Updated: Mar 23, 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 the same cruiser I’d been inside of earlier that day.
I walked inside and scanned the room--a small, poorly lit place with a ripped up pool table, broken jukebox, deer heads on every wall, and country music playing overhead while a couple barflies sat on their stools watching something on the television in silence. The bartender was a frumpy old gal who looked like she didn’t know how to smile. She was leaning against the bar with her arms crossed, wearing a blue-jean jacket with the sleeves cut off. And in the far corner, at a small table by herself, O’Brien was looking at something on her cell phone.
I went straight to the bar and made my order.
“I’ll take one of whatever that woman in the corner is drinking.”
The bartender looked over at her, then gave me a disapproving face and said, “Anything for you?”
“I’ll take a Jack and coke, hold the Jack. I’m the D.D. tonight.”
She rolled her eyes and made up the order--one soda and one dark beer--then said, “You know, it ain’t none of my business, but you and her don’t jee-haw, hun. I know it might not be P.C. or whatever, but race mixing is wrong. That’s just my two cents.”
In the midst of all the crazy shit that had gone on that day, I’d almost forgotten how much I hated this fucked up shitty small town, but nothing like a fresh dose of old-fashioned racism to remind me.
She put the drinks in front of me, and I dropped some cash on the bar next to them and said, “You’re right. It isn’t any of your business.”
I placed the beer in front of her and took a seat, waiting anxiously to find out if I’d made another mistake. O’Brien looked up from her phone and gave me an icy stare, and I returned the look with a smile. This was probably the biggest and stupidest gamble I’d made since showing up in this shithole, but my gut told me that she wasn’t one of them, and my gut had a pretty decent batting average. So here we were.
She started laughing, instantly betraying how drunk she was.
Okay. So far, so good.
“Thanks, Nail Polish, but I’m an adult. I can get my own roofies.”
“I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ for driving me around earlier.”
“Well, aren’t you the gentleman?”
“No, of course not. I swear.”
She laughed again and put her phone away. This was the moment of truth, was she going to arrest me or-
She finished the half empty beer in front of her and put the glass next to a couple empties, then grabbed the one I’d given her and took a healthy swig. I took a sip from my drink and waited for her to speak.
“Any luck today, detective?”
“Lots. All of it bad.”
“And I suppose you expect your luck to change now?”
“Well it can’t get much worse, can it?”
I looked back at the bar and caught the woman there glaring at us in disgust.
“Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Thanks for the drink, but maybe you should get out of this town before somebody with the inclination to arrest you figures out you’re at the watering hole.”
“Somebody like you, deputy?”
“Definitely not somebody like me. As you can plainly see-” She gestured at the empty glasses on the table, “I am off the clock. And while I’m off the clock, you can just call me Amelia.”
“Look, I know this is going to sound pretty ballsy, but do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
She laughed out loud. It was a genuine, deep, drunken laugh, and it made me realize that under other circumstances I would probably really enjoy having a few drinks and pissing the night away with Amelia O’Brien.
“Sure, why not? But I get to ask you some questions, too.”
“So is there a Mrs. Nail Polish?”
“There was. A couple times actually. But there’s just something about being a deadbeat husband that didn’t really sit right with them.”
“And here I assumed it was your brutal honesty that put the ladies off.”
“Actually, that’s one of my most charming attributes.” She laughed again, and I relaxed just a little. “So what brings a city girl like you to a BFE town like this?”
“Not completely sure. Sometimes I suspect that I died and this is hell.”
“That’s a reasonable theory.”
“You don’t need to circle around the questions with me, Riggin. I know what you want to ask. What is going on here? Well, I can’t help you because I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. I showed up a month ago and every night I go to sleep thinking the next couldn’t possibly be weirder, and every day I’m proven wrong.”
“You can call me Eric.”
“I’m not going to call you that, Mani-pedi, but if you let me bum a smoke I’ll tell you whatever I know. Not like it’s going to help you any.”
I fished out two cigarettes and lit hers for her between her lips. After her first drag she coughed and laughed and put it out. She clearly wasn’t a smoker.
“I know this is probably hard to believe, but I didn’t sleepwalk off into the forest this morning. I got a phone call from someone claiming to be my brother. Only thing is, he’s been dead for four years. Then I heard something in the woods. It’s actually hard to explain, but when I was out there the air started to heat up, like I was being boiled alive.”
She was listening to all of this, attentively, and so far I hadn’t lost her. I considered finishing the story but knew that the truth was too much for right now. Even if she bought it, no good could come from her knowing about the dead rednecks in the missing truck.
“You know what? I believe you. Because when I first started there was about a week straight where the office was flooded with calls from locals, saying that they were being contacted by their dead loved ones. We figured it was just a bunch of kids playing a prank, but it didn’t take long to figure out that, no, something was really happening on a huge scale. Grandma Gertrude called to tell little Timmy that she didn’t know where she was, but they got her, put her brain in a jar or some bullshit. Really freaked people out. Then one day I get the order to drop the whole thing, and I’m warned not to talk about it. I put up a little resistance, and then they saddle me with gas station duty, and the rest is history.” She took another big swig, and pulled down half her beer before continuing. “You know what a heat burst is?”
“No, but I think I can gather from the name that it’s going to be an official explanation for what happened out in those woods?”
“You stick around here for too long, you’ll notice a pattern. No matter what happens, no matter how insane, there will always be an official explanation. Nothing supernatural ever happens. A heat burst is a rare weather phenomenon that occurs around these parts. Sometimes temperatures will spike up to a hundred, hundred twenty or more. For no good reason. You wanna know why I know that?”
“They were talking about it on the radio last week. Last week. That’s a pretty weird coincidence, don’t you think? But what else could it be? You think somebody knew I’d be listening to the radio a week ago, and wanted to make sure I’d have this story loaded up to tell you tonight just in case you were sitting here thinking ‘I wonder if something supernatural is going on.’”
My smoke was spent, so I put it in the ashtray and tried to think of what to say, but then I felt something in my pocket vibrate. I pulled out the phone Roger had given me and read the text message:
“Triss is dead. That thing got her. I’m going to find a new host. Stay safe.”
I made a mental note to pour one out for the poor girl later on. If she were really dead, that was a damned shame, and I wanted nothing more than to find the person responsible and kick his teeth in. But just like the pain in my leg, and the shock of dodging death by inches more than once, I would have to put this thought into a compartment somewhere deep in my mind and let it stay there until after…
Hell, I didn’t even know.
“Look, Riggin, I’m just as hot for malicious compliance as the next girl, but I can’t exactly aid and abet a fugitive. I’m going to the little girl’s room, and you’re going to be gone by the time I get back. And then, maybe after I finish this drink, I’ll call Clyde and tell him you stopped by. You think that’ll give you enough time to get back on the road and head towards the home of the best lawyer you know?”
“Yeah, I could do that. But here’s the thing…”
“There’s always a thing, isn’t there?”
“You aren’t going to like this, but I’m going to need a huge favor.”
I was right. She didn’t like it.