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Monster Mash Mess

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Out from his coffin Drac's voice did ring,

Seems he was troubled by JUST one thing…

He opened the lid, and shook his fist,

And said…

"I thwear, Pete, thith ith ridiculouth." Count Dracula is standing in front of me, arms folded over his chest, tapping an elegantly-shod, black patent leather foot rather impatiently. "Completely ridiculouth," he lisps around his fangs. He eyes me crossly and heaves a huge sigh. "I can't believe I let you guyth talk me into doing thith." With that, his fangs suddenly fly out of his mouth and land on the floor with a slobbery plop. "Crap," he mutters, bending down and retrieving them. "Now I gotta go rinse 'em off again."

"Ed," I say. "You'd better have that fixed by the time the house opens. Count Dracula isn't as scary when he has to gum his necks, you know."

"Next year, pick who gets to do what," Ed Wells says huffily. "We'll see how YOU like being cast as a monster, Malloy." He jabs a finger at me. "And next year, our Nightmare Mansion won't be held in a crummy house like this," he says.

"Just thank God that Mary MacDonald's friend came through for us at the last moment," I say. "It was nice of her to let us use her gallery, even if it has some limitations on it."

"It's not gonna be as spooky as the old Nightmare Mansion was," he says. "I can guarantee it."

I shake my head. "Granted, Ed, but you can thank those happy little pyromaniacs for torching our original Nightmare Mansion for us last month."

He cocks his head. "I still don't understand why we can't have this shindig at the community room of your apartment building. It would go off better there, I think."

"We can't use the community room of my apartment building for two reasons, Ed," I sigh. "One, there's already a Halloween party booked there for tonight…an ADULT one, I might add; and two, Mrs. O'Brien doesn't really want you on her property anymore after you made that nasty remark to her."

"Hey!" he says defensively. "All I asked her was if she was after me Lucky Charms! And then she pushed me into the pool for no reason at all!"

I stare at him for a minute. "Making such a crack about her being after your Lucky Charms in a heavy Irish brogue is what got you thrown INTO the pool," I say. "She may be Irish, but she does NOT suffer fools lightly, Ed. And you were acting like a complete jackass. You deserved to get tossed into the pool."

"Yeah, well, it didn't help any when you guys threw that stupid little inflatable water monster ring in after me," he says.

"We thought you were maybe drowning," I smirk. "And you looked SO cute with that little purple polka dotted monster around your neck. We shoulda rewarded Mac for making such a good ring toss like that over your fat little head." I grin even wider. "And remember, we have the Polaroids of when you got it stuck on your head and couldn't get it off."

He stares at me in shock. "You guys took PICTURES of me trying to get that damned floaty monster off my head?" he asks with dismay.

"Several of 'em, in fact. I'm pretty sure each of us has a copy…that is, except for you, Ed," I say.

"But why?" he asks. "Why would you guys go and do a mean thing like that?"

I twirl my moustache, grinning evilly. "For blackmail, Ed. For blackmail," I tell him with wicked glee. I catch sight of the shiny medallion hanging from a red ribbon around his neck. There is something very familiar about it. I point to it. "Am I imagining things or is that the Maltese Cross?" I ask.

"It's the Maltese Cross," he says, looking down at it. "Why?"

"It's traditionally a firefighter's symbol, not Count Dracula's."

"I borrowed it from my brother, he's a firefighter," Ed tells me. "It was either that or a peace symbol."

"Yeah, nothing says Dracula like peace, love and harmony," I say dryly. "Does your brother know you have it?"

"Um…kinda. I told him I wanted it so I could mount it in a little display case for him. He got it for heroism, you know."

"So they awarded him for putting up with you as a sibling?" I ask. "How nice of them. Maybe they'll award me the Medal Of Valor for just barely tolerating you."

"Ha-ha," he says snidely. "So funny, I forgot to laugh."

"Better make sure you don't lose that medal, Drac my boy. Otherwise your brother is liable to stick YOU in a display case."

"I'll be careful with it, I promise," he says. With a swirl of his fancy red and black satin cape, he starts to go off in search of a sink in which to rinse off his ill-fitting fangs.

"Hey!" I call to him.

He whips back around in a dramatic swoosh and snap of cape. "Yeah?" he asks.

"Where's the rest of your bats at? I need them, so we can finish hanging them around your coffin," I tell him.

"They're still out in my car," he says. "I'll go out and get them." He hesitates, pondering something for a moment. "You DO realize that a shipping crate painted black and red isn't really a great coffin, right, Pete?"

"What, do you think you need a real coffin?" I ask. "'Cuz if you do, I guarantee you you'd better be good and dead in order to get one."

"But I got a splinter from the lid last night," he whines.

"It's the best we could do on such short notice," I say. "Be glad we were able to snag one for you. Otherwise you'd have to stand for most of the evening. And I'm sure you won't like that."

"But it has a heart-shaped satin pillow in it that says 'I love you' on it," he complains. "And the other satin pillow has a hand-painted picture of Elvis on it. And my coffin lining is a zebra-print bedspread."

"Oh yeah," I say with a snap of my fingers. "Try not to get the Elvis pillow grimy with sweat or anything. Jerry Woods wants it back in the same shape he let you borrow it. Same with the bedspread. He wants that back in good shape, too."

"Splinters," he mutters. "I love you pillows. Elvis pillows. A zebra-print coffin lining. What's next? A metal kiddy car painted up to look like the Munstermobile?"

"Don't give me any ideas," I warn. "Otherwise I'll round one up and stick you in it, Grandpa Munster. Then you can pedal your way around the Nightmare Mansion."

"But…" he begins.

I point to the back of the house. "Your bats, Drac. Go get them for me."

"I'd better not get a splinter from that coffin," he says. "It took Betty an hour to pick it out of my finger last night. It really hurt."

"Well, hopefully, if you do get one, maybe it'll be in your ass," I tell him. "Then you won't feel a thing."

"You know, Pete, sometimes I really hate you," he says. "You just wait 'til next year." With that, he stalks off, his cape flowing elegantly behind him.

Shaking my head, I climb back up onto the stepladder and continue to hang fake cobwebs from the ceiling. One of the plastic spiders that is supposed to sit in the cobwebs loses its Spidey sense and falls to the floor in a rather un-arachnid fashion. "I don't think this is going to go all that well," I mutter to myself, my own Spidey sense tingling with alarm. "I think we shoulda called this whole thing off this year." I start to climb back down off the stepladder to get the wayward spider.

"I have your brains, Pete," says the Wolfman, coming through the archway. He spots the spider on the floor. "Ooh!" he says with alarm, his eyes going huge. "Big-assed spider!" He promptly stomps on it, and it crackles under his tread. He shudders. "Oh God. It CRUNCHED when I killed it. Ewww!" He makes a hairy gaggy face.

"That's because you just killed a plastic spider," I tell him. "Where's my brains at?"

He studies me for a long moment. "Do you really want me to answer that, Pete?" he asks, deadpan. "Honestly?"

"I know where they WERE at when I agreed to take this job," I tell Jerry Walters. "Something I'm regretting with every passing moment." I gesture to the shopping bag he holds in his hands. "Show me the brains, Jerry."

He pulls out a large mixing bowl and a box of uncooked spaghetti. "Walla!" he says with a flourish. "The mixing bowl is Carolyn's, so don't get it dirty or anything."

I stare with dismay at the box of uncooked spaghetti noodles. "But they're raw!" I say.

"Yeah, so?" he asks, scratching at his face. "Why does that matter? I got 'em on sale at the Save-A-Lot for 49 cents. Good deal, huh?"

"They're supposed to be cooked," I say. "The noodles are supposed to be cooked, Jerry. So they're soft and mushy when you put your hands in them. That's how you think they're brains."

"So cook 'em," he says. "Donna's got a kitchen." He scratches at his neck.

"I can't cook them here, Jerry," I say. "For two reasons. One, I don't have kitchen privileges from Donna. And two, her kitchen is lacking the actual appliances, like the stove and the refrigerator, in case you haven't noticed. They've been replaced by artwork."

"Cant'cha run 'em under hot water?" he asks. "Soak 'em? Maybe that'll cook 'em for you." He scratches at his wrist.

"Oh my Lord," I mutter, rubbing my forehead. "Have you NEVER cooked spaghetti noodles, Jerry?"

"Hey," he says defensively. "You didn't tell me that they had to be cooked."

"Most people would realize that in order for them to masquerade as brains, the noodles need to…" I stop, watching as he suddenly backs up to the archway and commence a rather lewd hootchy-koo in order to scratch his ass. I eyeball him warily. "What's wrong you?" I ask. "You got fleas or something?"

He gestures to the latex and fake hair on his face. "I think I'm allergic to this stuff," he says. "And the Wolfman rental suit wasn't cleaned by the previous renter, I'm afraid. Since I put this crap on, I can't seem to stop itching."

"Yeah, well, you can't stay in the doorway all night itching your ass, Jerry," I tell him. "People will want to get through there, and a Wolfman vigorously scratching his butt on the door frame ain't that attractive. Besides, people WILL think you have fleas, or worse, you've got some itchy disease that's possibly contagious."

"Next year, Pete, I hope they pick someone besides you to choose who does what," Jerry tells me, still scratching.

"Hey, you guys elected me," I say. "You're stuck with me." I study the box of noodles in my hand. "In the meantime, what do I do for brains?"

"You know, that's a question you should ask yourself every morning, Pete," Jerry says, grinning.

"Zip it, Mr. Jo-Jo Itchy Butt," I tell him. "Or I'll give you a bath in Hartz flea dip." I shove the noodles and the bowl back to him. "You might as well go put these in your car," I say. "We can't use them for tonight."

"Wait 'til next year," he mutters, snatching the noodles and the bowl back from me. "By the way, nice moustache!" he yells as he disappears into the back of the house.

I pick up the remains of the thoroughly squished plastic spider and dump them into what I hope is a waste basket. Sighing heavily, I look around our Nightmare Mansion and find it quite lacking. It's not to say that I'm not grateful for Mary's friend, Donna, to have stepped in and offered us the use of the gothic mansion that she turned into an art gallery, but she laid a lot of restrictions on us before we could use it. The upstairs was off-limits, because that's where she held small art classes. The kitchen was off-limits, since that's where she'd stashed her collection of paintings and sculptures for safekeeping, until we were through with the house. We couldn't hang anything heavy from the walls or ceiling. We had to shut the house down by 10 P.M. And most of all, we had to promise not to damage anything in the house, or the house itself. I climb back up on the stepladder and drape another veil of fake cobwebs from the archway leading from the great room into the dining room.

RATTLE, RATTLE, clink clink, RATTLE…thud…OOF! A sheeted ghost falls rather suddenly into the dining room. I scramble down the ladder in order to help him up, but when I reach him, he is already picking himself up and dusting himself off.

"You okay?" I ask.

He peers at me through his spooky death shroud, also known as a bedsheet. "I can't see where I'm going," he complains.

I peer back at him. "That's because your eyeholes are crooked there, Casper," I tell him. I reach out and finger a part of the sheet, pulling it away from him. "And why are you…um…flower-print pink?" I ask. "You're supposed to be white."

"Gail wouldn't let me cut up one of our white sheets," Bob Brinkman informs me. "I had to dig this one out of the rag bag. And my eyeholes are crooked because I cut them myself."

"You mean you drove in from home in a badly-fitting bedsheet?" I ask with alarm. "One that you can't see that well out of? Wasn't that a bit dangerous?"

"No," he says. "I came in and put the bedsheet on in the bathroom back there just a few minutes ago." He gestures back towards the bathroom. "I used a pair of manicure scissors I found in the medicine cabinet to cut the eyeholes. They weren't that sharp."

"Oh, for God's sake," I mutter. I spy the pair of scissors I was using earlier to trim up the cobwebs. I go over and retrieve them. "Hold still," I say, grabbing a hearty handful of pink-flowered Brinkman.

His eyes go huge as he spies the scissors. "Oh no!" he says. "You get away from me with those scissors, Pete! I don't trust you not to cut my nose off!"

"Why?" I quip. "It would only add to the ghastly gruesomeness of your ghostly being."

He tries to back away from me, flailing his white-shirted arms, making his wrist chains rattle violently. "Help!" he shrieks. "Pete's after me with scissors!"

I step on one of his trailing chains around his waist, effectively stopping his pink-flowered flight. "Look," I admonish, waving the scissors in front of his fear-widened eyes. "You can't wander around here with your eyeholes crooked and expect to scare people. Now hold STILL! I'm just gonna widen the eyeholes a little bit and try to straighten them out."

He squirms, still wide-eyed. "I swear to GOD, Pete, if you cut my nose or anything ELSE on my face, I will kill you! And then you won't have to worry about having a ghost haunt this house, yours will do quite nicely!"

"Pipe down, Christmas Past!" I say. "And quit squirming!" He freezes and holds absolutely still while I quickly snip more out around the eyeholes, evening them up a bit. "There," I say, stepping back to admire my handiwork. "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?"

"No, but I'd feel a lot better if you'd quit waving those damned scissors around," he tells me warily. "Maybe you should use them to trim that moustache of yours, Pete. It's pretty hideous."

"Forget the moustache," I say as I set the scissors on the stepladder. "Anything else I can do for you, BooBerry?"

He rattles the chains that are wrapped around his waistline. "My chains are too long," he says. "I trip over them when I walk."

"Wrap them a couple more times around your waist," I tell him.

He does as he's told…and his pants promptly fall down. "Uh…that's not good," he says, staring at his blue jeans puddled around his ankles.

Count Dracula chooses that moment to pop his head around the corner. "Hey!" he shouts gleefully. "Someone de-pantsed Scrooge's ghost!" Cackling evilly, he enters, followed by a scratching Wolfman. "Feel a breeze there, Casper, on your ghostly ass cheeks?" he crows delightedly.

Brink hikes the sheet up and tries to pull his pants up in a hurry, getting his bedsheet and chains all wadded up around him. A pair of Batman boxer shorts peek out at us as he vigorously dances about, trying to set himself back into order.

"OH MY GOD!" Wells shrieks, doubling over with laughter as he spots Brink's Batman undies. "Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-BUTTMAN!" he howls. He and Jerry collapse against each other in hysterics. "Those boxers are even scarier than the bedsheet, Brink! Maybe you should wear them instead!"

"Knock it off, you two!" I snap. I look at Brinkman, who I know is blushing furiously underneath his pink shroud. "Here, let me help you," I say, holding the bedsheet and chains away from him so he can pull his jeans back up without getting all wadded up again. "Didn't you wear a belt with your jeans?" I ask.

"No," he says. "When I put the belt on, along with the chains, they chafed my waist. It left a red mark on me. So I put the belt out in my car after I put the sheet and chains on." Carefully, he fluffs his sheet out around him, his wrist chains clinking merrily. "I don't have any sheet caught in my butt do I?" he asks, trying to twist his shrouded head around to look. "I can't tell."

Count Dracula and the Wolfman are still giggling. "Bob Brinkman, the only ghost that can perform a striptease act, along with haunting your house!" Dracula snorts. He begins to hum "The Stripper," by David Rose, gyrating his hips rather lewdly.

I shoot them both a deadly glare, which sobers them both up and fast. "Go get your bats, Ed," I tell him. I eyeball Walters, who is now scratching his ass on the dining room doorway. "Get Itchy here to help you out," I tell him. "And for God's sake, don't let him start dragging his ass on the carpet. My aunt had a dog that did that and it was gross." I point to the rear of the house. "NOW!" I snap, watching as they take their leave of us, both of them grumbling and muttering to each other. I turn back to Brinkman. "Where's the candleabra and the rest of your ghostly buddies?" I ask.

He scratches his pink-shrouded head. "Um…I kinda sorta forgot the candleabra," he says sheepishly. "But I did remember the other ghosts. I stopped by on my way over here and got them from the balloon shop. They're in the pantry awaiting the finishing touches."

I stare at him. "Wait a sec. You forgot the candleabra? What are we supposed to put the candles in?" I ask. I narrow my eyes. "And what do you MEAN you stopped by and picked the other ghosts up from the balloon shop on your way over here? You were supposed to have done that last night, so they would be all ready to go tonight."

"I kinda sorta forgot that too," he says. "But I did remember to bring them tonight, along with the tissue paper, so that's a good thing, right?"

"I guess," I sigh. "Let's see what you've got." I follow Brink as he rattles and clinks through the parlor, holding tightly onto his jeans. He stops, opening the sliding door to the large walk-in pantry, which he's supposed to haunt tonight, along with several of his ghostly floating buddies. With shock, I stare at the dozen helium filled balloons that float there, all brightly colored and emblazoned with various cheery well-wishes. "Happy Birthday!" exhorts one. "Get Well Soon!" says another. "Bon Voyage!" exclaims a third. "Welcome Back!" says a third. "You're 1 Year Old Today!" shrieks yet a fourth. "It's A Boy!" screams a blue one, while a pink one screams "It's A Girl!" I slap a hand to my forehead in exasperation. "Brink, these are all colored balloons," I say. "Not white ones, like I told you to get."

"But these were cheaper, Pete!" he says. "And look, they have sayings on them!" he tells me happily, pulling down a blue balloon that exclaims "Over The Hill At 50!" He waggles it in front of my face. "How cute is that?"

"Yeah, nothin' screams 'haunted house' like 'It's A Girl!', or 'Bon Voyage'!" I say tiredly.

"Well," he shrugs. "Maybe the bon voyage one would work if the house was undergoing an exorcism."

"In about five seconds, I'm gonna exorcise you," I say. "And then you'll need that balloon that says 'Get Well Soon'!"

"Hey, at least I brought the tissue paper," he says, waving a package of red and green tissue paper in my face.

"It's Christmas colors," I tell him, closing my eyes and shaking my head. "Not white. You were supposed to bring white tissue paper, in order to make the bottoms of the white balloon ghosts you were supposed to pick up at the shop last night. And where's the twine you were to bring to secure the bottoms of the ghosts to the tops of the ghosts?"

"I left it at home," he says. "But I have a bungee cord out in my car."

"Not gonna work," I sigh. "Forget it. We don't need ghosts, I guess."

He scans the shelves of the pantry behind him. "Now wait a second, Pete, I might have an idea." Reaching up, he pulls down a package of white tissue paper. Donna must use it when she packages pieces of artwork for shipping. "White tissue paper," he says, reaching up and pulling a smaller box of paper clips down. "And paper clips. We can cover the balloons with the tissue paper and secure it to them with the paper clips. How's that for a quick idea?" he asks.

"That's not our tissue paper and paper clips to use, though, Brink," I remind him. "They're Donna's. We don't have her permission to take them."

"So, we'll just buy her some more paper and another box of paper clips," he says, shrugging. "How hard can that be?" He tugs one of the brightly colored balloons down. "Look," he says. "We may not even have to use the paper clips. Maybe just covering them with the paper will work just fine. I mean, how heavy can tissue paper be anyway?" He pulls a couple of squares of tissue paper out of the box. Whistling, he drapes the paper over the balloon, smoothing it down and crinkling it around the base of the balloon. "There," he says. "See? Instant ghost." He lets go of it…and it sadly sinks to the floor. "Uh…okay," he says. "Lemme try another one." He does the same with another balloon, and it quickly joins its brother.

"This is supposed to be the Nightmare Mansion, Brink," I say, staring at the two balloons limping forlornly along the wooden floor. "Not Studio 54."

"Okay, okay," he says. "Lemme think a minute." He looks up and spots a thin wire running along the pantry wall. "Maybe I can rig them to that wire," he says. He snatches up one of the balloons from the floor and pulling up on a bit of the tissue paper at the crown of the balloon, he jabs the edge of a paper clip through. POP! goes the balloon. "GAH!" goes Brinkman, jumping back in fright. He gets tangled up in his pink bedsheet and chains and goes down with a flailing crash into the adjoining kitchen.

"Really, Pete, if you're going to kill him, I'd find a less noisy way," says a green-hued Frankenstein from the doorway of the pantry. "The sounds alone are enough to wake the dead."

I hold a hand out for Brinkman in order to help him to his feet. And when he stands up, Brink's jeans promptly fall down around his ankles again. "Oh, for the love of God," I mutter, closing my eyes and shaking my head again.

Dracula and the Wolfman have returned, and are investigating the scene in the pantry with great amusment. "Hey, Brink," Ed jibes as Brink hastily pulls his pants up once more. "I predict you'll scare more folks with your peekaboo pants than with the actual ghostliness of your being."

"It'll be the white of his ass that will scare 'em off," Walters laughs. "Not the pink of his sheet."

"I certainly hope you're wearing undershorts under that sheet, Brink," Frankenstein tells him.

"He is," Ed says. "Batman boxers, no less. Our little Brinkman is certainly getting into the Halloween spirit, ain't he?"

Sergeant MacDonald, who is our resident Frankenstein for the evening, leans in to inspect Brinkman's sheet. "Why are you pink-flowered?" he asks in puzzlement. "I thought ghosts were supposed to be white, not pink."

"Brink's playing the ghost of an Avon lady who was murdered here," Ed whispers sotto voce. "DING-DONG…Aaaayyy-von!" he intones spookily. "I have those rose-scented bath fizzies you ordered…ooooohhhhh…and your sooooaap-on-a-roooope!" He and Walters crack up once more.

"Ed, I'm gonna string you from a rope if you don't knock it the hell off!" I snap. I point to Brinkman. "Look, fix these ghosts somehow. I don't care HOW, just fix 'em and get 'em hung up. Got it?" I jab a finger at Walters. "And you. Stop scratching and get to work helping him."

"I thought I was supposed to help Ed hang his bats," Walters says.

"I'll do that," I tell him. "Brink needs the help here more than Ed does."

"Yeah, you can say THAT again," Walters says.

"Look, just see what you can come up with, okay?" I ask. I start to exit the pantry, then I stop. "Oh, and by the way, Brink, do something about your pants. We don't need an indecent exposure complaint lodged against Casper the Friendly Ghost. People are liable to think he's a little TOO friendly, if his pants keep dropping around his ankles."

"You know, Pete, I seriously hope someone else takes your job as head of this shindig next year," Brinkman says.

"I'm telling myself the same damned thing, Brink," I say over my shoulder as I leave. I turn to Count Dracula, who has followed Frankenstein and I. "Did you get your bats?" I ask. "Please tell me you did."

Ed nods, patting the shoebox he has in his hands with a huge grin. "They're right in here, Pete, ol' buddy." He starts to open the lid. "Bats, at your…" He stops, slapping the lid quickly back down on the box. "Uh-oh," he says, biting his lip.

I raise an eyebrow. "What do you mean 'uh-oh'?" I ask warily. "Lemme guess, you don't have the honeycomb bats in that box, do you?"

"Uh…no," he says, shaking his head. "I do not."

"So what DO you have in that box, Ed?" I ask. "Something worse?"

He opens the lid of the box and thrusts the box under my nose. "I brought my vacation photos in by mistake."

"I was right," I moan. "That's worse. Way worse. Pictures of the Ed Wells' family on vacation. Every person's nightmare. I knew it. So how in the hell did you pick up the box of pictures by mistake?"

"Betty had the box down on the table today. She's trying to put our pictures in albums. I musta grabbed the wrong box by mistake." he says. He frowns. "And my vacation pictures aren't that bad, Malloy. No worse than yours are."

"So Betty's got the bats," Mac says. "And we got the empty belfry here." He points to Ed.

"Or the vacant Batcave," I say dryly.

Ed has opened the box of pictures and is thumbing through them. "Maybe there's some scary ones in here," he says. "We took a trip to the Grand Canyon one year. We went to the bottom of the canyon on burros."

"How are burros scary, Ed?" I ask.

"Oh-ho, they're incredibly scary, my friend. Especially when they want to go off-road. Or they buck you into a cactus."

I feel a grin coming on. I exchange a wry look with a green Mac. "Did that happen to you, Ed? Your burro decided to take the road not taken, and bucked you into a cactus?"

"Oh yeah," he says, nodding. He continues flipping through the pictures. "The tour guide had to round up my wayward burro. And that's when the damned thing balked and pitched me into a cactus patch. I had to have Betty pull the needles out of my ass. It took her all night, by the light of the campfire, too."

"Oh lord," I snort, laughter bubbling up in my throat. "That woulda been a vacation to remember for sure. Instead of your kids sitting around the campfire listening to ghost stories, they listened to you yowling as your wife de-cactusized you. I predict a LOT of therapy in the future for your kids, Ed. A LOT!"

Mac is laughing his ass off. "That old burro probably figured you had it coming, Ed. That's why it pitched you off."

"Damn it!" Ed says, holding a picture up and squinting at it with a frown. "One of those stupid kids of mine took a picture of me sprawled across a log, with my bare butt up in the air, while Betty goes after those cactus spines lodged in my ass with a pair of needlenose pliers!"

Quickly I snatch the photo out of his hand. "Ha!" I shout jubilantly, waving the photo around. "Ed's great vacation trip through an off-road cactus patch!"

"Lemme see!" Mac says, and the two of us look at the photo, haw-hawing as tears roll down our faces. Sure enough, in bright Kodachrome color, Ed Wells' bare butt is stuck up in the air over a log, while his long-suffering wife takes aim at cactus needles with a pair of pliers. Ed's kids point to their dad's nekkid butt with huge grins on their faces, while Ed looks like he's undergoing a groinal hernia operation without anaesthetic. "Oh priceless, Ed!" Mac says. "Just priceless!"

"Give me that!" Ed demands. "It's private and personal!" He tries to snatch the photo back.

"And it's more blackmail!" I tell him, dancing away out of his reach. I stuff the picture into my shirt pocket.

"Hey, what's so funny in here?" asks Walters from the doorway. He and Brinkman peek out at us. "Did we miss a good joke?"

"You missed a laugh riot," I tell them, wiping tears from my face and trying to catch my breath from laughing so much. "I'll show you guys later on. In the meantime, get those ghosts hung."

"I want my picture back, Malloy!" Ed growls, stamping his little foot angrily.

"Oh, you'll get it back," I say, patting him on the side of his face. "In due time. Like after we've made copies and distributed them around the station." I gesture to the corners of the parlor where a few honeycomb bats flutter listlessly around. "In the meantime, take a few bats from the corners and hang them in your coffin. But don't take too many. Leave a few up."

"You know, I'm really beginning to hate ALL of you guys," Ed mutters, shaking his head. He gestures to the bats. "How in the hell am I supposed to get those damned things down?" he whines.

"Flap your cape and fly," I tell him. "Better yet, find a good-sized cactus and sit down on it. I'm sure you'll find you can leap that high after parking your butt on one of those."

Ed stares at me. "Seriously, Pete. You KNOW I'm too short to reach that high from the floor. So how am I supposed to get the bats down from the corners?"

I point to a small stepstool we used last night. "Take that and use it, dummy. That's what it's there for. And quit whining, before I turn you INTO a bat and smack you with my shoe."

"Hey Pete, can I talk to you for a second?" Mac asks, tugging on my sleeve.

"Sure," I say, going back into the great room. "What's on your mind?" I climb back onto the stepladder and start to do the cobwebs again.

"Are you sure this is such a good idea?" Mac asks, looking up at me. "Using Donna's art gallery for our Nightmare Mansion this year?" He gestures around the room.

"Did you have any better idea on such short notice?" I say. I point to a handful of wispy white angel hair. "Hand me that, willya? I wanna drape some tendrils down."

Mac hands them to me. "Well," he says, scratching the back of his neck. "You see, the fact of the matter is, Donna and Mary have been good friends for a long time. For over 17 years, to be exact."

"Yeah, so?"

"Well," he says hesitantly. "If anything disastrous would happen to the gallery tonight, or something should get damaged, I'm afraid she'd be upset with Mary for asking her to allow us to use the gallery in the first place. It might ruin the friendship, you know? And I don't want that to happen."

"We moved all the sculptures and the artwork into the kitchen for tonight," I tell him, fluffing the angel hair strands. "The upstairs is roped off, no one can get up there. We've confined our decorations to the great room, the pantry, and the dining room. I don't think anything bad is going to happen to the house tonight."

"I just don't think this is a good idea. Maybe we should call it off, cancel it, you know?" he says.

I stare at him from my perch with obvious dismay. "I made that suggestion last week, Mac, when we were scrambling trying to figure out how to get this set up on such short notice," I tell him sharply. "In case you have forgotten."

"Yeah, well, maybe we shoulda gone with that idea," he says. "Especially after the benevolent association that's run this deal in the past backed out at the last minute."

"Yeah, but who knew they'd suddenly decide on a whim that Halloween might be a Satanic holiday and decide not to participate, just for fear that someone might think them worshippers of the Dark Lord, instead of God?" I ask. "And who'd think that some firebugs would torch our old Nightmare Mansion, burning it to the ground? Besides, the flyers already went up on Tuesday advertising it. It's too late to cancel it now. We can't exactly let our customers down."

"But the benevolent association took care of the whole thing, from start to finish," he says. "They set it up, decorated it, ran it, and donated the money to the Widow and Orphans Fund. They only took a small percentage of the money to pay themselves, and to cover the cost of the decorations. And they made sure they had a decent setup, one that was guaranteed to spook you. This," he gestures around. "Looks cheap. And tacky."

I climb down off of the stepladder. "That's because it IS cheap and tacky," I say. "What could we have gotten for 15 bucks as far as decorations? Real ghosts? Real wolfmen? I don't think so. We did what we had to do, with what we had. It's not the Ghost Grand Central, I'll admit, but we put it together, and in only a week's time, too. What more can you expect? And we're not taking any of the percentage of profit at all, Mac. We're doing this free gratis, so that all the money collected tonight will go into the fund. We even pooled our resources and paid for the decorations out of our own pockets." I frown. "Which reminds me. You still owe me two bucks."

"I'll have to catch you payday," he says. "By the way, nice moustache. Tie any maidens to railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train recently?"

"Shut up," I say. "It's fake."

"Well, duh," Mac says. "Obviously, Pete. I don't think you could grow that twirly of a moustache that well."

"Yeah, well, maybe someday I'll try," I say. Suddenly, from the back, I hear POP! followed by a shriek of "GAH!" I roll my eyes. "They're just balloons, you idiots!" I holler.

"But they startle me when they pop!" Brinkman yells back.

I turn my attention back to my green-hued Sergeant. "Where's the plastic skeleton at?" I ask. "And the candles?"

"Um…Mary wouldn't let me bring the skeleton. She wanted to use it for our decorations at home," he tells me. "And I forgot to get the candles."

"So we have no skeleton, no fake brains, no candles, which is FINE, since we don't have candleabra to put them in. We have a pink ghost that can't walk without tripping and/or flashing people, a Wolfman that can't stop scratching, a Dracula who's fangs need braces…what more ghostly goodness is going to come my way?" I ask wearily.

Mac holds a green hand up. "Whoa, Pete. We can still call it off. We can say something came up and we're not able to have the Nightmare Mansion this year. We'll just turn 'em away at the door."

"No," I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose and closing my eyes. I drop my head, shaking it. "We've already gotten this far with it. Might as well finish it." When I open my eyes, I notice that Frankenstein is clad in shiny black cowboy boots. "Uh…Mac?" I ask, pointing to the cowboy boots. "Why are you wearing those?"

"I didn't have any other boots to wear," he says. "So I figured these would be just as good."

"Yeah," I remark dryly. "If Frankenstein were going to be riding along on a round up with the ghost riders in the sky."

"Hey, don't knock 'em, Pete!" he says, admiring his boots that are barely covered by his high-water Frankenstein costume pants. "They're hand-tooled leather, the finest grade!"

"Well, at least you can say Frankenstein died with his boots on," I say. "Although I doubt they'll make for very good running when the villagers are chasing after you with their pitchforks and torches." I scoot the stepladder back so I can hang a paper witch cutout from the ceiling. "But good job on using black shoe polish to color your hair. It's a nice touch."

He looks up at me, a concerned expression across his green face. "Uh…shoe polish, Pete?" he asks. "I didn't use any shoe polish in my hair to color it."

I finish hanging the witch and look down at him. "So what DID you use?" I ask. "Temporary hair dye?"

"Um…temporary hair dye?" he asks, an edge of fright creeping into his voice. He goes slightly pale under the green paint, turning a rather lovely seafoam color.

"Yeah, you know, the stuff that will wash out when you shower?" I say.

"Ohhh boy," he groans, dropping his head into his hands.

I study him. "Why, what kind of hair dye did you use?"

"I dunno! I just grabbed a box of black hair dye from the shelf in the drugstore!" he says. "Why, am I screwed?"

"Did it say it was permanent hair color on the box?" I ask.

Wordlessly, he nods, his eyes wide. "I…I…I think so," he stammers.

"Well, then you're probably screwed," I tell him. "It won't wash out. You'll hafta let fade over time and your natural color will grow out over it eventually."

"You didn't tell me not to get permanent hair color!" he wails.

"I thought you'd use your Frankenstein-y head and realize you needed only temporary dye!" I tell him.

"What am I gonna do?" he asks in horror. "I'll look like a giant Sharpie marker sitting behind the roll call desk tomorrow!"

"Well, you could always go to the hair salon and see if they could strip it out or something," I tell him. "But I'd make sure you get all the green face paint off of you before you do that. Don't want any of those hairdressers thinking you've got gangrene." I catch his even more horrified look. "You DID use a Frankenstein face-kit from the store, right?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "No," he whispers. "I didn't. They were all out, so I had to improvise."

"I'm afraid to ask," I say. "But what DID you use to color yourself green, Mac?"

"Yellow and green food coloring in water," he rasps. "Oh lord. It won't wash off right away either, will it?"

Mutely, I shake my head.

"Oh, CRAP!" he wails, staring at his green wrists and hands that peek out from underneath his grey Frankenstein suitcoat. "I'm gonna hafta walk around looking like a Sharpie marker with an extremely large olive for a body!"

I offer him a small smile. "Or Kermit the Frog with a black toupee."

"Sonofabitch, Pete!" he snaps. "This isn't funny! I can't come to work looking like something the Oompa-Loompas might roll away!"

"Oompa, loompa, deedley-do…" I sing. "You DID use a cosmetic pencil to draw your wicked-looking head scar, didn't you?" I ask.

"Magic marker," he groans. "I used a Magic Marker to draw it on. I thought it would wash off." He holds his hands out. "And my nails. I used Magic Marker to color my nails black."

"Um…maybe you should consider putting in for some immediate vacation," I tell him. "And hiding out in your house until you quit looking like a Granny Smith apple with a slight case of mold."

"Can it, Pete!" he growls. He rubs his temples. "Oh, I feel a headache coming on," he moans.

"I could tighten those neck-bolts for you, Kerm…I mean, Frankenstein," I say wickedly.

"No!" he snarls. "You stay the hell away from me, Malloy! You've caused enough trouble as it is! Next year you sure as hell ain't getting elected to do this, I'll make certain of it!" He jabs a finger at me. "I'll get you for this, Pete, you wait!"

"Actually," I muse. "I think the line goes something like this." I throw my head back, pointing my finger at him and cackling evilly. "I'll get you, my pretty! Your little dog, too!"

Mac stomps off in his cowboy boots, shooting me a glare over his shoulder. "Next year, Pete, next year it's gonna be different," he threatens.

"Fine by me!" I call. "And just remember, I like my martinis shaken and not stirred!"

And I swear I hear a string of rather wicked words coming from the mouth of my seafoam-hued Sergeant as he heads into the back of the house. I grab up a big plastic spider and start to affix him to my cobwebs. From the back, I hear POP! followed by "GAH!" once more. "It's just a balloon, Brink," I shout. "It's not gonna hurt you!"

"That wasn't me that time!" Brink yells back. "It was Walters!" A second later I hear another POP and a shriek. "That WAS me that time!" he hollers.

A crepe-faced zombie in a mouldering black funeral suit and the Mummy enter the house, the front door creaking open before them. "Cool," says the Mummy, holding a fruit basket wrapped in orange cellophane. "Squeaky door sounds spooky. What'd you do to it, Pete?"

"Nothing," I say. "It was already like that."

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes the Zombie. "Excuse me," he says politely.

I study the Mummy with a bit of dismay. "Uh…Dave?" I ask Dave Russo. "You're kinda coming unravelled there, pal."

He looks behind him at the trailing gauze. "Oh crap!" he says. "I thought I had that fixed!"

Setting the plastic spider down, I go over to him. Plucking at his loose strands, I inspect the ends of the gauze. "You've evidently been unwrapping for a time now," I say. "You've gotten it pretty dirty." I tug on the gauze a bit. "Christ, how many ambulances did you hafta raid in order to get all this?" I ask.

"Shut up!" he snaps. "I had to do this myself. Sheila wouldn't help me, she had to take the kids to a Halloween party." He thrusts the fruit basket at me as I stand up. "Here."

"What's this?" I ask, taking it.

"You told me to bring fruit, so I brought a fruit basket," he says. He looks at his unravelling gauze streamers. "Think you can help me fix this somehow?" he asks.

"Dave," I say. "I didn't tell you to bring fruit. I told you to bring peeled grapes, for our eyeballs."

"What," he says, taking the basket back and opening it. "There's grapes in here." He rummages around in it. "There's also oranges, apples, bananas, grapefruit and…ooh! A package of Ritz crackers!" He pulls the crackers out and sets the basket down on the black-covered table we'll be using tonight for our admission spot. He opens the crackers up and begins to snack on them.

"Dave," I say, rubbing my forehead wearily. "You don't understand. I specifically told you to bring peeled grapes."

"So use the ones in the basket," he says, munching. "What's the difference?"

"The difference is," I sigh. "Peeled grapes FEEL like an eyeball should, or at least that's the theory. Unpeeled grapes do not."

"Yeah," says Jerry Woods the Zombie. "You're comparing apples to oranges, Dave," he chuckles. "Ah-CHOO!" he sneezes juicily.

Shooting me a glare, Dave yanks the small cluster of grapes out of the fruit basket. He glances around and spies an ornate ceramic bowl on a shelf. Going over to the bowl, he pulls it down and begins taking the grapes off of the vine, throwing them into it. Some of the grapes are overripe and explode into pulp and sticky juice. He sets the bowl down on the table with a bang. "There," he says. "Eyeballs. Tell 'em they're from nonhuman beings."

I stare at the bowl in horror. "Please tell me you just didn't do that," I say.

He folds his arms across his chest. "Why? Isn't it a regulation eyeball bowl or something?" he asks snidely. "Don't tell me we need one of THOSE!" He rolls his own eyeballs.

"Uh…no," I say. "But I think I spotted a price tag on the bottom of that bowl when you pulled it down. You'd better hope those grapes didn't damage the inside of it, otherwise we'll be paying for it."

Jerry picks it up, looking at the bottom of the bowl. "Pete's right," he says. "It's got a price tag on it."

"So how much is it?" Dave asks with a shrug. "Couple of bucks?"

Jerry smirks. "More like a couple of hundred bucks. According to the information on the little tag, it's a hand-thrown pottery bowl by an A.M. Crimmins." he says. "Ah-CHOO!" The bowls shakes precariously in Jerry's hand with the force of his sneeze and I snatch it away, setting it back down on the table, so Jerry won't drop it.

"Maybe it'll rinse out," Dave says. "In the meantime, how do we fix me?"

"I know how I'd LIKE to fix you," I say. "By wrapping that gauze around your face…sans airholes."

Dave frowns. "What's sans mean?" he asks.

"Without," Jerry tells him. "Without airholes. Ah-CHOO!" He wipes his nose on his sleeve.

"What's with you tonight anyway, Woods?" I ask, inspecting Dave's gauze once more. "You catching a cold?"

"I think I put too much dust on my funeral suit," he says.

I eye him. "Yeah, you're right. It looks like your suit rode through the Dust Bowl years well out in the open." I poke Dave. "Where's the gauze for your head?" I ask.

"I didn't bring any," he says. "I brought an old turban of Sheila's to use instead." He tugs it out of his gauze-draped pocket, where's he's had it wadded up. "See?" he says, pulling the purple turban over his head. "It fits…mmph, mmph, MMPH!" He flails his arms frantically. "MMPH! MMPH!"

"I think he needs some help, Pete," Woods says and promptly sneezes again.

I tug the turban off of Russo with a mighty yank.

"OUCH!" he yelps as his head pops free. "You pulled my hair, Pete!" He scowls at Woods and I. "Didn't you idiots realize I needed help? I couldn't breathe under that thing! It smells like hairspray!"

"And it's also purple," I say. "A very VIVID shade of purple," I add, turning the ratty cloth around in my hands. "You can't be a white-gauzed mummy with a purple head, Dave. It just won't work."

Woods sneezes again, all over me. A piece of his crepey fake skin falls off his face and plops to the floor. "Sorry, Pete," he says apologetically when he sees me glaring at him for getting possible zombie snot on me. He picks up the piece of skin from the floor. "I'll just try and re-attach this," he says.

"Take the unravelling Mummy with you," I say, gesturing to Dave. "See if you can come up with an idea for rewrapping him or something." I hand Dave back his turban. "And here. Take your hideous purple hat and stuff it somewhere."

"I know where I'd LIKE to stuff it, Pete," Dave says.

"Right back at ya," I reply.

"You know, I certainly hope we do this up differently next year," Dave says. "Without you as head of it."

"You and I are thinking the exact same thing," I say. I catch Woods' sleeve as he starts to walk away. "Jerry, weren't you supposed to bring the tripe for our intestines?" I ask.

"Uh…yeah," he says.

"So where is it?"

"Uh…at home. In my refrigerator," he says sheepishly. "Which reminds me. I gotta call home and tell my wife not to open the green tupperware container. She might get a little bit queasy at seeing what's inside."

"Great," I moan. "We have no noodles for brains, no peeled grapes for eyeballs, no tripe for intestines. We have absolutely NO disgusting body parts we can display tonight, for the customers."

Jerry Woods regards me thoughtfully. "Well, I DO have a disgusting body part I could display tonight, but it's not fit for mixed company."

"Yeah, we already got one of those, Jerry," I tell him. "Brink's ass. So no thanks. Having Brink flash us his Batman boxers was bad enough." I gesture to Dave. "See if you can get him fixed up. And for God's sake, if you sneeze, do NOT wipe your nose on his gauze, got it?" I shake my head, a mirthless smile on my lips.

Jerry nods. "Ah-CHOO!" He wipes his nose on his sleeve again. "I honestly don't think this is very funny Pete," he says, catching sight of my grim smile. "The dust on my suit is really bothering me."

"I don't think it's funny," I tell him. "I think it's freakin' hilarious." But my heavy sarcasm is wasted on the allergenic undead and the gigantic walking bandage.

"Nice 'stache, Pete," Dave says, as they retreat to the back of the house. "My cat can grow one better than that."

"Yeah, well, maybe next year, your cat can take charge of this shindig," I say. "He might run it better than I've been doing so far." When they're gone, I lean heavily on the black tablecloth draped table. "This is going to be a disaster," I mutter to myself, closing my eyes and massaging my temples. I feel the start of a headache circling behind my eyes. "What more can go wrong? Maybe Mac's right, we should turn 'em away at the door. Tell 'em something's come up."

"I wouldn't do that, Pete," says Jim Reed from the doorway of the great room and parlor. "The flyers have gone up. We don't want to disappoint any kids, you know."

I look up. "Yeah, but it's not going well at all, Jim," I tell him. "I'm not getting much cooperation here tonight."

"What are they doing back there anyway?" he asks, jerking a thumb back towards the kitchen. "They were looking at a box of pictures or something."

"Oh Christ," I mumble. "Ed's vacation pictures. They're looking at those instead of doing the work that I asked them to do." I stride across the room, sticking my head around the corner of the parlor doorframe. "HEY!" I yell. "QUIT LOOKING AT THOSE DAMNED PICTURES AND GET TO WORK!" I hear six loud raspberries blown in my direction, followed by a loud "Ah-CHOO!" I sigh, shaking my head. "You see?" I ask, going back over to the table, where Reed is already at. "This is what I have to work with." I stop in my tracks as I spot Reed chewing contentedly on something. "What are you eating?" I ask warily, approaching him.

"Mmph," he mutters, cramming the rest of whatever he's eating into his mouth. He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. "Grapes," he says happily, still chewing.

I stare at the empty ceramic bowl. "Great," I say. "You just chowed down on our eyeballs."

His eyes go wide and he pales, gagging, causing me to quickly move away from him, lest he be getting ready to upchuck our masticated eyeballs. "Seriously?" he asks. "I thought they were grapes."

"They were," I tell him. "But they were supposed to be peeled. Instead, Dave brought them in that fruit basket."

"Ooh," Jim says, rummaging in the basket. He snags an apple up and bites down on it, crunching mightily. "Why'd Dave bring a fruit basket?"

"He was supposed to bring the peeled grapes," I tell him. "Instead, he somehow translated that into 'bring a fruit basket, Dave,' and brought a fruit basket. So now we have no eyeballs, along with no intestines and no brains."

"I coulda told you we had no brains when you were elected to run this deal," he says, chomping on the apple.

"Yeah," I shoot back. "You guys were the idiots who elected me in the first place."

"You were the idiot who decided to take a bathroom break right before we were getting ready to vote," he says.

"Your apple has a worm in it, pal," I tell him wickedly, even though it really doesn't.

"Ahhhkkk!" he gags again, grabbing up the bowl that held the grapes and spitting chewed apple into it. "Gah! Ick! Ptooey!"

"Hey, watch it!" I tell him. "That's a 200 dollar bowl you're horking into there, Junior."

Shooting me a mean-eyed glare, he puts the bowl down and inspects the apple closely. "There's no worm in here," he says. "You jerk."

"Never trust a man with a moustache," I smirk, twirling my fake moustache between my thumb and index finger.

"I oughta yank that ugly thing off of your face," he tells me.

"Why are you dressed in black?" I ask. "Are you supposed to be Johnny Cash or something?"

"This," he says, gesturing to his black jeans and turtleneck sweater. "Is what ALL the fashionable Headless Men are wearing this season. It's very hoty-coty."

I quirk an eyebrow. "Hoty-coty?" I ask. "What the hell's that?"

"It's French for fine fashion," he tells me.

"Oh," I say, nodding. "Kinda like avanty-gardy, huh?" I ask wryly.

"Precisely," he nods.

"Well, Mr. Headless, where's your pumpkin at?" I ask. "You know, the one that's supposed to be your head?"

"Um…yeah," he says. "Kinda had a bit of trouble with that. When I went to grab up the pumpkin I'd carved for use tonight, Jimmy screamed like a banshee. When I put it down, he shut right up. I picked it up again, he shrieked. I think he's kind of attached to it or something."

"Maybe it reminds him of his pumpkin-headed father," I tell him. "But I'm glad you didn't torment my poor godson. I'd hate to think of him being upset on Halloween night, just because his daddy stole his favorite pumpkin." I gesture to him. "So what did you bring in place of the pumpkin? A squash? A cherry tomato? A wayward zucchini?"

"Stop it, you're making me hungry," he complains. He reaches for a paper bag he's got sitting on the table. "No, I brought something better," he says, reaching into the bag and pulling something out with a flourish. "Ta-dah!" he says cheerfully.

I stare at it in shock. "You…you…you brought Mr. Potato Head?" I ask with dismay. "How in the hell is that scary?"

"Have you ever stepped on one of those plastic parts in the dark with your bare feet?" he asks. "They hurt like hell, pal. Trust me." He wiggles Mr. Potato Head in my face. "'Sides. You can take the parts off and rearrange them any way you want to."

"How 'bout I take YOUR parts off and rearrange them any way I want to?" I snap.

He snatches the creature away. "Just for that, I won't let you play with my Mr. Potato Head!" he informs me, tucking the dratted thing under his arm. One of the little ears fall off.

"Reed, you ARE a Mr. Potato Head," I tell him.

He picks the wandering ear up, taking the little feet off of the bottom and putting them where the ear should go. He sticks the ear where the feet belong. "Hee-hee," he chuckles as he inspects his handiwork. He wiggles the Potato Head in my face again. "Talk to the feet, Pete, 'cuz the ears ain't listening." He holds the thing aloft. "These ears are made for walkin', and that's just what they'll do. One of these days these ears are gonna walk all over you." He does a little side-step shuffle as he sings, dancing with Mr. Potato Head. "C'mon, ears, start walkin'!" He begins to stomp around the room, walking the Potato Head in front of him. "Doo-doo-de-doot, doo-doo-de-doot," he sings, coming to a stop in front of me, wagging the plastic tater tot with the Groucho Marx glasses in my face once more.

"Are you QUITE finished?" I ask, folding my arms across my chest.

"Umm…" he ponders. He wiggles the spud again. "Doo-doo-de doot," he sings. "Now I am." He nods affirmatively.

"Did you remember to bring the music for tonight, or are we going to be treated to your impression of Nancy Sinatra all evening?" I ask.

"No, I brought it," he says. "The tapes I made are in the bag." He marches the plastic spud over to the paper bag on the table. Reaching in, he fishes four cassette tapes out, handing them to me. "Spooky sounds, at your service."

"Four of them?" I ask, taking the tapes. "Two would have been just fine, you know."

"I've been working all week trying to get that stuff recorded for you, Pete," he says, sounding wounded. "I went to the library and checked out all the haunted house record albums they had. Then I recorded them onto tape. The least you could do is say thanks."

"Thanks," I say, popping two of the tapes into the dual tape deck we rigged up to Donna's piped-in sound system. "Let's see what we've got." I push the play button.

After the turn of the century

In the clear blue skies over Germany,

Came a roar and a thunder men have never heard

Like the scream and the sound of a big warbird.

Up in the sky, a man in a plane

Baron von Richtofen was his name,

Eighty men tried, and eighty men died

Now they're buried together on the countryside…

…sing the Royal Guardsmen from the speakers.

"Snoopy VS. the Red Baron?" I ask Reed in shock. "How does that translate into scary haunted house sounds?"

"Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more! The bloody Red Baron was rollin' out the score. Eighty men died just to end that spree of the bloody Red Baron, of Germany," sing several off-key voices from the back.

"Uh, try the other tape," Reed says with embarassment. "It's gotta be that one."

I push play on the other tape deck.

He likes bread and butter!

He likes toast and jam!

'Cuz that's what his baby feeds him,

And he's her lovin' man…

…sing the Newbeats.

"I like bread and butter! I like toast and jam! 'Cuz that's what my baby feeds me, and I'm her lovin' man!" caterwaul the voices from the back of the house once more.

"Uh…heh heh…" Jim chuckles nervously. "Put one of the other ones in and rewind the side of one of the first ones," he tells me. "It's on one of them, I think."

I do as he asks, slipping the third tape in while flipping one of the others over to rewind. "This had better be right," I say. I press the play button.

Winchester Cathedral, you're bringing me down

You stood and you watched as my baby left town

You could have done something, but you didn't try

You didn't do nothing, you let her walk by…

…sings the New Vaudville Band.

"Try the other tape, Pete," Reed urges. "I KNOW at least ONE of these stupid tapes has to have haunted house sounds on it!"

I stop the other tape from rewinding and press the play button once more.

Devil with the blue dress, blue dress, blue dress, devil with the blue dress on

She's the devil with the blue dress, blue dress, blue dress, devil with the blue dress on…

…chirps Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

Ed Wells suddenly boogies into the great room with great aplomb, swirling and snapping his cape around him. "Fee-fee-fi-fi-fo-fo-fum," he sings. "Look at Molly now, here she come! Wearin' her wig hat and shades to match, she's got her high-heel shoes and an alligator hat.."

I stop the tape deck. Reed and I both stare at him as he dances around, shaking his ass and getting pretty down and funky wit' it. We exchange smirks.

"She's wearin' her pearls and her diamond rings," he continues, wiggling his butt and tossing his head back, completely oblivious to the fact that the music has stopped. "She's got bracelets on her fingers now, and every…" He stops, blushing as bright a red as the lining of his cape as he realizes two of his worst tormentors are watching him with great amusement, filing away his actions for future use against him. "Uh…er…sorry," he stammers. "I kinda like this song."

"I can see that," I tell him, trying hard to keep a straight face. I shoot Reed a glance and see that he's holding onto the table for support, as his shoulders heave with laughter. "Are your bats hung up?" My voice quavers with unshed snorts of chuckles.

He shakes his head. "Uh…no, we were still looking at my vacation pictures."

I feel my irritation beginning to rise, rapidly quelling the laughter I felt a moment ago. "Quit looking at those damned pictures and get your stupid bats hung up, Ed! I'm not gonna tell you again!"

He stares at me in astonishment. "Jeez, Pete, okay. Don't get pissed at me."

"I am trying NOT to," I tell him through clenched teeth. "Now do what I've told you to do!" Ed scurries out of the room to do my bidding.

Reed has fiddled with the tapes in the tape deck while my back was turned. "I think I got it," he tells me. "Be prepared to get creeped out, Daddy-o." He pushes the play button.

May the bird of Paradise fly up your nose!

May an elephant caress you with his toes!

May your wife be plagued with runners in her hose!

May the bird of Paradise fly up your nose!...

…sings Little Jimmy Dickens.

"Uh…oops," Reed says, stopping the tape. "And I guess I don't have it."

"Hey, Pete, we dedicate this song to you!" shouts Jerry Walters from the back.

"Get busy, you jerks!" I yell back. I look at Jim. "Are all four tapes that way?" I ask tiredly.

He bites his lip. "Lemme try this last one. I swear to God I picked up the right tapes from the bin this afternoon when I left the house." He pushes the button.

Take away the trees and the birds will have to sit upon the ground…hummm

Take away their wings and the birds will have to walk to get around

Take away the birdbaths and dirty birds will soon be everywhere

Take away their feathers and the birds will walk around in underwear…

…warble Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan.

"Um…heh heh," Jim giggles as he catches my look of dark gloom. He stops the tape deck. "I…uh…guess I didn't grab the right tapes after all."

"So we have NO haunted house sounds at ALL?" I ask in dismay.

"Maybe we could just let the tapes play anyway, and make people think it's a groovy haunted house," Reed suggests hopefully.

"Somehow rock and roll and novelty tunes don't scream 'scary', Reed," I tell him.

"Hey," he says. "I know Monster Mash is on there somewhere. I remember taping it. I can try and find it for you if you want."

"No," I sigh. "Let's see how your Headless Man costume works."

He shrugs, pointing to the chair that we have set aside for him to park his ass on during the Nightmare Mansion. "I sit there, with my Mr. Potato Head tucked under my arm," he tells me, like I'm the dumbest shit in the world.

"If I can see your head, Reed, chances are good the customers will be able to see it," I tell him. "Try pulling the collar of the turtleneck up over your head, see what happens.

He does as he's told, tugging the neck up over his head. "I can't see," he complains, swaying. He puts his hands out to steady himself and runs into the table, banging his shin. "OUCH!" he yelps, yanking the collar back down and rubbing his shinbone. "You made me crack my shin!" he tells me, his hair standing on end with static electricity.

"Well," I say. "At least what they say is true."

He frowns. "What's that?"

"The shinbone is connected to the knucklehead," I sing. "Oh dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…"

"Shut up, Pete," he snaps. "I can't pull that collar up over my head. I can't see what I'm doing."

"You're not really supposed to do anything, per se," I tell him. "But it does pose a problem. However, I do have a suggestion."

He eyeballs me warily. "Um…what would that be, Pete?" he asks.

I pick up the scissors I used earlier to straighten up Brinkman's eyeholes. "I'll cut a little section out of the collar so you can see out of it. How's that?" I snick the scissors at him.

Nuh-uh! It's a good shirt!" he cries. "I'm not gonna destroy it for your stupid Halloween gig!"

"I'll buy you another," I tell him. "I promise. Now, c'mere."

"Nuh-uh," he says. "You're not cutting holes in my shirt, Pete."

"How are you gonna be the Headless Man with your head still visible, idiot?" I ask. "Unless you'd rather I cut your head off instead." I snick the scissors threateningly, smiling wickedly.

He gasps. "You wouldn't," he says.

"Try me," I say. "I'm in charge of this stupid gig tonight, so I order you to let me cut eyeholes in your shirt, Reed."

"You know, with that stupid-assed moustache of yours, you could pass for either Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler, which would suit you just fine, since you're a great dictator," he remarks, pulling the turtleneck back over his face.

"Thanks," I say. "I won't take offense at that, since someone has to lead you merry band of misfit monsters tonight," I tell him. I feel along his forehead with my hand. "Tell me when I reach your…"

"OW!" he yelps.

"Eyes," I finish. "Guess I found 'em, huh?"

"Don't cut anything but my shirt, got it?" he snaps, his voice muffled.

"Got it," I say, gathering a handful of the material in my fingers. I begin to snip away with great abandon. "There, that's not so bad now, is it?" I ask, pulling the shreds of black cloth away…along with a rather sizeable chunk of dark brown hair. "Uh…oops," I say.

His head shoots out of the turtleneck with wide-eyed alarm. "Oops what, Pete?" he demands.

"Um…nothing," I say, hiding the fabric and the hair behind my back. "I just thought I…uh…made the section too big. But I didn't. So you're good to go, Jim. Why don't you go see if the guys in the back are done with their jobs?"

He glares at me narrow-eyed. "What are you hiding behind your back, Pete?" he asks, his voice low.

"Nothing!" I say rather innocently. "Absolutely nothing, Jim. Seriously."

He reaches a hand up, feeling carefully along his head. "It feels like everything's there," he mutters, running his fingers along his brows. "I don't feel any blood…wait a sec…oh my god…WHAT DID YOU DO, PETE?" he shrieks. "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO TO MY HAIR!"

"Um…gave ya a little trim?" I say hopefully. "Let's face it, I think you needed a haircut. Departmental regulations, you know. It was getting too long."

"Is it against departmental regulations for me to kick your ass?" he snarls.

"Probably," I tell him. "Since this IS an official departmental gig here tonight." I hold out his chopped hair and swatch of black fabric. "Here," I say, pressing it into his hands. "Early Christmas present for ya, Kojak. Maybe you can knit a tea cozy or something with it."

"I SO hate you right now, Pete," he snaps. "Jean will KILL you, but she'll have to wait in line. I'm killing you first!" He brushes a hand down his forehead. "How bad is it?" he asks.

"Well…" I hedge. "Let's just say you might give Moe Howard a good run for his money," I tell him. "But hey, some chicks think the Three Stooges are sexy."

"Jean DOESN'T!" he growls. "She doesn't even think they're funny!" He shakes his head, groaning. "I gotta see if I can find a damned mirror somewhere," he says. "See how badly you butchered my hair, Malloy."

"Don't forget your little potato dolly, Moe!" I tell him. "Maybe you could take the little hat off of him and stick it on your head instead."

He snatches his Mr. Potato Head off of the table. "I oughta stick this where the spuds don't shine!" he says, waving the plastic oversized french fry around. He jabs a finger at me. "Next Halloween, you are NOT being in charge!" He turns and stalks off.

"Hey, if you don't need that hair," I call. "Find Walters! He's probably scratched a bald spot on his fur by now and might need it to cover up with!"

Wordlessly, the Headless Man shoots me the middle digit.

I turn my attention back to seeing what needs to be done with the rest of my decorations. I stick the fruit basket underneath the table, studying the ghostly cut-outs we hung from the big bay windows. Suddenly someone flings themselves onto my back.

"I vant to bite your neck!" hisses Dracula, pouncing on me from behind.

"GAH! Get off of me, Ed!" I snap at him, swinging around and shaking him off. "Or I'll go get me a stake and drive it through your head."

"Don't you mean my heart?" he asks.

"No, your head," I tell him. "I don't think there'd be as much resistance, since there's not a whole lot upstairs."

He snaps and swooshes his cape around in a swirl of red and black. He begins to prance around the room, flipping his cape. "Mwuhahahahahah!" he laughs evilly.

I catch him by the edge of his cape as he prances by me and reel him in, hand over hand, like I'm reeling in the world's ugliest fish. "Knock it off, Ed, you're annoying me," I tell him. "Where's your fangs at?" I ask.

"Right here," he says, patting the breast pocket of his white dress shirt. He winces suddenly. "OW, I think I just bit myself!"

"Oh dear Lord," I say, running a hand down my face. "Dare I ask WHERE?"

He tugs on the collar of his shirt. "Uh…I don't think you really want to know," he says, looking down the shirt. "But the good news is, I'm not bleeding…I don't think." He unties the cape, letting it fall to the floor in a sad little swoop, as he unbuttons his shirt.

"Ed, PLEASE!" I say in horror, covering my eyes. "Do NOT disrobe! I do NOT need that at all! It would haunt my nightmares for years!"

"Oh, stuff it, Malloy," he mutters. He checks out his fang wound with avid intensity. "Does it look like this needs a bandaid?" he asks, pointing a finger to a spot above his heart.

"Do you honestly think I'm gonna LOOK?" I ask, peeking through my fingers.

"I think maybe it does," he says, poking at it. "I don't suppose you have a bandaid on you, do you?"

"Go find the Mummy," I sigh. "I'm sure he can spare you some of his gauze. And NO, I'm NOT putting it on you! Have the Mummy help you or something, Drac."

"Hey, Dave! Where are ya? I need some of your gauze!" he yells, his hand over his minor wound. He starts to walk away.

"Ahem," I clear my throat.

Ed looks back at me. "What?" he asks sharply.

"You're forgetting your cape, Count Chocula." I point to the cape lying in a puddled swoosh on the floor.

With a grimace, he bends over and picks it up. His fangs promptly fall out of his breast pocket. "Damn it!" he snaps, retrieving them once more. "Now I gotta go wash 'em off again!" He glares at me. "You know, Pete, this was all your lousy stupid idea in the first place. And I hafta tell you, it really sucks, and I don't mean blood."

I shrug. "It wasn't my lousy stupid idea to get elected to do this tonight," I tell him. "It was a general consenus that put me in charge."

"And it's a general census that's gonna put you OUT of charge next year," he warns.

"Consensus," I say.

He looks confused. "Huh?"

"It's consensus, not census." I point a finger at him. "Are your bats hung up?"

"Uh…no," he replies.

"Are you planning on getting them hung anytime within this century?" I ask.

He nods wordlessly.

I point to the dining room where his coffin rests. "Then go do it," I tell him. "NOW!"

He shakes his head. "Think you're so smart, Malloy," he mutters under his breath as he walks away, his cape slung rakishly over his shoulder. "We'll SEE who's smart next year."

"Hey Ed!" I call. "Make sure and put that bandaid in an 'X' over your heart! That way I'll know where to drive the stake through!"

Count Dracula blows me a raspberry.

Frankenstein returns. He jerks a thumb in the direction of the departing Dracula. "What's with him?" he asks.

"His own fangs bit him," I tell Mac.

"Wh-a-a-t?" Mac asks, snorting with laughter. "Where?"

"Right around his heart," I say, chuckling. "That is, if he HAD a heart."

"Who? Ed or Count Dracula?" Mac asks.

"Well…I don't know about Drac, but I'm really beginning to wonder about Ed," I reply. I hand Mac some fake cobwebs. "Go drape these around Drac's coffin and around the Mummy's sarcophagus. And watch the little plastic spiders. They like to fall off." I snap my fingers. "Oh, and make sure Ed has gotten those damned bats hung up, willya?"

"You know, I hope you don't decide to try for Sergeant until after I'm out of the division," he says. "You're bossier than I am."

"Says Kermit the Frog," I say. "Ribbit ribbit."

"Stick it, Pete," he replies.

"Now don't make me sic the villagers with their flaming torches and pitchforks on you, Frankenberry," I warn.

"I'll pitchfork and torch you, Malloy," Mac mutters, stalking out of the room with a handful of cobwebs.

The front door squeaks open once more and Bo Peep struts in. At least I think it's Bo Peep. Either that it's the Happy Hooker in a floppy pink sunbonnet. She is clad in knee-high black leather high-heel boots, fishnet stockings, a pink and black frilly miniskirt, and a ruffled pink shirt. She has a shepherd's crook slung over her shoulder, a small stuffed sheep tucked under her arm, and she is carrying a crock pot. She sets the crock pot on top of the table with a thunk and plops the stuffed sheep alongside it. The floppy brim of the sunbonnet hides her face from my view.

Eyeballing her lasciviously, I let out a low wolf whistle. "Hel-lo," I purr with delight. I give her a Pete Malloy grin. "I believe you might be lost, Miss Peep, but I can certainly help you get found again."

She flips the edge of the sunbonnet up and glares at me. "Just shut the hell up, Pete," snaps Shaaron Claridge, our dispatcher. "I swear to God, if I hear one more wolf whistle or lewd comment, I'm gonna start smacking people with my crook."

"Uh…weren't you supposed to be our witch for tonight?" I ask.

She folds her arms across her chest, tapping her black-booted foot, fixing me with a dangerous look. "I went to FIVE different rental costume shops in the last three days. The witch costumes have all been rented. All that was left was either go-go dancers, nuns, flappers, or THIS little number. I took it because quite frankly, I was getting really damned sick and tired of looking. Now, if you have a PROBLEM with it, tough shit, pal." She grabs the stuffed sheep up and jabs it at me. "Tell it to the sheep, 'cuz Bo Peep doesn't give a happy little rat's ass right now." She squeezes the stuffed sheep's middle and it promptly baaa's.

I hold my hands up defensively. "Whoa, hey, Shaaron, take it easy," I soothe. "We'll uh…work around the costume glitch, okay?" I point to the crock pot. "What's that for?" I ask.

"You told me to bring a pot for the witches' brew, so I brought this," she informs me. "I didn't have any big cooking pots."

"Um…okay," I say. "But if you weren't going to come as a witch, why bring the crock pot?" I ask. "The witch's cauldron was kinda supposed to go along with the theme of the costume. It doesn't make sense for Bo Peep to have a witch's cauldron."

Her eyes narrow to slits. "SO?" she snarls, picking up the crook and holding it like a baseball bat.

I think fast, lest I get clobbered by Shaaron, our home-run queen on the softball field. "And…uh…okay, Bo Peep has the cauldron because she…uh…has turned evil and is…um…cooking her sheep. Yeah, that's it!" I say, snapping my fingers. "Bo Peep has been seduced by the dark side and decides to crock pot her own sheep."

She stares at me. "Next year, Malloy, I certainly hope they put someone other than you in charge."

I turn away. "Yeah, you and everyone else," I mutter under my breath. "Including me."

She squeezes the sheep once more and it baaa's. She gestures to me. "So what are YOU supposed to be, Pete?" she asks. "With that fakey-assed moustache?"

"I am the Master of Evil," I tell her grandly. "The Sultan of Satan, the Prince of Darkness, the Hellhound of Earth." I bow to her. "At your service."

"Nice costume," she remarks dryly.

"Why?" I ask in dismay. "What's wrong with my costume?"

"With that black and purple satin cape, and the black frilly shirt and jeans, you look like Johnny Cash mated with Liberace and produced an unholy love-child," she smirks.

"Hey, when I want fashion tips from a nursery rhyme character that looks like she could be arrested for prostitution, I'll let ya know," I snipe.

"Watch it, Pete, or you'll be wearing my crook up your ass," she tells me.

The Mummy wanders back in, trailing his white gauze like streamers on a float. "Pete, I'm coming more unwrapped," he complains. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"How about…Ah-CHOO!...some safety pins?" asks the Sneezing Zombie, who follows along behind the unravelling Mummy.

"Woods, watch it!" Dave Russo tells him. "You're stepping on my gauze!"

"So…Ah-CHOO!...sorry," Woods says.

They both catch sight of Bo Peepshow. Jerry wolf-whistles at her, while Dave says, "Hubba hubba!"

"CAN IT!" she snaps.

I rummage through the small metal toolbox I was using earlier while I was hanging up some of the other Halloween decorations. "Here's something that might work," I say, holding up a roll of duct tape.

Russo eyes me. "Uh…duct tape, Pete? I don't think that's gonna work all that well."

I glance at my watch. "Look, the Nightmare Mansion is set to open in just a little while. You certainly can't scare anyone looking like that. So Mummies can't be choosers right now. It's the closest thing I have to fix you in time for the opening." I tear off a strip of duct tape and grab one of his trailing edges of gauze. "Spin around," I order him.

He spins around slowly, becoming unravelled even further.

"No, not THAT way," I tell him. "The OTHER way!" When I get that piece of gauze rewrapped and plastered down with duct tape, I tear off another strip of tape. I make a spinning motion with my finger and Dave complies.

"Oh," he moans. "I'm getting dizzy, Pete."

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes Woods.

I glare at him. "Look, Jerry, kindly aim your nose elsewhere when you sneeze," I tell him. "I don't need your snot covering me."

"Seriously, Pete, I'm getting dizzy!" Dave says, wobbling unsteadily.

Count Dracula returns to watch the show. "Heh heh," he chortles. "Some stupid mummy you are, Dave. You look like you've been wrapped by a horde of drunken furnace repairmen."

"Hey, don't knock the handyman's secret weapon," I admonish Wells. I nudge Dave. "Keep spinning, Mummy-o."

Wells spies Shaaron. "Ooh!" he hisses delightedly. "I most certainly vant to bite YOUR neck, my lucious pretty one!" He swoops towards her in order to menace her.

"Ed…" I start to warn.

THWACK! It's too late. Shaaron has clocked him a good one with her crook.

"OUCH!" he yelps, rubbing his shoulder where she smacked him. "What'd ya go and do that for?"

"Back off, Wells!" she snarls. "Or the next one is gonna be aimed lower!"

Ed blanches and scurries to hide behind the sneezing Zombie.

Brinkman comes in, dragging his chains sadly behind him. "Pete, the floating ghosts are pretty well decimated," he tells me mournfully. "What ones didn't explode on us like Ford Pintos, keep losing the tissue paper over them. I give up." He spots Shaaron. "Whoa!" he says, his eyes wide in his still-slightly crooked eyeholes. "What's the Happy Hooker doing here in Nightmare Mansion? Did she take a wrong turn or something?" He waggles his fingers at her. "Not that I mind."

"Watch it, Brink," Ed warns, peeking out from behind Woods. "She's got a crook and she ain't afraid to use it." Ed snaps his fingers, grinning. "Hey, maybe the two of you could get together and do a striptease act. Miss Bo Get-A-Peep and Peek-A-BooBerry!" He laughs at his own remark.

Shaaron picks up her sheep and squeezes it, making it baaa again.

Ed grimaces. "Ew, Shaaron, your sheep just farted."

Brink gestures to Dave. "What happened to him? He come undone again?"

"Yeah," I tell him. "The ancient Egyptians didn't wrap this one up so good." I poke Dave. "Keep spinning, pal. You're almost done."

He tugs at the gauze. "Jeez, Pete, you wrapped this kinda tight, dont'cha think?"

"Can you breathe?" I ask him.

"Yeah, why?"

"Then it's not too tight," I tell him.

Wolfman, still scratching vigorously, wanders in. He spies Shaaron. "Awww-ROOO!" he howls, stamping his foot like a randy dog. He sticks his tongue out and pants heavily. "Baby, I'll be a wolf in sheep's clothing for you!" he yowls.

"Stuff it, Walters!" Shaaron snaps. "You flea-bitten mutt!"

Frankenstein and the Headless Man return, deep in conversation. Their conversation stops when they catch sight of Shaaron. Mac starts to open his mouth and say something.

Shaaron holds her hand up, stopping him. "Whatever lewd little remark you're going to make, you can just save it," she huffs. "I've already heard it from the rest of these yokels."

"Uh…no," Mac stutters. "I was just going to tell you you look really nice, Shaaron."

"Oh," she says, quite taken aback.

Mac grins wickedly. "That is, for a B-girl."

"That DOES it!" Shaaron growls. "If I hear ONE MORE peep out of ANY of you, I swear to GOD I will plant my high-heeled boot up your happy little asses!" There is a lot of mumbling apologies and shuffling of feet on the floor, as eight pairs of eyes stare shamefacedly at the floor. "That's better," Shaaron says. "Now are there any last-minute things that need to be done?" she asks.

I fish a small silver key out of my shirt pocket and toss it to her. "You can make sure the cash box is set up," I say. "There should be fifty bucks in one dollar bills in there."

She nods. "Anything else?"

I look at Ed. "Are your bats hung up now, Ed?" I ask him.

"Yes, they are," he tells me with a huff.

Dave looks down at me as I'm attaching the last of his gauze to his pant leg. "By the way, I hope you got my sarcophagus fixed," he says. "Last night it was still sticking shut when I climbed into it."

"I oiled the hinges on it," I tell him. "So it should be fine." We were actually lucky in scoring Dave's sarcophagus; Donna had one that she'd bought at a flea market and graciously allowed us to use for tonight.

"Good," he says, visibly relieved. "I don't relish getting stuck in there again like I did before."

I point to his shoes. "Just for future reference, Dave, mummies in ancient Egyptian times did NOT wear Adidas sneakers."

"It was either these or a pair of white patent-leather bucks," he says.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Pat Boone!" announces Ed, pointing to Dave. "When I lost my bay-bee…I al-oh-most lo-ust my my-yind," he sings, but he's quickly drowned out by another song.

My uncle used to love me but she died,

A chicken ain't a chicken 'til he's lickin' good fried,

Keep on the sunny side,

My uncle used to love me but she died…

…Roger Miller blares out of the speakers.

I look over my shoulder at Shaaron, who is staring at the tape deck with obvious surprise. "What the hell?" she asks. "I just pushed the button to play whatever was on the tapes. I thought it would be haunted house sounds, but instead it's this!"

"Thank Jim Reed for that little mix-up," I tell her. "He was SUPPOSED to bring haunted house sounds. Instead, he brought his record collection of novelty songs and rock and roll."

"Pete, I know 'Monster Mash' is on there somewhere," he says. "Along with 'Dinner With Drac'." He gestures to Shaaron. "Try the other side," he says.

She stops the tape and pops it out, flipping it over. She pushes the button.

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh

Here I am at

Camp Granada!

Camp is very


And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining…

…sings Allan Sherman.

"Oh, forget it," I sigh. "Let the music play. Maybe it'll take the focus off of the other things that haven't gone right."

Dracula gets a mean, squinty-eyed look as he suddenly decides that now would be a good time to menace the other monsters. He circles around Frankenstein and jumps on his back. "I vant to bite your neck," he hisses.

"Damn it, Ed, get off me!" Mac snaps, shaking him off.

Ed menaces Reed next. "I vant to bite your…"

"Get near me and you'll be having Mr. Potato Head shoved somewhere where the sun don't shine," Reed warns.

Ed hisses sourly at the mention of sunlight. "Dracula no like sun," he says. "Dracula like dark."

"Hey, Drac," I say. "You don't have to talk like Frankenstein. Dracula isn't dumb, you know." I begin to fix the loose gauze on Dave's arms.

"Who says Frankenstein was dumb?" Mac asks me.

"Well, what would you expect from someone whose brain came from a bargain-basement graveyard?" I reply.

"A brain…a brain…I must have a brain!" Brinkman says, shuffling around and imitating a hunchbacked Igor. He steps on one of his trailing chains and collides with the Wolfman. Brink's pants promptly fall down.

"Ouch!" Walters snaps, pushing Brink away. "Brink, stop it! And for God's sake, pull up your damned pants!"

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes the Zombie.

Dracula eyes the Wolfman. He approaches him stealthily. "I vant to bite your…"

"Bite me and you'll get a mouthful of fur," Walters warns him. "You want your blood to have a hairball chaser?"

"Ew," Ed says with a grimace. "No thanks." He begins to swoop and dance around the room, twirling his cape. He smacks Reed alongside the head with a swirl of his cape.

"Ed, watch it!" Reed snaps at him. "You're gonna get hurt!"

"Hey, nice haircut, Moe!" Ed taunts. "Nyuck nyuck nyuck!"

I nudge Russo, who is nearly completely fixed now, save for a few bits here and there on his back and chest. "I think I can get the rest of this if you spin just a couple more times."

"Okay, Pete," he tells me. "But I'm doing it slowly." He begins to spin around.

"Dave, the OTHER WAY!" I tell him in exasperation. "You're undoing what I just rewrapped!"

Jerry Walters scratches his face fur. "I think I've got hives from this crap," he says. Ed clobbers him in the back as he swoops by. "Damn it, Ed, knock it off!" he growls.

"Clap for the Wolfman," Ed sings. "He's gonna reach a record high. Clap for the..ULP!"

I catch him by the cape once more and reel him in. "Look, Ed," I tell him. "Knock it the hell off or I swear, I will strangle you with your cape!" I shove him towards a chair. "Go sit down, you annoying little jerk."

"Hmph!" he says, yanking his cape out of my grasp. "The Count will NOT tolerate this." And he continues to stand, folding his arms defiantly across his chest. He eyeballs Shaaron, who is busy counting the money in the cash box. He approaches her stealthily as she ignores him, then he swoops in to surprise her.

She calmly raises her crook and clobbers him again on the shoulder, hard.

"Yee-OUCH!" he yelps. "Damn it, Shaaron, that HURTS!"

"You're forgetting I can damn near hit that softball outta the park, Wells," she reminds him. "And you come near me again, I WILL whack you on the family jewels, as small as they likely are."

"You bit…" Ed begins. He backs hastily away when Shaaron picks up her crook. "Uh, forget it," he says, ducking behind olive-colored Mac.

I finish fastening Dave's gauze back around him. I step back to admire my handiwork. "Well, it's not the best," I say. "But it will have to do, I guess. And we didn't have enough left to try and cover your face, either. You'll have to use that stupid turban. Just cut holes in it so you can see and breathe through it."

"Yeah, don't have Sweeny Todd here do it for you," Reed says, shooting me a dirty look. "Otherwise you'll end up like me."

"Seriously, Pete, the Mummy looks like he's got leprosy or something," Brinkman says, holding on to his pants.

"Or the mange," Jerry Walters says. "Man, this crap is driving me nuts," he whines, scratching furiously at his arms.

"I still think I'm wrapped too tight," complains the Mummy.

"My boots are beginning to pinch my feet," says Frankenstein.

"My fangs still don't fit right," Dracula reminds me.

"And you ruined a perfectly good turtleneck shirt," Reed says. "Not to mention my perfectly good hair."

"And I have to sit behind this table dressed up like someone that you'd pay ten bucks to see do a fan dance," Bo Peep says. "And I'm honestly not like this. People are gonna get the wrong impression. I'm not Sally Rand, Pete. I'm Shaaron Claridge."

My patience, already worn thin, finally snaps. "EEE-NOUGH!" I roar, making everyone jump in startlement. "I am SICK and TIRED of all of this BITCHING and MOANING I'm hearing from you guys! I didn't want this damned job of running Nightmare Mansion, but I got stuck with it! If you remember right, I suggested that we CANCEL the damned thing for this year completely! But oooh nooo," I rant at the stunned monsters. "You guys said it had to go on, it was a Central Division tradition! And now look what we've got: no brains, no guts, no eyeballs! We have a ghost that flashes everyone, a Werewolf with fleas, a Frankenstein in too-tight cowboy boots, a Dracula with bad fangs, a Headless Man with a Mr. Potato Head, a Mummy that looks like he was wrapped by cross-eyed handymen, a Bo Peep that was SUPPOSED to be a witch, but instead looks like the Happy Hooker crossed with a female dominatrix and…and…" I stare around at them as they gaze at me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with shock. "Oh to HELL with it!" I yell. "The money we raise tonight goes to the Widow and Orphans Fund, a worthy cause for our department, but just forget about it! Screw it! We'll call it off!" I untie my purple and black cape from around my neck and toss it onto the table. "As for me," I snarl. "I'm through! Utterly THROUGH! You jerks can do whatever the hell you want for the rest of tonight. I really don't give a good goddamn!" I stomp over to the staircase that leads to the upstairs and sit down heavily on the steps. I drop my head into my hands, my breath coming in pants from my righteous outrage. Grabbing the bannister, I stand up. "I'm going home," I tell them wearily, turning my back and starting towards the door. "I'm turning out all the lights in my apartment and hiding under the covers until Christmas. You guys can do whatever you want." I put my hand on the doorknob.

"Uh…Pete, wait," says Mac.

"What?" I ask, tiredly resting my head against the door. "What now? Another complaint? Well, I don't care. Tell it to Shaaron's sheep."

"Pete, look," Mac says, coming up behind me and putting a hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry…we're ALL sorry we've been acting this way tonight," he says. "Right?"

I hear various shuffles of feet and muttered "yeahs" and "uh-huhs" from behind me. "So?" I ask, shrugging Mac's hand off. "It doesn't matter. Our Nightmare Mansion is a disaster. And I should have known it from the start." I turn around to face them.

"Pete, you put a lot of hard work into this," Reed says, coming up next to me. "And we really do appreciate it, truly we do. I don't think we realized how hard of work you've done on this, in just a week's time. You lined up the house, you bought the decorations, you assigned us our monsterly roles, you were here nearly every night this week making sure everything was running as smooth as it could. And I guess we kinda forgot that, all of us. And that means we let you down. And that's not right. You deserve better than this."

"Sure, Pete," says Russo. "We've had the easy jobs, and we even screwed those up for you. We didn't do the simplest tasks you gave us to do. We disappointed you."

"Yeah, you put your faith into us and we failed you miserably," says Walters, still scratching. "You put your heart and soul into this and we made a mess of it in just a few hours."

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes Jerry Woods. "We haven't been the best of friends for you tonight, with all our complaining and moaning. But stay, Pete, we'll try and make it better."

I look at Woods. "Don't you dare start singing 'Hey Jude'," I warn.

"Pete, if you'll stay, I promise, we won't complain anymore," Shaaron tells me. "Peep's honor."

"Yeah," says Brinkman. "It may not be the best Nightmare Mansion, but we can sure as hell try and make it that way, just to show you that we're sorry for all the crap we've given you tonight."

"I dunno," Ed Wells pipes up. "I think Pete kinda got what he had coming to him, bossing us around like we were his slaves or some…OUCH!" he yelps, darting away from Shaaron and her clobbering crook of doom. "Stop HITTING ME!" he yells.

I sigh, rubbing my forehead wearily. "I feel like I'm stuck in a Charlie Brown tv special," I say.

"Well, you do bear a slight resemblance to the little round-headed kid," Reed says. He punches my arm. "Whaddaya say, Pete. Stick around and let us show you what we've got."

"I've already seen what Brinkman and Bo Peep have got," I say.

"C'mon," Reed chides. "Pete, Pete, Pete," he begins to chant. The others quickly pick it up also, chanting along with Reed.

That is, except for Ed Wells. "Ed, Ed, Ed," he chants loudly. The Wolfman promptly decks him one in the shoulder where Shaaron clobbered him. "OW!" he shrieks. "What the hell do you people think I am? Some sort of pinãta you can whack around?"

"Don't tempt us, Ed," Mac warns. "We might decide to string you up and take turns smacking you, just to see if candy falls out."

"I know what kind would fall out, too," Reed says with a grin. "Chock Full O' Nuts and Nutterbutters, peanut clusters, pecan logs, honey-roasted almonds, peanut brittle, and packets of mixed nuts."

"Okay," Ed says huffily. "Officially, I hate ALL of you!"

"Don't forget the picture I have in my pocket," I say. "Of your vacation trip through the cactus patch."

"So you'll stay, Pete?" asks Mac. "I mean, we can't have a Nightmare Mansion without our Master of Evil."

"Oh, all right," I say, sighing. "I'll stay, against my better judgement." I look at my watch. "Before we open the house, let's run through your spooky personas." I point to Ed. "You first, Count."

"Do I hafta put the fangs in?" he asks.

"Yeah, you do," I tell him. "Unless you want me to grab a file and trim your eyeteeth down."

He slips the fangs in with a sigh. "I vant to bite your neck," he says, not very scarily.

"A little more evil, Ed," I tell him. "You sound like Drac's been lobotomized."

"HITTTH!" he hisses, his eyes narrowing viciously. He swoops the cape up with his arm, bringing it up to his face so that only his eyes are visible. "I vant to thuck your blood! Your warm red blood! I vant to bite your luthith white neck, my beautiful one! Come, join me in being a vampire! We thall rule the world with our…"

The ghost has started giggling mightily, causing his pants to fall once more. The rest of the motley crew is also chortling at Ed's pronounced lisp.

"Thtop it," Ed says with dismay. "You guyth think thith ith funny or thomething?" He looks at me. "Theriouthly, Pete. I can't work like thith. I thound like an idiot."

I shrug. "If the idiot fangs fit, wear 'em, pal," I tell him with a grin.

"THTOP IT!" Ed snaps, stamping his foot angrily and glaring at his cohorts, who are fairly dying of laughter now. "I didn't laugh at you guyth in your thtupid cothtumeth!"

"Don't blow a gasket, Drac," I soothe. "Take the fangs out for now, Edith Ann. Just remember to put them back in when the house opens."

"Huh," he snorts, popping the fangs out with a salivary spray. "Let's see how the REST of you shape up." He tucks the fangs into the back pocket of his pants.

I turn to Jerry Walters. "Okay, Wolfman, howl."

He throws his head back. "Owww-WOOO!" he howls. "Ow-ow-ow-ah-WOO!"

"Not bad," I say. "Just try not to scratch when there's a customer around. They're liable to think you've got fleas." I turn to the ghost, who is tugging his pants up. "Casper, you're on."

"Ooohhhhh," he moans, rattling his chains. "Ohhhh!" He peers at me through his still-slightly crooked eyeholes. "How's that, Pete?"

"You sound like you need some Rolaids," I tell him.

"How do you spell relief?" cackles Dracula. "F-A-R-T!" He doubles over with laughter at his own lousy joke, slapping his knee. "Get it?" he gasps. "How do you spell relief? Fart!"

I fix him with a glare. "Can it, Ed. Or you'll be F-A-R-T-I-N-G out of the new body cavity I'll tear you. I thought you outgrew the bathroom humor a long time ago."

Ed shrugs. "There's always room for a good fart joke, I always say."

"And if I were you, I'd quit telling myself that," I reply. "You're liable to run into someone who doesn't appreciate the humor of a fart joke." I nod to Brinkman. "Try and put a little more spooky into it," I say. "And make sure your pants stay up, okay?" I turn to Jerry Woods. "Give me your best undead, Zombie."

"Ah-CHOO!" he sneezes. "I want your juicy…Ah-CHOO!...brains! I hunger for brains! Ah-CHOO!" He starts to walk around slowly, his arms held stiffly out in front of him. "I want to feast on your…Ah-CHOO!...brains!"

"Uh…okay," I say. "Just try not to sneeze on anyone. People will think we're running a hospital for sick monsters or something here."

Mac stares at him. "Hey, he's taking my walk!" he says. "Frankenstein is supposed to walk around like that, not zombies!" He looks at me. "Pete, do something!"

I sigh heavily. "Frankensteins and zombies can both walk that way, Mac. Neither monster has a monopoly on the way they're supposed to walk." I point to his feet. "But you can stomp a bit heavier," I tell him. "And you're supposed to groan anyway, not speak."

Mac begins to stomp around the room, his steps slow and ponderous. "Uhhhh!" he grumbles. "Hmmmm!" He stops, frowning. "Damn. These boots REALLY hurt my feet when I walk. I shoulda thought of that before I put them on, huh?"

"Just tell yourself it's only for a couple of hours," I say. "And you CAN walk a bit faster than you are, Mac. You're Frankenstein. Not some 85-year-old man with joint pain." I point to the Mummy. "Go, Mummy, go," I tell him.

"I still think you wrapped these too tight, Pete," he complains, picking at the gauze covering him. "It's tight across my chest."

I slap his hand away. "Quit picking at it, you'll unravel it again!" I admonish. "Do your Mummy."

He cocks his head. "What exactly do mummies do, besides lie in sarcophaguses?" he asks. "Sarcophagusi? Sarcophagooses?"

"Good question, King Tut," I say. "Just stand in your sarcophagus and groan at the kids going by." I gesture to the Headless Man. "You're next, Jim. Show me what you got."

"Where's my head?" Reed moans in a spooky voice. "What happened to my head? I need my head…" He wiggles the Mr. Potato Head around. "Oh, here it is." He plucks the little glasses off of the spud, putting them up to his own face. "Look, kids!" he squeaks in a falsetto. "I'm Mr. Potato Head!"

"And yea verily, you speak the unvarnished truth," I say dryly. "Just remember to pull the collar up over your head when the house gets underway, and don't forget to tuck your spud under your arm." I look at Shaaron. "Miss Peep, you're last. Show me how you're gonna take admission."

"I'm little Bo Peep," she squeaks, batting her eyes rather innocently. "And I seem to have lost my sheep…oh look…here he is, in my vat of…" Her voice drops to an almost unearthly growl. "Lamb's head stew…ha-ha-ha-ha haaaa!" She smiles coyly. "That'll be one dollar, please," she says pleasantly.

"Christ," Mac says. "That gives me goosebumps!"

"The voice or the outfit?" she asks, fingering her crook.

"Er…uh…the voice," he replies, thinking fast on his cowboy boot-shod feet.

"What about you, Pete? Let's see your spooky persona," Reed says.

"I am the Master of Evil," I say. "And I bid you…"

"You need the horns and the pitchfork for it to be convincing," Mac says, handing me the devil horns that are mounted on a plastic headband, and a plastic pitchfork.

"And the cape," Reed adds, handing me the cape.

I tie it back around my neck, sweeping it around me in a rather satisfying little snap. I can kinda see why Ed enjoyed dancing around with his cape so much, although I'd never admit to that. "I am the Master of Evil," I intone dramatically. "And I bid you fond adieu…"

"Why would you bid them fondue?" Ed asks. "That's a food. You're a monster. Doesn't make sense."

"Ed," I warn. "I'm gonna stick my pitchfork in your ass and fondue YOU!" Taking a deep breath, I try again. "I am the Master of Evil," I intone. "And I bid you thanks for visiting my house of horrors tonight! Have a frightful Halloween and remember to drive safely!" I look around. "How's that?"

"Ehh," says Walters. "Not that scary, but it'll do, I guess. By the way, your horns are crooked."

Dracula wanders over to the chair Reed is supposed to sit in for tonight and plunks down with a heavy sigh. And he just as quickly leaps up. "Yikes!" he yelps, rubbing his butt rather vigorously. "I just bit myself on the ass!"

"You think if he rubs it long enough, a genie might come out?" Reed asks.

"SOMETHING might come out," I reply. "But I doubt it'll be a genie. And I seriously do NOT want to be around when it does come out."

"That's not funny, Pete," Ed snaps. "I could've really been hurt just now!"

I shrug. "You've had your rabies shots, haven't you?" I shoot him a grin. "Besides, you can DISH the fart jokes out, but you can't take them, is that it?" I look at my watch. "It's nearly opening time. Places, everyone!"

Shuffling and groaning, my motley band of monsters begin to head to their places.

"Hey, quit stepping on my chains!" snaps Casper at the Wolfman. "Stop scratching yourself and watch where you're going!"

"That's MY spot!" Frankenstein informs the Zombie. "You're over there on THAT side, Mr. Night Of The Sneezing Dead!"

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes the Zombie. He grabs a trailing end of the Mummy's gauze and wipes his nose on it.

"Knock it off!" the Mummy says with disgust. "Get a hanky!"

Reed sits down in his chair, tugging the collar of his turtleneck up over his face. He tucks the Mr. Potato Head under his arm. "How do I look," he asks, his voice muffled.

"Just fine," I tell him.

Count Dracula looks at me. "Are you THURE I hafta get in that thtupid coffin?" he asks me.

I nod. "That's where you're supposed to be at."

He wanders off, mumbling and lisping to himself. In a minute, I hear him exclaim, "Hey, you thtupid Mummy! Get outta my coffin! Go to your OWN tharcophaguth, you gauthy jerk!"

"But I'm afraid it's gonna trap me in there like it did last night!" the Mummy complains. "Besides, your coffin has a nice satin pillow in it, along with a hand-painted Elvis pillow."

"Yeah, don't get those dirty, either," Woods warns. "My wife will kill me."

POP! "GAH!" shrieks Brinkman. "Another one of my ghosts blew up!"

I sigh, shaking my head and closing my eyes. "It's gonna be a loooong evening," I mutter to myself.

Shaaron sits down at the table, opening the cashbox in front of her. She gives her little stuffed sheep an affectionate squeeze before sticking him in her crock-pot. "Baaa," her sheep blurts.

Reed's head shoots out of his turtleneck. "Hey," he says, looking around him in confusion. "Somebody just farted!"

"Never mind that, it's SHOWTIME!" I yell. Then I fling the doors open to start the official opening of Central Division's Nightmare Mansion.

"Really," complains the well-dressed lady with the 12-year-old kid in a cowboy costume at her side. "This…this…this HOUSE is a complete disgrace." She points to the kid, who is eating a Hershey's mini-bar. "Harold here was NOT scared at all."

I eyeball Harold, who looks quite disinterested. "Eh, isn't Harold a little too old to be trick-or-treating?" I ask. Politely, too.

She ignores me. "Your Wolfman looks like he's got fleas."

"Uh…yeah, we forgot his flea collar tonight," I inform her.

She plows on. "And your Dracula…he sounds like he's got a rather severe speech impediment."

"Sorry," I say. "He just had some dental work done on his fangs today."

She shakes her head. "And your MUMMY! Oh, he looks like he's got leprosy or something. Plus he's filthy with dirt and grime!"

"Yeah, he got damaged in shipping and handling," I say. "And in his previous pyramid, he was used as a dustrag. Keeping the pyramid clean, ya know."

"Your Frankenstein moves like my grandpa!" exclaims Harold. "Slow, slow, slow!"

Harold's mother hushes him. "Don't speak of Grandpa that way!" she admonishes him. "He can't help his arthritis." She turns her attention back to me. "That ghost…he only waves one arm and says 'Boo', and not very scarily, either."

"Um…that's because he's keeping Batman from being exposed," I say.

"That Zombie sounds like he's coming down with a frightful cold," she says. "You might want to keep him away from the public. The Wolfman, too."

I nod again. "Right. We'll isolate the undead and the hairy beastie." I fold my hands together like I'm praying. "Anything else, madame?" I ask solicitously.

She jerks a thumb at the Headless Man. "You can see his eyes through the holes in his shirt," she whispers to me. "And the poor thing has got such a terrible haircut! And a Mr. Potato Head isn't that frightening at all."

"Uh, yeah," I say, seeing the Headless Man twitching in headless outrage over her shoulder. "All the good pumpkins were taken, so he had to settle for what he could find."

She gestures to Shaaron. "And that…that…hooker you've got taking admissions isn't something I'd want my kid exposed to again."

Shaaron shoots her a glare and fingers her crook that she has lying on the table.

"Um…actually she's supposed to be Bo Peep's evil twin sister, Bo Poop," I say.

"And what's up with the music in this house?" she asks. "I would THINK you'd want to have haunted house sounds playing, instead of 'My Ding-A-Ling'. It's just not as scary."

"Our sound system is haunted," I tell her. "And the spirits seem to prefer novelty tunes."

She shakes her head again. "Tsk tsk," she clucks. "It almost wasn't worth the two dollars we paid to go through here." She points to me. "By the way, your horns are crooked."

I adjust them, bowing deeply to her and Harold, who is munching on a Kit-Kat. "The Master Of Evil thanks you for visiting his Nightmare Mansion! Happy Halloween! Drive safely!" I make a sweeping gesture to shoo her out as I dump a couple of pieces of candy into Harold's plastic pumpkin.

He eyes the candy I dumped in, picking it back out with distaste. "I don't like Jolly Ranchers," he says. "Or Baby Ruths." He tosses them back into the black plastic bowl I have sitting next to me. He looks at his mom. "I wanna go through it again!" he whines.

"No," she says. "The fire department has a MUCH better Haunted House than this one was," she tells him, grabbing his hand and pulling him towards the door. "We'll go visit that one, Harold."

"And the Master of Evil hopes you don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out!" I mutter under my breath.

"I heard that, Master of Evil!" the Headless Man informs me.

"Stuff a sock in it, Moe!" I snap.

"Are you SURE that Wolfman and that Zombie aren't contagious?" asks the mother of screaming five-year-old twins dressed as ballerinas.

I nod. "I'm sure. The Wolfman has had all his shots, including parvovirus, rabies, distemper, and the screaming meemies. The Zombie has just caught a rather bad cold from a brain he ate."

"Frankenstein needs to have his knees looked at," she says. "He's walking like his joints hurt."

"He's just got some bad knees that were dug up out of the graveyard and placed into him," I tell her. "He's fine. Really."

"And that Dracula!" she exclaims. "He sounds just like a little boy that's in Muffy and Buffy's kindergarten."

"Uh…Muffy and Buffy?" I ask.

She gestures to the screaming ballerinas. "My daughters," she says. She pats one of the kids on the head. "Tell the nice man how you like to play with little Timmy from your class." she coos.

"I HATE TIMMY!" screams the ballerina. "HE PICKS HIS NOSE AN' EATS IT!"

"No, no, sweetie," she coos again, patting the other shrieking ballerina on the head. "Tell the nice Devil how well you play with Timmy in your class!" She smiles brightly at me.

"TIMMY WIPES BOOGERS ON ME!" bawls the other ballerina. "I HATE HIM TOO!"

She blushes furiously. "Well," she says sheepishly. "They usually play nice with Timmy, because he's special. Just like your Dracula."

"I'll tell the good Count you said he was special," I tell her.

"I HATE COUNT DRACLA!" screams one of the ballerinas. "HE SOUNDS LIKE TIMMY!"

"Your Mummy looks like he's been subjected to some sort of laboratory tests," the mother says. "Plus, he's pretty dirty and grimy."

I nod. "Yeah, the guys carrying the sarcophagus dropped him a few times," I say. "And someone accidentally used him for a mop."

"Your ghost, for some reason, is holding his pants up," she says. "Is there a reason why?"

"Um…yeah," I say. "But it's pretty personal to the ghost himself. You know. Secrets of the spiritual world."

"I certainly wouldn't have hired a hooker to take admission, you know," she says. "It's not a good example for our children."

I look down at the ballerinas, who have commenced bitch-slapping and tutu-yanking on each other, setting a fine example of their own. "Um…sure," I say. "Anything else?"

"Your moustache looks completely fake," she says. "And I think the Headless Man is asleep."

"I am NOT!" exclaims the Headless Man. "I was just resting my eyes!"

"And why are you playing 'Ahab The Arab' on the sound system instead of haunted house sounds?" she asks.

"It keeps the monsters soothed," I tell her. "You know, music soothes the savage beast."

She shakes her head. "I spent three dollars on THIS? The fire department has a much better haunted house, you know."

"Yes, well, the fire department had a little more resources on hand than what the police department did this year," I tell her as I drop candy into the treat bags of the two shrieking Swan Lake rejects. I bow deeply, trying not to jab the caterwauling ballerinas with my pitchfork. "The Master of Evil says thank your for visiting his Nightmare Mansion. Happy Halloween and please drive safely!"

With a sigh, she grabs the ballerinas by their hands and drags them out. "HE GAVE ME SWEETARTS! I HATE SWEETARTS!" one ballerina bellers. "HE GAVE ME A KITTY-KAT! I DON' WANNA EAT NO KITTY CAT!" screams the other as the door shuts on them.

"Hey!" says the Headless Man. "I'm gettin' a headache from all these kids!"

"YOU are?" I snap. "What the hell do you think I've got? I'M the one they're complaining to, not you!"

"You got what you asked for, Pete!" he says.

"I didn't ask for this stupid job!" I snap. "You fools elected me to do it!"

"Yeah, well, next year is gonna be different!" he says.

I rub a hand across my face. "It's gotta be better than this one, that's for damned sure," I mutter.

"I heard that, Pete!" he says.

"Can it, Ichabod Complain!" I snap.

"I'm just not sure why the police department would sponsor such an outright display of evil," says the demurely dressed lady with five stairstep children in tow behind her. The children are exact carbon copies of their mother, and I am reminded of a Stepford wife and her brood as I study them.

"I beg your pardon?" I ask.

"Halloween," she says, gesturing around the house. "Don't you realize it's a holiday designed to worship the Devil?" She looks primly down her nose at me.

"Uh…no," I say. "I thought it was a holiday for kids to enjoy, kind of like Christmas. They get to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating. What's so evil about that?"

"Hmph!" she sniffs. "The very IDEA of disguising oneself in order to gain more worldly goods is preposterous! If you read the Bible, you will see that there's no mention at all of Halloween in it."

"Um…" I begin.

She interrupts me. "And do you know WHY? Halloween is a paganistic holiday geared towards worshipping Satan! Why just look at it! You have witches, which were put to death in the Puritan era; various monsters, which smack of evil creationism; and all sorts of vile tricks that can be played upon innocent folks!" She whips out a pamphlet from her purse and shoves it under my nose. "You just read that, you'll see what I mean!"

I glance at the title and inwardly wince. "Purer Living Through High Christian Principles," the title reads, and it's put out by an off-wing religious branch called "Disciples For The Kingdom Of Heaven." I've seen them proselytizing before in front of stores; they're the kind that grab ahold of you as you walk past and argue with you over the purity of your laundry detergent and bread. "Uh…yeah," I say. "Well, thanks for stopping by the Nightmare Mansion," I tell her with a huge fake smile. "Drive safely."

"Aren't you going to read that?" she asks, pointing to the pamphlet.

"I'll give it my UTMOST attention when I get a chance," I tell her nicely. "Now if you'll please move along…"

"See?" she asks, to no one in particular. "This man is a heathen! He does not wish to become acquainted with the pure word of God! He wallows in the filth and ferment of a secular world! Do you wish to be like him?" She stares around at Bo Peep, who is studying her with malicious glee, and the Headless Man, whose static-electrified head has popped out of the shirt collar and is also watching with curiosity.

"Lady," I tell her, my voice dropping to a growl. "If you don't leave, I'll remove you from the premises myself."

"HEATHEN!" she shrieks, pointing a finger at me.

Bo Peep has stood up from the table. She approaches the irate woman, laying a hand on her arm. "Ma'am," she begins, but the woman cuts her off.

"Get your hands off of me, you Jezebel, you slut, you HARLOT!" the woman snaps. "I will NOT have my skin sullied by a filthy whore!"

"Beat it, you Bible-thumping harpy!" Bo Peep tells her. "Or I'll stick my crook so far up your ass it'll be Christmas before you crap it out!"

Stunned, the woman stares at Shaaron with her mouth hanging wide open. "Why I NEVER!" she snaps, grabbing the hand of one of her perfect Stepford children and hurrying towards the door. The other Stepford kids follow, staring at Bo Peep with wide eyes. The door slams shut behind them.

I stare at mild-mannered Shaaron in shock myself. "Thanks," I stammer. "For saving my ass."

"No problem, Pete," she says, resuming her seat. "I hate self-righteous prigs like that. It's my evil Bo Poop nature, you know."

"Way to go, evil Bo Poop!" the Headless Man exclaims.

"Honestly," the bespectacled man in front of me says with dismay. "I've seen better ghosts in a first-grade pageant of 'A Christmas Carol.' Your ghost is PINK, not white. And what's up with all the happy balloons around him? Is that some sort of neoannihilistic statement or something?"

"Neowhatsit?" I ask in confusion.

"Oh, never mind," he sighs, rolling his eyes.

"Neoannihilistic, daddy!" chirps his adorable little girl, who is dressed as a ladybug.

He points to Bo Peep. "That," he exclaims. "Is someone who should NOT be allowed around our children. She looks like a prostitute."

"She's Bo Poop, Bo Peep's evil twin," I tell him.

"Oh, bathroom humor," he says sourly. "Very intelligent for a house aimed at entertaining kids."

"Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep, and doesn't know where to find them," sings his little girl. "Leave them alone, and they'll come home, wagging their tails behind them."

"She's at the top of her preschool class at Montessori," her father says a bit proudly. He points to the speakers in the corner of the room. "What's up with the sound system?" he asks. "I can't imagine 'Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini' having much to do with Halloween."

"Our sound system is possessed," I tell him. "And apparently Satan's minions like novelty tunes."

"Wanna see me do the 'Itsy-Bitsy Spider'?" the ladybug asks me.

"Um…no thanks," I tell her.

"Oh, sure you do!" her doting daddy exclaims.

"Uh…no, I don't…" I begin.

"Go ahead, sweetie, show the devil your spider song!" her dad encourages.

"The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout! Down came the rain and washed the spider out! Out came the sun and dried up all the rain! And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again!" she sings, with the accompanying hand motions.

"Isn't she precious?" her daddy coos.

"Delightful," I say. "Now the Master of Evil must wish you a…"

"I wanna do 'I'm A Little Teapot!'" the ladybug trills. "I'm a little teapot, short and stout…" she begins, but I cut her off.

Dropping a few pieces of candy into her pillowcase, I nod and smile at her adoring father. "I'm sure her act is just stupendous, but we must keep the line moving, sir. I'm sure you'll understand. I bid you fond adieu and drive safely!" I chirp in my brightest happy voice.

"C'mon, sweetie," her daddy says, scooping her up. "Let's go see the fire department's haunted house. I'm sure the firemen will be so happy to see you!"

And maybe they'll turn their hoses on you, I think to myself as they exit the house.

"Pete, you got any aspirin on you?" asks Bo Peep, rubbing her temples with her fingers.

"Sorry, toots, I'm saving those for myself," I tell her.

"So, this-all is what yew-all call a hauntred house?" asks the frowsy blonde woman who is dressed skimpier than Bo Peep. Her thick Southern accent brings to mind the movie "Deliverance." She has two grubby little children with her, a boy and a girl. The boy is dressed as Superman in a torn Superman pajama set, a blanket tied around his neck. The little girl is dressed as a sack of potatoes. Or at least that's what her gunnysack outfit says. Both of them stare disinterestedly around the place, the little boy's index finger jammed mightily up his left nostril. The little girl chews on her hair.

"It's our Nightmare Mansion," I tell the mother.

She picks at her teeth with a fingernail that is none too clean. I suppress a wince. "Yer ghost back there ain't much, bein' pink-flowered an' all. And I think yer Wolfman has ringworm." She leans forward to me, whispering. "There's an erntmant you can get for that," she says.

I back away a bit. "Er, yes," I tell her. "I'm aware of that."

"Yer Frankiestein has some cowboy boots that are to DIE fer!" she exclaims. "I only wish't Donny Ray were here to see 'em. He'd go nurts fer 'em." She leans forward again. "But he can't, on account of him bein' in jail an' all."

"I see," I say, casting a hairy eyeball on the little boy, who has dug the gold out of his nose and is avidly inspecting it. Please don't let him eat it, I think to myself, just as it pops into his mouth. I shudder and bite back a gag.

"Yer Headless Man is kinda cute, with the little potato head, but someone needs to trim his hayar up a bit better," she says. "And I like how ya wrappered yer mummy up with duck tape." She jerks a thumb back towards the parlor. "Yer Drakkla is a bit on the short side, is he an escapee from the circus freak show?" she asks.

"Um…not that I know of," I tell her. "Although we do sometimes wonder."

"He kinda looks like a feller I used to know, named Lenny. He was one-a-them there mingits. He could twist himself in all sortsa shapes." She sighs. "And the Elvis piller. So classy. I have one at home just like it." She gives a small wave to Bo Peep. "Love yer outfit, hun. I got me one sorta like that, too." She waves to the stereo speakers in the room. "I love yer music. 'Sweet Home Alabamy' is one-a my favrite songs." She clutches my arm. "Anyway, howsabout after this shindig closes down, you come over ta my place and I can show you another spot to put them they'ah horns?" she whispers seductively at me.

"I don't think my wife would like that very much," I tell her quickly, flushing red with embarassment. I drop a few pieces of candy into the plastic bags her kids have. "Happy Halloween. Drive safely now."

"Is he gonna be our new daddy?" asks the little girl, pointing at me.

"Iffen he plays his cards right," she coos at me.

"AHEM!" Peep says. "Lady, that's MY HUSBAND you're talking to!" she snaps.

"Damn," the woman mutters. "I knew all the good ones were a-taken." She jerks her head at the door. "C'mon, Kenny and Lisa. Let's us go to the fire-yah depardmen's house. Maybe momma can hook up with one of those sexy firefarters."

And they DEFINITELY need to turn their hoses on you, I think. "Thanks again, Peep," I tell Shaaron gratefully. I look at my watch. It's ten o'clock, right on the dot. "Let's close this joint down," I say. Striding over to the door, I open it and flip the "open" sign over to "closed." Shutting the door behind me, I lock it, sliding down it wearily. "I can't take any more of this," I moan, rubbing my forehead wearily.

"So how much moola did we rake in tonight?" asks Ed Wells, rubbing his hands together greedily.

Shaaron is counting our take. "Thirty bucks," she says, shaking her head sadly. "We raised thirty bucks."

"Thirty lousy bucks?" Mac asks with dismay. "For thirty lousy bucks I permanently dyed my hair black and myself green?"

"And we spent half of that on decorations," says Bob Brinkman. "I don't think we came out ahead very much."

"Yeah, especially considering that fifteen bucks for decorations came out of our own pockets," Mac says.

"And you still owe me your share of two bucks," I tell him.

"I told you, I'd give it to you next payday," Mac says.

I look around, noticing we're missing a monster. "Where's Dave at?" I ask. "Did he go home already?"

"Um…heh heh," Ed stammers, looking a bit guilty. "I…um…might have…uh…pushed him into his sarcophagus and shut the lid on him."

"You did WHAT?" I snap at Ed. "Ed, you little twerp, you go let him loose this instant! Or I'll show your vacation picture of your wife de-cactusizing you around!"

"Okay, okay," he says. "I thought it would be funny, but…"

"NOW!" I yelp. "Christ, Ed, he could suffocate in there!"

"Oh sure," Ed whines. "Feel sorry for the Mummy. But the Dracula who got bit not once, but TWICE with his own fangs, you just have no sympathy for."

"Ed, go let him out this instant!" Mac orders.

"We scored only thirty bucks for THIS lousy shindig?" Walters asks, still scratching. "I paid ten bucks to rent the costume alone."

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes Jerry Woods. "And I'm all sduffed up now," he says. "I cand breed tru my node at all."

Wells runs into the room, chased by a very irate and unravelling mummy who is trying to swat at him with a purple turban. "You jackass, Wells!" Russo snarls. "I oughta shove that Maltese Cross where the sun don't shine!"

"I was only joking!" Wells protests in fright. As he darts past Shaaron, she clobbers him with her crook once more. "OUCH! DAMN IT!" he howls, rubbing his shoulder. "STOP HITTING ME!"

"I'm warning you bozos now, if even ONE of you as so much raises an eyebrow at my appearance during roll call tomorrow, I SWEAR, I will assign you all foot beats to walk!" Mac warns, shaking a green-hued finger at all of us.

"You're worried about YOUR appearance," Jim Reed says. "What about MINE? Jean is gonna hafta see if she can do something with this." He points to his butchered bangs. "Thanks to Snippy McSnipperson there." He shoots me a sour look.

"I am SO tired of being mistaken for a hooker," Shaaron moans. "I won't volunteer for THIS again, you can bet your bottom dollar."

"Alright, look," I sigh. "So it was a bust. Our Nightmare Mansion was a complete disaster. You can blame me for it, I guess. But I DID try and do it right, or at least I thought I did. You all had your roles and your jobs assigned to you a week ago. You guys were the ones who forgot the brains, the eyeballs, the candles, the candleabra, the skeleton, and the right ghosts. And you can say what you want about me, but I did show up here every night, in order to work a bit on the house so as to make it semi-enjoyable. I was the one who bought the decorations and hung most of them, who cleared the house of its priceless art for Donna's sake, who gave you your monsterly roles in the first place, and who took on the unwanted task of listening to everyone bitch and moan all night. And instead of bitching and moaning, why weren't any of YOU helping me out here? Maybe our house could've been a bit better if we'd all worked together on it." I shake my head wearily. "Next year, I'm not doing this at all. If the benevolent association hasn't come to its senses by then, I say we forgo the Nightmare Mansion completely. As far as being in charge of this mess again, no way. If nominated, I will not accept, if elected, I will not serve." I pull the devil horns off of my head and plop them down on the table. "Someone else can wear the horns."

"Well…thirty bucks ain't so bad, if you stop and think about it," Reed muses. "For only being open a couple of hours."

"Yeah, and it was kinda fun dressing up in a costume," Brinkman says. "Kind of made me feel like a kid again."

"It wasn't too bad, I guess," Walters says, scratching his arms.

"I got in touch with my evil persona," Shaaron says. "Bo Peep as a dominatrix."

Reed glances at his watch. "Hey, Pete, how long did you say that adult costume party was going on at your apartment complex tonight?" he asks.

"'Til midnight," I tell him.

"Ooh, adult costume party!" Walters says. "Sounds intriguing!"

"Will there be booze there?" Mac asks. "I kinda could use a stiff drink right now."

I nod. "Yeah, there's an open bar, I think."

"Were you invited to the party, Pete?" Brinkman asks.

"Uh…yeah," I say. "By the hostess, Angie Carter. But it was just ME she invited, not…" I look around the room at my friends' crestfallen faces. "Oh, hell," I say. "Sure, go ahead and go. I'm sure Andrea won't mind. Not much, at least."

"Al-RIGHT!" says Jim Reed. "To Pete's apartment complex!" Grabbing up his Mr. Potato Head, he starts singing "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," as he starts to the door, followed by the others.

"Will you stop stepping on my chains?" asks Brinkman, shooting Jerry Walters a glower through his crooked eyeholes.

"Ah-CHOO!" sneezes Jerry Woods, and promptly grabs a handful of gauze from Russo in order to wipe his nose.

"That is SO gross!" Dave says. "Do I look like a giant hanky to you?"

"I'm asking for a shot of whiskey," Mac says. "First thing when I get there."

"Shaaron, watch where you're going with that crook!" Ed Wells snaps.

Shaaron squeezes her little sheep, making it baaa again.

He grimaces. "And quit making your sheep fart. It's not funny anymore."

Sighing, she rolls her eyes. "Ed, move it or you'll be wearing my crook up your ass." The door shuts on them, and I'm the only one left in our disastrous Nightmare Mansion.

I lock up the cashbox and cast one last eye around the room, making sure we've put everything back into place for tonight. Of course, I'll have to return tomorrow, in order to remove the decorations and put the artwork back, but that's tomorrow, a whole day away. I start to leave, then I remember Reed's tapes, which are still in the tape deck. I notice one of them is playing yet, so I turn up the volume, while popping the other tape out. And when I hear the song that is playing, I can't help but grin as I sing along.

Now everything's cool, Drac's a part of the band;

And my Monster Mash, is the hit of the land,

For you, the living, this mash was meant too,

When you get to MY door, tell them PETER sent you…

(They did the Mash!)

They did the Monster Mash…

(The Monster Mash!)

It was a graveyard smash!

(They did the Mash!)

It caught on in a flash…

(They did the Mash!)

They did the Monster Mash…

And the Mistress Of Evil bids you ALL a fondue, a happy Halloweenie, and seriously, save her some Snickers bars or she'll send Ed Wells to your house...heh heh heh...