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Night of the Mannequins

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‘Sooooooo,’ Claudia said, drawing the word out as long as it could go on one breath, ‘that’s why you have to come to the Halloween Fair with me tonight.’

Myka turned and eyed her over the top of the clipboard she was holding. ‘I thought Pete was going with you?’

Claudia made an impatient face. ‘That’s what I’ve been telling you this whole time! Pete said he would but he tripped over in the nuclear aisle earlier and he has to stay indoors until he stops glowing.’

‘It’s not really my sort of thing, Claudia…’

‘Oh, come on, please please please please please? I promise you’ll have a great time. It’s in this cool old mansion on the edge of town, they say it’s really haunted...’

‘Uh-uh,’ Myka turned back to the shelf and started ticking off the artifacts on her list. Everlasting paint palette - check. George Eliot’s fountain pen - check. Queen Victoria’s crochet hook - check.

‘I don’t know, mightn’t it be interesting?’ said Helena, peering at the two of them from the other side of the shelf, where she was cataloguing too.

Myka put the pen and clipboard down on the shelf, and crossed her arms. ‘You want to go?’

Helena shrugged elegantly. ‘I’ve been learning about modern Halloween celebrations, it all sounds rather fun.’

‘...oh,’ said Myka. ‘Well... I guess it couldn’t hurt...’

‘Yes!’ Claudia bounced on her toes, grinning. ‘All right, so, we should probably wrap up here - come on, come on, chop chop, time waits for no agents!’

And she was off down the corridor.

‘I’m finished here, if you are?’ Helena said, watching Claudia’s departure with amusement.

‘Yeah, I’m done, I guess,’ said Myka, pocketing her pen and grabbing her clipboard to hand back in to Artie. She’d been so sure she was going to succeed in avoiding Halloween this year.

* * *

It wasn’t as bad as Myka had feared - nobody was jumping out at them or shouting or acting obnoxious. It was gloomy and cobwebby and there were spooky noises playing in the background, but there were lots of other people around, and the only scary things so far were the zombie mannequins from the local wax museum, and they weren’t even very realistic.

Myka had declined to wear a costume. Helena was getting into the spirit with some dramatically dark make-up and Claudia was dressed as some sort of character from a computer game, although Myka couldn’t have said which one. Something multicoloured and Japanese.

‘Hey, take a picture for me?’ Claudia said, handing Helena her phone. She threw her arm around the shoulders of one of the zombies and grinned.

‘Keep going,’ she told Helena, flinging her leg around the zombie’s waist and kissing it on the cheek.

Helena clicked away obligingly.

A crowd of teenagers came running through just then, barging past Myka. She fell back against the wall, and heard something crack.

‘Hey!’ she yelled, but they were long gone already, heading towards the ghost exhibit further along the hall.

‘Myka? What’s wrong?’ Helena was by her side, concerned.

Myka sighed. ‘Oh, nothing... just kids being kids...’

She found the source of the noise she’d heard - she put her hand in her pocket and it came out covered in dark liquid.

‘I guess my pen broke,’ she said, examining her inky fingers. ‘Claudia, do you know if there’s a bathroom in this place?’

Claudia frowned. ‘Uh... yeah, I think there’s one by the entrance but when we went by earlier there was a pretty long line...’

‘You can borrow my handkerchief, it’s clean,’ Helena said, offering it.

Myka shook her head. ‘No, it’ll be ruined.’

‘It’s just a handkerchief, Myka, I don’t mind...’ Helena said.

‘Well, why don’t you just clean it off on one of these fake zombies?’ Claudia suggested. ‘They’re all gross and stained anyway, nobody’ll notice the difference.’

Myka screwed up her face for a moment - it sounded a bit too much like vandalism - but Claudia was probably right. Nobody would notice. She fished the leaky pen out of her pocket and dropped it in the nearest trash can, and then wiped her inky fingers on several of the zombies, so that she wouldn’t leave one big mark on any of them.

‘Feel better?’ Helena asked, when Myka was done.

‘I’m fine, let’s keep going,’ said Myka.

* * *

Helena was having the time of her life. She’d eaten a handful of candy corn with horrified fascination, effusively praised several children in costumes, examined the winners of a Jack-o-lantern contest, listened to a scary story (and been dragged away before she could interrupt to tell one of her own), and asked about a million questions, which Myka and Claudia were answering using a combination of things Myka remembered reading, and Google on Claudia’s phone.

‘Why corn?’ she was asking now. ‘Is it to coincide with the harvest? And who decided to make sickly-sweet artificial corn? And why does... ooh, those are good, aren’t they?’

She was pointing at the doorway. A zombie was shambling through it, groaning. Nearby, kids were giggling, daring each other to go near. Another zombie followed the first.

‘That’s an excellent costume,’ said Helena. ‘Perhaps I should have worn something like that. I used to adore costume parties. Back in London...’

‘Uh... guys?’ said Claudia.

‘I know,’ said Myka grimly. ‘That’s not a costume. That’s one of the waxwork zombies.’

‘And they’ve managed to animate it?’ said Helena. ‘How clever! I didn’t realise that was possible.’

Claudia shook her head. ‘It’s not.’

‘Oh. Artifact?’

‘Probably,’ said Myka. ‘We should clear everyone out of here, just in case they’re...’

Just then one of the kids got too close and the first zombie bit her on the shoulder.

‘... dangerous,’ finished Myka.

The kid was screaming, and running, and suddenly the room was full of zombies and people trying to run away. A few people managed to get past them, but there were lots of them and they looked vicious and deadly, their dead eyes staring, their fingernails like ragged claws, their teeth yellow and bared.

‘Everyone, calm down!’ Myka yelled, but there was too much noise already for anyone to hear her.

There was another scream as someone else was bitten, a teenager dressed as Velma from Scooby Doo.

‘Will their bites do anything if they’re just mannequins?’ Helena wondered.

‘I hope we don’t have to find out...’ said Myka.

The zombies were still coming. They were blocking the way out, and there were a couple of dozen people milling about in helpless terror.

‘We need barricades,’ said Claudia. ‘And weapons. You, you and you,’ she pointed at three teenagers wearing pale make-up and dark capes, ‘you’re with me. Move some of these stalls, make a barrier.’

She swept some children’s crafts off the first table and flipped it on its side to demonstrate. The kids got the idea and flipped the next few tables, making a solid barrier. Myka and Helena herded everyone in, and then followed them to confer with Claudia.

‘What happened?’ Helena asked. ‘What’s the artifact?’

‘It’s pretty weird that this happened while we were here...’ said Claudia. ‘Did either of you see anything strange near the zombies when we got here? Did anything...’

Myka made a noise of frustration. ‘I know exactly what happened,’ she said. ‘It was the pen. These are all the zombies I wiped the ink on. And earlier I was cataloguing...’

‘George Eliot’s fountain pen!’ said Helena.

‘Exactly, and I must have picked it up by mistake when I was done...’

‘Wait, what does it do?’ asked Claudia.

‘George Eliot’s pen makes anything it touches more realistic... I guess spilling the whole thing was enough to make these zombies come to life...’

‘So we just need to neutralise the pen,’ said Helena.

‘Which is in a trash can, back thataway,’ said Claudia, pointing a thumb at the doorway the zombies were blocking.

‘So we fight our way past,’ said Helena. ‘There’s only, what, a dozen of them?’

‘This is exactly why I didn’t want to come,’ said Myka tightly.

Claudia raised her eyebrows.

‘They seem to move relatively slowly...’ said Helena.

‘You know this stuff, Claudia,’ Myka said. ‘What kills zombies?’

‘Headshot,’ said Claudia, miming shooting one of the zombies, and then demonstrating with her hands and a little “pow” noise how the head might explode.

‘... without terrifying any civilians?’ Myka suggested.

Claudia shrugged. ‘Any blow to the head should at least slow them down, and we should only need enough time to neutralise the pen. Hey, kid,’ she turned to a small girl nearby who was wearing a baseball uniform. ‘There a bat that comes with that outfit?’

There was. The girl handed it over with an admiring look at Claudia.

‘All right,’ said Myka. ‘We’ll just have to rush them, and hope one of us gets through. Ready?’

The zombies were lurching closer.

‘Now or never,’ said Claudia.

‘Go!’ said Myka.

She leaped over the makeshift barricade and punched the nearest zombie in the gut.

‘The head!’ Claudia shouted.

Myka followed up with an elbow to the zombie’s head that sent it reeling. A few feet away, Claudia was swinging the bat. It made contact with a zombie’s chin with a thwacking sound, and the zombie fell to the ground.

‘Yeah!’ Claudia did a short victory dance, incorporating a swing at the next zombie. It ducked, but not quickly enough. She whooped.

Myka had made it halfway across the room when a zombie grabbed her. She couldn’t get a good angle to hit its head, and it was surprisingly strong. She yelled and twisted in its grasp, trying to avoid the teeth that lowered towards her arm.

A flying fist knocked the zombie off its feet, and it took Myka down with it. A hand grabbed hers and pulled her up. Myka looked up. Helena smiled.

‘Come on,’ she said.

They stood back-to-back, fending off the zombies, moving gradually across the room. Nearby Claudia was having the time of her life with the baseball bat. Myka felled one last zombie with a kick, and she and Helena escaped into the corridor beyond.

Thankfully the rest of the way was clear - they pounded down the corridors, swung into the room and headed straight for the trash can. Myka pulled a neutralizer bag from her pocket while Helena rummaged among the candy wrappers for the leaking pen.

‘Aha!’ she said, brandishing it. Myka opened the bag, Helena dropped the pen in, and the bag sparked as Myka sealed it.

Myka straightened up, pushing her hair back from her face. ‘Think we did it?’

Sudden chatter from down the corridor seemed to confirm it. They headed back and met Claudia halfway. She was dusty and scratched and still swinging the baseball bat, and she was surrounded by a flock of pre-teen admirers.

‘Yeah, I took ‘em all out,’ she was saying. ‘Nothing to worry about.’

She posed for a picture with the girl in the baseball uniform.

‘I think I need a drink,’ said Myka.

‘I think that’s a good idea,’ said Helena. ‘Claudia?’

Claudia shook her head. ‘I’m going for milkshakes with my fan club here. See you back home?’

Helena smiled in response, and looped her arm around Myka’s, and they walked out into the night.