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.”

The house’s interior was as depressing as the magazines at a Laundromat. It looked like maybe they’d just moved into it a couple of weeks ago, like they’d been there long enough to get the chairs and sofa in the right spots, but hadn’t hung any pictures or otherwise decorated. The place just seemed lifeless.

The father of the missing girl was a tiny little guy with a mighty blond beard, kind of seemed like a character out of a fantasy novel to me. He had a tattoo on his right bicep that looked like it was from some military unit, a skull in front of an ace of spades. Probably no more than five years older than John and I but with a lot more miles on him. I figured there had been a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan or both, and it looked like he’d returned to a job of manual labor. He was on the sofa, rough hands clenched between his thighs, one knee bouncing. A caged animal. Seemed like the kind of guy who’d have a whole detailed routine for how to make up with his wife after he got rough with her.

Ted Knoll looked me over. What I was wearing could best be described as the opposite of a tuxedo.

He said, “You’re the guy? You look like a bag of smashed asshole.”

“Thank you for the feedback. So it’s been explained to you? Who we are?”

“I asked for you. If it was up to me, cops wouldn’t be here at all.”

“Okay. Sure. So, what’s going to happen is, I’m going to ask you a series of questions and it’s not going to be at all clear why I’m asking them, some will seem random or even cruel. All I ask is that you simply answer those questions as best you can, and don’t interrupt to ask me why I’m asking. If you don’t know an answer, just say you don’t know. Okay?”

He nodded.

“Is Maggie’s mother here? I’d prefer to not have to go through this twice.”

“She don’t live here, we’re separated. She don’t know I’m talkin’ to you and we’re gonna keep it that way.”

“Ah. All right, when did you notice your daughter was missing?”

“Got up in the middle of the night, don't know why, happened to walk past her room and saw there was no lump in the blankets. Went in to check, bed was empty, no sign of Maggie anywhere. Front and back doors of the house were both closed and locked. All the windows locked, too. We got an alarm system, either they figured out how to disarm it, or they managed to not trip it. Got security cameras front and back, looks like they went dark at around two in the morning, stayed off for an hour, just a black screen, like somebody knew exactly what they were doing. Like they’d planned it.”

“All that aside, we’re one hundred percent sure your daughter’s not hiding in a closet, anything like that? We’re not going to find her in the attic, or crawl space, or garage? Under a bed? In a kitchen cabinet?”

“I’ve torn this fuckin’ place apart. She ain’t here.”

“In the days or nights leading up to this, did you have any strange dreams?”

“No.”

“Did you see any shadowy figures, like maybe out of the corner of your eye, but when you turned to look, nobody was there?”

“No.”

“Do you ever have memories of events that never happened? A presidential election that turned out differently than the newspapers say, a famous person you was sure was dead, turning out to be alive?”

“No. I’m not crazy, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.”

“Did you see anything else unusual leading up to Maggie’s disappearance?”

“Five days ago, a man named Nymph showed up and said he was going to abduct her soon.”

John and I exchanged a look. John said, “I think that might be our first lead.”

To Ted I said, “Did you call the cops after that?” “I did not.”

“Because you don’t think this was just some local deviant.

Or else you wouldn’t have asked for us.” “Also, don’t got much use for cops.”

“Tell us about that encounter, from the start.”

“It was last Sunday. After church. I was in the driveway putting an alternator on the Impala. Guy walks up, dainty little guy, looked like a fag, or a child molester. Got this lispy little voice, holding a cigarette between his thumb and index finger, like you’d hold a joint. Made this little duckface every time he took a puff, I wanted to punch him before he even said a word. Came mincing up the driveway, I didn’t even see a car pull up or anything, he was just there. Maggie was in the yard with me, chasing the cat around. This guy comes up, says his name is Mister Nymph. Actually referred to himself as ‘Mister.’”

“Wait, say the last name again?”

“Nymph, like short for ‘nymphomaniac’ or somethin’.

That’s how I heard it anyway.”

It wasn’t a name we’d run across before.

Ted continued, “So he looks over at Maggie, and he’s got his leering look, you know, and says I have a beautiful daughter.

Starts asking me a bunch of weird questions about her. Then he says—”

“What kind of questions?”

“Started out random things. How much does she weigh.

Do we let her eat meat. I’m not answering any of these as he asks; I’m just asking him who he is, what does he want. But he just keeps up with the questions. And they just get creepier as they go. Does she shower or take baths. Do my wife and I allow her to see us naked. Do we let her shop for her own underwear.”

“Like he was trying to get you agitated, then.”

“Guess so, yeah. Told him to get off my property; he said he was just asking questions. I tell him he’s got five seconds to get off my driveway, tell him that he’s threatening my child, as far as I’m concerned. I say that in this state I have grounds to kill him where he stands, based on that alone. Finally he says, and he’s saying it like he’s shopping for a car, he says, ‘I’ll take her.’ Says he’ll be back in a few days to pick her up. I take a step toward the guy, big wrench in my hand. Then I turn to check on Maggie real quick, just a split second, then I turn back to Nymph and—”

“And he was gone,” finished John.

Ted nodded. “I asked Maggie if she saw where the guy went, she said she didn’t see nothin’. Said she saw me standing in the driveway alone, yelling at nobody. By the next day, I was doubtin’ myself.”

John said, “You thought it was a hallucination?”

Ted shrugged. “Came back from Iraq, had the PTSD, dreams mostly. Figured . . . I dunno. Also done some substances in my time, before Maggie was born, but I’ve heard about how that stuff stays in your system. I guess I wanted it to be that and not this other thing. The shit that they say goes on in this town. The reason everybody moved away, the reason I got this house for fifteen grand. I had always figured it was all panic and superstition. I’ve seen plenty of women and little kids torn to pieces, and the culprit wasn’t no monster. Men do it just fine.”

I said, “So, what exactly are you willing to believe?”

“I believe in results. I believe in technique. What you two do, either it works or it don’t. If it don’t, I’ll find somebody else.”

I said, “The way I try to explain it to people is this. You look outside in the daytime and there’s the sun. It’s there, everybody agrees it’s there, everybody knows what it is. But what you don’t realize is that the sun is also really loud. It’s a giant ball of nuclear explosions. Have you ever been really close to a lightning strike? You know that clap of thunder that’s so loud that it almost makes you piss your pants? Imagine hearing something that loud, nonstop, day and night—that’s how loud the sun would be, even from a hundred million miles away. About a hundred and twenty decibels. The only reason you can’t hear it, is because your ears aren’t equipped to—there’s no air in space to carry the sound waves. Do you understand? This universe is full of huge, powerful, noisy things that you just can’t perceive the right way, due to how your sense organs are built. John and I, our senses are a little different than yours, that’s all.”

John said, “It’s kind of like how you can’t hear that your pet goldfish is just constantly screaming, but other fish can.

Now this particular guy, Nymph or whatever his name is, he’s not in our database—”

Note: We do not have a database.

“—but everything’s a mystery until it’s not. This looks like what we call a ‘locked room’ abduction. Victim missing, but no sign of entry or exit. We’ve seen a few of them before.”

Ted said, “If you don’t mind me askin’, how many of those times have you found the victim alive?”

“More than you’d think,” answered John. The answer is one, by the way. “When they say the things that happen around here are beyond understanding, that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes weirdness occurs and everybody is perfectly fine afterward. Maggie could just turn up in her bedroom again, five minutes from now.”

“Is that what you think will happen here?”

Before John could answer, I said, “We don’t think anything right now. We’ve been at this for a while, and here’s what we’ve learned—however you think it’s gonna go, is not how it’s gonna go. About here is where I usually tell people not to get their hopes up, but I don’t think I need to say that—you know what the world is like. So, instead I’m just going to say that we’ll do our best.”

Ted nodded. “Part of the job is that guy, Nymph, whoever he is, we find him and destroy him. Alpha Mike Foxtrot.”

John said, “You can take that to the fuckin’ bank.”

The detective held out his hands and said, “Guys, I’m standing right here.”

Ted said, “So, if this is what we think it is, where do you start looking?”

I thought, good question.

John said, “The fact that he came to you in advance is important. He could have just snatched her in the night, presumably, but there’s a game being played here. So that means there’s a good chance we’ll hear from Nymph—or someone like him—very soon. At that point, we try to figure out exactly what ‘game’ he’s playing. And then—” I finished for him. “We don’t fucking play it.”

Ted nodded. He seemed to have gained some confidence from this conversation, which meant we had done a good job of concealing the fact that we had no idea what the hell we were doing.

The detective looked at his watch, nodded, and said, “Well, looks like you guys have it handled.”

He turned and strode down the hall and out the front door. I hurried after him.

“Hey! You’re not walking away from this—wait!” He stopped to open the door of the SUV. I put a hand on it to keep it closed and he gave me a look like I was a mosquito he was about to splatter. “Where are you going?”

“Oh, I have to call the feds, of course. We’ll have a team from the FBI here in half an hour, they’ll work with a local task force of a dozen of our finest men!”

He knocked my hand aside and ducked into the passenger seat. He slammed the door and the other cop started the engine. I knocked on the window and he rolled it down.

I asked, “Wait, was that sarcasm?”

“What do you think? I’ll see you boys later. Or not. Who knows? I’m going back to the station.”

“You can’t just walk away from a missing child!”

“Watch us. You think this is my first day on the job? You think this is my first day in this town? You heard the story, even if we don’t exactly know what’s going on, we know enough. If They took her” (I could hear the capital “T” in his voice), “then it’s like trying to rescue an orange after it’s been juiced. Not my monkeys, not my circus.”

“It literally is! This is your job.”

His shoulders slumped. He let out a tired sigh. “You’re right, you’re right. Here, let me give you something. It might help.”

He stuck his right hand inside his jacket, then pulled it out to reveal he had his middle finger extended. He stuck his hand out of the window and sped off down the street singing, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOUUUU!!!!”

I watched the SUV’s taillights dissolve behind a gray curtain of rain. I would have called the guy’s superiors to complain, but the chief would just say the same thing, only louder.

You might be wondering if the “They” he was just referring to is the same “they” who showed up at John's place a few weeks ago. The truth is, nobody knows. Lurking behind everything are these walking shadows who can manipulate a human soul as easily as a finger puppet is manipulated by a drunk mime's penis. Here in our world, there are people who do Their bidding willingly, others who do it unwillingly and still others who serve Their purposes without even knowing They exist. So, yeah, I admit it probably does make it hard to fill out an arrest warrant.

I sighed and made my way back inside.

As soon as I arrived back in the living room, Ted said, “Thought he’d never leave. So if we’re gonna hear from Nymph, when do you think—”

His cell phone rang.

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