Fair Trade

Fair Trade
By Andrew Black

First Published by SNM Horror Magazine, January 2011

It was a painfully beautiful May afternoon, the sky an impossibly bright blue, the sunlight streaming in through the levered open windows, and a faint breeze carrying the cloying scent of freshly blooming flowers. It was the sort of day that no one wanted to spend indoors, and certainly not cooped up in school, especially not a high school senior.

Mark Trumont attempted to ignore the beautiful day outside and thoughts of dozing away the afternoon under a shady tree. He yawned and scratched his head, trying to stay awake through Dr. Colton’s lecture. The teacher was the most boring instructor at Parisville High School. His droning voice was flat and lifeless, and his lessons on economics and government were painfully uninteresting. Even the other teachers tended to avoid the man.

Mark looked around and noticed Stephanie Foster sitting in the front row, doodling in her notebook. He admired her shapely legs revealed by the loose, rainbow colored skirt she wore. She casually dangled a bright green shoe from her toe, tapping the flat against her sole in time with some internal rhythm.

He had a terrible crush on Stephanie, had carried a torch for her since the eighth grade. He’d never had the courage to tell her, however. He sighed and watched her brush her wavy auburn hair over her delicately arched ear, revealing small gold stud earrings. An absent sigh escaped his lips as he daydreameda romantic encounter with the girl. He completely lost all consideration for Dr. Colton’s tedious monologue.

Stephanie’s shoe slipped from her dexterous toe, clattering to the floor and causing Mark to abruptly snap from his fantasies. His reaction made his desk skid on the varnished classroom floor, causing an awful screech that turned all eyes to him.

He looked up and saw the teacher looking at him with a stern expression. Mark shrugged, lowered his head to his notebook and shrank into his seat, his face hot red. He looked back to see if Stephanie had retrieved her lost shoe and caught her peeking back at him. He blushed an even deeper scarlet as she nodded and smiled at him.

The bell rang, bringing a welcome relief to the numb students. They began shuffling out as Dr. Colton loudly called out the next section of the textbook for the class to study. Mark found himself beside Stephanie as they reached the classroom door. Shesurreptitiously passed him a folded note. He looked at her, surprised at the sudden contact with his secret Juliet. It was her turn to blush as she pushed forward through the crowd into the hallway beyond.

Mark was flummoxed. He looked at the note in his hand, his name written in that looping, feminine handwriting all teenage girls seem to possess. He didn’t detect the footfalls following him, the creak of the floor boards as Dr. Colton approached behind him.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Mr. Trumont?”

The teacher spiedthe folded paper in Mark’s hand and recognized the script. “More interested in notes from Ms. Foster than your schoolwork?”

Mark stumbled back a step as he turned to face the teacher. Dr. Colton was a tall man, rail thin with pallid skin and a sparse mop of ocher hair atop his long, gaunt face. He’d always reminded Mark of a gangly Frankenstein monster. “No, no Dr. Colton. I… it’s a… no, sir, I should get going, I have math class.”

The teacher snatched the neatly creased bit of paper from Mark’s nerveless hand. “I’m sure Mrs. Macklan will be waiting for you. I’m also quite sure she won’t appreciate you reading notes in class. I’ll just dispose of this for you.”

Mark hung his head. “Yes, Dr. Colton. I’m sorry. I should go.”

The teacher watched Mark turn and dejectedly trudge off to his next class. He held the note to his nose and inhaled the faint scent of Stephanie’s perfume. Grinning, he carefully unfolded the square of paper to read it.

Mark spent the remainder of the school day guessing what Stephanie’s letter might have said. It was possible that it was an innocent friendship message, or maybe an invitation to a private party. It couldn’t possibly be a love note, he was sure of that.

By the time he walked out the double front doors of the high school he had convinced himself it had held no romantic overtures. He was also cursing Dr. Colton with every breath as he stepped out into the bright May sunshine.  He always had the feeling that the grim-faced teacher had it out for him, but now he was sure.

There were only three weeks of school left before graduation, a summer spent at his father’s lumber yard and college.  Then he would be gone from this little town and away from meddling teachers and mysterious notes. He tried to convince himself that he didn’t care what Stephanie had written, or that she had given him the note by mistake.

The boy was so busy grumbling over his misfortune he didn’t notice the dark-haired beauty blocking his way. He collided into Stephanie with a grunt and only luck and a bit of dexterity kept the two of them from falling flat on their posteriors.

The girl caught Mark’s sleeve and held on tight as they both found their balance. The janitor, sweeping the steps below the pair with a long handled push broom, snorted in amusement.

“Oh man, I’m so sorry!” Mark said, as he felt Stephanie’s warm body against his. He reflexively let go, but she maintained her grip on his arm.

“My fault,” she giggled. “Did you read my note?” She sounded a bit anxious, her cheeks burning crimson as she waited for his response.

Mark shook his head no. He watched Stephanie’s big green eyes tear up with shame and disappointment.  His bad mood melted away, replaced with a new feeling he wasn’t familiar with.  He wanted to scoop her up in his arms, comfort her, and wipe away the tear that threatened to roll down her cheek.

“No, I wanted to! But that bastard Dr. Colton took the note from me before I could read it! I’m really sorry. I thought about you… uh, about the note… all day long.”

Now it was Mark’s turn to blush.

“Oh, well, Dr. Colton can really be a jerk sometimes.”

Mark nodded, forcing a smile to hide his embarrassment.

The girl looked down at her shoes, her voice growing timid. “Would you like me to tell you what it said?”

“Yeah,” Mark croaked, hope mixing with apprehension to make his stomach ache.  He swallowed the anxiety and tried to sound confident. “I really would.”

Stephanie looked up at him. He didn’t know it, but she had harbored an attraction for him for quite some time as well. She liked his shoulder-length black hair, his deep brow and strong chin, his bright blue eyes and his perfect, wide smile.

She liked that he wasn’t a big muscle-bound jock; he wasn’t chubby or out of shape, either, but he also wasn’t one of the overgrown gorillas that liked to paw at her in the halls and acted like their muscle mass made up for their inversely proportional intellect. He was also only a couple inches taller than her, which made it easier for her to look into his eyes. She swallowed resolutely. “I wanted to know if… if you’d like to maybe, you know, maybe go somewhere sometime with… well with me?”

“You mean, like, on a date?” Mark ventured.

She nodded.

“Yeah, I would!” Mark said, astounded. “I mean, if you’re not busy. Maybe this weekend?”

“Sure. How about a movie? I think “Razor Face 6” is playing at the Urbandale theater.”

“You’re a fan of scary movies?” Mark asked, incredulous.

She nodded timidly.

“I do, too. Razor Face is my favorite series. I’ve seen all of the movies but the new one. I even have all the toys… er… action figures. I mean, uh, collectibles.”

Stephanie giggled. “I have a bunch of them, too. So, it’s a date?”

“Yeah, yeah it is. I’ll call you and we can figure out when and all that, okay?”

She nodded, brushing her hair over her ear again. Mark melted inside when he saw that simple little gesture. She hastily wrote her telephone number on a scrap of paper, handing it to Mark.

The two went their separate ways, both smiling and bouncing as they walked past the janitor who grumbled as he continued brushing gum wrappers and cigarette butts into his trash bin.

#

Unseen by either student, Dr. Colton observed the entire exchange from his classroom window. He scowled and returned to his desk, taking a small note pad from the drawer.

Wheels began turning in his head as he scribbled two names on the blank page.

#

Mark called Stephanie later that evening. Her father answered the phone, the unexpected gruff voice causing the boy to stammer and sputter, but he eventually got the words out and the man called loudly for the girl to pick up the phone.

She played coy, asking why he was calling. Following a little teasing, which left Mark’s palms sweaty and his throat dry, she finally let him off the hook and they cemented their plans.

The slight crackle of static and hushed echo on the phone line went unnoticed.

The two teenagers decided to go to a late lunch on Saturday and then catch the matinee. Mark already had permission to borrow his father’s car.

The conversation then turned to more personal matters. Stephanie asked Mark about his summer plans, what college he was hoping to go to and even hinted that spending the summer as a couple seemed a fine idea. In answer, Mark bragged about his upcoming job at the lumber yard, made subtle innuendos about what kind of clothes he’d like to see herwear on Saturday, and dating for the summer sounded just fine to him, too. It was the innocent conversation of teenagers in love, repeated time and again throughout the ages.

The undetected listener on the line made quick notes on a small paper pad. His plans weren’t nearly so innocent.

The call didn’t last long. Mark had homework to do and it was Stephanie’s turn to do the dishes. They said their goodbyes and promised to talk more at school the following day.

#

The hidden stalker unfastened the metal clips from the stripped phone line at the junction box behind Stephanie’s house. He carefully wrapped the bare copper with electrical tape and replaced the metal access panel. Sitting back on his haunches, he looked back at the house, at the window where the teen had been silhouetted just moments before by the warm light of her lamp. He adjusted his stolen phone company hardhat and tool belt and stood up, scooping up his equipment and whistling as he returned to his car.

#

The time until the big date seemed to crawl by for Mark. Every minute in the classroom, every second of the long nights thinking about Stephanie and her soft hair, shapely figure and long, toned legs, made his blood boil. In fact, he spent nearly every moment fantasizing about the girl, the agony of his hormone-driven lust making the span of days feel like years.

Catching a glimpse of her in the hall or the tantalizing view of her from his desk in Dr. Colton’s class made him daydream about warm summer nights and long, lazy afternoons with the girl in his arms.

He couldn’t know that Stephanie was also wrestling with a similar burning desire. Thoughts of the boy caused her to flush red and gave her a warm, welcome tingle between her legs. She was by no means a virgin, though she’d only been with two boys, and Mark might very wellmake number three. She liked the possibility of a summer fling with Mark before setting out on her planned trip across the country. She wanted to see the United States, maybe the whole world, before trying her luck as an actress or dancer.

#

To Dr. Colton, however, the days flashed by like quicksilver. He had so many plans to finish, had so many arrangements to make, he could barely keep up. Everything had to be perfect, every detail flawlessly polished. There was no room for mistakes. His students barely picked up on his distractions, most of them inured to his meandering lectures.

The other teachers already gave him a wide berth, none of them particularly fond of the humdrum man and his droning voice. None of them suspected the predatory spirit lying within the mild-mannered educator. Papers went ungraded and lesson plans ignored.

Dr. Colton’s focus onother matters, however, remained laser sharp.

He followed Mark and Stephanie, watching them from a distance in the hallway, monitoring the two students even when it made him late for his own classes and lectures.

He watched, and recorded, every move the two made.

#

The big day arrived with an ominous beginning. Inky storm clouds rolled over the county, their murky depths blotting out the sun. Thunder growled, heralding a downpour that quickly saturated the thirsty soil.

Mark’s parents tried to convince him not to go on the date, but nothing would keep him from his rendezvous with his dream girl.

Stephanie, meanwhile, spent the entire morning in a familiar, feminine ritual, scrubbing, brushing, curling, painting and primping. Fortunately she’d chosen her outfit the night before, though six different revisions had been necessary before she felt satisfied.

Mark pulled up to Stephanie’s house in his father’s car. He hopped out of the sedan and thumbed the activator button on his umbrella, extending and expanding the nylon canopy. He quickly trotted up the concrete path to the front porch and nervously rang the bell.

A big man in a flannel shirt answered the door. Mark introduced himself and was about to receive a lecture Stephanie’s father when the girl came bouncing down the stairs, purse in hand, ready to leave.

Her father tried to give them both an abbreviated admonishment, but his daughter deftly swerved around the robust man, kissing him on the cheek and promising to be back by 10.

Mark was speechless, more because of Stephanie’s stunning outfit than her handling of her worried father. She wore a tight yellow shirt, low-slung jeans, and yellow heels added a good six inches to her height. Her hair was up, clipped with a golden spring comb. A golden belly button piercing winked up at him. Compared to Mark’s gray polo and jeans, she looked like a supermodel.

He offered her his arm, holding the umbrella up to protect both of them.

The boy turned his borrowed car onto the rain slick street, his headlights cutting a swath through the gloom.

#

The two kids were too busy chatting to notice the small car following a few dozen yards behind them.

The driver kept his hat pulled low, watching the taillights through the rain.

The drive wasn’t long, about twenty minutes or so through the long stretch of country between Parisville and Urbandale. The two cars kept perfect pace with one another, the covert tail maintaining enough of a gap to avoid alerting the kids tohis presence. His caution was unnecessary, however, as his quarry was more involved in their conversation than what was behind them in the rearview mirror.

#

The couple stopped at a diner for lunch. After the quick meal, the two headed to the movie, a modest four-screen theater sandwiched in the crook of a shopping center on the edge of town.

The teens ran through the rain, the umbrella barely a deterrent to the downpour, and Mark purchased two tickets to the horror movie. The bored clerk in the glass booth didn’t even bother to check their IDs for the restricted film. A pimply teen usher tore their tickets and pointed to the far left doors.

Inside the air-conditioned theater, Stephanie shivered as her rain soaked shirt clung to her skin. Mark offered her his jacket, a thin plastic windbreaker, and she gladly accepted. She pretended not to notice Mark staring at the way the shirt showed off her chest, especially with the chill making her nipples stand erect through the lacey bra beneaththe wet top.

The theater was empty. It stayed that way until the houselights dimmed, when a man entered the theater and took a seat in the back, his hat pulled down low over his face. Neither youth paid any attention to the new arrival.

Narrowed eyes watched the teenagers, anger and resentment filling the observer’s thoughts with a blood-red rage. He checked the weapon hidden under his coat and pulled a black balaclava from his pocket. His plans were coming to fruition, his patience about to be rewarded. He felt like a junkie with a needle to his arm, savoring the sharp prick before the mind-bending cocktail was pumped into a waiting vein.

The feature began, the gory title sequence showing a young woman running through the woods chased by the titular villain, Razor Face. Mark put his arm around his companion and Stephanie snuggled against him warmly.

The man at the back of the theater stood, removed his hat and slipped the black mask over his face. He quietlywalked toward the couple, savoring the anticipation of his plan. He pulled a small pistol from his drab overcoat and leveled it against the back of Mark’s neck. The boy felt the cold touch of the gun barrel and reflexively jerked away.

“If you don’t want me to splatter your brains all over your pretty girlfriend, you’ll settle down and do exactly what I tell you,” the man barked in a low, gravely voice, using his free hand to grab Mark’s collar and yank him back into his seat.

Stephanie’s eyes went wide. She was about to let out a tremendous scream when the man waved the gun in her face.

“Not a peep, princess. Not even a whimper or I’ll put a bullet between your eyebrows.” To emphasize his point, he thumbed back the hammer on the revolver. “Besides, who’d hear you over the movie?”

Mark turned to face the armed man. The ski mask made it impossible for Mark to identify the thug, but nonetheless, something seemed familiar about him.

“Look, we don’t want any trouble. You can take my wallet. Just… leave us alone, o.k.?”

“I don’t want your money, boy,” the growling man retorted. “You and the girl, come on, get up, we’re going to take a little walk.”

The teens complied, neither wanting to risk the kidnapper’s wrath. “Don’t even think of running off, kids. My six little friends run a lot faster than you do.”

He directed them to the exit at the front of the theater, the glowing red sign over the door like a beacon in the darkness. On the screen, Razor Face had just eviscerated another coed and the masked man chuckled as he considered how prophetic that scene would soon become.

The small procession exited the theater into the damp alleyway behind the shopping center. The masked man shoved Stephanie toward a small compact car. “Time to go, we have so much to do.”

There was something in the man’s voice that made Mark’s hair stand on end, and he knew what ever happened, the situation wasn’t going to end well.

They were almost to the car when the lights of another vehicle cut through the gloom of the alleyway. A black van screeched across the wet pavement, angling for the masked gunman. Mark threw his arm across Stephanie’s back and shoved both of them forward as the startled kidnapper fired two shots into the grill of the speeding vehicle before it struck him. The man went flying, crunching painfully into a heavy brown dumpster, his neck hanging at a sickening angle. The driver of the van took no chances, however, and a pistol appeared from the driver’s window. The semi-automatic barked three times, causing three blood red blossoms across the masked man’s chest.

Mark looked up, amazed. The passenger door of the van flewopen and he spieda very familiar face inside.

“Come on, kids, get in,” Dr. Colton ordered.

Mark didn’t question his good luck. Grabbing a sobbing Stephanie, he hauled her inside the van.

Stephanie sat on his lap in the big front seat of the large passenger van, her head leaning against his chest, her arms wrapped loosely around his neck.

Mark tried not to grin as he enjoyed feeling her warm form curled against him. “Thank you so much, Dr. Colton. That guy… I think he was going to kill us.”

“Yes, he was,” the teacher replied in a matter-of-face tone.

Dr. Colton handed Mark a bottle of water and indicated he should take a drink. Mark took two gulps and passed it to Stephanie.

“He’s done it before and you two would have been his next victims,” he continued, driving through the emptystreets of Urbandale. “Don’t worry about your car. We can go back for it later. For now it would be better if we weren’t there when the police arrive.”

Stephanie swallowed some of the water from the bottle and broke free from her shock. She sat up a bit and turned toward her rescuer. “Who was he? I mean, how did you know?”

A grim look crossed the doctor’s face. “That was Duane Sutter, and I knew because he’s been watching you, Stephanie, for the last month.”

“Mr. Sutter, the school janitor?” Mark’s jaw dropped with surprise. “But… why?”

“The same. It’s taken me four years to catch him in the act. I’ve been after him since he killed my daughter, Pamela.”

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” Stephanie quietly replied. “I’m so sorry.”

The doctor shook his head as he turned the van onto a long, empty stretch of country road leading out of town. “It’s not something I talk about. The police tried to find him, but there was nothing there, no trail, no evidence. He planned every move he made, evendown to the second. He was clean, methodical, and brutal. The cops never even had a suspect. I vowed then and there to stop him before he killed another girl. When I realized how much you, Stephanie, look like my poor little Pamela, I knew he might come after you.”

He smiled as the girl put her hand on his shoulder. “I knew it had to be someone at the school, so I’ve kept meticulous notes on all of the faculty and staff. I suspected Sutter, but it wasn’t until I saw him watching you two the other day in front of the school that I was sure.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Dr. Colton,” Mark said, feeling a little light headed. “But shouldn’t we go to the cops? I mean, Stephanie and I would testify that you saved our lives.”

“No, no, we have other things to do first,” Dr. Colton answered, grinning at the boy.

Mark’s vision swam and he tried to focus his suddenly heavy eyes on his teacher’s face. Stephanie put her head on his shoulder and was already drifting off to sleep.

“Now just relax, Mark,” the man told him. “We’re almost there, and I’m sure you’re feeling very sleepy right about now.”

Mark swung his head, trying to force his mind to focus onwhat was going on. Was there something in the water? Had the teacher drugged them?

“I… don’t… feel so good,” he slurred, and then he passed out, his head leaning against Stephanie’s.

Dr. Colton smiled and hummed to himself as the van sped along towards its destination.

#

Mark woke with a throbbing headache. His wrists and ankles were also sore from the coarse rope suspending him several feet off the ground. The rope was secured through rusted pulleys hanging from old, age darkened ceiling joists and tied to cleats in the stone wall, allowing Mark a very limited range of motion. A rag had been stuffed in his mouth to prevent him from speaking or screaming. He tried to struggle as his conscious mind reasserted itself, but all he could manage was a slight swaying from side to side.

Mark craned his neck to take in his surroundings. He saw that he was completely nude with some sort of designs painted on his skin in black ink. He was in a musty room filled with cobwebs and dust, a bald light bulb in a cracked ceramic socket burning brightly above him. An old door with peeling green paint was the only exit. The boy thought he heard a muffled whimper below him, but try as he might he couldn’t muster the strength to turn to look in that direction.

The door opened with a squealing groan and Dr. Colton stepped into the room dressed in a weird white, red and green robe. In his hands he bore a wooden box that he placed on a small table beside the door.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” he declared. “Enjoying the old house? Oh I know the accommodations aren’t very comfortable but that’s the price you pay for privacy.”

Mark roared behind his gag, squirming in his bonds.

“Now, now, Mark, I saved you and your girlfriend from that odious killer, Sutter, so I think you both owe me your lives. And I intend to collect on that debt.”

He opened the box and withdrew two bulky objects. One of the items was a thick book with heavy leather binding carefully placed on the table. The other remained hidden until the teacher turned and walked over to Mark’s suspended form.

The teen’s eyes widened as he saw that it was a long, sheathed blade.

“Time enough for one last lesson, my boy. Do you know what kind of knife this is?” The doctor slid the triangular blade from its scabbard, holding the weapon soMark could easily see it. “This is a kris, a sacred blade from southeast Asia. To some, the kris is a holy symbol, not unlike our Western world’s obsession with the cross. A blade is passed from generation to generation; precious birthrights serving as both heirloom and deadly weapon. They even say a kris can have a soul of its own.”

He flashed the knife over the boy’s prone form, a whimper through the thick cloth in Mark’s mouth the only reply.

“This particular dagger was the property of a very unusual surgeon in the Philippines,” the doctor continued. “He performed a number of experiments on his patients; poor peasants that couldn’t afford the hospitals in the cities. He claimed to be a transplant expert, and his skill with transferring organs was impressive. What he really wanted, however, was to transplant a human soul.”

Dr. Colton paused to open the heavy tome. “He didn’t succeed, of course. How could he? He only looked to science for his answers. I, on the other hand, have a much broader view.”

Mark blinked against the stinging tears in his eyes. He saw his captor turn the pages in the book to a marked section. He tried again to somehow pull free, but Dr. Colton’s knots held firm. He wondered where Stephanie was and hoped she would not suffer a similar fate.

The robed man turned back to his captive. He stepped over to the wall cleats, pulling the ropes taut so that Mark suddenly became rigid.

“You know, Mark, many people don’t understand the concept of sacrifice. I blame the church and all that tithing. You pay into the collection plate week in and week out and what do you get? Nothing.” Dr. Colton pressed the tip of the sharp blade into Mark’s stomach, the skin puckering underneath the edge until at last it tore with a sickening pop. “You see, sacrifice doesn’t really mean giving up something for nothing. If you know what you’re doing, it’s more like an even trade.”

With that, he pushed the kris deep into Mark’s chest. The boy howled as the undulating blade speared his left lung. He tried to wiggle away from the liquid fire of the intruding knife, but the ropes only bit deeper into his skin.

The evil work took no more than ten minutes. By the time it was completed, Dr. Colton’s robe was stained dark red with blood and bits of gore. He had carefully followed the pattern painted on the boy’s body, just as the wormy text had prescribed. His knife was caked with Mark’s internal fluids, the grooved and curving blade coated in blood, bile and assorted chunks of the boy’s organs. The doctor was surprised at how easy the whole ritual had been: no chanting, no smelly candles or incense, nothing but a bit of a mess a good cleansing couldn’t erase. Fires were common in these parts.

He knelt down in the rapidly congealing puddle beneath the suspended corpse. The girl beneath the suspended corpse was still tightly bound like a mummy in spell-scrawled linen. Her face, the only part of her body exposed, was covered in a sanguine mask from the perforated cadaver above her. She moved slightly, her eyes blinking open. The doctor removed the leather bit from her mouth, his eyes full of hope and fear.

Stephanie’s lips curled into a happy smile. “Hello, daddy,” she said in a voice that was not her own. “I had the strangest dream.”

Dr. Colton swept the girl into his arms and held her close. “Oh Pamela, it worked, it worked…”

He wept as the bloody angel nuzzled against his face, never seeing her eyes turn black or the razor sharp teeth that burst from her mouth.

He didn’t even scream when those needle-like fangs bit deeply into his neck and the monster he had unleashed began to feed. He had forgotten one ancient lesson: sometimes when you make a trade, you get more than  you bargained for.

The End

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