Kenneth Hardcastle got out of the car. He looked up at the flickering neon sign and rolled his eyes. Dick's Palace, it proclaimed. Parked alongside him was a BMW, Dick's car, and the hood was still hot.
'Just following a lead,' he thought, pushing open the doors.
Inside, mock velvet wallpaper covered the walls, adorned with tassels, bright pink elephant and yellow flamingo statues set into niches. The tables were wrought-iron, bought cheap, draped with tie-dyed clothes, the chairs bright plastic.
The restaurant was empty, as was the bar. Behind the booking booth (red and yellow plastic) sat a bored-looking matre d', chewing her gum like a llama, paying Kenneth no attention.
He walked up to the desk and rapped on it with his knuckles.
"Yeah?" said the matre d', looking up at him.
"I'm lookin for Dick. Is he in?"
"Mister Reynolds ain't in today. If it's urgent," replied the matre d', "please leave your name and number and we will get back to you."
"His car's outside."
"Mister Reynolds has many""
"The hood is still warm, sugar." Kenneth sighed. "Look, cut the bullshit and let me see Dick, I'll put in a good word for you with the police, and you won't be charged with obstructin justice. You follow me?"
The matre d' shrugged. "I am sorry, sir, but Mister Reynolds is not""
Kenneth opened his wallet and drew out five notes. "Will some compensation help you find the key?"
The matre d' plucked the money from his fingers without hesitation. She pressed a buzzer under the desk and the security gate behind her sprung open.
"Thanks," said Kenneth, and he opened the door.
Wallpaper in bright swirls of colour hung from the walls, a fake crystal chandelier was suspended over the desk, its frame shimmering in the light. Picture frames lined the walls, holding some of the finest examples of modern art (Kenneth sneered).
Behind a fairly ordinary desk sat Dick Reynolds.
"Hello, Dick," said Kenneth. He sat down.
Dick looked up from his book. His eyes widened and he set it aside. "Kenneth Hardcastle! What the fuck're you doin here?"
Kenneth ran a hand through his hair. "Interesting story, Dick. I'm here lookin for leads in a murder investigation."
"Murder? I dunno nothin bout no murders, Ken. We may've had our differences, but you know me. Murder's one thing I'd never do," said Dick, launching into a defence.
"Yeah, that's right. It's actually about one of the victims that I'm here."
Dick nodded and opened a cigar case. Lighting one, he said, "Victims? You said it was one murder investigation."
"Well, no. There've been over a dozen murders, all with the same M.O. Just happens that one of the victims was an old client of yours, and I was hopin you could tell me what you know bout him."
"Who was he, Ken?"
Kenneth pulled a photo from his jacket pocket and laid it on the desk. "Do you recognise him?"
"Yeah, yeah. That's Phil Bellaci. He moved here from Italy a coupla years back. I sold 'im a good few pieces of art, and bought back more'n twice what I sold. Christ, what happened?"
Kenneth jotted down a few notes. "He was found in a backstreet a few days ago. His ankles had been slashed clean through an' his throat was laid open. We ran 'im through the police database and came back with nothing. But one of his co-workers said you'd done business with him."
"Yeah. Who'd do somethin like that, Ken? Do you have any leads?"
Kenneth shook his head. "No, that's why I'm here. Did he have any enemies? Debts? Sour ex-girlfriends? Please, Dick, anything you know would help."
Dick shrugged. "He ain't never been the smartest, but he was real careful like bout not getting into debt. So far as I know, he kept hisself to hisself. Few friends, no girls."
"Is that all you know about Bellaci?"
Dick ground out his cigar. "Sorry I can't be of more help, Kenny."
Kenneth nodded. "Thanks anyway, Dicky-bird. If I hear anything, I'll be in touch."
He took one last look around Dick's office as he left. Books on the mob and infamous crimes dominated the shelves, divided by moulded metal sculptures.
"So, Hardcastle, what do you have?" asked Inspector Fredericks. "Please tell me you have somethin. CSI found next to nothing. Autopsies reveal zilch. So far, we know jack-shit about these murders."
Kenneth handed the inspector a carbon copy of his notes, and she read them over.
"Reynolds has a large collection of crime novels and references." She picked up a dossier on her desk and slid the copy into it. She pulled out a flimsy sheet of paper and handed it to Kenneth. "Those're the results from the trace evidence tests. Remember? The threads under the fingernails?"
"Oh, yeah," muttered Kenneth, reading. "They weren't hairs. Fabric threads? White fabric threads. The mixture of textiles seems to indicate some sort of thick jacket."
"But wait," added Fredericks, "there's more. We found what looked like shreds of skin under some of the victims' nails. Turns out they were latex. Pink latex."
Kenneth scrawled something in his notebook. "So our killer either wears a thick jacket or a latex object?"
"Both," said the inspector. "Both of them were present at some of the scenes, which suggests some sort of costume."
"A costumed killer? Who gets dressed up for a fancy-dress and decides to kill someone instead? A demented Dracula fan?" Kenneth shuddered. "The murders started last year, right?"
Fredericks nodded. "End of October, beginning of November..."
"Halloween," they said together.
Later that night, Kenneth slipped into bed and fell asleep before he'd even closed his eyes. And then the dreams came.
He stood on a grey street, the moon just visible through the thick clouds, casting frightening shadows across the landscape. All around him, figures in grotesque costumes wandered by, bumping into one another and him.
Kenneth managed a proper glimpse of one of them as it passed, and he screamed from fright. They were not wearing costumes as he had first suspected, but were rather hideous hybrids of costume and man.
He awoke with a start, stared about his room. The shadows seemed to form lurking beasts, but he stared at them and the vague suggestion of monsters fled. Satisfied, he settled back to sleep.
This time he dreamed of a farmyard, and the rabbits.
A young boy stands in the dusty farmyard, staring at the geese stalking across the path, their necks bobbing, hissing, snapping their bills.
He walks around the geese and leans on the wall around a rabbit enclosure. He looks down at the rodents, their pink noses sniffing the air, their wild eyes. Many of them are running around, looking perfectly ordinary, but one is not.
It sits in the sun, staring up at him with its faded pink eyes, its nose still. Every now and then, it nibbles from a leaf of withering lettuce.
'Just you wait,' the rabbit seemed to say. 'I don't like it here, believe you me. Just you wait, sonny. I'll get outta here soon enough.'
It polishes off the lettuce and continues to stare at the boy, who shifts uncomfortably under the rodent's gaze.
"What's not to like?" the boy asks suddenly. "You have company, a home, food. Why would you want to get out?"
The rabbit looks away momentarily to drink from its bowl. Then, it looks back at the boy and its white fur ruffles up. It bares its long teeth and begins to clean its face.
'Just you wait, sonny. Just you wait.'
The boy stares into the rabbit's eyes and pales. He has seen something, something frightening. And it has never left him.
The next morning, Kenneth had forgotten all about the dream. He pulled up outside the police station at 9:15 am and was in his office two minutes later.
"Morning, Hardcastle," said the inspector. "Got a job for you."
Kenneth spun around on his chair to face the door, where Fredericks stood holding a clipboard. "Yeah? What you got for me to do?"
Fredericks tossed the clipboard to the private investigator, who caught it and read the paper.
"We did some research. There's only one costume shop in relatively close proximity to all of the murder scenes. I want you to go and try find out who booked out a costume last Halloween and didn't return it. Oh, and the Chief Inspector wants the rent for your office by Monday. I've been putting off getting it from you for a while."
"And if they did return it, who keeps on renting out costumes," said Kenneth, tossing the board back to Fredericks. "It ain't that far from here; I reckon I'll take a walk. I'll transfer the rent when I get back."
He stood up, pulled on his jacket.
"If you find anything, head straight back here. We'll run the name through our system and see if they have a record! And don't forget the rent!" called the inspector after Kenneth as he disappeared down the stairs.
Kenneth walked along the main road, looking up ahead. The costume parlour was another ten minutes away and the pavement lined with beggars, holding out hats and empty hands as people walked by.
One of them, a man with only one leg, hopped towards him on crutches and pleaded for any spare change he might have. But Kenneth only shrugged an apology, and the man nodded, hopped away, his face cast down.
A sigh escaped Ken's lips and he thrust his hands in his pockets as he walked. One of his fingers brushed against something cold, and he pulled a coin out. He turned it over in his hands, looking at how it glinted in the sun. He glanced back at the one-legged beggar, and flicked the coin. He caught it and dropped it back in his pocket, kept on walking.
Next door to the costume parlour was a petrol station, and Kenneth sauntered into the twenty-four hour service store.
The linoleum covered floor shone sickly in the cold fluorescent light, the stainless steel shelves glimmered. Behind the counter sat a young man, idly investigating the contents of his nostrils.
Kenneth laid a Bar One down on the counter and placed his coin beside it. The man rang up the chocolate and dropped Kenneth's coin into the till. There was no change.
Ken walked out of the store, took a large bite of his chocolate. As he stood there eating it, he saw the one-legged beggar hobble by the station, approaching pedestrians. One of them, a young mother dragging her son by the hand, gave the man a bank note and carried on walking.
The beggar made his way down to the petrol station and into the store. He came out not three minutes later carrying a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
"You," he said, lighting one of them.
Kenneth crumpled up his chocolate wrapper and tossed it into a bin. "Yeah, me. Turns out I had money after all. Sorry, fella."
The beggar stuck up his middle finger. "Cheap bastard. Hope all your nightmares come true." He hopped away.
"They already have!" shouted Kenneth, and he headed into the costume parlour.
In the police station, one of the emergency call phones rang. The officer on duty picked it up. "Police department. What's your emergency?"
A breathless voice replied, "I've... I've just found a dead body! His... his throat's been cut!"
"Calm down," said the dispatcher. "What's your name?"
"Serena... Miss Serena Gonzales."
"Well, okay then Miss Gonzales. Can you tell me where you are? Hmmm. Uh-hu. Yes. Yes? Okay. Listen, Miss Gonzales, I'm going to send a team around to your address now okay? Okay. Try and take it easy until they arrive."
The dispatcher hung up the phone and nodded to one of the officers sitting across from her, handed him a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it.
"Alleged murder at this address. Take a couple of officers and find out what's going on?"
"What going on?" asked Inspector Fredericks.
The dispatcher spun her chair around. "Inspector, we just got an emergency call."
The dispatcher nodded.
She told the inspector, who nodded. "Go see to it. I have to get hold of Hardcastle."
The costume parlour was dark and dirty, clothes racks lined with latex suits. Aliens, slugs, mummies, even the occasional rabbit. (Kenneth shuddered when he saw these)
"Good morning," said the man behind the counter. "How can I help you?"
Kenneth walked up to the counter. "My name's Kenneth Hardcastle. I'm a detective investigating a series of murders in the last year. We found shreds of latex and fabric at one of the crime scenes and I was hoping you could tell me if any costumes you rented out last year Halloween were never returned?"
The man nodded. "I can give it a good go," he said. "Lots of costumes don't make it back to us though. Funny how they always seem to be stolen or damaged beyond repair, but them kids is always roaming the streets in good costumes come Halloween. Come into the back; I've got the computers back there."
Kenneth followed him into the back room, where the only section of wall not occupied by filing cabinets was behind a desk holding the computer.
"Last Halloween," muttered the attendant, opening an Excel database. "End of October... A mixture of latex and fabrics, right?"
Kenneth nodded. "That's what we found. Pink latex and white fabric."
The attendant grunted and danced his fingers across the keys. "I've got two outstanding costumes that have those materials. There's a werewolf, rented out by one Richard Reynolds for his nephew, and a white rabbit rented on extended time by a Dale Newman. I can print their details out for you, if you like."
"That'd be cool," said Kenneth, thinking. 'Old Dicky-bird's rented out a costume that fits our description. And I know for a fact that he don't have a nephew.'
"Here," muttered the attendant, handing Kenneth a sheet of paper. "If you need any more assistance, just give me a call. I'd be more than happy to help."
Kenneth thanked the man and walked out into the street. In his jacket pocket, his phone started to vibrate. He flicked it open and said, "Hardcastle. Speak to me."
"Head over to Richard Reynolds's restaurant," said Fredericks on the other end. "Now!"
"I don't have a ride," replied Kenneth. "I decided to walk, remember?"
"Shit," whispered Fredericks. "Okay, sit tight. I'm sending a patrol car to pick you up. You're at the costume shop?"
Kenneth shut the phone and looked up and down the street. He leaned against the wall and watched the cars speed by. After a few minutes, a police car with its wailing siren screeched to a halt just short of the parlour.
Ken ran and clambered into the passenger seat.
At Dick's Palace, Kenneth found Inspector Fredericks waiting for him outside, and a full team of CSI inside.
"What the fuck is goin on?" asked Kenneth, walking up to Fredericks.
"We got a call not too long ago. Miss Serena Gonzales, Reynolds's maid, said she was cleaning his office when she found a dead body."
Fredericks nodded. "Same M.O. Slashed ankles, cut throat. What'd you find at the costume parlour?"
"Two costumes with pink latex and white fabric are still outstanding. One of them is a werewolf rented out by none other than our very own Dicky-bird Reynolds, for a non-existent nephew. The other is a rabbit, rented by Dale Newman on 'extended time.' I got the addresses from the parlour."
Fredericks sighed. "Well, that rules out Reynolds as a suspect then. I'll call in Newman and see what we know about him. You wanna go through to Reynolds's office?"
"Yeah," whispered Kenneth. "Lemme in."
Richard's office was undisturbed, the door not forced, the windows sealed tight from the inside. His laptop still rested on his desk, the plasma screen TV hung across from the desk, and none of the sculptures were missing.
Reynolds's body laid across his desk, stripped naked, blood seeping into the carpeting under his ankles and head. His right hand grasped a scrap of material; pink latex covered in white fabric.
"Got it," said Fredericks. "Newman's a wanted criminal. He did a murder in Durban a few years ago, and he ran down here. I'm gonna send an armed squad to apprehend him."
Kenneth nodded. "I'm going with them."
"Hardcastle, you ain't a policeman. You're a detective. I can't let you go with them."
"Inspector, Reynolds was my friend. A long time ago, sure, but he was still my friend. I want to be there when they arrest the bastard that did it," said Kenneth. "And I have no doubt in my mind that Newman was responsible."
Fredericks sighed and put her hands on Kenneth's shoulders. "Okay. There's a Kevlar vest and a nine mil in one of the patrol cars. Go get it on under your jacket and get your ass back here."
Kenneth and four police officers parked their patrol vehicle two streets away from Newman's house, a small flat overlooking a train track, and made their way toward it on foot, hands on their pistols. The leader, Lieutenant Collins, sent one of his men around the back of the building to secure the fire escape and led the others up the stairwell to the main doors.
"Which one's Newman's?" whispered Collins.
"Number nineteen," said Kenneth. "Second floor."
Collins nodded. "Okay, here's the plan: Hardcastle, you and Laurie stay down here. Williams and I will head up and enter his apartment. If you hear gunfire, head up. Got it?"
"Got it, lt.," said Laurie, pulling out his pistol. "We'll stay here unless we hear shots."
"Good. Williams, let's move."
Collins and Williams advanced up the stairs, their 9mm pistols in their hands, pointed down at the floor.
From up the stairs there was the sound of footsteps, and then they stopped, replaced by the echoes of a fist knocking on wood. Silence.
The sound of wood splintering, shouts of "Armed Police!", running footsteps, and then gunfire.
Constable Laurie nodded to Hardcastle, and they took the stairs slowly, their pistols levelled ahead of them. They reached the second floor landing and looked down the dark corridor. Light spilled onto the dirty carpet from an open doorway, and it was to this door that Laurie and Kenneth walked.
"I'll go first," whispered the constable. "You follow."
He walked through the open doorway, holding his gun in front of him.
Kenneth heard the sounds of a scuffle, then the deafening crack of a gun, and silence. Then a low rasping noise. His hands shaking, Kenneth swung into the doorway, noting how the door hung off its hinges, pistol pointed at the room.
The bodies of the four officers lay in a pile in one of the corners, throats slashed open, their blood soaking the carpet. Bullet holes lined the walls, little clouds of damp plaster still settling.
A bulky figure threw itself at Kenneth, carving knife in its hand. The investigator fell back, tripped over the broken door, and opened fire. His first two shots, fired as he fell, tore into the ceiling and into the room above. His third caught the large man in the shoulder, kicking out a mist of blood.
Ken managed to get a good look at his attacker, and a scream of horror tore from his throat. Here before him was a beast of nightmares, a monster that lurked in the dark. Large, shiny eyes stared at him blankly, a pink nose wiggled on the spot.
This was the mystery killer that had stalked the city for a year. This was the beast that had killed seventeen men. And he did it all in a bunny suit.
Kenneth's next bullet blew half of the killer's hand away, and the knife fell to the floor, and the next struck him in the chest. The killer fell back, scrabbled away. Kenneth yanked off the bunny's head and stared at the man underneath.
"Dale Newman I presume?" he gasped.
"The... very same. And you would be... Kenneth Hardcastle, right?" breathed the dying killer.
Kenneth nodded. "Why'd you kill the people?"
Dale laughed and coughed blood all over the furry white suit. "It told me to. It came, in the night, crept into my dreams and told me to kill them."
"The Bunny Suit," coughed Newman. "I wasn't the first to wear it, and won't be the last. Can't... you see how easily the... bullet holes can be fixed?"
Kenneth shook his head, but in his mind he could hear his thoughts.
Five minutes with a needle, that's all it would take.
Five minutes with a needle, mate.
Dale Newman laughed again, and put his head back. He died with a laugh still formed on his lips, leaving Kenneth Hardcastle alone in the flat.
'But you're not alone, are you?' whispered that treacherous voice in the back of his head.
Kenneth Hardcastle, private investigator, threw his gun aside, looked at the bunny suit. He picked up the large furry head, wiped blood off the glass eyes, and smiled.
The pull of the suit was strong. He pulled Newman's body from the suit and tossed him onto pile formed by the police.
And, carrying the bloodied suit, he staggered back to the patrol car, dumped the suit in the trunk, and drove away.