Somebody had nailed a kitten to the sign on the side of the road. WELCOME TO OLD GAP, the sign said in large engraved letters, and below it: ESTABLISHED 1917. The kitten hung suspended between the D of OLD and the G of GAP.
The kitten, Raleigh quickly realized, was still alive.
“Jesus Christ,” William said and hurried toward the sign, the sheathed sword at his side bouncing back and forth with each step.
Raleigh didn’t bother trying to save the cat. He knew it was useless. William knew it was useless too—or at least he should know—but still the man ran to the sign and tried to grab the kitten. His hands passed through the kitten and sign as if they were not really there.
Headlights appeared down the road.
Raleigh barely noticed. He stood on the white center line, watching William and his fruitless attempt to save the kitten. It was a sad sight—both William and the kitten—and Raleigh sighed.
“Stop it,” he said.
William kept grabbing for the kitten; his hands kept passing through it.
The headlights were closer now, the tractor-trailer behind those headlights speeding at an easy fifty miles per hour.
Raleigh said, “Would you stop it?”
William stopped, stood there a moment, and then slowly turned. His shoulders fell. “It’s just not right.”
The headlights were right behind Raleigh now, the tractor-trailer’s engine roaring, but Raleigh didn’t move.
“I know,” he said, not even flinching as the tractor-trailer drove through him, and even before the truck had passed through him completely he started walking forward. “But there’s nothing either of us can do about it. You know that.”
William looked down at the ground, took a breath, the sort of thing a child would do, William a few years older than Raleigh, though where they were age and time no longer mattered.
Raleigh placed a hand on William’s arm—there was substance there at least, both of them being on the same plane of existence—and then the older man looked up and nodded and together they turned and entered the town of Old Gap.
* * *
They found the first pumpkin less than five minutes later.
Houses had already appeared along the road, two-story houses on each side facing each other, and a sidewalk had materialized. Most of the houses were already decorated, their porches alit with jack-o’-lanterns and overlarge bats dangling from trees and skulls propped up on porch railings.
The pumpkin was on the porch steps of a house with an elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair. She wasn’t dressed up except for an oversized witch’s hat, and every time children approached, dressed as angels and devils and monsters and superheroes, she tried to make her voice sound like the Wicked Witch of the West. But none of the children were convinced, and after she would compliment them on their costumes, the children would say thank you and hold out their buckets or bags, waiting to be given what was due.
The pumpkin on the woman’s porch steps was glowing green. The old woman—her name was Doris; Raleigh knew this the same way he knew the names of all the people in all the houses they came to save—didn’t notice the glowing pumpkin. The children didn’t notice the glowing pumpkin either. Only Raleigh and William noticed this pumpkin and all the pumpkins in all the towns they’d passed through. The green glow meant this house was marked, and if Raleigh and William did not destroy the pumpkin, when midnight came the people inside this house would die.
“Look at you!” Doris exclaimed to a child dressed as an insect. “Aren’t you just the most precious thing in the world?”
William unsheathed his sword.
Raleigh said, “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?”
“But you did it last time.”
“So what are you, dear?” Doris asked. “Don’t make an old lady guess.”
“A caterpillar!” the little girl shouted happily.
Raleigh said, “You really don’t remember going last time?”
“No, I really don’t.”
William smiled. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“Well you’re an awfully cute caterpillar,” Doris said, dropping a Bite Size Snickers bar into the girl’s bucket. “Make sure you brush your teeth after eating that, okay?”
“Thank you!” the girl said, and then she and her mother turned and headed down the steps, the mother passing straight through William who was now grinning.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s play for it.”
“You always want to play for it.”
“Because luck is always on my side.”
“Whatever.” Raleigh held out a fist. “We go on three. One, two, three.”
They each bounced their fist three times and then opened them, William with scissors, Raleigh with rock.
“You cheated!” William said, but he was smiling.
Raleigh unsheathed his sword and approached the pumpkin. The green glow inside flickered like a candle. Raleigh held the sword up over his head and quickly brought it down, severing the pumpkin in two. The green flame dissipated, fading up the porch steps and into Doris.
“What in the world?” Doris murmured, leaning forward in her rocking chair. As far as she knew she was the only one anywhere near her porch, and here one of her pumpkins had just split apart. She adjusted her bifocals, squinting, and then leaned back in her chair shaking her head. “Strangest darned thing I’ve seen tonight.”
“You’re welcome,” William said loudly, nearly shouting at the woman less than ten feet away, but she didn’t notice. He turned to Raleigh, who was sliding the sword back into its sheath. “Don’t you sometimes feel unappreciated?”
“All the time. Come on, let’s go.”
They headed back down the walkway toward the street. A town this size, there were usually at least three more pumpkins to find before midnight. They weren’t worried though. They always found the pumpkins, destroyed them, and passed on to the next town.
A few cars drove up and down the street. Raleigh and William watched them for a moment, started to move toward the center of town, but stopped.
“Do you feel that?” Raleigh asked.
They turned around. Coming up the street was a simple black limousine. Not the most uncommon thing in the world, but certainly not common in a town like Old Gap. And certainly not common anywhere else, as this particular limo was being driven by a daemon.
Both men touched the hilts of their swords as the limousine slowed and came to a stop beside them. The rear window lowered soundlessly. A figure sat inside.
“Raleigh,” the figure said, “a word?”
Raleigh glanced at William. William gave a quick shake of his head. Raleigh turned back to the limo and said, “Sorry, but I was raised not to accept rides from strangers.”
The figure did not move for the longest time. Finally it said, “Are you interested in ever seeing daylight again?”
Raleigh glanced once more at William. This time William just stared back at him.
“What are you offering?” Raleigh asked.
The door opened and the figure said, “Step inside and find out.”