Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Spencer Middleton's hands were shackled to a steel eye plate that had been lazily welded onto the metal table in the center of the interrogation room. It was barely larger than Roger's supply closet. One light overhead, no window, two folding chairs, and a plastic camera tripod in the corner closest to the door. They had put him in an orange jumpsuit a couple sizes too big and somebody had roughed him up pretty good. He had a swollen shiner on his left eye that blended into the purple bruises covering most of his face.
When he saw me, he grinned.
"Well you don't look like a lawyer. And you sure as hell ain't a cop. Let me guess. You're the newest one they sent to kill me?"
I took a second to gain a sense of the man I was about to talk to. The clock was ticking down twenty minutes, but those first brief moments set the trajectory and could make all the difference. Here I was just a few feet away from the asshole that had probably killed my niece, and I needed to figure out a way to pry information from him. I was coming into this with nothing. No carrot, no stick, so how do I trip him up? Hell, maybe he'll just give me what I want out of the goodness of his heart.
I'd done a little research on the drive over. Spencer was a local who had disappeared a while back and joined the army. After an honorable discharge, he made it a point to mostly live off the grid, save for a handful of run-ins with the law. He had a habit of starting or ending fights, depending on how you look at it.
I made my move, returning his smile and pulling out the chair on the other side of the table. From here I could see that the man had a nasty looking scar straight across his throat. I sat and faced him, waiting to see if he had anything else to offer.
He didn't. So I went first, "Who's trying to kill you, Spencer?"
He laughed softly and said, "Hey, don't I know you?"
"I doubt it."
"Yeah, I do. You went to my high school, right? You're Donnie's brother."
I maintained my poker face best I could, burying the sting of hearing this asshole mention my brother's name. It wasn't time yet to show my hand, and at least I had him talking. "You said somebody's out to kill you. Why would someone want you dead? Did you do something?"
"You know, when I get out of here, I'm going to cut your face open. From here-" From across the table he pointed at the spot just over my right eye. "To here." He dragged the point of his finger slowly down towards my neck.
I took a long breath.
"I'm not a cop. Or a lawyer. Just an interested third party."
"There sure are a lot of those in this town, aren't there?"
"What do you mean by that?"
Spencer relaxed in his chair and leaned his head back to stare at the ceiling.
"Man, come on, just ask me whatever it is you came to ask, alright?"
"I'm starting to think you might not know anything. Maybe the sheriff oversold you as some kind of badass when really you're just a guy that was in the wrong place and too dumb not to look guilty."
Spencer looked me in the eyes and laughed a short, staccato kind of laugh.
"You're going to use pride-and-ego down on me, Riggin? This ain't amateur hour. I spent years on the other side of this. I've interrogated Al Qaeda in a cave in the desert."
Shit. This asshole had my number.
"Look," he went on, "I'm not going to bullshit you. Quit trying to work around it and ask me the fucking question you came here to ask me."
This asshole was running the show now and we both knew it. Might as well take a shot.
"Do you know what happened to my niece? Vanessa?" Spencer held up both palms. "Is that supposed to be a 'no'?" I asked.
"That's supposed to be a 'let's make a deal, Clarice. Quid pro quo, right?"
"Alright. What do you want, Doctor Lector? And more importantly, what are you offering?"
"I can tell you exactly where a certain missing teenage girl went. Where you can find her. And you can ask her yourself what happened. I can draw you a fucking map if you want. But in exchange, I want something from you. Something small, something you won't ever miss."
My heart was pounding. It took every bit of restraint I had left not to jump across the table and strangle the answers I wanted out of him.
"Ok." I said. "Name your price."
Spencer leaned in and spoke each syllable deliberately.
"I. Want. One. Of. Your. Teeth."
He smiled and laughed again.
"What the fuck did you just say?"
"That's all I want. I want you to pick a tooth. Any tooth. And pull it out for me. You've got dozens, right? You going to miss one? I don't think so. You pull out a tooth for me and I will tell you exactly where you can find her."
"I hope you burn in hell you piece of shit."
"Really? You value your teeth more than your own family? Good thing your brother isn't alive to see you make this choice."
I knew he was baiting me, and I wish I had been smarter, but I wasn't. I jumped out of my chair so fast it launched across the room and swung a wild right hook that would have broken bones if it had landed. But he dodged it by an inch, caught me by the fist and used my follow through to pull me across the table. My face hit the metal and before I knew it he had hooked his arm under my chin. In a single motion, he twisted me onto my back and locked his arm against my wind pipe, squeezing tighter and tighter until I started to black out. I tried to scream but there was no way air was coming in or going out. The world went black and I knew I was done for.
That son of a bitch was faster and stronger than I could have ever expected, and I'm glad I'm more lucky than careless. I didn't hear the deputies come in, but if they had waited a few more seconds to pull me away I might not be here right now.
As they helped me out of the room, Spencer let out a loud, gleeful cackle that followed me all the way out into the lobby.
It was getting dark by the time I was patched up and leaving the sheriff's station, and I had decided to spend the rest of the day getting shit-faced. That asshole all but confessed to killing Vanessa, but that wasn't enough. He wanted to--needed to--rub it in my face, and I let him. I had the who, just not the how, where, or the why (but with a guy like that, does there even need to be a why?). Armed with this information, I wasn't exactly in a hurry to go back and see Jamie.
The only bar in town was closed for some kind of bullshit holiday, so I decided to celebrate alone. The bottle in my go bag might not be enough, I thought, so I went back to the shitty gas station on the edge of town.
The sheriff was pissed at me for what had happened, and I don't blame him. I lost my cool and you can't do that if you're working on the side of the law. Which, for the time being, I was. I couldn't help but wonder how hard it would be to get away with killing Spencer while he was in custody...
When I got to the gas station, the clerk behind the counter didn't even look up from the book he was reading. He was considerably younger than me with bags under his eyes like he hadn't slept in days. A pair of crutches were leaning on the counter next to him.
I bought a bottle of whiskey and a pack of smokes and as he rung me up I asked him, "Hey, do you know of a good hotel near here?"
"No," he said simply as he handed me my change and went back to his book.
Alright, thank you Mr. Personality.
When I got back to my car, I tried to look up the nearest place with a cheap hotel, but was reminded that this part of town doesn't get cell or internet service. All I wanted to do at that moment was drink and shower and sleep. After a minute of thinking about it, I decided I could do with two out of three. After getting sufficiently inebriated, I put my seat into a reclined position and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
I woke up the next morning still a little drunk to the sound of my cell phone ringing. When I checked the caller ID, I couldn't understand what I was seeing.
"Donnie - Cell"
It rang a couple more times while I sat up and tried to wrap my head around the moment. Where was I again? My car? What happened yesterday? The weight of it all came crashing back into place in an instant. Vanessa's killer was sitting in a cell somewhere laughing at me.
The phone continued to ring. I looked again, but this part still didn't make sense. Who was calling me from my brother's phone? And how?
"Hey Eric. It's been a while, huh?"
What the fuck? What the fucking fuck?
"Who is this?"
"I'm not sure how long I've got. I've been trying to get through to one of you for a long time."
"I asked you a question. Who is this?"
"You know who this is, Eric."
"My brother is dead, and when I find you I'll make sure you are too."
"Always gotta be the bad ass, huh? Remember Merlin?"
Merlin... Hadn't thought about him in a long time. When we were kids, sometimes we would play superheros. We'd take turns being the bad guy and I always wanted to be Batman or Wolverine, but Donnie always wanted to be a wizard named Merlin. He started his own mythology around the character. A time traveling wizard that rode a motorcycle. When I got a little too old to play make believe, he started drawing comics about the guy. I never told him, but I found them and read a few, and they were impressive.
"Anybody could know about Merlin."
"Would anybody know that I stole a car my junior year, but you took the blame for it?"
A chill ran down my spine and suddenly the car felt way too cramped for me. I opened the door and tried to step out, but a dizzy spell almost put me on my ass. I held onto the roof of the vehicle until it passed, then I put the phone back to my ear.
"Who is this?"
"I told you, it's me."
"Tell me the truth."
"You're looking for Vanessa? You've got to find her."
"I watched my brother die. I saw his body get put into the ground."
"I died. And then they came for me, and they put me here."
"Where is 'here'?"
"I don't know. But I do know that they're watching you. They've been watching you ever since you came back. I think they haven't decided what they're going to do with you yet. We're both running out of time. You have to get to Vanessa before they get to you. Tell my kids I love them."
There was a loud crackle from the phone and then it disconnected. I stared at the screen like an idiot for way too long, then did the only thing I could think of. I dialed the number back.
At that exact moment, I heard a cell phone ring from somewhere just beyond the gas station.
That son of a bitch is here!
I ran back there, towards the sound of the ringing. It was hard to pinpoint exactly where it started, but I knew it was coming from somewhere in the woods, beyond the treeline. I ran straight into the forest, making a mental note on the way to check out that large mound of fresh dirt next to the dumpster. It looked like something had been buried there recently, but I couldn't afford the distraction yet. How many times had it rung? Four? Five?
The ringing continued, now somewhere much deeper in the woods. I followed, trying to determine exactly where the noise was coming from. As I ran further in, the ringing became more of an echo, all around me. I checked the phone still in my hand and saw the message:
"No network detected - Emergency calls only"
The ringing got louder. And then it turned into something else... No longer a ringing, more like a loud chirping, like an insect of some kind, then it morphed into a deafening noise, somewhere between a roar and a scream, all around me. I pocketed the phone and instinctively reached for my piece.
But it wasn't there. I'd left it in the car.
Look, I know how this sounds. It's crazy. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. But it only got worse. The temperature in that spot started to crank up, like I was next to an invisible fire ready to consume the entire forest. I had the sensation that I was burning up, about to be cooked alive, and my fight or flight response kicked into over gear. I picked a direction and started running as fast and as hard as I could.
The heat got further and further away as I jumped over logs and limbs and ditches and finally, finally, found a clearing. My lungs were ready to explode by the time I stopped and collapsed to my knees and threw up.
I didn't have long to relax before I heard something crunching through the forest in front of me. I pushed myself to my feet and scanned the area for any kind of weapon, but there wasn't anything worth grabbing. Not a rock or a decent stick or even a tree nearby worth hiding behind. What was I thinking running out here into the middle of this clearing? I was in the dead center of a nearly perfect circle the size of a tennis court, no trees, only knee-high grass. Basically, a sitting duck.
Then I saw it. A bear at the edge of the trees right in front of me. I say that it was a bear I saw, which is technically true. But also not. It looked at me and I was convinced I had lost my mind and gone crazy, because in that moment nothing made any damn sense.
The thing I was looking at was, best I can tell, an enormous grown man, nearly seven feet tall, wearing a tan teddy bear costume, complete with an enormous felt head and black button eyes the size of saucers. Like some kind of school mascot from a nightmare, it was covered in dirt and leaves and when it saw me it started waving excitedly.
"Hey." I said uncertainly.
Then it turned both of its middle fingers up to me and did a little dance.
"Hey man, I'm kinda lost."
The bear didn't say anything. It just pointed at me, then at its crotch, and started pelvic thrusting at the air.
God I wish I had my gun right now.