Ode on a Slasher
rating: +10+x

Patrick woke up.

Someone was standing at the foot of the bed.

At first he thought it was his wife, but no—Beth’s warm body was lying next to him. Maybe his daughter, then? Megan had inexplicably suffered from a bout of sleepwalking when she turned six, and on more than one occasion she'd found her way into her parents' bedroom.

Patrick squinted, trying to pick out details in the dark. Whoever the hell was at the foot of the bed, it definitely wasn't Megan. They were much too tall to be his daughter. And there was something else about them, the square of their shoulders, their posture, something that suggested to Patrick that this person was of the male persuasion.

He remained motionless under the covers, suddenly wide-awake and beginning to feel the first real prickle of terror. Ice crept down his spine. His palms were sweaty. Either there was an intruder in the house or this was all part of an elaborate dream, except his thoughts seemed too coherent for the latter.

A shaft of moonlight, the color of bleached coral, fell through the window by the dresser and pooled at the stranger’s feet. There was something wrong with his face, but in the shadows Patrick couldn’t put his finger on what it was. A lazy eye? Was the mouth bisected in a cleft palate?

Maybe both… and maybe neither.

It didn’t seem like the intruder had noticed him wake. They just continued to stand there, as still as a statue, which somehow made the whole thing worse.

Patrick pretended to be adjusting in his sleep and rolled over onto his side, toward his wife. The sight of Beth’s face made his throat constrict: it was so content and peaceful, so damn normal. Her lips were slightly parted and he listened to the steady susurration of her breathing, completely oblivious to what was occurring. It was a face he’d seen a million times before, but here—for the first time—it suddenly seemed out of place.

Patrick had intended to try and quietly rouse her, but now that he was staring at her he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He was too afraid that Beth would be confused and give them away, or that the intruder might overhear.

Instead, he chose a different plan of action: he would leap out of bed and attempt to catch the man by surprise, subdue him, pin him to the floor and scream at his wife to take Megan and get out of the house, run to the neighbors and dial 911.

The claw hammer struck Patrick at the base of the skull.

He'd still been gazing at his wife and steeling himself for what was about to come next, and so he never saw the man creep around the bed; never saw the hammer that had been concealed behind his back.

Patrick knew he’d been hit by something—knew instantly that he was seriously hurt. There wasn’t any pain, not really. It was more like a heavy weight pressing down on his head. The hair at the nape of his neck was damp. His jaw locked shut and he bit his tongue in half.

The hammer drew back, blood flicking off the head and onto the walls and ceiling.

It swung again. And again. The third blow cracked Patrick's skull open. The fourth shattered his cheekbone. His retina detached—one pupil dilated while the other constricted, shrinking to the size of a pinhead. He was dimly aware of Beth stirring beside him.

Dying, the last thing that Patrick heard was his wife. She was screaming.


1


"Goddammit,” Clay said, pointing to a photograph on the dresser. “They had a daughter. Where is she?”

“Daughter's safe,” said Nolan, glancing up from his tablet. “She discovered the parents this morning.”

Be thankful for small mercies, Clay thought, although he couldn't imagine a worse start to the girl's day. Stumbling on your parents' corpses definitely wasn't part of a complete breakfast.

He bent over Patrick Murphy’s body, sprawled on the bedroom floor next to his wife. "Do these look arranged to you?” he asked.

“Think they're displayed?”

“Maybe.” Clay popped a piece of nicotine gum in his mouth. It was going to be one of those days. “We got a murder weapon?”

“Nothing yet, but the forensic path said it looks to be a small blunt instrument. A wrench or a tire iron or something.”

The carpet was saturated—it squelched and sucked at Clay's shoes like mud. The place looked like a slaughterhouse, the air thick and ripe with a mineral aftertaste.

Clay knew that the human body held anywhere between nine and twelve pints of blood. It was a lot. Too much, if you asked him.

“It’s a different M.O. from the other one," he said.

“You think they’re unrelated?” said Nolan.

“No… What’s the percentage of Foundation employees to the local population? A thousandth of a percentage? Ten thousandths?”

Nolan shrugged. “I don't have a clue. It’s got to be something like that.”

“So what’re the chances of two Foundation employees being murdered in random home invasions within the last four months?”

“I'd say it's like winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning all on the same day.”

“Exactly.” Clay stood up, rooting around in his pocket for the cellophane gum package. “Get on the horn to Operations. Nothing right now to indicate an anomaly, but someone sure as hell seems to have a hard-on for the Foundation and is targeting us."

He tossed back a second piece of nicotine gum. It was definitely going to be one of those days.


2


The distinct sound of shattering glass jerked Nolan awake. Someone was downstairs, forcing their way through the sliding backdoor. Nolan reached for his service pistol. Usually he secured it in the gun safe with a trigger-lock on it, but these last few months—despite his wife Laura’s misgivings—he’d kept it in the holster on the nightstand, always within arm’s reach. He cleared leather and thumbed the safety off, swinging the muzzle towards the bedroom door. Laura huddled in the bed next to him. She was wide awake, the duvet pulled up to her chin, eyes the size of saucers.

Whoever had broken into the house, they'd already mounted the stairs and were charging up them, taking the steps two at a time. They hooked right at the top of the landing and headed straight for the master bedroom, making a beeline as if they knew the layout and exactly where they were going.

Well then come on, bastard, Nolan thought. You just come right on in. Make yourself at home.

As a member of the Foundation's Justice Enforcement squad, Nolan carried a 9mm Beretta for work. Inscribed on the dumdum bullets were prayers in Latin, Hebrew, Farsi, and even the hatchet-marks of ancient Sumerian cuneiform. Each casing was coated in an oil made from Eucharist and Hand of Glory and a dozen other ingredients he couldn’t name.

Nolan checked and made sure a round was chambered.

Come on. Come on, you fucker. I’m ready for you.

It didn't matter if the intruder was anomalous or not. The standard-issue Foundation ammo killed both—killed them just fine.

The door exploded inward. A man wielding an axe stormed into the bedroom. It’s Quasimodo, Nolan said to himself, the hunchback of Notre Dame. He quickly bookended the thought by wondering just how the hell he'd recognized the dimestore mask. The ersatz face was asymmetrical. There were tufts of blue hair along the temples; the terraced brow was bulbous and corrugated, plastic mouth two strips of raw liver, one corner downturned in a lopsided, stroke-induced sag.

Now where have I seen that mask before?

Laura screamed. She sat bolt-upright and flung her hands in the air just as Nolan fired. His first and only shot caught her between the shoulder blades, knocking the wind out of her with a "Whoomph!" The dumdum bullet mushroomed as it passed through organ tissue, tiny bits of shrapnel expanding, ripping through her body and leaving behind a scorched exit wound the size of a golf ball.

A single, perfect drop of blood spilled from her mouth and stained the down-filled duvet.

“Laura!” Nolan cried. Her body went limp, the eyes already glassy and vacant. Nolan had seen that same expression enough times to know what it meant…

She was dead before her head hit the pillow.

Quasimodo raised the axe and brought it down on Nolan’s chest, splitting the collarbone like cordwood, the axe blade stubbornly lodging in the sternum. They planted their foot on Nolan for leverage and wrenched the axe free.

The hurricane-force of the blow had caused Nolan's bowels to evacuate between the sheets. Not that he noticed or cared. Even if he'd somehow received immediate medical attention, the rent was so massive and gaping that it would've proved fatal.

But for now Nolan still clung to life. The Beretta was a lead weight forgotten in his hand. All of his attention was devoted to Laura—it seemed impossible that she could be dead…

He absently brought his arm up just in time to deflect the next strike. The axe glanced off his forearm, almost amputating his hand before bouncing off the wrist bone and cleaving into his thigh. Blood fountained and splattered the ceiling. The intruder then switched it up, swinging the axe on a horizontal arc like a baseball bat, hacking Nolan's neck. He rated the hit at least a double, and maybe even an inside-the-park homerun.

A tendon snapped. More blood sprayed in a fan.

Nolan's chin dipped. His eyelids fluttered—they suddenly seemed very heavy, and he was having trouble keeping his head up. There was something seriously wrong with his neck. He tried to raise his arm to fend off the next impending hew and saw that his hand was barely attached, dangling by a chunk of sirloin.

The intruder brought the axe up and over their shoulder and chopped at Nolan's face. The handle shuddered as the axe became stuck again… in Nolan's brainpan.

His eyes rolled back in his head. Nolan made a wet gurgling sound as he exhaled his final breath. A runner of drool sheeted from his mouth, and his hand—the one still attached to his arm—went slack.

The gun thudded against the carpet.


3


“I’m taking you off this investigation, effective immediately,” the Captain informed Clay. “We’ve already got three dead, and I'm not about to allow a fourth. Not on my watch.”

“Nolan was my friend,” Clay reminded him.

“I know that. Consider it a vacation. Get the hell out of town for a while.”

“I’m not going to run away from this… whatever it is.”

“Fine,” the Captain grunted. “I don’t care. Do whatever you want, as long as it’s not around here.”

Clay knew that the Captain was under a lot of pressure. His superiors were breathing down his neck, and as the idiom—crude but undeniably accurate—put it: Shit flows downhill. If the Captain was getting it from the suits upstairs, that meant Clay was due to get it from the Captain. It was just the way the world worked.

Three of the Foundation's own, not including their spouses, all brutally murdered in their beds in the past six months, and Clay hadn’t been able to produce a single tangible lead. Sure, there'd been plenty of groups and people of interest, but none had panned out so far, none had turned into a legitimate suspect. There were no eye witnesses, and all the forensic evidence collected from each crime scene had amounted to nothing except more dead ends—all of it could be traced back to either the victims' households or the Foundation investigatory team.

Clay had known it was only a matter of time before he was replaced as the lead detective, but it didn't make it sting any less.

“This coming from you?” he asked.

“It’s coming from the brass, but yeah, I happen to agree with it.”

“You’re making a mistake.”

“I don’t really give a shit if I am, Clayton. I’m out of options, and you’re dismissed. Now get the fuck out of my office.”


4


The figure of a large man, its features wreathed in shadows, loomed over Clay's bed.

He tried to move but his limbs were frozen stiff. The most he could manage was a slight wiggle of his fingers and toes.

Calm down, he told himself. Nothing's wrong. Just relax.

He focused on his respiration while counting back from a hundred. The shadow inched closer, and he thought he could feel its hands on his legs, fingertips scuttling across the surface of the quilt as they trekked northward.

Ninety-nine… Ninety-eight…

But it was one thing to tell yourself to relax, that there was nothing to worry about, and another thing entirely to actually believe it.

The figure smiled knowingly. Its teeth flashed like an unsheathed blade—deathly pale in the moonlight.

Clay screwed his eyes shut. It was better not to watch. Eighty-five… Please… please make it go away… Eighty-four… eighty-three…

After thirty seconds his hands and feet were pins and needles, sensation slowly returning. He flexed them, bunching the fitted sheet in his fists. Over a minute passed before he dared to open his eyes again.

Clay was alone in the bedroom.

He breathed a sigh of relief. The shadow figure was gone. When his movement was fully restored he climbed out of bed and got dressed, throwing on a wrinkled pair of jeans and a denim shirt, then making his way downstairs in the dark, past the kitchen, through the breezeway and into the garage.

His doctor had diagnosed him with classic sleep paralysis, and it never got any easier. In fact, if anything it seemed to be getting worse, the episodes accelerating in frequency, growing in their intensity. Clay had tried just about everything to make it stop: he'd cut out alcohol, was prescribed antidepressants, he exercised and developed a strict routine before bed. Nothing worked… nothing, that is, except a drastic treatment that helped temporarily alleviate the symptoms, if not actually cure them.

But his body seemed to be developing a tolerance for the treatment, and he had to keep increasing the dosage to achieve the same effect.

Clay flipped on the lights in the garage. He fished the Quasimodo mask from the drawer of his workbench. He'd worn it at a Foundation Halloween party a couple of years back. Not that it mattered. He didn't leave any witnesses behind that could link it to him.

Above the workbench, tools hung from a pegboard. Which one was calling out to him tonight? Not the monkey wrench. He’d already used the hammer and the axe. Not the crowbar. No, not the jigsaw, either.

The hedge shears?

He pulled them down, focusing on the grip of the wooden handles, the weight of the shears. He experimentally opened and closed them, listening to the satisfying snick that the blades made as they slid shut against each other.

Yes. He thought the shears would do nicely.

Tonight, he had a visit to pay to the Captain, and afterward, he would sleep like a baby, deep and undisturbed.

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