“Action Hero In a Haunted House” by Shaun Avery


His name was John Rix, and after an exemplary career in the Army that only ended after a messy scandal in his personal life (he discovered that his wife was having an affair, abseiled down the side of the hotel she was being unfaithful in, and took out both wife and lover in a hail of grenades and bullets) he took no shit from anyone. Following that little incident, which had left him unable to remain a soldier, he'd worked as a mercenary, taking down many an inner-city drug cartel or espionage organization, and in the police, where he'd avenged the death of many a murdered partner. In-between all these (busy man, our John) he'd trained up a champion boxer and defeated his own clone. But now he was retiring, and although the man selling him the house was pleasant enough, John would still wrestle him to the ground if he got too greedy.

Luckily, Mr. Burroughs, a gray-haired and mustachioed old gentleman, recognized him from the papers, and knew how blessed he was to be selling his home to such a legend – indeed, there was a certain sycophancy to his manner that John found both pleasing and familiar. "I hear you have a daughter, Mr. Rix. Aren't you worried about old enemies tracking you down here and kidnapping her?"

"No." Nonetheless, he picked up some ornamental piece of tat and discreetly checked it for bugs. "I have another new identity." Satisfied, he placed it back down. "Plus she hasn't spoken to me since a little argument I had in a hotel with her mother."

"Ah, I see." Burroughs ran a hand along the wall, soaking up many a memory. "I've had some good times here, Mr. Rix, I don't mind telling you." He looked up into the eyes of the legend standing in front of him. "And I'm sure you will, too."

Was there some kind of threat contained in those words? Rix returned his gaze long and hard, trying to find out. Satisfied, at last, that there wasn't, he said "yes," and bent down to check the table for explosive devices – you could never be too careful, not with the number of enemies he'd made in the last forty years of using guns, tanks and grenades to make the world a safer, less violent place. "I'm sure I will."

"So... you're interested?" This was going better than Burroughs could ever have imagined, and he decided to push things along to endgame so he could make his way to his new home.

"Yes. I am. Let's talk. I have a suitcase full of money here to open." He'd received that windfall for rescuing a millionaire's daughter from a trio of experienced kidnappers – one whose brother, it turned out, had been killed by Rix many moons ago. After sending all three to their punishment, the girl he'd saved had fallen in love with him, naturally enough after seeing the skill with which he'd taken out the criminals, but Rix mad a point of never mixing business with pleasure, and had so returned her back unmolested. Women could be so much bother, anyway; these days he got more fun polishing his huge collection of guns.

The old man's face practically split when Rix opened up the case. "Why, I've never seen so much money before!"

"This is a nice house. Let's talk trade off."

So they did.



Rix wandered around the house a few days later, feeling alone and vulnerable for reasons he couldn't quite understand. All he could tell was that something about the place bothered him.

No, not the place exactly.

The neighbors.

He'd walked amongst them expecting to be treated like a hero, like the icon he was, but he'd registered only disinterest in the people that hadn't recognized him. As for the people that had... they'd looked at him with something close to terror and disgust. Their fear he could understand, as through the media they'd seen him standing over the dead body of many a bad guy; they'd seen the damage that his hands could do, with or without guns in them. But surely the people of this community knew that the good and just had nothing to fear from John Rix? So why, therefore, were they so disgusted with him?

Maybe they think they're not good enough for me.

That much could be true, he decided. And they were probably right to think that. But part of him still wished that some of them, hell even one of them would take the risk to come and talk to him. He was, after all, a team hero, (even though he tended to be the only good guy left at the end of the mission), and being alone suited him not at all.

He sat down by the phone that never rang, tapped his fingertips against the table in frustration, and tried not to look too lovingly at the weapon room – the biggest in the house.



Gerald Macintosh was, in spite of the many blackheads on his face, considered the leader of his group of friends. This was a questionable accolade, however, as said group of friends consisted entirely of nerds and fellow sci-fi fans. Still, like all true leaders, he took great pleasure in exploiting and subjugating his subjects, and this was something he did now, enjoying the anguish on his friend's face as Gerald laid out a brand new plan.

"I don't know, Gerry," Charlie told him when he'd finished. "It sounds kind of... scary."

"You wimp. It's totally safe, man. We'll do it at night."

"But..." Charlie started and then shut up, reluctant to speak. This infuriated Gerald greatly – in his eyes, if a statement wasn't worth finishing, it wasn't worth starting. And he frequently told his subjects as much.

"But what?"

"But he's a hero, isn't he?"

"That's what makes it so funny. No one has ever played tricks on a hero before. Anyway, I'm an individual; why should I subscribe to society's view of what makes a hero?"

Charlie sighed and kept silent, but inside he was, once again, voicing a few doubts about their choice of commander.



Rix had painted one of the rooms on the third floor in opposing shades of green to remind him of his time in the jungle, and this was where he lay sleeping when he first heard noises from downstairs.

As he came awake and reached for his gun, (all in one move), he wondered which one of his old enemies could have tracked him down here. Colonel Godolphin, perhaps? He'd brought that terrorist in after the madman took over a high-rise building, holding all its inhabitants hostage. Rix had taken his crime, not to mention his negative comments against the country that Rix was proud to be a symbol of, kind of personal, and when he found out that one of the hostages in the building was his wife (before the affair), he'd gone on Attack Overload, wiping out all of Godolphin's henchmen and delivering the ringleader, after a slight beating, of course, to the police. They'd imprisoned the Colonel a long time ago, but Rix's foes had a habit of escaping incarceration and coming after him for revenge every few years. It was a tough life.

Still, the identity of his foe downstairs didn't matter, really; all that mattered was their trespassing here.

The noise in the kitchen, a consistent rattle of pots, pans and plates, grew louder with every step he took towards it, as if the intruder knew he was coming and actually wanted confrontation between them. He tried not to let the din phase him, but when he got to the bottom of the stairs and paused just outside the door, the noise suddenly cut off, plunging the house into a deadly silence.

Deadly for someone, all right. Just not for him.

He had planned, ever since waking, to go in quietly. But then he heard a word, one that blew his cool into fragments more than any grenade ever could:

"Daddy."

He rushed through the door, and he took in the whole scene instantly: his daughter, naked and spread out over the kitchen table, slit open from throat to groin but somehow still alive and groaning, even as the mad, blood-splattered chef raked around in her insides with one hand and raised a cleaver over her throat, ready to chop down, with the other.

Rix, without thinking, issued his standard warning: "drop it!"

The chef sighed wearily, as if he'd been expecting this. "As you wish."

The cleaver fell from his hands, slicing through Sarah Rix's throat and severing her head, which dropped from her rather surprised shoulders and rolled across the floor to lie at her father's feet. Where it started to laugh insanely, features on it running and melting until it was the face of a stranger, one he pointed his gun at and started to think the unthinkable about...



Something was definitely wrong with these people.

No longer was he getting the silent treatment from his neighbors; now he was being successfully alienated from them. It was always the same – they'd grow silent as he passed, then start mumbling about him when he was too far out of earshot to actually make out what they were saying. For reasons he couldn't work out, they didn't want him here.

Ungrateful bastards.

Depression was no friend of his – in fact, if it had been a human enemy, he'd have destroyed it with missiles and a cool one-liner long before now – but he felt it creeping up on him more and more each day. Not to mention the nights, and what visions like the murder of his daughter were doing to him. That chef... that damn chef. He'd chased the white wearing psycho all through the house last night, through the hundreds of rooms and hallways that only seemed to appear after midnight, and he was still no closer to catching the guy. But he would. One day. And then it most definitely would be personal.

This enemy was an enigma. Of all the people he'd had trouble with over the years – terrorists, drug dealers, intergalactic aliens, Communists, spies, robots from the future, anti-gun lobbyists – why was he so perpetually haunted by a cook? He couldn't remember having any problems with the people that brought him food.

To get far enough to discover the answer to that, he needed to do something new with his days, needed to get away from the house instead of just sitting in it watching the clock, waiting for a new nocturnal battle to begin. And he was sitting there mulling over his problems one afternoon when he had an idea: why don't I go out tonight?

It had been a while, he had to admit; the last time he'd been to a good party had been the time he saved the president's wife from two career criminals who'd been hired by a crooked congressman (all three had perished). The people around here were certainly no presidents, but he decided that he could grace them with his presence anyway. All it took was a quick call to find out what was on that night.



A few hours later would find Gerald having the time of his life – again, however, given the quality of his life so far (spying on girls changing, reading about spaceships, drooling about both) this isn't really saying much. In many ways, he was breaking the bonds of his own cowardly image tonight, and this provided him with the greatest thrill of all. The only disappointing thing was that his second-in-command Charles had been too afraid to tag along, so Gerald was lumbered with the ultra slow and lumbering Derek instead. Gerald frowned, thinking, something will have to be done about Charlie. He's a good friend, but if he hasn't the guts for stuff like this, then we'll have to part ways.

It was a harsh judgment but a necessary one. For something, you see, had happened to Gerald when he sneaked out of his house into the dark night. Some change had begun inside him. All this creeping around in the shadows and playing pranks on unsuspecting people had made him feel alive in a way he'd never known, in a way that nothing else ever had, and he liked this new feeling. And he wanted to feel a lot more of it.

He was just putting the much-used spray paint down when he caught a flash of light and slight movement from the corner of his eye, and he stopped suddenly, frozen by fear as he realized he'd been caught. But even as he began to wonder how long it would take to wash the smell of terror from his underpants, the front door of the house merely swung shut again, and no one emerged from it.

False alarm. It was still warning enough, though, that they were pushing their luck here. So he pulled Derek away from the wall and they took off down the road side by side.

It wasn't until Gerald was alone in his room that he had a chance to think about that creepy door opening, but when he did, he found that he couldn't get the event off his mind. The more he thought about, the more it seemed like an invitation.



Elsewhere in town, John Rix stood on a crowded dance floor trying to catch someone's eye.

It was pretty hard going.

He didn't know what fathers were telling their daughters nowadays, but if tonight was anything to go by, it certainly wasn't that they should go for big muscular men wearing combat pants, big army-issue boots, a bullet belt, war-paint on their face and a bandanna to keep the sweat from their eyes. He sighed to himself, and finally managed to make eye contact with a young girl wearing glasses across the room. She didn't look much like his type – in fact she looked like she could even be pro-peace, and he certainly couldn't be doing with that in a potential partner. She was, though, the only one to register any interest in him.

He was out of practice at this. With his ex-wife he'd just talked about his many achievements, then showed her his gun and flexed his muscles and she'd almost swooned. This one looked like she could be slightly more difficult.

"Hey, babe," he said, sitting down next to her. "I noticed you admiring my body."

"Hmm. Yes." She sipped her drink and looked him over. "I was just looking at all your bullet scars."

"Turn you on, do they, baby?" Could go all right, from here.

"No. I was just finding it highly improbable that one person could have so many and still be alive."

It kind of went downhill from there.



At the end of the disco, the most successful scorer was some dancer kid, someone who was thin and unscarred and yet still did better with the ladies than Rix did. The hero sat in his car and watched the wimp leave with a lady on each arm, heading back to some scummy student pit full of illegal drugs, no doubt. Rix watched it all with fury mounting, and sped home to take his frustration out on the ghosts inside his house.

He entered through the back door, and didn't see what had been done to the front of his home.



He had two surprises waiting for him in the morning, neither of them doing much to lighten his mood. First off, he found that everything in his kitchen was covered in mould; worse, the bacteria making it up were speaking to each other, keeping up an illogical discourse about anything and everything that almost drove him mad. So he staggered outside, into the garden, and saw surprise number two: a message that had been spray-painted onto his wall.

Killer OUT! Murderer OUT!

It was something about the lower case/capital letter combination that worried him as he looked around the street, looked at the people that remained all but strangers to him. Heavens, he thought, I haven't been this stressed since the time my wife found out that I was a secret agent, and not really a computer salesman. Even worse did he feel now, weighed down as he was by the oppressive glares and stares of this damn community. How could they be so resentful towards a man that had saved blessed civilization so many times? Didn't they care that he was a hero? He wanted to scream at them all, I'm normal! I am, damn it! I just have more balls than most other man, that's all! I still love to hang out and relax at home when I'm not shooting bad guys, and I still love to fuck! Why must you torture me so? I'm normal, straight, normal!

But he didn't shout at them. Instead he walked back inside, closed the door behind him, and shouted "will you shut up in there?" at the singing mould in his kitchen.



Gerald's fantasy took him back to the house, and while most bizarre visions take place in a dream while the viewer is asleep, he had things a little differently. After homework and a few hours of various sci-fi channels, he started doodling in his notepad and imagining what pranks he would play on the oh-so-brave John Rix tomorrow, and he soon pictured himself standing at the gates of the huge house again, about to step into the garden surrounding it. And then a strange thing happened: he crossed the line into sleep without realizing it, as there was no break in his fantasy – one minute he was in his room and seeing the building only in his head, and the next minute the room had vanished and he really was at the gates. Well, sweet, he thought, and decided not to question things too much. But since it was a dream, he thought he might as well take a quick sneaky peek on the inside.

Which he did, passing the gunroom with considerably less interest than Rix (a spaceship room, on the other hand, would have satisfied him no end) and ended up in what he knew to be the spare room.

Inside it lay his dream woman, the beautiful composite creation of many a TV cyborg, alien and intergalactic freedom fighter. She was tied naked to a bed, whimpering for help as a group of turbaned figures circled her chanting some kind of war cry. Although Gerald would normally have been terrified by full frontal confrontation, tonight seemed different, and he actually found himself longing for a battle with them. If only I had some guns, he thought, observing how heavily armed they were... then he looked down at himself and realized that he had somehow gained one in each hand, not to mention that a handy knife had been hooked to his belt. He was well and truly set, but just needed some way to grab their attention before he dealt with them.

It came to him in the form of a snappy one liner.

"Take your chanting to the Happy Hunting Ground, boys! It's time for payback!"

Okay, two-liner.

Gerald dived across the room, both guns blazing, and as he took out two of them with precise shots to the heart, he noticed something else about the situation that was rather strange; he noticed that none of the men could aim very well, noticed that all of their bullets only seemed to fly around him, hitting nothing but the walls. Only one came close, whistling over Gerald's shoulder as he landed beside the bed, dropped one empty gun, and brought his other up to bear. "Allah may be merciful," he exclaimed, "but I'm not!" Standing, feeling the bullets all around him, he killed the last three, and then turned to the maiden fair.

A little of the real Gerald came back at this point; stress made all of his zits throb simultaneously as he watched the woman, whose struggle to escape her bonds was doing wonderful things to her breasts. Was she his lover? Gerald wondered. She had to be. Who else would he risk his life like that for?

Finally free, she wrapped a sheet around herself and said, "thank you. I'm the luckiest girl in the world..."

Bingo! Gerald thought, and prepared himself for the best – actually the first – kiss of his life.

"...Having you as a brother."

His smile fell off and the house laughed, having played a trick back on him.



"Hello?"

Walter Jackson sounded just as sharp as always, and Rix now knew that he'd done the right thing by calling him. "Hello, Captain."

"Johnny-boy! My man! How's retirement treating you?"

"Not too well." He wrapped the bandage tighter around his hand – whilst chasing ghosts last night/this morning he'd missed a target and accidentally put a knife through his own precious skin; the pain was pretty bad but he'd had worse. "Can you get down here by the end of today?"

"Hey, are you kidding? I'd do anything for the man who went deep undercover with the mob to avenge the death of my son! What kind of trouble have you got, Johnny?"

"It's hard to explain. But it's bad."

"Bad? You mean worse than the time our team was picked off one by one in the jungle by that alien space hunter thing?"

"Even worse, Walt old buddy. And I need your help to beat it."

"You got it, my friend. I'll just go charter a helicopter."

With that, Rix went off to take care of some business of his own.



"I wish to see a Mr. Burroughs."

The receptionist looked him up and down; with some disgust Rix noticed that it was the girl who'd laughed at his bullet scars at the disco the other night. He was dressed the same today, but this time he had guns to go with the bullets. "Are you a relative?" she finally asked.

"No. I bought his house."

"I see. Well, I'm sorry, but you're out of visiting hours so –"

With an ultra-fast punch he sent her flying off her chair and to the floor, and then, noticing that two puny in comparison to himself security guards were coming towards him, he quickly pulled on his gas mask and threw a smoke grenade into the middle of the room. Even as it went off Rix was moving, never stopping until he reached the door marked BURROUGHS.

"Why'd you do it, old man?" He snatched his home's former owner up and growled into his face from behind the mask. "Who paid you off? Was it the Colombians?" As the smoke began to clear, he pulled off the mask so that Burroughs could see who he was.

"Mr. Rix! Good to see you!"

"Don't stall with me, old man, or you'll find your life span considerably cut!" He stuck the barrel of his gun against the man's chin. "Now tell me what you've done to that house!"

As expected, Burroughs's terrified gaze was stuck on the gun at first. But then his eyes strayed to the walls, flicking over Rix, and fixated on something there. Not used to being overlooked, especially when he was feeling this mean, the hero turned to see what was so interesting.

And saw that the walls were covered in shapes. Black shadows of people, bodies, explosions and guns. He saw his wife and her lover gyrating in there, how they'd looked seconds before he obliterated them, and just as he had that thought, the shapes changed, becoming his wife and her lover after he'd punished them, all burnt, torn and mangled. And here, seeing all of this in a gas-filled old people's home, full of panicking pensioners, he finally understood what was happening to him.

And so did Burroughs.

"You brought it all with you. The death follows you around. The house isn't haunting you; you're haunting the house!" He started pummeling Rix with weak blows. "I thought you were a hero." He started weeping. "But you're not!"

"Damn, you're right." Rix pulled the trigger, spraying the room with octogenarian brain cells. Then he sat down and started rifling through the old man's possessions, certain that he'd find something to help him out. He looked for a fruitless five minutes, as the smoke cleared up and his head did quite the opposite, before finally finding a newspaper article that explained one of the biggest mysteries.

WIFE OF NATIONAL HERO FOUND DEAD, screamed the headline. ALONG WITH WORLD FAMOUS CHEF TO THE STARS.

Chef.

His wife's lover, who'd he taken out with his favorite gun, had been a chef.

One who looked very much like the one he'd been chasing for the past few nights.

Nodding his head in recognition, Rix ran back to his car.



He and Walter Jackson returned to a state of sheer bedlam, to a house full of ghost and poltergeist versions of all their former enemies, including the highly formidable alien space hunter thing. With lots of grenades being flung and lots of rooms being decimated and walls being kicked through, it wasn't long before the inevitable happened and Walter fell.

"Tell my wife and kids I love them," he said in a typically moving death scene – no matter how many of them he'd seen (and he'd seen a lot) they always touched Rix. Touched him enough to make him hunt the killers down to a bloody, action-filled showdown every time. "And John... buddy... promise me... you'll... avenge my death."

Rix finally understood it all. He wasn't meant to retire, and now that he had this house to give him everything he needed, he would never have to. Here there were always battles to fight, dead partners to even the score for, new drugs to wipe out, new police officers to be partnered with that he'd hate at first but gradually come to grow a grudging respect for. As long as he had all that, he didn't need the community outside. So fuck 'em.

He was still lacking one thing, though.



Gerald thought he'd woken up in his room. But the strange surroundings said otherwise. For a start, why would his room be full of guns?

It was a mystery, much like the ones they sometimes showed on the sci-fi channels. Still, as soon as he got home he was sure that everything would be okay.

Just as he was thinking that, the door burst open, and through it walked the hugest, most grizzled and fearsome looking man that Gerald had ever seen. I'm dead, he thought. But instead of assassinating him, the owner of the house said simply: "just in time, son. I'm in need of a new sidekick." He tossed a gun to the boy. "Welcome to the Rix corp. Once you're in, you're never out."

Gerald stood. Rix watched him, then readied his gun for a fight that would never end.

"Load up, boy.

"We've got us a chef to catch."