When Jeremy returned home, the lawn was dotted with blaring, flashing police cars. Investigators were combing the yard and surrounding area, making out what they could in the harsh glare of strobe-lights and high-beams. Lana was inside, talking to the chief investigator. Jeremy came in and embraced her, she was shaking and her face was wet with tears.
"It happened sometime in the last hour," she stammered, "go up there Jeremy, tell me what you think . . . ."
Jeremy slipped past the flimsy tape barricade at the foot of the stairs and went up into his children's bedroom. A few photographers were just leaving, having shot a few good rolls of film. Jeremy surveyed the scene, dumbfounded and afraid.
Blood was spattered against the window, thick, scabby prints impressed upon the glass. No breaks, however, it seemed that the window (which was always kept closed at night) had been opened voluntarily, not forced. There didn't appear to be any signs of struggle, though the blood was evident of some foul play. And then, as Jeremy's eyes fell upon the beds, he hesitated, then shuddered. He backed away from the object propped against the pillow, aghast. He left the room, never lifting his gaze off the hellish figure that was left behind, either as a message, maybe a warning.
It was a Barney doll.
"Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, I know things don't look exactly bright at this moment, but I have reason to suspect your children may be unharmed", said Chief Davies. He scrunched his brow and adjusted his glasses. "The blood found on the window was smeared on the outside, and our lab techs just finished analyzing it. It doesn't match the blood types of your kids. Rather, it matches that of Glenda Pattikin, also known to her viewers as "Melissa Mouse". She was found dead tonight in her studio, bit in half at the waist. The time of death was about a full hour before your kids disappeared."
"Meaning that who ever is killing the kid-show emcees is now kidnapping children?" asked Lana.
"It would appear that way. The only real connection is that Jeremy here is a consultant for children's programming, maybe it's a statment of some sort. But to date, we've not received any calls or messages demanding ransom or making any clear declarations. But rest assured you two, the whole force is out tonight coming the grounds."
"There . . . there was a doll left at the scene," said Jeremy, still feeling uneasy.
"A Barney doll, yes, I saw that," said Davies. "I understand you are the one who liberated the children during the Purple Holocaust?"
"Yes, my sister and I pretty much killed Barney and helped reunite the children and adults. I think who ever did this has it in for me because of that. Earlier my friend Bill and I ran across some Barney and Baby Bop memorabalia in one of my employee's personal vaults. Name was Thorton Marshall. Any word?"
"We got your call and sent out an APB on the man, but we haven't turned up anything. Reasonable to guess that this man may be the killer, though nothing's circumstantial. Do I understand right that you saw an empty box in the vault?"
"Yes, right in the center of the floor. Nothing in it, I don't know what he'd have in there."
"My hunch is that Mr. Marshall had a costume in there. If he was a Barney-fanatic, enough to keep practically every toy, book, and CD there, chances look good he'd have a costume as well. If he's not parading around in a purple lizard suit, he may be dressed up as Baby Bop. I'll call dispatch right now and alert the force."
When Fran heard the news, she left her dwelling immediately. She didn't want to be left alone, and terrifying thoughts swelled back in her head. Visions of Barney and Baby Bop, the hordes of scampering, blubbery Loved Ones, the murder of thousands of adults . . . .
She stepped on the accelerator and made her way toward Jeremy and Lana's house.
It was only a few blocks later that something caught her eye. As she waited for the green light at the intersection, she saw something large and puffy dancing in the city park. At first she couldn't tell what it was, but as it passed under a dim streetlight, it's fat purple body was perfectly illuminated and Fran felt the blood pumping through her temples. She slammed the pedal against the floor and spun the car after the big bloated reptile.
The car knocked trash cans and small bushes into the air, and the vehicle rocked and swayed over the uneven ground. It wasn't until her headlights were right on the creature's back that he seemed to notice her. Suddenly the chubby dinosaur screamed in terror and began running away. His fat, stocky legs could only carry him so far however . . . .
"Eat steel you worthless slab of purple lard!!" screamed Fran, as the plump lizard bounced off of her fender, smacking into a tree. She slowed down, threw the car into reverse, and backed over him again for good measure. Seeing that her quarry was knocked senseless, she stopped the vehicle and secured a crowbar from the trunk. She approached the groaning dinosaur steadily and cautiously, brandishing the heavy iron bar before her. "So, Mr. Happy-saur, where's my niece and nephew? Why did you kidnap them, huh?"
The fat purple creature coughed and wheezed, it had inhaled a lot of dust and was bleeding at the mouth. Then, to Fran's surprise, its stocky purple arms removed its head and only then did she realize it was a costume . . . .
Thorton Marshall looked back at her through thick, sweaty lenses, rolled his eyes, and collapsed upon the ground, unconscious.
"Oh my God," Fran whispered, leaning over to examine the frail man. She checked his pulse. Steady, but he may need some immediate attention.
"Why Fran, don't you know it's not nice to run over people, especially if they resemble your old pal, Barney?"
Fran froze. The voice had come from behind her. So clear, so close, so very familiar . . . .
"Mean, mean, Fran! Wun over nice helpless man in fun Barney-costume! Bad as brother! Mean, mean, Fran!" scowled a squeaky voice, also from behind, also as familiar.
Fran leapt to her feet and tried to escape, but only after a few steps she felt a heavy blow against the back of her head. She saw lights flash and flicker before her eyes, then her head hit the grassy earth. In a roar of demonic laughter, the world turned black.
Jeremy was feeling panicky. He was unable to reach Fran, and no one was answering calls at the studio. No one had called from the police, meaning Thorton Marshall had not yet been found. Lana was in bed, sleeping off a tranquilizer. Here he sat alone, fidgeting and restless, waiting for a call or visitor. He decided to go into the basement and fetch himself a cold beer out of the cooler.
He went down the creaky wooden steps and turned on the light. He pulled open the cooler door and pulled out a frosty, wet can of beer and popped it open.
As he guzzled the frothy cold brew, he suddenly became aware of a presence in the basement with him. He paused and listened.
"What has befallen the Great Liberator?" said a raspy, almost scratchy voice.
Jeremy spun around and faced a creature, perched upon a cluttered old card table. It stood about four feet tall, had light, scaly skin and fine serated teeth. Its appearance was reptilian, though its overall shape was man-like. It wore a moth-eaten, green and purple robe and wielded a staff emblazoned with amethyst and emerald gemstones. It scrutinized the human with piercing yellow eyes. A thin, wispy tail rolled back and forth behind it. Fine silvery hairs trailed down the back of its head and neck.
Jeremy sucked in his breath. For the first time in twenty years, he was face to face with a Loved One.