DISCLAIMER: I own nothing, and some things I wouldn't claim. Soundtrack for this tale-let: Living with the Ancients by Blood Ceremony; La Masquerade Infernale by Arcturus.
"Kim," came Ron's voice through the cobwebbed gloom, "I don't like it."
"For the thirteenth time, there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of." She carefully threaded her way through the maze of dusty furniture, waiting for him to catch up. As usual. The flashlight cast eerie shadows on the walls. She nervously looked around, shivered involuntarily. Her eyes narrowed as irritation replaced trepidation. "There's no such thing as ghosts."
"Yeah, not so much ghosts. I mean this caramel apple I found back there. I don't like it."
"You didn't actually try to eat that, did you? Who knows how long it's been there?"
"Age is not the problem, KP. Caramel is the problem. Fresh, but nasty. Sticky gummy nasty that glues itself to your soft palate. Awful, awful, awful!"
"Throw it away and stay close, ok? I don't want you falling over something before we get to the attic."
He threw the apple over his shoulder, into the darkness; a second later the crash of glass rang through the house, making both of them jump.
"Seven years bad luck," Ron moaned.
"Maybe it was just a vase." Despite logic, despite knowledge, despite disbelief, she was beginning to wish they'd never taken on this mission. And yet it had seemed so completely simple. Hardly a mission at all.
They'd been ushered into Marcus Vermin's office that morning by his aging manservant, who'd given them a warning as he led them down the hall: "Mr. Marcus doan' like kids much. He must really have a trouble t' call you. So just listen and doan' say much, and you'll be fine."
Then the door had opened and they'd stood before the august presence. Not.
The term 'slumlord' might have been coined with Vermin in mind. Rich, ruthless, corpulent, clad in a ghastly polyester suit, he was the owner of most of the shabby shops and hideous houses in Lowerton. He looked them over, his glasses down low on his bulbous nose, stinky stogie clenched in his yellowed teeth, and wasted no time with introductions.
"I understand you kids do big stuff. Saving the world kind of stuff."
"It's no big, Mr. Vermin – " Kim had begun.
"If it's no big, maybe I've got the wrong people. I always figured the world was pretty big potatoes. Saving it is no job for devil-may-care kids on a lark. Capeesh?"
"Uh – whatever you say, Mr. Vermin." The teens exchanged a quick, baffled glance.
"You bet 'whatever I say.' I'm Marcus Vermin. If you work for me, then what I say goes. And here's what I say: I want you to prove to the world that Edgewood Manor isn't haunted."
"Edgewood Manor?" Ron had blurted.
"Yeah. What, wasn't I clear? Ya need a hearing aid or somethin', kid? Pretty young for a hearing aid. Must be all that hippie hop and gangsta rap."
"Yeah, but no, I mean, Edgewood Manor, everybody knows about that place, I mean, you know, Edgewood Manor –"
Kim elbowed him aside. "Mr. Vermin, I've never heard of Edgewood Manor. What's the sitch?"
"Sitch," he scoffed. "Is that some of your beatnik slang?" The redheaded girl said nothing; with a dismissive snort Vermin continued. "See, I own Edgewood Manor. Excellent Victorian mansion. Used to be one of the most valuable properties in Lowerton. Until the 1930s. Till Horrible Howie and his pals holed up there."
"Horrible Howie? Who's he?" Kim asked.
Ron, somewhere between panic and disbelief, broke in, arms waving. "KP! Horrible Howie! Surely you've heard of Horrible Howie! Howie and his hitmen, Smith the Smasher and Bloch the Butcher." His eyes were wild. "The Terrible Triad! "
"Ron, can we put the freak-out on hold a moment?" She turned back to Vermin. "Ron has heard of them, I guess. I haven't. I don't, uh, keep up with things like that."
"Of course you don't! Who would, except some kinda weirdo?" He favored Ron with a disgusted frown. "Only reason I know about 'em is because they haunt Edgewood Manor. At least people say they do. I been there, I seen nothin', but no one's takin' my word for it. And word of mouth" – he glared at Ron, who cringed before the blast –"is keepin' me from rentin' the place."
Vermin opened a drawer, withdrew an ancient picture, handed it to Kim. "Here's the culprits." Three faces looked up at her from the yellowed photo: a gaunt, thin visage with a pencil-thin mustache, a boyish, bespectacled younger man with tousled dark hair, and a ghoulish character with burning eyes and a gigantic chin. "That's them," said Vermin. "Smith, Bloch, and Horrible Howie hisself."
"What exactly did they do?" she asked Vermin, as she handed the photo to Ron, who took it gingerly, as if it might bite.
"You don't wanna know." Vermin snatched the picture from Ron, put it back in the drawer. "And now they're ruining my property. So I want you two to spend Halloween Night in the attic at Edgewood Manor. That's the when and the where, get it? That's when the ghosts do their, uh, sitch." He seemed proud of the word; Kim didn't burst his bubble. "You take pictures, you make tapes, you come out alive, and everyone believes you. Edgewood Manor's ghost-free, and the curse on my bank account is lifted." He pulled out a checkbook. "So what's this cost me?"
"Well," Ron began, "there's a special this week on proton pack charges –"
Kim cut him off. "Nothing. I don't charge for this, Mr. Vermin."
He gaped in astonishment, put the checkbook hastily away, not willing to tempt his good fortune. "Fine by me. The price is right."
So here they were, in Edgewood Manor. The sounds of Hallowe'en, all giggles and rustles and running steps across streets, had ended hours before. Now there was only the dark, and the silence, and the feeling, the unshakeable feeling, that they didn't belong there.
Ron bumped into a table, drew back, stumbled over a footstool, caught himself, walked through a spider web, shook and shuddered and swept at the air in a frenzy. "I wish I had a proton pack."
"No such thing, Ron." Kim noticed something near the stairwell, drew in close for a better look. "Only in the movies." The flashlight revealed a mark in the dust. "Look like a footprint to you?"
"Sorta. Maybe. You know, in this light."
"So Edgewood Manor is haunted."
"You said it wasn't haunted."
"Let me finish. If it's such a scary place, who's wandering inside leaving footprints?" She shone the light on Ron, noted the sticky stuff surrounding his mouth. "And caramel apples?"
He frantically wiped at his mouth with his shirt sleeve. "Man, the ghosts – I ate a ghost apple!" He coughed and spat.
"No, Ron. Someone's been here recently. Where everyone's scared to go."
"And this means -?"
"It's interesting. Come on, this must lead to the attic."
"I don't know, KP. Maybe we oughta just get out of here. I mean, man, that's where they did it!"
She sighed in exasperation. "Did what? What did Horrible Howie and his gang do that was so horrible?"
"You really want to know?"
"Yes. I really want to know, Ron."
On the way up the creaky, yielding steps, Ron told her. As they entered the attic, the dire story reached its terrifying end.
"How – how'd you find out?" Kim's eyes were wide with fright, her heart pounding in her chest. The most terrible super-villain trap she'd ever encountered was paradise compared to being in this strangely angled attic, knowing what had happened here.
"Read it in an old j-j-journal we found at h-home." His teeth were chattering, despite the unseasonable warmth of the October night.
"Maybe – maybe s-somebody made all that up." She'd never been this scared before, not even in nightmares. Not even at Lake Wannaweep, or during the invasion of the zombie snowmen. "No one w -w -would really do s-s-something like that!"
"Horrible Howie would. And did. Right here, within these four, uh, five, uh – within these walls. Him and his gang. Th-Th-The Terrible Triad. And that's why they're cursed to walk these floors… for all eternity." Ron looked fearfully around, wishing he was home in bed. "I guess I shoulda told you sooner."
Scared as she was, there was still room for annoyance. "D'ya think?"
As if on cue, something howled, faintly, but unmistakably. The door slammed behind them; as one they spun to desperately yank on the evilly carven handle, but it stayed stubbornly closed. Without warning the handle pulled free, sending them both flying across the room to collapse in a heap.
A large bat flew down from the rafters, circled Ron's head, and flew back into the darkness. He refused to believe that it had his face. He must have been seeing things.
A cold wind began blowing through the sinister attic, though there were no windows in the weirdly distorted room. The chattering and scrabbling of rats came from behind the walls.
"No. There's no such thing as ghosts," Kim announced, a bit too loudly, a bit too confidently. "This is a setup. Someone's playing games with us." She whipped out the Kimmunicator; Wade would be able to get to the bottom of this.
But Wade's smiling face didn't appear on the tiny screen. Instead, it bore a stern visage whose mad eyes burned into her soul, whose frowning mouth seemed dwarved compared to the huge chin below it. "Kimberly… Anne… Possible…" it groaned.
She dropped the Kimmunicator, petrified. From behind her came Ron's voice, quavering with fear: "K-Kim…"
She turned slowly, not surprised at all to see the three translucent figures, or to recognize their faces, one gaunt and mustached, one youthful and bespectacled, one long and implacable as the statues of Easter Island.
"Now we will show you what we do." The Terrible Triad reached out toward the living.
Galvanized with horror, the living kicked the door down, cursed or not, and fled down the steps, screaming, not stopping until they had left Edgewood Manor far behind.
The ghosts faded from view; there was silence for almost a full minute. Then someone began to laugh. Not a ghost; it was quite human laughter. A secret panel slid open; an evil figure popped out, rubbing his hands together in triumph.
"Yes!" cried Dr. Drakken. "That was great! Worth the money I paid Vermin to let me wire this place. The best Hallowe'en I've ever had." He whipped out a cell phone, called his cohort. "Excellent, Shego. The equipment worked perfectly. Thanks for coming up here and installing it for me. You should have stayed to watch!"
"I've been trying to call you all afternoon," said the green woman. "Something came up, and I wasn't able to get there to install your holographic thingamajiggers and stuff. Sorry. Maybe next year."
"But –" The screen went dark. And in the darkness, he saw three translucent figures approaching. Between him and the gaping attic door. Drakken gulped, tried to call Shego back, but a bat swooped down to snatch the phone from his fumbling fingers. A bat with a tiny blue human face that snickered at him as it flew up into the rafters. He turned to flee down the secret passage, but now that door was closed, and he wasn't nearly as strong as the teens. Not that he didn't give it a try. And was still frantically trying when Smith the Smasher and Bloch the Butcher dragged him away from the hatch and deposited him unceremoniously before their leader.
"I suppose," said Horrible Howie, calmly munching a spectral caramel apple, "we'll have to show you what we do."
Marcus Vermin never did rent Edgewood Manor. It burned to the ground ten years later, and no one regretted its loss. Least of all a certain blue supervillain, who could never hear the name without an uncontrollable shudder. Something his sidekick exploited at every opportunity.
She had installed the equipment and she had stayed to watch, but she'd never let him know that.