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Jokers Wyrd

Chapter Text

“I should be back in about an hour, Baby Bro.”

Darnell grimaced as he climbed out of the car. “Cat, don’t call me that. I’m fifteen, for crying out loud!” He shook his head at his sister Catherine’s laugh as she drove off, stuffing his hands in his pockets and glancing to see if anyone had overheard. This was a street full of shops and, on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, plenty of shoppers, but if anyone had heard anything, they didn’t show it.

Huffing softly to let it go, he let his gaze wander over the names of the stores crammed side-by-side in the suites of the long buildings on either side of the road. His last summer job had finally paid him and, even though it was only August yet, he wanted to get a jump on Christmas gifts. He already knew what he was getting his mother and step-dad, and Catherine was easy – money for make-up. A Target gift card would do. It was his middle sister, Linda, who was always so hard to shop for. She had eclectic tastes that ran more or less in a Gothic direction. She liked skulls and Halloween and dark or unusual things, none of which the teen was going to find easily for at least another month. But he could try.

He finally spotted the shop he was looking for, Angela’s Antiques. ‘Antique’ – if it truly was – usually meant expensive, but his buddy in art class had assured him this was more of a low-brow thrift store that just hoped to be an antique shop when it grew up. Even if he couldn’t afford anything in there, Darnell aimed to get some ideas. At worst, maybe he could do a painting for her based on something he spotted.

A chime sounded when he pushed the door open.  It was a common enough convention that he hardly should have noticed it, but it made him flinch all the same, somehow sounding too loud in the stillness. Outside was sunny and warm, but that stopped at the doorframe as if kept out by an unseen barrier. The shop itself was dimly-lit, chill, and crowded with a riot of random miscellany in much the same way that attics always seemed to be portrayed in movies.

“Hello?” Darnell’s voice sounded soft and tentative even in his own ears. He swallowed and tried again, forcing his voice louder to cut into the silence. “Hello?” He looked at the door, double-checking that the ‘OPEN’ side of the sign was indeed facing the window. “Huh . . . maybe they’re just in the back somewhere, in a storage room or the bathroom or something.” He had a bad habit of talking to himself when he was alone. He hesitated another moment, then deliberately stepped over the threshold and let the door close behind him. The place felt creepy as all-get-out, but he knew it was just his imagination and that he was being childish for letting it get to him. Besides, if the very store felt dark and ominous for no real reason he could explain, then surely he’d find something here that his sister would love.

He wandered between the cluttered displays and shelving units, finding the usual aged detritus that he would have expected – carved end tables, lamps with painted glass shades, porcelain figurines by Hummel and LLadro, commemorative plates from events he’d never heard of.

He found himself in the kids’ section, gaze wandering over old board games, tangled marionettes, and off-brand plush animals with matted fur. What the heck he was doing back there, he couldn’t have said. Linda had just joined the Army. There was no way she’d want a toy for Christmas, even a creepy one. Just as he was about to pull himself away from that whole corner of the store, however, something tucked back on a chest-level shelf caught his eye.

It was a jack-in-the-box, old enough that the box was metal instead of plastic. ‘HOWL-O-SCREAM’ read the crimson words on the front within a border of harlequinade diamonds in festive forest and mint greens. “Right, that’s going to make some kid want to play with it,” Darnell muttered. Leaning closer, however, he frowned at a line of bright red that ran down from the hole in the side where the crank arm protruded from within. A thick fluid trailed and pooled on the shelf along the bottom edge of the box. “I-is that . . . ? No, it can’t be.” It was just paint. It had to be, though the consistency was somehow wrong. There was no denying one thing, however – whatever the fluid was, it had spilled out from inside the jack-in-the-box.

Darnell gulped and tried to back away, but instead his hands reached for the toy almost of their own accord, grasping and sliding it forward. His eyes went wide as the crank arm started turning by itself. ‘All Around the Mulberry Bush’ played from within but so slowly and so badly out of tune that the teen almost didn’t recognize it. Dread mounted as the tune jangled, echoing in the musty stillness as it marched inexorably toward the climax. Darnell’s heart thudded in his chest, and he desperately wanted to back away, to run, but his limbs had frozen, hands wrapped around the box as if glued there.

POP goes the weasel!

The thing that jumped out at Darnell when the lid finally clicked open looked like a cross between a court jester and a shark. The eyes gleamed, brows pulled down in a threatening leer. The grin was impossibly wide and full of dagger-sharp teeth. The white gloves sported red blotches that looked undeniably like blood stains. Darnell caught his breath only to yelp a delayed reaction and jump back, tripping on his own feet and crumpling to the floor. He’d let go of the toy finally, but his movements still must have knocked it off the shelf – or did it jump down after him of its own accord? Either way, the terrible thing landed in his lap. Darnell’s heart stopped when the head turned to look up at him, a deep, throaty sound – laughter – burbling up from somewhere within.

“N-no . . . nonononono!” Darnell tried to scramble back from the thing, or pick it up and throw it, but none of his muscles would work right.

The grotesque jack hissed a low snicker, latched onto Darnell’s shirt with both bloody hands, and yanked back. Darnell felt his whole world tilt sideways and spiral out of control. He lost consciousness to an overwhelming sense of vertigo.

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Darnell woke with a start, lying face down on chill concrete. Scrambling, he pushed back to hands and knees, then crouched on his heels and looked around, ready and able to lunge in any direction to get away from . . .

His eyes widened as he took in his surroundings. The nightmarish jack-in-the-box was nowhere to be seen, but neither was the antique store. It was nighttime, long threads of dull-grey clouds in the sky overhead passing like dragging claws across a large, full moon. Darnell was crouched in the middle of a narrow street, but it was unlike any street he’d ever seen. It and the landscape around it were anything but flat and smooth – swelling, twisting, dipping, and rising like the track of a kiddie rollercoaster. Up ahead, the street actually tilted up on its side at a steep angle before bending to disappear around the corner of a building. And the buildings themselves – there were no proper angles or straight edges. They looked like life-sized three-dimensional replicas of buildings reflected in funhouse mirrors, some bulging from their middles as if ready to burst their seams, others curling and looming ominously overhead, from comically narrow at the bottoms to stretched out like taffy at the tops. Everything was edged and decorated in lines of neon tubes or bright lightbulbs – blood red, sickly yellow, ultraviolet purple, ectoplasmic green. Darnell swallowed, stuffing down a choking fear to remain calm as he pushed up to his feet. “This place looks like a Las Vegas side street designed by Tim Burton.”

He flinched at a squeaking sound that approached from somewhere behind him and spun around to the sight of a bear balanced on a unicycle. It wore a striped party hat and ballet-pink tutu. It looked gaunt to Darnell, not that he’d ever seen a bear in person – and don’t they always say that the camera adds pounds? But its fur was badly matted and even missing in patches here and there all over its body. Darnell started to backpedal from the animal, but the poor thing had such a forlorn, frightened, and pleading look on its face that he felt more pity than fear. It wheeled closer, whining softly and reaching for him. The paw was thinly furred, much of the coat looking like it’d been worn off. The claws were all split and broken. Darnell gently took the wounded paw in both his hands and looked up. And caught his breath in shock.

The eyes staring down at him were human.

The bear’s ears perked and a panicked look came over its face. It glanced around, then started trying to push Darnell off the street toward one of the buildings.

“What? What’s wrong? What is it?” On instinct, Darnell kept his voice down, whispering urgently even as he let the bear guide him.

The bear huffed and whimpered, seemingly desperate to communicate better but simply unable. Then it yelped in terror as some two dozen Capuchin monkeys in organ grinder outfits sprang from the shadows all around them. They were eerily silent, mouths sewn shut and eyes the dead glass of a taxidermist’s work. Half of their number swarmed the bear, flailing and clawing viciously, while the other half carried aerosol cans and surrounded Darnell. They danced and darted about as they shot him with thick lines of what looked like Silly String, though they might as well have thrown a sticky fishing net over him. Try as he did, he couldn’t break the colorful threads to free himself. Instead, the strings constricted around him until he was bound head to foot as in a giant spider’s webbing. The monkeys pressed in closer around him. He struggled despite the futility, scared for himself and heartsick at the pained and dying howls of the bear.

He was knocked roughly off his feet and dragged along the streets for several minutes, passing more Tim-Burton-in-Vegas buildings. Despite the number, there was no evidence in the windows or on the street that any of them were occupied – no people, no animals, no vehicles, not even random bits of trash along the curbs or in the gutters. Finally, the buildings gave way to open field, the paved road turning to packed dirt as the monkeys hauled him toward a red and white circus tent. Over the entry sprawled an elaborate sign that read 'The Greatest Show Unearthed.' Sandwich boards stood on either side of the drawn-back flaps. On one, the second and fourth lines of text - 'To The' and 'Show' - had been scribbled out so that the sign now read 'Welcome Freak.' On the other, parts of the text had been spray-painted over so that 'Step Right Up' read 'Fall Right Down.' They drew closer, and a thick, metallic reek hit Darnell just as he realized that the red stripes of the tent were glisteningly wet. With a sick feeling, he suddenly wondered if the canvas panels had been dyed by soaking them in blood.

The inside of the tent wasn't any better. The tent's framework seemed to have been built entirely of bones. The tiers of benches that encircled the center ring consisted of planks of wood with bent nails and rusted screws poking up from underneath. The center ring itself looked like a massive animal spring trap. Overhead, a line of barbed wire served for the high wire while the pair of trapeze swings were bars covered in razor blades hanging from spike-laden chains.

Darnell’s heart hammered in his chest with ever-mounting fright, and he wanted to close his eyes, deny the twisted circus around him, but he couldn’t pull his gaze away from the gruesome sights.

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Continuing toward what amounted for backstage, they pushed through another pair of door flaps into a space that looked like a cross between an office and a bar. Three clowns turned as the monkeys shuffled in with their catch. Compared to everything else he'd seen, Darnell thought that these three looked almost normal. Almost . . . save for the fact that their eyes were nothing more than white, glowing lamps, like flashlights with frosted lenses. On Darnell's right, one clown perched on the edge of a hot dog cart, a slack accordion held between his hands. On the left, a clown stood with all the air of a bodyguard, hands crossed loosely over the handle of a colorful umbrella propped before him like a walking cane. The center clown sat behind a large executive desk, though the handful of bottles on either side of him, and the rows more on the backlit, glass shelves set into the wall behind him, made him look as much bartender as business mogul. The desk chair was an ornate high-back, though most of its splendor was covered by a pair of massive, knobby, green-skinned hands with long, black nails sharpened to claw-tips, the fingers curling over and around the edges of the backrest from behind. Darnell gulped, not wanting to see the rest of the ogre that must have been crouched down in hiding.

The mogul bartender clown stood and grinned down at Darnell, revealing a mouthful of glass shards for teeth. "Well, well, what have you brought me, pets? A new animal for the collection?" He came around from behind his desk and crouched over Darnell, who was suddenly getting 'The Godfather' vibes. "Too scrawny for a bear or tiger, let alone an elephant. Too short for a giraffe. Hm, maybe a zebra. Those are always fun." He poked and prodded. "My, my, but aren't you just all spindly limbs. Perhaps a giraffe after all. We'll call you a pigmy."

The accordion clown chortled. "Funny, boss. I like it."

"W-who are you people? What do you want?" Darnell had finally found his voice again.

The mob boss clown ignored him, giving the accordion clown a contemptuous glance. "Of course you do." He looked at the monkeys. "Take him to the car while we prepare." He glanced at the bodyguard clown to include him. The bodyguard clown nodded and shifted to follow the monkeys.

The monkeys dragged Darnell to the left and through another tent-flap door. They were once more outside. The monkeys pulled him up to what looked like a Volkswagen Beetle painted by kindergartners, sporting a giant wind-up key off the back where the engine would have been on older models. A clown car, Darnell realized. Of course, it is. He was shoved inside by the monkeys, who then backed off as the bodyguard clown crouched down next to him.

"Well now," the clown murmured with a leer, "can't have you suffocating or something, right? Here." He stepped back and closed the door, pulled a window crank handle from a pocket, and rolled down the window a bit - the hole for the window crank was on the outside of the door. Though the car had only the one door on each side, and a back seat - so that normally it would only have had two windows each - somehow it had three to a side, with a narrow middle window between the front-seat and rear-seat windows. The clown rolled the front window down just enough to tease, enough to reach an arm through, maybe even work his head through, but not enough to escape through. He did the same with the middle and rear windows, then put the crank handle back in his pocket. "There. Now . . . do hold still. This will work better if you do." With that, he pressed his chest to the side of the car, making sure that the plastic flower on his ruffled collar was in the gap at the top of the front window. From it shot a wide spray of what Darnell hoped was water, but as it splashed across the strands that wrapped him, it dissolved them as if with acid. Mercifully, whatever the fluid really was, it did no more harm to him than get him wet.

The clown crouched farther down again to give Darnell a jeering grin as the teen hurriedly brushed the remnants of Silly String from his clothes and scrambled across the seats to press back against the passenger door. As he did, the hip pocket of his jeans caught on the head of the gearshift, the long shaft snapping off at the base. The clown tutted at him, clicking his tongue. His breath gave new meaning to the phrase ‘sickly sweet,’ reeking of gumdrops and disease. “Now, now, none of that. Not polite to go breaking other people’s things without permission.”

“Not polite to go kidnapping and holding people against their will, either!” Darnell shot back despite his terror.

“Kidnap?” The clown let out a raucous laugh that somehow sounded like a feral growl. “Who’s the intruder here? Not I. The monkeys only bring in trespassers, dear boy. You came to us.” His grin widened, his gums embedded with dog collar spikes in place of teeth. “And now it’s our turn.” He stood and walked back toward the big top, cackling. The monkeys dispersed and faded soundlessly back into the shadows.

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Shaking in fright, Darnell pulled his knees to his chest, curling up as he fought to calm his breathing and his racing heart. “Come on . . . get a grip . . . no panicking . . . head clear . . . t-there’s a way out, just . . . just have to calm down and find it.” He panted in and out with the first few phrases, but the act of speaking the words aloud, of telling himself what he needed to do and hearing it, helped slow his breathing and soothe his frayed nerves. Looking down at the passenger foot well, he found and picked up the tall gearshift, grimacing at the head. It was a literal head, the knob sculpted in the shape of a creepy clown head. Because of course it was. Gripping the shaft in both hands, he shifted his feet under him and lunged at the opposite window, hoping to shatter the glass with the ugly clown-head knob.

The shaped knob bounced off the clear surface with a boing! that belonged in a cartoon. Darnell however found no humor in it, crying out in pain as he flinched back and then slumped sideways onto the steering wheel with one hand clapped over his forehead where the clown-head had clubbed him on rebound. “Ow. O-okay, Plan B. Please tell me there’s a Plan B.” He tossed down the gearshift and started searching the rest of the car.

Working himself into the backseat, he spotted the corner of a handkerchief peeking up from between the seat cushions. He pulled the kerchief out, only to find the diagonal corner knotted with the corner of another kerchief, and that one knotted to a third. Feeling like a cheap stage magician, Darnell kept drawing out kerchiefs until he had a rope of sorts at least three feet in length. With the end, he also pulled out a handful of Pixie Stix tubes. He had no idea what he might use them for - he sure as heck wasn't going to eat them! - but he stuck them in his pocket all the same. He sat back and looked at the kerchief rope in his hands. “There has to be a way I can use this.”

He gazed around, attention drawn back to the windows. “If I can’t break the glass outright, maybe I can pop the panes out somehow.” He looked at the rope again, and the gearshift lying under the foot pedals up front, and back at the windows – at the two center frames. “Huh…yup, that should work.” He huffed. “It’d better!”

He scrambled back over into the driver’s seat, then reclined the seatback as far as it would go. Casting quick glances left and right to make sure no one was nearby to catch him at this, he snaked one end of the kerchief rope out the front window, across, and back in through the rear window, and tied it off to form a loop around the two center window frames, leaving a little bit of slack. He snatched up the gearshift again, passed the shaft between the rope and window, and gave it a quick twist, trapping the shaft in a loop of rope. And then he kept twisting, working the gearshift like the crank handle of a table vice and tightening the loop on the window frames, bending them ever so slightly towards each other.

Drat! he thought, huffing with his efforts – this took almost more strength than he possessed. The window is bowing a little, but it’s bending inward. If I try to kick it out, the edges will just jam into the frames. He glanced at the front and rear windows. But maybe the frames are loosening just enough on the other two…

On the third try – twist-twist, kick! twist-twist, kick! – the front window bucked free of the door frame with a loud SPROING! that made Darnell flinch and look around again. He eased off the tension of the rope, knowing that if he just let go, the gearshift would spin and likely clock him hard. Several twists in the other direction, and he finally dropped the gearshift, climbed out the window, and darted away to hide behind the nearest circus wagon and retake stock of his situation.

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There were several wagons of all shapes and sizes clustered in the yard, most of them animal cages. The various animals within had been watching Darnell with interest, but as soon as he was free of the clown car, a great commotion rose up all around him. The teen yelped and spun away from the cage he'd pressed his back to when a paw reached over his shoulder, the claws catching ineffectually at his shirt as he twisted free. He turned to face a lion pressed up against bars made of hardened black and red licorice twists. Like the bear on the unicycle, the lion's claws were all broken and ragged, its once-proud mane little more than patches of scraggly tufts around its head. Darnell could see the poor beast's ribs and hip bones. It gazed at him with desperate pleading in its eyes.

In its very human eyes.

Darnell felt his stomach drop with a sickening lurch as he recalled the boss clown's words. His voice shook as he gasped out, "Y-you're . . . you're human . . . aren't you?" The lion mewled, then purred at him as if trying to coax him.

Let me out!

Darnell looked around at the other cages. Leopards, rhinos, seals, and more clawed at their cage frames, threw themselves against the bars, or just stared at him, reaching for him, and roaring, trumpeting, howling at him.

Help us! Free us!

Horror and grief warred for attention within Darnell, his eyes blurring with tears as his heart pounded once more in his chest. With all the ruckus the animals were raising, he knew he only had moments, maybe seconds, before the clowns came to see what was going on. He knew he should take flight, but he couldn't just leave all these poor souls. Casting his gaze about, he spotted a bucket of juggling pins next to one of the wagons. He snatched up a pin in each hand, then turned and swung one at the lock of the nearest cage's door. He didn't actually think it would work, but to his shock, the padlock shattered as if made of sugar glass. The gaunt tiger within rammed the door open with its head and leaped free without a second's hesitation. Darnell hesitated no longer either, darting among the wagons and wielding the juggling pins like baseball bats to smash padlocks left and right. All three clowns came bolting out of the big top just then, frighteningly quick and agile despite their baggy clothes and oversized shoes. The animals scattered as they sprang from their cages, some darting away among the wagons and beyond, others charging the clowns or turning on the monkeys as they appeared from all around, the abused beasts raging against their tormentors. Darnell used the confusion to spare time to free the rest of the animals before throwing down the juggling pins and fleeing.

Beyond the cage wagons were game booths and vending carts. Spray paint had changed the sign over one stall from 'Kissing Booth' to 'Killing Booth.' The popcorn stand was crawling with roaches. The shooting gallery looked like the site of a blood bath. Darnell passed carts selling 'eye scream' and 'rotten candy', and a ring toss booth that consisted of candy necklaces to be flung at severed hands mounted on the back wall. Darnell did a double-take at a stall that he thought at first sold candied apples until he realized the 'apples' had faces. They looked like someone had dipped baby doll heads. At least, he hoped they were from dolls. And here and there around him were clusters of festive helium balloons gently bobbing and swaying in the air above their moorings, all of them covered in crimson paint splatters. Or what Darnell told himself were just paint splatters.

He was passing a fortune teller booth with a life-sized - or death-sized, as the case may be - Grim Reaper prop standing within when he heard the clowns approaching, snarling curses and promising all manner of horrific 'fun' when they caught the troublemaker. Darnell cast about for a place to hide, but movement out of the corner of his eye made him pause to turn and look up at the Grim Reaper. Pinpoints of light within the otherwise empty hood shifted and looked down at him. Darnell yelped in fright and turned to run, but a quick scythe hooked around in front of him, catching him across the chest. The teen panicked for an instant, knowing that the sharp edge of a scythe blade was along the inside of the curve, but this one was blunt to the point of rounded and seemed to be made of cheap plastic, like a costume prop from Party City. All the same, it had the strength of steel as Death pulled him backwards. Darnell stumbled, too off-balance to free himself, until he felt the counter of the booth across the back of his waist. Death threw an arm out and across above his head, flinging its floor-length sleeve over Darnell like a burial mantle.

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Too frightened to move or cry out, Darnell could do no more than stare, breath sticking in his throat, as the clowns came into view, looking the worse for wear and out for blood. Like gazing through a black, gauzy curtain, he could see the furious trio with little problem and was sure they'd spot him just as easily. The clowns drew close, looking all over in every possible little hiding spot, including the bodyguard clown stepping up right next to Darnell to bend over the counter and look into the stall behind him. The clown even looked right at him for an instant - or so he thought - before looking away. The clowns continued their murderous hunt, moving off and disappearing from sight around a beanbag game stand.

Darnell's breath came in shallow, ragged pants as the Grim Reaper behind him drew back its sleeve. The teen turned to look up. "Uh . . . t-thank you." Shaky as that was, it was sincere. And yes, he did find the irony in having his life saved by Death.

The Grim Reaper inclined its head - or at least the hood that draped where a head should have been - then reached under the counter and drew out an object to offer to Darnell with one skeletal hand. It was a rubber chicken.

Darnell gaped for a moment, but when Death held it closer, obviously insisting, he accepted it tentatively. "Ah . . . thank you. Again." He had no idea what he'd want with a rubber chicken, but if Death itself seemed to think he needed it, who was he to argue?

The Grim Reaper gave another ponderous nod, then stretched out its hand to point off to Darnell's right. Interrupting the tall fence that lined the property stood a shack with a sign above the door. Spray paint over the word ‘Enter’ changed the sign to read ‘Exit At Your Own Risk.’ More graffiti work had sprayed the words ‘KEEP OUT’ across the door itself. Darnell looked up at Death with a nod of acknowledgement and bolted for the shack.

The door was secured with a massive padlock. Hopeful, Darnell slammed the lock with the rubber chicken, but this one didn’t shatter like the others had. He didn’t have time to look for a pair of bolt cutters. Scaling the fence was out – before making it to the barbed wire along the top, he’d have to contend with the countless needles stuck into every joint of the chain-link fence. The door was his only way. And he was beginning to hear the approaching voices of the clowns again.

Huffing in frustration and fear, Darnell stuck his hands in his pockets as he turned to look around for ideas, but then flinched and pulled his hands back out, one of them closed around the half-dozen Pixie Stix he’d found earlier. The ends were crumpled and bent and reminded him of something, though he couldn’t think what. Then it hit him. As a novelty, his sister Linda had taught herself, and then him, to pick locks. He looked between the padlock and the candy tubes. It didn’t make sense, but he’d already seen and experienced so many things that didn’t make sense. With nothing else to lose, he tucked the rubber chicken under one arm and set to work, plying the Pixie Stix like lockpicks in the large keyhole.

The lock opened with a satisfying click just as the loud, obnoxious buzz of a kazoo blared behind him. He looked over his shoulder and yelped in alarm at the sight of an organ grinder monkey, kazoo in hand and dead eyes fixed on him. It started for him as its brethren appeared from all corners to close in as well. Panicking, Darnell fumbled the lock off the door and the door open, darting in and slamming the door behind him in time to hear and feel the thud of the first monkey hit the other side. The door didn’t close all the way, however, caught on the monkey’s reaching arm. The monkey struggled, Darnell heard a tearing sound, and the door suddenly closed, the monkey’s severed forearm falling to the ground at Darnell’s feet. Instead of blood and bone, however, the arm proved to be stuffed with some kind of filler. Taxidermy crossed Darnell’s mind once more, and he shuddered, gulping, before dragging his gaze back up to the door in the hopes of finding a deadbolt or some other way to secure it from the inside.

The door was gone.

Gasping, Darnell backpedaled, then turned to take in the room he’d entered. It was perfectly square and completely empty. The walls and floor were covered in harlequinade diamonds in festive forest and mint greens. Darnell’s eyes widened in horror as he remembered where he’d seen the pattern before. A deep, throaty sound – laughter – burbled down from somewhere above. Darnell looked up and cried out at the sight of the monstrous jack from the antique shop – now looming over him like King Kong – mounted atop the center of the transparent ceiling. It bobbed side to side, mocking its prisoner.

I’ve got you, I’ve got you! Whatcha gonna do about it?

And then the walls started closing in, the whole room shrinking around him.

“No . . . no! Blast it, let me out!” Beyond panic and horror, Darnell had had enough. Grasping the rubber chicken by the legs like a baseball bat, he swung it at one wall in sheer, desperate frustration. He paused to gape in shock as spiderweb cracks spread across the wall, the chicken’s beak having struck with the force of a window breaker’s point. The jack’s laughter turn to snarls of rage as Darnell set into the wall with ferocious determination. Two strikes, three, four, five, and suddenly the whole room burst into shards, as if Darnell had been caught inside a glitter-filled balloon or a confetti popper.

“Oy! You! What the hell do you think you’re doing!?”

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Darnell found himself laying slumped over on his left shoulder. He sat up quickly to the sight of the antique shop around him. A portly hag of a woman stood over him, glaring.

The shopkeeper pointed at the floor. “You know how it goes, boy. You break it, you buy it.”

Darnell turned to find the shattered remains of the jack-in-the-box on the floor next to him. A little rubber chicken keychain ornament lay among the broken pieces. Gasping, Darnell skittered back and jumped to his feet. The woman hesitated at the sight of his obvious terror, clearly not having expected it. Darnell looked at her, down at the ruined toy, gulped loudly, and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket with hands still shaking with fright. He didn’t even pay attention to how many bills he grasped as he told her, “I’ll pay for it, but I’m not leaving with that thing!” He shoved the bills into the bewildered shopkeeper’s hands, then turned and bolted for the door, blinded by the sudden brilliance of the welcoming afternoon sun but not stopping until he heard his sister Catherine calling his name. Doubling back reluctantly – he didn’t want to be within a country mile of that creepy store and its house-of-horror stock – he found Catherine’s car and threw himself into the passenger’s seat, shaking and panting hard.

“I’ve been sitting here for almost an hour, numb-nuts. Where the hell have you-?” Catherine stopped as she got a good look at him, and her irritation turned to concern. “Darnell? What happened?”

“I . . . I-I . . . “ He swallowed, wrestling down his racing heart and mind. “S-sorry, Cat. I, uh, I got . . . a little tied up in something. T-thought I’d found something for Linnie, but, um, n-no.” He finally looked over at her, giving her a weak grin. “Guess I let it freak me out a little too much. Dumb, I know. I’m sorry. Let’s just . . . let’s just go home. I’ll buy you a milkshake if you want to swing through a Wendy’s first, to help make up for having to wait so long.” Simple as they were – even Catherine admitted as much – she was a sucker for Wendy’s chocolate milkshakes.

Catherine studied him another moment. He could see that she knew he wasn’t telling her the whole truth, but she finally just nodded. “A large. And you’ve got dishes tonight.” It was technically her turn for that chore.

Darnell nodded. “Deal.”

Catherine started the car and pulled out into traffic.


Special Agent Darnell Barrett sat at a bar with his agent handler, British Intelligence Officer Thomas Blackwell of the Royal Security Service. The young American detective had just taken the assignment that would attach him to Britain’s MI5 with occasional work for the queen herself, and he and his new contact were taking some downtime to get to know each other.

Almost from the moment they’d first met, Thomas had expressed admiration for Darnell’s ability to keep a cool head even when dealing with unbelievable instances, cases with a supernatural element to them. It was, Thomas had observed, as if he’d dealt with the like before. And on the walk to the pub, they’d passed a toy store, and Thomas asked what was wrong when Darnell grimaced at the bright display of clowns and other circus trappings instead of finding it cute and joyful. Little could the older operative have guessed that the answers to both questions stemmed from the same experience.

Darnell took a long swig of his Guinness before setting the tankard down with a shrug. “Part of me wishes I’d grabbed and kept that keychain. As it is, I’ve thought about trying to find another one. I’m sure they’re sold somewhere. I mean . . . really.  When the Grim Reaper hands you a rubber chicken, you say thank you and take it. But there you go. THAT is why I don’t like clowns.”

Thomas gave a low whistle, shaking his head at the extraordinary tale. “Can’t say I blame you, mate.”