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The Kill (Chapter 8)

��Thank God!" a voice shouted in Jenny's ear. Jenny relaxed against the slim but very strong arms holding her.

"Dee-you scared me to death… ." The lights were on the canopy of the merry-go-round across the lake. It was turning and Jenny could hear faint music from a Wurlitzer band organ.

"You scared us to death," Audrey said. "Where have you been for the last two hours? We ran down that shaft with the roof caving in right behind us all the way-and then when we finally got to the mouth of the cave, we realized you weren't with us. Then Dee went crazy and tried to go back while everything was still falling, but it almost killed us and we had to go out-and when we got out, it was just a ride again."

"The caving-in noise stopped," Michael explained, "and I looked back and the cave was fiberglass again."

"And empty," Dee said, giving Jenny a fierce hug before letting go. "We walked all through it, the three of us, and you weren't in it. It was just a mine ride."

"That is the Emergency Exit we just came out of," Audrey said, pointing a finger at Jenny's door. "So the question is, where have you been? You've seen him, haven't you?"

Jenny was looking down at herself by the light of a nearby fountain-a fountain which had been dark when they'd first gone into the ride. Her jeans were rumpled but dry, her hair was all ridges and waves, the way it got when it dried without her brushing it. The supplies she'd packed so carefully to help her face the Shadow World were gone. Even her flashlight was gone.

"I saw him," she told Audrey briefly without looking at her. "I found out what the new Game is." She explained what Julian had told her about finding the three doubloons to get to Zach and Tom. She didn't say anything about the other Shadow Men, or the rising water in the dark cave, or how it had felt to die. She wanted to; she wanted to talk about it in privacy, and maybe cry, and be comforted, safe with her friends. But she wasn't safe, and there wasn't any privacy, and what was the point of alarming everybody?

As for Julian and his bizarre mood swings-she didn't even want to get on the subject.

"So at least we got something out of that ride," Michael said. "I mean, it nearly killed us, and we lost most of our stuff, but we did get some weapons, and now we know what we're doing. What happens after we collect these doubloons?"

"I think we go to the bridge, just like that kid said in the regular park," Jenny said. She was grateful-and proud. They were all battered and tired, and there were only two flashlights left-but no one was even talking about giving up.

"The bridge must be on the other side of the lake, around back," she added. "When we get there, I guess Julian will let us across." She looked at the lake. The merry-go-round lights were reflected in it, and so were other lights, blue and green and gold, from the island itself. Shadows of trees broke them up.

In the center of the island, standing very tall and white, was the lighthouse. It looked the same as the one Jenny had seen that afternoon, in the real park, except that now it was illuminated like the Washington Monument. Like a tower for imprisoned princes.

"That's where Tom and Zach are," she said quietly.

"Where should we start looking?" Dee said, equally quiet.

The Emergency Exit door had brought Jenny out close to the front of the mine ride. "Well-we could go left to Kiddieland," she said, "or right, back the way we came from the Fish Pond. Or around the front of the lake, toward the merry-go-round."

Michael ran a hand through his rumpled dark hair. "Let's go around the lake-it'll take us by the billboard about the contest. Maybe that'll give us a clue."

"That's where we came in tonight," Audrey said. "When we came through the door with the runes, I mean."

They walked past the dark ringtoss booth and around the gentle northern curve of the lake. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to which parts of the park were awake and which still slept.

They kept a close eye out for things like the one that had attacked Dee, but they saw nothing. Then, as they got closer to the billboard, Jenny heard a voice.

A low voice. It scared her-who else was in the park with them?

She rounded a clump of spruce trees and saw a car from a circus train, with a red roof and silver bars.

"I'm Leo the Paper-Eating Lion," the muzzle thrust between the bars said.

Only the voice-was wrong. It wasn't the peppy, friendly tenor of the Leo in the regular park. It had dropped two octaves and become distorted and almost machinelike. A thick, muddy cybervoice.

"Geez," Michael whispered.

Jenny moved cautiously closer, following Dee. The circus car was lighted, very bright and gay against a dark background of bushes. The animal looked like the Leo of the ordinary park, with a shiny caramel-colored face, dark mane, and painted body. Jenny's eyes were drawn to the muzzle, spread in a permanent smiling O so it could suck up trash. It looked as if it were calling "Yoohoo!"

"I eat all kinds of things," the growling, guttural voice said.

"I bet," breathed Michael.

"What's it doing here? Is it just to scare us?" Audrey said, circling the cart at a safe distance. Dee was playing her flashlight into the olastic muzzle.

"I think there's something in there," she said.

"You're kidding. You are kidding, aren't you?" Jenny edged along beside Audrey. She didn't want to get any closer to the lion than she had to-the asphalt path wasn't nearly wide enough in her opinion.

Dee knelt and squinted. "Something gold," she said. "No, really, I'm serious. Look way back in there, in the throat."

Unhappily Jenny took the flashlight and aimed it at the dark hole. It did look as if there might be something shining inside, but gold or silver, she couldn't tell.

"It might just be a gum wrapper," she said.

Dee leaned a casual arm on her shoulder. "Don't tell me, you've had Leo the Lion nightmares."

Jenny hadn't, that she could remember. But the lion had looked sinister even this afternoon, and it looked doubly sinister now.

"I am not putting my hand in there," Michael said positively.

Dee flashed her most barbaric smile. "No, Audrey can do it; she's got nice long nails. How about it, Aud?"

"Don't tease her," Jenny said absently. "Now, what we need is something long-but a fishing pole wouldn't work because it wouldn't catch a coin. Maybe if we put something sticky on the end …"

"Nothing's as good as a hand. Audrey could-"

"Dee, quit it!" Jenny cast a sharp look at the girl beside her. She didn't know why Dee and Audrey seemed to be having problems today-maybe it was a reaction to all the tension-but this was no time

for Dee's skewed sense of humor. Audrey was standing a little apart from the others, head tilted back, chestnut eyes narrowed in disdain, cherry-colored lips pursed. She looked very cool and superior.

"Leo's always hungry. So feed me," the distorted, bestial voice said. Every time it spoke, Jenny's heart jumped. She was terrified that the caramel-colored muzzle might move, that she'd look up and Leo's head would swing toward her.

It can't. It's plastic, she thought. But she was afraid her heart would simply stop if it did. The quietness of the park around them, the darkness, made this one animated trash can even more eerie.

Dee sat back on her heels. "It looks like there's more to this than just finding the coins. We have to actually get them, which may be the hardest part. It's a quest game."

"Quest?" Jenny said.

"Yeah. Remember how I told you about the different kinds of games, once? Games fall into certain categories. The first one Julian played with us, where we had to get to the top of the house by dawn, that was a race game."

"Right, and the second one, where the animals were chasing us, was a hunting game. Like hide-and-seek," Jenny said.

"Yeah, well, there's another type of game, where you have to find things in order to win-like in a treasure hunt or a scavenger hunt. Or hot and cold. A quest game. It's as old as the other kinds of games."

"Naturally," Michael said. "Humans are terrific questers-they love to look for things. The Holy Grail, or the truth, or the treasures in Zork, or whatever."

"Surely you can find something to feed Leo the Paper-Eating Lion. I'm starving."

Jenny looked up, jerked out of the pleasant hypothetical discussion. Audrey was standing by the circus car, examining her nails. The usually perfect polish had been slightly chipped in the mine ride. She looked thoughtful.

"Go on, princess. I dare you," Dee said, her black eyes flashing in amusement.

"Don't be silly, Audrey," Jenny said automatically. The concept was so ridiculous, though, that she said it unhurriedly. Audrey never did anything reckless-not physically reckless, at least.

So Jenny didn't say the warning with urgency, and therefore she was, in some way, responsible for what happened next.

Audrey put her hand in.

Michael was the one who shouted. Jenny jumped up. But for a moment it looked as if it was going to be all right.

Audrey, her face set, was fishing around in the hole. Her hand was in it to the wrist.

"I feel something," she said.

Jenny's heart was thudding. "Oh, Audrey…"

Audrey's lips curved in a triumphant smile that brought out her beauty mark. "It's cold-I've got it!"

Then everything happened very fast.

The caramel-colored plastic face was flowing, melting, like a very good morphing effect in a movie.

In a movie it would have been fascinating-but here it was real. It was real, and so awful that it froze Jenny to the spot.

The colors bled and changed, going olive green, then a dreadful grayish cemetery tone with steely streaks. The eyes sank, becoming hollow pits. The mouth seemed to snarl, lips pulling back to reveal long teeth that had grown to trap Audrey's wrist.

It happened so fast that even Dee didn't have time to move. Audrey started to gasp, and then screamed instead. Her entire body snapped forward.

The thing had sucked her arm in to the elbow.

"Audrey!" Michael shouted. He covered the distance to her in two steps. Dee was right behind him with her pick.

No good, Jenny thought dazedly. It's not flesh, like that thing-like Slug. It's stone or metal or something.

"Don't hit it, Dee. That won't help-that won't help. We have to pull her out!"

The thing-it wasn't a lion anymore, but some sort of hideous cyberbeast-was now the color of an old statue coated with moss.

Audrey screamed again, breathlessly, and her body jerked. The nylon jacket was skinned up to her shoulder now, bunched" like an inner tube as her arm was dragged farther in.

"It's taking my arm off!"

Jenny gasped, almost sobbing. Michael was yanking at Audrey.

"No, don't pull! Don't pull! It hurts!"

Vaseline, Jenny was thinking. Or soap-something to make it slippery. But they didn't have anything.

"Dee!" she said. "Use the pick-try to pry its teeth apart. Michael, wait until she gets it in-then pull."

Audrey was still screaming and Michael was crying. Vaguely, in shock, Jenny noticed that the stone beast was still changing, becoming more deformed. Dee wedged the tip of the heavy pick upside down between the gray, mossy teeth and pulled back on the handle. Jenny grabbed it to help her.

"Hard!"

Dee threw her weight down. Jenny prayed the wooden handle wouldn't break off from the iron head.

She felt something shift-the upper jaw lifting just a fraction, like a car lifting on a jack.

"Pull, Michael!"

Michael pulled. Audrey's arm came out.

She screamed on a new note-a shriek that pierced Jenny's chest. But her arm came out.

They all fell backward, the pick clattering down. With a common impulse they scrabbled back away from the circus car, still sitting, still holding on to one another.

It was only then that Jenny looked at Audrey's arm. ,

There were toothmarks. Or-some kind of marks, as if sharp rocks had been scraped over the skin. Long, raw gouges, just starting to bleed.

"Audrey-oh, God, are you okay?" Michael asked

A gurgling, maniacal voice said, "I bet I'll have a tummyache tomorrow."

Jenny looked. The cyberbeast had stopped changing, its features frozen in a long-toothed snarl.

Dee raised a clenched fist, tendons cording in her slender arm. Then she dropped it. "I don't think it can move toward us," she said in a curiously quenched voice. Jenny glanced at her, but Dee turned and Jenny found herself looking at the back of her close-cropped head, where velvety nubs of hair glistened like mica.

"Does anybody have aspirin?" Jenny said. "I lost mine."

Michael, who had taken off his sweatshirt and was trying to wrap Audrey's arm in his undershirt, thrust a hand in his pocket. "I've got some … here."

Audrey's left hand was trembling as she took them, washing them down with a gulp of water from the canteen Dee silently offered.

"Are you okay?" Jenny asked hesitantly.

Audrey took another drink of water. Her spiky lashes were dark against her cheek as she leaned back against Michael. She looked as white as porcelain, and as fragile. But she nodded.

"Really? You can move your arm and everything?" Michael's cotton undershirt was showing signs of pink, but it wasn't the cuts that worried Jenny. She was afraid Audrey's shoulder might be dislocated.

Audrey nodded again. A faint smile appeared on her lips. She lifted her right arm, the bandaged one, and turned it over. Then, slowly, she unclenched her fist.

Michael gave a shout of laughter.

"You got it! You wouldn't let go, you little-" He seized Audrey in a bear hug.

"You may kiss me," Audrey said. "Just don't squish my arm." She twisted her head toward Dee. "Good thing your pick wasn't flimsy. No rawhide there!"

It was an extraordinarily generous gesture, but Dee seemed to take it as an insult. At least, when Jenny looked at Dee, she could only see the fine curve of a dark cheekbone.

"If everybody can move, we'd better go," Dee said. "We're right in the open here; anything could be sneaking up on us."

Jenny helped Audrey up as Michael put his sweatshirt back on. The lion-thing in the painted cage watched them like a gargoyle.

"What should we do with the coin?" Audrey said.

"I'll take it." Jenny put this one in the pocket of her pale blue denim shirt and buttoned the pocket. "If we can get to the merry-go-round, we can rest. There's an arbor thing beside it."

The merry-go-round had gone dark, but across the shimmering water of the lake Jenny could see the shining lighthouse. Tom was there-and Zach. Jenny had to get to them, no matter what happened on the way.

Audrey didn't want to rest long. "If I don't get up now, I never will. But where do we go?"

"That lion was lit-up-working," Michael said. "And it had a doubloon."

"So we just look for something else that's working?"

"I don't like the idea of being led," Dee said, but she said it without her usual confidence.

Jenny was worried about Dee. Of course she hadn't meant for anybody to get hurt. She'd just been trying to get a rise out of Audrey. But the way it had turned out-

"What are those lights way down there?" Michael said.

Beyond the merry-go-round, beyond a stretch of greenery, tiny white lights twinkled between dark trees.

"I think-I think it may be the arcade," Jenny said.

"Well, it's working," said Michael.

"Auons-y," Audrey said, settling things.

They passed the dark merry-go-round and a rocket ride with all the rockets landed, down. As they rounded a slight turn in the path, a building came into view.

Hundreds of tiny white lights flashed, running along the borders of a sign reading: penny arcade. Jenny stopped in her tracks.

"But-it's different. It's not like it was this afternoon. It's like-" Suddenly she knew. "It's like it used to be. This is the way the arcade looked when I was a kid. I remember!"

"Well, it's open," Michael said.

The doors gaped invitingly. Jenny felt a qualm as they cautiously stepped over the threshold. She didn't know why Julian had made the arcade this way, but she couldn't imagine it meant anything good.

Still, it gave her a strange pang of pleasure to see what was inside the building. Not the gleaming, spotless, high-tech wonderland she'd seen in the real park that day. Now it was a dim, rather dingy room, crowded with old-fashioned wooden cabinets.

Automata, Jenny remembered. That's what her grandfather had called the machines with moving figures inside them. She remembered him taking her here, putting dimes in the slots, watching the mechanical action scenes.

Her grandfather had always seemed to have time for her. All she knew as a kid was that he was a professor of this, that, and the other, but he never seemed to go to work anywhere. He was always home when Jenny and Zach came to visit-unless he was traveling. He did a lot of traveling, and always brought back presents.

"What was that? There-at the back," Michael said.

Jenny looked, but only saw more cabinets.

"It's gone now. I thought it was one of those little critters-the scuttling ones." He spotted something. "Hey, you want some candy peanuts? I found lots of change in with the aspirin."

The machine dispensed black candy-coated peanuts, very stale, and square multicolored gum. Jenny felt a little better while chewing it, comforted somehow.

And the machines were interesting, in the absurd, picturesque way of times gone by. There were peep shows and nickelodeons and all sorts of mechanized figures.

"The Ole Barn Dance," Jenny read on one cabinet. "See 'em Whoop It Up! Watch 'em Swing! Drop two bits in the box."

The little figures were made of blocks of wood, dangling from wires. Their wooden jaws hung open grotesquely.

"Do you think we should try the things?" Audrey said doubtfully. Jenny knew what she meant-after what had happened with Leo, she didn't relish the thought of activating anything mechanical.

"I guess we have to," she said slowly. "In case the coin's inside one of them. Just stay back from them-and if anything goes on by itself, run."

"And check the coin slots," Audrey said sensibly. "What better place to hide a doubloon?"

They moved carefully around the dim room, staying together, checking the tops and bottoms of cabinets for a gleam of gold.

Michael found a mutoscope and began cranking it, leaning gingerly to look in the goggle-type viewer and watch the flip-card film, see naughty marietta sun bathing, the sign on the brass-trimmed machine read, passed by my censors, oct. 1897.

"My arm hurts," he said afterward. "And it's just some lady wrapped in a sheet."

Audrey paused in front of an elaborately carved machine with gold paint that was much faded and rubbed off. Dee found a cabinet that looked like a grandfather clock, labeled: see horrible monster. terrifying-shocking-only 5 cents. Jenny knew that machine: You put your money in and saw a mirror.

Jenny ventured a little farther down the corridor.

Not that grip tester-she didn't want to touch it. She didn't want to step on the foot vitalizer, either.

There-a rather shabby wood box with dark glass. The sign read: ask the wizard, deposit it in slot and

THE WIZARD WILL PERFORM FOR YOU. Below Was a Strip of plastic tape: receive prediction here.

Jenny had always liked the kind of fortune-teller that gave you a card. She loved the outrageous predictions about whether you were going to get married and what your career would be. She picked out a dime.

The coin slot was shaped like a sphinx. Jenny hesitated an instant with the dime resting against cool metal. A flash of foreboding went through her, as if telling her to stop and think before she did anything rash.

But what was rash about turning on a mechanized wizard? And they had to search this place.

She slipped the dime in.

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