In midair she was knocked to the side with stunning force. A brutal blocking tackle. She landed with her face crushed into the sand. Not in the hole, on the beach.

Chaos was going on above her. On top of her. A whole football team scrimmaging there. Thick snarls, gasping breath, then suddenly a yelp. Sand fountained around her.

Then it all stopped.

Audrey lay still for a moment longer, then rolled over to look.

Tom was half sitting, half crouching in the sand, his dark hair wildly mussed, his face scratched. He was breathing in gasps. In his hand was a Swiss Army knife, the blade not shining but dark. The wolf was gone. So was the hole.

"Is it dead?" Audrey panted. She could hear the hysteria in her own voice.

"No. It went into that crater thing. Then the crater disappeared."

"Oh," Audrey said. She looked at him, blinked. "You know, we've got to stop meeting like this." Then she collapsed back on the sand.

"Audrey! Audrey, where are you? Audrey!"

Audrey had seldom heard a voice filled with so much terror, but she was drifting in an endorphin cloud of overexertion. She could barely rouse herself to wave a hand without looking.

"We're here!" Tom shouted. "Here!"

The next moment Jenny was on her knees beside them. "Oh, God, what happened? Are you all right?"

"The wolf happened," Tom said. "She's all right, it's just reaction."

"Are you all right? Oh, Tom, you're bleeding!"

Sounds of hugging. Normally, Audrey would have let them have their reunion in peace, but now she said, "Eric's back there. I don't know if he's all right."

"I'll go see." Tom detached himself from Jenny's arms and went. Jenny turned to Audrey, golden dress shining in the gloom.

"What happened?"

"It tried to chase me into a hole. A hole," she repeated, before Jenny could ask, and described the thing she'd seen. "I don't know why, but it wanted me to fall in."

"Oh, my God," Jenny whispered. "Oh, God, Audrey, it's all my fault. And if Eric is dead-"

"He's not dead," Tom said, coming back up. "He's breathing, and I can't even find any bleeding or anything. The wolf didn't want him; it wanted Audrey."

It was only then that Jenny asked, "What are you doing here?"

Tom looked at the ocean. "I didn't think anything would happen here-but I wasn't sure. I hung around in the hotel just in case. When I saw Audrey going down to the beach, I kept an eye on her from the deck up there."

"Oh, Tom," Jenny said again.

"Thank God you did," Audrey said, picking herself up. She was bruised, but everything seemed to be in working order. Her brand new Oscar de la Renta, though, was another matter. "It's a pity you couldn't have saved the dress, too."

As they climbed the sandy ocean ramp up to the hotel grounds, she said thoughtfully, "Actually, I suppose you saved my life. It doesn't really matter about the dress."

"We can't be the ones to tell the police about Eric," Jenny said. "Because we can't afford to lose the time, and because they might separate us. But we can't just leave him there, either."

There was a fine trembling in all her muscles, her reaction nearly as severe as Audrey's. Deep inside her, though, was a steel core of determination. She knew what had to be done.

"Why can't we lose the time?" Tom asked.

"Because we've got to get the others," Jenny said "We all need to go somewhere and talk." She saw Audrey, who was slowly making repairs to her hair and dress, give her a sharp glance. "I'll explain later, for now just trust me, Tom."

Tom's hazel eyes were dark, puzzled, but after a moment he nodded. "Let me get cleaned up a little; to I'll go tell them at the front desk that there's somebody unconscious on the beach. Then we can go."

When he went, he took a note to send up to the ballroom, too. It was from Jenny to Brian, explaining that she had to leave the prom without him, and that she was sorry.

Jenny shut her eyes and leaned against the wall. Think, she told herself. Don't collapse yet, think.

"Audrey, we both need to call our parents. We've got to tell them-something-some reason why we're not coming home tonight. And then we need to think of somewhere we can go. I wonder how much a hotel room costs?"

Audrey, with two bobby pins in her mouth, just looked at Jenny. She couldn't speak, but the look was enough.

"We're not doing anything dangerous," Jenny assured her. "But we've got to talk. And I think we'll only be safe when we're all together."

Audrey removed the pins and licked her lips. "What about Michael's apartment?" she said. "His dad's gone for the week."

"Audrey, you're brilliant. Now think of what we say to our parents, and we'll be fine."

In the end they settled for the old double-bluff. Jenny called her house and told her mother she would be staying at Audrey's; Audrey called her house and told Gabrielle the housekeeper that she would be staying at Jenny's. Then they called Dee, who had her own phone, and had her come out to the hotel in her jeep, while Tom took the RX-7 to his

house to pick up Michael. Finally Tom went back out for Zach, while a cross and sleep-wrinkled Michael let the others into his apartment.

It was nearly one-thirty in the morning when they were all together.

"Caffeine," Michael mumbled. "For God's sake."

"Stunts your growth," said Dee. "Makes you blind."

"Why isn't there anything in this refrigerator except mayonnaise and Diet Coke?" Audrey called.

"There should be some cream cheese in there somewhere," Michael said. "And there's Cracks Jack in the cupboard; Dad bought a case at the Price Club. If you love me at all, bring me a Coke and tell me what's going on. I was asleep."

"And I nearly got killed," Audrey said, coming around the corner in time to see his eyes widen "Here." She distributed Diet Cokes and Cracker Jack to everyone except Dee, who just snorted.

What a mismatched group we are, Jenny thought, looking around at them. Michael and Audrey were on the couch, Michael in the faded gray sweats he wore as pajamas, and Audrey in the ruins of ha saucy little black dress. Dee was on the other side of Audrey, dressed for action in biking shorts and a khaki tank top, long legs sprawled in front of her.

Tom, on the love seat, was windblown and handsome in jeans and a dark blue jersey. Zach sat on the floor by the table wearing a vaguely Oriental black outfit-maybe pajamas, maybe a jogging suit, Jenny thought. Jenny herself was perched on the arm of the love seat in her shimmering and totally inappropriate gold dress. She hadn't thought about changing, She could see Dee's eyes on the dress, but she couldn't return the amused glance. She was too wrought-up.

"Isn't somebody going to explain what's going on?" Michael said, tearing into the Cracker Jack.

"Audrey can start," Jenny said, clasping her hands together and trying to keep them still.

Audrey quickly described what had happened.

"But what's with this hole?" Michael said when she finished. "Pardon me for asking, but how come the wolf didn't just kill you? If it's the same one that attacked Gordie Wilson."

"Because it's a Game," Jenny said. "A new Game."

Dee's piercing night-dark gaze was on her. "You've seen Julian," she said without hesitation.

Jenny nodded, clenching her hands even more tightly together. Tom turned to look at her sharply, then turned away, his shoulders tense. Zach stared at her with an inscrutable expression, the black outfit accentuating his pallor. Michael whistled.

Audrey, her back very straight, said, "Tell us."

Jenny told them. Not everything, but the essence of what had happened, leaving out the bits that nobody needed to know. Like the kissing.

"He said that he'd give me a chance to get free of my promise," she finished. "That he was going to play a new Game with us, and that we were all players. And at the end he said that the new Game was lambs and monsters."

Audrey drew in her breath, frowning. "Like that thing we saw those kids playing?"

"What lambs and monsters?" Michael demanded. "I never heard of it."

"It's like cops and robbers," Jenny said. "It starts like hide-and-seek-if you're the monster, you count while all the lambs hide. Then when you find a lamb, you chase it-and if you tag it, it's caught. Then you bring it back to your base and keep it as a prisoner until somebody else sneaks up to let it free."

"Or until all the lambs are caught and they get eaten," Audrey said darkly.

"Cute game," said Zach, then relapsed into silence.

"If we're playing, we'd better figure out the rules," Dee said.

"We may not have to play," Jenny said.

They all looked at her. She knew she was flushed. She had been thinking ever since she'd looked over the balcony railing to see Audrey's tiny figure disappear into darkness, and by now she'd worked herself into a rather odd state.

"What do you mean?" Dee said, lynx-eyed.

Jenny heard herself give a strange little overstrained laugh. "Well, maybe I should just stop it right now."

She was surprised by the volume of the protest.

"No!" Audrey cried. "Give in to a guy-any guy? Absolutely not. Never."

"We have to fight him," Dee said, smacking a slender fist into her palm. "You know that, Jenny."

"We're going to fight him," Tom said grimly.

"Uh, look," Michael said, and then got Audrey's elbow in his ribs. "I mean-you'd better not."

"That's right, you'd better not," Audrey said. "And I'm the one who got chased tonight, so I'm the one who's got the right to say it."

"We won't let you," Dee said, both long legs on the

floor now, leaning forward in the intensity of her emotion. "It's our problem, too."

Jenny could feel herself flushing more deeply as a wave of guilt swept her. They didn't understand-they didn't know that she'd almost surrendered of her own free will.

"He's evil," Tom was saying. "You can't just give up and let evil win because of us. You can't, Jenny."

Zach's dry voice cut through the impassioned atmosphere. "I don't think," he said, "that there's much point in arguing about it. Because from what Jenny said before, it sounded like she agreed to the new Game."

"I did," Jenny said. "I didn't know-when I agreed I thought he'd leave the rest of you alone. I didn't think you'd be involved."

"And he said the Game had started. Which means-"

"There's nothing she can do to change it now, even if she wanted to." Audrey finished Zach's sentence crisply.

"Like I said"-Dee gave her most bloodthirsty smile-"I think we'd better figure out the rules."

They all looked at one another. Jenny saw the consensus in all their faces. They were all together now, even Tom. Like the old days. All for one and one for all.

She sat down on the love seat beside Tom.

"So what do we need to do to win?" Audrey asked.

"Avoid getting caught," Zach said tersely.

Michael, rummaging glumly in his Cracker Jack, said, "How? We can't stay here forever."

"It's not as simple as that," Dee said. "Look - there are different kinds of games, right? The first Game, the one in the paper house, was like a race game. In a race game the point is to get from the start to the goal in a certain amount of time-or before everybody else does."

"Like Parcheesi," Jenny said.

"No, like Chutes and Ladders!" Michael said, looking up excitedly. "Remember that? You throw the dice and go across the board-and sometimes you can go up a ladder, the way we went up the stairs in the paper house. And sometimes you fall down a chute-"

"-which we did, on the third floor," Dee said.

"We had that game as kids," Zach said with a half glance at Jenny. "Only ours was called Snakes and Ladders."

"Okay, the point is that lots of games are race games," Dee went on. She jumped up and began to pace the room. "But then there are hunting games, too-those are actually the oldest games of all. Like hide-and-seek. That started out as practice for stalking wild animals."

"How do you know?" Michael said suspiciously.

"Aba told me. And tag is like capturing domestic animals. This new game Julian is playing is a hunting and capturing game."

Tom shrugged bleakly. "So he's planning to hunt down and capture each of us animals."

"Trophies," Zach said in a low voice. "Like my father's."

"Not like your father's," Dee said, stopping to look at him. "Your father's are dead. This is more like a game where you catch each of the animals and put them in a big pen to wait for the slaughter."

Michael choked on his Coke.

"Well, it's true," Dee said. "He didn't say he was going to kill us one by one. He said he was going to capture us-until the free ones find his base."

Wiping his mouth, Michael said hoarsely, "Let's find it now and avoid the whole thing."

"But that's the point," Dee said, sitting on the windowsill. "How do we find it?"

"How can we?" Zach said. "It's hopeless."

Tom was still looking into the distance. "There might be another way," he began, and then stopped and shook his head. Jenny didn't like the expression on his face. She didn't like the way the green flecks in his eyes showed.

"Tom ..." she said, but Audrey was talking to her.

"Didn't he tell you anything about it, Jenny? His base?"

"No," Jenny said. "Only that it was somewhere to keep us before he takes us to the Shadow World."

"Which means it's not in the Shadow World itself," Dee said, and Michael muttered, "Thank God."

"But wherever it is, you get there through the holes?" Audrey said. "Oh, wonderful. I'll pass, thank you."

"These holes, now," Michael said thoughtfully. "I think they're very interesting."

"Maybe because you have one for a brain," Audrey said with a snappishness she hadn't shown to Michael in weeks.

Michael gave her a startled glance quite different from his standard wounded look. "No, really," he said. "You know, they make me think of something.

There's a story by Ambrose Bierce-the book's probably around here somewhere." He twisted his head toward the wall-to-wall bookcases that were the main feature of the living room. Michael's father wrote science fiction, and the apartment was filled with strange things. Models of spaceships, posters of obscure SF movies, weird masks-but mainly books. Books overflowing the shelves and lying in piles on the floor. As usual, Michael couldn't find the one he was looking for.

"Well, anyway," he said, "Ambrose Bierce wrote this trilogy about weird disappearances, and there was this one story about a sixteen-year-old boy. His name was Charles Ashmore, and one night after it snowed he went out to the spring to get water. Well, the thing was, he went out the door and he never came back. Afterward, his family went outside to see what was the matter, and they saw his tracks in the snow-and the tracks went halfway to the spring and just stopped dead." Michael lowered his voice dramatically. "Nobody ever saw him again."

"Great," Jenny said. "But what has that got to dc with things?"

"Well, the story was supposed to be fiction, right? But there was another part in the book, where this German doctor-Dr. Hern, or something-had a theory about how people disappeared. He said that 'in the visible world there are void places'-sort of like the holes in Swiss cheese."

"And that guy fell into one?" Dee said, looking intrigued.

"Fell-or was dragged. Like I said, the stories were supposed to be fiction. But what if there really are voids like that? And what if Julian can-well, control them?"

"That's a nasty idea," Dee said. "I like it."

"Are you saying all people who disappear fall into the Shadow World?" Audrey asked.

"Maybe not all of them, but maybe some of them. And maybe not all the way in, maybe just partway. In the story, when Charles Ashmore's mother went by the place where he disappeared the next day, she could hear his voice. She heard it fainter and fainter every day, until it finally just faded completely."

"A halfway place," Jenny whispered. "Like the More Games store-some place halfway between the Shadow World and here."

Dee was looking at her shrewdly. "Like Julian's base, huh? Somewhere to keep us until he takes us to the Shadow World."

"And you hear about vortex things in Stonehenge and Sedona, Arizona," Michael said. "Was it like a vortex, Audrey?"

"It was big and black," Audrey said shortly. "I don't know how much more vortexy you can get." But she gave Michael the prize from her Cracker Jack, a blue plastic magnifying glass. He put it beside his prize, a mini baseball card.

Jenny was playing absently at her own prize package, not really seeing it. "But it doesn't help us find the base," she said. "Unless we jump into one of those voids, and then I don't think we're coming back."

"It closed up completely," Tom said. "After the wolf jumped into it, it just disappeared. I don't even think I could find the place again."

"Anyway, I'll bet he can move them around," Michael was beginning, when Jenny gasped.

She had torn open her prize package. She'd been fiddling with the prize, completely preoccupied with the question of voids-until something caught her eye.

"What is it?" Dee said, jumping up from the windowsill.

"It's a book of poetry-or something." It was a very small book, on cheap paper with large print. One sentence per page. But it was a very strange poem for a Cracker Jack prize.

Jenny read:

"In the midst of the word she was trying to say, In the midst of her laughter and glee, She had softly and suddenly vanished away-For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."

There was dead silence in the room.

"It could be a coincidence," Zach said slowly.

Michael was shaking his rumpled head. "But those lines are wrong. That's not the way they go-look, that book I know I've got." He went into his bedroom and came out with Alice in Wonderland and Other Favorites. "They're from a poem about these guys who go out hunting imaginary animals-Snarks. Only some of the Snarks are Boojums, and those hunt you. And in the end one of them finds a Snark, and it turns out to be a Boojum. But it's he a the poem-'In the midst of the word he was trying to say, In the midst of his laughter and glee ...' You see?"

"Cracker Jack wouldn't make a mistake like that," Tom said, with a wry smile.

"No," Jenny whispered. "It's from Julian. But is it about what almost happened tonight-or about something that's going to happen?"

The silence stretched. Tom's brows were drawn together. Dee had her jaguar look on and was pacing again, Zachary's gray eyes were narrow, his lean body tense and still.

Michael had put down the book. "You think he's giving us clues in advance?"

"It would be-sporting, I guess," Jenny said. "And he gave me a kind of clue on the balcony, remember. He said he'd go after 'Little Red Riding-Hood' first."

Everyone looked at everyone else speculatively. Suddenly Dee whirled and did a swift, flowing punch-and-kick. "Then we might just have a

Excitement was passing from one of them to another like sparks traveling down a fuse.

"If we can figure the clues out beforehand-and Unjust surround the person they're about..."Dee said.

"I know we can! I always wanted to be Sherlock Holmes," said Michael.

"I think it might actually work," Tom said. A new light had kindled in his hazel eyes.

Dee laughed exultantly. "Of course it will work! We're going to beat him."

Jenny was caught up in the fervor herself. Maybe they could outthink Julian. "It's not going to be easy-"

"But we'll do it," Audrey said. "Because we have to." She gave Jenny a spiky-lashed glance and picked up several empty Coke cans to take to the kitchen.

"We'd better start with the one we have, then," Zach said, turning a cool, analytical gaze on Jenny's riddle book.

"Unless that one's already finished," Michael said. "I mean, if it was about Audrey-or should I call you Little Red Riding-Hood?" he shouted to the kitchen.

"Call me madam," Audrey said from around the corner, her good humor clearly restored. "Call me Al." She began to sing a Paul Simon song." 'I can call you Betty, and Betty, when you call me, you can call me-'"

"Well?" Michael yelled when she didn't finish. "What can I call you?"

Audrey didn't answer, and Michael snorted, "Women!"

Zach was saying, "Yeah, but what if it's a new clue? It says she, so it's got to be either-"

Jenny heard him as if from a distance. She was listening, listening, and all at once she couldn't breathe.

"Audrey?" she said. The sound of rattling cans in the kitchen had stopped. "Audrey? Audrey?"

Everyone was looking at her, frightened by something in her voice. The sound of raw panic, Jenny guessed. Jenny stared back at them, and their images seemed to waver. Utter silence came from the kitchen.

Then she was on her feet and moving. She reached the comer before any of them, even Dee. She looked into the kitchen.

Her screams rang off the light fixture in the ceiling.

"No! No! Oh, God, no!" Copyright 2016 - 2023