by Starsky Hutch 76
Mel Harper looked at his watch. It had been nearly an hour since Claire left for the nightshift at the prison hospital. She should be pretty far away by now, he knew. He pushed the power button on the remote control to switch the TV off, sat his beer can on the end table by the sofa, and rose from the couch, heading toward Natalie’s room.
The door slid open, and Natalie Burch let out a sigh as her head rose up and she saw Mel’s silhouette in the doorway. She burrowed her head farther into the covers, trying to pretend to be asleep. It was too late, though. He had already seen her looking at him.
Mel walked over, rested his hands on the side of her bed, and said, “Wakie, wakie. C’mon, I know you’re not asleep, so drop the charade.”
“Go away, Mel,” Natalie said.
“What’s it going to take for you to start calling me Daddy?” Mel said.
“You’re not my daddy,” Natalie said. “And I didn’t call him daddy. I called him Dad. ‘Daddy’ is for babies.”
“That’s right,” Mel said. “And you’re a big girl. Old enough to take on big girl responsibilities.”
A feeling of dread came into Natalie’s stomach. She knew where the conversation was going.
“Your mom is a busy woman. So she’s let a lot of things around here slide at home. There are things she used to do for me that she doesn’t do any longer. It’s time for you to step up and be the woman of the house now.”
Natalie rose up and said sharply, “I told you I don’t want to play the married game with you, Mel!”
“Where do you get off talking to an adult like that?” Mel said, his face changing from the pleasant façade to the snarl Natalie was more used to. “My dad would’a beaten me black and blue if I ever raised my voice to him like that.” Damn, the kid could get to him. In the background, he could hear a growl coming from some nature show on TV. He thought to himself that it was just how he felt.
“Go away and leave me alone!” Natalie snapped.
“I think it’s time I taught you to respect your elders, kiddo,” Mel said through gritted teeth. “Then I’m gonna show you how to pull your weight around here.”
Suddenly, a wide-eyed expression crossed Natalie’s face, and she started to shriek.
Mel smiled. This was the first time she’d ever acted afraid of him, despite his best efforts. Maybe this would be easier than he thought, after all. She let out another scream, and he started to be afraid that the neighbors would hear. Those damn schools were always telling kids to scream their damn heads off at strangers or anyone else doing something they didn’t like. He hoped all the growling from the TV would cover it up. It was really starting to get loud.
A sick feeling came to him as he started to reach for Natalie, recalling that he had already turned the TV off.
A large, menacing silhouette crossed the wall, and a shadow fell over Mel and Natalie. He turned to look behind him and screamed.
Natalie shrieked once more as she and the wall behind her were spattered with his blood.
Frank sipped his coffee as he drove back from the prison. He clutched the styrofoam cup of 7-Eleven decaf for warmth. He would be glad when bonus time came around so he could get the heater fixed. That was the main reason he didn’t offer to carpool with Claire, even though they lived in the same neighborhood. He already felt big, clumsy, old, and foolish whenever he was around her. Why add to the embarrassment?
As he approached her house on the way to his, he let out a startled gasp as he saw the flashing lights of a police car. “What the hell?”
He quickly pulled over to the side of the road and leaped out of his car, nearly spilling hot coffee on himself.
The large man ran over to where he saw his nephew, Stan, standing with other police officers on the scene. As hyped up as he was on adrenaline, a voice in the back of his mind still managed to go, Oh, great. Stan had been his favorite nephew at one time, and he had been his favorite uncle. Ever since the boy had graduated college with a criminal justice degree and made it through the police academy, an attitude had developed toward Stan’s prison guard uncle. As much as he hated to confront Stan while he was on duty, he had to know what happened.
“Stan!” he called out. “Stan!”
Stan’s body language seemed to give a non-verbal sigh. “Hi, Uncle Frank,” Stan said with barely contained irritation at the interruption. “Look, this isn’t a good time…”
Frank waved off Stan’s attempt at a dismissal and snapped, “I’ve… I’ve gotta know what happened here. This house belongs to a… a… friend of mine…”
Catching the meaning of Frank’s words, Stan gestured to Frank to follow him. They walked through the busted door past cops who were taking photos of the overturned furniture in the house.
“So what happened, Stan?” Frank asked again.
“Something ripped Mel Harper to shreds.”
“That bum?” Frank said, not bothering to hide his disgust. “Probably owed somebody money.”
“Nah,” Stan said. “From all the signs, it was some sort of wild animal.”
“A wild animal?!” Frank exclaimed. “In the suburbs?“
“I know, I know,” Stan said. “The question is, where did it come from?”
Frank looked around. “There doesn’t seem to be any sign of forced entry.” He looked back at the front door. “If anything, it looks like something… busted out.”
Stan’s eyes widened in surprise at his uncle’s observation. “Yeah, we caught that. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“We live in a world where men fly and aliens land UFOs in big cities every other week,” Frank said. “Not a lot does any more.”
“I hope this isn’t that sort of case,” Stan said with a pained expression. “Mel was a nobody.” From his pained expression, Stan was considering the possibility.
Frank looked over to the small kitchen area where Claire Burch sat with her daughter in her lap. The little girl had her head tucked in her mother’s shoulder as Claire stroked her hair soothingly.
“It’s all my fault,” the girl cried.
“No, it’s not,” Claire said.
“Yes, it is!” the girl insisted. “I kept praying something would happen to take him away.”
“That doesn’t make it your fault,” Claire choked. “Mel was… a bad man. I just had no idea how bad.”
“You don’t understand,” the girl sniffed. “I prayed that something would come and take him away. Then, when he came in and tried to do stuff with me, Mr. Bear came to life and killed him.”
“Is the girl a meta?” a stunned Stan mouthed to Frank. Frank shook his head and looked at Claire to confirm that he was right.
She looked up with a dismayed expression of horror. “The Mr. Bear Natalie was talking about… was the stuffed bear from the hospital — the one that had belonged to Winslow P. Schott.”
“You took a toy from the Toyman?!” Stan exclaimed.
“He was dying. He was so weak for so long and could hardly move. It wasn’t one of his. Someone gave it to him,” Claire said. “There’s no way he could have turned it into a weapon.”
“He must have,” Stan said. “That’s the only explanation.”
“It… it was just a normal stuffed toy!” Claire exclaimed. “Just material and stuffing… light as a feather.”
Thirty minutes later, the block was filled with cars from both the local police and the FBI. Officers from both combed the streets. Stan’s group split up, determined that it would be one of them who found whatever it was they were looking for first.
“I can’t believe this,” Frank said. “I was planning on retiring and moving south in another year. Now here I am on a hunt for the Toyman’s last toy.”
“You should be back at the house,” Stan said.
“Nothin’ doin’, Junior,” Frank said. “That lady back there means a great deal to me… even if I haven’t had the guts to tell her. If she’s in any danger…”
“If she means that much to you, then you should be back there with her,” Stan snapped. I can’t have any civilians…” Stan stopped as the steely, determined look in Frank’s eyes told him it was no use. He’d be out here searching, too, with or without him. At least this way he could keep an eye on him. “Ah, hell… you at least got a license for that thing?” he said, gesturing to the rifle Frank had pulled from the trunk of his car as soon as the search was announced.
“What? Of course I do,” Frank said, laughing. “You’ve been on enough hunting trips with me as a kid that you should recognize this gun.”
“Yeah,” Stan said, smiling. “Now that you mention it, I do.”
There was a sudden crash, and both men turned in the direction of the sound. The instincts that had brought Frank back from the jungles of Vietnam suddenly kicked in, and he moved toward the direction of the noise.
“Probably just a stray dog,” Stan said. “We should still check it out, though.”
“Have to be a pretty big damn dog,” Frank said.
They both moved into the narrow walkway between two weathered-looking houses and were cast in the deep shadows of dusk. Only an hour earlier, streetlights would still have been lit, offering better visibility.
“Christ,” Stan said with a grimace, stepping in front of his uncle to lead the way into the dark space between the houses. He reached to his belt and pulled out his flashlight. “If anyone is there, come out with your hands above your head so we can see them.”
Frank thought hands above your head was a funny thing to say, since they were looking for a killer toy, but he supposed it was just standard procedure. A mental image of a ghoulish, undead Winslow Schott stepping forth from the darkness filled his mind, and he suppressed a shudder. No one exited the alley, though, and after a pregnant pause, there was another crash.
“Damn,” Stan cursed before pushing ahead, followed by Frank. “Who’s there?” he called out into the shadows. He traced the interior of the alley with his flashlight. The alley was bisected by a tall wooden fence. Garbage cans rested at either end. Debris lined the sides of the alley, including an old sofa and a king-sized mattress.
A stray cat darted out from behind one of the cans, startling them. Both of them let out a nervous laugh, and Frank slapped his nephew on the back. “Whew! I think we both just lost a few years, there.”
Suddenly, there was another rustle, then the mattress fell away. At first, Frank thought he was looking at a brightly colored, bundled shag rug or an enormous beanbag chair, until a growl began to issue forth from that direction. The lavender-colored mass suddenly began to rise up and start to turn.
Both Stan and Frank gaped in shock as they found themselves confronted with nothing less than the visage of a seven-foot-long lavender grizzly bear with a white belly centered with a red heart-shaped mark.
The grizzly let out another loud growl and swiped its right paw down at them. Stan dived out of its path, crashing into the trash cans. Frank fired straight into the heart shape on its belly as if it were a target at a shooting gallery. Both men were suddenly startled to find their vision clouded by a shower of what looked like snow.
Frank threw up his arm to protect his eyes, and something hit his hands. When he opened his eyes, he looked down and saw that it was filled with polyester fiber stuffing. Frank and Stan looked back to where the grizzly had been. Instead of an animal corpse, they saw the torn remains of Mr. Bear.