Happy Halloween! Today we have Jennifer Rardin in the clubhouse helping us celebrate. Jennifer is the author of the kick-ass Jaz Parks urban fantasy series. I love me some Vayl. For realz. Anyway, Jennifer's given us a treat to nibble on today. Enjoy!
by Jennifer Rardin
Rindall Hunt leaned against the tallest tombstone in Browen Cemetery. Naturally the name carved across the base of the obelisk spelled BROWEN. Herbert John, born 1825, died 1899, slumbered on the south side of the plot. As far as Rindall knew, he'd never risen on Halloween, called or not. Neither had his second wife, Deborah Jane, R.I.P.ing on the opposite side of the stone. But his first love, Elizabeth Marie, who'd died in childbirth at the age of twenty-four, moved around so often that nothing grew on her grave but weeds.
Rindall slammed his hand against the monument, wincing at the clacking sound that reminded him his digits hadn't quite fleshed out yet. He bellowed, "Rise and shine, Bets. We've got work to do!"
"What's taking her so long?" Josh Payley paced the length of her grave. His stride was barely a shamble because he'd been dead the shortest time, which meant he pulled himself together faster. The only gaping hole left on him was his nose.
Rindall shook his head. Josh had to be reminded of everything at first. It was like that skull fracture had killed part of his memory for eternity. Rindall said, "She's old, which means it takes her brain longer to re-form."
Plus Bets liked to look her best when she emerged. Almost as good as the day she'd died. Josh, on the other hand, had been aboveground within five minutes, spitting beetle larvae and shaking worms out of his cracks.
"So what's the plan?" Josh asked as he hopped to the top of a nearby monument and teetered across its rim.
"A big failure if you fall," Rindall snapped. "How many times do I have to warn you about your reckless risks? I mean this; you break it, you dangle it."
"Dude, tell me you weren't this big of a wuss when you were building skyscrapers."
Rindall snorted. "Not until I took a dive off one. Now get the hell down. Seriously, I'm not taping anymore of your parts back together tonight."
"This is why your wife hired that dude to kill you. You know that, right? Although," Josh paused, giving Rindall the once-over, "it might also have something to do with those threads. Even if it was the seventies, you should've known better than to buy a powder blue suit."
Rindall threw up his hands. "Can't we get through one invocation without--"
A stirring at Rindall's feet brought them both to the head of the stone. Just like in the horror flicks Josh had devoured in life and relentlessly retold in death, Elizabeth Marie Browen's hand punched through the earth as if it was furious that somebody had allowed the crabgrass to spread so far. The second fist emerged quickly after, its fingers rising to give the guys a ladylike wave.
But it wasn't just a premature hello. Bets was signaling. Get me out! I have business to attend to! Also, my feet are stuck in the coffin again!
They each took hold of a hand and heaved. But gently. Bets would be beside herself if one of her arms popped off this early in the festivities. Luckily she'd already wound new flesh around her old parts, and everything stayed together for the extraction. She heaved out of the earth, shook her hair to release the extra soil, and then flung it back to reveal huge brown eyes in a Tinker Bell face.
"You are so pretty." Josh said this every time they rose, but Bets never tired of it.
She smiled. "I know. It comes of dying young. You are mighty handsome yourself." She poked him with a finger, the tip of which was still bony. "So how is my drunken cuss?"
Josh sighed. "One DUI and I'm stuck with a crap nickname for eternity."
Rindall shrugged. "Well, you did wrap yourself around a telephone pole."
"Can we not talk about me? We've been invoked, people! So where's the party?"
Rindall led them to the corner of Browen farthest from the gravel road that wound past it. A thick wood full of shadows and night-creature noises walled them in on two sides, making for what the ghost hunters liked to call a spooktastic experience. But that was in the dark. Tonight, squint-till-your-eyes-water lights had been set up around a long table covered in red silk. Two television cameras and a long, fat microphone manned by bored looking union men faced the table from different angles.
"There you are!" A sexy young thing dressed in Armani and black pumps tiptoed up to them, trying not to get her heels stuck in any of the mole runs that dominated the Yard. "You're late!" she snapped, her glossy red lips folding in on each other, threatening to leave a stain on her unnaturally white teeth. "Contestants are supposed to arrive half an hour before the show. What happened to you? By the way, I'm Holly. But you knew that." She motioned to three chairs lined up on one side of the table and bustled off to talk to a tiny man wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard.
Rindall, Bets, and Josh exchanged thoughtful glances. The Caterers Rindall had summoned had already turned Holly's real contestants away at the gate. It hadn't been hard. One look at the Caterers' skeletal outlines (the youngest had passed in 1789, so it would be hours before the flesh began to form) had sent the publicity-hungry hounds baying in the opposite direction. Until now, Rindall had never considered the idea of replacing them.
"Oh, why not?" Bets finally whispered. "What's a party without a game of charades?"
Rindall shrugged. Josh grinned, scratching the tip of his completed nose. And they took their seats.
The hostess joined them, taking so long to adjust her clothing, hair, and microphone that Bets forgot her good intentions and reached for the woman's arm with a meat-raking claw.
Rindall slapped the back of her hand. "Cut that out. You know the rules!"
Josh said, "For such a little thing, you eat way more that I ever would have guessed."
The hostess barked out a laugh. "Well, we have plenty to offer you tonight." She nodded to Clipboard man. "Our director, Tony, has found some . . . interesting edibles for you." Another chuckle, but the hardness in her eyes robbed it of humor. "Of course you know how it works on our show. We couldn't call it Scared Stiff if we didn't ask you to subject yourselves to some . . . icky moments."
"We're comfortable with icky," Josh informed her.
She raised a perfect half-moon eyebrow as she eyed his fancy black suit. "But none of you seems to have dressed for it. And what's this?" she asked, fingering Bets's long blue skirt.
"My Sunday best. And a sight more presentable it is than yours," she declared. "You do realize if you lean forward any farther those girls of yours may fall clean out of your blouse? Then where will you be?"
"On the cover of every magazine in America," Holly said with a smirk.
"Thirty seconds!" called Tony.
Holly raised her hand, like she expected time to stop until she was ready to continue. "We need some napkins here. Otherwise our players might ruin their fancy clothes." She touched a long, red-tipped finger to her straight, blonde hair. "How do I look?"
Rindall grinned. "I'd say you look good enough to eat, but Josh keeps telling me that these days comments like that will get me slapped."
"She does look yummy," Bets agreed.
Holly lowered her eyes to half-mast, pleased that the peons were suitably awed.
Tony delivered the napkins and began a short countdown. After which a light went on in front of one of the cameras and Holly sailed into her introduction.
Ignoring the jabber, Rindall checked their perimeter. Vague, misty movement told him that their client and the Caterers were in position. Nodding briefly to his companions, he tuned back in to Holly's spiel.
"So the first game is always a tough one for our contestants." She gave them a friendly smile. Rindall decided he liked her better when she was acting. "But that's why you were chosen for our show. Because you believe you have the guts to meet our challenges."
As she spoke, Tony brought out three covered, plastic bowls and set one in front of each of them. Rindall peered into his and saw a mass of small black spiders. Josh had slugs, and Bets was shaking a container full of maggots.
"What do you want us to do with these?" asked Bets.
"In order to stay on the show, you're going to have to eat them," Holly said brightly. "But if you're Scared Stiff . . ." she paused to give the red-light camera a significant look. "You'll be forced to take the walk of shame."
She pointed out to the Yard, inviting the second camera to look as well. What they all saw was a path lined with the glowing crosses the grieving buy to decorate the graves of their lost ones.
"Now, Holly, that's just tacky," said Rindall. While the hostess worked to keep her smile in place, he went on, "I think we should institute different rules. Starting with freeing these poor, defenseless creatures." Rindall, Josh and Bets popped off their lids and dumped the creepers onto the table. They all immediately crawled to the opposite side, moving in such concert that Rindall wouldn't have been surprised to raise a magnifying glass and see the lead spider waving a flag and playing the retreat on a tiny bugle.
Holly's cheeks blazed. "What? What?"
"I'll show you what." Rindall crooked his forefinger and the Caterers moved forward, easily overpowering Holly's crew and setting them in a manageable bunch at the foot of one of the lights.
"What?" she screeched, digging her fingernails into her cheeks at the sight of nearly thirty skele-men moving like the well-trained regiment they'd once been.
Josh tapped Holly on the shoulder, making her jump and scream. He grinned. "I move quiet for a dead guy, right?" He pointed to his bare feet. "Best sneakers in town! Good enough to turn the tables on you, Miss America. Yeah," he nodded vigorously as her eyes widened, "we're playing a new game now."
"What do you mean?" she croaked.
Josh grinned. "Now, Holly, we've heard that people say you eat interns for breakfast. But we've also been informed you gotta be tough to survive in this business. So instead of shredding you like road kill, we're giving you a choice. The Caterers will offer you three plates of food. Two have been laced with enough arsenic to empty the voting booths in Dubois."
As Josh spoke the Caterers stepped forward, setting a rose-patterned china plate in front of her. It contained three items: a paste made from flour, water, and the ashes of the cremated woman in row nineteen; the deep-fried eyeballs of her newly buried neighbor; and a dead frog that had been gutted and stuffed with wild greens.
"All right" Bets said cheerfully. "You turn, Holly."
Rindall watched her decide, wondering if vanity had anything to do with her choice of the frog. He was sure it would pack on fewer pounds than the other two. And, according to the report, she had personally made a new food group out of diet pills. But no. It probably just seems harder to poison.
She struggled to swallow. And was clutching her severely cramping stomach within five minutes. She jerked forward, nearly hitting her head on the table as pain wracked her. Rindall was amazed that her hair didn't move the entire time. It must be glued with one of those gels Josh had once described. He wished he had some now as he shoved a heavy lock of hair out of his eyes.
"Help me," she gasped.
"Of course. That's the whole point of invocations," said Rindall.
"What do you mean?"
Bets sat her up in her chair so she could gaze into the girl's watery eyes. "We have a cure. But you should know that it comes with side effects."
"I don't care. Give it."
Bets turned to Josh. "You heard the girl."
Josh grinned and knelt at Bets's side. She pulled a paring knife from her skirt pocket. "Just enough," Josh warned.
He turned to Rindall. "Would you do it tonight? You're always quicker than me."
Rindall nodded, stepped forward and clutched Josh by the hair, which grew in straighter and thinner than his. But it still worked as a handhold. "On three," Rindall said. "One. Two." He felt Josh brace under his hand just as Bets reached over to cut off Holly's earlobe. "Bets!" he roared as he yanked. He wasn't sure who jumped the highest. Bets, who hid her hands and sat up straight in her chair, like a kid who's been caught passing notes in school. Or Josh, who could feel the back of his skull coming free in Rindall's fist, the sound of sucking skin and running juices making even their stomachs turn.
Screams from the crew. Followed by a mass escape attempt. For a minute all Rindall could see were scrambling bodies chased by relentless skeletons. Then the caterers snagged the living and dragged them back into the light.
Holly stared with horror as Josh turned to give Bets better access to his wet, eel-sleek brain. Bets sliced off a sliver and put it on her plate.
"Eat it," she said.
Holly shook her head.
Rindall leaned on the table. "If you eat it, you'll be a star."
"Why?" she whispered.
Josh jumped to his feet and pushed the plate toward her. "We've been invoked tonight because your mom's afraid your career's going to go down the toilet if you do another season of this piece of crap show. And she knows that eating my brain will download a sort of aura in you that others will find hu-hu-hot. You'll be on your way, baby. Of course, after you die you'll rise occasionally, just like we do. But that's such a small price to pay. Especially compared to what your mother's paid to invoke us in the first place."
Holly's eyes widened as someone new stepped out of the shadows, adjusting her shiny black jacket as she noted one of the cameras was still recording.
"It's what we always wanted, Holly. You'll be bigger than Angelina Jolie! Can't you just see it? Brad Pitt for a husband? Houses all over the world? Cameras in your face morning, noon, and night?" The lust in Holly's face said she could. Her mom went on, "It'll be worth it. I swear. I had the procedure done a couple of years ago and look at me now!" She held out her arms. "I've lost forty pounds. I look ten years younger. And I've sold every house the market has thrown at me!"
Rindall settled Josh's skull back into place and nodded at two Caterers. Who stepped forward, carving knives in hand.
"What . . . what's that?" Holly swallowed as more Caterers surrounded her. They lifted her to the table as Rindall, Bets and Josh tucked their napkins into their collars.
"Don't worry," Holly's mom said. "It's worth the pain." She smiled as her daughter began to scream. "You'll see, honey. I'm gonna make you a star."
Hey, it's Jaye again. Jennifer has graciously offered an autographed copy of Once Bitten, Twice Shy--book one in her Jaz Parks series. In comments, tell us the weirdest thing you've eaten. Winners will be drawn on Monday.