WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ

Chapter 2: A Screaming Clown Dick

I stepped out into the rain that had been hammering us relentlessly since Columbus Day. After a month of it, everything that wasn’t pavement was a squishy muck that with every step squirted through the hole in my right shoe and soaked my sock. Drainage ditches were advancing menacingly across yards and parking lots, day by day. Over in what was left of the good part of town, they were putting down sandbags. No army of volunteers was coming to sandbag the dildo store.

Yeah, my apartment is above a sex toy shop, called the Venus Flytrap. Our neighbor on one side is the skanky Coral Rock Motel (which is convenient for the clientele there) and next to it is one of those tiny used car lots where the stock is surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire, bearing signs offering weekly payments and no credit checks (they don’t mention the cars come with remote gadgets that can disable the engine if you miss a payment). On the other side of us is a tiny burned-out shop with a bashed-in front window exposing its charcoal guts to the world. I remember when that used to be a candy store, back when I was a kid. It always had this warm caramel smell, the scent of melted butter and sugar and holidays. No idea what happened to the kindly old couple who ran the place, all I know is that now raccoons nest in the blackened old display case and raindrops plink off the broken beer bottles that drunks have flipped through the window as they stumbled past.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a town that was actually growing, where vacant lots give birth to trendy restaurants and old warehouses are torn down to make room for brand new housing developments. A city like Seattle or Austin, where you can actually feel like human civilization is advancing forward, progressing toward some kind of goal. I bet it just changes your whole attitude.

My car, which I got for free because the previous owners thought it was possessed (the groans were actually from a defective power steering pump), carried me past a permanently closed Walmart—yes, even our Walmart went out of business— and into a neighborhood of large Victorian homes that had probably been the fancy part of Undisclosed back in the old days. Several of the houses had been turned into somewhat shady businesses—a consignment shop, a gun dealer, and the aforementioned vape store were all in a row, next to a blue Victorian home that was still a residence. At this hour, it was the only one with lights on inside. As I pulled over, my headlights flashed across a cop SUV parked out front, with John’s Jeep right behind it. I sighed, checked my hair—it looked like a wig that had been flushed down a toilet and recovered in the sewer six months later—and dragged myself out into the rain.

When I got close to the SUV, I found there was an officer in the driver’s seat, eating a McMuffin and playing a game on his phone. A kid with a square jaw and wavy movie-star hair. It wasn’t somebody we’d dealt with before. He rolled down his window just a crack as I approached, enough to talk through it but not enough to let the rain splatter in.

I said, “Excuse me, is this where the missing girl is?” “No, sir. If she was here she wouldn’t be missing.” “Uh . . . okay, I got a call from John, I’m—”

“I know who you are. He’s inside, with Herm.”

I went up and found the front door was standing open. I didn’t want to just let myself in, since people lived here and I wasn’t police. I just sort of stood there awkwardly until the detective appeared a minute later. An older guy, face was mostly mustache—I felt like I’d dealt with him before but couldn’t remember where. Clothes were more casual than what you see detectives wear in movies—khakis and a polo shirt under a windbreaker, looked more like a guy the landlord would send to repair your furnace, the type who’d bend your ear about filter maintenance on the way out. He let me inside just enough to get out of the rain, then put up a hand to stop me.

I said, “I’m David Wong—”

“I know. I remember you from your involvement in every single horrible thing that has happened in this town for the last several years.”

“What about the mayor’s bestiality scandal? I wasn’t involved in that.”

“That we know of.”

John walked up from behind the detective, wearing a black overcoat and under it, a gray suit and tie. He yanked off his reading glasses and said, “Dave, this girl is just missing as fuck.”

He handed me a photo. I asked, “Why are you wearing that?”

“Which thing?”

“All of it. I didn’t even know you owned a suit.”

“Oh, I have to be in court later. That public indecency charge. I’m going to fight it, lawyer dug up some good case law where they found that body paint counts as clothing.”

I glanced at the picture. It was a little girl, all right.

Elementary school age, long blond hair. The type of missing kid the news media actually notices.

John said, “I think this case is a screaming clown dick.

The girl’s name is Margaret Knoll, they call her Maggie. Parents are Ted and Loretta. She went missing a few hours ago.”

I handed the photo back to John and said, “That’s all the time it took the cops to decide it was Dave and John territory?”

The detective said, “How many bites do you have to take out of a shit sandwich before you figure out it’s shit? Follow me. And wipe your shoes.”

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