At a click, the most awesome King of all froze, expecting Legion to usher him from a fiery blast to glory. Not in a million charred pieces and still staring at the pointy coronet atop Rischstar Enterprises, Inc., he puffed in relief and inched the door closed on the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder he'd keylessly borrowed. With a tilt of his watch, moonlight spilled the time. 2:34. Perfectly early. Sporting confidence and Armani, he glided toward the tower, cradling his gift like a giant football.
Hungry for a good time and big wins, he joined others in the dead of night to wield destiny. Riches fluttered from his hands, only to return much fatter. Rules didn't exist, making any move fair. He'd just smashed his most comprehensive challenge yet. His Queen selection at the onset had drawn accolades with a shower of delicacies, bubbly and streamers.
Tonight, they'd all fall at his feet. Can't wait to see their faces. The astonishment, the awe, the fear. He grinned wide, thinking about the millions and esteem coming his way.
But, he knew how they operated, was alert to their propensity for screwing others. He'd brought a security measure in case that happened. He kinda hoped it would. He itched to push the detonator.
- 1 -
When the spindly finger of doom first poked Majesty five months ago, she'd shrugged it off with a "yeah, right," only to have her father end up near-headless in a ditch under a blanket of safety glass. These days, her shoulders stayed put. Knew something would happen. Knew it!
She clamped her jaw to quiet her stupid teeth. Should she whistle? Shout for help? Would that startle the dude and make him fall or even be heard over the celebratory clamor at the new baseball diamond beyond the hills? Tension rolled down her back as she searched for assistance and came up empty. She was his only hope. God help him.
Though his eye color remained a mystery, since he quivered on a ledge thirty feet overhead, and she was pretty sure she'd never more than glanced at him before, those windows to his soul bulged like half dollars, minted with fear. Fear was good. That meant he didn't want to die, right? At least not with a face-first plummet into blacktop.
Cool wind swirled around her and whipped her chestnut locks into her face, yet she broke into a sweat and her limbs threatened to melt. She clutched her hair with trembling fingers and shoved it into the back of her shirt as she sought a gem of inspiration. What's his name even? Crap!
He, who was like three pounds heavier than the Crypt Keeper, and honestly not much cuter, shuffled his foot. Grit rained down and pricked Majesty's face, making her grimace and step back several feet into a parking space.
Knuckling sand out of her eye, she strained to locate his moniker in some dusty, mental file ... Nothing.
This guy seriously melted into the walls, which was probably why he wanted a splattery exuent. But, he appeared to be second-guessing his death wish, clinging to the backside of Cedar Creek High, fingers spread wide like the blue ones on a strawberry poison dart frog.
After every win, the baseball players, coaches and she-the team manager-played assassination hide-and-seek in the woods behind the school, feigning death from fatal shots of colored water and other wet substances. But this was no game!
Blasting outta the building in her just-fetched slicker, she'd glanced back to silence the niggle that said she was being watched. Well, she was! And now his life depended on her, a hot mess of seventeen who'd worn out more running shoes in recent time than birthday candles. Her, rather than someone who could actually think under duress without needing to rattle off the fixings in various pints of Ben & Jerry's.
Unable to whip up a decent plea or anything motivational, Majesty opted for the opposite. She raised her plastic sleeve and glanced at her watch. "Well, jump already. What are ya waitin' for? Haven't got all day. Hear the frenzy? I've got a winners' battle to attend to, managerial duties to punch out, you know, the usual, 'cause we're rockin' a most glorious, undefeated season."
"What? You think I should jump?"
"What do I know. Call a hotline. I can barely handle my own turmoil, never mind yours. Unless you're holding a bat or glove, can't help ya, sorry. Crisis aversion's not in my job descrip."
In case he could spot her tremors, she leaned back on one leg, then planted her other foot strong to keep it from tapping in time to her frantic pulse.
Hopefully she wasn't playing this hand of Death all wrong. "What do you got to live for anyway?"
"Nothing. I'm so ... tired."
"Take naps then. Less permanent."
"I mean ... of having no friends."
"I thought you did. That Prince of Darkness guy? Warren Niles?"
"Yeah. One friend. Lucky me. As good as none."
"Oh, please. If you hate your situation, stop playing SimSuicide and change it. Find what you're good at. Make friends outside of school. I hear cults are very welcoming. Besides, geeks get girls … eventually."
"Right. Every day is such a nightmare. You have no idea."
"Oh, really? Do you wake up heaving from bloody dreams that promise destruction like some crazy street guy forecasting the Apocalypse? Did you slam a door in your dad's face hours before he died? Does everyone, cops included, think you're a pestering loon 'cause 'accident' doesn't sit right with you, nor the many other freakouts, like the car that keeps showing up on your street, with someone sitting in it, doing like, nothing? No? Oh no? Didn't think so. Life sucks for everyone. Jump or deal with it."
He held a moment of silence, hopefully, reconsidering having gravel embedded in his brain. "You really slammed the door in your dad's face? On that day?"
Majesty closed her eyes and took deep breaths to ditch the barbed truth for something more benign like the weather. Yes, she nodded, it was quite windy, the frickin' clattering leaves on roller coasters of gnarled branches proved it. She listened to the soft percussion and fled from the pain trying to needle its way in.
"Man," he said. "So, even your best friends, Alec and Derek, think you're nuts?"
She winced that he knew who her best friends were, while she couldn't even recall his stinkin' name. Surely she'd heard it at some point. She scratched her cheek. All she could come up with was Wheels, but that couldn't be right.
She reopened her eyes and looked back up at his vibrating knees. "Yep. BFFs can break your heart too."
"Must suck to be you, oh, Queen of Misery."
He edged along the thin lip, and she slapped her chest with splayed fingers. His toes hung over, body swayed.
Despite her best effort to play cool cat, her shrill shriek as he wavered to catch balance throttled that guise to death. "No! Don't!" She exhaled with a shudder when he steadied. He stayed there for several seconds, then ducked in through an open window. What? Over? Seemed so, but her wracked nerves still had her shaking like crazy. "Hey! You gonna be all right?"
He was gone from the vicinity of the window and didn't reply.
Well, Death was one nasty S.O.B., but at least her disastrous life was good for somethin'. Smiling at her success and not paying attention, she spun right into someone and wobbled, stepping back. Oh gothic lord. She pointed up with both hands. "Oh my gosh! Your fr-"
"Let me guess. Jase?"
Her gaze pinballed from his dark lips to his crown of gelled daggers to his demon garb. "Jase? Oh. Jaaase. Jason Wheeeeler." She ground her jaw to stuff the braggery on her tongue, as his lack of shock and narrowed eyelids insisted he could more than one-up her. "Yes. He's safely off the brink now, but-"
"Though I gotta lock him up some days, he wouldn't have jumped. He likes to ponder in peril. A splat just isn't glorious enough … Speaking of glory, your victory annihilation is about to commence," Warren said brusquely.
"My lame game? Screw it! I wanna go check on him, make sure he's okay."
"Don't worry. I got it … Go on. Knock 'em dead. You shouldn't mess with superstition."
"What?" Before she could voice more concerns or say anything closer to kind, he scuffled away, hands in pockets. So weird. Hopefully he'd get his friend in check. She watched him until he reached the building, then took off for the woods. From the trunk of rejected weapons, she selected the best looking spray gun, though cracked and paltry. Oh well. I never lose. Arm-shoved from behind, she jumped and spun to find Derek's light blue gems darkened in a glare. "Jerk. Looking to die faster?"
"Took you the hell long enough."
"Just saving another neck. My bad."
"Come on, let's go. I'm It."
"The Shit's more like it," Alec said, walking up to them, laughing. "Had to make him wait for ya."
Derek clenched the bloody-looking splotch on his shirt. "Only scored 'cause I wasn't looking, loser. You're all goin' down. Calling it now. I won't be overthrown. First total wipeout ever, by one It."
"Yeah? You still gotta get me." Majesty swept her finger over one of the drops on Derek's arm and sniffed it. "Wow! Huge step up from the watered-down ketchup we tried. This looks and smells so real."
"Right. Goat's blood usually does," Alec said flatly, though the jest in his eyes gave him away. Her bloody dreams were no joke! They just didn't get it.
"Ooo, it's real? Delicious." Majesty slid her finger onto her tongue, closed her lips around it, then pulled it out clean with an erotic moan. "Mmm." It was real! Nasty! But her nausea was well worth it, with every hint of glee dissolving in their eyes. "Epic fail trying to sickify me. Watch out. I fight hard and dirty."
"Alec'll fight ya. Dirty or not. Betcha could take him down in three seconds."
"Mmm hmm. Poor thing. I'll be gentle."
"No way, baby," Alec whispered in her ear. "I like it rough." He left a kiss on her temple.
"Good to know." She winked at him. They waved her off and dashed deeper into the thicket.
She tested her ammo, squirting her hand, gawking at the streaming ribbons of red. Blood for everyone? It's fine. Don't be such a baby. Considering the capacity of these adjustable-nozzle super soakers, she didn't even want to think about how many buckets they'd bought or where or how.
Drawing closer to the rowdy warriors, she whistled through her fingers to get this party started. What an impressive cry of the wolf! Her loudest ever. She lifted a soaring whoop again, but it fell far short of the first's magnificence.
As she looked over her shoulder for the perfect place to hide and make Derek eat crow, movement caught her eye by the school. She shivered and froze in her tracks. What the heck's he still doing out here? Two seconds later, Warren turned and entered the building … but not before she'd sensed a fury that swore he could slay her beloved Colts with will alone. Maybe he could. Maybe that's why her chills wouldn't die.
. . . .
Finished with player updates, an article for the team site and most deliciously, the call, Majesty laughed, dropping her office phone into its cradle in her office off of the gym. Getting to gloat to the Wasps' Athletic Director thrilled as a definite managerial perk. The Colts and Wasps usually faced off in the regionals, but the Dragons just scorched the lousy buzzers, 12-5.
But, every ounce of funny was suddenly slain by the lingering sting from nearly being taken out by Derek. Cornered in the brush, the last one standing, and "Time's up!" was what had saved her? Disgraceful.
She groaned at the unfamiliar taste of loserdom while tucking her hair under her cap, then snatched flavored water from her mini-fridge and kissed the school goodbye. Exiting out the back, she thought of Jase and prayed to the ears in the air that he'd find peace or something.
She dashed to the front and down the driveway and turned left toward the town center, and away from homes with yippy purse dogs and diamond-studded mailboxes. A sprinkle of storefronts, a second-run cinema, St. Mark's, one restaurant, one gas station and Spanky's-a mini-golf/ice cream shop-gone-wild-made up Cedar Creek's hub.
Banners put up for the St. Paddy's Day parade still hung on utility poles and she searched for surprise additions amongst the bunnies and flowers. No screwing dogs or puking rats yet? Boring, people. Get with it! These sugary spring-things always flapped in the wind beside mini American flags until the day after the Independence Day fireworks, which was not necessarily on the 4th ... or even in July. She'd have to be on the lookout for the perfect demented treasure to tack up before then. Little sound was lovelier than a chorus of old lady shrieks and tsks.
She passed Fisher Price village and the lions guarding Markie's cathedral and booked it into The Common, a fancy name for an ill-equipped park. Woods laced through town, but the strip behind The Common aroused whispers. Three kids, holding hands and singing Ring Around the Rosie, stopped and gawked.
One cried, "She's goin' in! Must not be ascared a the spooks."
Entering the shadowy land, Majesty snickered that Alec's urban legend about those people-turned-creatures endured. "They grow more fierce each day, waiting in the woods for their kings and queens to come and lead them to overtake the area, the country, and eventually, the world."
Six years ago, a girl disappeared. Theories abounded, but most of the children believed, "The spooks got her."
Crows griped about the invasion and the drooping sun spilled beams through the evergreen towers, creating an inky leviathan war deep in the thick. Majesty took a deep breath as anxiety weaseled in.
Near the tripod, where three towns converged and a coven reportedly danced nude, she slowed to a stroll. Birds departed the treetops in a flurry of flapping wings, but one crow remained, voicing stern warnings to friends ... or maybe her. She gulped her drink, enjoying its grape hint.
When glitchy male voices found her ears, she froze, bead of water dripping from her mouth.
"So, everything's set?"
"Yep. Got the guns, supplies. It's a go."
Majesty searched. There ... little over ten yards.
"Hope ... doesn't blow up in our faces. Thought we were gonna kill one. Those people won't know what hit 'em."
People? Can't see anything! Imaginary ants tingled her neck, and her legs wobbled with each step she took toward a concealing tree. She braced herself, peered around the trunk. But the closer look didn't help, since fatigues, bulky vests and face-engulfing Buffs obscured them. Great!
"That's the beauty ... They'll learn how dead and buried their Jesus is when ... doesn't help ... start shooting up the church. Haven't ... how many I wanna off yet. Needs to be sick … national coverage. Let's snatch our gear ... do this lame paintball thing, get back to our real deal."
They headed for the even deader town of Megan's Corner. No. Wait! Majesty leaned forward, shifting her weight. If I could just... A stick snapped underfoot. The taller one stopped and whacked his buddy's arm. She cringed and jerked back.
"Shh. Hear somethin'?" They were likely debating the noise she'd stupidly made in the whispers she couldn't make out, but the clatter of them moving through the woodland was deafening.
Sweat dripped from Majesty's temples and frightened fairies fluttered beneath her skin. She stood motionless but the rustling drew too close. Shoved into flight, she took off like a sprinter at the shot. Water sloshed on her leg, awakening goose bumps with its chill. She chucked the bottle and cap into reaching shrubs. Muddled threats nipped at her heels, but agility and swiftness aided her evasion, as well as knowing the woods, not well, but well enough. Majesty bolted through the clearing, rounded a bend and deserted the path.
Busting through brushwood as fast as she could, she spotted a hollow. She jumped into its bowl of dead foliage with way too much crunch, slid under a bush and clammed her mouth with her hands to prevent gasping. She swallowed to rid the tightness that was crawling up her throat.
"Some girl. See anything?"
She tried to catch vocal distinctions, already smothered by a babbling stream. She swept a tickling spider off her arm, lifting freakin' trumpet blasts into the air. Idiot! Her heartbeat drummed in her ears as she muscled her gaze through branches.
The watery white noise had proven a godsend for her foolish misstep and cranky stomach, now bellowing for food.
One of them kicked debris her way and a fleck of something hit her eye. She closed it and covered it with her fingers.
After a string of salty slurs, one said, "Hair was hidden ... Colts shirt."
"Good. One of our own. Should ... find her."
Our own? She shuddered. Agony seduced her to dislodge the foreign body with her knuckle. She couldn't wait.
"But what if she-"
"No one can stop us, especially some girl. We're in control. I'll find her first ... eradicate her." Their nerve-grating footfalls walked away, veering into silence.
Majesty finally allowed her lungs to yank air. She'd never been so petrified ... except for the time men in blue had come to her door ... and she just knew.
Kings & Queens by Courtney Vail
from Little Prince Publishing
available in paperback and eBook
at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords.