He couldn't move. The dog was coming right at him, sniffing around his head. He recognized the cocker spaniel from down the block, the Olsons' dog, Bonkers or Bobo or something like that. Oh God, please don't let Bobo piss in my face.
Jarrett Beale couldn't see much through the cut-out triangle-shaped jack-o'-lantern eyes. His hearing was impaired, too, because there weren't any holes by his ears. She should have carved some slits along the pumpkin's sides for ventilation. Sweat poured off his face and he couldn't get a decent breath. Of course, the five layers of heavy-duty black tape over his mouth had something to do with that. Breathing through his nose, he was getting sick to his stomach from the pumpkin smell.
Not that Jarrett could feel his stomach. He was wrapped in a heavy blanket and placed in a sitting position inside a three-foot-deep hole in his front yard. Workmen installing the main valve of a new sprinkler system for the Beales' front yard had dug the hole earlier in the week. Half the work had already been done for the crazy bitch. All she'd had to do was plant him in the ground, bury him up to his neck, and carve a pumpkin to fit over his head.
Jarrett could see the extended leash, and the dog's owner—from the knees down. The guy was talking on his cell phone. Jarrett's muffled cries didn't elicit any response—except from Bobo or Bonkers or whatever the fucking dog's name was. The animal kept poking his nose against the pumpkin enclosing Jarrett's head. Meanwhile, Bobo's moron of an owner was oblivious, still babbling away into his cell phone.
"I'm in front of the Beales' place," Olson was saying. "You know, that McMansion down the block from me? This real-sweet three-bedroom stucco was here, and some asshole bought it and tore it down and put up this Frank Gehry–inspired angular monstrosity that looks like someone vomited a hairball of steel and fiberglass. The guy's a total weasel, too—thinks he's King Shit, driving around in this silver Audi TT Coupe with his Bluetooth phone strapped on his ear... 'asshole helmets' I call them..."
Past the tape over his mouth, Jarrett tried to scream. He shook his head around as much as he could. But she'd taken his good cashmere scarf and bunched it around his neck so the pumpkin stayed firmly in place. It was a very snug fit.
"C'mon, Boopers," Olson called to the dog. "Oh, my Christ, this pumpkin here on his lawn, it's moving! It's making this moaning sound. Holy shit, talk about creepy. Looks like a real pumpkin, too. There's probably some battery inside it... C'mon, Boopers, get away from that. Huh, on second thought, maybe I should let him pee on it. Like I say, I can't stand this guy. His kids are brats, too. He's got like... five of them."
Try three, Jarrett thought. Turner, 10; Brady, 6; and Dakota, 3, weren't brats. They were just having a hard time adjusting to the neighborhood.
"Huh, you're right, maybe I should kick it into the street," Olson was telling his friend on the phone. "Oh, better not." His voice dropped to a whisper. "His neighbor can see me from her kitchen. She's kind of nuts, but real sweet... HI, MINNIE!" he called. "C'mon, Boopers. Leave the pumpkin alone. Someone else is bound to smash it before night falls..."
Jarrett frantically struggled, but from the neck down it felt as if his body were encased in cement. He kept trying to cry out. He heard the guy chuckling as he strolled away. "Huh, you should hear this pumpkin groan. It almost sounds human. So where are we eating tonight?"
Tears stung his eyes, but Jarrett couldn't cry—not with this tape over his mouth. His nose would fill up with snot, and he wouldn't be able to breathe at all. He'd choke to death. His wife, Whitney, and the kids were due back around six. If he could only hold out until then.
* * *
He tried to remember how he'd gotten here.
Just 12 hours ago, he'd been snug in his bed when he'd heard a noise downstairs. It had sounded like someone trying to get inside the house. Jarrett had bolted up in bed and thrown off the covers. He'd automatically glanced down at the pillow beside him. But Whitney wasn't there, she and the kids were spending the night at her mother's in Bellevue.
A panic swept through him. The subtle, far-off sound of a lock clicking was replaced by a series of shrill staccato beeps from the burglar alarm. Jesus Christ, this is really happening. Someone is breaking into the house...
In his black briefs, Jarrett scurried across the bedroom. He headed for the walk-in closet, which was as big as any one of the kids' rooms. Whitney had a lot of shoes.
Past the loud, incessant alarm, he heard someone barreling up the stairs. The footsteps were heavy and hard. He heard her calling to him: "Mr. Beale? Mr. Beale, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to set off your alarm! Mr. Beale? It's me, Minnie Cadwell, your neighbor..."
He stood by the closet door in his underwear. He wasn't being robbed. His life wasn't in danger. It was just that crazy bitch from next door, the fat woman with the cats. How the hell did she get in? What was she doing here at four o'clock in the morning?
Throwing on his Ralph Lauren robe, he moved toward the bedroom door. He almost ran into Minnie at the threshold, waving her chubby little hands in front of her.
She had copper-color hair and wore a Seattle Seahawks windbreaker over a knit fisherman's sweater and shapeless, old-lady khakis. "Oh, Mr. Beale, I'm so sorry! We—we need to shut off that alarm before it wakes up the whole neighborhood!"
Flustered, Jarrett hurried down the stairs—with Minnie behind him. Over the shrieking alarm, she explained how she hadn't meant to cause so much trouble. Someone's dog had fallen into that hole at the edge of the Beales' front lawn. It was right beside Minnie's driveway.
Jarrett was only half-listening as he ran to the alarm box and punched in the code. All he could think was: big fucking deal. Why should I give a shit if somebody's dog fell into that pit?
It wasn't his problem.
"Listen, how did you..." Jarrett started to shout, but then the alarm went off, giving one last aborted warble. "How did you get in here anyway?" he asked, more quietly this time. He was trying to stay calm, though his heart was still racing.
"Oh, I let myself in through the kitchen door," Minnie explained. "I've seen where your wife hides the extra house key—under that potted Japanese maple by the back door. By the way, I don't think she's giving it enough water."
Sighing, Jarrett held out his hand. "Gimme the key," he grunted.
With a wounded look, Minnie plopped the key into his hand.
Jarrett stashed it in his robe pocket, then he took Minnie by the arm and led her toward the kitchen door. "You're lucky I didn't call the police. Why don't you just drag the stupid dog out of the hole yourself, Mrs. Cadwell? Okay?"
"You don't care, do you?" Minnie said, yanking her arm away. "No one else matters—except you and your family and a small circle of friends. It doesn't matter to you that someone else's dog might be trapped in a hole in your front yard."
"No, it doesn't," he cut her off. He reached for the door.
Minnie scowled. "You know, I called the police on you earlier today—when you parked your sports car in my driveway for the umpteenth time. It's too bad they never showed up, because you deserved a ticket! In fact, I should have had you towed!"
"Is that what this is about?" he asked, incredulous. He started to open the door, but realized she must have secured the dead bolt after coming in. His back to her, Jarrett undid the bolt. "Crazy," he muttered. "Four fucking o'clock in the morning, she breaks in here and..."
Jarrett trailed off as he looked out the window in the kitchen door. He noticed a wheelbarrow with a shovel tilted against it just outside the door. They didn't belong to him and hadn't been there earlier. Something wasn't right. He wondered why this dog—supposedly trapped in the pit in their front yard—wasn't barking.
In the darkened glass, he also saw his own reflection—and Minnie in back of him, raising a frying pan over her head.
"No, wait!" he yelled, swiveling around.
The pan made a dull, hollow thunk as it smacked against his temple. Jarrett felt a searing pain shoot along the side of his face. He was blind for a moment. All he could see was white. All he could hear was a high-pitched ringing.
Then he could make out her voice—just as he fell to his knees.
"I'll tell you what this is about, Mr. Beale," he heard her growl. "It's about the fact that you smashed my pumpkin, you son of a bitch!"
The second hit with the frying pan knocked him out.
* * *
The next thing Jarrett Beale knew, he was buried up to his neck in this hole—with a hollowed-out pumpkin over his head.
He heard some kids coming up the block. Jarrett started struggling and moaning again. He still couldn't budge. He recognized Danny Kemp's voice, he was a friend of Turner's. The boys were coming closer. "Look at that weird mechanical pumpkin on Turner Beale's front lawn!" Danny said. "God, is that creepy or what?"
"Well, makes sense. Turner Beale is a creep. He thinks he's so cool, just because he's got an iPod and a camera cell phone and the latest Game Boy."
"I can't stand him either," Danny said. "Hey, is that pumpkin making sounds?"
"Let's kick it. Go for a field goal between those bushes in crazy Minnie's yard!"
Whimpering, Jarrett could see through the jack-o'-lantern eyes. Danny took a few steps back. "I'm getting a running start on this punt," he announced.
Past the tape over his mouth, Jarrett was screaming. He heard the boy's thundering gallop as he came closer and closer. The ground near Jarrett started to shake. Danny's shadow swept over the pumpkin. Jarrett squeezed his eyes shut.
"Oh, boys!" Minnie called from her front porch. "Is that you, Danny Kemp?"
A spray of dirt flew into Jarrett's eyes and mouth as the boy abruptly stopped a few inches away from the jack-o'-lantern's face. "Yeah, it's me!" Danny called back. "Hi, Minnie!"
"If you kick that pumpkin, I'm not giving you any trick or treats tonight!" she warned. "And I've got good ones this year. Now you be a good boy and leave the Beales' pumpkin alone."
The boys wandered away. But some damage was done just the same. Jarrett, who had lost all sensation in his body for the last few hours, was now feeling something—something warm and wet. He'd just pissed himself.
* * *
Minnie Cadwell went back to the kitchen, where yesterday afternoon she'd been pumpkin carving. One of her pumpkins had taken on a startling resemblance to Princess Diana.
She always did her place up big for Halloween—with fake cobwebs and blinking Halloween lights. The steps to the front porch of her quaint, Tudor-style home were lined with real jack-o'-lanterns. One of them—which yesterday at this time had yet to be sculpted—weighed 14 pounds. Minnie even made little witch hats and capes for her cats, Mortimer and Abigail. She used to have three cats, but the oldest, Fred, was killed three months ago.
Okay, so she was a little crazy. But Minnie loved Halloween and she loved to make children happy. Her mailman, Nick, who usually had time for a Coke and a quick chat, said she was a "lovable loon." She didn't mind. Nothing wrong with being called lovable.
Minnie had carefully made some incisions across the pumpkin's forehead to simulate Princess Diana's bangs. She even fashioned a crown out of cardboard, sequins, and Elmer's glue. Then Minnie set the pumpkin near the front of her yard, alongside the driveway. She'd wanted Nick to see it when he came with the mail.
"Who's that new pumpkin supposed to be?" he asked later. "Princess Di?"
Minnie was utterly delighted he saw a resemblance. All her work wasn't in vain.
Nick took his Coke to go, because he was running late. He apologized for having no time to talk. Minnie assured him that it was all right. She sometimes wondered if Nick felt sorry for her, if he thought she was lonely and bored. Well, that just wasn't true. She was a widow, 64 years young, with a married daughter and two grandchildren. Minnie was a cancer survivor and volunteered three days a week at a rest home, running errands and reading to patients. She had a son, Jimmy, who died at age 28 back in 1994. If people thought she was crazy, maybe it was because on occasion she still talked to Jimmy while alone in the house—or in the backyard. It made her feel good. And there were times when she swore his spirit was still around. He used to love the holidays—especially Christmas and Halloween. Jimmy certainly would have gotten a big kick out of her Princess Diana pumpkin. In fact, she felt as if he'd somehow had a hand in carving it with her.
Mr. Beale, however, didn't seem to appreciate Minnie's Princess Diana pumpkin. From what she could tell, Princess Diana just seemed to be in Mr. Beale's way.
The Beales didn't have a driveway; their two-car garage was off an alley in back of their huge modern home. So if Mrs. Beale's SUV wasn't parked in Minnie's driveway, it was Mr. Beale's silver sports car. And they always acted as if it was this huge imposition whenever Minnie asked them to park somewhere else. They seemed to have this built-in sense of entitlement, which was very irritating.
Just three hours after Minnie had set Princess Diana on her front lawn, Mr. Beale parked his sports car in Minnie's driveway. Carrying some laundered shirts on hangers, he climbed out of his hot rod and almost tripped over the pumpkin. He was talking on his special headset-phone thingamajig, and must not have been paying attention. Minnie saw all of it from her kitchen window. He grunted something that sounded like an obscenity, then kicked Princess Diana right in the face. The crown flew off, and the broken pumpkin rolled across the grass. Then Mr. Beale continued on with his phone conversation and headed into his house.
Minnie couldn't believe it. She telephoned the police and told them that someone was illegally parked in her driveway. While she waited for the police to show up—and waited and waited—Minnie couldn't help thinking about what had happened to her cat Fred three months ago. The main reason why she'd objected to the Beales parking in her driveway had been Fred. An outdoor cat, he used to like rolling around on the sun-heated asphalt of her driveway. One afternoon, while Fred had been out, Minnie had heard tires screeching. She'd glanced out her kitchen window to see Mrs. Beale's SUV quickly backing out of her driveway. Minnie hadn't thought anything of it until an hour later when she stepped outside and found Fred's broken, lifeless body.
Mrs. Beale insisted she'd had nothing to do with the cat's death. She hadn't been anywhere near Minnie's driveway with her SUV. Mr. Beale backed his wife up on it. He told Minnie he would contact his lawyer if she kept "ranting on" with her accusations. But Minnie hadn't really confronted them; she'd merely wanted to know how it had happened and if Fred had suffered.
She'd thought about that yesterday afternoon, while waiting for the police to come ticket Mr. Beale's sports car. They never showed up, not even after she'd cleaned up the remains of Princess Diana, not even after Mr. Beale had stepped out of the house again, gotten into his fancy silver sports car, and driven off once more.
And so yesterday afternoon, Minnie had decided to take matters into her own hands. She'd decided to do it for Fred—and for Princess Diana. She'd hoisted that huge, 14-pound pumpkin onto her kitchen counter and carved a hole in it—but on the bottom instead of the top. She'd decided to make this jack-o'-lantern look like Mr. Beale.
Now he was wearing that pumpkin over his head and the rest of him was buried in the ground. Dusk loomed over the horizon, and it was harder for Minnie to see him from her kitchen window. She noticed Mrs. Beale's SUV coming up the block.
* * *
Jarrett couldn't believe it when he spotted the SUV slowing down in front of Minnie's driveway. Help was here at last. He could see Whitney at the wheel, talking on her cell phone. She'd probably been trying to reach him all day. She would see the strange pumpkin on their lawn and eventually figure it out.
Before doing anything else, he'd call the police and have that insane bitch next door arrested. Then he'd get some water and take a shower and... holy shit! Whitney, watch where the hell you're driving!
The SUV was veering off the driveway—right toward him. For a moment, the headlights were blinding. But then Whitney steered back onto the asphalt and passed him. Jarrett could no longer see the car but he heard it come to a halt, and then she switched off the ignition. The SUV doors clicked open and Jarrett heard his children climb out of the car.
He tried to scream and frantically shook his head.
"...been trying to reach him all day," Whitney was saying into her cell phone. "Brady, don't forget your overnight bag! Turner, help your sister."
"Hey, Mom, look at the pumpkin!" Turner said.
Yes, yes, look at the pumpkin, Jarrett thought, nodding his head emphatically. He could see his children's feet as they gathered around him.
"Oh, that's hideous," he heard Whitney say. "There's this ugly, awful mechanical pumpkin on the front lawn," she was telling her friend on the phone. "It's even groaning, for God's sake. I'll bet it belongs to that idiot woman next door. I told you about her..."
Jarrett watched one of the kids—he thought it was Brady—step toward him. He tapped the pumpkin with his foot. Jarrett kept moving his head and trying to cry out.
"C'mon, kids, inside," Whitney called. "Listen, Joanne, I need to go... Yeah, okay... You too. Bye."
"Can we keep the pumpkin?" Brady asked.
"No, it's ugly. We're getting rid of it. Now, come on. You need to put on your Halloween outfits. I'm only allowing you an hour for trick-or-treating..." Whitney's voice grew fainter and fainter.
Jarrett saw two of his children scurry away, but one remained. He recognized Turner's Nikes. Jarrett kept trying to call to him. If only the boy would try looking into the jack-o'-lantern's eyes, he would see his father in there.
"Hey, can I get rid of this thing?" Turner yelled to his mother.
"Fine, whatever," Whitney called back. Jarrett heard the front door slam.
"Where do we keep the pitchfork?" Turner screamed. "Mom? Hey, Mom?"
No, no, no! Jarrett watched his son step away. Why would Turner go all the way back to the garage for a pitchfork? He just had to try lifting the pumpkin. Then Turner would find his father and this whole ordeal would be over. Why did he want to spear the jack-o'-lantern? Because he was a boy—and like his dad, a bit of an asshole.
After a few excruciating minutes, Jarrett heard a scraping noise. He realized it was the sound of his son dragging the pitchfork along the sidewalk.
* * *
From her kitchen window, Minnie saw what was about to happen. She ran to her door, flung it open, and screamed at Turner Beale. "No, don't! Wait!"
Hoisting the pitchfork, the boy hesitated and sneered at her. The pumpkin at his feet was wiggling furiously.
"No, please, Turner, don't do that!"
Turner Beale let out a little grunt, then plunged the pitchfork into the jack-o'-lantern face. The pumpkin didn't move. The boy balked. Dropping the pitchfork, he stepped back. "Oh, my God," he cried. "Mom, this pumpkin is bleeding! Mom! Come see, it's really cool!"
Minnie heard him laughing. And though she still had a hand over her heart, she let out a little laugh, too. Turner Beale seemed delighted.
Okay, so she was a little crazy. But Minnie loved Halloween and she loved to make children happy.
Kevin O'Brien is a New York Times bestselling author who's written eight novels, most of them Seattle-based thrillers. His latest, Killing Spree, is due in bookstores in January.