Updated: Mar 24, 2020
I don’t know what made me change my mind about going to the meeting with “Roger.” I had pretty much decided that if the mentally unstable man who could only talk through a puppet was my only hope, then I was pretty much fucked anyway. But here I was, sitting outside the bowling alley, about to go inside and see what, if anything, he had to offer.
I showed up early and did a few circles around the building to see if anyone else was there. No sign of any cars or activity, and from the looks of it, the place had been shut down for at least a decade. I would be surprised if they even had power inside. All I could think was that this was a nice place to get murdered.
I took the pipe cleaner while I waited and used it to scrape up the inside of my gun barrel--a trick I’d picked up from some of the more seedy contacts I had back in the city. If they had found a way to tie my gun to the body currently rotting in the trunk of Vanessa’s car, this would make ballistic fingerprinting impossible.
Wow, I thought to myself, I’m going to have to figure out how to ditch this body.
One step at a time. That was a problem for later. Right now, I had to figure out who was pulling all these strings.
Nobody had shown up by 8:00. At 8:05, I decided to break into the bowling alley. What’s one more felony on a night like this, anyway?
The back door was opened when I tried it, so I slipped inside with my flashlight in one hand and my other firmly gripping the gun at my waist. The whole place smelled like a decayed carpet, and the air was thick with dust. I followed the hallway into the main lobby, where I heard the familiar voice of the puppet speaking out from somewhere in the darkness:
“Well, well, well, detective. You sure have been busy today, haven’t you? You know, if this whole private eye thing doesn’t work out, I think you got a great career in terrorism.”
“Peter?” I said, “Where are you?”
A figure emerged from the other side of the room, and once again, it was not what I was expecting. I could see the familiar wooden puppet staring right at me as it came closer and closer, but the person carrying him was not the same man that was in my family’s living room earlier that day. Roger was being held, and operated, by a grossly overweight young woman with tan skin and pigtails. She stared at Roger while he said in the same voice he had always used, “Who the hell is Peter? Were you expecting a friend, because I distinctly remember telling you to come alone.”
I shined my flashlight at the girl and said, “What is this? Who are you?”
She covered her eyes with one hand, and used the other to work the doll, saying, “Don’t mind her. This is Tristessa. I had to find a new host after the janitor went on his little episode.”
“A new host?”
“Here, you’re going to want to take this.” His head spun to the side, facing the girl--Tristessa--and giving her a nod. That must have been her cue to pull a cell phone out of her pocket and offer it to me, which I accepted.
“I know you’re smart enough to have figured out by now that your old phone is bugged to hell and back. Keep this on so I can reach you when I need to.”
It was uncanny. Her lips absolutely were not moving. The doll, I concluded, must be voiced remotely somehow, and the girl was somehow moving his lips along with the words perfectly. This was insane.
“Alright, what exactly are you ‘Roger’? I’d love to know who I’m really dealing with.”
Roger let out a gleeful cackle and said, “Well we rarely know who we’re really talking to. Don’t you agree? Look, I bet you have a lot of questions, but I only have time to share the important stuff. You’ll have to figure the rest out on your own. If you’re not comfortable with this arrangement, then you can beat your feet right now, because the only answers I’m interested in giving you are about Vanessa, as per our original deal.”
I shook my head and said, “Whatever. Let’s stick to the plan. What is it you found?”
“It’s not what I found, detective.”
Roger turned his head to Tristessa and nodded again, signaling her to hand me a thick manila folder labeled “V. Riggin.” I took it and started thumbing through. Roger, or whoever was really controlling Roger, had compiled an amazingly extensive list. Her background, childhood, family, report cards, school essays, her entire life catalogued in these pages. It was impressive work. I stopped on a page that said, “passwords” followed by a list.
“How did you get her passwords?”
“Pretty easy really. You just need to know the answers to some very basic security questions. Mother’s maiden name. Childhood best friend. Favorite color. First pet. What’s the point in having a secure password when the password keeper is so to easy work around?”
I scanned the list until I found a six digit code labeled “Cell,” then suddenly felt the urge to change all of my passwords and move off the grid permanently. “Alright,” I said, “You say it’s not about what you found. Care to elaborate?”
He continued, “In 1604, a star exploded, creating the Kepler Supernova. It was reported and recorded far and wide, all over the entire planet, a brand new star in the night’s sky. That was a big deal. Religions claimed it as proof of their gods. Musicians wrote songs about it. Folks lost their freakin’ minds. Enough that we’re still talking about it four hundred years later. People spend their lives trying to find a new object up there in that void. But what’s funny to me is that in the last decade, dozens of stars have disappeared. That’s just as remarkable a phenomena, isn’t it? The starry night is still irrevocably changed, but nobody tells stories when something old goes away. Only when something new shows up. I wonder what that says about mankind.”
“So you’re saying the key here isn’t finding something that shouldn’t be there but is. The key is finding something that should be there but isn’t?”
“Bingo! Now you sound like a detective.”
“Ok,” I said, holding up the folder, “You want to tell me what 'should' be in here?”
I looked at the girl, Tristessa, for any kind of emotion, but I couldn’t get a read on her, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to look for expressions on a puppet.
“What about her?”
“She has almost no footprint. She’s a rock that falls into a pond and makes no ripples. Where is she? Why isn’t she raising hell to try and find her missing daughter?”
I put the folder under my arm and fished out my smokes, lighting one up before answering, “You seem to know a lot. Do you know what Capgras delusion is?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t. But please, I live to learn.”
“Capgras delusion is a mental condition where you think somebody you know, somebody you love, has been replaced. Vanessa’s mother had it bad. She would tell me shit like, ‘I know it looks just like her. It acts, and talks, and smells just like her, but that thing isn’t my Vanessa.’ Nothing anyone could do would convince her otherwise. Just something wrong with the way her neurons fired.”
“Wow, that’s messed up.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t say anything for a while after that, and I took the time to finish my smoke. When it was finally done I asked, “Was that it?”
“Detective, I don’t think you realize the gravity of what you just told me.”
“Yes. This is the key to the whole thing. This is why they chose Vanessa. They’ve done an amazing job of hiding her mother to the point that even I can’t find her name anywhere.”
“Wait,” I said, “Back up one second. What do you mean by ‘This is why they chose Vanessa’? What do you know that I don’t know?”
Somewhere far behind me in the dark came the sound of metal scraping. A door had just been pushed open.
“Oh shit,” said Roger in a hushed tone, “Do you smell that? They sent one of those big things here. How did they find us, detective? I know you weren’t stupid enough to get bugged, were you?”
I turned off my flashlight, pulled my gun, and pointed it in the direction the noise came from.
“Fuck you,” I whispered, “How do I know you didn’t bring somebody?”
It was nearly pitch black in there, but I could smell it. A gag-inducing something abysmal, like rotting meat and putrefied shit. It came closer to us with the sounds of heavy footsteps. I could hear it breathing, loudly, like a guttural, animal growl.
“Detective, there are three exits behind us. Our best shot of getting out alive is to split up and go.” For once, I was already on the same page. I’d made a mental note of the closest way out before we had even started talking, and I was already running by the time I heard Roger’s voice scream “Now!”
The thing, whatever it was, began running. I threw down Vanessa’s folder and clicked on the flashlight as I bolted towards the side doors. I couldn’t tell which direction the girl had gone, but that thing was right behind me, chasing straight after and gaining.
I hit the double doors full speed and they flung open, sending me falling down the three steps on the other side and landing on the broken concrete before spinning over onto my back and pointing the gun up at the empty doorway behind me. Whatever had just been there was now vanished, and I didn’t feel inclined to wait and see where it had gone.
I got back to the car and peeled out of there, part of me wanting to hit the interstate and never look back. But the stronger part of me realized how pathetic a move like that would be.
What was that thing back there? Some kind of hitter? It seemed like they changed the plan again after the frame up job went south, and now they were just trying good old fashioned murder.
I knew I wouldn’t last long on the road with a BOLO on the car, and I couldn’t head back to Jamie’s just yet because the police would be watching. I’d run out of good options a while back, but it wasn’t until I drove past the bar and saw that it was now open that I realized just how desperate I was.
I’ve helped bounty hunters track down dirtbags on a few occasions, and it never ceases to amaze me how stupid people can be when they’re on the lam. If they’d only kept their heads down, laid low, they wouldn’t have been caught. "If it were me" was the way I’d started plenty of thoughts back then. If you’d told me a week ago what I was about to do, I’d have thought you were crazy. I could never be that stupid.
I pulled into the bar’s lot and parked right next to the thing that had caught my attention from the road in the first place: the Sheriff’s department cruiser parked backwards in the spot. I checked the plates to make sure, and I was right. This was