~~~

Howard Bledsoe, former owner of Herbie’s House of Ladies, a high-end strip club once located in Geneva, Ohio, raised his eyebrows in surprise as the big man at the bar addressed him by that ancient name. The sweaty mess of a man took a good long look at the rude patron, recognition finally setting in. “Tony?” he said. “Fuck me sideways, is that really you?”

Tony’s facial expression remained unchanged. He wanted to rip the fat fucker’s face off. “Yeah, it’s me.”

Howard let out an annoying laugh as he raised his arms out wide, a well-practiced smile distorting his large face. “Shit… Tony Marcuchi! It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone from… well… before! In fact, you’re the first. Forgive me for not recognizing you right away.”

“And you look exactly the same, Herbie,” Tony said coldly. “Same piece-of-shit pig who not only managed to survive the outbreak, but managed to create another disgusting den to make a profit. I shouldn’t be surprised to find you here.”

Herbie feigned being hurt by the remarks, put his arms down, and frowned. “C’mon, Tony! That’s no way to talk to your old boss! I took care of you back in the day… paid you pretty good, too. Man… the good old days.” Herbie tossed his towel over his shoulder and leaned against the bar.

What a self-absorbed little man, Tony thought. Even now, all he can do is think back on glory days when he was the King of Flesh… no matter who it hurt.

Herbie waved a few thirsty patrons away, turning his attention toward the former bouncer. “So, what have you been up to, Tony? Need a job? I could use your experience keeping this place in line. I get all sorts of characters in this place. Just today I-”

“Talk to me about Malcolm Hathaway,” Tony said.

Another ancient name. This one, striking the stupid look off Herbie’s face immediately. He looked around, alarmed. “What? Who? Is he here? Is that man with you?” Herbie’s nervousness oozed out of him, like the abundant sweat escaping though the pores of his foul body.

“Relax, asshole,” Tony said. “It’s not Malcolm you need to worry about. But I do know about your ‘off-duty’ arrangements with that man. Gina told me all about it.”

“Gina? Holy shit! She with you?”

Tony reached across the counter, grabbed the fat-fuck by the shirt collar, and pulled him half over the bar. “You gave Hathaway Gina’s name, didn’t you? That’s why he came looking for Gina that night. Do you have any idea what you put her through, you piece of slimy shit?”

Herbie put his hands up in surrender. “Just ho- hold on Tony! Give me a mo- moment to process what you’re saying! It’s been so long since I thought back to those days.”

The patrons at the bar, sensing trouble, immediately walked away, taking their half-filled beer mugs with them to any available table.

Hash and the others were already coming over.

“Think hard, asshole!” Tony spat. “I’ll help you: Late night dinner parties and drugs; fucked-up cult sex orgies on the beach; Gina getting gang raped and beaten and then left to die when the world went to hell! Do you remember what I’m talking about now?” Tony slammed the man’s head on the bar.

“Tony!” Sergeant Hash said, putting a hand on the tense man’s shoulders. “What the fuck?”

“Don’t touch me,” Tony warned over his shoulder. “Me and this prick have unfinished business.”

Herbie wiped blood from his nose. “Wait!” he said. “Fuck, Tony! Just… hold the hell on! It’s true that I provided Hathaway with dancers… but I had no idea what that strange fuck was doing at his parties! He never hurt any of the girls I referred, and he paid them well! What do you mean about Gina getting raped? If I’d known anything like that was happening-”

Tony slammed Herbie’s head against the counter again.

“Tony?” This time it was Diane. “Whatever this is… you need to stop. We need this dirt-bag, remember?”

Tony looked over at the hunter’s face and saw the monster he’d let loose reflected in her eyes. He let go of Herbie’s shirt.

The fat man shambled back into the liquor cabinet and slipped down toward the floor. He raised his arms defensively, struggling to breathe and talk at the same time. “Please… stop… Tony! I’m sorry… I’m sorry about what happened to Gina. I never knew! How could I have known? That night… that night was the end of… everything!”

Tony took a deep breath and calmed down. He knew Herbie was right. But this was the closest he’d ever come to finding someone to blame and target for that horrible night. Staring into the terrified eyes of this useless fuck who looked like he was a few moments away from a heart attack, Tony knew that Herbie had no idea what happened to Gina.

You can blame this piece of shit all you want for setting it up… but you were the one who failed to protect her. Tony’s own thoughts brought him back from the brink. “Get up,” he said.

“Fuck that!” Herbie protested.

“I won’t hurt you anymore,” Tony said. “I just… I just lost control when I saw you. It brought it all back.”

Herbie cautiously got up from the floor. He was a sweaty mess. “I get it,” he said. “I do.” He poured himself a shot of whiskey with shaky hands, consumed it, then poured himself another. He then poured Tony a shot and slid it toward the big man.

Tony reached for the shot, murdering the man with his eyes, and then downed it. His face crinkled up.

“Better?” Herbie asked.

“That’s the most disgusting whiskey I’ve ever tasted,” Tony said, tossing the shot glass at Herbie. “You’ve really stepped down in the quality department.”

The fat-fuck looked offended, by wisely took the insult. He noticed Hash for the first time. “I know you, too.”

Sergeant Hash came over and stood next to Tony. “Yeah you do. But I don’t have any grievances against you from the old days… although your whiskey is just a step up from paint thinner.”

This made Herbie laugh. He pointed at Hash with a smile. “Now I remember! We got drunk and stupid a while back.”

“Yeah, probably in the reverse order.”

Herbie laughed again. “I remember you were telling me about that girl you found in Thailand, the one with the big fun-bags who screamed like a damn banshee and made the biggest damn ‘V’ in the sky with those long legs of hers after you went down-”

“Uh… yeah… let’s not rehash that in front of the ladies.” Hash looked apologetically at Wendy and Diane who were enjoying the good sergeant’s discomfort.

Herbie started to relax as the familiar sergeant helped defuse the raging bull standing beside him. He then noticed the rest of Tony’s group, his eyes lingering the longest on Diane and her missing arm, before starting over. “So… assuming Tony still doesn’t want to snap my neck…”

Tony glared at him. “No. But it won’t take much so tread carefully.”

“Fair enough,” Herbie said, retrieving five more shot glasses and filling them with whiskey. He especially made sure to refill the big man’s glass. “This round’s on me. Any friend of Tony’s is a friend of mine.”

“Give me a break,” Tony muttered, and quickly drank the whiskey with another sour face.

The others drank as well with equal looks of disgust. All except Hash who seemed to enjoy it.

“Now, that’s on me, but I’ll have to see your token if you want to start a tab,” Herbie said with a wink.

“Screw that,” Hash said, flashing his gold token. “We’re damn super V.I.P.’s!” He winked over at Mark.

Herbie stared greedily at the gold token and smiled. “Damn, don’t see that much. Only Candyman can authorize those.” He looked suspiciously at Hash. “What did you do, get him drunk?”

Hash laughed. “Nothing like that. We’re special guests of his Majesty for the next three days.”

“Now that’s a story I want to hear,” Herbie said. He started refilling their glasses then stopped. “What the hell am I thinking.” He put the cheap whiskey away, then went to a large locked cabinet along the back wall. He pulled out a key that he wore on a chain around his neck and opened the cabinet, retrieving an unopened bottle of whiskey. “You’re all gold customers,” he said. “The best deserves the best.” He started filling their shot glasses with the top-shelf whiskey.

“Fucker,” Hash said. “All this time I thought I was drinking top-shelf. I just figured it always tasted like turpentine.”

Herbie laughed hard. “Now, why don’t you all tell me what you’re doing in New Cleveland.”

“It’s funny you ask that,” Hash said, sucking down the fresh whiskey. “We came to talk to you.”

Herbie’s good cheer faltered. “Me. What the hell for? With that gold you’re carrying around, you could get just about anything you want around here.”

“We need information,” Tony said.

Herbie looked away, becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and started wiping down his counter. “What kind of information?”

Hash laughed. “Calm down, Ollie… or can I call you-”

“No. Just stick with Ollie.” Herbie poured himself another whiskey. “We’ve already seen the trouble my old name digs ups.”

“Well, Ollie, we need to locate some missing folks,” Hash continued. “And I think you know the kind I mean.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, nervously looking around toward his other bar patrons.

Tony was out of patience. “Look, asshole, you owe me… you owe Gina… help us locate our friends, and I’ll forget all about you.”

Herbie gave him a hard look. “Is she… is Gina still alive?”

“She was several weeks ago. I haven’t seen her since then.”

The fat man smiled. “I always liked her. She was one of my best performers.”

“You mean, she made you a lot of money. Stop pretending like you give a fuck.”

Herbie frowned at him. “You may think I’m scum, Tony, but I did care for those girls… in my own way.” He nodded to himself. “No promises, but I’ll help you if I can… for Gina.” He leaned in close and lowered his voice. “I’ll need some details about your friends. I’ve seen lots of people coming in and out of my place from all over to do God-only-knows-what after they get here. Some stay awhile. Some leave. Some get auctioned off and… well… that’s a whole other matter. But these last few weeks, I’ve heard the walls whisper about a disturbing amount of people who just… disappear.”

~~~

On the way to the local bar, Alysa stopped to check her pockets after being bumped by a hooded stranger. She’d found an old folded note tucked into the front pocket of her fleece jacket. She’d immediately turned back to find the stranger, but he’d vanished into the crowd.

She’d quickly opened the note and read it:

If you’re reading this, then my eyes have finally found you. Seek the homeless old seer who sleeps outside the fight pits. His name is Taven. He will tell you the rest. I miss you, wayward daughter. I’ve tried to respect your wishes and give you space, but you’ve been absent for far too long. It’s time to come home. Mother needs you.

Alysa had closed her eyes and shook her head. Just leave me alone. Fuck Mother! She couldn’t evade them any longer. Alysa had tossed the note into her mouth, chewed it up, and swallowed it.

Shortly after, she’d dismissed herself from the group to find the old seer. She’d remembered Tony’s concerned face when she’d lied about her intentions, but this was a matter she had to settle alone. None of them would understand.

~~~

Claustrophobic streets with potential threats behind every set of shady eyes finally thinned out as Alysa neared the edge of the large lake where the original park derived its name. After several careful inquiries, pointing her toward the eastern end of the park and a more discreet route along the lakefront, the former Shadow Dead was relieved to have some breathing room to consider her next move after finding this mysterious Taven.

She’d found a wooden sign with a faded map of the amusement park near an old decrepit boardwalk, one of the original features of the park that had not changed. She inspected the map, not expecting it to reflect New Cleveland, but to familiarize herself with old landmarks left over from the park that she might find traces of along the way. She got a better idea of the size of New Cleveland from the map. The biggest end of the old amusement park boundaries formed a wide smiley face hugging the southern portion of Geauga Lake. That’s where most of the streets and businesses had been built up around the southern part of the park. She was currently heading up and along the eastern end where she noticed on the map that an old wave pool called Tidal Wave Bay depicted happy children splashing in the waves. That had to be the fight pits… whatever that meant.

Alysa continued up and around the boardwalk, watching out for loose, broken or missing planks along the way. She’d only passed two people in that time. The first person, a woman who looked fried out of her mind, gave her a wide berth, never looking in her direction. The second person was very tall, wearing a long tan raincoat, Elvis-type sunglasses, and a ridiculous looking straw hat.

The man stopped five feet in front of her, blocking the narrow walkway with his size, and holding out his long arms. “My bridge!” the man said through what sounded like a swollen jaw.

“Excuse me?” Alysa had stopped, waiting for the tall man to move.

“My damn bridge! You can’t use it. Get the hell off!”

Alysa looked around, noticing for the first time that the boardwalk had moved out away from shore, forming a short bridge around a bend before joining back up with the shoreline. She tried to be patient with the strange man. “Sorry about the trespass,” she said. “I’m new here. I wasn’t aware that this was anyone’s bridge.”

Straw-hat man folded his long arms across his chest and frowned. “New. Doesn’t matter. Get off my fucking bridge!”

She considered doing just that before realizing how far she’d have to backtrack to get around this section of the park. “No,” she said. “I need to get across. So, please… stand aside.”

Straw-hat man did not like her tone. Not one bit. He pointed in her face with one long shaking finger. “Don’t push me, girl! I mean it. Turn around and get off my damn bridge… or I’ll hurt you. I’ll hurt you real bad!”

“Well, I don’t want you to do that,” she said with amusement. She assessed the strange man and thought he might be a little ‘damaged’ in the head. Apparently Straw-hat man had staked his claim in New Cleveland, and unfortunately, it was this piss-poor bridge. She suddenly thought about some old fairy tale about a troll living beneath a bridge. “Is there a special fee to use your bridge?” she tried

Straw-hat man smiled and nodded enthusiastically, his need to harm her quickly forgotten in the excitement beaming from his simple face. “Yes! Yes, there is! Most people don’t ask. Most people just use. They just take… and take… but never ask!”

Damn, this freak’s been out in the sun too long. Probably the straw hat’s fault. She tried to hide her smile, not wishing to offend this troll any longer. “Well… Sir… what’s the price for using your bridge? Apparently, I’m a ‘gold token’ customer here in town, and I guess that means something here. I’m sure we could work out some kind of arrange-”

“A finger,” Straw-hat man said.

Alysa’s eyes went wide. “I’m sorry… did you just say a-”

“You want across, then give me your finger! Chop! Chop! I take! You pass!”

She looked at her hands and then frowned at Straw-hat man. “So… I give you a finger… then you let me pass?”

“Yes.”

“Does that give me a round trip ticket on your bridge or will I need to hand over another on the way back?”

Straw-hat man gave her a puzzled look, not catching the joke.

Alysa didn’t know what else to say. She found this whole bizarre scene hysterical. She finally asked, “Does it have to be my finger, or will any old finger do?”

Straw-hat man pointed again, stepping threateningly forward, closing the gap between them. “You’re making fun of me!”

“I’m trying not to, but… this is… crazy.”

“Don’t say that!” Straw-hat man removed his hat and glasses and started banging his bald head on the flimsy wooden rail. “I’m… not… CRAZY!”

“Okay!” she said, holding her hands up. “I didn’t mean it like that. Just… stop… or you’ll hurt yourself.”

Straw-hat man stopped, put his hat and glasses back on, and smiled. “Then… you pay now? Give me two fingers.”

“What the hell? You just said one fin-”

“Price has changed,” Straw-hat man said. “Yes. Price has changed ‘cause you called me crazy.”

“That’s fucking nuts!” Alysa said, realizing her mistake too late.

“Now three!”

She shook her head and tried not to laugh. “Okay, this has been entertaining, but I’m not going to give you three fingers. Move aside, or I’ll make you move.”

“You pay first!” he said. “Give me three fingers… NOW!” Straw-hat man quickly reached into his jacket and pulled out two large meat cleavers from pockets fashioned into holsters for his cutlery.

Alysa took three steps back. Well, at least now I know how the fingers come off. That was beginning to puzzle me. “Look, I’ll just… go back. Three fingers is way too steep a price just to use this piece-of-shit bridge… no offense.”

The man held up the meat cleavers, looking like a tall, stupid serial killer. He had a look of disappointment in his eyes. “You can’t… you can’t do that!”

“Can’t do what?”

“You can’t go back! It’s too late to go back!”

“But you said at the beginning-”

“One toe to go,” he said with a cheesy grin.

“I suppose you think that’s clever?”

Straw-hat man didn’t understand. “You waited too long. There’s a time limit for going back… and you waited too long. So, you give me three fingers to pass… or a toe to go back.”

“How about five toes up your ass if you don’t get out of my way?” she threatened.

Straw-hat man’s eyes went wide at the thought of receiving five toes. “Deal! Five toes! I’ll let you pass for five toes. But, I’ll put them in… after.”

“What?”

“My… ass… I’ll put them in after.”

She shook her head in disbelief. No one could be this fucking stupid. “You’re saying that you’ll chop off my five toes and then shove them up your ass? That’s what you thought I meant?”

“Yes.”

Alysa started rolling with laughter.

Straw-hat man was not amused. He was much quicker than he looked as the tall man lunged forward, taking a swing at Alysa’s left hand holding on to the railing. She just managed to move it away before the cleaver struck the rotted wood. With his other hand, he swung the second cleaver in a sideway arc, just missing Alysa’s throat as she leaned back.

“Now that was the dumbest thing you’ve done,” she said, her face turning to stone.

Straw-hat man freed his cleaver from the wood, tapped both cleavers together to create a metallic ‘clang’, and then charged again, yelling something inaudible with the ferociousness of a wild animal.

Playtime’s over, she thought. Alysa dodged to the left, avoiding the downward slice of the first cleaver. Now off-balanced, the warrior was able to step in, grab the tall man’s wrist holding the second cleaver. She applied pressure to the wrist until the man cried out in pain, releasing the cleaver into Alysa’s hand. She quickly elbowed the man in the face, breaking his nose, and causing Straw-hat man to drop the other cleaver to the deck.

As a desperate last move, the tall man put his long fingers around Alysa’s throat and started to choke her.

Alysa brought her knee up hard into the man’s crotch, causing him to loosen his grip around her neck. She quickly broke free and then spun around, placing a round-house kick to the side of the man’s head.

Straw-hat man fell to his hands and knees, wincing in pain.

She started past the disabled idiot. “It’s been interesting… but I have to go,” she said. “Good luck on your finger tolls. I really mean that from here on out.”

Straw-hat man, playing opossum, grabbed the cleaver from the deck and lunged toward Alysa’s left foot.

Not realizing he was aiming for her foot, she turned just as the cleaver came down over the front of her boot, chopping it clean off.

“Fuck me!” she hissed, backing away, realizing her boot had just become a sandal.

“Toll’s paid,” the broken idiot spat though a bloody grin.

She kicked Straw-hat man in the face, knocking him over.

Alysa looked down at her open-toed boot. She couldn’t feel any pain. Then, one at a time, each of her five toes popped out of the boot. There’s something to be said about a boot size too big, she thought with relief.

The troll was groaning in pain… and laughing.

Alysa’s eyes blazed as she spun the second cleaver in her hand and approached Straw-hat man.

By the time Alysa exited the other end of the bridge, resuming her trip along the boardwalk near the shore, she had paid the toll… and then some. The troll was no longer laughing. He was choking on eight of his own severed fingers. Alysa left the thumbs, not knowing if they counted.

~~~

Alysa arrived just south of the fight pits. She could hear the clamor of a crowd in that area. Standing in between her and the pits was the remains of some ancient water slide tower. Pieces of the slide tubes were still intact near the base of the tower, although partially submerged in muck water. The tower itself was mostly disassembled, the rest given over to rust and neglect as vines curled around the amusement park relic, nature slowly digesting it.

The warrior spotted a faint light coming from one of the larger slide tubes not sitting in water. It was surrounded by tall weeds. If not for the glow, Alysa might have overlooked it.

She cautiously approached the light, having to walk in two feet of swampy water to reach it, and swearing at herself for forgetting her left boot was tore open as it immediately filled with slimy wetness.

When she neared the tube entrance, she saw a man sitting at the back of the tube with a small flashlight resting in front of him, illuminating his dirt-covered face. He was surrounded in what looked like trash. The man wore thick black sunglasses, the kind that old people wore while driving to reduce glare. He had long, oily grey hair that ran over his shoulders, seeming to connect with his long untamed beard. He also wore a filthy bath robe—its former color, unknown. The man’s hands were as grimy as his face. He didn’t look ‘old as dirt’, but rather, like he’d just crawled out of it.

“Come in,” the man invited in a pleasant voice.

Alysa swore the voice had come from anyone but the old man.

He waved to her for confirmation, adding, “I’m Taven. I’ve been expecting you, Alysa Monroe of the Ama-Eskua Order.”

~~~

Next Episode 43-6

Previous Episode 43-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 43-5: Feed The Dead” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

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