Finding Vanessa


Chapter One

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. The whole truth, 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.”

“She’s missing.”

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.

“Two weeks.”

“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, ok?”

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.

The fuck?

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?”

That’s weird.


“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.”

Chapter Two

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?

I answered.


“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.

Chapter Three

I woke up suspended off the ground in a small dark room with that ever so familiar feeling of not knowing where the hell I was. The walls were covered in shelves packed with cleaning supplies, paper products, and canned goods. When I tried to sit up, the world shook and swung under me, and it took a few tries before I realized that I was being held up by a braided rope hammock.

“You awake?” asked a voice to my right. I turned and saw the gas station clerk from earlier, Jerry, sitting on a milk crate and smiling.

I tried to sit up but a pain shot through my leg like electricity and I fell back onto the hammock.

“Where am I? What happened? Did… did you paint my nails?”

I looked at the red nail polish on my right hand, then at Jerry.

“You like it?”


“Ok, that’s fair. You’re more of a fire truck than a cherry red anyway, but I thought I’d take a chance.”

I looked at the source of the pain-my leg-and saw that it had been wrapped tightly in a makeshift duct tape cast that wrapped right around my pants leg. That’s when it all came back to me, a bizarre memory that wouldn’t have been out of place in a David Lynch fever dream.

I reached out, grabbed Jerry by the collar of his shirt, and yanked him close to me.

“I need to talk to the sheriff. Now.”


The man in the bear costume stayed there on the other side of the clearing, spinning his arms and legs in a bizarre dance like a PCP-jacked teenager at the disco, occasionally looking my way as if to make sure that I was still watching. I slowly started to back up, putting one foot behind the other, carefully adding to the distance between us. I didn’t know the score, but I sure as hell didn’t want to push my luck. Once I got back to my car I could call the sheriff and have him bring all his deputies and an extra large straight jacket, but that plan required that I first get back to my car.

I had my eyes locked on the bear man, so I saw exactly when the arrow whipped right through him.

It came from somewhere in the forest behind him, entered his bear suit from the back, just below the armpit, and passed straight through the other side towards me. I didn’t have either the time or the reflexes to dodge. The next thing I knew, I had been struck.

I hit the ground and the man in the bear costume grabbed his wound and danced his way back into the woods. The arrow had lodged itself deep in my left leg a few inches above the knee, with the light wooden shaft protruding straight out. It was the single most painful thing I had ever experienced, and sheer adrenaline is probably the only reason I wasn’t going right into shock.

Two men donned head to toe in camouflage and carrying hunting bows stepped into the clearing at the same spot where the bear man had emerged. They both had shades of green smeared all over their faces like war paint. The fat one was cussing and yelling when he emerged.

I screamed, partially to get their attention and partially because I just couldn’t help it.

“Aw shit,” yelled the skinny one, “Did we get you?”

He dropped his bow and ran over to me while the fat one put his own on a sling over his shoulder and slowly walked over to join us.

“Who the fuck are you?” asked the fat one.

The skinny one pulled an eight-inch knife out of its sheath on his belt and sliced open my pants leg around where the arrow had lodged. I took a look and wished I hadn’t.

“You shot me!” I yelled. It was about the only thing I could muster the strength to say besides the lengthy paragraph of expletives I couldn’t hold in if I tried.

The skinny one looked at me defensively, “Well hell dude. We weren’t expecting no people but us to be out here.”

“Bear’s gonna get away now, boy.” Complained the fat one. “You think you can walk?”

I didn’t answer right away. The shaft of the arrow was shaking with my pulse, and I knew it was embedded into my femur. The fat man knelt down for a closer look and whistled.

“Yep. That’s in there alright.”

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on anything but the pain. Every breath, every heartbeat, every micromovement radiated through the arrow like an antenna into the wound and down the nerve in my leg. My eyes shot open and I let out a scream.

The fat one had reached out and grabbed the arrow at the base. With his other hand, he grabbed the top and snapped the shaft off. I collapsed onto my back and stared up at the sky, hoping that the pain would just knock me out already.

“There,” said the hunter. “Now we don’t gotta worry about it snaggin on every little thing. Ned, help me get him to the four wheeler.”

The other one, Ned, pulled me to my feet and together we went back into the woods. I kept an arm over both of their shoulders, basically hanging on and letting my bad leg drag the whole way. Not too far into the forest there was a small trail that we followed for close to half a mile before we reached the four wheelers. I don’t remember the ride back to their truck, but I remember them smacking me on the face when we got there to make sure I was still alive.

“Ya’ll get him?” asked the fat woman sitting in the driver’s seat of the white extended cab truck stained brown from countless layers of dried mud.

The fat man got off the four wheeler and answered, “Naw, he got away.”

“I clipped him though,” bragged Ned as he jumped down from the four wheeler. “Left a blood trail. We may still be able to get him.”

“You shut up, boy! We ain’t goin nowhere tonight. Gotta get home before the sun goes down.”

The woman looked at me and smiled a big, toothless smile, her bright red cheeks standing out against her pale skin like she had already had a few drinks too many. “Oh, you got something though?”

The fat one grabbed me by the hair and yanked me off the four wheeler, throwing me to the ground, I let out another scream.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?! Are you crazy? That thing out there isn’t a bear, it’s a person! And you assholes shot me! I need to get to a hospital for Christ’s sake!”

The fat man looked at the woman and said, “Yeah, Ned got this one by accident.”

“Well that ain’t a total loss then,” she said back. “Why’s he still alive?”

“They’re easier to move when they’re alive. And they taste better if they’re scared when you put ‘em down.”


Ned let out a whoop and jumped on top of me, pushing my face into ground and yanking at my pockets. He managed to dig out my phone, wallet, and keys before I finally got a handful of dirt and smacked it into his eyes. He fell off of me and I jumped to my feet, running towards the safety of the forest when-


I froze.

“Now I wouldn’t be too keen on running back out there if I were you.”

I put my hands in the air and slowly turned around to face the fat one pointing a .45 at me from what I would consider point-blank range. Close enough that I could recognize it as a Dan Wesson Specialist. These guys were bowhunting for sport, but smart enough to bring along something heavier just in case. Smarter than me, that’s for sure.

“Why not?” I asked, “I doubt there’s anything out there as bad as right here.”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong.”

“OOOOOOhhh,” cooed the woman from inside the truck, “Shoot him! Shoot him!”

“Shut up woman! I ain’t gonna shoot him just cause you said so.”

“Hey now,” I said softly. Suddenly, the pain in my leg didn’t seem so bad. “Let’s talk about this for a second. You don’t have to kill me. I don’t know you from Adam. You can just leave me here and we can forget all about this.”

Ned reached out for the gun and said, “Let me do it. You got to do the last one.”

The fat one sighed and handed the gun over, “Fine. But aim careful. One shot, one kill.”

“Wait!” I screamed, “I know where the bear is! I can take you to him.”

“He’s lying,” whined the fat woman.

“No I’m not! We’re friends! Why the hell else would I be out here in the middle of nowhere with the bear?”

Ned gave the fat man a “what now?” look and the fat man scrunched up his face as he thought about it.

“Ok,” he finally said. “Take us to him, and then maybe we’ll let you go. Maybe.”

One gun, two hunting knives, two bows, a quiver of arrows. I raced every scenario through my mind quickly. How do I get to one of their weapons without getting killed first?

Forest, four wheeler, truck. Is there any realistic way to escape without being shot in the back? Things weren’t looking good, but I was still breathing for the time being.

“It’ll be faster if we take the truck.”


The hunters were being smarter than I would have liked. The big one–I picked up that his name was “Paw”–put me in the back seat of the cab next to Ned. He threw all of the weapons, knives included, into the truck bed and climbed into the back with us. I was sandwiched with Ned to my right and Paw to my left in that tiny vehicle that smelled like shit. Literally, it smelled like human feces. The seats were torn up and wet and I saw a few small roaches scurry away from us.

After Paw slammed his door shut, a tiny face looked back at me from the passenger seat. A little girl with matted blonde hair, no older than ten. She smiled and said, “Are we gonna eat this one?”

“Probably,” said the fat woman as she cranked the engine.

“Which way?” asked Paw.

I pointed straight ahead. “Get up here on the main road and take a right.”

“You better not be trying nothin,” warned Paw.

We hit the main road and the truck climbed up to a slow thirty mph.

“Go straight for about a mile,” I said, “Then you’ll see a dirt road on the left.”

“Ain’t no dirt road,” squealed the fat woman in a high pitched voice. “I know these woods like the back of my hands and I ain’t remember no dirt road up here.”

Paw punched me hard in the stomach, “You think you’re funny, boy?”

He knocked the wind out of me, and I doubled over in the seat as they all started laughing maniacally…

There’s an expression in trapping called “wring-off,” which is much worse than the phrase implies. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, allow me to explain. Trappers have to check their traps frequently, because if they don’t, an animal’s survival instinct will kick in and they will free themselves, one way or another. The most common form of wring-off is when a coyote or jaguar or anything with sharp enough teeth chews through its own leg to free itself. It ain’t pretty, but it sure beats the alternative, right? In that moment, I understood exactly how those trapped animals felt.

I bit down hard on the exposed piece of the wooden arrow shaft, as hard as I could stand, and yanked it out as fast as I could. For the second time in as many hours, I experienced the single most painful thing I’d ever felt. But now the arrow was free from my leg, and I had a weapon.

I spit the broken arrowhead into my left hand and stabbed it into Paw’s neck, cutting his laughter into a muffled gurgle.

“Oh shit!” yelled Ned as I swung myself onto the seat and planted the foot of my good leg against the side of his face with as much force as I could muster. I pushed his head into the glass of the window, all the while holding onto the arrow that was still embedded in Paw’s neck.

The little girl started screaming and the fat woman turned around to see what the fuss was about.

I turned to her, then I noticed it… maybe a hundred feet ahead, the man in the Bear costume stepping out of the woods and crossing the road.

I closed my eyes and braced for impact.

She must have looked back and seen the bear because the truck lurched wildly to one side, then back to the other, like she had swerved to miss and then over corrected, and then we started rolling. The sound of the crash was like an explosion, pieces of broken glass and blood rained down all around me as my head hit the roof, then the seat, then the door, and finally the world stopped spinning and I was on my back with blood stinging my eyes.

A warm hand reached under me and dragged me out of the wreckage and twisted mass of bodies and debris, through the cold wet grass and through a ditch, then dropped me into the road. I wiped my eyes and looked up at the giant black buttons of the man in the bear costume.

He waved at me, then gave an excited double thumbs up before walking back to the truck, unzipping the fly on the bear suit, and pissing all over the wreckage. He did a little jig off into the forest, and that was the last I saw of him.

What the fuck is happening?


I checked the truck. The driver, Ned, and Paw were all dead. The little girl was nowhere to be found. I know if she had survived, it’s unlikely I’d have any luck finding her. The weapons were gone too, probably flung out in the crash, and even though I would have felt a lot safer packing, it wasn’t worth the time it would take to track them down. I made a quick bandage out of my shirt sleeve and wrapped it around my leg tight enough to slow the bleeding, then I found a fallen branch long and strong enough to service as a walking stick and started up the road in the direction of the gas station.


I must have been a hell of a sight when I got back there. I was torn up and bleeding from several wounds, but none of that seemed to create a sense of care in the clerk behind the register, who still didn’t even have the decency to look up from his damn book.

I walked over to him and knocked on the counter, finally drawing his attention. I don’t know what it takes to impress this guy, but the sight of me in my nearest-to-death sure as hell didn’t even register with him.

“I need to use your phone.”

He tapped a small cardboard sign that was sitting on the counter. In sloppy black sharpie, someone had written the message:

“If you would like to use the store phone, it is twenty-five cents per minute. Please pay in advance. There are no exceptions.”

I reached for my wallet, only to remember that it wasn’t on me. Ned had taken it and left it somewhere out in the woods.

“Look, asshole, this is a life or death situation. There’s been an accident. I need to call the sheriff.”

The clerk spun the cardboard sign to the opposite side, where someone had written: “No exceptions means no exceptions. Not even life or death situations. Thank you for understanding. – MGMT”

Under normal circumstances, I would have resorted to a more physical solution, but at that moment I started feeling light headed and dizzy, and the next thing I knew, I was swinging in a hammock with my nails painted.

Chapter Four

“Where the hell am I?” I repeated the question to Jerry.

“You’re in the gas station dry supply closet.”


“Because the customers were complaining that they didn’t want to keep stepping over you every time they wanted to buy something. But don’t worry, I already called the deputy that babysits us. She’s on her way here to arrest you or whatever she does, and in the meantime Jack says you can borrow one of his old crutches.”

Jerry held out a bottled water, and I took and downed the whole thing in one pull then forced myself up from the hammock.

“I need to get out of here. There was an accident. People are dead.”

“Cool,” he said, “But you probably shouldn’t go anywhere until O’Brien shows up.”

I ignored him and left the closet on my own two feet. The pain in my leg was bad but bearable, and I’d rather power through than “borrow” somebody’s spare crutches. When I stepped out into the store, the combination of natural and fluorescent lights hurt my eyes and gave me the realization that I had absolutely no idea what time it was.

“Is that him?”

I looked where the voice had come from to see a woman in a deputy uniform, staring back at me. She was tall and attractive, dark-skinned, with hair pulled back in a ponytail and a look on her face that said “Don’t even think about fucking with me.” She had been leaning against the counter next to the cashier, the one with all the books. He looked over at me, then whispered something to her that I couldn’t make out, which caused her to stand up straight and put her right thumb in her belt next to her gun holster. I’ve seen that tic before. She was trigger-happy and already ready to put me down if she needed to.

“Mr. Riggin?” She asked.

I stood perfectly still and put up my hands in front of me in the least intimidating way I could, remembering only then that I still had fresh red nail polish on my fingernails.

“Officer,” I said.

She took a second, probably trying to figure out what kind of lunatic she was dealing with. In an effort to get in front of the whole thing, I tried explaining the situation, “There’s been an accident, and I want to give a statement, but I’ve been attacked and require medical assistance.”

She cocked her head slightly to one side and said, “You look fine to me.”

Bullshit I do.

“I was in the truck when it flipped.”

“What truck?”

“Are you fucking with me right now?”

Shit. Too much. Now her fingers were on the gun, ready to pull. I needed to reel it in a little. After a long, deliberate, loud breath I said, “Sorry officer, I’m a little shaken up because I was just in an accident. The vehicle I was in went off the road and flipped.”

“You were in an accident?”


“Was anybody hurt?”

Was anybody hurt? That was unexpected. How long had I been unconscious? There’s no possible way they hadn’t found the wreck–and the bodies–by now. Which meant she was either screwing with me or testing me. If it were the latter, then why? Was she trying to trip me up, get me to contradict my own story?

That’s when it hit me. This was an interrogation. There were bodies–victims–now, and someone was going to have to hang for it.

I chose my next words very carefully.

“Yeah. Three people died in the wreck. I came straight here to call the police, but the blood loss knocked me out before I could. I can take you right to where it all happened.”

She took a step towards me. Just one. Putting herself between me and the cashier.

That’s interesting, I thought. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have missed it, but her body language was telegraphing a clear message. I was an unknown, a potential threat, and her priority in this situation was protecting the guy behind the counter.

What was even more interesting was what she didn’t do.

“Alright Mr. Riggin, we’ll take my car and you can show me exactly where this all went down. Sound good?”

It was only then that I noticed her soft Brooklyn accent. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t local. I’d have to look her up once I got back to my phone or some place with internet.

“Yeah, okay.”

She gestured towards the door and let me lead the way, her hand never leaving the gun until we were both outside.

She didn’t call it in. I had just informed her that there were three dead bodies, and she didn’t radio dispatch, backup, EMT’s, anyone. There was one obvious reason why that would be the case. She must have already known about the car wreck.

I saw her cruiser in the space farthest from the doors, parked backwards in the spot for a fast getaway. I stepped around to the passenger side and looked back at her, half expecting to see her pull the gun and take me down right there. But now that we were outside, she seemed instantly calmer.

“Well?” she asked, “What are you waiting for? Door’s unlocked.”

She opened the driver’s side and took her spot behind the wheel.

She isn’t going to make me ride in the back seat.

That’s good.

I think.

I took my spot on the passenger side and instantly pulled on my seatbelt, but before I could even click it into place O’Brien had the car pulled out to the road.

“Which way?”

I pointed back in the direction I had come. Downhill, away from town. She peeled out and gunned the vehicle.

I watched the side of the road for any signs of the “bear” or the little girl, but at the speed she was driving, I doubt I’d have been able to pick them out if they weren’t right next to the street. We passed the dirt road that led to the family’s parking spot and I made a mental note to come back later to find where Ned had left my wallet and keys. “It should be right up here, around this bend.”

I replayed the event in my mind.

”Straight for about a mile. Then you’ll see a dirt road on the left.”

Paw punching me in the gut.

Their perverse laughter.

The arrow.



The bear.

“Alright, it should be right…”

O’Brien slowed the car and hit the red and blues, but we were right on top of where the truck had gone off the road, and there was nothing.

“Where?” She asked.

“Stop the car.”

I hopped out before she had even come to a complete stop on the shoulder of the road, ignoring the stinging in my leg as best I could. This wasn’t possible. I couldn’t have been unconscious that long. They had already moved the truck?

I ran into the grass and stood in the exact spot where I had been pulled from the mangled wreck earlier that day, but there was nothing there. No sign of any wreckage. No blood. No debris. No ruts in the dirt. Not a single blade of grass out of place.

O’Brien yelled out to me from her spot next to the cruiser, “I don’t think it’s out here. Maybe we should head up the road a ways. This all looks the same to me.”

“No, I’m certain it was right here.”

“Well, it’s not ‘right here’ anymore, so how about we get you back into town and you can give a statement?”

I took a deep breath and caught an all too familiar aroma, one glaringly out of place on the side of the road near a thick forest. Bleach. I scanned the grass for something, anything that would prove I hadn’t imagined it all and walked up to the road for a better look. From there, I scanned both directions. No skid marks. No nothing. This wasn’t a “pull the wreck out of the woods” operation. This was a hard core cleanup crew. Somebody had put a hell of a lot of effort into covering it up. But why?

“Does this street look like it’s been cleaned recently?” I asked.

O’Brien scoffed by way of an answer.

I crossed to the opposite side of the road and knelt down.

“Pretty sure there’s not a wreck over there either, Nail Polish.”

Whoever did this had resources that I could barely even fathom. This would have taken money, manpower, precision. But even the most thorough cleanup crews will make mistakes when time is a factor. I reached into the grass and picked up a tiny shard of broken safety glass.

An old silver pickup truck pulled up behind the deputy’s cruiser and again I reached for the empty spot on my right side. Like a phantom limb, I keep expecting to find my handgun, only to remember that I’m as vulnerable as I was when that family was arguing over who would get to kill me.

The man stepped out of the truck and came around to face us with a big friendly smile. He was late fifties, with a dirty white beard and a camo jacket. A tucked in white t-shirt showed off his pot belly spilling over the edge of his jeans.

“Mornin’” he said to me, basically ignoring O’Brien.

Wait, was it still morning? I hadn’t actually seen a clock since I woke up, but there’s no way all of this could have been cleaned in just a few hours.

“Hey.” I said back.

He laughed and said, “You look like shit. What happened?”

“Cut myself shaving.”

He finally acknowledged O’Brien with the simplest flash of eye contact before looking back to me and asking, “Y’all lose something?” Before I could answer, his cell phone started ringing and he put up a finger and dug it out of his pocket. “Yeah?” He said.

His look turned into one of slight confusion before he lowered it, took a look around, then at the phone, then at O’Brien and me. Then he said, “Is one of you Eric Riggin?”

I looked at O’Brien who shook her head and laughed softly. “Don’t look at me.”

“I’m Eric.”

“It’s… uh… for you.”

I put the glass shard in my pocket and walked over to the man extending his phone. This whole situation was too much for my brain to digest, and I genuinely had no idea what was going on, who to trust, or even what was real anymore.

That’s when I first noticed that my tongue was feeling extra fat, and a warm sensation was pouring over me. It could have just been an effect of the blood loss, but somehow this felt different. I decided to ignore the feeling for now, and reached out for the phone.

“This is Eric.”

“Finally! Where the hell have you been all day?”

Of all the possible voices I expected to hear on the other end of that line, this was not one of them.


“Who were you expecting, Santa Claus?”

“How did you find me?”

“I know things, detective. Time to take a little bit on faith, alright? I know the investigation got a little derailed this morning, huh? Somebody is screwing with you, which is a good sign. They’re trying to throw you off the scent because you’re asking questions and they aren’t used to people in this town asking questions. You kicked their hornet’s nest, and they’re pissed off.”

I leaned away from O’Brien and whispered this next part into the phone.

“Roger, I was attacked. People are dead.”

“Really?” He didn’t sound all that surprised, “Well we’re going to definitely have to talk about that later. For now though, I found something in Vanessa’s file that we need to discuss. You got a gun, yeah?”

“Yeah, somewhere.”

“Ditch it. Drop it in the bottom of the ocean if you have to. I guarantee by now they’ve tied the ballistics to one or two of the open murder cases in town.”

“Tell me one thing. What the hell is going on?”

“Lose the copper. I don’t know who to trust yet. And meet me at the bowling alley tonight at eight. Come alone. Pay attention, because you’ll probably need to shake a tail. And Detective?”


“Take a shower.”

With that, he disconnected.

I looked at O’Brien, who was leaning against the trunk of her car, arms crossed and watching me. “Who was it?” she asked.

I handed the phone back to the man and shrugged at the deputy.

“Looks like I made a huge mistake.”

“Yeah?” she asked incredulously.

“Yeah.” I answered.

She gave me a ride back to the gas station while I spun a yarn about having a serious case of sleepwalking. I assured her that I had dreamt the whole thing up, and must have gone off into the woods in my unconscious state, gotten myself scraped up pretty bad, then wandered back into town confused and a little worse for the wear.

Either she bought my story, or she had her own reasons to accept that there was no reason to press it further. She didn’t strike me as an idiot, so I concluded that it must have been the latter.

She brought me to my car and gave me a straightforward warning before she took off.

“I don’t know what answers you think you’re going to find, but I wouldn’t stick around much longer if I were you. We got the guy who killed Vanessa. And take it from me. Closure is overrated.”

Chapter Five

The first thing I did after she took off was check my car to see if I might have left some spare change somewhere. I figured I could probably dig enough coins out of the floorboards to get me a bite to eat before hot-wiring the vehicle. I was only a little surprised to see my phone, wallet, and keys sitting on the passenger seat waiting for me.

My head was spinning and I desperately needed something in my stomach, even if it was only gas station food. I did a quick run up and down the aisles, collecting whatever foodstuffs didn’t look like they’d make me throw up–a back of trail mix, some chips, a stick of jerky, and a gatorade–and brought them to the counter where the cashier, Jack, was typing something up on a laptop.

I knocked the counter to get his attention, and he looked up from what he was doing with a smile and said, “Found your wallet, huh?”

I dropped the stuff in front of him and answered, “Go figure.”

He rang it all up and I paid, then he went back to his computer. I didn’t feel like waiting any longer, so I opened the chips right there, and then had a small heart attack when hundreds of tiny spiders poured out of the opening in the bag. They were tiny, black, and crawling over one another in every direction. I dropped it to the ground and started stomping them all underneath my boot.

“What the holy fuck?!” I yelled at the cashier.

He looked back at me with a raised eyebrow and asked, “What?”

“Did you not see that? There was-”

Right then I lost all ability to speak. There was something in the store with us. Something impossible.

Another spider was crawling up the wall behind the cash register. Only this one wasn’t tiny. This one was at least the size of a rottweiler, with shiny black legs as thick as walking sticks and a pulsating black abdomen. I could see the reflection of the fluorescent lights on its bulging wet black eyes, and I could make out clear as day the thick needle-like hairs covering its body. It crawled all the way up the wall, then turned upside down on the ceiling and started towards me.

I grabbed the spot on my side where my gun should have been, and fell backwards into a display of pork rinds, landing on my ass. My voice finally came back to me and I screamed, “What is that fucking thing?!”

Jack clearly hadn’t seen it yet. “What?”

It was crawling, slowly but steadily, on the ceiling overhead. I waited quietly for it to move past me, never looking away, and only after it had crawled all the way to the other side of the store I whispered, “Do you see that?”

Jack followed my eyes up to the ceiling, then looked back at me and said, “What, is it a giant spider?”

“Yes! What the fuck?!”


The spider stayed at a constant speed and crawled back down the wall on the other side of the store near the coolers, but I lost sight of it behind the rows of groceries. I jumped to my feet and took a few steps to the side, trying to find where the thing had gone to, but it wasn’t there anymore.

I looked back at Jack, who was not reacting to this situation the way I would have expected. Or really, at all.

“What do you mean, ‘No’?” I whisper screamed.

He sighed deeply and yelled out, “Marlborough! Come here for a second.”

“Who are you talking to?”

He stretched casually and closed his laptop, then looked me in the eyes and said, “It’s the pain meds they gave me. I had to stop taking them because they were making me see spiders.”


“I know, right? Weirdest side effect ever, but apparently it’s a thing. Brand specific hallucinations. Spiders everywhere. When I ate, when I slept. I decided that the pain wasn’t as bad as spiders in my cereal.”

“Wait, you drugged me?”

“I didn’t.”

The door to the storage closet opened and the clerk from earlier, the one that had painted my nails, came out drinking a beer.

“You rang?” he asked.

The cashier answered, “Did you give this guy my old pain meds?”

“Oh most definitely,” he answered, “I ground up like four and put them in his water bottle.”

My heartbeat was finally starting to come back down to normal, the adrenaline spike slowly being replaced by pure, undiluted rage. I tried to hold it together and asked as calmly as I possibly could, “Why would you do that?”

He smiled, shrugged, and said, “Just trying to help.”

I rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. If he had been a little closer, I probably would have slugged him. Thankfully I managed to keep my cool.

This is so fucked.

“Hey, man, are you alright?” asked the cashier.

“What part of this looks ‘alright’ to you?” I replied.

“Yeah, I figured as much. You’re Vanessa’s uncle, right?”

“That’s right. You knew her?”

“A little. She was a decent worker, always showed up on time, never stole anything. I was bummed out when she disappeared. I sorta hate to ask, but do you know what happened to her?”

Maybe it was just the drugs, but I was having trouble getting a read on this guy. Was he for real?

“I’m planning on figuring that out. I take it you don’t buy the story about her joining a cult?”

I caught the quickest microexpression when I said ‘cult.’ He looked at the other worker for just a moment, then back at me and said, “No. I don’t think she joined the cult.”

There was something else going on here. I asked him directly, “What exactly do you think happened?”

“I don’t know.”

The other worker piped in with, “Maybe a demon got her.”

The cashier looked at him and said, “What, like in Twin Peaks?”

“Dude, spoilers!”

“That show has been out for twenty years. Either you’re going to watch it or you’re not!”

This was pointless. These two were using each other for deflection, and if I were going to find out what either of them knew, I’d need to separate them. The only question is, how?

Right then, the cashier leaned back to grab his crutches off the wall and said, “Marlborough, take over for me. I’m going to lunch.”

“Okie dokie,” said Jerry. Or Marlborough. Or whatever the hell his name actually was. He struck me as the kind of guy that would find somebody else’s name tag and wear it just because.

“Hey,” I said after the cashier had stood up, “How about I take you to lunch?”

He looked at me for an awkward couple seconds and asked, “Why would you do that?”

“I want to ask you some questions.”

“About Vanessa? I really didn’t know her that well.”

“About this town. I’ll pay for lunch. What do you say?”

He mulled the offer over for a few more silent seconds, then nodded and said, “Ok.”


I checked my phone during the drive just to see what time it was (12:05 PM), then I tossed it out the window. (Even if they hadn’t bugged it, there was no way in hell I could ever trust it again.) We went to a small diner in town called Marilyn’s, where we both ordered the same thing: a cheeseburger and fries. I took black coffee and he drank a root beer.

I let him eat before I got to the questions. It didn’t take me long to devour my entire meal. Thankfully, there were no spiders. Whatever Marlborough had put in my drink had worn off completely, and the pain in my leg was back in full force, but it was hard to complain while sitting across from this guy. At least I still had all of my limbs. From what I could see, he was a below-the-knee amputee. The way he worked his crutches made it clear that this was a recent development. I decided to keep my complaints to myself.

After he’d finished his burger, I tried to ease into the questions, and learned as much as he would let me know. This guy was private, and all I could get out of him were the basics. His name was Jack. He was much younger than me. Worked at the gas station pretty much since high school, and he liked to mind his own business.

I finally got around to asking about his injury, not expecting much of an answer. But surprisingly, he opened up like it was no big deal.

“I got a complex fracture a while ago and broke my leg in two places. Not so surprisingly, this town doesn’t have the best medical facilities. There were some complications, I caught a strain of antibiotic resistant acinetobacter and long story short-” He imitated a chainsaw noise and gestured like he were cutting off his own leg, then he took a sip of root beer.

“What do you know about this cult?” I watched his face for any kind of tell, but this time, if there were any reactions he was keeping a lid on them.

“Not much. A dozen or so attractive millennials joined up with a charismatic personality. He recruited them from all over using the internet, promised enlightenment and orgies; didn’t end so well.”

“I heard. Spencer Middleton part of that cult?”

Jack visibly shuddered at the mention of Middleton.


“No,” he answered, “but it certainly wraps the whole story up nice and neat, doesn’t it?”

“You think Spencer is innocent?”

Jack laughed and shook his head. “No, he’s very much the opposite of innocent. I’m just saying he isn’t exactly a team player.”

Outside the window, I saw the cruiser swing into the parking lot.

Shit. Running out of time.

“Look,” I finally said, “Some weird stuff happened to me today when I was out in those woods. Things I can’t exactly explain. And I’d like nothing more than to fall asleep for a couple weeks and recharge, but I can’t right now. I think there’s something wrong with this town. And I think Vanessa got caught up in it. And I think that maybe, just maybe, you know what’s going on.”

“Why would you think that?”

“The deputy that’s about to come busting in here. She seems awfully protective of you.”

The door opened and O’Brien scanned the place, spotting us immediately. Jack still had his back to her. He said, “You’re not wrong. Weird things happen here. But you’re looking in the wrong place. Vanessa wasn’t part of the cultists. They died way before she went missing.”

“How do you know the cultists are dead? I thought they were only missing.”

“That’s enough questions for now, Nail Polish,” said O’Brien as she put a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “You good, Crutches?” she asked him.

“Peachie,” he answered.


If there had been any doubt, that had taken it away. There was something going on with Jack and O’Brien. Maybe she was just protecting him. Maybe they were working together. Maybe they were hooking up. I didn’t know, and it was damned near impossible to get a look inside his head. But the one thing I took away from that interaction was this: I believed him. He knew more about the cult than he was letting on. And Vanessa wasn’t a part of it.

So that put me close to square one. I had a meeting with “Roger” in seven hours and time to burn. The sobering fact that I had killed a man that morning in self defense was burning in the back of my mind, and I knew that when the time came I would have to deal with that. But this was not that time. This was the time to play through the pain. There would be a chance for a nervous breakdown later, after I found Vanessa. Or her killer.

Jamie looked pretty shocked to see me. I didn’t feel like explaining everything, so I just asked him to put on two pots of boiling water and to find me some rubbing alcohol, floss, and a sewing kit. He’s a good kid, and I hate to keep traumatizing him, but I couldn’t go to the hospital, just in case.

Once the pots were boiling, I dropped the sewing needle into one and my car keys into the other. I knew better than most people how easy it is to bug anything these days. Even my wallet was going to stay in the console of my car until I could get back home and order new credit cards. It was going to be nothing but cash from here out. My nephew didn’t question it for a second when I told him I was going to be driving Vanessa’s Honda for the rest of the time I was in town. I couldn’t afford the very likely possibility that my car had been bugged.

He didn’t ask too many questions, and I didn’t volunteer too many answers. The furthest we got was “Why are your nails red?”

“I have no idea.”

I strung some floss through the needle and bent it into a hook shape. This was going to hurt if I did it right, and hurt even worse if I did it wrong. At that moment I wondered if it might actually be worth the spiders to keep from feeling the pain I was about to feel.

I ripped off the duct-tape cast, layer at a time, all the way down to the base. Then I peeled back the final layer to see the grisly X-shaped wound on my leg. Just when I think nothing can surprise me anymore, I’m proven wrong.

Son of a bitch.

Somehow, someone had beaten me to the punch. The wound was very neatly stitched up, almost professionally. The work was so clean it wouldn’t leave but minimal scarring. Next to it, under a dried layer of blood, I could make out shaky handwriting where somebody had drawn on my leg with a black marker “Jerry was here.”

I set the needle on the table and asked Jamie if he had any old antibiotics in the house.

“Yeah, probably.”

“I’m going to need all of them.”


It’s amazing the difference a shower and clean clothes can make. I popped a handful of painkillers–the over the counter type–and took apart one of Donnie’s old speakers to get to the magnet. I’m not saying I think Marlborough stitched a tracker or a listening device inside of my leg wound, because that would be crazy. I’m just saying I ran a few passes of the extra strong magnet over the stitches. Just to be safe.

Next, I went into Vanessa’s room and stood for a silent moment, taking it in and trying to find a balance between respecting her privacy and tearing the place apart for clues. There was still plenty of time before my meeting, but right then I was kicking myself for all the time I’d wasted by getting shit faced when there were still answers out there to be found. I did a quick mental recap to see where I stood.

Facts. This town has a weird secret. Someone powerful enough to make a flipped truck and three bodies disappear in the span of a couple hours was screwing with me. Someone knew how to imitate my brother, lure me into a bizarre trap in the woods, but why?

The sheriff’s department was only pretending to look into Vanessa’s disappearance. The cult was just a cover story. Was Vanessa even involved in any of this? I was swimming through questions without any answers when I heard Jamie say, “Hey, Uncle Eric?”

I snapped out of my daze and turned to see Jamie standing in the doorway.

“Yeah, kiddo?”

“You have a visitor.”

Chapter Six

He was waiting for me in the living room when I walked in. At first, I didn’t recognize him, a short man with bad posture and thick glasses. He looked nervous when he saw me and muttered a simple, “Hey detective.”

It took me a few seconds before I recognized him as the janitor from the school. “Hey Roger, I thought we weren’t meeting until later.”

He shook his head and said in an exasperated voice, “No, no, I’m not- could you please not do that?”

“Do what?”

“My name is Peter Kohl.”

I looked at Jamie and said, “Do you mind giving us a minute?”

Jamie nodded and left towards his bedroom. I took a chair and invited “Peter” to do the same. After he had sat and taken a moment to calm down, I asked him my questions.

“What’s up, Peter? Why are you at my brother’s kids’ house? Should I be concerned?”

Peter took off his glasses and wiped his eyes, forcing back tears. I didn’t know exactly how to react, but I assumed time would tell. So I waited until he was ready to answer. After a few more moments, he managed to get it together enough to say, “I really shouldn’t be here. If he finds out I came to talk to you-”

“If who finds out?”

“Roger. Who else?”

Oh for fuck’s sake…

“Look, Peter, is there a reason you’re here? Because I’m actually still trying to figure out what happened to my niece and bullshit distractions like this aren’t helping.”

“You can’t trust him.”


“Roger! He acts like he’s working for the common good, but in reality he’s just a manipulator. He only cares about himself and these favors he’s collecting aren’t what you’d expect. He hurts people. And he can’t be stopped.”

I took a deep breath and rubbed my temples. “Look, Peter, I’m not interested in role playing or whatever the hell this is. Roger is a puppet. A toy. An inanimate object. If you’ve got some kind of anxiety or whatever and can only communicate through the doll then fine. You do you. But I’ve actually got shit to do, so unless you want to tell me whatever it was that ‘Roger’ found in Vanessa’s case, then please, kindly, get the fuck out of this house.”

Peter stood up, muttered something about being sorry for wasting my time, and left.

I felt defeated. Another dead end.

The only thing left to do was start over.


I took apart Vanessa’s room piece by piece and spent a couple hours on her laptop. There was nothing out of the ordinary to be found in either case. Her phone was still plugged in next to her bed, but it was locked with a passcode. I made a few guesses using birthdays, but nothing worked. She was too smart for that anyway. I pocketed her cell with the intention of mailing it to my guy back in New Orleans, the one who could break into anything if the money was right, and I’d already decided to make this his priority number one.

She didn’t keep a diary, or a day planner, or anything that could have given me an idea of where to start. Her sock drawer had a stack of cash in the corner, about $350 in tens and twenties and a dime bag of pot. A post-it near her bed had her most recent work schedule.

Everything on her laptop was password protected using a master password manager program. She was smart, but that’s a level of caution that I would categorize as paranoia. I had only ever seen that kind of behavior with one other person. Me. And I deal with some pretty sensitive stuff by profession.

Her Facebook settings wouldn’t let me see any of her posts, but Jamie was able to view her friends list from his account. I cross-referenced names with the school database and in under an hour I had my check list for the day planned out. It was going to be difficult running these people down without access to a phone, nevermind the fact that I’m a grown man trying to convince a bunch of teenagers to sit down for a Q and A.

Frankie was a tall homely girl and, best I could tell, Vanessa’s best friend. I found her at the local pizza place where she worked and convinced her to give me a few moments of her time. She mostly corroborated what I already knew. Vanessa was saving up money, planning to move out of town, didn’t have any secrets worth sharing. She wasn’t seeing anybody but…

“But what?”

“But she had this glow about her. Like, I knew there was somebody. They went out a few times. Not, like, a date or anything, and she didn’t really want to talk about it. Then a couple weeks ago, it went away. Like they broke up, but not like they were ever really official anyway, you know?”

“Guy? Girl? Did you get a name? Any idea where they were from?”

“No, she didn’t think it was serious enough to talk about I guess. They met online, I think.”

I caught her ex-boyfriend Brian as he was getting off shift from the local garage. He was in a bit of a hurry to get to the deer stand, but agreed to answer a few quick questions. I asked about the mystery person in Vanessa’s life, but Brian informed me that he absolutely didn’t give any fucks about what she was up to since the breakup. He was an asshole, but there wasn’t any impression that he was lying.

I found Hammons, her English teacher–the one she had friended on Facebook–at his home on the other side of town. He was all too happy to cooperate, and if it weren’t for his rock solid alibi on the night of the disappearance (taking his kids to visit their dying grandmother the next state over), I might have been tempted to play things differently. But it quickly became clear that he also had nothing to hide.

He showed me the letter of recommendation that he had written for Vanessa’s batch of college applications, and we spent a few minutes drinking coffee and talking. He agreed that the cult story was bullshit, but he had heard some rumors around school that she was seeing somebody new. Of course, a middle-aged overweight English teacher wasn’t exactly the keyholder for information when it came to students’ personal lives. It wasn’t a total waste, though, as he pointed me to my next lead. Morgan Hardee.

According to Hammons, “everybody” knew that Morgan had a thing for Vanessa. He was an awkward kid, a year under her, but he still asked her out on more than one occasion, and was turned down on more than one occasion. He wasn’t on her list of friends, but Hammons knew where I could find him.

There weren’t any cars in the driveway at Morgan’s house. I rang his doorbell and knocked, then waited about five minutes before circling around to the backyard and breaking in through an open window. I didn’t have time to play it legal, and besides, this was hardly the worst thing I’d done all day.

It wasn’t hard to figure out which bedroom was his. There was an oversized Fight Club poster thumbtacked to his closed door like an edgy-teenager beacon. I pushed it open and immediately realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. There was a mirror on the wall covered with pictures of Vanessa. Some looked like they were taken off of social media, others looked like they were snapped from a voyeur’s point of view. The pictures continued, all over the walls, thumbtacked in random intervals more or less at eye level.

The room was a mess, clothes and books and dishes stuck wherever they would fit, which made my search all the more difficult. I checked the obvious places and hit gold right off the bat. Under his mattress next to a one-hitter and a baggie of weed was a girl’s yellow t-shirt–a match for the one Vanessa wore the last time she was seen.

I could hear Morgan’s car stereo blaring that god-awful excuse for music as he pulled into the driveway, giving me plenty of time to sneak out the way I had come, but that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. Instead, I closed the bedroom door and waited for him in his closet with the door cracked just enough for me to see out. I needed to see him before he saw me. I needed to see his reaction to know for sure.

It didn’t take him long to get inside. He shut the bedroom door behind him and made a b line straight for his computer desk, but then stopped halfway and muttered, “What the fuck?”

He was taller than I expected, with at least an inch on me. Long, greasy black hair and the beginnings of a patchy beard. Where he stood, he had his back to me, and by the time he turned around I was there with my gun pointed right at him, ready for a kill shot.

He fell to the ground and covered his face, screaming out “Oh please oh shit oh man, please don’t hurt me!”

“Shut up!” I yelled at him.

“What do you want? Oh god, dude, just take whatever you want but please don’t hurt me!”

That was the last thing he got out before he started sobbing.

“Phone. Give me your phone.”

“Wh-wh-what?” He blubbered.


“Sorry!” He dug a cell phone out of his pocket and held it out to me.

“Put it on the bed!” I yelled. He nodded and tossed the phone onto his dirty, unmade mattress, and I kept the gun locked on his forehead as I walked over to grab it.

“Why did you put up all these pic-”

“Shut up!” I screamed, rushing over to the spot where he had collapsed into a pathetic heap and smacking him across the face with my weapon. It worked. He shut right the hell up. But just to make sure, I pressed the tip of the gun against his face and put the fear of God into him. “If you say one more word. Just one more single word to me, I’ll paint these walls red. Nod if you understand.”

He understood. And closed his eyes. And fell onto his side in the fetal position, crying.

I felt awful doing this to the poor kid, but it was the only way to convince whoever set this whole thing up that I was buying their little fabrication. He almost ruined it by asking me why I put up all these pictures of Vanessa.

I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I would have to be a complete moron to see an orgy of evidence like this and believe it.

When I first came into town, I made a point to look up and memorize the sheriff’s personal cell phone number for just such a situation as this. I picked Morgan’s phone up off the bed and dialed.

Clyde answered, and I’m sure he was confused as hell when I explained that I had found Vanessa’s killer and told him where he could find Morgan.

The look on the kid’s face when he first walked into the room proved that he had no idea where all these pictures had come from, but the whole thing was so nice and neat. The perfect horrible ending to the story, complete with a villain, motive, and a resolution that would satiate the pain-in-the-ass detective that was asking too many questions.

He told me to stay put, and I lied and promised him I would.

Five minutes later, I was in the Honda, driving as fast as I could without raising any suspicion and trying to decide where the hell I was actually going.


The story was starting to take shape in the worst way possible. Vanessa had to be tied to the town’s secret somehow. Whatever entity had set me up this morning and made the truck disappear was now adapting their strategy. Offering me a way out, all I had to do was take it. But I’d already decided that there was nothing that was going to make me stop until either I’d figured out what happened to Vanessa or I was six feet under.

I tried to think while I drove aimlessly around that shithole of a town, but couldn’t come up with anything actually worthy of calling a plan. After a few minutes on the back roads, I came up to an old Mom and Pop hardware store and remembered what Peter had told me earlier vis-a-vis Roger. About “them” framing me up for some of the open cases in town. After what I had just seen, I had no doubt that his warning was genuine, so I decided to cover my ass and pulled into the empty parking lot to go shopping.

Thirty minutes later, I had a Boy scout basket of supplies for nearly any situation. Duct tape, pipe cleaner, rope, pliers, hammer, gloves, flashlight, JB Weld, and some other various odds and ends. When it comes to the unknown, there’s no such thing as overprepared.

It was already getting dark by the time I left the store, and I made the mistake of feeling optimistic.

That didn’t last too long.

I saw the figure sitting in the passenger side front seat of Vanessa’s Honda right away. There was no mistaking him. The figure, dressed in all camo, green paint smeared on his face, staring forward with a lifeless gaze.

A million thoughts tried to crash their way through my mind at once, but by some miracle I managed to grab onto the only one that mattered.

Be calm. Be rational. Think this through.

Facts. Use the facts.

The man sitting in the car, waiting for me, looks exactly like… what was his name?


But he died earlier today. I checked.

How long was I inside? Half an hour? How did they find me? How did they sneak his body into my car without me noticing? And why?


Of course. I knew why.

They couldn’t take any chances. Even if Morgan took the fall for Vanessa’s disappearance, I was still a loose end. Which means this is a set up. Which means the police will be here any second.

Think, think, think, now, options, go.

I can run. Flee the scene. Call it in later that the car was stolen. But by now it would be covered in my DNA. If they found the dead body, it would get tied back to me. And what kind of story could I tell in my defense? I literally killed him, so the truth was out. No, forget that, next option.

Get in the car and gun it. Anywhere. Leave the fucking town if I need to. I can drop the body in the parking lot and- No! The old man working the cash register in the store will tie me to this place. Ok, take the body with me. The cops will pull you over, then how do you explain this? Well the cops aren’t here yet. So that leaves me with one option.

I dropped my things, raced to the trunk of the car, popped it open, then opened the car door and checked to make sure.

He was just as dead as the last time I saw him. The only thing different now was the bullet hole on his forehead. Whoever put him in the seat had made a point to splatter blood all over the dash and carpet, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. This was going to need to be fast and messy.

I yanked him out the seat and dragged him over my shoulder around to the back, shoved him into the trunk, and slammed it shut the same second that the deputy’s cruiser pulled into the parking lot.

I took a few deep breaths, tried to steady my nerves, then when that wasn’t working lit a cigarette and went back to where I’d dropped my bags.

“Evening, Mr. Riggin.”

I tried not to look guilty as fuck when I turned to face the rookie deputy that I had just met yesterday.

“Franklin, right?” I said as I picked up my purchases and started for the car. He followed right behind me. “Sure is a small town, huh deputy?”

“It sure is,” he said.

I opened the back door and put the bags on the seat, keeping it casual and cool. I leaned against the car and slowly continued to smoke the coffinnail, then offered one to Franklin, who shook his head and said, “No, I’m ok. Been quit for five years.”

I put the pack away and said, “You’re a better man than me.”

After a second, I could see that Franklin was getting nervous, trying to look over my shoulder into the car.

“Is something wrong, Franklin?” I asked point-blank.

“No, no, we’re good.”

His poker face was just as bad today.

“Well,” I said, “Any new developments with Middleton? I know you’re not supposed to say anything, but off the record, does he look like he’s any closer to cracking?”

“I doubt it.”

I finished my smoke, put the cherry out on the heel of my boot, then put the butt back into the cigarette pack as Franklin watched.

“Look, I’m flattered by the attention, but something tells me you’re not just here for my world class conversation skills. Something on your mind?”

Franklin finally relaxed and let out a laugh. “You got me. Somebody called the station to say there was a man outside the hardware shop, trying to sell drugs out of the trunk of a Honda.”

I returned his laugh, “No shit? Did they say what he looked like?”

Franklin went on to describe me to a t. Down to the black jacket and scrapes on my face. Franklin and I shared another laugh.

“I guess I better get going,” I said, “Before anybody gets the wrong idea, huh?”

“Yeah, but real quick, why don’t you let me take a look inside your trunk. Just so I can put it in my report, huh?”

I shook my head and said, “Sorry Franklin. You’ll have to put in your report that I refused to open it without a warrant. You know, it’s the principle of the thing.”

Franklin nodded a couple times and said, “Well, I guess you’d better get going then, huh?”

I felt a deep sense of relief that lasted for all of half a second before the radio on Franklin’s belt cracked to life with the sound of a loud and urgent voice:

”All units be on the lookout for a Honda Accord. Plate number-” and then Vanessa’s car’s license plate. “Be advised, the driver is Eric Riggin; he is likely armed.”

I tried to laugh again, but Franklin started reaching for his gun so I put a right hook across his cheek hard enough to drop him and split my knuckles open.

It wasn’t enough to knock him out, though. But his head hit the concrete and he started groaning. I went straight for his gun, wrestled it free from his belt, and pitched it onto the roof of the store. Then while he was still regaining his bearings, I took out his cuffs and put one around his left wrist before he snapped back into action and jumped on top of me, throwing wild punches and screaming.

He was a terrible fighter, and relying entirely on adrenaline. I guarded my face until he had tired himself out, then grabbed him by the wrists and gave him a solid kick to the side of his knee. He dropped again, and I put him on his stomach and twisted his arms behind his back just enough to connect the handcuffs.


I jumped to my feet and turned to see where the sound had come from. It was the old man with white hair, the cashier from inside the hardware store. He was standing there with a shotgun in his hands aimed in the air.

“Now that was just a warning shot,” he said with a slight quiver in his voice. “The next one’s for you if you don’t let him go right now.”

As he said that, he pointed the gun at me.

“That’s a Hatfield break action shotgun.” I said.

“Yeah, so what?” he answered back, trying to sound intimidating, but failing.

“So, I’m not an idiot old man. That thing is a single shot. And you just fired your entire payload with the warning.”

He trembled slightly, but refused to lower the weapon, so I gave him a little incentive, pulling my own piece and aiming it right back at him.

“This one, however, has plenty of warning shots left in it.”

He tossed the shotgun down and held up his hands as he made his way to his knees.

“Good.” I said as I circled around to the front of Vanessa’s car. That idiot’s gunshot would be attracting every bored law enforcement agent in the whole damned town, and I needed to get somewhere else fast.

Chapter Seven

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 manilla 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?”

“The mom.”

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 stream 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.”

“Oh really?”

“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.”

“Seems fair.”

“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?”

I shrugged.

“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…

After what?

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.

Chapter Eight

In the center of town, there’s an old cemetary connected to the Baptist church. Behind it, there’s a service trail leading off into the woods, which connects to a dilapidated caretaker’s cottage that’s been out of commission since the fifties. When I was in school, it was a popular spot for kids to sneak away and make out or get high. I had a hard time imagining teens slipping back there these days, now that the forest had swallowed up any semblance of civilization. The path was overgrown and narrow, with low tree branches reaching out like the claws of forest giants, scratching the car on both sides as I drove slowly past.

I pulled O’Brien’s cruiser back there deep enough that nobody would spot it from the main road, killed the lights and engine, then got to work.

I used the pass code I’d gleaned from Vanessa’s file to get inside her phone and started with emails and texts. Not too much to see, but there was a long conversation chain with somebody named “Toulouse.” They had first started chatting a couple months ago.

Vanessa – “I had a good time yesterday. Looking forward to our next hang sesh.”

Toulouse – “Wow. Desperate much?”

Vanessa – “Lol, kiss my ass. I’m trying to pay you a compliment.”

Toulouse – “What the hell is a compliment?” Is that some kind of sandwich?”

Vanessa – “God, ur so weird.”
Vanessa – “Wanna come over and play smash bros tonight?”

Toulouse – “Can’t. Got a thing.”
Toulouse – “It’s super mysterious, yet important as fuck.”

Vanessa – “Sounds intriguing. Can I have a hint?”

Toulouse – “Gotta help a guy get rid of some bodies.”

Vanessa – “Well, when you’re done, come play smash bros.”
Vanessa – “And bring beer.”

I’ll spare you the gritty details, but there were a few times when I had to put the phone down and roll my eyes.

Is this how kids flirt these days?

Toulouse seemed mostly harmless, but immature even by teenager standards. I honestly couldn’t tell what Vanessa saw in him (or her?), but there’s no accounting for taste, and Toulouse made her type “LOL” enough times that she must have enjoyed his company. There was nothing overtly sexual in their messages, just a strong overtone of two horny kids trying to figure themselves out.

I felt like such a creep, but then reminded myself that this was what I did for a living. Stalking couples, waiting for cheaters to get busy, then stealing some photos while they were going at it. The only difference here was that I knew the person whose life I was digging into. But even still, I couldn’t shake that nagging thought: this feels wrong.

Vanessa and Toulouse’s texts weren’t as expositional as I’d hoped. A whole lot of “see you tomorrow’s” gave me the impression that Toulouse was from work. A couple “I had fun last night’s” told me that they had gone out for some not-dates. A ton of emojis back and forth reminded me just how out-of-touch I was with this generation. And then the whole thing ended abruptly, with a few messages from Vanessa.

Vanessa – “Hey. Whatcha doin?”
Vanessa – “You there? I’m bored. Wanna hang?”
Vanessa – “Hello?”
Vanessa – “I guess you’re not talking to me anymore, huh?”

Toulouse – “Lose my number.”

Vanessa – “Wtf? What the hell did I do?”

Toulouse – “Vanessa was a friend of mine, douchebag.”

Vanessa – “I should have listened to everybody when they said that there’s something wrong with ur brain. U r an asshole.”

Toulouse – “Sorry, my bad, autocorrect.”
Toulouse – “What I meant to say was”
Toulouse – “Vanessa was a friend of mine, you twat-waffle Mcfuckface.”

That’s how it ended. The date of the last message put the conversation at about a week before her disappearance. I saved Toulouse’s number on the burner I got from Roger and made a plan to track the line down once I had a moment’s reprieve.

The next step was checking her phone for pictures. I opened the gallery, scrolled down a ways, and started flicking through the slideshow in chronological order. Vanessa was a normal teenage girl, and she took what I would consider an average amount of selfies. One for every day or so. I studied them, looking for any sort of clue or indicator that something was wrong, or about to go wrong. But she was always happy. Always wearing that same old brown jacket and that same typical teenage-girl smile.

I had to smile when I first saw it. The jacket. I recognized it as the one Donny used to wear all the time. It was a little too big on her, but she made it work.

Starting around a month back, there were more frequent pictures of her. Four, five, or more each day. Not selfies, though. Somebody else was taking pictures of her, with her phone, while she looked back and laughed.

The last picture on her phone was taken an entire week and a half before she went missing. Two days before her breakup text with Toulouse. And that last picture was the only one I needed to see.


The last photo showed her and Toulouse, cheek to cheek, smiling in a shared selfie, and I recognized the guy she was with instantly. When I had met him the day before, he said he didn’t really know her all that well. Only back then I knew him as Jerry, and I was quickly running out of reasons not to beat the shit out of this guy.

I lit a smoke to calm my nerves, then remembered I wasn’t in my own car, and O’Brien might not be too merciful if she got her car back smelling like tobacco. I rolled down my window, and that’s when I smelled it. That sour, putrid stench. The one from the bowling alley.

I flicked on the headlights, illuminating the forest path in front of me, but as far as I could see it was empty.

Then I heard it. Stomping through the overgrown trail far behind me, walking towards the cruiser from the cemetery, and I instantly realized why O’Brien always parked her car facing the road.

I couldn’t see what it was, but I could smell it from a mile away. The thing, whatever it was, kept walking. Closer and closer. The outline of its shape slowly taking form in the darkness: an unnatural juggernaut, enormous, wide, dark, and dragging something behind it that scraped at the road with each step. From this distance, there was no way for me to make out exactly what I was dealing with. It was protected by the shadows, and whatever manner of monster, one thing was glaringly obvious: I didn’t want to be out here alone with it.

I turned on the engine, then reached for the gear shift and heard the sound of that thing’s feet slamming into the ground as it sprinted down the path towards me with impossible speed. By the time I had the car in gear, it was there.

The car rocked as the back window shattered into pieces, the roof buckled, and suddenly the front window erupted into a spiderweb of broken safety glass. I dropped my lit cigarette onto my lap and tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

In the center of the smashed glass, a giant piece of metal wiggled and pulled itself free, then disappeared into the sky and came right back down into the windshield again with a loud impact that completely covered my entire field of vision in broken glass.

The reality of the situation clicked into place and I screamed, “Oh shit!”

That thing was standing on the roof of the cruiser, swinging a giant mallet into the windshield, and by the looks of it I didn’t have long until there was nothing left between me and the hammerhead.


I couldn’t see anything in front of me and even if I could I didn’t have anywhere to go. The trail would dead end in the forest and I would be fucked.

Reverse didn’t feel like a much better option. The back window was busted out but there was no light to guide me and I’d be pretty much flying blind.

There wasn’t enough room to turn around and I sure as shit wasn’t going to leave the rapidly deteriorating “safety” of the vehicle.

The piece of metal that had penetrated the laminated glass in front of my face started to budge, like the thing was getting ready to pull it back out for another swing, and I made a split-second decision to kick the car into reverse and put the pedal to the floor.

We lurched backwards and started flying down the trail, but somehow the thing on the roof didn’t fall off. An enormous hand, the size of a baseball glove, reached down and wrapped its fingers through my open window. Giant grey, inhuman digits gripped the roof just inches from my face and I could see another hand on the opposite side as it smashed through the tempered glass of the passenger window. This titanic fuck was laying flat on top of the car, with an arm span wide enough to reach into both side windows at the same time.

I kept my foot pressed hard on the gas while I yanked out my Beretta, pressed it against the roof, and fired off three shots.

I would have fired a fourth but the car bounced over a tombstone and we went into a quick spin. I yanked the wheel back, gaining control without ever dropping speed. I’d cleared the forest road and hit the cemetery and we were going over graves, colliding with markers, mowing over the smaller ones and ricocheting with the biggers. At one point I ran over the back bumper, and before I knew it we were through the ditch and back on the main road.

There were street lights here, and I could actually see the path in front of me. I swung the wheel again, fishtailing into a near perfect ninety degree turn that pointed me in a straight line down the road. We climbed in speed, and in no time I was redlining the RPMs, but the thing held firm onto the top of the car.

The road was about to run out, a sharp deadman’s curve to the left, and despite my performance up to this point, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to hook another turn at these speeds in reverse gear. If I stayed the course, I was going to crash into another dense portion of forest. So I made one more split-second decision.

I picked up my gun, put it against the roof again, then started shooting at the same moment I slammed the breaks sending us into a long skid, tires screeching against the road loud enough to wake the dead.

The thing finally flew off the top of the car and landed somewhere between the trees across the ditch with a loud crash. I immediately pointed the gun back there and waited to see if it was going to get up.

The only sounds were those of the unhealthy rattle of the cruiser engine and my own heartbeat pounding in my ears. I still hadn’t gotten a good look at it, and now I couldn’t even tell where the thing was.

What are you doing? Get out of here!

I turned in my seat to face forward then realized that I still couldn’t see out the front window, the shattered laminated glass held in place was impossible to look through. I pointed my gun at it, then caught myself.

That won’t work. This isn’t a fucking movie.

Okay, so what are my options?

There weren’t any. I had to get that windshield out or this car was useless.

I put the cruiser in park, opened my door, took a breath, and stepped out onto the road, bracing myself for another attack. That thing wasn’t too far away, I knew that much from the horrendous smell that continued its assault on my senses. My gun wasn’t about to leave my hand until I was at least ten miles down the road.

When a few seconds had passed, I finally turned half my attention away from the forest and looked at the deputy’s cruiser. The vehicle looked like I felt, beat to hell and back and running on fumes and prayers. The sides were scraped up and covered in dirt and the frame was dented in to the point that any reasonable insurer would call it totaled twice over. But somehow, the engine was still running, and the car could still go, and right now that was all I needed from it.

Yeah, if I managed to survive all of this, O’Brien was going to kill me.

The mammoth mallet still sticking out of the windshield was a metal-gripped sledgehammer. I climbed onto the hood of the car and grabbed the thick handle with my free hand and pulled until it started to come free of the glass. This wasn’t going to be easy. The tool was a custom job, a steel pole (thick enough that I could barely grip it with one hand) welded to a block of square metal. A weapon for someone or something way stronger than me. Before too long I realized that this heavy bastard was a two-handed job and begrudgingly holstered my gun for just a moment while I put all of my strength into yanking that hammer out of the glass and dragging it off the car onto the road. Without a doubt, the weapon weighed more than I did.

On the bright side, the hole that the sledgehammer left in the windshield was big enough that I could see through, and I didn’t waste any more time before putting some distance between myself and that thing in the woods.


I left the cruiser parked behind the daycare center a few blocks from Vanessa and Jamie’s house, then made my way through backyards, praying there wouldn’t be any unchained pit bulls along the way. For once luck was on my side, and I got to the my brother’s backyard without any hitches.

I was annoyed to find that the back door was unlocked. It was clear that Jamie was way too trusting to live in this town on his own, and this just reinforced that I had made the right call in what I was about to do.

“Hey, kiddo!” I yelled from the kitchen, suddenly realizing for the first time that I had fucked up my ears. I snapped my right finger next to my head to confirm, and I was definitely deaf in that ear.

He came out of his bedroom and took one look at me before saying, “You look like you’ve been in a fight.”

I turned my head slightly to point my good ear at him and responded, “You should see the other guy.”

Could be temporary. Maybe not. It’s weird that I could make it this far without realizing I had fucked my ears up. Yeah, adrenaline really is a wonder drug.

“We need to get you out of town,” I said, “Right now.”

“What? Why?”

“We don’t have time to discuss it. I’ll explain in the car. Get packed, only what you need and can’t live without for the next 48 hours, understand? Leave your phone. Leave any electronics. You get thirty seconds to pack. Now move.”

“Uncle Eric, I don’t think I ca-”

“Twenty-eight seconds. Did I stutter?”

He ran back into his room, and I pulled out Roger’s burner and called O’Brien.

She picked up after the first ring and said, “Yeah?”

“Ok, I need that favor as soon as you can.”

“Don’t say I never did anything for you.”

She hung up, and I crossed into the living room, over to the blinds, and peeked out. The deputies sitting outside in unmarked sedans couldn’t have been more obvious if they’d tried. I could see Williams, reclined in his front seat and playing a game on his cell. If this was all I was up against, it would be an embarrassment to get caught. But the real threat was still out there, and I’d have to give these guys the slip first.

I watched as Williams got the call over his radio, sat up, and answered before he pulled out of his spot and drove away, followed shortly by two other cars.

O’Brien would have just called in the report. Shots fired at the high school. Eric Riggin had lost his mind and started trading lead. She was pinned down and needed backup. The distraction would give us just enough time to get out of there.

I yelled towards Jamie’s room, “Ten seconds, kid. Don’t forget your jacket.”

That was the moment.

The moment it all slipped into place for me.

They say your subconscious keeps working on problems when they’re in the back of your mind, even when you don’t realize what you’re actually looking for.

It’s not what’s there but shouldn’t be…

I’d read the report on Vanessa more times than I could recall. That night she disappeared was a cool one. And damned near every picture of her on that phone had one thing in common. She was always wearing Donnie’s old brown jacket.

Jamie came out of his room with a backpack slung over his shoulder and said, “Okay, I’m ready.”

“The night your sister went missing, you said she was wearing a yellow t-shirt?”

The question caught him by surprise. “Yeah. So?”

“Was she wearing her jacket?”

He shook his head, “No, I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so? Or you’re sure?”

“I’m sure. I’m positive. She wasn’t wearing dad’s jacket.” His lip quivered, and I got the sense that maybe he was hiding something.

“Jamie, look at me; is there something from that night you aren’t telling me?”

“No.” He was lying. It was written all over his face. He stared at the floor and said, “Can we just go now?”

I walked past him to Vanessa’s room. We were spending precious seconds here, but this was important. I knew I was on to something, just not sure what it meant yet.

It’s what should be there but isn’t.

I had already gone through every single thing in this room, but I needed to see if maybe I had somehow missed it. Donnie’s old jacket had struck a nerve when I saw it in the pictures. I recognized it the moment I saw her wearing it. I would have had that same reaction if I’d seen it in here earlier, but I hadn’t.

Jamie came into the room while I was digging through the clothes hung up in her closet.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Does your sister have any laundry anywhere?”

“No, she did a load the day before she went missing.”

“What about her jacket? Have you seen it anywhere? Do you know where it ended up?”

“No. Maybe she left it in her car.”

I knew for a fact it wasn’t in the car. And it wasn’t here in her room. And she wasn’t wearing it when she disappeared. That thing was clearly more than just a piece of clothing to her. It looked stupid, but she wore it to work every day anyway, so it had to have some sentimental value to her. So where the hell was it?

“Jamie, this is important. Are you sure you don’t know where the jacket is?”

“I swear. I have no idea. Why?”

“Don’t worry about it; we need to go. Now.”


We took the back roads, headed away from the school. Jamie was kind enough not to make a big deal out of how junky my car had gotten, ignoring the fast food containers and empty liquor bottles on the floor.

I kept one eye on the rearview mirror and waited until we were a few miles from his place before I started digging into that suspicious look he’d given me earlier when I asked if there was more to the story.

“Jamie, I need to ask you some more questions.”

“Okay, fine.”

“That night Vanessa went missing, I know it’s hard, but I need you to go back there again and walk me through the whole thing. What was the first thing you remember that day?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ok, we’ll start with that night; you were watching television, and she came out of her room, didn’t say a word, and walked right out the door. Is that correct?”

“Yeah, that’s what happened.”

“Ok, what were you watching?”

“I…” he stammered, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“But you do remember exactly what she was wearing?”


“That’s a little weird. Your memory sure was being selective that night, huh?”

I hated this, but it had to be done. You can’t treat him like family. He’s a witness, and he’s hiding something, so nut up and grill him.

“Look, I told you everything that was important.”

“That was important? What aren’t you telling me, kid?”

He was silent, so I slammed on the breaks and yelled, “Hey! Tell me what you’re keeping secret! I just spent the last two days getting the shit kicked out of me by every fucking weird thing in this town, the last thing I need is for my own blood to start lying to me, too.”

“I’m not lying!” he shouted back with tears in his eyes, “It just wasn’t important, ok?”

“Bullshit! I’ll decide what’s important. You just tell me the truth.”

The tears were running down his face as he said, “We had a fight, okay?”

“About what?”

“I don’t even know. Just some stupid stuff. I thought she had been acting weird, like there was something wrong with her. And then… and then… the last thing I said to her…”

He lost it at that point, sobbing into his hands loud and ugly and real. It broke my heart, but I knew we were getting somewhere.

“Look, I loved your dad, ok? And I know he loved me too. He was my only sibling. And we used to get into fights all the time. Not just play fights. Something about growing up together gives you the ammo to really hit someone where it hurts. We could tear each other apart. But at the end of the day, I knew we were family, and nothing could change that. Your sister loved you, and an entire lifetime of being your big sis isn’t going to get wiped out over one stupid fight.”

“You don’t understand,” he sobbed, “The last thing I said to her was that Mom was right.”


“What did you mean by that?”

“I told her I didn’t really believe she was my sister, then she left. And that’s the last time anyone saw her. I think I made her-”

“No, shut up, don’t you dare say that, don’t even think it. Your sister was smarter than me, she didn’t do anything. You didn’t make her do anything. Somebody took her, and when I find out who, I’m going to make them pay.”

“Do you… do you think she’s still alive?”

I didn’t answer. I just started driving again and watched the road.


“What the ever-loving fuck is this?” O’Brien yelled while I stood in her doorway with Jamie at my side.

“We didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Literally anywhere else in the fucking world, Eric. Not my house.”

Hey, she called me “Eric.”

I let her scream and yell and make a big deal about it, and once she was done I pointed out the fact that this wasn’t for me, it was for my fifteen year old nephew, and at that point she couldn’t really say no.

She had sobered up a lot in the couple hours since the bar, where I had convinced her to call in the bogus shooting at the school. After that, I gave her a ride home in Vanessa’s car. Then I stole her keys, went back to the bar, and stole her cruiser, but she didn’t know about that part yet and I was fine with letting her figure it out on her own later, after I was dead or out of town.

Once Jamie was safe inside O’Brien’s house, I turned to leave.

“Aren’t you coming inside, too?”

“No, I’ve got someone I need to talk to first.”

“That’s too bad,” she said, “Do me a favor? Try not to die.”


My next stop was at the shitty gas station at the edge of town. I pulled into the parking lot to find Toulouse with a water hose, smoking a cigarette and spraying down the concrete. I parked, got out, went up to him, then snatched him by the neck and put him against the wall.

He calmly took the cigarette out of his mouth, smiled at me, and said “Hey detective. What’s up?”

I held Vanessa’s phone next to his face. The picture on the screen was the selfie he had taken with her. The last picture to be taken before she disappeared.

“Wanna tell me anything?” I asked.

“Not particularly, but if it’ll keep you from kicking my ass I’ll tell you whatever you want.”

“It will,” I lied.

“Ok, so here’s the thing, Van and I were close. But you’re, like, her dad pretty much and I don’t do well with parents.”

“You’ve got three seconds to stop with the bullshit before I make you eat this phone.”

“Okay! Fine! You got me. I lied to you because I didn’t know if you were really looking for her or if you were one of them.”

“Cut it out with the vague pronouns. Who are them?”

“I have no idea. The ones that took Van.”

I put the phone in my pocket, pulled my Beretta, and put it to his head. Just in case there was any confusion about whether or not I meant business. But Jerry just chuckled and said sarcastically, “Oh no, not a gun against my head! Look detective, believe it or not, this ain’t my first rodeo.”

“Just tell me what you know.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have believed it yesterday. But maybe now you’re ready. The truth is that somebody took Van. But it wasn’t two weeks ago. It was more like a month ago. I figured it out right away, that thing that came into work the next day, that wasn’t her. Sure it looked like her, and it acted like her, but I wasn’t going to be fooled. Now, I know you’re not going to believe this, but I have a little experience with clones, and she wasn’t a very good one.”

I tried to figure out what I thought of this. Honestly, I couldn’t decide. Toulouse took my hesitation as an opportunity to put his cigarette back in his mouth and take a drag. I let go of his neck, then put my piece away and asked, “Why would somebody want to clone Vanessa?”

“Isn’t it obvious? She was the test run. If she could infiltrate Vanessa’s real life without raising suspicions, then they would know that their recipe works. But it didn’t, so she had to go before anyone with credibility realized what had happened. That was a couple weeks ago. It’s entirely possible that they’re still switching people out. Maybe they fixed the kinks in Vanessa, and now… now we don’t even know who’s real and who’s been replaced.”

“What’s the point in switching people out with clones?”

“Well, duh. This is an invasion, man.”

He finished his smoke and flicked it off into the grass. Then I asked, “The night Vanessa went missing… the real night she went missing, assuming this is true, did you see her?”

“Yeah, we were together.”

“Do you remember what she was wearing?”


“Can you tell me what she was wearing the night she actually disappeared?”

Jerry thought for a second, then said, “Hold on one sec,” before digging out his cell phone, flicking through a few photos, then holding it out to me, showing a video he had recorded of Vanessa and him taking turns tossing 2-liter bottles of soda to each other while the other tried to cut them in half with a sword. In that video, she wore jeans, a green long-sleeve, and Donnie’s brown jacket.

When it was finished, Toulouse smiled proudly to himself and put the phone back in his pocket.

“That was the last night before–as you say–she was taken and replaced?”

“Yeah. I had just gotten that rad sword and came up here to try it out. We ended up breaking it like two days later, but it was totally worth it.”

This was textbook crazy, but what he was saying made some kind of sense. There was no denying the facts. After that night in Toulouse’s video, Vanessa started acting differently. Her best friend confirmed it. Her brother confirmed it. Even her phone confirmed it. She’d stopped taking selfies. For two weeks, it was like she was a different person. And then, the final straw, her own brother told her that he knew she wasn’t the real Vanessa and then… what? She gets out of there before anyone else has a chance to suspect?

“Whoa, dude, what is that smell?” asked Toulouse.

I snapped out of it, realized what he was referring to, and pulled out my gun.

That thing. The juggernaut. It was here. And from the smell, I knew it was somewhere close by.

“Get inside and lock the doors.” I said.

“Okie doke.” he answered before bounding into the gas station building. I pointed the gun, scanning the edges of the parking lot where the lights met darkness. And then I heard it, walking through the forest on the opposite side. I kept the gun aimed in the direction that the noise was coming from, a strange inhuman gurgling breath, and the loud dragging of something heavy through the brush.

I walked towards the noise. This was going to be a showdown, and if that thing killed me I didn’t want it taking out Toulouse just because he was there.

Then, it stepped out of the forest, and for the first time I saw it, and my blood ran cold.

Chapter Nine

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.

I waited.

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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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 put the phone on the receiver and prepared myself.

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.

“Hey detective?”

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.

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