Dressed in a black cape, his hair slicked back and with plastic fangs making it difficult to speak clearly, Royston Welby suggested visiting the old Mattock residence on the edge of town.
“No way!” said a young boy, part of the group of children Royston was shepherding around Ashbrooke, Indiana, this Halloween. “Everyone knows that house is haunted.”
“Then what better place to go trick-or-treating,” Royston countered. “Anyhow, the new residents specially invited us. It would be rude not to go.”
“The people living there now are freaks,” another young girl chimed in. “They scare me.”
One of the single mothers accompanying the group shrugged her shoulders sympathetically. “They didn’t really expect us to come, did they? It’s such a creepy place,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes at Ashbrooke’s most eligible, though somewhat retiring and mysterious, bachelor.
Royston sighed. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to go there alone, then. I’ll catch up with you lot later.”
The old Mattock house had been empty for some years until the proprietors of Mel and Chuck’s Diner, the newest eatery in town, took up residence a while back. Built on a low promontory, that night the house stood out as a stark, brooding silhouette in the moonlight.
Royston arrived on the front doorstep and pressed the bell. Two young men, dressed as zombies for the occasion of Halloween, opened the door. They took one look at Royston’s Dracula outfit and exchanged a glance.
“You’re alone,” noted Mel. “We invited you and your charges.”
“The kids were too frightened to come along.”
“That’s good. We thought that might happen,” said Chuck. “It means we’ve got you all to ourselves – vampire!”
Royston was not amused. “This is just a Halloween costume,” he said, feeling ill at ease.
Mel and Chuck pointed to a lynching tree in the middle of their overgrown garden. On a low-lying, horizontal branch they had attached a hangman’s noose.
“There’s a sack of candy for the children directly below the noose,” said Mel.
In spite of his reservations, Royston wandered over to the spot and lifted up the sack. As he did so, a pressure plate hidden below the sack set a mechanism into motion.
The metal-barred walls and roof of a cage sprang up around him.
“You’re all ours now, vampire!” said Mel.
In fear and frustration, Royston shook the bars of the cage. “It’s Halloween for God’s sake. I’m not a real vampire.”
“That’s what they all say,” said Chuck. “So why do you work at a blood bank? And why’ve we only ever seen you out and about at night time?”
Before Royston could reply, Mel thrust a supercharged cattle prod through the bars of the cage and into Royston’s side.
Hours later he regained consciousness in a dimly-lit chamber.
“Welcome to the dungeon,” said a pale-faced girl, the only other occupant of the room. “I’m Veronica.”
Royston introduced himself. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“We’ve been sold by Hunters to a bunch of reality-challenged gamers who are taking gaming to the next level. On the dark web they’re known as Monster-Killers-Dot-Com.”
A sudden howling made Royston’s skin crawl.
“Werewolves,” said Veronica to Royston’s unasked question. “Or to be more precise, a couple of guys who unfortunately happen to be hairier than your average Joe. They were captured by Hunters, sold to the gamers and brainwashed into believing they really are werewolves. Come Halloween, members of Monster-Killers-Dot-Com hunt them down like dogs, selling the live video feed online to finance their operation.”
A fusillade of gunshots, followed by howls of agony, filled the dungeon.
“Silver bullets,” said Veronica. “That’s the so-called werewolves done away with. We’ll be next, so you’d best make peace with your god.”
“But why on earth did they target you?” asked Royston.
Veronica opened her mouth, revealing two oversized incisors. “It’s genetic,” she said. “As is my abnormally pale skin. So what about you? Why did hunters contracted by Monster-Killers-Dot-Com target you?”
“I assume because I work night shift at a blood bank and sleep most of the day.”
In spite of their perilous situation, Veronica guffawed. “Sounds like you really are a vampire.”
Royston ignored her flippancy. “How long have you been here?” he asked.
“A few months. They were preparing me and another girl for their Halloween hunt, but she died. Part of our ‘training’ involved them keeping us in the dark for days on end and suddenly exposing us to bright sunlight. The other girl was hypersensitive to sunlight. She got third degree burns from UV exposure and died.”
“That’s dreadful,” said Royston. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be sorry. You’re her last minute replacement.”
The monster killers arrived shortly afterwards. They were armed with wooden stakes, wore helmet cams and reeked of garlic.
Retching at the overpowering stench, Royston backed away into a corner. Veronica, however, after months of conditioning, played her part. She bared her teeth, hissed at her tormentors and fought them off until she got speared in the chest with a stake.
“You’re next, Vlad,” said a paunchy, middle-aged man in spectacles.
As the vampire killers turned their attention to Royston, he evaporated before them in a puff of vapour. An instant later he reappeared, crouching on the ceiling. Overcoming his aversion to garlic, he pounced on the nearest vampire killer and ripped his head from his shoulders.
Once he had dealt with his enemies, Royston bent over Veronica. Her breathing was shallow. It would take just one selfish act to save her and to never be alone again.
Back in Ashbrooke, shortly before sunrise, Mel and Chuck were awoken by an insistent ringing of their doorbell. When the two bleary-eyed hunters opened the door, a beautiful, pale-complexioned woman stood before them.
“My car broke down not far from here,” she said. “Can I use your phone to call a garage?”
“You’d better come in, miss,” said Mel, winking at Chuck, unaware of what he had invited over his threshold.
Paul A. Freeman is the author of ‘Rumours of Ophir’, a crime novel set in Zimbabwe. His narrative poem ‘Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers’, and his second crime novel, ‘Vice and Virtue’, have also been published. Over a hundred of his short stories have appeared commercially in print. He currently lives in Abu Dhabi with his family, and despite reports to the contrary, he never swims in the nude. He can be found at www.paulfreeman.weebly.com.