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The Dead Next Door

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Being a security guard was never easy. Especially not in the summer when the kids were let loose, and tourists flocked, and the heat drove everyone a special kind of insane. Especially not in a town like Santa Carla, the land of the weird, wild, and wonderful, where all the country's miscreants and mischief makers seemed to congregate. It was exhausting, but less so than it used to be. It wasn't just experience finally building up enough to make the job a little more easy, more tolerable. Something was wrong, and Rick Bolan couldn't put his finger on it.

Santa Carla had changed.

On the surface, everything had stayed the same. The kids were weird and only getting weirder, the tourists annoying and clueless as ever. There were still fights to break up and thieves to track down, gangs of hoodlums to shoo off the boardwalk. But there was something in the air, or rather, there wasn't, that made the back of Rick's neck prickle as the sun slowly began its descent below the horizon and the boardwalk came alive with lights and sounds. It felt deserted somehow, haunted. The way a school felt after hours, empty of students and faculty and fundamentally different from its usual self even though nothing had actually changed. It felt, almost, like he was holding his breath, waiting for something that he wasn't actually sure would come; wasn't sure he wanted to come. It was unnerving, shook him to the core.

The heat. It had been a long summer. It must be getting to him.

Rick sighed. The bulletin board had been mostly empty for a while now. For the first time in years the cork that had been buried beneath layers of missing peoples fliers was exposed, looking almost new despite its age. There were fluorescent advertisements for the end of the season concerts; pages declaring rooms for rent or jobs that were hiring; a vandalised pamphlet for the Church of Latter Day Saints. He pulled a sheet from the bundle he carried in his bag and stapled it in the direct center of the board. Something felt right as he took a step back to regard the face staring blankly out across the boardwalk, the lips not quite managing a smile, the hair styled into its picture day best. It felt normal.

Jane Harrison. Missing since August 9, 1989.

Perhaps Santa Carla hadn't changed after all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Santa Carla had changed, and Edgar Frog was glad for it. But he'd never expected it to last.

He couldn't say that he'd been especially surprised when, after a long day of surfing, he had walked past that familiar bulletin board and from the corner of his eye saw Jane Harrison's face staring at him blankly from within the confines of a poster. Still, he felt a jolt of fear run down his spine and he had dropped his board in shock.

No.

On shaking legs he rushed back home. He was alone; Alan working, his parents god knows where. It was good to be alone, but at the same time so much worse. Silently, like a hunter, he crept to his room and locked the door behind him. He leaned heavily against the door and allowed himself to slide slowly to the floor, panting, his heart pounding. This was bullshit. He knew it would happen, sooner or later, had been prepared the way he'd always been, back before his suspicions had ever been confirmed. The crosses had remained nailed to the walls, jugs of holy water concealed around the house, an arsenal of stakes ready and waiting deep within his closet. Still, he felt woefully unprepared, even with the knowledge that he had defeated them once always at the forefront of his mind. Like a little boy lost in the woods, he was alone and scared and had no idea what to do.

Fuck that.

Truth. Justice. The American way.

He was a god damn vampire hunter.

The night passed in silent determination. He broke his surfboard and whittled the pieces into deadly points. Like a good soldier, he readied his gear, and when Edgar dropped a pack of essentials into Alan's room at three in the morning, his elder brother looked at him for a moment before tilting his head in an almost imperceptible nod.

Obviously, mistakes had been made. They had been young, inexperienced. But now they had practice, knew what to do.

He made the call early in the morning.

"What?" The voice was tired, annoyed. Edgar hadn't slept; the adrenaline thrumming through his veins would not have allowed him. He'd woken Sam, and Sam had never been a morning person.

"They're back."

This time, there would be no mistakes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

California had nothing on the Arizona heat. The sun beat down hot and heavy, pinking skin that had long ago freckled and bronzed, and was so bright that even hidden behind his sunglasses Sam couldn't help but squint. This close to the shore the sound of the waves drowned out the children screaming on the boardwalk, though the smell of the water was just as bad as it had been that first day he'd arrived. The sand was cool beneath his back and soft between his toes. He could lay there for hours, days, years, content to melt into the sand like a discarded popsicle, never to be bothered again.

Unfortunately, Edgar was rather determined to be a bother.

"You're over-reacting." Sam wondered if Edgar was both physically and mentally incapable of relaxing or if he simply didn't know how to. He sat stiffly in the sand, legs crossed and back straight, glaring resolutely at the horizon as if it had spit on his grave. He wore red flannel open over a grey t-shirt, green cargo pants, and heavy old combat boots. Thankfully, he had stopped wearing those headbands sometime around his sixteenth birthday, and instead let his hair hang long and free. "It's only what? Like the fifteenth or something? She could still turn up."

Sam still dressed obnoxiously in overlarge clothes with bright colours and ugly patterns. He grew lankier by the day and looked as alien as ever.

"Do we even want her to turn up, at this point?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "Better alive than dead."

Edgar grunted. "Better dead than undead."

Sighing, Sam sat up, shoved his sunglasses into his curly hair so he'd be able to glare at his friend properly. "Do you have any proof besides this? I know you keep an eye on things, I do too. The only thing that stinks around here are those Surf Nazis." He wrinkled his nose. "Seriously, steal some deodorant or something."

Edgar ignored him. "We should go take a look around, check everything out, just to make sure."

"Hmm?" Sam had flopped back down into the sand. "Check what out?"

Edgar shot him a dark look.

"Urgh! What? No! That place is fucking gross." He shoved his sunglasses back over his eyes, pouting. "Man, I thought we were done with this shit."

"So did I." But Sam could tell by the slight tilt of his mouth and the quirk of his eyebrow that Edgar was secretly pleased that they weren't.

"Why don't we talk to Jane's friends before we do anything suicidal? Maybe she just went down to San Francisco for a festival or something."

"Does Jane even have any friends?"

"Uh—" Sam faltered, began to grasp at straws. His face lit up. "Andy talked to her! They were lab partners. Maybe she'll know something?" His tone was hopeful, too hopeful.

"She won't know shit." Edgar stood. "We'll go tomorrow. I'll tell Alan."

Sam whined. "Do we have too?"

Edgar's nod was short and stern. Sam groaned and scrambled to follow him up the beach.

"This is ridiculous!"

"It's the only way we can know for sure."

"God damn it."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They biked to the Bluff. The Frogs didn't have a car and Grandpa hadn't let Sam borrow his. The ride was long and tiring, and Sam prayed to whatever fucked up gods there were out there that there weren't any vampires nesting deep within the abandoned hotel, if only because he hardly had the energy to deal with them.

The Frog Brothers, on the other hand, had a seemingly unending supply of energy.

Sam mused to himself—as he often did, as he was the only one who truly appreciated his genius—that it was probably a surplus of the energy that normal people used to express their emotions.

This was the third time Sam had been to the Bluff since he moved to Santa Carla. The first time wasn't exactly the greatest time he'd ever had at the beach, but shit if it didn't leave one hell of an impression. The second time had been...after. Michael had convinced them to go investigate the fallout and help him to collect Star and Laddie's things. They'd gone near dusk, and it had been awful. The place still stank, and the imprint that the vampires left behind was deep and prominent, pulsating and angry like an infected wound. The atmosphere had pressed down on him, sucked the heat from his body and left him feeling ill. He didn't expect it to be like that this time. The wound had had plenty of time to close. There would be a definite vibe, that he didn't doubt for a second, and he had prepared himself accordingly. He'd been listening to dopey pop songs all day, there was no way you could be scared with Love Shack on constant repeat in your head. He was sure of it.

Edgar and Alan had also prepared themselves accordingly. Edgar shoved a stake, a rosary, and a supersoaker full of holy water at Sam. Sam rolled his eyes. He didn't doubt the vibes, but he did doubt the vampires.

The view from the Bluff was actually quite lovely. He hadn't had the chance to properly appreciate it the other times he'd been there. To his right he could see the entirety of the boardwalk, much less dazzlingly now that it was officially the Off Season. There were people, very few, looking like nothing more than technicoloured ants scuttling from one shop to the next.

It was nice. He wondered if there'd ever be a time when he could come up there without feeling like he was on the verge of a heart attack.

"Hey, is that Andy?"

There, down on the rocky shore. It could have been anyone, really. Only the hair gave it away. Against the grey of the sea and sky and the near black of the stones, Andy's hair stood out like a flame in the darkness, or some other silly metaphor that writers liked to use to get across just how ginger it was. As far as Sam knew, there were no other red heads in town—at least not to the same degree, with that weird Betty Page haircut—and certainly none that were that gangly, either.

"It is!" Sam crowed. Edgar and Alan stopped their aggressive planning to glare at him.

"What?"

"Andy!" Sam shouted, stepping as close to the edge of the Bluff as he dared. "Hey! Andy!"

Of course she couldn't hear him, it was a vain hope. Edgar rolled his eyes.

"Come on Sam," he said, shoving past Sam to get down onto the rickety stairs. "You can go bother her later, we've got more important things to address right now."

Edgar disappeared down the steps. Alan gave Sam a long, calculated look before following after his brother. Sam sighed and adjusted the supersoaker so it hung across his back as to not be cumbersome on his descent. He shot Andy one last wistful look and went to join the Frogs where they waited near the entrance to the cave.

"Okay," Edgar began sternly, looking at Sam through narrowed eyes. "Here's the game plan: Alan will go in first, Sam, you and I will cover him and each other. We'll split up to scout the main area then regroup to check the coffin. If everything's all clear then we get the fuck out and never look back. If its not, well..." His jaw clenched. Alan's mouth twitched. "We've done it once, we can do it again."

"Awesome," Sam snarked, pumping his supersoaker. "Great pep talk. Really, I'm all rearing to go."

Alan shoved past him without a word, and Edgar followed with a look. Sam stomped behind, shaking his head.

"Man, we're too old for this shit."

Though the entrance to the cave was angled at such a way that allowed the inside to be lit with sunlight throughout the majority of the day, the moment Sam stepped into that damp, dank, dirt tunnel gooseflesh erupted along the exposed skin of his arms and legs. He ignored it. Hummed his pop songs to himself. Tried to pretend that the air didn't smell of dust and dirt and death.

It wasn't a part of the plan, but they all stopped simultaneously at the end of the tunnel, where the mouth opened wide to the greater expanse of the ruined hotel foyer. For a moment they took it all in. Not much had changed—other than, y'know, the distinct lack of vampires—but there were obvious signs of parties and one night stands. Condom wrappers and beer cans littered the sandy floor. A girl's neon pink bra hung from a broken chandelier, and the fountain was filled with pigeons and garbage. It had been a dump before, but now it was more so. It lacked the pride that had once been there, the arrogance. Now it was cold and empty and tasteless just as every other teenage hangout was. Sam frowned. Edgar sneered.

The moment passed and they went into action.

Truthfully, there was nothing to see. Sam, bored, paid little attention to his surroundings, uninterested in examining teenaged trash, and instead pictured girls in bikinis and wondered when the comic store would get in its next shipment. The bed that had once been Star's was now ruined and stained, its gauzy hangings lost and the pillows torn and leaking stuffing. The sweep they did was quick and efficient and entirely too quick. This part of the cave was bright and airy, and Sam was almost able to convince himself that he wasn't in the center of a murder pit.

He wouldn't be able to do that much longer.

The cave grew ever colder as they made their way towards the tunnel at the back. They bent down to crawl, and Sam felt the fear slowly creeping its way along his spine. Vividly, he remembered the last time they had crawled through there, screaming, covered in gore, being chased by angry bloodsuckers. The hole in the ceiling that Sam had punched out in desperation was still there. He could almost feel the phantom clawed grip on ankle as he observed it.

Sam held his breath as he came to the end of the tunnel, even closed his eyes a bit and was grateful that neither Frog was able to see him do so. He imagined how Michael would react, if he knew where his little brother was at that moment.

"Shit."

Sam's heart stopped. They were back. They were back and they were fucking dead, there was nothing they'd be able to do. Jane was dead. They were dead. Fuck the holy water and the stakes. Only god could save them now.

Michael was going to be so pissed.

Sam forced himself to open his eyes, to face his demise like a man.

He swore he nearly fainted.

There was nothing, absolutely nothing. Well, sure, there were bloodstains, and bones scattered on the floor, but they were old, covered with sand and birdshit. Nothing had been in there for a very, very long time.

"See," he laughed out a breath, sounding both relieved and on the verge of hysteria. "Nothing. I told you."

But he could tell by their frowns that neither Frog was pleased with this discovery.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Jane Harrison had been missing for nearly a month now. Rumor had it that she'd killed herself, thrown herself from the top of the Bluff after she'd failed to get into one of the college credit courses. People whispered at school, people who had never before spoken to Jane—perhaps hadn't even known of her existence—wondering whether the fall had did her in, or if she had survived long enough to drown. They were all waiting with a sick, giddy excitement to see if her body would wash up on the shore.

Andy sincerely hoped that it wouldn't. Not that she held onto any lingering optimism that Jane was still possibly alive out there, somewhere—come on, it was Santa Carla for Christ's sake. Sure, she was disturbed by the disappearance; she and Jane had been classmates, after all, had spoken casually and worked together on the occasional science project. It sent a chill down her spine to think that Jane was dead, floating in the sea, or tied up in the basement of some perverted serial killer who preyed on small, helpless teenage girls. Fundamentally, though, Andy's hope was purely selfish: the craggy rocks that lined the shores beneath the Bluff were Andy's stomping grounds, her private refuge away from the hustle and bustle and general oddness that was Santa Carla. When the weather was good and her homework completed, Andy would sneak down to the shore—where she was the only person for miles and there was nothing to hear except for the sighs of the ocean and the whispering of the wind, and there was no scent of grease or sugar in the air, only that of salt and seaweed—and pick her way delicately across the rocks, peaking curiously into the tidal pools that had been formed within their crevices. No one ever knew she was there, which she knew to be rather dangerous, but the water was shallow here, and she trusted herself to not be foolish enough to be swept away should she fall.

Once, last year, when they had been partnered for a biology assignment, Andy had brought Jane to the pools so that they could do a report on the local fauna and flora they'd find. It had been a fun time, and they'd gotten the A they'd wanted. Andy wouldn't have been averse to working with Jane again. But, she thought, crouching down to look into a shell that she squirreled away into her bag upon finding it empty, hopefully Jane would have the good manners to not rejoin Andy at the pools anytime soon. Andy suspected that there would be nothing like the cold, bloated corpse of a former classmate to ruin so effectively the charm that the tidal pools held for her.

It wasn't late yet, only five o'clock in fact, but the sky was steadily darkening in the east. Sighing, Andy sat on the rocks, ignoring that the water soaked into the seat of her jeans, and rested her chin on her folded knees. The storm wouldn't come for twenty minutes yet, she didn't have to leave right then. She could taste the ozone on her tongue and relished the raw destructive power the wind carried with it. The waves were churning, rocking back and forth like a horse desperately trying to buck a cruel rider. Andy could imagine herself jumping into those waves and letting them have their way with her, the way the salt water would burn at her eyes and throat as she was pulled under. The thought was so fleeting she barely registered that it had even occurred, but still she groaned at it and rubbed the heels of her hands hard against her eyes. She wondered how the kids at school would react if it was her who had suddenly gone missing.

Probably the same, she knew. She might have pretended otherwise, but she was hardly any more popular than Jane was.

The first drop of rain landed on her hand. Lightening crackled in the distance. Maybe she could wait it out, tuck herself into a little alcove and watch the fury of the storm. But then thunder rumbled, so loud and close she felt it in her chest, and she resigned herself to the fact that she would have to go home.

She didn't want to go home, she never did.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Edgar hated school with a burning passion. Almost as much as he hated vampires. In fact, given the choice, he'd rather face down some dirty bloody sucker than sit through another asinine start of term pep rally.

Edgar Frog had no pep, nor did he want it.

Sam, sitting beside him, was dying a slow, painful death of boredom. He moved non-stop, bouncing his leg and tapping his fingers against his thighs; if he didn't shut up soon Edgar swore he was going to fucking strangle him.

"...I think it's dumb. Why keep going on and on. Yeah, the first movie was good, but five deep does anyone even give a shit about Freddy Kruger anymore? They're all getting stale man, I'm serious. We should go see Pet Semetary though, I still have high hopes for that one..."

The cheerleaders sat at the very bottom of the bleachers, dressed in their uniforms and clutching pompoms in their hands. They whispered and giggled amongst themselves, discussing boys and music and their missing classmate. Would one of them be next? In a normal town, sure, they were the ideal target for kidnappers and serial killers. But not here, not in the Murder Capital of the World. The girls got up to start the rally, twisting and twirling around the gym. They were lively and beautiful. Santa Carla wouldn't want them.

Throughout the crowd, Edgar could pick out the freaks and weirdoes—which, admittedly, he and Sam were a part of. A cluster of black on the far right, glinting with spikey silver jewellery, faces pale and drawn. In the back, quiet and splattered with paint, two girls sat absorbed in their fantasy world, given a wide berth by the students around them. Just behind the cheerleaders, a grungy group that smelled of smoke and frequently skipped class to listen to sad music in the parking lot. Scattered throughout the crowd, sad loners who spent their time in libraries and science labs, desperately pretending they weren't cripplingly lonely. They were perfect targets. Every single one of them, and there was nothing Edgar could do to help it.

The cheerleaders finished their routine with a shout, standing perfectly in formation for a moment before retreating back to their seats. A half-hearted applause followed. The principle rose awkwardly and took his place behind the podium. His paisley tie looked tight enough to decapitate and his toupee was threatening to fly away with the slightest of breezes. He dabbed his shinning forehead with a napkin and cleared his throat. The microphone before his mouth screeched, effectively silencing the raucous crowd.

"I'm sure by now you've all heard of Jane Harrison's disappearance." Murmurs rippled through the gymnasium. The principle tried and failed to smile. "Her parents remain hopeful, and ask that if any of you hear or see anything to contact the police immediately." Behind him, sitting primly, his secretary betrayed her stress with the frantic twisting of the pink handkerchief she held in her gnarled old hands. "But I'm afraid to say that I have additional, rather unfortunate news..."

From the corner of his eye, Edgar could see Sam giving him an encouraging smile and a shrug that said don't worry, I'm sure it's just something stupid like budget cuts...

And though Edgar wanted to believe Sam, it was too late.

Dread had already settled solidly in the pit of his stomach.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Rick found the first body on a Thursday.

First, he thought tiredly, as he radioed in the find to the local police.

After twenty years patrolling the Boardwalk, he knew it wouldn't be the last.