Then they came to the house on Highlander Avenue.
“There’s always one,” Richard whispered ominously to Nick and the boys as they looked up at the house in awe. “One house with overgrown greenery, high hedges, and walled-off courtyards. A house where it seems like nobody lives, where it’s dark and spooky. Where sometimes you see someone looking out the window, or maybe you catch a glimpse of someone as the draperies twitch closed out of the corner of your eye.”
“Rick,” Nick whispered, “that’s Crazy Soldier Guy’s house.”
“You know who lives here?” Richard met their eyes. The boys all nodded, although they seemed unwilling to move any closer.
“Crazy Soldier Guy lives here.” Nick’s usual partner in fourth-grade crime, Terry Husted, seemed to shrink beneath his black velvet wizard’s hat when he talked. “You know. The guy who drives the Jeep? Wears camo and a cowboy hat? He moved in last summer, but I think he’s some sort of spy.”
“He never says anything unless he catches you doing something wrong,” Nick supplied.
One of the other boys was nodding. “Yeah. My brother was chasing a cat once? And Crazy Soldier Guy almost killed him!”
The kid — dressed in a black robe with a big scarlet and gold Gryffindor scarf — blushed. “I think he thought my brother was trying to hurt it.”
“I see,” said Richard. “In that case, I don’t blame him for being angry.”
“My brother wasn’t going to do anything! He just wanted to catch it.”
“Crazy Soldier Guy thinks he’s in charge of the whole neighborhood,” volunteered one of the other boys. “He even came to our house and talked to my parents. It’s like he’s a spy. He knew where we lived and everything. He bosses everybody around.”
“Are you going to do it? Are you going to trick-or-treat his house?” Richard had a hunch that very few of them actually wanted to go to the door, but none of them would admit it.
“I’m going.” Nick straightened his shoulders. “The light’s on; that means it’s okay? Right?”
“Usually that’s true.” Richard nodded. One part of him hoped it went smoothly, while another part wanted the kids to get a good scare. What was Halloween without shivers of delicious terror anyway?
“Coming?” Nick stared at his friends.
They inched forward.
Richard went with them, noticing once they got into the courtyard that it was decorated cheerfully for fall. Autumn leaves were strewn about the place, no mean feat in Southern California, and three hay bales were piled up by the front door. A life-size scarecrow sat forlornly on them, amid a large collection of pumpkins, all carved wonderfully with faces and moons and stars.
It occurred to Richard that maybe Crazy Soldier Guy had a little more Martha Stewart than mad-dog killer going for him.
When they got to the front door, Nick rang the bell, and the boys stood waiting, indecisive now that they’d come all this way and got no answer. Just as they began to mutter about giving up, the scarecrow bounded out at them. Richard had to catch his own breath as he watched the boys tear out of the small, enclosed front yard.
“Shit. Fucking shit!” Richard jumped back, slapping his hand over his heart. “That was awesome.”
The scarecrow said nothing but held out a small offering of candy.
“You mean the ones who are brave enough to stay get rewarded?” Richard laughed.
The scarecrow nodded slowly.
“Thanks. I have to go catch the kids. They’re probably in South County by now.” Richard turned back as he passed the gate, but the scarecrow was sitting, draped benignly over the hay bales again. “You rock!”
Richard waved back at the man. He didn’t know why, but having the crap scared out of him at Halloween always made him feel young again. Fresh. Breathless with the anticipation of having his whole life before him, if only he was willing to face the scary monster house around the block. He turned and ran down the street, leaving his laughter floating behind him like music.
* * * * *
The laughter of the man dressed as one of the Harry Potter crowd scored Logan’s dream like music. An incandescent smile over even white teeth shone bright and eerie in the black light Logan had placed into the fixture over the door. Eyes that danced with pure mischief pulled at him, inviting him to play.
In his dream, Logan chased him down the street and between the houses until all the kids were gone and it was just the two of them. They gazed at one another for a while until someone moved, and then they crashed together for a rush of a different kind altogether. His body was still throbbing with longing when he became conscious of another noise, one he couldn’t identify, hidden behind all the other evening sounds.
Logan still slept lightly, but since he’d been stateside he’d gotten soft, sleeping through things that, in Afghanistan, would have had him armed and out of bed before he had a chance to think. His eyes snapped open when he heard the barest scraping of the metal gate that led to his courtyard.
When he went to the window and looked through the curtain, it was just in time to see a group of small figures in black robes run out of his courtyard and down the steps to the sidewalk. He could hear laughter, but not the pleasant kind, drifting on the night air.
Logan went to look around outside. He figured he’d been toilet papered, which, even though it was a mess, he could handle. It came with the territory of being the scary neighborhood guy who kept to himself and told the local kids to put on helmets and be nice to pets. To pick up their trash. Nobody really knew him yet, since he’d only recently moved into Dan’s home.
When he saw what the gang of kids had been up to, his heart froze and bile rose in his throat. Dan was a fucking hero. He’d caught a bullet for those kids and spent the remainder of his life in pain for his trouble. He’d been a good man and a faithful lover, and he did not deserve this. They didn’t deserve it.
He spent the rest of the night cleaning, scrubbing the mess off the doors and using a razor blade to scrape the adhesive from the windows. He’d have to repaint the front door. He planned to find those responsible and see to it that they paid for the damage. Logan thought he knew just where to start, and it hurt his heart.
Before he got sick, Dan had loved playing that scarecrow trick on the neighborhood kids. Every year Logan had enjoyed e-mails from Dan about how, once again, he’d frightened the trick-or-treaters and sent them running. For his first Halloween in Dan’s home, he figured it was a good way to honor the man’s memory. It was a damned sight better than the memory of holding Dan’s hand at the VA hospital when he died.
No one had the right to defile Dan’s home. Their home. His home. He might not have been able to protect Dan from the cancer that killed him, but he would protect Dan’s home from all comers, at all costs, starting with the end of a really, really nice dream.
* * * * *
Light from the windows was only beginning to irritate Richard when someone started pounding on the door. He realized he was lying on the recliner in the middle of the living room, and from the groans and the rustling, the noise was disturbing the boys as well. Time to suck it up. He got up and headed to the door, hands running over the rasp of beard growth on his chin.
“Hold it,” Richard said in a low voice as he undid the bolt. “I’m here. You’re waking the kids.” He turned to check the time on the grandfather clock in the foyer. It wasn’t even six a.m. yet. The only thing that kept him from adding a really loud curse was the pile of nine-year-olds in the living room, some of whom were moving and rolling in their sleeping bags as they woke like slow centipedes on the floor.
“What the hell?” he asked when he opened the door and found a tall man he didn’t know standing there, holding a large box. “Can I help you?”
“I need to ask your boy some questions.” The man tried to shove him out of the way and step into his house.
“Whoa. You wait just a damned minute.” Richard put a hand out to stop him. It landed on his chest, thickly muscled and hard as granite. Wow! It was tough not to react to the sensation. “He’s having a sleepover. It’s six a.m. Can’t this wait?”
“I need to talk to all of them.” The man’s facial muscles jumped as though he was grinding his teeth. “It’s important.”
Richard looked up into a tanned, lean face with almost iridescent blue eyes. More blue, he thought, because of the warm, dark amber skin. While he was thinking that, a hand clasped his in a firm grip.
“My name is Logan Wilde.”
“Logan Wilde,” Richard said stupidly. “Like Oscar?”
“Yeah. You’re the first person who ever said that. Somebody,” he growled, “vandalized my home last night. I got a brief glimpse of a bunch of kids running away, and they all looked like they came straight from Hogwarts.” He dropped a file box on the floor and lifted the lid. It was filled with…sanitary supplies. Toilet paper, feminine supplies…all splattered with an eerie ketchup red substance that smelled horribly like barbecue sauce.
Richard’s brain caught up, and when it did… “Wait!” He growled a little himself. “You think my boys –”
That got Richard an exasperated glare. “I only want to ask a question. I’m not going to hurt anyone. I’m going to get to the bottom of this right now, and then I’ll go home.”
Richard looked into the man’s eyes. Something about the way he’d said home twice, in just that way — home — triggered some kind of awareness in Richard. The man was hurting. Richard lowered his eyebrows and studied Logan’s implacable features for a moment more. “The boys were here with me all night. I slept on the chair there, in the same room, after we watched movies. It couldn’t have been one of them,” he said quietly.
Logan leaned in a little. “You admit you slept.” He’d lowered his voice as well.
“May I please speak with them?” Logan asked again.
Something bumped into Richard’s back, and he turned to find all the boys standing there, Nick in the lead, their eyes trained on him. They looked tired and upset, and Richard felt unreasonably angry on their behalf.
“Mr. Wilde wants to ask you a question. Do you think we could go outside and talk to him for a minute?”
Nick looked back at his friends.
“It’s important,” Logan added.
They nodded, and with Nick in the lead and Richard taking up the rear, they all trooped out to stand in the front yard.
Richard noticed the man’s behavior didn’t soften for the children and wondered if he’d ever had any experience in dealing with kids.
Logan shoved the box forward with his foot. “This is how it’s going to happen. I’m going to ask you each individually. I’m going to know if you’re lying, ’cause I’m a human lie detector.” He pointed to the boy at the end, who stood still, groggily wiping what looked like tears from his eyes. “You.”
Richard grabbed that pointing finger, pushing it down. “Get a grip and remember to whom you’re talking. These are kids, and there’s nothing to be gained by scaring them to death. Remember, we agreed to do this. I’ll take them back inside if you scare them.”
Logan gazed at him for a minute, but Richard didn’t have a clue whether he comprehended. “You. Don’t panic, little man.” He used an even, slightly softer voice but didn’t crouch or kneel on the boy’s level. “I’m asking a question. Not accusing. You tell me the truth, yeah? I’ll know if it’s the truth.”
The boy sniffled. “No, sir. I didn’t do that.” He looked into the box briefly and then leaned back as though he didn’t want to see it anymore.
“Thank you. What’s your name, son?”
“David.” The boy rubbed a hand over his nose.
“Thank you, David.” Logan turned to the next boy. “You, what’s your name?”
“Terry Husted,” the kid replied.
“Okay. Did you do this?”
“No. I swear. I don’t even know what that” — at this, Terry shuddered — “is.”
“I see,” said Logan. He went down the small line of uncomfortable boys, asking for names and then asking his question. Finally, at the end, he got to Nick. Nick looked to Richard, asking for guidance with his eyes. Richard nodded to him to answer the man.
“No, sir,” Nick said when he was asked. “I didn’t have anything to do with those things in that box, sir.”
Logan nodded his head and stepped away, his hands folded behind his back. The boys visibly tensed. Logan looked at Richard. “I’m sorry; I didn’t get your name.”
Richard toyed with the idea of smarting off but looked at the box of vile things and felt a little sorry for Logan. “My name is Richard Hunter.” He preempted any nicknames; only his son and Nick ever called him Rick, and anyone who called him Dick wasn’t going to get to say it twice. “Call me Richard. And before you ask, I didn’t have anything to do with vandalizing your home.”
“Thank you,” he said, going to his box and hefting it back up. He looked back at the boys. “I’m sorry I disturbed you. I know you told me the truth. It takes a lot of guts and maturity to look an angry man in the eye and stand your ground. You guys did real good.”
The little group of boys visibly relaxed, maybe even preened a little. The bastard.
“Then we’re done here,” Richard said firmly.
“Yeah.” Logan turned to leave but looked back. “I’m sorry I crashed your party. I heard a noise outside, saw some kids running away, and they were all wearing those wizard robes…”
Richard said nothing. Instead he opened the door, and Nick and his friends filed in. They were chatting excitedly now that they’d faced down Logan and won his approval.
“Tell your wife I’m sorry for the disturbance.”
“I don’t have a wife.” Richard closed the door in Logan’s face with a firm snap and called out to the boys. “Who’s for blueberry pancakes?”
He got an affirmative answer from a chorus of hungry kids and headed for the kitchen. Nick ambled in as Richard was getting out his biggest mixing bowl.
“Weird, huh? We told you.”
“You did indeed.” Richard got milk, eggs, and blueberries out of the fridge. “How are the guys?”
“They’re okay. Terry’s gone back to sleep.”
Richard smiled down at his grandson and widened his eyes comically. “Well, no one can say you don’t know how to throw a party!”