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= Ghosts and the City #2 =

a dark, Halloween-themed fantasy short story

by John Argo


Chapter One. Murder in Moonlight

(1)

Ghosts and the City by John Argo #1Ten years ago, on an October night in a deserted part of Middle America, two cars drove down a country highway. In each car was a teenage couple, boy driving, one arm around girl's shoulder; girl cuddling close to him. One girl wore a grinning jack o'lantern patch on her heavy white football sweater. She wore her young man's senior class ring. The other girl wore the same get-up, but with a plain pumpkin patch sewn on her young man's football sweater. The boys were handsome and craggy, athletes, with serious eyes but devilish grins. One planned to become a doctor, the other an English professor. The girls were attractive and wholesome, with sparkles of mischief in their eyes. One planned to become a physicist, the other a wildlife expert to save endangered species. They had it all—here and now, and ahead of them.

The cars went a bit too fast at times, and weaved right and left to goose each other. But the young people were not drunk. They were having fun. They were going to a dark spot by a pond to neck. They had absolutely no idea that they were about to become part of a multiple murder that would make national headlines and shock the country. Then, a day or two later, something new and horrible would happen, somewhere else, and that would take over the media as the latest terrible news. And so, there is nothing that can't be forgotten or paved over or somehow buried in the twilight hinterlands of memory in an unmarked drawer with no label. Unless you were part of it. And got away. The only one.

The place was far from town, on a vast property owned by the utility company. People weren't supposed to be on this land at all, and nobody was except those who had some special motive. Like these kids. And the person stalking them.

This land was one of those places that could be anywhere. Say, New Mexico, for the distant, sandy cliffs and flat, empty land. Or it could be Arkansas, for the lush green forests closer by, or New England, for the autumn leaves swirling on the road as the cars raced by under a full moon. It doesn't matter where this happened, or who these kids were, because that's all buried in that hinterland where memories go to die. Good memories, bad memories, it doesn't matter, like the people who remember for a time, and then forget. And are themselves eventually forgotten. It doesn't matter, because they had their time and used it—whether wisely or foolishly, we'll never know—and it doesn't matter. Nobody can take away what they had, good and bad alike. And that's all that any of us gets.

The two cars screeched around a turn. You could hear laughter—two boys, two girls—as the cars left the main road and streaked with stabbing headlights down a side road.

The dark back road was narrow. It took them deeper and deeper into a forest owned by the utility companies and populated mainly by the ghosts of long-ago Native Americans who lived here, maybe as long ago as when sabertooth cats still prowled after Ice Age prey. The kids respected the past, but that was all so long ago. As the saying goes, that was then, and this was now. These kids were living in the moment, glad to be graduating, happy to have all been accepted to good colleges. What could go wrong? They had absolutely no idea that someone was following them. Someone knew of their plans for the evening, and had a different idea. A very, very different set of ideas and way of looking at things.

The cars flashed past in the bright moonlight, echoing with laughter. Leaves swirled like a cloud, fragrant with the forest's fungus and dampness, a smell of the very earth.

A man on a motorcycle rolled out of a pitch-dark stand of trees. He waited a few seconds, and then softly kicked the bike to life. It rumbled deeply, full of cat-like hunting energy. He pulled a black ski mask over his head, so that only pale dots were visible where his eyes and mouth were. He was dressed in black from head to foot, and now he pulled black wool gloves over his pale hands. They were special gloves that he had bought at a hunting goods store. They were thin and woollen, to keep your fingers warm on a cold night or a winter day, but let you feel intimately as you expertly used your hunting knife to sever an animal's skin and fur from its warm, bloody flesh. The man heeled up the kickstand and set in motion after the two cars. He rolled along quietly, at a moderate and careful speed, for about twenty minutes. That took him a little over a mile down a slight grade toward the water table.

When he came to a chocolate-colored wooden sign standing upright on a four-by-four, with the words Agony Pond carved in and painted yellow, he pulled over. Turning the engine off, he coasted, bouncing on old ruts covered thickly with dying leaves, until he could hide his bike in shadows. He did one thing before he left it. He turned it for a quick getaway. And he made sure the long coil of rope on the back seat was in place, where he could grab it when the time came.

Walking onto the humped little blacktop, he stood in the middle of the road and listened. As he listened, he made sure his hunting knife was ready for the moment when he would need it.

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