~~~

“…And even an enemy can become a friend in this place, when the darkness has pushed too far…”

~~~

In the southeast corner of New Cleveland, directly behind the central business hub of town, a long stretch of land covering several blocks was where the murder shops were set up. Once the location of one of Geauga Lake’s youngest rollercoasters, The Villain, it had long since been torn down leaving only erratic rows of concrete slabs with iron stanchions protruding from them like ancient teeth. This once made up the foundation of the large coaster. Over time the area had grown into a huge landfill/scrapyard where most of the larger pieces of debris from the early demolition days of the park had been deposited, leaving several deep pits surrounded by rusted metallic jungles. New Cleveland had since converted the concrete foundation into an odd spiked roadway that ran through the middle of a massive junkyard. This jungle went as deep into the ground as the heaps were tall, creating manmade cave-like structures of twisted metal, broken concrete, dirt, stone and whatever else had been relocated and abandoned by large bulldozers and cranes. Within the pockets of this jungle, structures had been built to accommodate the ‘death dealers’, as they were called, who dealt heavily in the human trafficking markets of New Cleveland, providing a variety of despicable means to torture and murder human beings for profit.

What was most surprising, after the first murder shop had been established, was how popular it had become in such a short period, causing the need for several more shops to be erected to accommodate the demand for… death.

What made this location perfect for the shops was that they were discreet for those who wanted to keep their murderous fetishes to themselves; they were hard to reach and easy to protect, discouraging the curious from wandering where they did not belong; but most of all, the metallic caverns provided a unique sound barrier which kept the screams coming from within the shops contained to this area.

Candyman’s had sent Lunatics to patrol and monitor the entrances into this district but he never let his people enter. Upon request, He let the owners of the shops police their own businesses within, and they did so with grim efficiency. All anyone had to do was read one of several red spray-painted signs posted around the outside of this jungle to understand what was at stake for wandering into the area:

ENTRANCE BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
TRESSPASERS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
WE ARE PROTECTED UNDER NEW CLEVELAND LAW
TO DO AS WE DEEM APPROPRIATE TO ANYONE
FOUND ON THESE GROUNDS WITHOUT PERMISSION.
ANYONE VIOLATING OUR RULES WITHIN, THE SAME APPLIES.

The unspoken penalty for violations was easily implied. No one entered the murder shops without an appointment. And if anyone did, they were never heard from again.

It was an hour after sunset. The former nightclub owner led Wendy toward the eastern entrance into the metal jungle.

Wendy had never felt more alone and terrified since arriving in New Cleveland then when she got her first glimpse at the mammoth-sized metallic archway leading into what looked like a junkyard dome.

Torches were lit each evening surrounding the entire perimeter, serving as a final deterrent to stay clear of the murder shops. The torches lit up sharp jagged spires and rusted pipes against the backdrop of the night, casting elongated shadows everywhere along the ground, transforming metal into dark irregular shapes and formations that almost resembled strange trees. The torches themselves finished the illusion of a deserted tropical island, with some sacred voodoo ritual being performed by the island’s inhabitants, deep within the jungle.

Two massive torches were lit on both sides of the open archway entrance. Two large men wearing black suits and black masks stood at both sides of the entrance, hands resting in front of them, and holding long swords pointed toward the ground.

Wendy looked up at Herbie with concern as they approached.

“Don’t worry, girl,” the sweaty bartender said. “They won’t harm us. We’ve got an appointment.”

“Why are they wearing masks?” she said.

“Everyone wears masks. Once we get inside, they’ll issue us masks, too.”

“But… why?”

Herbie frowned at her. “To protect everyone’s identity,” he said. “Last thing someone wants to do in a place like this is run into someone they know. It’s kind of hard to look anyone in the eye after participating in the things that are done in here.”

Wendy nodded. “And… the torches?”

“There’s no power on the outskirts of the shops. But within the structures, there’s generators to run whatever tools anyone needs. But no artificial lights… at all. Most people who come here prefer it this way.”

“You mean, they prefer to stay in the shadows, behind their masks to make what they’re about to do… easier,” she said with contempt.

Herbie nodded. “You’re catching on.” He looked toward the entrance. “Here we go,” he whispered. “Just be quiet and follow my lead,” he said.

Wendy gave the bartender a last look, catching his terrified face in the torchlight.

What the hell are we getting into? she thought.

One of the two masked swordsman turned to stand in front of Herbie.

The sweaty bartender raised his shaky hand and started to fumble through his pockets. “Just a second,” he said. “I have it… right… here.” He finally raised a gold token and handed it to the man.

The masked man examined the coin, then handed it back to Herbie. “Appointment?” he said, in an emotionless voice.

Herbie nodded. “Ah… yeah… I have an appointment.”

The swordsman waited.

“Shit, that’s right,” Herbie said, struggling to remember something. “Um… ‘Pasadena went to hell, long before it started to smell’.”

Wendy gave Herbie a strange glance.

He ignored her, smiling back and forth between the two swordsmen. He was sweating more than usual.

Finally, the masked man moved back into position, allowing them to pass. Neither swordsmen said another word.

Herbie grabbed Wendy’s arm. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Once through the archway, Wendy whispered, “What was that shit about California?”

“That was our appointment passphrase,” he said.

Another man in a suit, though not as intimidating or carrying a sword, approached them with his hands behind his back. He, too, was wearing a black mask. “Good evening,” the man said in a practiced voice. “I am called Arthur. I will be your host this evening. Anything you need, you come to me, and only me. I will always be standing outside your private room door, or within earshot until my services are required. Call out to me by name and I will hear you. Understood?”

Herbie nodded. “Understood.”

Arthur gave them both a long look then brought his hands to the front. He was carrying two black masks. “From this point on, you are to wear these at all times outside of your private room. Understood?”

“Got it,” Herbie said. He took both masks and handed one to Wendy.

While they were putting the masks on, Arthur continued. “You may remove the masks in your private room, if you so desire, or keep them on… but never remove them outside your room, or any other room marked ‘public’. Understood.”

“Understood,” Herbie said. He looked over at Wendy wearing his mask.

Wendy hesitated before putting hers on, staring up at Herbie in his dark disguise. I already hate this, she thought. I can’t even see the fear in his face anymore… just that hideous mask.

“A-hem,” Arthur said, making a clearing-of-the-throat sound.

“Oh, shit,” Wendy said, quickly putting on her disguise. “Sorry.”

Once her mask was on, Arthur pointed his arm off toward the left. “Follow me, please. I will escort you to your appointed murder shop.”

They followed Albert through the dark metallic jungle. There were more torches lit about every five to ten feet. All around them, other guests wearing masks were accompanied by their suited escorts. Wendy exchanged veiled glances at the other guests in passing while Herbie tried to ignore them. Wendy nodded once at a woman in a black mask who abruptly looked away as if acting like she’d been recognized.

“Please don’t acknowledge the other guests,” Arthur advised, never turning around.

“Sorry,” she said.

Herbie looked at her and shook his head. Visible or not, she could feel his impatient glare.

They could hear their appointed murder shop long before approaching what looked like two tornado doors covering a shelter in the ground.

Wendy nearly turned around and bolted when she heard a man’s scream pierce the night. It was coming from those doors.

Herbie put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, causing her to jump. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Expect a lot of that,” he told her. “You okay?”

Wendy felt sick to her stomach. She nodded, grateful that the mask was hiding her pale face. “Let’s… let’s get on with it.”

Arthur stopped them at the storm doors, then turned around placing his hands behind his back. “Again,” he advised, “do not remove your masks until we’ve reached your private room. If for any reason you need to leave the murder shop, I must accompany you back outside. At no time is any guest authorized anywhere without their escort. Understood?”

They both nodded.

“Any questions for me?” Arthur said.

“What’s the difference between a private room and a public one?” Wendy said, earning her another look from Herbie.

“No one is authorized to enter or observe anything that happens within a private setting. All other rooms are open for viewing, or, participating, should the need arise. Understood?”

Wendy had no idea what to make of that. She simply nodded.

“Any further questions?”

“No,” Herbie said. “We’re good.”

Arthur nodded. He turned to open the storm doors, then stopped. He looked over at Wendy.

She was visibly shaking.

Arthur turned back toward the doors and opened them, revealing a wooden ramp that went below the ground. Once the doors were completely open, they could hear moans and groans, screams and shouts, people begging and pleading for their lives… all mercifully interrupted by the louder sounds of various machines and power tools.”

Wendy felt faint.

Herbie was there to keep her from passing out. “Take a breath,” he whispered. “I told you this would be bad.”

Arthur approached them. He put his hands out in front, palms up, revealing ear plugs. “Here,” he said. “This will help with the… noise.”

Wendy snatched the earplugs up and said, “Thank… thank you.” She quickly put the yellow foam plugs in her ears.

Herbie inserted his plugs in loosely, just enough to muffle the sounds from below. “Not too much,” he advised her. “We still need to hear each other.”

Wendy nodded, readjusting her plugs to hear Herbie.

“Very good,” Arthur said. “Follow me down into the shop. Be mindful of your head going down the ramp.”

Arthur disappeared down the ramp.

Herbie and Wendy reluctantly followed.

The ramp took them down one floor, just below ground level, and into a dimly lit long hallway.

Wendy could barely move as she stared straight down the hellish hall lit by wall-mounted torches. Once below ground, every horrific sound of unimaginable torture was amplified. She readjusted her earplugs to dampen out would she could. She could even hear what sounded like a chainsaw from farther down the hall. On both sides of the wide hallway were doorways. A chair sat in front of each door, turned to face what looked like peepholes in the doors. Many of the chairs were occupied by faceless observers, wearing their dark masks, and staring into the rooms.

Arthur came back. He spoke louder to be heard over the noise. “These are the public rooms. I believe they are self-explanatory. As I’ve said before, please don’t disturb the other guests. Your room is at the far end of the hall, in the private wing of the facility. Follow me.”

Arthur led them down the hall, between the public rooms where many suited escorts stood near the doorways, but out of the way until needed.

Wendy refused to make eye-contact with the few depraved men and women who sat in chairs, lifting their heads from the peepholes long enough to look in her direction. Most ignored them, gazing into the rooms where people were being brutalized as if they were unable to look away once the torture began.

These aren’t human beings anymore, Wendy thought with disgust. I’m glad I can’t see their faces… their horribly sickened faces… fucking monsters!

As Herbie and Wendy continued after Arthur toward the private wing, Wendy was bothered by Herbie’s silence. “You haven’t said a word since we got down here,” she said. “And why are we getting a private room? How does that help us find out what happened to Mark?”

Herbie hesitated, then said, “Trust me. It’ll all make sense when we get there. You wanted to know what happened to Mark… this is how we find out.”

She didn’t understand his strange response but left it alone. Wendy just wanted to keep moving and get out of this despicable place as soon as possible.

Arthur turned a corner, leading them into another hall, this one much narrower. There were more doors along the walls, but no chairs with peepholes.

“We’re just about there,” Herbie said. “I need you to brace yourself for what you’re about to see.”

Wendy looked up at the masked bartender. “What am I about to see?”

Herbie said nothing. He stared after Arthur.

Their host finally stopped them in front of a door on the left. He turned around and said, “Here is your room. I will be out here when you need me.” He looked right at Herbie and finished, “Your second guest arrived an hour ago. The mechanism you requested is in the room. Will there be anything else you require?”

Wendy stared up at Herbie. “Second guest? What the hell is he talking about?”

Herbie ignored her. “No, we’re good,” he told their host. “We have everything we need.”

“Very well,” Arthur said. He moved back from the door and nodded, before turning away and walking a short distance down the dim hall.

Herbie took a deep breath, then reached for the doorknob.

“Wait!” Wendy said. “Explain yourself, Herbie! What’s going on?”

“You’ll see for yourself,” he said.

“No! You tell me now!”

Herbie was about to remove the annoying mask, then stopped himself. “Just… get inside the damn room! You want answers… well… you’re about to get them… and then some.”

Wendy wanted to protest further, but Herbie turned his back to her and opened the door. “Come on,” he said.

There was nothing left to do but follow him into the private murder room.

She closed her eyes and prayed, Dear God, I don’t want to be here… I don’t want to see what’s in this room! Please… give me strength!

Wendy entered the room and Herbie quickly closed the door.

She opened her eyes and gasped. Wendy ripped off her mask and tossed it to the floor. Her eyes went wide as the shock and confusion immediately set in.

“What… what the hell is this?” she said with alarm.

~~~

“…But in the end, it’s those friends who have been there with us, through hell and back, that have become our new family, thicker than the blood of old. It’s they who keep us from falling over the edge deep within ourselves and into the darkness. It’s these friends, tried and true, who continue to give us a reason to keep fighting for as long as we can still draw breath…”

~~~

A gusting wind brushed against the night parting the tall grass to the west of Splash Landing, revealing two shadowed figures hunched down in the weeds. To the wayward traveler wandering too close to this haunted nook of New Cleveland, a couple of late-night ghosts lingering in the corner of one’s eye is all anyone might admit to observing two hours before dawn, but only mentioned once back in the temporal safety of daylight.

One phantom, sitting directly across from the other, reached over and continued to apply white face paint to the much larger fade.

“How much longer?” Tony said impatiently. “This shit is itchy.”

Diane frowned in the ambient light. “Almost there. Just need to throw a little black up around your eyes and mouth.”

Tony stared into the hunter’s painted face, posing as a Lunatic, and smiled. “Do I look as ridiculous as you do?”

“No. I look awesome. You, however, just look like Bozo the Deranged Fucking Clown.”

Tony snickered. “This was a good idea. Hopefully it helps us get close enough before-”

“Yeah,” she quickly interrupted, trying to keep her hand steady. “That was the idea.”

Tony continued to stare into his friend’s exhausted and worried face. “He’ll be alright. Taven assured me no one would spot them.”

Nine, the young girl who he’d introduced as Joe, and Tony’s strange contact with the dark sunglasses, had departed an hour ago with enough dynamite to light up the night. They were on their way to rig the explosives on one of Candyman’s large storehouses—the prearranged distraction. Afterwards, if all went according to plan and the ambush was successful, Nine and Joe would meet them back here, grab Wendy, and possibly Sergeant Hash and Diane’s friend, Nadia. Together they’d meet up with Tony and Diane at the trucks full of Orosco’s people and whoever else, and then drive the hell out of New Cleveland.

“That all sounds great… if you trust that creepy-crawly guy. Where did you find this Taven again?”

“He found me,” Tony said, shifting uncomfortably. “Don’t worry about him. He’ll do his part. That much I trust.”

“And he’s just going to disappear into the night after everything goes ‘boom’?” Diane said.

Tony frowned. “I don’t care what he does or where he goes. As long as we’re done with this fucking place after tonight, Taven can go find someone else to help him with his shady plans.”

“Shady is right,” Diane said. She stopped applying the face paint for a moment, then said, “You know who he reminds me of… don’t you?”

“What’s that?”

“Remember that freak, Walter?”

Tony quickly changed the subject. “We should just stay focused on our part. Let me worry about Taven, okay?”

Diane gave him a questionable look, then nodded.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you at the meeting… about Nine and the explosives. I didn’t want you distracted.”

“I get it,” she said. “I just hope that idiot doesn’t blow everybody up on the way.”

Tony laughed.

“I’m more concerned about the others. Wendy’s late as hell. Shouldn’t she be here by now?”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I’m worried, too. But we still got another hour before shit starts. We’re just going to have to trust that she’ll make it by then. There’s no going back now.”

“And if she doesn’t make it… what then?”

Tony shook his head. “She’ll be here. She has to be.” That was all he would say on the matter. “What about your friend on the inside? Nadia?”

Diane looked away and nodded. “Yeah… she’s a friend. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“How much did you tell her… you know… about the plan?”

Diane gave him a cross look. “She’s knows enough. I couldn’t keep it from her. She’s risking a lot trying to locate Hash and get him here.”

Tony nodded. “Fair enough.”

“She told me that if she can’t get to him, or if something goes wrong, not to wait for them. Said if she didn’t make it that she was already fucked and that we should get the hell out of here before Candyman makes her talk… and she eventually will.” Diane looked around the old children’s water park and sighed. “It bothers me that she isn’t here already.”

“Do you believe she’s in trouble?” Tony said.

“I don’t know. All I know is that she’s saved my ass already and I owe her big time. If she has been caught, it’s probably better this way. I’d rather not know.”

Tony put a big hand on her shoulder. “We’re taking big risks now… at big costs. Anything could go wrong. That’s why we must do our part, Diane. We can’t afford to fail on our end.”

She looked at the big man. To her, Tony had changed a lot, they all had. He was much more calculating now. Before New Cleveland, Tony would’ve never considered leaving anyone behind. But he’d seen his share of death in the fight pits and had to perform unspeakable acts to stay alive, and by doing so, getting them all to this moment where they had a chance to escape.

“What is it?” he said, noticing her long stare.

“Nothing,” she lied.

“Come on, out with it.”

“I’m just wondering how much more we might lose tonight… you know… the kind of loss that keeps us up at night.”

Tony sighed. “When we get out of here, I know we’ll all have some healing to do. This place—everything that it represents and what it’s made us all do to survive—will take time to recover from… but we will.”

“And what is New Cleveland going to make us do at the trucks, Tony?”

Tony picked up a crowbar from Taven’s weapon stash. He gave Diane a hard look and finished, “We’re going to kill whoever stands in our way, Diane… for our friends… our family. Can you do that?”

The hunter picked up a crossbow she’d pre-loaded. She’d get one shot with it before having to resort to blunt weapons. She locked eyes with Tony, and answered, “Yes. I’m going to kill every one of those fuckers at the trucks. Not because I want to… but because I have to.”

Tony nodded. He turned and started going through their inventory of weapons again. “It’s okay, you know,” he told her.

“What is?”

“It’s okay… to ‘want’ to kill them. I know I do.”

Diane stared at the big man’s back for a long time.

~~~

Next Episode 51-6

Previous Episode 51-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-5: The Desperation Factor” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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