Updated: Mar 23, 2020
I must confess this process hasn't exactly been easy for me. Wading through the memories of what happened feels like digging through the rubble of your home after a tornado. You look for anything worth salvaging. And try to ignore the rest. Those three days feel like an exposed nerve in my mind. The wounds, both physical and mental, are still fresh. But this is a process, and my shrink says the best way to heal is by facing the trauma head on. So I force myself to remember it one more time to put it all on paper, even the parts that don’t make any sense.
Let’s get on with it. This whole thing began a couple months ago with a phone call to my office. I run a small operation out of New Orleans, meaning I answer the phone when I'm not in the field. I'm one of dozens of private investigators in the city specializing in infidelity cases. Yeah, I know, what a cliche. But it pays the bills and keeps the doors open. More or less.
"Riggin Private Investigators," I said into the receiver. Answering the phone is just another part of the job--usually old clients looking for an update or the occasional confused telemarketer. I don't get many new cases from clients calling me, and despite what you may have seen on television, there’s no such thing as a “walk-in” client at a place like this. If I want a new job, I have to make friendly with one of the divorce lawyers or grease the palms of a certain Madam at a certain “establishment” who knows exactly when a marriage is coming to an abrupt end.
I multitask when I can, which means I was cyberstalking a cheating asshole husband on Facebook when I answered the phone. This douchebag was using an alias to lure in the impressionable college girls while his long suffering soon-to-be-ex-wife was at her parents’ house taking care of his kids.
That douchebag was my client, and he had paid me good money to dig up dirt on his old lady.
"Hey, oh, hi," the voice on the other line stammered. I stopped what I was doing and gave the phone all of my attention. That voice sounded like it belonged to someone young. There was a hint of fear in it.
"Hi," I answered, trying my best to sound like a calming presence, something I’ve had zero practice with. "You’ve reached Eric Riggin."
"Eric, hey!" The voice answered. Definitely a kid's voice. "It's me. James."
I scanned my mind for any Jameses I knew but came up blank. Not surprisingly, I don't know many kids.
"What can I do for you, James?"
"It's about Vanessa. I don't know if you heard what happened or not."
Holy shit. Vanessa? Then that must mean that this is-
"Jamie?" I asked, "Hey, kiddo! I didn't recognize your voice. How long's it been?"
"It's been... a few years."
"Yeah, sorry about that."
I've never been good at the whole "uncle" thing. After my only brother died, I swore to myself I'd check in on his kids from time to time, but there's something about real life. It can't be stopped, or paused, or put on hold. And sometimes it takes all your attention. Look, I know I'm a shit uncle just like I was a shit brother, but at least I can acknowledge that.
"So Vanessa," I asked. It was his older sister. I did some quick math and came up with her current age. Eighteen. Jeez, has it really been that long? "What happened? Is she okay?"
"Oh, uh, I guess you didn't know. I'm not sure who was supposed to tell you."
Oh shit. My mind jumped to all of the worst case scenarios, and all my years in this city gave my imagination plenty to work with.
Just tear the band-aid off, kid.
"I haven't heard anything, Jamie. Tell me what happened."
Missing? Well, she's eighteen, she's got rebellious Riggin blood, and if she's anything like the last time I saw her, smart as hell. Missing could mean anything.
"How long?" I asked.
"Who was the last person to see her? Did she say anything? Leave a note? Pack a bag?"
"Um..." I was overloading the poor kid. "Can you... maybe come here?"
If it hadn't been my own flesh and blood asking I might have laughed into the receiver right then.
"Jamie, I have a job."
Jeez, did I really just say that?
"Oh, ok. I thought I'd ask. Thanks anyway."
"Hey, wait. Is your mom around? Can I talk to-"
He had already hung up the phone.
I have a job? What the hell is wrong with me?
It took me all of ten minutes to make up my mind that I was going back to that shitty town I'd sworn never to go back to. The town where I grew up swearing I'd find a way to escape. The town where I left my brother's body in the ground. I made arrangements to put what cases I could on hold and sent some select screenshots to my douchebag client's wife from an anonymous email address. Next, I threw a few supplies into the go-bag I keep by the door: some clothes, cash, smokes, my Beretta 9mm, and a bottle of liquid courage - everything I might need for a week or so away from the comforts of home.
I tried calling Jamie a couple more times after I hit the interstate, but his line stayed busy. I tried at least once an hour, but it never went through. You know that sinking feeling in your gut when something bad is about to happen and there's nothing you can do to stop it? That's what I had, times a thousand. I drove all night, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, eating and smoking in the car. Vanessa was like her father. Probably too much for her own good. And that backwards small town wasn't kind to smart or different people. I could just imagine how her last few years had gone. That high school where I had to break a few kids' noses just to get left alone at lunch time wasn't for the weak or kind. But maybe things had changed since I left.
It was afternoon by the time I got to Jamie and Vanessa's home. The kid was pure shocked to see me, and the feeling was absolutely reciprocated. He was fifteen years old, two feet taller than the last time I saw him. In fact, he was taller than me now, and the spitting image of his father. It was downright eerie. I gave him a hug and he invited me in.
I hate to say it, but even after all this time I didn't really do the whole "catching up" thing. Maybe after this blows over, I'll ask him about his friends and grades and whatever, but at that moment all I wanted to do was get down to business. Thankfully, he felt the same way.
We sat in the cramped, dusty living room of his family's three bedroom ranch-style house. It was smaller than I remembered, the front and back yards overgrown with weeds. They lived in a part of town that looked like nature was slowly taking it back. I would say that they were in the poor part of town, but that place only had poor parts. The fact that they weren't living in a trailer put them in the top tier of luxury. All I could think while I was there was God I hate this place.
The story fell together about like I expected. She'd been talking about getting out, and had even started working a part time job at the gas station on the edge of town. One night, she went outside for a walk and that was the last anyone ever saw of her. Jamie was in the living room and saw her leave but didn't think much about it. She wasn't carrying anything with her. She didn't look strange or high or drunk. She just walked out in jeans and a yellow t-shirt around ten o'clock, and then... Who knows?
These were the facts. The cold, unemotional facts. If I was going to be able to help in any way, it would only be because I used the facts to do it. Her car was still in the driveway. None of the neighbors heard or saw anything. She didn't have a boyfriend. Her classmates hadn't had any contact. Her cell phone was plugged in on the table next to her bed. Facts.
What about the police?
The police had their hands full, but they came out and did a report and said they'd be in touch if they found anything.
What about Vanessa's mother?
Well, that's where things get uncomfortable. My brother's widow has had issues for a while. Losing her husband just cranked them up into a higher gear. She was taking meds for it, but there's only so much you can do for someone that doesn't want to be helped. Miranda had delusions and manic episodes. Some days her grasp on reality was more tenuous than others. I remembered some time after the funeral when Miranda confided in me that she didn't believe Vanessa was really her daughter. She was convinced that someone had come shortly after she was born and swapped her out with another baby. Her Vanessa, she said, was in outer space now and this thing she was being forced to raise was secretly working for "them."
I may be a shitty uncle, but Miranda is an even shittier mother, and if this were a worst case scenario she was my suspect number one.
But Jamie put that to rest. Miranda was off in another city, in the same hospital she had been for nearly two years, getting some much needed help. He and Vanessa had been living pretty much on their own ever since. He was shocked that nobody had told me.
"Look," I finally said after I had heard everything there was to tell, "I know you think I can help, but I'm not sure I'm really qualified to do anything here. I've never worked a missing persons case before in my life."
"I can pay you," he said, defensively.
"I don't care about money. Not right now. I just want to manage expectations. You know the forty-eight hour rule, right?" He nodded. "Well, you also know that Vanessa is a smart kid. Super smart. She's most likely with somebody blowing off some steam in the city."
He nodded again. I don't know if I was being convincing or not. Comforting clients is the one thing I could never get right. And right now, I had to treat this like a case.
"Good." That's when I said something I never should have said, "I'm going to find her. I promise."
I made my first stop at the sheriff's station to check on the status of their investigation. The receptionist made me wait in the lobby for about half an hour, which I spent on my phone looking up any news and public information I could find about this place. It's remarkable how much knowledge is out there on the internet. With social media everybody is an amateur reporter. Between that, the Freedom of Information Act, and the general dilution of news, there aren't really any secrets left anymore. Death records, police files, a veritable treasure trove of information plugging all of us into a shared consciousness and giving you whatever you want if you know where to look, and the reason I'm good at my job is I always know where to look. That's why I couldn't believe it when all of my searches came up blank. This town had no footprint online. That's not just strange. That's impossible.
With a town this small, in thirty minutes I should have been able to find who the mayor was banging. But I couldn't even find an article about Vanessa.
"The sheriff will see you now," the receptionist said, snapping me back to reality.
His name was Clyde. He was an older guy, bald on top and a smile that looked forced. His desk was clear save for a single telephone and the wall was covered in a giant dirty American flag. He gestured for me to take a seat.
"What can I do ya for?" he asked.
I explained the situation and asked him for the police reports concerning Vanessa's disappearance.
"I'm afraid I can't really help you," he said, "Ms. Riggin's case is part of an ongoing investigation."
"Look, I'm not trying to break balls or get in the way here. I just want to help find my niece."
The sheriff let out a long sigh and lost the smile, dropping the facade. I knew that look from all the times I had it on my face. There was bad news that he didn't want to deliver.
"We have a lead on what happened to your niece. A bunch of kids went missing not too long ago, part of some neo-religious bullshit cult. We think maybe Vanessa got caught up in it somehow."
"What are you thinking?"
"We don't know, but we have a suspect in custody."
"Jesus Christ, you don't think he murdered them, do you?"
The sheriff left for a minute and came back with a thick file, dropping it on the desk in front of me.
"Everything we have is in there. The case gets pretty fucking strange and we're still piecing it together. You look like a smart enough guy, I don't have to tell you-"
"Yeah, you didn't give me this file. I don't know anything."
"Good. But if you do find anything..."
"You'll know as soon as I do."
I thanked him and we shook hands before I left.
Out in the lobby I saw a couple deputies fixing themselves some coffee. I approached them and asked, "You mind if I grab a cup?"
"Knock yourself out," said the bigger of the two. He was an intimidating figure, six-two and built like a linebacker. The name on his pin said "Williams."
The smaller one was still taller than me, but lanky and young, probably a fresh recruit. His pin read "Franklin."
Franklin folded his arms and sized me up. "You some kind of reporter?" he asked.
"Not me. I'm Vanessa Riggin's uncle."
"Who?" he asked.
I gave them my best cold stare.
"Vanessa Riggin. The young woman that went missing a couple of weeks ago."
Franklin shrugged and said, "Which one?"
Williams hit him in the chest. "Show a little humanity, man."
"Sorry, I didn't mean... you know we got the guy. I mean, he hasn't confessed to anything yet but-"
"It's fine." I said. Shitty town. Shitty Leos.
"Well, what are you planning to do?" asked Williams.
"I'm retracing her last days. I guess I'll go check out the gas station where she worked."
When I said that, it was like the air was sucked out of the room. I've trained myself to watch reactions, to know when people are lying. But any idiot could see Franklin going pale. The hairs on his skin stood straight up and he threw an awkward glance at the older cop. This rookie had no poker face.
Williams tried to play it cool, but Franklin already blew that. He took a deliberate sip of coffee and tried to sound disinterested. "The gas station at the edge of town, huh? You been out there yet?"
It's been a long time since I lived here, but I remember the stories. There's something weird going on at the edge of town, where the woods are haunted and creatures wait to eat you. I had no idea the stories were still persisting. Or maybe not. Maybe this was something else.
"Not yet, why?"
Williams searched for the words that would make sense, but obviously couldn't find them. " There’s been reports of bear activity out there. Just be careful, okay?"
Fuck you. If there's something going on, just tell me.
"Will do, deputy."
My next stop was the town hall. Something about the glaring lack of information online about a mass disappearance really didn't sit right with me. Not surprisingly, the place was closed when I got there. By the looks of it, the place had been closed for a while. The front lawn was wild with weeds and newspapers were piled up in various stages of decomposition by the front door. Somewhere, a public official is collecting a paycheck to do nothing. I know I've said it before, but seriously fuck this town.
As long as I'm living in a premodern hell hole, I thought to myself, I may as well start working like it. The next stop was the old faithful for information gathering. The local library. Once again, I was hit with the sensation that this place that I used to see all the time as a child must have gotten smaller since I was last here, but that smell--old books mixed with mildew--was pungent as ever. I found the librarian taking a nap at her station and asked her if the place kept records of local newspapers. She just laughed at me.
"Local newspapers? Here? Have you seen this town? Only half of the people here are literate and half of those are on meth. What newspaper do you think these people are buying?"
I apologized for wasting her time and turned to leave, but she told me to stop and come back. I think she felt sorry for me.
"Hey look, if you need information about this town, there is one guy who can help you. He's been around long enough that he knows everything and everyone." She scribbled an address onto a piece of loose leaf paper and gave it to me. "When you get here, ask for Roger. He'll be able to help you."
Here I was, on my way to my fifth stop today with exactly jack and shit to show for it. I wasn't any closer to figuring out what happened to Vanessa. If anything, I felt like I was further away, being pulled into this rabbit hole of bullshit weirdness. Was it even worth it to check out this Roger guy? When I got to my car, I took a second to center myself and think about it.
Facts. Those are all I need right now. Facts. At this moment, I don't have what I need. Why not see what Roger knows? I plugged the address into my GPS and laughed to myself when I saw where I was going.
My old high school building was just as horrible and broken down as it had been when I left. But nothing a few coats of paint couldn't cover. I wasn't sure what I was doing as I parked the car and went inside, but that state of blindly fumbling along hoping for a clue was turning into the theme of this trip. The school was small and dimly lit, and I could hear the buzz of the lights on the ceiling just a few inches above my head. I felt like a giant in there, and couldn't believe that children crammed themselves into this building. Here I was all by myself and feeling claustrophobic. Claustrophobic and a little dizzy.
"Can I help you?" Or at least, I thought I was all by myself. I noticed the short guy in jeans and an AC/DC t-shirt holding a mop, looking at me from inside of one of the classrooms.
"Yeah," I said. "You work here?"
"Nobody's supposed to be here. School's closed."
"I'm looking for Roger."
The guy gently set his mop down, pulled out a pair of glasses, and put them on before responding, “Are you a… friend… of his?”
“Not exactly. I’m looking for my niece; she went missing.”
“And you think Roger had something to do with that?”
“Are you Roger?” I asked directly.
The man laughed. “No way, I wish.”
“Well if you don’t mind pointing me in the right direction.”
“Roger is in his office. I’ll show you how to get there.”
The janitor walked slowly and with a hunch, hands in pockets, eyes on the ground. He didn’t say anything as he led me down the hallway, around a corner, and up to a closed door where he finally broke the silence. “This is Roger’s office.”
I thanked him and waited for him to leave, but instead he knocked on the door and yelled, “Hey, Roger! There’s a guy out here wants to see you.
From somewhere inside, I heard a muffled, “Go away!”
“Come on, Roger, open up!”
He gave me an awkward smile and a shrug.
A few seconds passed before the janitor let out a sigh and grabbed the doorknob, opening it and stepping inside. I guess if I had to pick the exact moment my case went from weird to batshit insane, it would be this one.
The room wasn’t a room at all. It was just a simple, dirty supply closet. Barely big enough for the janitor to fit inside, with shelves on every wall filled with cleaning supplies and boxes. The janitor flicked on the lights, bent down to the ground, and pulled an old wooden crate into the center of the floor.
“Roger, are you in there? Didn’t you hear what I said?”
He opened the crate and… Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I’m even writing this… he pulled Roger out of the box. He turned around and faced me, holding Roger in his arms. “Roger” was an old fashioned wooden ventriloquist dummy with a black suit painted on.
The eyes popped open and it looked at me, then the head spun around to look at the janitor, then back at me. The dummy “yawned” and “stretched” and went through the show of waking up before finally speaking.
“Who the hell is this guy? Didn’t you see the sign on my door that said ‘do not disturb?’”
Roger’s voice had a slight tinge of Bostonian accent.
I couldn’t help myself.
“What the fuck is this?!” I yelled, “Some kind of stupid joke? My niece is missing! She could be dead for all I know, and you’re playing games right now?”
It took a lot of self-control not to sock the janitor across the face. Instead, I just turned and started to walk away.
“Detective, wait!” he yelled to me in the puppet’s voice. I stopped and turned back.
“How did you know I was a detective?” I asked.
“Oh, I know a lot of things,” he said through the puppet. It was difficult listening to him, because he refused to make eye contact, choosing instead to stare at the puppet, who was looking right at me. I had to give him credit, I couldn’t see his lips moving at all. “For instance, I know you just drove here from New Orleans. You stopped by the sheriff’s station and then the library, but they were no help. And now you want answers about what happened to Vanessa.”
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll bite. How do you know all that?”
The janitor refused to break character, saying everything through the doll. “It’s the details. The beretta holstered under your jacket, the tactical boots, the hair cut, and not least of all the police report sticking out of your back pocket. I know you’re not working directly with the sheriff’s department because you haven’t shaved in at least a week, so that says private eye. I know you hit up the library because the librarian is the only person that could possibly have known I was here. I know you’re looking for Vanessa Riggin because-unlike some people-I keep up with the news. You said your niece went missing. Assuming neither of you are adopted, there’s only one missing local girl that shares any of your dominant features.”
“Alright,” I said. This guy wasn’t terrible. Maybe he had a few screws loose, but credit where it’s due, he had the Sherlock schtick down pat. “What about New Orleans, how did you know I drove all night?”
“Two reasons: First, you smell like you haven’t had a shower in a couple days. And second, I stole your wallet and looked at the address on your ID.”
He extended his wooden puppet arm and sure enough, the little bastard was holding my wallet. And to be honest, I wasn’t even mad. This little shit got the jump on me, and that’s all it takes to earn my respect. I actually laughed.
“Alright, ‘Roger,’ how does this work? I pay you to be my research consultant?”
“Believe it or not,” said the puppet, “I’m not big on money. What I deal in is information and favors. I can tell that you don’t have any of the former, so I’ll take the latter. One favor. At the time of my choosing. And in return, I’ll look up everything there is to find about what happened to your niece. When I get something, I’ll call you.”
I shrugged. “Ok, fine.”
“Shake on it?”
I’m not proud to say this, but I shook hands with the puppet. Then he gave me back my wallet.
I finally got around to hitting up the gas station where Vanessa was working before her disappearance, and let me say what a shit hole. From the outside, it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. When I walked in, I could smell fresh paint and raw sewage. The man behind the register was smoking a cigarette and stacking pennies into a little pyramid, oblivious to my presence. It was right then that my tooth started hurting like hell. I grabbed a box of BC powder and walked up to the register.
“Hey.” I said to the clerk. He was a young lanky blonde guy with blue eyes and reminded me of what a golden retriever would look like in human form. His name tag said “Jerry.” He looked up at me and smiled.
“Hey,” he said back, before returning all of his attention to the coin pyramid.
“I want to buy this,” I said, getting a little annoyed.
“How much is it?” The guy asked.
“I don’t know, you’re the one at the cash register, you tell me.”
He looked at the box, then at me. “What’s it worth to ya?”
“Look man, I just want to buy this. I’m not trying to play any games here.”
Jerry scowled at the box and said, “Just keep it.”
“It’s yours. On the house.”
I sighed and put a five dollar bill on the counter before heading to the bathroom for tap water to wash it down.
I must have been distracted by the idiocy of the clerk because I didn’t even notice until I was already inside the bathroom that there was someone else in there. I went straight for the sink and turned on the faucet, then I heard it. Guitar music. I turned around to see a man standing next to the urinal, wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, red boxers, and boots, playing a familiar tune on the wooden guitar that was slung over his shoulder.
“Oh shit,” I said, “I didn’t know it was occupied.”
The man started to sing along to the tune he was playing.
“There iiisss a houssse in New Orleannnsss… They calllll the riiising sunnn…”
Are you freaking kidding me?
“And it’s been… the ruin… of many a poor boyyy… and God, I know, I’m one…”
He turned and, still playing and singing, walked right out of the bathroom.
I took two BC powders and washed them down with the water that tasted especially metallic before I went back out to the lobby. The clerk had lit another cigarette and the five dollar bill was still on the counter.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“What was what all about?”
“That guitar playing guy in his boxers? That some kind of act or something?”
Jerry looked around the store, then back at me. “Where?”
“He was in the bathroom with me. Guy in a cowboy hat? Ringing any bells?”
“Oh,” he said, “That might have been the bathroom cowboy. Did he have a beard?”
“That does sound like the bathroom cowboy.”
“Alright, look, I’m tired of playing games. I just want to ask you some questions, is that ok?”
Jerry grinned. “I like questions.”
“There was a girl that used to work here, named Vanessa. Did you know her?”
“Oh, I’m actually pretty new. You’re probably gonna wanna talk to the other clerk. Jack.”
“Ok, when does Jack come in?”
“He should be here in an hour or so. You want some jerky?”
Jerry extended a half-eaten stick of jerky towards me.
Before I could say “Hell no,” the phone on Jerry’s desk started ringing. He answered with a “Yellow?”
After a second, he looked at me and asked, “Are you Eric Riggin?”
“It’s for you.”
He handed me the receiver.
“This is Eric.”
“Mr. Riggin, it’s Sheriff Clyde. I’ve been trying to reach you. Figured when your phone kept going to voicemail you must be in the one part of town without reception.”
“Is there a development?” I asked.
“No, look, I don’t know how you know Roger, but next time you see him tell him that we’re even.”
“What do you mean?”
“Roger is calling in his one favor. I know you’ve probably done interrogations before, right? I’m giving you twenty minutes with the suspect we have in custody. After that, you’re done, and officially--this never happened. Come here before I change my mind.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m always serious.”
“Ok, I’m on my way. What’s his name?”
“Middleton. Spencer Middleton.”