Ticket to Hell (Part III of IV)
by Kendra Leigh Castle

Jake's cruiser had slowed to a crawl by the time he turned into the long, curving drive to Netherwood. He tried to explain away the increasing foot traffic as he approached (Halloween block party somewhere around here, I guess, he told himself). But now, with his car caught up in a sea of shuffling, blank-eyed people, he had to accept the truth: something was seriously wrong in his city, and whatever trouble there already was at Netherwood, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

Feeling the adrenaline beginning to flow, the way it always did right before the shit really hit the fan, Jake radioed Dispatch.

"This is Unit 122 … I'm gonna need backup." He gritted his teeth as someone who looked an awful lot like Larry Patella, the guy who ran the local dry cleaner's, stumbled forward when the bumper of the cruiser connected with the back of his knees. "A lot of backup. There's something weird going down at Netherwood. Copy?"

He waited, but there was nothing. No response, not a sound. He tried again, and this time, the calm, cool voice of Tabby the dispatcher had been replaced by one that was both familiar and horrifying.

"Nothing going down at Netherwood but the biggest Halloween bash this big bad world has ever SEEN, son! Why don't you get yourself down to the basement and join us all in congratulating Merlin Jones, the grand prize winner of the best damn prize a worthless soul like her could ask for?"

Jake jerked the cruiser to a halt, his hands tightening on the wheel as he started mutely at the speaker through which Uncle Rob Jobs' voice had just blared. It couldn't be possible. Had to have been the radio, even though he was sure he'd turned it off … and even though it had sounded an awful lot like Uncle Rob was talking directly to him.

As though it knew exactly what Jake was thinking, the police radio crackled to life again. And this time, the familiar voice of Uncle Rob, always friendly and more than a little manic, had deepened to something closer to a growl, dripping with malice and bubbling with an undercurrent of a sort of black glee that had the hair prickling at the back of Jake's neck.

"Of course, I'm talkin’ to you, Jake! You think I don't know you didn't buy a ticket? Well that's okay, son, that's all right … I've got souls aplenty for the reaping tonight. And you've got yourself a choice."

"What's that?" Jake asked, his voice sounding strange and foreign to his own ears. "What choice is that?" He felt as though he'd stumbled into some fetid crypt that stored his darkest nightmares. Maybe he had.

"You can turn your wannabe hero ass around and hightail it out of town. Or you can get on down to the basement and GET DOWN with all the local ghoulies and ghosties to celebrate one hell of a grand opening, AWOOOOOOO!"

The ridiculous, radio host wolf howl was so loud that Jake had to clap his hands over his ears, and even then the pain rang through his head as sharply as if whatever demon had come in to replace Uncle Rob was yowling directly into his ear at top volume. When it finally stopped, Jake cautiously lowered his hands, staring at the police radio as though it might decide to grow teeth and bite him. He barely noticed the people continuing to lurch along outside the cruiser, keeping up their slow, steady, mindless march toward Netherwood. All that mattered was that he find out what he was dealing with. Because he already knew what his choice was. It was why he was a cop: when confronted with putting his life on the line to make something right or running to save himself, he was always going to pick the first option.

Instead of fear, anger began to bloom, hot and blood-red, inside his chest.

"I'm not hightailing it anywhere, you sonofabitch. Except to the place where I can take you down. You can't do this to my city."

Uncle Rob's voice deepened into something thick and inhuman. "It's my city now, Jake. The virgin will be sacrificed to open the way. The gates of Sheol open this night, and there will be a fine, fleshy feast for all of my minions before we begin the new reign of Hell upon Earth. Come if you will. There's always room for one more on the table."

There was a final wet, gurgling chuckle, and then a loud pop from the radio, accompanied by the smell of burning plastic. Fine tendrils of smoke drifted up from it as Jake watched, utterly still, his mind reeling. What was that show Angie had always watched? The thing about the cheerleader who staked vampires and lived awfully close to the Hellmouth? He suddenly wished he'd bothered to do more than roll his eyes at it. Maybe then he would have a few ideas about how to prevent the gates of Hell from swinging open right here in his hometown. As it was, all he had was a gun and sheer nerve. It had gotten him through before, Jake decided, his lips settling into a grim line. It was going to have to do tonight.

He shoved the cruiser into Park, killed the engine, and took a deep breath as he looked at the dark, imposing shape of Netherwood looming just a short way in the distance.

He was going in.

Merlin huddled in the supply closet, staring at the faint glint of the doorknob in the darkness and listening to the approaching sound of footsteps. In her hands she clutched the only weapon she could find in a hurry, a letter opener swiped off of a supervisor's desk during her quick trip up, and then back down, the back stairs.

She'd left Willy crumpled in a corner, unconscious, and made a break for it. Something in the basement had begun to feel wrong, and it wasn't just the fact that she'd been selected as the winner of a contest she hadn't even entered and then attacked by a woman who was generally about as dangerous as a lazy housecat. As she'd dialed 911 from her cell, she'd begun to feel watched, somehow, her skin crawling under the greedy stare of some hidden, malevolent creature that stalked the basement of Netherwood. Merlin had laughed at herself then, shaking her head at the sudden case of the heebie-jeebies. Maybe Willy was on drugs. Maybe she'd just gone as nutty as some of the people that had, according to rumor, had experiments performed on them in this place. But there had to be an explanation. And she knew she'd feel a hell of a lot better once the cops showed up.

Except the cops hadn't come. And there had been something weird about the way the operator had sounded on the phone. But that had been nothing next to the sound of hundreds, maybe even thousands of footsteps that had begun to echo throughout the darkened research facility.

Somehow she knew, just knew, that they had come for her. So she'd swiped the pitiful little letter opener, which was at least sharp, if ineffective against legions of crazed homicidal maniacs, and hidden in this barely noticeable little supply closet in a shadowy corner of the basement. The footfalls above her had increased, seeming to fill the entire first floor of the cavernous research center. No voices, not a word. Just slow, shuffling footsteps.

Merlin swallowed hard as one particular set grew slightly louder, as though someone else had found their way downstairs. Not quite a shuffle, she thought. Quicker. Then, all of a sudden, they stopped, and her heart leaped into her throat. She didn't move a muscle, didn't dare take a breath, suddenly sure that whoever it was had silently drifted to stand right in front of the closet door. That somehow, someone had smelled her fear and come like a fly to honey.

Slowly, the doorknob began to turn.

Merlin prepared herself, crouching into the corner and trying to brace herself for the possibility that she was about to slit someone's throat. I don't want to die, she thought urgently. I don't want to die, I don't want to die, get ready, get ready, here it comes …

The door slowly swung open, bathing the shelves of stacked cleaning supplies in dingy artificial light and revealing a tall, lanky figure with sharp grey eyes and severe features that were both unconventionally handsome and somehow predatory. And when those piercing eyes lit on her, there was only one thing that stopped Merlin from shoving the tip of the letter opener right into his neck.

She spied the police badge clipped to his belt.

"Merlin," he said in a throaty whisper, not a question but a statement of fact. Merlin nodded, afraid that if she opened her mouth, it would draw the teeming horde upstairs to her. Dread coiled in her stomach as the cop looked her over, his expression giving away nothing. Then, to her surprise, he gave a curt nod and held out his hand to her.

"We've gotta get out of here."

It was all the encouragement she needed. Merlin sprang to her feet without his help.

"Is it safe?" she whispered so softly she was nearly mouthing the words.

Grey Eyes looked to each side of him, then returned his steady gaze to her and nodded. "Yeah. Well, no, but right here is clear so far. They're going to find you in there. I can get you out, but we don't have much time."

"How did you find me before they did?" Merlin asked, slipping into the corridor and finding it as deserted as promised. She let out a shuddery breath as they moved quickly down the hall.

"Lucky guess," Grey Eyes said, and one corner of his mouth quirked up in a small, self-satisfied smirk. Merlin had to blink quickly and remind herself that this was not the time to be noticing that her rescuer was kind of hot. But his dark brown hair was tousled, as though he'd run his hands through it a few times in agitation, and it gave him the sort of rumpled sexiness she'd never been able to ignore.

To not notice, she would have had to be dead. That dead was probably one of her options for tonight was what got her brain back on track.

"If I had to hide in a hurry down here, a closet would be a likely place," the cop continued. His eyes swept her quickly, a more thorough inventory of her that left him with a look she was sure was surprise before he turned his attention back to their path.

Merlin fought back a snort. She got that a lot, the shock when people found out she was a cleaning lady (for now) in her off time. For some reason, everyone always expected a sturdy, kindly middle-aged woman.

She was a far cry from that.

"I'm Jake," the cop offered suddenly. "Jake Smith."

"Merlin Jones," Merlin returned, nervously looking behind them. All those shuffling footsteps had gotten a lot louder all of a sudden.

"Like the wizard, huh?" he asked, picking up speed, grabbing her wrist as he began to jog towards the door at the end of the corridor. Above it, in glowing red letters, were the words EMERGENCY EXIT.

"This is a hell of a time for introductions," Merlin snapped, beginning to break out in a cold sweat. She knew those footsteps were closer now … surrounding them … closing in.

"You got a spell to disenchant a bunch of demonically-controlled zombies?" Jake asked, ignoring her comment, and she detected the bleak humor in his tone. Oh God, she thought. He doesn't think we're going to make it.

"Not funny," she said breathlessly as she worked to keep his long-legged pace, frowning over the fact that he could joke at a time like this. She knew it was a coping mechanism for some people, but it had never been one of hers. "Zombies freak me out. This is weird enough without you making up crap like …"

Merlin's words died in her throat as the exit door in front of them slammed open, and legions of dead-eyed people began to stagger-step out. She couldn't scream. She couldn't even breathe. All she could manage to do before her legs gave out completely was to whirl around and try to get away. But it was too late.

"Shit," hissed Jake, pulling her into him, obviously ready to protect her. If only it was going to do any good, Merlin thought in mute horror. But the pale-faced men and women now flooding the other end of the corridor told her that their one escape hatch had just slammed shut. And when their milky white eyes lit upon her, their blank, impassive faces curled into hideous, gargoyle sneers.

"Get the virgin!" they cried, rushing forward. Merlin heard a piercing, heart-wrenching scream slice through the monstrous, joyful shrieking as many hands seized her and began to raise her up, moving to bear her off to who-knew-where, tearing Jake, her only ally, away from her, though he was hanging on for dear life.

It was several seconds before she noticed the screaming was coming from her.

"AWWWWRIIIGHT all you crazy creatures of the night!" boomed a voice that Merlin couldn't help but recognize. It echoed all through the corridor, reverberating off the tiled walls, coming from nowhere and everywhere and driving the zombies into a further frenzy. "You all bring that virgin right down to Lab 13666 and we'll get this party started with a bang … or should I say, with a scream! The gates await, boys and ghouls, and Merlin Jones is gonna make it all possible. She's won the honor of opening the infernal gates, so let's hear it for a flowing river of virginial blood! AWOOOOOOO!"

As all the lights turned from white to red, Merlin felt Jake's hand finally slip from her grasp. And moments later, all the world went black.

Read the conclusion: Act IV

Note: The author, Kendra Leigh Castle, retains all rights to this story.