Updated: Dec 14, 2018
The thing--the juggernaut--almost looked human, in the same way a child’s crayon drawing might almost look like a horse. The pieces were there, but the proportions were way off. It towered an easy seven feet, even with the clear curvature of the spine that gave it a sideways hunch. The body was inhumanly wide, like an upright grizzly. The hands, a dark shade of ashy gray, were hairy and composed of fingers like sausages and nails blackened from blood ruptures. As it dragged the sledgehammer across the pavement, it moved with an arrhythmic gait, as if it were still learning to walk on two legs of different sizes.
Like a chimera from the ancient stories, this creature stalking ever closer was made up of mismatched parts. The head didn’t come close to anything remotely human, but its visage is burned into the core of my memory in a place where no amount of therapy will ever allow me to forget.
The face, if you can call it that, was coated in black scales and comprised of an elongated snout that formed the top half of a jaw. The bottom was equally long, connected at a hinge like that of an alligator, with ivory hooks growing wildly in every direction from the maw. If the monster had any eyes, I couldn’t see them.
The lipless orifice hung open, exposing a wet tongue tangled in the jagged rows. The teeth were overgrown like a cancer, and there was no way the mouth could ever close without shredding the gums to pieces. I don’t know how it ate, and I wasn’t keen on finding out. The noise coming from within was a wheezing gurgle, steady, with each shallow breath.
For the life of me I can’t figure why, but somebody had gone through a lot of effort to dress him. On the outside, an extra long black duster. Beneath, the body was more or less contained within a long-sleeved blue jumpsuit, and on its feet were a new pair of enormous black tactical boots.
There was a sort of fog about the creature, and as it came closer I realized that the humming cloud around its face was actually a thick swarm of flies. Festering boils on its neck wriggled with maggots, and I became dizzy just trying to fathom what I was beholding.
This must have been what they thought of when they first invented the word “abomination.”
I kept my Beretta steady, waiting for the thing to charge. With the way it ran back at the bowling alley and in the cemetery, I likely wouldn’t have but a split second--if that--to take it down. The gun was pointed at the widest point on its center of mass--the chest, where I quickly noticed a cluster of bullet holes already in the jumpsuit, stained black.
Looks like I hit him already.
Whatever this thing was, my pathetic 9mm wasn’t going to do more than annoy it. But at this point, running simply wasn’t in the cards. Yet again, I found myself with the ever-familiar feeling of being a sitting duck.
Think fast, you’re running out of time. Options?
Run? Hide? No, too late for that.
Shoot it? The thing took four shots to the chest before you launched him off the car. He’s not going down from bullets. Unless…
Head shot? Could work.
Go for the weapon? Shoot his hands? Also valid options. But even without that hammer, a charge from that thing would be like getting run over by a truck. I need to slow him down.
Slow him down. That’s the play. I can keep a hammer’s distance, but not if this thing starts moving like he did earlier.
I pointed the gun at his knee and fired six shots in rapid succession. The cloud of flies exploded off the monster after the first impact, and the creature stopped.
But it didn’t go down.
It stood still with that expressionless reptilian face.
After a tiny eternity, the thing shifted its weight to the good leg and lifted the wounded one, moving it clumsily forward, then landing. I held my breath and watched as it tried out the injured limb, then dragged the metallic weapon forward and moved its other leg. It had just taken another step, and all those shots had succeeded in doing were jack and shit. The cloud of flies had returned to the area around the monster, and I prepared myself to go out swinging.
When he charges, start shooting.
If there’s a reason God decided not to let me die right then and there, I don’t know what it could be. I’m not a good person. I’ve barely done anything in my time on this earth to make anybody miss me when I’m gone. But whatever the reason, this was not going to be the moment I had to face my maker.
The partial deafness from the gunshots coupled with the situational blinders kept me from noticing the black vans until they had sped past me and screeched to a stop.
I didn’t see where the smoke grenades came from, but the parking lot was swallowed in the thick gray in a matter of seconds. The last thing my eyes were able to pick up was the juggernaut lifting the weapon over its head.
When the shots started, I hit the ground. By my count, I was dealing with at least half a dozen fully automatic weapons. I held my breath and started to crawl away from the fray.
The next thing I remember was waking up on the floor of a moving vehicle with a splitting pain in my side reminding me of all the shit I’d put my body through that day. I was on my back when I came to and sat straight up.
How the hell did I get here?
The van rocked back and forth as we drove. There were no windows back here, only bench seats against the walls and five heavily armed men in camo fatigues and tactical gear. In front of me was a sixth man, only he didn’t have a weapon, or helmet, or any kind of gear. He was dressed in a tan t-shirt and jeans, and when he saw that I was awake, he smiled and said, “He’s up. Good. Welcome back.”
“Where am I?”
I instinctively reached for the spot on my side and found nothing but an empty holster. One of the armed men put a firm hand on my shoulder. His way of saying, “Take it easy. And no sudden moves.”
“Don’t worry. You’re safe now,” said the man in jeans.
“That’s not what I asked,” I said back. “Who are you people?”
“We’ve been watching you for a while, detective. You’re lucky we showed up when we did.”
This is it. I’m finally getting to see the man behind the curtain.
“Where’s Vanessa?” I demanded.
“Wow,” the guy shot back, “You really have no idea what’s going on, do you?”
“I know enough. I know you’re part of some shady organization with reach and pull. I know you’re working on something big, and you’re willing to kill to keep a lid on it. And I know my niece was involved somehow.” I was showing my hand, but at this point I didn’t even care. They had me dead to rights, and even if I played dumb, there was no way they were going to let me off with a warning. “I also know you’re responsible for what’s been going on in this town. The disappearances, the phone calls from the dead, the weather. I don’t know how, but I know you-”
“Let me stop you right there,” he interrupted. “You’re embarrassing yourself. Because not one part of that was correct. Yeah, there’s something going on here, but we’re not it. We didn’t take Vanessa. We’ve been trying for years to find out who--or what--is actually responsible for all of this.”
“Bullshit. You’re saying that this shithole small town just happens to have two secret paramilitary organizations?”
He laughed. “No, no no no. Definitely more than two.”
The van made a sharp right turn and I started tracking seconds. I couldn’t be sure how long I was out, or even how they knocked me out to begin with, but if--if--I made it out of this van alive, I might be able to retrace my steps.
“Let me ask you something, detective. How much time have you spent at that gas station? I mean, concurrently? Because it looks like you actually slept there. That place messes with your head, you know. Most people can’t stand it for more than a couple hours at a time.”
I ignored his question and asked my own, “So if you’re not the ones that took Vanessa and framed me, then who the hell are you?”
“You can consider us... an interested third party.”
“Yeah,” I replied, echoing Spencer’s words from yesterday, “There sure seem to be a lot of those in this town.”
The man pulled a gun out from beneath his seat and pointed it. Before I could move, the men on either side of me clamped down their grips on my shoulders, holding me in place. I looked at the gun and recognized it as my own Beretta.
“You army?” the man asked. “I knew this guy. He was a ranger in the army. You remind me of him.”
“No, I’m not army.”
The man nodded, then stared at the ground, like he was trying to decide what to say next. The van made another right turn and I restarted my count.
“It’s weird that you would be so careful, constantly watching your rearview, switching up cars, keeping an ear to the ground, and still you couldn’t find the tracking device they put in your gun. Don’t worry, we took it out. They have no idea where we are now.”
“The ones that actually took your niece.”
I wasn’t buying this story for a second. After everything they had tried to throw me off the trail, this was just another elaborate set up. But why? Why not just let that thing kill me and be done with it? Were they testing me to see what I knew? How much I had figured out?
“For what it’s worth, we’ve been trying to find her. But these guys are careful. They cover their tracks, avoid every camera, leave no footprints. Then you came along and they got sloppy, they got frustrated, and they sent a knight after a pawn. No offense.”
Oh, fuck you.
He continued, “We’ve finally captured one of their tall guys. And all we had to do was piggyback off their tracking device and follow you until it decided to show. This is a big deal for us.”
The van turned to the right.
They’re driving in circles.
At this point I knew that there were two possibilities: Either this guy was telling the truth, or he was lying. And I couldn’t decide which was worse. But regardless, one thing was clear. I needed to get out of this van if I wanted to live. Once they were done questioning me, I was just a loose end.
“Ok,” I said, trying to buy time, “You’re the good guys. You want to take out the other secret organization. You must know more about them than me, right?”
“You know about planet X? Scientists have known for years that there’s another planet out there, because they can see the effects.” Jesus, does every person in this town talk in sermons? “They don’t know what it looks like or even where it is, but they know it’s there. This organization we’ve been tracking is huge, but all we get to see are the gravitational effects.”
“Gravitational effects? Is that what you call an eighteen year old girl vanishing without a trace?”
He kept the gun pointed at me and reached his free hand into his pocket to pull out a cell phone. As he typed on it one-handed, he spoke, “They sent one of the tall guys to grab her after she left the gas station. We tried to catch up to them, we really did. And, to be frank, we thought she was dead. Until the next day when she showed up for work like nothing had ever happened. Took us a while to realize that the girl that came back wasn’t really Vanessa Riggin.”
“So you took her, right? Kidnapped the double agent for questioning. That’s where this story is headed, isn’t it?”
He pressed a button on the phone and held it out to me while a video played. I instantly recognized the aerial view of Vanessa and Jamie’s neighborhood at night. The source must have been a drone, but it was steady and clear.
“This is the night she officially went missing.”
The camera was wide, but I could see the house in focus. I watched as the front door opened and Vanessa walked calmly to the edge of her driveway in jeans and a yellow t-shirt. She looked down the road at something out of frame, and then I saw it. The sheriff’s cruiser pulled to a stop and she got in the passenger seat. And then, they drove away.
“What is this? What in the ever living fuck is going on in this town?”
“Are you familiar with the theory of ‘Pocket Realities’?”
The steady pop pop pop pop from somewhere in the distance arrested all of our attention. I instantly recognized it as automatic weapon fire, maybe a mile or so out, and I could see the moment the same realization registered on the man’s face. He jumped out of his seat and grabbed a radio from somewhere in the front of the van and yelled into it, “Victor, come in! We hear gunfire, is the package secure?”
There was no response from the other end of the radio, but the gunfire continued. And then, it didn’t. We all held our breath and waited, until the man yelled at the driver, “Turn around, we need to help them.”
I wasn’t going to get a better distraction than this. I jumped out of my seat, wrapped an arm around the man’s neck, and spun him back towards the other men as a human shield. Before he knew it, I had my Beretta again, and it was pressed against his head.
“You’re making a mistake. We weren’t going to hurt you.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
I grabbed the handle of the van door, yanked it open, and dove out into the wet grass.
I tried my best to tuck and roll, but I still ripped open my stitches and bruised both elbows before sliding down the hill towards the forest. I could hear the van screeching to a stop while I pulled myself up and ran into the thick cover of the trees.
I spent hours out there in the dark, doing my damnedest to keep moving no matter what. I couldn’t know if they were following me or not, but I wasn’t going to take any more chances. Eventually I hit a creek bed and followed it up stream until I reached an old bridge, then I collapsed under it and slept until morning.
After those few precious hours of rest, I started following the road back towards town. I put my thumb out to the first passer by, hoping I might get lucky, and amazingly it pulled over. The car was a new-model shiny red firebird, and the driver was an old woman that I knew from my childhood, Aggie Sistrunk. She didn’t recognize me. She was already old when I was a kid, and at this point I wonder if she even knows what day it is. Old Aggie offered me a swig of her “medicine” while she drove me back into town. I politely declined. Then she asked me where I was headed, and I gave her the address.
Clyde didn’t get home until around noon, which gave me plenty of time to raid his pantry, clean up my wounds, and of course, search his house for clues. I came up empty in that last category, but I had already assumed that was going to happen. If he were one of them, he wouldn’t be sloppy enough to leave evidence of it in his underwear drawer.
Not that it was really much of an “if” anymore. I saw him in that video. He was the one driving the car that picked up Vanessa on the night she went missing. I should have seen it earlier. Of course the sheriff would have to know what’s going on. An operation this size can’t fly under law enforcement radar forever.
I wasn’t expecting him to come home until much later, but I was ready just in case. I surprised him in his kitchen, and let the Beretta do most of the talking.
“Hey there, Sheriff. Fancy seeing you here.”
He went pale, but he didn’t reach for his gun, or put up a fight. I was hoping he wouldn’t, but prepared just in case. Fortunately, things were working out. I took his gun and walked him into the den. There were no windows in here, no weapons, and the seats were arranged far enough apart that I could sit across from him without having to worry about him making a move.
Once his ass was down on the couch, I poured him a glass of his most expensive scotch and set it on the coffee table in front of him. A professional courtesy.
I took my seat on the divan across the room and broke the long silence.
“I have to assume you know why I’m here.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
“Maybe. Try harder.”
“We found the body in the trunk of Vanessa’s car. I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
“Pull my other leg and it plays jingle bells.”
What followed was another heavy silence. I could see he wanted to say something but couldn’t bring himself to do it. That was fine by me. As long as I was on this side of the gun, I didn’t mind waiting. Finally, he broke down and grabbed the drink and put the whole glass back in one go. Then he said, “Well, how much do you know?”
“That’s not how this works, Clyde. You tell me what you know.”
“I had nothing to do with Vanessa’s abduction.”
“Bullshit. You picked her up the night she disappeared.”
“What? No, I’m not talking about her. I’m talking about Vanessa. The girl I picked up that night wasn’t even-” He caught himself and took a long, sad breath before continuing. “I had very specific instructions for what I was supposed to do if this ever happened.”
“Instructions? From who? Tell me who you work for and this will all be over soon.”
He gave me a chilling look that I’ll never forget and said, “Thanks for the drink, detective.”
I should have been smarter.
I’ll never forgive myself for being so careless. For not giving him a thorough pat down. In the midst of all of my planning it had never even occurred to me that he might have a second piece. The gun in his ankle holster was a PS1 single shot. A pocket shotgun. Before I could scream "No!" he put the gun in his mouth, ate the bullet, and painted the walls of the living room.
Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
My brain kicked into overdrive. Why would he do that? What do I do now? What’s the play?
I had no answers, but an overwhelming urge to get away from here as soon as possible.
The cell phone in my pocket began to ring. Roger was calling.
Do I answer? Does he know what happened? Can he help?
I let it ring while I weighed the options.
What options? There are no options. You leave this house, make sure there’s no DNA, no prints. Get the fuck out of dodge or you’ll go down as a cop killer.
Yeah, my choices were looking pretty limited.
I answered the phone.
“Finally. I was starting to think they got you.”
“Roger, listen to me. I’m in deep shit. Is this line secure?”
“Detective, this might be the only line in the whole town that isn’t being monitored, but I can guarantee you that it’s just the two of us.”
“I need to tell you two things. The sheriff is dead. I didn’t kill him.”
There was a lull in the conversation so long that I had to wonder if I’d been disconnected. And then Roger came back on the line with, “Oh. This is bad. Real bad. Should I assume you are with the late sheriff right now?”
“You can assume.”
“Then you need to get out of there yesterday, because the chatter on the radio is all about the shots fired at the sheriff’s house. And that call came in ten minutes ago.”
I made a break for the front door, but stopped at the window when I saw the flashing lights outside. I turned and ran to the back door, pushed it open, and took off towards the fence. But before I made it two steps I was surrounded. Every deputy was working that day, (actually, all but one) and there were more guns pointed at me then I could count. I dropped to my knees, threw up my hands, and closed my eyes, bracing for the inevitable.
They tackled me hard. Someone pushed his knee against my neck while they twisted my arms behind my back and put on the metal bracelets. A team of them dragged me out front and tossed me into the back of a squad car, and they left me there to cook for an hour. The whole time, the only thing I could think was “Why am I still alive?”
When they had finally sorted out the crime scene, I was taken to the sheriff’s station. I did my best to cooperate, but that didn’t stop them from slamming me into a few walls or taking turns sucker punching me in the back and kidneys. To them, I was a monster. I was lower than garbage. And they were taking me to be with the only other person as bad as me.
The holding room was small, dark, and windowless. Only big enough for two cells, and those cells were just simple metal cages. They threw me into the one closer to the door, then locked the cage behind me. Then they left us alone in there, shutting the door to the holding room and bolting the lock into place.
I looked at the man standing on the other side of the metal bars. The man trapped in the other cage. He smiled and laughed at me from his cot against the wall and said, “You look like shit, Riggin.”
“Yeah, I’ve been better.” I said.
Spencer Middleton stood up and walked over to the bars, leaning against them as he said, “I think you should know something. This is only going to get worse.”
I reflexively took a step back. He’d gotten the jump on me once before, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to stand close enough for him to grab me through the bars.
“I’m not sure it can get much worse.”
“I’ve been in this cell for a week now. Trust me, it’s going to get worse.” He smiled and scratched the scar on his neck.
“I suppose you don’t feel like taking this opportunity to tell me what the fuck is going on, do you?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. They’re going to spin a yarn, about you. Just like they did about me. They’ll sell some bullshit. The news will polish the bullshit. The people will eat the bullshit. And you, eventually you’ll start believing it too. They’re all going to lie to you, but not me. I’ll never lie to you. You wanna know why?”
“Because I know that the truth is so much worse.” He laughed another long, self-satisfied laugh and turned to go back to his cot. As he got comfortable he added, “You and me are gonna have a lot of fun, Riggin.”
I looked at the cot on my side of the cell. It wasn’t much. Not long enough for me to lay on without my feet and elbow hanging off the edges, but it was better than the floor. And right now, the idea of getting some real sleep was sounding pretty damned inviting.
I woke up to the sound of a loud Clang against the bars of my cell. The man standing on the other side next to the exit was the one I had left in handcuffs outside of the hardware store the day prior. The bruise over Franklin’s jaw was already a pronounced deep purple, and I have to admit I was a little proud of it.
I could see the thing he had used to wake me--a police baton in his right hand. No doubt this was going to be his turn for a little petty revenge.
Alright. Let’s get this over with.
“Howdy, deputy.” I said, standing to my feet and immediately remembering that my body was still beaten and bruised. If it had been an option, I might have just stayed in that cot until the judge threw the book at me and they put a needle in my arm.
“It’s time for your one phone call.” Franklin said unemotionally.
He led me down the hall and into another small room, where I was pretty sure I was about to get another round of beatings, but shockingly the only thing in there was a small table and a corded telephone which sat with the receiver off the hook next to it. Franklin locked the door and nodded at the table.
What’s going on?
I approached the table, anxiously awaiting some sort of trap, but none came. Once I was certain that Franklin wasn’t going to crack open my skull with his baton, I reached out, grabbed the telephone receiver, and put it to my ear.
“Hello?” I said.
The voice on the other end of the line was sad and tired, but familiar. “Detective, I’m sorry it’s come to this. I’ve tried every other plan I could think of, but I’m afraid we’re out of choices. We go nuclear, or we all lose.” It was Roger. “The thing is, well, I’m sure you’ve already worked it out on your own…”
“I’m not leaving this place alive.”
“Honestly, I’m surprised I made it this far.”
“You remember our agreement? I’d help you best I could, and in return I wanted a favor. Well, this is it. I’m calling in my favor. And prepare yourself, because it’s going to be a doozie.”
Franklin took out his gun and I quickly scanned the room for a weapon to defend myself with. But then, he surprised me and turned the gun around and held it out.
He said with a frown, “Make it look good.”
I snatched the gun away from him.
“What is this?” I asked.
Roger answered, “Your deputy friend here owed me a favor. And now… well, you know what to do. Try not to hurt him too bad.”
Franklin closed his eyes and I swung the weapon hard, cracking him across the face and spurting blood all over the floor where he landed.
“Good,” said Roger. I don’t know how the hell he could see me, but at this point I didn’t care. “Now listen carefully, detective. Because this is your turn. I know you know how to use that thing. There’s only one way this story ends with anything remotely resembling a happy ending. You have to go into that cell right now and put a bullet in Spencer Middleton’s head. No half-measures are going to work. You have to kill him.”
“Why?” I demanded.
“They need him. I’m sure by now you’ve figured this whole thing out. The invasion? Well Spencer’s the only one who knows where to find the ingredients they need to build their army.”
“Just tell me one thing. Is Vanessa alive?”
“I’m sorry, Eric.”
I hung the phone up. That was enough.
Am I really going to do this?
What else could I do? Take Franklin’s gun, shoot my way out of the sheriff’s station?
I was done for. The only thing I could do is make my death count for something. And there was no person on this planet that I could say was more deserving of a bullet behind the ear than Spencer fucking Middleton. But was I really going to be the one to literally pull the trigger?
I took Franklin’s keys, cracked the door and looked out. This was a straight, empty hallway. On one end, the way out through the station, full of angry men with guns. On the other, the holding room. My heart pounded in my ears as I walked alone back to that room and put the key in the lock.
Spencer was staring right at me when the door opened, like he had been waiting for me.
“Well look at you.” He said, “They turned you into their little bitch, huh?”
“Turn around,” I ordered.
He refused to look away as he said, “Let me tell you something. If you’re going to shoot me, you had better not miss.”
Spencer was expecting this.
I chambered a round into Franklin’s gun and prepared myself to do what I had to do. Spencer was part of this conspiracy, and his death was going to fuck over the ones who took Vanessa.
What the fuck was that?
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Somebody was shooting in the same building as us. I turned and looked back down the hallway.
“Well how about that?” Spencer taunted from behind me. “Looks like you might need to preserve your ammo.”
The gunshots continued. Dozens of them now. Out there, beyond that hallway, there was a firefight. It exploded in shots and then…
The door at the other end of the hall came crashing off the hinges along with a large chunk of the wall. The beast was there, holding the sledgehammer. And this time it wasn’t alone.
Behind it were two more creatures, just as huge and terrifying. Their bodies all matched. Their clothes, their height, and their wretched smell. But the heads on the other two were different. One had a somewhat human face. No hair, no ears, no nose, and no lips. Its skin chalk white. Its head swollen up to an unnaturally large size. Its eyes red and bulging. The third one’s head was barely more than a skull covered in red and pink oozing boils. One eye socket was vacant, the other held a single bloodshot eye. Its mouth was just a red skeletal smile.
At their feet lay the bodies of several deputies.
I pointed the gun and fired.
BANG! click click click.
I kept pulling the trigger but-
Son of a bitch!
Franklin had only given me one bullet.
I slammed the door to the holding room shut and scanned the area for weapons, but of course there was nothing. Without even thinking, I got inside of the empty cage, closed the door behind me, and locked it.
It didn’t take long for them to break the second door down. The creatures stepped into the room, their heads nearly touching the ceiling as they all three piled in and walked right past me to Spencer’s cell. He approached them with a big smile and said, “What the hell took you so long?”
They all grabbed the door to Spencer’s cage and pulled. The metal bent and snapped free at the hinges, and then, suddenly, Spencer Middleton was free. The creatures stepped back against the wall, allowing him the space to walk past.
As he left the room, he looked back at me and said, “See ya around.”
I stood in the corner, watching the monsters as they followed him out the door. They weren’t here for me, and now that they had what they wanted they were done and gone. I waited there in the cell, staring at the door until I couldn’t take it anymore and ran to the toilet in the corner to throw my guts up.
I had failed. Failed hard. And now it was only a matter of time before somebody found this bloodbath and pinned the whole thing on me.
I still have the keys. I could make a run for it. Grab Jamie, make a break for New Orleans. Find a good attorney or even slip off the grid for a while.
There was no chance for justice anymore. I’d lost the war, and now I needed to make a strategic retreat.
I spit the last of the bile into the toilet and pulled the handle, images of carnage and monsters still fresh in my mind while I tried to work out the plan. This next part was going to be rough, but I needed to get through it. Climb past the bodies. Find one with car keys. Take another car.
I turned around to see that psychopath standing there alone on the other side of the bars.
What? Why did he come back?
My words caught in my throat, but he didn’t seem to mind guiding the conversation. “Looks like something you ate must not have agreed with you, huh? Hey, before I go... I wanted to ask you something.”
He extended his hand between the bars, and when I saw what he was holding I felt a cold shiver run down my spine.
“In case you were interested, my offer is still on the table. What do you say? Do you want to know where to find her?”
That fucker had come back with a pair of pliers.
I crossed the tiny cell to where he stood, reached out, and took them from him. He smiled a wicked smile, and I looked at the tool in my hands.
Don’t let him see you flinch.
I ran my tongue across my teeth, trying to decide which one I would miss the least. I settled on one of my top bicuspids and put the pliers into my mouth.
I can still feel the sensation of the metal touching my tooth. The way it shot up my nerve into a spot below my sinuses as I pulled and wiggled it, trying to yank it free while Spencer choked on his own laughter. When I finally had it detached from my jaw, the blood was pouring steadily. I spat a mouthful onto the floor and placed my tooth in Spencer’s outstretched palm. Then I ripped a piece of cloth from my sleeve and bit down on it to stop the bleeding while Spencer inspected it like a diamond assessor.
Once he was satisfied, he told me where I would find Vanessa’s body.
I walked into the gas station looking and feeling like shit. A quick scan of the place told me that there weren’t any customers in there. Behind the counter, Jack sat typing on his laptop. Toulouse leaned on the counter next to him, reading a magazine. When they saw me, I heard Jack say, “Check it out. The detective is still alive.”
Toulouse nodded and said, “Yeah, look at him go. Good for him,” before turning his attention back to the magazine.
My stomach turned and I went straight for the bathroom where I started dry heaving into the sink. If there had been anything left in my stomach, I’d have lost it there.
How am I even going to do this?
I looked at my reflection in the mirror and noticed that the man dressed as a cowboy was standing in the corner behind me.
I spun around and screamed at him, “What the fuck?! Who the fuck even are you, man?!”
He was thankfully wearing all of his clothes this time, including a red bandanna around his neck and a cowboy hat. With a wry smile he held out a ball-peen hammer and said in a calm voice, “Make good decisions.” I can’t explain why, but that weird sentence hit me with a sense of calm and renewed focus. I took the hammer, thanked him, and left the bathroom.
The wall behind the notice board. That’s where you’ll find her.
Jack and Toulouse didn’t seem nearly surprised enough by what I was doing, smashing a huge hole into the wall of the gas station with a hammer. I kept swinging, breaking the hole open wider and wider, and I didn’t stop until the wall was gone, exposing the dry shriveled corpse of a young girl inside. From the looks of her, she had been dead for a long time. Her skin had turned gray and her face was unrecognizable. But her clothes still looked clean and new. A pair of blue jeans and a yellow t-shirt.
O’Brien was the first on scene. She wrote up the official report, which I got a look at a couple weeks later. An “unknown man” came into the gas station, broke a hole in the wall, and revealed the corpse of a young missing girl. The body was dried of all blood post-mortem, which was probably responsible for the accelerated mummification process.
DNA samples and dental records proved conclusively that this was the body of Vanessa Riggin, but I knew the truth. That wasn’t my niece.
Spencer was always very clever in the way he worded his offer. “I’ll tell you where you can find the body of a certain girl.” He had been referring to the double the whole time.
There was a funeral, but neither Jamie nor I bothered going. I moved some money around and got the kid out of town. I won’t say where he is, but believe me when I say he’s in a safe place now.
As for my legal troubles, well, they actually went away on their own. One final departing gift from the ones in charge, maybe? Besides, it’s hard to arrest somebody for killing the sheriff when the sheriff isn’t dead. Yeah, I got a message not too long ago from O’Brien. Clyde showed up to work that next day, and everybody’s decided to pretend he never gave himself amateur brain surgery. In fact, there’s no record of anyone dying in that nice little peaceful town the whole time I was there.
I had almost convinced myself that the entire thing was a stress-fueled delusion, but yesterday I got a package in the mail at my office with no return address. The only thing inside was Donnie’s old brown jacket.
Then last night I got the phone call.
“Hey, Uncle Eric?”
It was a girl’s voice.
“Yeah, this is Eric.”
“Do you know who this is?”
“They, uh. They told me I can talk to you for a second.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of hospital, I think. What is this? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s a man here who wants to talk to you.”
“No, Vanessa, don’t-”
“Hey detective.” She handed off the phone, and I recognized his voice instantly.
“Spencer. What do you want?”
“Me? I don’t want anything. I just thought I’d let you know that despite all of my objections, they’re taking really good care of Vanessa.”
“Please. Is that what you want to hear? You want me to beg? Please don’t hurt her. Just let her go.”
“It’s already too late for that. Even if she went home right now, there’s no way anyone would ever believe that she was the real one. Even you, right now, have your doubts don’t you? The line between what’s real and what isn’t has started to blur so much that there might as well not be one anymore. And that’s what they want. They want you doubting your own eyes. They want you to wonder who’s real and who’s been replaced. Because that’s part of the attack. When you can’t trust the person next to you, that’s when they’ll know they already won. It’s a brave new world, detective. And if I ever see you again, I’ll skin you alive.”
The line went dead.
I’ve tried tracking the number, but even my computer guy has told me it’s a high tech dead end.
It’s been months now since I started looking for my lost niece. And I’ve used this time to prepare. Next time I go back to that town, I’ll be ready. I won’t get caught off guard. And when I finally find her, there’s going to be hell to pay.
Spencer isn’t a complicated guy. I understood his message good and well. It sounded like a warning, but it wasn’t.
It was an invitation.