine after that. We just talked about their marriage and the good, old days and stuff. Then I caught a cab home."

Sighing, Caroline folded up the note and hid it in the palm of her hand like she was trying to make it disappear. "Well. If it was meant to unsettle me, it sure worked."

"Mmmm…" Jonathan said, leaning his head back to make the skin on his throat taut for the safety razor's six titanium blades. It was a clear sign that he wanted to get on with his program, so Caroline moved back to the door.

"I'll be in my den. Come see me before you leave for the gym," Caroline continued, closing the bathroom door behind her.

'Yes, Mom!' was Jonathan's inevitable reply which made Caroline roll her eyes all over again.



The morning of Monday, October thirtieth was a mirror image of the previous days where Jonathan had stayed at Caroline's house, save for three things: one, they were both up two hours early because Jonathan needed to be at work at seven sharp at a sports goods outlet in one of the other suburbs - he had been brought in from his regular branch to give his managerial assistance to the overstressed and underpaid sales clerks who had to struggle with the mad rush known as the Big Halloween Half-Price Sale. Two, the newspaper had failed to arrive in time for breakfast which made Caroline grumpy, and three, it was pouring down which made her even grumpier.

Items two and three were most likely connected, but it did not appease the author who shuffled into her den to find her telephone. When she realized she needed to recharge it before she could call the newspaper's hotline for customer complaints, she shrugged and pushed it from her mind. Once the telephone had been connected to the charger, she shuffled into the living room to zap through some of her countless TV channels instead.


Twenty minutes later, she caught a glimpse of the paperboy hurrying past down at the far end of the garden path. As always, the young man stuck the rolled-up newspaper into the aluminum mailbox instead of throwing it into the garden like she had asked them to, but she let it slide for once due to the fact that it was a windy, wet, cold and miserable Monday morning.

Although she really ought to be in her den working on the final chapters of her latest novel, she shuffled upstairs instead to don her raincoat so she could get the newspaper now that some poor soul had actually managed to deliver it.

Fully decked out in a quilted, long-sleeved cardigan, a water-proof cape, a sou'wester and long-legged Wellingtons so she would keep warm and hopefully dry, she sloshed down the soaked garden path to get to the mailbox. She unlocked the aluminum container and reached for the rolled-up newspaper - but she came to a sudden stop when she saw the garish colors of a piece of paper similar to the one from the day before. The rain, the blustery wind and the slowly soaking newspaper all became insignificant in the face of the chilling piece of paper.

Her hands trembled as she reached for the note. It was written in white crayon in what appeared to be the same clumsy, child-like handwriting as the first one, but the message carried by the new note was so long the person writing it had needed to use both sides. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star… Johnny Johnny You Went Too Far," she mumbled in a croaking voice. Though her brother's name was misspelled, it was a common mistake to make for anyone who did not know the man in person.

A sudden chill rolled over her that had nothing to do with the inclement conditions. Spinning around, she looked for the paperboy in the hope he had not gone too far, but the conditions and the tone of light were so gloomy she had trouble looking past her neighbor's house.

Just when she was about to give up, the paperboy - who wore a fluorescent-yellow vest for reasons of safety - came back onto the street some one hundred yards further on from Caroline's house. "Hey!  Wait!" she cried, waving her hand in the air. When she caught the young man's attention, she took off in the fastest run she could muster in the cumbersome, long-legged Wellingtons.

Her feet and calves had already grown sore when she reached him, but she had no time for such trivialities. "Hi… listen…" she said, moderating herself so she would not appear like a soggy lunatic to the young teen. "I live up in number eighty-eight. You were just by with my newspaper."

"Uh… yeah?" the teen said, squinting as he took in the odd sight of the older woman whose outfit mirrored the popular image of an off-shore fisherman.

"Did you happen to notice if this note was stuck to the newspaper when you dropped it off," Caroline said and held up the garish paper, "or if it was already inside my mailbox?"

"A note?  I don't know…" the teen said, turning his attention to the note. He shook his head when he had looked at it. "No, it definitely wasn't stuck to the newspaper. They're all wrapped in a weatherproof plastic bag when it's raining. I have to tear the whole thing off each time so I would have noticed," he said, pointing to the large waste bag pinned to the side of the cart he dragged along - it was full of scrap plastic tubes.

Caroline grimaced as she noticed the waste bag - it meant that she or her brother had been targeted directly. "I see. Thank you."

"Uh… yeah. No problem," the paperboy said, but Caroline had already left him behind.

Returning to her house, Caroline was halfway up the garden path before she remembered she had failed to pick up the newspaper or even lock the mailbox. She groaned out loud as she spun around on her heel and half-walked, half-jogged down there to carry out the tasks.


The long-forgotten newspaper had been ruined by the relentless rain while she had chased down the paperboy, so she threw the pulpy mess into the trash and tore upstairs to change out of the soaked heavy-weather gear.

Back in her den a short while later, she wheeled the swivel-chair over to the telephone's charger so she did not need to unplug it while she called her brother. She feared he would be impossible to get hold of on one of the outlet store's busiest days, and her fears were proven right. After trying four times over the course of the next twenty minutes, she gave up and sent him a text message instead that said he should call home at soon as he could spare a moment.


Caroline was in the middle of typing a sentence in the final chapter of her latest novel when the telephone rang. Jumping up in surprise, she made sure to save the document before she stormed over to the charger to accept the call.

"Jon, hi," she said, almost out of breath from the short run and the niggling shock from hearing the telephone's loud ringing in the quiet room, "Oh, I'm glad you found time to call me… we got another of those threatening notes in the mail today."

'What?  This is getting serious…'

"It's just like the one from yesterday… except that this is even creepier. To tell you the truth, I'm getting really-"

'I need to hear it, Sis… please.'

"Uh… okay," Caroline said and unplugged the cable to the charger so she could move back to the desk where she had deposited the new note. "Okay… it says, twinkle twinkle little star… Johnny Johnny you went too far…"

'What?!  I mean… that's just diabolical!'

"This is getting to me," Caroline said and let go of the note like it burned her fingers. "Do you think we should call the police?"

'Well.. I don't know… they can't really do anything, can they?  I mean-'

Caroline sat down on the swivel-chair and stared at the screensaver that had begun to draw colorful pictures on the large monitor. "Jon… I know you're going to be angry with me now, but… but… if anything did happen the other night, you can… you can confide in me, you know," she said, closing her eyes as she dreaded the heated reply that she knew would come.

The connection fell so silent that Caroline needed to move the telephone away from her ear to check if something had happened. "Jon?" she croaked, once more experiencing the unpleasant chill rolling across her body.

'Sis, that was a shitty thing to say over the telephone!  I need to keep my head straight around here 'cos we're so damned busy today… and you ask me over the damn telephone if I… what… mugged, raped, murdered somebody?!  For Chrissakes, Caroline!'

"I know, I'm sorry," Caroline said and rubbed her brow, "I'm just so freaked out by these notes. I'm sorry. Please forgive me…"

'Of course I will, but Caroline… I'm gonna tell you one, last time. Nothing, as in not a damn thing happened on Saturday night. I took a cab to Steve's place. We had a great time. I took a cab back to your place. That's it!  These notes are pranks, Sis!  Evil pranks that are meant to rattle you… and I'd say the dick writing them is doing a pretty good job of it.'

A faint smile creased Caroline's lips as she heard the genuine annoyance in her brother's voice. Though she never enjoyed when they were arguing, she knew that he could not hide anything from her once he got angry - and there had been plenty of that in his voice. "Yeah…" she said, letting out a small sigh of relief.

'Listen… I'm sorry, but my break is almost over and I haven't eaten yet. I'll call you in my next break, okay?  Don't forget your phone if you go anywhere.'

"I won't, Jon… thank you. I need to do some shopping for my girls' night next weekend, so… yeah. Talk to you later."

'Bye, Sis,' Jonathan said and closed the connection.

The faint smile faded from Caroline's face as she put down the telephone and turned back to the document in her word processor. Though she tried to carry on for a short while, her mind was too preoccupied with the troublesome news to focus on fleshing out the tender scene she was working on. Saving the document again, she got up to make herself a sugary snack and some strong coffee.


Caroline's gloominess remained, but at least the weather improved. After lunch, the sun even came out to cast its bleak, late-October rays onto the rain-soaked ground. The welcome sight of sunlight prompted Caroline to don her regular winter outfit - boots, a heavy-duty coat, fleece gloves and a knitted cap - and take to the streets to do some shopping at the mall.

With the rear entrance of the vast mall only little more than half a mile away, she refused to expand her carbon footprint by driving over there. Besides, she always had the best ideas for her stories when she walked, so the decision was not a hard one to make.

Being outside helped clear her mind of the worries that had slowly accumulated from receiving the threatening notes. As she strolled through the quiet residential zone, she could not help but smile though the trees were bare, the puddles were deep, and the rank smell from the soaking wet soil was strong. When she reached an old chestnut tree, she stopped to pick up a few good specimens that she buffed on her fleece gloves and put in the pocket of her coat - she already had a large collection of chestnuts in her den, but there was always room for another.


Her sunny mood only lasted until she walked past the entrance to the play-park. Instead of the hundreds of kids who played there during the summer, the park seemed to have been taken over by the police. Two vans and several unmarked cruisers were parked on the soggy grass, and Caroline counted nine uniformed officers as well as several official-looking men who wore plain clothes. Inevitably, she slowed to a halt to gawk.

The uniformed officers seemed to conduct a search or a sweep of an area of the play-park that reached from the orange-colored jogging track to a distant cluster of trees, but it was too far away for Caroline to make out any details.

She spotted another van that had been parked off to the right. It was from the local news affiliate, and the satellite dish on the roof had been extended like they were broadcasting live or at least being connected to their home station.

Shivering, she carried on toward the mall.


The rest of the brief walk to the shopping mall offered no further problems or upsets for Caroline, but the images of the police searching the play-park were reluctant to leave her mind. She could not help but wonder if the activity at the park was not somehow connected to the threatening notes that had been in her mailbox. The fact that the police were at the park did not necessarily mean they were searching for a missing child, but the notes had been written in a child-like hand.

She was so deep into weaving a grand tapestry of gloomy thoughts that she failed to notice that she had been spoken to. It was not until someone put a hand on her elbow that she snapped out of her dark state to look at the other person. "Oh… hi, Beverly," she said as she spotted one of her neighbors, the ever-friendly Beverly McElland whose baking skills were legendary - and the cause of much jealousy - among the housewives of the residential area. "I'm sorry, I was just… thinking…"

"I'll say!  I called your name like three times!" Beverly said and let out a girly laugh. She was past her fifty-fifth birthday, but the compact, curly blonde with the bright-blue eyes had just as much, if not more, zip than those half her age, and she was not afraid to flaunt it. "So… did you hear the latest?  I think you may have considering that look on your face… awful, isn't it?"

"Uh… I don't think I-"

"A little boy went missing in the play-park late Saturday afternoon," Beverly said, pointing in the general direction of the park. "He was there one moment, gone the next. He was last seen speaking to some big fellow in a hoodie. Of course, right?"

"Oh…" Caroline said and scrunched up her face. As Beverly kept speaking about the chilling case, Caroline zoned out once more to try to gather her thoughts: Late Saturday afternoon. The day before she had found the first note. Her brother had been in the park late Saturday afternoon, taking a few fast laps of the jogging track to cleanse his body before the get-together the same evening. Jonathan could certainly be described as a big fellow, and he had been wearing a gray sports hoodie for the run. She had never made the connection because she did not know about the events at the park. Clearly, someone did, and that someone had sent Jonathan and Caroline notes saying 'I saw wot U did' and 'Johnny went too far.'

As all those facts ganged up on her, the cold trickle once more raced over her body. This time, it would not leave her, and she felt chilled to the core. "That really is awful… I was worried that it could be something like that, but…" she croaked, fast running out of things to say.

"Mmmm!" Beverly said, nodding hard. "Can you imagine how the boy's parents must feel?  I'm suddenly glad I never had any kids. I'll bet all the young mothers around here are chewing their fingernails right now."

"God, yes…"

"The weather was so bad this morning that hardly anyone was out pushing their baby carriages, but I don't think we'll see any tomorrow either… unless the police make a fast breakthrough. And right at Halloween, too!  Oh… and on another note entirely," Beverly said and leaned closer to Caroline so she could deliver a saucy wink, "who's that strapping fella who's been staying with you for the past week or so?  My, my, those shoulders!  And those jeans he wore the other day!  A woman like me would just lurrve to run her hands up and down those pantlegs!"

Despite the somber news rattling around in her brain, Caroline let out a croaking chuckle at the thought of Jonathan being the object of her neighbor's sizzling desires. "It's my kid brother. He's staying with me while his apartment is renovated."

"Oh, really?  Tell me, is he married?"


"Well, I won't eat up all your time, Caroline," Beverly said and put her hand on the taller woman's elbow once more. "I've promised to make some pumpkin buns for the street party tomorrow night so I need to get home to prepare for 'em. Oh… I wonder if the party is still going on?  I better call the party committee and find out. I've been chosen as a deputy member so I better stay on top of the game, ha ha. Bye, Caroline…" the bubbly blonde said, offering the author a small wave as she strolled off carrying a shopping bag from the same grocery that Caroline had planned to visit.

"Bye," Caroline replied, but it never grew louder than a half-whisper. Her boots appeared to have been glued to the glistening asphalt of the shopping mall's vast parking lot. Trying to recall details of Saturday afternoon, she remembered that Jonathan had been late back from the run, and that he had washed the gray hoodie and his sweatpants as the first thing he did, even before showering. He had not been out for a run before or since during his brief stay at Caroline's house, so she had no way of knowing if he always did that, or if the garments had been particularly sweaty or filthy - or perhaps bloody.

Though she needed to shop for various items for the big all-girls' night she was going to host the following Friday evening, all she could think of was to go back to her house and examine the clothes Jonathan had been wearing. Spinning around, she set off for home much going faster than the carefree speed she had used on her way to the mall.

"This is insane… why am I even thinking this about my brother?!  He can't hurt a fly!" she mumbled as she hurried along the sidewalk. "But something happened on Saturday… a boy went missing… and Jon was there… please, please, please let it all be a big misunderstanding…"


A brief while later, Caroline pulled Jonathan's sports clothes out of an old mahogany wardrobe and put them on the foot-end of his bed. When he had called to ask if she had a spare bed he could use for ten days or so, she had cleaned out a guest room that she had used for storing all her spare bits and bobs. Most of the items were too good to throw out but not good enough to keep in the closets in her own bedroom upstairs, and thus, they had all found a good resting place in the guest room.

Sighing, she took a step back to look at the results of her brief stint as a detective. The pile on the left contained two sweatshirts and two hoodies; one pale-gray and one navy-blue. The pile in the middle saw a meager stash of two T-shirts, and the pile on the right held two pairs of sweatpants. Like the hoodies, one pair was pale-gray and the other navy-blue.

The clothes were all clean and fresh, and they all carried the name and elaborate logo of the sports goods outlet where Jon worked as a middle-level store manager. All the employees could buy clothes at reduced rates, and he obviously had.

She picked up the pale-gray hoodie that Jonathan had used on Saturday. Rubbing the soft fabric between her fingers like the cops always did in her favorite TV shows, she tried to look for clues - or better yet, forensic proof - that could point her to a definitive answer. Ten seconds later, she threw the hoodie back onto the bed in disgust. "Oh, what the hell am I doing?" she mumbled, clapping a hand over her eyes. "I don't even know what to look for!  And even if I did… there's nothing here 'cos he washed them when he got home… for cryin' out loud!"

Cursing under her breath, she re-folded the pale-gray hoodie and shoved the whole thing back into the wardrobe.


Afternoon turned to evening, and the sun had once again given up the unequal struggle against the mounting darkness. Caroline sat at her computer trying to get her brain to function so she could finish the scene, the chapter and the story, but all the creepy goings-on surrounding the unpleasant developments had left her with a head full of nothing but dark thoughts.

When she finally heard Jonathan's key enter the lock in the front door, she closed the laptop's lid and jumped up. Zipping into the living room on socked feet, she awaited her brother's arrival with bated breath.

"Oh… hi, Sis," Jonathan said as he entered the living room and took his key out of the lock. Once he had closed the door behind him, he shuffled over to one of the comfortable chairs and fell into it. Sighing, he leaned his head against the backrest. "Man… I'm wasted. What a day!  And there's another one just like it tomorrow… at least I'll be home at four and not…" - he checked his telephone - "Jeez, a quarter past seven!"

"Jon…" Caroline tried, but she was interrupted before she could get going.

"Hey, I know… I forgot to call you in my next break. I'm sorry. It was such a wild affair today… non-stop madness."

"Jon, when you were at the park last Saturday, did you see anything strange?" Caroline said, staring at her brother's dead-tired face.

"What?  The park?"

"When you were-"

"I heard you the first time, Sis," Jonathan said and sat up straight in the armchair. "But I don't understand a word of it…"

Caroline grimaced and moved over to stand at her brother's chair. When her stance seemed too impersonal, she crouched down and put her hands on his knees. "This past Saturday, a little boy went missing in the park."

"Shit, really?"

"Yes. Did you see anything or anyone who looked out of place… I mean, when you were there?"

"Hmmm," Jonathan said and once more leaned back in the chair. He rubbed his chin and shook his head a couple of times before he broke out in a shrug. "Out of place… no. I didn't see anything weird if that's what you're asking. A bunch of kids with a bunch of parents. Men and women running on the track. It was the first time I was there so I don't know if anything was unusual or not… and you think this is connected to the notes we've received?"

"I'm sure of it. Jon… I…"

"Sis, can't it wait until I've had a shower?"

"No," Caroline said and stood up. Grimacing again, she put her hands akimbo. "Jon, the man who was last seen with the little boy was described as a big fellow in a hoodie."

Jonathan let out a grunt. "That's a pretty vague description. At least half the joggers using the track in the park were wrapped up in hoodies and long sweatpants. Saturday was on the chilly side, you know. What color?"

"Don't know."

"Hmmm…" Jonathan scratched his cheek, revisiting his running session to try to remember if he had met anyone who did not appear to be there for the sports. As the gears continued to turn in his mind, he suddenly arrived at a conclusion that reached out and slapped him across both cheeks. "Wait a minute… what are you actually trying to say here?" he said and got up from the chair.

Caroline let out a deep sigh as she took in the angry mask that fell over her brother's face.

"Didn't we already have this conversation?  You still think I had something to do with it, don't you?" Jonathan said in a strangled voice that proved he was trying to keep his emotions in check. "Caroline, do you honestly believe I had something to do with that kid going missing?  What, you think I went for a run with a little child-molesting thrown in for the hell of it?!"


"I think you do!  For Chrissakes, Sis!"

"Jon, listen to me," Caroline said and held up her hands. "The boy went missing in the park Saturday afternoon. You were at the park Saturday afternoon. He spoke to a big fellow in a hoodie. You're big, and you wore a hoodie!  Not only that, but you threw it into the washing machine even before you had taken off your track shoes!  And now we get these creepy notes where someone is saying that they saw-"

"None of that adds up to anything but a pile of shit, Sis!  Of course I wash my sweaty clothes!  I always do that whenever I've been on a run. If there's one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it's the stench of sweaty sports clothes. Listen- no, let me speak," Jonathan said, cutting off his sister before she could do more than lick her lips. "I'm telling you for the last time. I have nothing to do with that boy's disappearance. Nothing!  And quite frankly, I'm deeply disappointed that you continue to think that I have. If you want me out of here, just say the word and I'll get a hotel room somewhere."

"No, Jon… that's not what I-"

"Then quit thinking all these negative thoughts!  Now, please, I need a hot shower. Then I'm gonna call for a pizza and some sodas so we can have a quiet night in. Okay?"

"Yeah. Okay," Caroline said and let out another deep sigh.

Jonathan nodded and pulled his big sister in for a fair-sized hug. They stood like that for a brief moment before he gave her a little peck on the cheek. "I'm sorry for yelling at you. You're just freaked out by that weird hate mail."

Caroline tried to smile but it never amounted to much. As Jonathan let go and moved down the hallway to get to his bedroom so he could get ready for the shower, she let out yet another deep sigh. "But someone still thinks he saw you… this is gonna end badly," she whispered.



Breakfast among the Prescotts on the morning of October thirty-first was a downcast affair. Caroline sat forlornly on one of the kitchen chairs, huddled up in an extra housecoat to combat the chill that rolled through her system from the unpleasant events of the past few days. She had forsaken her beloved milk-soaked frosted flakes in exchange for some dry toast and a mug of tea, but she had hardly touched it since putting it on the table. Her pasty hue and the dark circles under her eyes proved she had slept very little despite taking two sleeping tablets at bedtime.

Jonathan was in no better mood. Now and then, he took a bite out of one of his two slices of toast, or slurped his instant coffee, but he kept tapping his fingers on the smooth tabletop as he took in his sister's haggard appearance with an upset look upon his face.

"Jon, please…" Caroline said in a listless voice. "Stop tapping your fingers… it's driving me insane!"

"I'm sorry, Sis," Jonathan said, pulling his hand back. Since it was now idle, he used it to grab the second slice of toast. He soon applied a thick layer of strawberry jam on it, but paused before he stuck a corner of it into his mouth. "I just hate to see what those creepy messages are doing to you. I hate to see you like this!  There must be something that we can do… anything." When nothing presented itself to him, he fell silent and began to chew on the slice of toast which produced plenty of crunching.

Caroline's lips creased in a faint smile at the humorous sounds, but she offset that by shrugging her shoulders. "I don't know what that should be, Jon. They could be sent by absolutely anybody around here. I doubt there are still fingerprints on the notes after being exposed to all that rain… and the ink from the newspaper… and we've both touched them as well."

"Mmmm," Jonathan said, continuing to chew on the toast.

Caroline sighed and pulled the housecoat even closer around her. Eyeing the long-forgotten tea, she wrapped her fingers around the hot mug and took a long sip. "I just can't figure out if it's a nasty, nasty prank or a case of mistaken identity. Maybe the person really did see the creep who took the boy… maybe he or she saw you there as well and came to the wrong conclusion entirely. But it almost has to be someone local… how would he… or she, I suppose… know that you are here otherwise?  I mean… it doesn't make any sense whatsoever to write a note that says 'Johnny went too far' and then put it in the mailbox of a woman who lives alone… would it?"

"No, it wouldn't," Jonathan said as he reached for his mug of instant. "Just out of complete curiosity… how many single women do live around here?"

"Hmmm… more than average, I think. It's a very safe neighborhood, that's why we have so many young families as well. Let me see… hmmm… I know of more than ten, and that's just counting the streets nearby. All in all, I'm guessing it must be close to a hundred women of all ages living as singles."

"Huh!  Bachelorette's paradise!" Jonathan said, winking at his sister over the rim of the mug.

Despite the somber mood, Caroline let out a hoarse laugh. "Wrong kind of joke at the wrong time, Jon…"

"But it made you laugh," Jonathan said, getting up from his chair and collecting his empty plate and mug.


"Anything?" Caroline said, standing in the doorway some time later. Though the clouds were low and threatening, the weather was dry and there was even a silver lining creeping closer to them from the west. The weather forecast promised a dry and calm evening for Halloween, and it seemed the prediction would be proven right for a change.

Jonathan stood at the far end of the garden path, holding the newspaper that he had just retrieved from the mailbox. He turned it over several times to check for further messages but found none. To conclude his mission of exploration, he stuck it under his arm before he checked out the inside of the mailbox to see if one of the garish pieces of paper had become attached to the aluminum walls, but it was empty. "No, just the newspaper," he said, locking the mailbox.

Caroline let out a sigh of relief as she waited for her brother to deliver the daily collection of depressing news. When he did, she pulled him in for a brief hug. "Thank you. Oh, I feel like such a coward… I can't even work up the courage to check my own, damn mailbox…"

"Come on, Sis… you're being too hard on yourself. With all this creepiness invading our lives, it's no wonder you're affected," Jonathan said and leaned in to offer his older sister a small peck on the forehead. "I gotta go to work, okay?  I promise I'll call you in every break… don't know how many I'll get of those, though. It's going to be a wild one, just like yesterday."

"I appreciate it," Caroline said with a small smile. "Today, I really need to go shopping for groceries, but the phone's fully recharged so… yeah. See you tonight."

"See ya," Jonathan said, waving at Caroline before he turned around to walk back down the garden path.


Later, Caroline entered her kitchen wearing her winter coat, lined jeans, a warm flannel shirt, fleece gloves and her favorite knitted hat. Though she appeared to be dressed for an arctic adventure, she was merely getting ready for a trip to the local grocery store. The last thing she wanted in the present situation was to walk past the play-park, so although the greengrocer was pricier than the supermarket at the mall, her battered nerves allowed her no other solution. As she put the empty shopping bag on the floor, she pulled off a glove and found a pencil so she could update her list. "Red wine," she mumbled as she wrote the words, adding a "potent" a brief moment later.


Moving past the mailbox in a hurry like it was the real culprit in the evil mess, Caroline briefly looked over her shoulder to check if anyone was watching her leaving the house. The quiet street was deserted save for two women: one was an elderly lady out walking her poodle, and the other was a bottle-blonde thirty-something jogger who was busy stretching out against a tree during a break in her running.

Although the situation had already strayed into the surreal, Caroline could not envision either of the two as the shadowy figure behind the threatening notes - thus, she could walk to the grocery store without worrying too much about a potential stalker.


Returning to the mailbox after spending just over an hour going to the grocery store marked the lowest point of Caroline Prescott's entire adult life. Her heart jumped into her throat at the sight of the easily recognizable, garish piece of high-quality paper that had been stickied to the outside of the aluminum mailbox.

She gulped down the bitter surge that threatened to rise as she inched closer to the latest note from their unseen enemy. Her chest grew so heavy from the terror mounting within her she could hardly breathe, and the knuckles on the hand that held the shopping bag's handle lost all color as she clenched her fist.

'I Saw U Wit The Boy!' was written on the note in the same clumsy, child-like handwriting and using the same white crayon as the first two notes.

Caroline reached out to tear it off but paused when she was an inch or two from the high-quality paper. The unknown assailant would have been the only one to touch it until then, so his or her fingerprints would be the only ones on it. If she touched the note, she might make it more difficult for the police later on - or so logic would dictate.

The consideration only lasted for a moment before a strong wave of anger rolled over her for being targeted in such a heinous fashion. Moving fast, she ripped the paper clean off the front of the mailbox while a growl escaped through her clenched teeth.

She stared at the garish colors like she demanded that it would spill the beans on the identity of its creator, but nothing happened. Growling again, she stomped up her garden path and went inside her home.

The winter coat and the groceries that needed to go into the refrigerator came first, but getting in touch with her brother and the police were next on her agenda. After putting on an extra sweatshirt to combat the chill that came from within, she sat down in the armchair, found her brother's number in the registry and established the call.

'Hi, Sis!  Great timing. I was just about to call you… has something happened?' Jonathan said at the other end of the connection.

Kicking off her boots, Caroline pulled her legs up underneath her to feel safer. A chill had once again fallen over her that not even the extra sweatshirt, her flannel shirt and her lined jeans could combat. "Oh, Jon… I'm afraid so. We received another threatening note just now," she said, unable to keep the nervousness and frustration out of her voice.


"It was stickied to the front of the mailbox when I got home from the grocery store…"

'What does it say?'

"I saw you with the boy…"

'Oh, man… what the hell is going on here?!'

"I don't know, Jon," Caroline said and rubbed her pasty brow, "but I'm so sick and tired of it I'm on the verge of breaking down. I feel like crying for a week!  This has got to stop now, or else I'll lose my mind!  I'm going to call the police in a moment."

'We should have done that after the second note, Sis…'

"I know. But I'm doing it now."

'Do you want me to do it for you?  I can hear in your voice that you're really frazzled.'

Caroline's lips creased into a smile at her brother's kind words; leaning her head against the chair's headrest, she closed her eyes to try to calm down from the fright that had rolled over her down at the mailbox. "No, I got it… but thank you for being so considerate."

'You're welcome,' Jonathan said before he fell quiet. Several groans and deep sighs came through the connection before he spoke up once more: 'Listen… I don't want you to be alone. I'm coming home right now.'

"But the Halloween Sale-"

'Can go screw itself!  There are more important things in life… listen, Caroline… this was the first note that was delivered in broad daylight. That means the asshole doing this to you is upping the ante. Don't open the door for anyone but the police before I get home. Okay?'

Caroline's eyes flew wide open, and she shuffled around on the chair. "Oh God, d- do you think that-"

'Please just say yes. I'll be home in forty-five minutes give or take… the traffic was a real mess this morning. Forty-five minutes. Okay?'

"Okay, Jon," Caroline said and let out a deep sigh.


Thirty minutes later, Caroline put down the telephone in disgust after six attempts at trying to get in touch with the police using one of the secondary numbers that would connect her directly to the local precinct. It was no emergency so she did not want to hog the important main number, but she had never expected the secondary numbers for non-emergency purposes to be so busy, not even on Halloween.

An odd sound from somewhere caught her attention while she was standing in the kitchen, but when a bearing in her aging refrigerator chose the same moment to send out a clunk, a whirr and a whine, she shrugged and carried on making herself a mug of strong tea.

Ten seconds later, she spun around to stare out of the window that overlooked the garden. The sound had been repeated and she had heard it more clearly the second time - it sounded like someone spray-painting with an aerosol can. After running into the living room to stare out of the large window, her heart jumped into her throat once more when she caught a glimpse of a masked person clearly spraying graffiti on the mailbox down the far end of the garden path.

The person - who wore black shades and a black tracksuit-jacket where the hood had been pulled up to cover his or her face - continued to spray the mailbox with what appeared to be yellow paint.

Caroline's heart thumped hard in her chest as she tried to think of what to do. Going down there to confront the vandal would be far too dangerous, but she needed to do something - and in a hurry.

Tearing over to the front door, she made sure it was securely locked before she ran back to the large window facing the garden. It did not take her long to open it, but she kept a firm grip on the handle so she could slam it shut in a hurry in case the hooded person would attack her. "Hey!  Hey!" she roared out of the open window in a voice that was on the verge of breaking. "Get the hell away from there, you dirty, rotten bastard!  I'm calling the police!" she continued, reaching into her shirt pocket to retrieve her telephone.

Caroline could not tell if the threat had worked or if the crook had simply completed the act of vandalism, but the result was the same: the person spun around and took off in a sprint.

"Thank God," Caroline croaked, closing the window once more. Staggering over to the armchair, she fell into it and stared at the ceiling without seeing anything. "What did we do to deserve this…?" she said in a croak.


She sat like that for close to twenty minutes before a strong outburst reached her ears. This time, she had no doubts as to its origin as she recognized her brother's voice at once. He appeared to be roaring out his frustrations at the top of his lungs, and Caroline could well imagine why.

Sighing, she got up from the armchair and put on her lined slippers. Shuffling over to the front door, she unlocked it and walked down the garden path to hook up with her brother.

The siblings only needed to exchange a single glance to tell how the other one felt. Caroline's pale face proved she was at the end of her tether, and Jonathan's flushed cheeks proved he was hopping mad.

"Look at this, Caroline!" Jonathan said, pointing at the vandalized mailbox even before the author had made it all the way down there. "For Chrissakes, what the hell kind of backwards neighborhood is this?!"

Caroline let out a long groan at the sorry state of her aluminum mailbox. Once pristine, the shiny aluminum - and a good deal of the hedge next to it - had been coated in irregular lines of yellow paint. Worse, someone had written 'Fagitt' all over it in red. The yellow aerosol can had been dumped at the foot of the mailbox, no doubt empty after doing most of the dirty work.

"Did you call the police yet?" Jonathan said, running a hand across his flushed brow.

Caroline shook her head, unable to speak.

"Then I'm gonna," Jonathan continued, taking his own telephone from his pants pocket. Like Caroline, it took him several attempts to get through to the non-emergency line, but he was finally able to connect with the local precinct.

"All right. Thank you, Sir," he said, closing the connection a brief while later. "They'll send over a cruiser. The guy I spoke to said we shouldn't touch anything in the meantime."

The hostile world suddenly became too much for Caroline to bear, and an unpleasant dizziness swept over her like a suffocating blanket. "I need to lie down… if I fall asleep, wake me up once the police get here. Okay?"

"Of course… let me help you, you look like you could fall over at any moment," Jonathan said as he grabbed his big sister's arm to help her get back up the garden path.


A short half hour later, Caroline was stirred from her slumber by Jonathan taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze. She had been so dead-tired that she had fallen asleep flat on her back without even pulling up the quilted blanket. Some of the dizziness had been vanquished, but some still lingered as she swung her legs over the side of her bed and sat up straight. "Are they here?" she said as she tried to smooth down her sleep-tousled hair.

"Yes, two officers," Jonathan replied, speaking quietly so he would not spook his big sister. "They're down at the mailbox taking pictures of the graffiti… or something. Actually, I'm not sure what's going on… they don't seem to be doing much of anything."

"Let's go talk to them," Caroline said and got up from her soft bed.


"-And when I shouted at the person, he or she took off… but it was too late to stop the vandalism," Caroline said, looking at the two uniformed police officers who had entered her kitchen. As always, the men who were clad in black uniforms were big, brawny and burly which created a stark contrast to the gloomy Jonathan and the far more fragile-appearing Caroline. The four of them sat around the kitchen table which offered the best spot for talking. On her way down from the bedroom, Caroline had retrieved the three threatening messages they had received, and the garish notes were spread out on the smooth tabletop.

"I see," the first officer said, taking notes while his colleague studied the three messages and wrote down what they said. "And the perpetrator wore a hooded tracksuit and black sunglasses which obscured his or her face?"

"Yes, that's right," Caroline said, picking up the mug of steaming hot tea that Jonathan had made for her.

"In your opinion," the officer continued, "was it a man or a woman?"

"Oh, that's hard to say… to be honest, it could have been either. The person wasn't as tall as my brother, but the body type seemed to suggest it was a man. Well, I suppose it could have been a square-built, athletic woman."

Hearing his sister's comment, Jonathan cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. While Caroline continued to speak to the two police officers, he leaned back on the kitchen chair and tried to recall the details of an unusual encounter he'd had in the play-park on Saturday after his first few laps around the jogging track.

He had needed to re-tie the laces on one of his sports shoes, so he had stopped at one of the park's picnic benches to do so. There, he had met an athletic woman in her mid-thirties who was getting ready to hit the track. Her long, bottle-blond hair, brown doe-eyes, tight Lycra running pants, highly toned upper body and sleeveless sports-top that defied the lingering chill in the air all garnered plenty of attention from the people present, and it had not taken him long to realize that she was on the prowl for some old-fashioned Saturday-night action.

They had exchanged a few, flirty words as they both took a couple of laps of the track, but when the flirting had turned to full-on, uncensored adult topics on the woman's part, Jonathan had shot the whole thing down by saying that he was simply not interested in her whatsoever. The athletic woman had left in a huff, but the raging fire in her brown eyes before she had turned away proved that she had plenty of hot temper behind the cool facade - but would a simple rejection really be cause enough for anyone to turn into a monstrous creep?  It seemed too far-fetched, so he pushed it all aside for later.

Jonathan snapped back to the present when he realized the two police officers moved their chairs back to get up. "Wait… is that it?" he said, standing up as well.

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Prescott," the first officer said. "We'll obviously file a report on the vandalism and the threatening notes, but for the time being, perhaps you should consider renting a hotel room for a few days for yourself and your sister. Experience shows that this sort of behavior will stop if it prompts no reaction from the intended victims."

Caroline let out a sigh. She had expected very little from speaking to the police, but the meeting had produced even less than that - namely nothing. "All right," she said and got up as well. "Thank you for coming. I can see that my brother and I need to have a serious talk about our immediate future. Oh… how are things going in the dreadful case with the missing child?  Do you have any leads?"

"We're not at liberty to discuss open cases with the public, Miss Prescott," the second of the two police officers said as he put on his uniform cap.

Caroline offered the two burly men a polite smile. "Of course. Well, let's hope there's a happy ending in store for the boy and his parents. Jon, would you mind showing the officers the way out?"

"No problem, Sis," Jonathan said and guided the police officers into the living room.


Later the same afternoon, Caroline let out a deep sigh as she looked around her living room that was free of any type of Halloween-themed decorations for the first time in many a year. Jonathan - who had changed into a comfortable sweatsuit sporting the logo of the outlet store - occupied the armchair while an old, scary movie played on the TV. He had put it on mute since neither he nor Caroline had much interest in the typical Halloween horror-fare when their life contained so much unwanted drama. Now and then, he took a sip from a can of diet soda.

"Jon, how about we just called for a pizza again?  I'm not in the mood for cooking tonight," Caroline said, shuffling into the center of the living room.

Jonathan turned off the TV just as a werewolf was sneaking up on a scantily-clad damsel in distress. "Works for me. Or maybe we could order Chinese this time?"

"Yeah, why not," Caroline said with a shrug. "But anyway… after eating, I'm going to try to scrub my mailbox clean before the first trick-or-treaters show up. I don't want that word there when the kids and their parents turn up… provided anyone will go out at all this year."

"Sounds like a plan. I'll help you," Jonathan said and got up from the armchair so he could get to his telephone. "What do you think we should use?  Chlorine bleach?"

"Chlorine bleach… vinegar… acetone. Or a combination of the three."

"Yikes, what a combo!  Okay, I definitely need to help you keep everyone back from that hellish cocktail." In two steps, he was at his big sister's side and pulled her into a hug. "We'll make this nightmare go away, I promise," he said in a quiet voice before he placed a soft peck on the side of her forehead.

"God, I hope you're right…" Caroline said, burying her face into the soft fabric that covered her brother's toned shoulder. "If it continues, I can't live here… I just can't… and my novel… I'll never finish it. I'm going to end up in a padded cell before long."

"Not if I can help it," Jonathan said and kissed his sister again. "Let's call for something to eat… and while we're waiting for that, let's round up all the things we'll need so we can get started on the project… okay?"

"Deal," Caroline said, moving out of her brother's strong touch.



Much to everyone's surprise, the nice weather held up for Halloween evening just like the forecast had predicted. By the time dusk settled over the residential area at six in the afternoon, many families had taken to the streets to allow the children a fun evening of trick-or-treating.

The party committee - who had asked, begged and flat-out pleaded with Caroline to join them since she was the only semi-celebrity living there; she had declined so often they had finally given up - had done a good job of decorating the streets, and there were severed body parts, plastic insects, witches on brooms, carved pumpkins, burning torches, glowing coal pans, and lit lanterns everywhere. Several food vendors had been invited into the area, and they sold roasted almonds to the adults and reams of pink cotton candy to the kids. The line to the hot cocoa vendor was particularly long, and a few tears were shed when someone's patience wore thin.

Because of the small boy's disappearance from the play-park, a private security company had been hired to keep the peace, and several broad-shouldered men and women patrolled the party site while keeping their eyes peeled for anyone who looked out of place.

No children were allowed to go trick-or-treating on their own in order for everyone to feel as safe as possible, but the parents who accompanied their kids on the candy raids did not seem to mind being chaperones.

Caroline had just finished scraping the worst of the hateful comment off her mailbox when a three-foot Chewbacca and a five-foot-six woman in regular clothes came up to her. The shorter of the two soon held out an empty bag of candy. "Oh, hi there, Chewie!  Wow, that's a great costume. Would you like some candy?"

The child's mother put her hands on the shoulders of the furry costume and gave them a little squeeze to mark her approval. The child inside the costume communicated with Caroline the only way a Wookiee could - by letting out a long roar - which prompted Jonathan to appear with a tray full of wrapped treats. Another roar followed before the child looked up at its mother to ask for permission.

"They're McCaffery's Premium Selection. Top quality filled chocolates," Jonathan explained to the mother while he swept his hand across the tray like a salesman on one of the many TV-Shop channels.

"Go on," the woman said which prompted the short Wookiee to scoop up a handful of the treats. Once they were in the bag, another roar followed before they shuffled off further down the street.

"You know, Jon," Caroline said, wiping her damp brow with the back of a hand. "I really needed this. I'm dead on my feet, but it's just so invigorating to see all these kids having so much fun… even after that horrible business in the play-park."

"I agree," Jonathan said and put the tray on top of the freshly scrubbed mailbox. Unwrapping one of them, he popped it into his mouth and swiftly let out a prolonged moan at the rich taste that exploded in his mouth.

"That good, huh?" Caroline said with a tired laugh.

"Mmmm!  Better!"

"Save some for me. Can you hold the fort while I get cleaned up?" Caroline said, peeling off the latex gloves she had worn while conducting Operation Mailbox. "Ew, my hands stink after that chemical cocktail we had to use…"

Nodding, Jonathan was already in the process of reaching for the next treat, but he held off until his sister had left. "Sure," he said with a broad grin that was responded to with a knowing "Uh-huh?"


All the traditional costumes like witches, ghosts, pirates, cowboys, astronauts and medical personnel were present at the street party. Other children were dressed as their favorite comic book characters, and a few intrepid souls had really gone to town and wore elaborate costumes that resembled tumble dryers, wrenches, sunflowers, donkeys, locomotives or the Statue of Liberty - Caroline even spotted a pair of short Yuletide Elves at one point.

The high quality candy on the tray disappeared like the morning dew, and it became obvious that Jonathan would soon need to replenish their stock. Before he could do so, Beverly McElland sashayed over to where Caroline and Jonathan had taken up residence. "Oh, hello there!" the mature woman said, eyeing the tall, strapping Jonathan.

"Hi, Beverly," Caroline said with a tired grin.

Jonathan had yet to be introduced to his sister's ever-friendly neighbor, but he had certainly recognized the tone of voice. He settled for a brief "Hello."

"I'm Beverly. Nice to finally get to meet you," the neighbor said, holding out her hand. Her voice sizzled to the point where all they needed to make pancakes was a frying pan and some milk.

"I'm Jonathan. Everybody calls me Jon."

"Jon. To the point. I like that," Beverly said, once more eyeing the tall fellow from top to toe.

There was no need for Caroline to look at her brother to know that his cheeks had just caught fire. She knew that if there was one thing he hated, it was to be checked out like a slab of beef, and that was exactly what had just happened.

"Say, Caroline," Beverly continued as she finally transferred her attention to her friend. "Aren't you sleeping well?  To be frank, you look like death warmed up."

"That's how I feel too, Beverly. We've had some trouble with vandalism and graffiti. Of a homophobic nature…"

"No!  Here?!"

"I'm afraid so, yes," Caroline said and tapped her knuckles on her mailbox's aluminum frame. Though she had applied plenty of chlorine bleach, vinegar, acetone and above all elbow grease, some of the yellow streaks were still visible as faded outlines on the shiny metal. "Some fool thought it was fun to smear the F-word onto my mailbox."

Beverly scrunched up her face. "Uh… I'm not sure what that means…"

Caroline leaned down to whisper the word into the compact woman's ear - the result was immediate: "What a feckin' douchebag!  Caroline, if you ever run into trouble… and I mean of any kind… just call me and I'll come over and whoop their asses but good!  You hear?"

"Thanks, Beverly… I could have used it earlier today, but…"

"Now you know," Beverly said and patted Caroline's hand. "Well, much as I would love to stay and chat, I need to mingle. I'm a deputy member of the party committee, so I need to be seen. Just call my name if there's trouble. I promise I'll be here faster than Wonder Woman!" she continued before she turned to Jonathan. "Bye, Jon…" she said in a buttery voice as she sashayed away from the Prescotts.

"I need to go to the bathroom," Jonathan said, taking the near-empty tray with him. "I also need to restock. Will you be fine on your own down here?"

Caroline smiled at him and offered him a little punch to the arm. "Of course. It was a good idea to buy the high-quality candy this year. The kids seem to love it."

"Yup!" Jonathan said as he turned around and walked up the garden path.

His exit seemed to have acted as the cue for a well-dressed woman in her mid-thirties to come out of the flickering shadows near one of the glowing coal pans. Smiling, she approached Caroline who was speaking to a little girl dressed as a schoolmarm from the Old West. Once the young child and her chaperone had moved away, the woman stepped closer to Caroline who had remained at the battered mailbox. "Hi. Trick or treat?"

Caroline let out a short laugh. "Oh, I'm afraid you'll need to wait a short while for the treats. The candy tray is being refilled as we speak. I guess that word got around that our chocolates are good, huh?"

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you," the blonde said, cocking her head.


"Yes. Aren't you Caroline Prescott, the author?"

"Oh… yes I am," Caroline said, studying the blonde in front of her. The woman's bottle-blond hair had been tied down into a tight ponytail, and her brown doe-eyes carried a certain gleam of something that Caroline could not quite identify. Though the woman wore a dark overcoat that masked her physical presence, she seemed fit: her shoulders were square and her hands appeared lean yet strong. Her pointy, high-heeled boots did not seem too comfortable, but they certainly added spice to the ensemble.

"It's fascinating to meet you in person," the bottle-blonde continued, shooting Caroline a gaze like she was searching for something. "Where's your husband?"

"Uh… my husband?"

"You know, the tall jock with the exquisite bulge in his pants?"

Caroline narrowed her eyes. Her nape hairs rose as the woman spoke, but - beyond the obvious - she could not put her finger on what had prompted it. She glanced around, hoping that some of the kids would interrupt the strange woman before the conversation could go much further. Unfortunately, no kids were near save for a miniature, labcoat-wearing scientist and her father, but they were both busy at one of the food vendors. A sudden chill ran down Caroline's spine when she realized that no one was near at all.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll bump into each other sooner or later." A wicked smile played on the bottle-blonde's lips like she had just cracked a joke. "I've read a few of your online stories. They're quite well-made… even if they're far too heavy on the gay business for my tastes. Do you think you'll ever write a story with normal characters?"

"Okay, that's it," Caroline said and put her hands in the air. She sensed movement behind her, but she did not want to turn away from the strange woman. "We're done. Goodbye."

The bottle-blonde cocked her head once more, but eventually offered Caroline a nod before she slipped back into the darkness.

Caroline's heart started thumping in her chest from the unpleasant encounter, and she needed to lean against the battered mailbox to get her bearings. The movement behind her turned out to be Jonathan who returned with a full load of candy.

"Brought you a Zero, Sis," Jonathan said, holding out one of the familiar black cans. When Caroline did not take it, he put down the tray on top of the mailbox and moved to crack open the small flap on the can's top. "Sis?  What the hell? I was away for two seconds, and you suddenly look like-"

"I've just had the weirdest encounter. A woman… a very strange woman came up to me and just flat-out dissed me… oh, I don't know what the hell she was trying to accomplish," Caroline said, grabbing the can of Coke Zero before Jonathan could open it. She turned around to search the darkness near the glowing coal pans but was unable to find the woman in the dark overcoat. Other trick-or-treaters had turned up, and the young faces were eager to sample the high-quality candy that the Prescotts had to offer.

Before Jonathan could inquire further, a pair of girl-sunflowers came up to him holding out their bags of candy. "Trick or treat!" they said in unison.

Grinning at the sublime cuteness of the costumes worn by the tiny sisters, Jonathan scooped up a couple of solid handfuls and distributed the high-quality wrapped chocolates into the two bags. Once the flowers had moved away with their chaperones, he turned back to his own sister. "A woman?  What kind of woman?  One of your neighbors?"

"No, I haven't seen her before… not that I know of. But she knew me. Or knew my stories, at least… wish she didn't," Caroline said and took one of the wrapped treats. Unpacking it, she put it into her mouth and let the quality chocolate fill her senses with something positive for a change. "It was creepy. Every fiber inside me screamed that she was trouble. That I shouldn't turn my back on her," she said around the juicy treat.

"Oh, man… that does sound weird. What did she look like?"

"Well… mid-thirties, bottle-blond hair-"

"Holy Hell!" Jonathan exclaimed so loudly Caroline nearly dropped the can of soda.

"What?!  Do you see anything?" she cried, spinning around to check out their surroundings.

Jonathan let out an angry growl as he smacked his fist down onto the top of the mailbox. The battered aluminum rattled like the rough treatment it had received lately had loosened the bolt that held it in place. "No, but I've spoken to her!  Hell, you can't even call it that… she did all the talking, and let me tell you, what she said wasn't for the faint of heart!"

The siblings turned to face each other. As they locked eyes, Caroline could feel the first pieces of the puzzle falling into place. "When?" she said in a half-whisper.

Jonathan let out a deep sigh and ran his hands through his hair. "Saturday. During my run. I told her to get lost," he said, scrunching up his face into a dark mask.

"Before the first note."


They locked eyes again and broke out in identical nods. "It's her. It has to be," Caroline continued, speaking in the same whispering voice. "Jon, I need to know exactly what happened between you down at the park…"

"Jeez, I- this is embarrassing!" Jonathan said while a strong blush blossomed across his cheeks. "But okay… don't say I didn't warn you!  Like I said, I met her during my run. She was dressed to kill. Revealing here, tight there. I'm sure you get the picture. Basically… ugh… she basically told me all her favorite ways to get… uh… boned. In colorful detail."

"Oh… okay," Caroline said, hiding an amused grin at her brother's acute embarrassment.

"Yeah. People could hear her… the kids could hear her, but she didn't care. She came on so strong even a prize stud would have been turned off. Before it turned weird, I told her my name. I guess it's easy to mistake Jon for John-with-an-H… the way she spelled it on the notes. I told her I just wasn't interested." While Jonathan had spoken, his cheeks appeared to have caught fire. Grabbing a second can of Coke Zero, he gulped half of it down in one go.

"Okay…" Caroline said, pausing for her brother to catch up. "So what did she do?"

"She shot me the most evil glare you can imagine… and then she stormed off in a huff. The next time I came by the picnic benches, she was gone. I did another couple of laps before I came home… and you know the rest."

Caroline shook her head. "I wish you had told me sooner…"

"Oh yeah, like I was going to talk to my big sister about something as gross and embarrassing as someone else's pervy boning habits… no way," Jonathan mumbled while the blush came back with a vengeance.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," Caroline said and let out a deep sigh.

"That's such a stereotype… you'd never use that in one of your stories, Sis."

"No. But it's apparently still true," Caroline continued before her attention turned to the two little witches who came up to her with wide, hopeful eyes that were locked onto the wrapped treats on the tray.

Once the witches had been serviced, and they had shuffled on dragging their foam brooms, Caroline let out another sigh. "The question is, what should we do about her?  Call the police again?"

"I don't know, Sis… we have no proof of her involvement. We don't even have any circumstantial evidence. We have nothing."

"I do know one thing," Caroline said, chewing on her lips. "I've tried being a victim now, and I hate it. It's time to be pro-active. To strike back."

"And how should we do that, Xena?" Jonathan said, winking at his big sister in jest while he rubbed her arm.

Caroline chuckled at the pet name and returned the faint rubbing. "We need to look for her. Maybe even confront her. Anything but sit and wait for her to make the next move… and if she is as warped as we both think she is, we'll have no problems exposing her."

"Oh, be careful what you wish for," Jonathan said with an embarrassed chuckle. The blush returned once more as he glanced into the darkness for the strange woman. A moment later, he sobered and reached for his sister's hand. "I wouldn't put anything past her. Not after seeing that evil glare she shot at me down at the jogging track. I agree that we need to do something, but we need to be cautious around her."

"Mmmm," Caroline said, letting her eyes trail over to the glowing coal pans that had acted as the strange woman's starting point.


Over the remainder of the evening, the Halloween street party settled down and became a rewarding event for most present. The children were happy with the contents of their ballooning bags of candy, and the adult chaperones could ease up on their defenses for the first time since the chilling, and still unsolved, abduction in the play-park.

The beefy security guards continued to patrol the entire neighborhood to maintain the peace and keep kid and adult alike safe from intruders, and scores of little trick-or-treaters raced to and fro to get the most out of the evening they possibly could; in this case, it meant the most candy. Treats were admired, compared, traded, used as bargaining chips and ultimately eaten with great relish.

As the hours went by and some of the children went home to bed, tables with treats for the adults were put up near the center of the party zone. Beverly McElland filled an entire table on her own with her renowned cookies, cakes and pumpkin buns that increased her status among the residents to one notch below all-out legend. Others sold special products like home-made beer or liquorice-flavored vodka shots, and others again tried their hand at old parlor tricks like partner-match games, palm reading or fortune telling.

Caroline and Jonathan were almost out of treats, but so few children were left on the street that they decided to save the rest of the wrapped candy for a rainy day - and November was sure to provide plenty of those. There had been no sight of the strange woman after the initial creepy encounter at the mailbox, but Caroline could tell by the chill that ran up and down her spine at irregular intervals that she and her brother were still being watched.

Each time it happened, she glanced around to try to find the bottle-blonde, but she'd had no luck in locating her. "Jon… she's still here. Somewhere," she said in a quiet voice.

Jonathan nodded, matching his sister by glancing into the darkness. "I agree. I don't want to go back inside. Who knows what she might do?  Playing with matches could be one of her favorite pastimes."

"Yeah. I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway," Caroline said, suddenly spotting a familiar head of blond curls bobbing their way. "Oh!  Oh, I think we may have found a solution… Beverly!" she said, waving at her ever-friendly neighbor who picked up the pace at once.

"Problems, Caroline?" Beverly said in her best Wonder Woman-imitation.

"To a certain extent, yes. Have you seen a bottle-blonde in her mid-thirties tonight?  Dark overcoat, big, brown eyes… kind of square shoulders."

"Mmmm?" Beverly said, furrowing her brow as she thought about the many people she had met at the event. "Yes, I think I have. She bought a couple of my pumpkin buns. Why?  Did she steal some candy?"

"Not exactly… here's what's been going on," Caroline said and leaned in so she could share the dramas without telling the entire neighborhood.


When all the horrid details had been relayed, Beverly shook her head in disgust. "Well, I'll be a- Back in the eighties, we would have called someone like that a proper bitch!"

"Yeah," Caroline said and added a tired laugh. "So would you be all right with looking after our house while Jon and I make a few rounds?  I promise we'll be back as soon as we can."

"Oh, don't worry about that, Caroline. I'll just listen to a podcast or something on my phone," Beverly said and patted her coat pocket. "It's way more important to stop her before she goes all Fatal Attraction on either of you. I got this, don't you worry."

"Thanks, Beverly," Caroline said and pulled her neighbor in for a quick hug.


Their search was fruitless for a long time, and Caroline could not shake the feeling that the woman was stalking them rather than the other way around. As the hands of time crept closer to eleven thirty, Caroline and Jonathan agreed to make a final sweep of the area nearest to the vendor tables before they would return home.

When the final sweep was just as big a waste of time as the others, they turned back and began to shuffle toward their house. Just shy of two hundred yards on from the vendor tables, in the deep shadows between two lamp posts, a female voice called out to them: "Leaving so soon?  You must really be whipped."

Caroline gasped as a sudden chill raced up and down her spine. She and Jonathan both let out mumbled, but highly inventive curses as they turned around to stare at the bottle-blonde who walked out of the deepest shadows to intercept the couple. Caroline's chill turned into an icy shower when she realized the woman was holding a weapon in her gloved hand; she could not tear her eyes away from what proved to be a blade that glinted in the light from the lamp posts.

"Really, Jon, I held you in such high esteem at first," the blonde continued, "but look at that old scarecrow you're married to. I'll bet you can only stomach boning her once a month… if that. Twice, maybe, if she wears a paper bag over her head."

"She's my sister, you sicko!"

"My, my, you're boning your sister?  I'm impressed. That takes a hard man, and I do enjoy hard men." A coquettish, little laugh escaped the bottle-blonde who kept strolling closer to the two Prescotts with the knife at the ready. As she walked, the hard tips of her boots' high heels clicked on the asphalt.

Jonathan opened his mouth to counter the insanity of the statement, but Caroline squeezed his hand in a silent plea not to rile up the woman any further. He held his tongue, but the look upon his face proved it was difficult for him.

The blonde continued: "Think of how often you and I could get it on. I'd invite you in twice a day if you were good to me. Wouldn't that be paradise?"

Caroline gulped down a bitter surge of fear. She glanced around in all directions, but they were the only ones in that particular area of the neighborhood. The chill that so often plagued her had turned into a hot flash that was no less disturbing.

She could feel the palms of her hands turn damp from the nervous energy that raced through her, and her heart was beating so fast it felt like it was about to jump out of her chest. Her throat had turned bone-dry from the shock of seeing the knife in the woman's hands, but she knew she could not allow herself to get too paralyzed. "You- you sent those threatening notes to us?" she croaked to gather the evidence they needed.

The bottle-blonde rolled her eyes and let out a Tch! "No, that was the Toothfairy!  Of course I did… really, on top of your ratty looks, you're brain damaged too?  No wonder the stories you write are so disgusting."

Caroline's face twitched, but she pushed her emotions aside to concentrate fully on the matters at hand. "Wh- why did you write them in a child's hand?" she croaked.

"Eh, it tickled me. And to confuse you. Did it work?  Oh, I was also the one who did the great number on your mailbox. I hope you liked my message. No?"

"Please… do you know where he is?  Did… did you take him?" Caroline continued, not allowing herself to be snared in by the woman's aggressive language.

For the first time, the woman holding the knife had no idea what Caroline was talking about, and she responded by narrowing her eyes. "Who?" she said, cocking her head.

"The boy!  The boy who was abducted from the park!"

"I don't know anything about that little brat," the woman said, letting out a contemptuous snort. "But it was the perfect device to put the squeeze on the jock there for rejecting me. After all, aren't all men deathly afraid of being put in connection with child-molesting?"

Caroline stared wide-eyed at their opponent. The woman's nonchalant behavior in the face of such a serious crime left her speechless, and she could only shake her head in disgust.

The woman laughed at Caroline's reaction which made Jonathan growl from somewhere deep in his throat.

Caroline shot another nervous glance at the central area. Her heart skipped a beat when she spotted two of the security guards who were still patrolling the neighborhood. The beefy guards spoke to each other in the flickering light of one of the coal pans, and they were within earshot of a yell.

The bottle-blonde followed Caroline's line of sight until she saw the guards. A small smile played on her lips. "Oh, nice try. You can cry for help if you wish, but I'll cry rape. And when those meatheads come a-running, which one of us do you think they'll tackle to the ground?  Not me. Not you. But the jock here might lose a few teeth as he's chewing on the asphalt. Go on, cry for help. I'll cry right along with you."

"You're sick!" Caroline croaked - then she felt her brother giving her hand a squeeze. She took that as a sign that he had worked something out; what, she had no idea.

"No. Just a lonely woman who needs a strong-" the bottle-blonde said, but the rest of the sentence got stuck in her throat when Jonathan spun around and bolted from the scene.

"Help!  Help us!  She has a knife!" he cried at the top of his lungs while waving like a man possessed to catch the attention of the two security guards. His powerful legs propelled him towards the central area and the scrambling guards at such a rate of knots that the knife-wielding blonde could do nothing but stare in wide-eyed wonder.

Jonathan did not need to run all the way to the guards; as he approached them, they took off toward him, and the three men were soon sprinting back to the scene of the potential crime. "The woman in the dark coat is threatening my sister with a knife!" Jonathan shouted as they raced along. "She's nuts!  You need to stop her before she hurts anyone!"

Caroline took full advantage of the confusion by slipping away from the bottle-blonde though she remained close enough to act as a backup in case it was needed. She never took her eyes off the glinting knife that turned out to be a switchblade with a cobalt-blue handle.

When the security guards arrived with Jonathan in tow, it was clear by the bright insanity that shone out of the bottle-blonde's eyes that something was brewing behind them. Holding the knife ready, she hunched over like she was preparing an attack on the guards though all logic said she would never be able to deal with both of them before they had disarmed her. "Don't come any closer!" she cried, holding the switchblade ready. A sudden impulse seemed to come over her, and she pressed the sharp-edged blade against her own throat. "I'll kill myself!  If you come any closer, I'll slit my throat!  Don't test me!  I'll do it!"

"Jon!" Caroline cried, waving her brother over to her so he would be out of harms' way. As the siblings wrapped their arms around each other, they stared in wide-eyed shock at the two beefy guards who circled the insane woman. The radios they carried on their belts were squawking, and someone's voice could be heard confirming that the police had been called to the disturbance.

When one of the guards crossed an unseen line and took a step too close, the bottle-blonde with the brown doe-eyes carried out her insane threat and ran the sharp blade across her skin from ear to ear. A hideous gurgle that sounded like a laugh escaped her as she fell to her knees while crimson blood spewed from the horrible wound.

Caroline and Jonathan both cried out in terror. Turning away at once, Caroline had seen more than she had ever needed to, and the shock and fatigue meant she could not keep her balance. If her brother had not had his strong hands around her already, she would have taken a painful tumble onto the hard street. She still ended up on the asphalt, but it was in a sitting position rather than head-first. "Oh God, she did it… that crazy, crazy bitch really did it," she croaked, burying her face in her hands so she did not have to witness further horrendous images.

After helping his sister down, Jonathan leaned over and put his hands on his knees while he tried to maintain a deep, even breathing so he would not embarrass himself by fainting. Now and then, he looked back at the two security guards who tried to contain the bottle-blonde's massive hemorrhaging, but it was a lost cause. In the distance, several sirens could be heard cutting through the regular din of the big, bad city beyond the supposedly safe and quiet residential zone.


It did not take long for the quiet street to turn into a three-ring circus. A police cruiser, an ambulance and a paramedic unit all filed onto the street and parked wherever they could find a good spot. Their flashing emergency lights created a multi-colored, surreal spectacle that formed the perfect ending to an equally surreal Halloween, and it drew quite a crowd of interested spectators. Soon, a group of official-looking people left the cars to swarm around the people involved in the peculiar event.

The ambulance had the rear doors open, and the bright lights nearly blinded Caroline as she was wheeled into it after having been put on a stretcher by two paramedics as a precautionary measure. The harsh light brought out her paleness and the dark circles around her eyes, but she was beyond caring about any of that.

Beverly had come running when she had heard the shouting and screaming, and the ever-friendly neighbor had been allowed up into the ambulance to be Caroline's moral support for the examination. The two women held hands while one of the paramedics took Caroline's blood pressure, checked her pupils, and conducted several other tests that the author saw no use or even reason for.

Jonathan had already been given a brief medical examination by the paramedic; he was as fit as a fiddle and had moved out of the ambulance to make way for his sister. He remained at the open doors to offer his support at first, but he was soon called away by the police officers. The siblings winked at each other before Jonathan shuffled off to speak to the police.

Caroline leaned her head back on the stretcher and let out a long, dead-tired sigh. The events of the past few days rolled over her once more, and the resulting fatigue made her limbs as heavy as lead. She could not hold back a yawn, but since both her arms were in use - Beverly kept squeezing her right hand, and the other wore the plastic cuff that measured her blood pressure - her fillings became visible to the entire world.

"Remember when I said you looked like death warmed up?" Beverly said, giving Caroline's hand another little squeeze.


"That was then. You look ten times worse now."

"Oh, thank you," Caroline said and let out a tired chuckle.

Down on the street, a dark station wagon from the city coroner moved silently onto the scene and came to a halt behind the ambulance. Caroline watched two men in dark, somber clothing step out of the car and open the rear door. A black coffin on wheels was extracted from the hold, but the men soon went out of Caroline's field of view - not that she was particularly eager to see any part of their grim task.

While the paramedic continued to examine Caroline, Jonathan moved back into the light that streamed out of the rear of the ambulance. "Well, we know a little more about the woman now," he said, leaning against the door.

"And?" Caroline said, lifting her head to look at her brother.

"Oh, we don't have to do this right away."

"I'd like to hear it…"

"Okay," Jonathan said, shuffling around. "Her name was Mary-Anne Stevenson. She was thirty-six and lived on a street just on the other side of the mall. They're searching for her next of kin as we speak. They found a fourth note similar to the others in her coat pocket. It didn't have any text on it, just a sad-faced smiley with a drooping mouth and a couple of X's for eyes. The officer told me it usually means 'death,' so…"

"And it did. Only it was her own, and not ours," Caroline said, leaning back against the small pillow that was integrated on the stretcher.

"Brrr," Beverly said, shaking her shoulders, "this is so creepy. And she didn't have anything to do with the abduction after all?"

"She said she didn't, but… who knows?  She was certifiable," Caroline said just before her face cracked wide open in another yawn.

The paramedic seemed to be satisfied with the results of his many examinations, because he gave Caroline permission to get up from the stretcher so she could go home.

After Jonathan had helped his big sister - and Beverly who seemed to enjoy the close contact with the strapping fellow - back down onto the ground, he wrapped a strong hand under Caroline's arm and allowed her to lean against him as they walked over to their garden gate. There, they met one of the police officers who informed them they needed to have another word before the case could be closed.

Too tired to waste energy on speaking when it was not necessary, Caroline settled for nodding at the officer. A moment later, a strong chill ran across her spine like it did when something was wrong. "Wait," she said, turning around so she could look at the events unfolding behind them.

The two men from the city coroner wheeled the black coffin holding Mary-Anne Stevenson's remains back to the waiting station wagon, but Caroline did not feel the creepy scene had been the cause of the cold trickle. When nothing else seemed untoward, she shrugged and turned back around. "Forget it, it was nothing. Let's go home," she said to Jonathan who once again acted as her solid support.


Across the street, in the deep shadows where the flashing emergency lights could not reach, a man wearing dark-blue sweatpants and a pale-gray hoodie had watched the whole thing unfold. The pull of the sirens and the flashing lights had been too strong though he preferred to stay in his basement with his special, little friend. His intelligent, steel-gray eyes took it all in with barely hidden interest. After observing the events, extrapolating the information useful to him and storing it for later, he shuffled off back to his bungalow just down the street while whistling a jaunty tune through his teeth: Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King