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I bought a used car in perfect condition. However, there's a catch.
The original plan was to get a new car; I was in a comfortable position financially, had a decent paying job as a sales rep and made much more than the average bloke around my age, and wanted a reliable SUV. Me and a couple friends always went out to the desert, national parks in California where I resided, and I was sick of getting teased for having the worst car of the bunch. I was about to go to the dealership and buy a new 2016 Highlander, since I was very loyal to Toyota, but decided I would thumb through the classifieds to see if there were any gems that were a few years old and listed for a great price.
It was mostly junkers, people looking for cars, a couple false advertisements from companies trying to offer overpriced and unfair leases on new cars, but then I stumbled across an advertisement that caught my eye. It read,
"2001 Jeep Wrangler. 1,100 miles, perfect condition. 500 OBO"
I've never been a fan of Jeeps, they seem to burn through fuel way too fast and have problems that a Toyota would never have. However, it was only 500 dollars, and 1,100 miles on a 15 year car is wild. Plus, something about that "perfect condition" intrigued me. I was curious how a 15 year old car could be in perfect condition. I decided to reach out to the seller and get more information,
"Hey, I was looking at your 2001 Jeep Wrangler. Can I come by and take a look?"
Within a minute, I had a reply waiting at my fingertips, "Sure. My address is [redacted]. I'll be home in an hour, the car is in front, feel free to check it out."
Perfect. They lived about 10 minutes away from me, so I had time to get ready and call my friend Dave, who's a mechanic at the local auto shop, and see if he notices anything fishy about it. There's no way a car in perfect condition with only 1,100 miles on it could be 500 dollars, right?
I arrived at the property, and to my surprise, the car appeared to be in perfect condition. It has a metallic silver paint job that looked not a day old, the windows were clean as they were when they got out of the factory, there were no scratches, dents, or damage of any kind. I took a peek inside the vehicle, it was spotless. Not a single stain, dog hair, crumb, or any evidence that it had been used at all. I got on my knees, and looked at the tires, which appeared to be brand new and were the same factory wheels that Jeeps come with. The bottom didn't appear to have any damage, or any signs that there was something off.
"What do you think, son?"
I jumped and banged my head on the bottom of the car upon hearing her voice.
"Oh my god, you scared the crap out of me! I thought you would be an hour, sorry, I was just checking out the bottom."
"Ah, sorry honey. I just got back from the store. Do you have any questions?" The face that startled me was that of an older woman, who seemed to be about 80. She had a hunch, and walked with a cane, but her skin was just so pristine. There wasn't a wrinkle on her face, not a wrinkle on her hands or arms, and had a coat of red nail polish over her fingers that looked pristine.
Just as I started to hoist myself from below the car, I saw Dave pull up in his Supra. I've always loved being in that thing, it attracted attention everywhere he went. I don't know if that was the purpose- either way, it was great. He got out and introduced himself to the woman, who shook his hand and called herself "Dot." I extended my hand out for a shake. Her skin felt smooth as a baby's, if you couldn't see her hair and hunch, you wouldn't be able to tell she was a day above 20. There wasn't a blemish to be found anywhere, it was admittedly a bit unsettling. I chalked it up to really lucky genetics, looked at Dave, and asked,
"Do you mind if my buddy Dave takes a look under the hood?"
The woman blushed, and said "Oh, of course, dear!" and shakily handed me a set of keys. The Jeep key looked as pristine as the car, it had no scratches or signs of use at all. I pressed the button to unlock the doors, and pulled the hood latch from inside. Dave walked up, and lifted it up.
"You're gonna like this, Danny." he said, as I got out of the car and headed over to where he was. The engine bay was as clean as the rest of the car, every component looked to be unused and perfect. He pulled out the oil stick, and it was clean as if he had just changed it. The windshield wiper fluid was full and clean, and the filter was brand new. There wasn't a single nick or dust particle under the hood.
"How did you keep this car so clean, ma'am?" he asked the woman, a bit apprehensively. It seemed he thought this might've been a stolen car, taken from a dealership or a showroom.
"It was my husband's car. I've never set foot in the thing, honey." she began walking towards the hood, "He always had a thing for these machines, you hear. I never really liked them. I don't even have my license. He was always out here, vacuuming, fixing something, cleaning another."
She chuckled, and looked right in my eyes,
"I suggested he marry her, if he loved her so much. He died shortly after, so the wedding never got around to happening. But I told him I'd make sure she found a good home. He loved his cars more than anything, even me I'm afraid."
I decided to pry deeper.
She didn't reply, and started walking inside,
"If you want to take it for a test drive, feel free. Let me know when you've decided if you want it or not." She smiled once more, then disappeared through the doorway of the huge home. I wondered if she lived alone, or had children to live with. It was such a big house for one little old lady, but she didn't seem very eager to share more.
I jumped in the drivers seat, opening the passenger door for Dave. The engine started fine. The gears seemed to shift like they do on the first drive, and there wasn't a single weird sound. The station that played was an AM station, some kind of classical music. I decided to let it be, since it wasn't too distracting. As we drove down the street, and around the blocks, it got more and more confusing; there wasn't a single problem with the car. It was the smoothest ride I had ever had.
"What do you think is up with this car? Why is it so cheap, and so clean?" I asked, as we started to circle back to her house.
Dave shook his head, "I don't fucking know, man. It's the cleanest car I've ever seen, runs better than even my Supra, I would absolutely take this. Plus, it's a Jeep. Those are badass. You want a girl, you'll get one in this thing."
I laughed, and said "Should I buy it, instead of a Toyota?" as I pulled into her driveway.
"If you don't, I think I just might buy it myself."
We both shared a smile, and got out of the car. I started walking towards the front door, pulling out the envelope in my pocket with 5 100 dollar bills.
"Do you want it?" a voice from behind me startled me once more, causing me to drop the envelope and caused me a very obvious jump.
"Damn lady, you gotta stop sneaking up on me!" I laughed, and continued, "I'll take it. I have 500 in cash, is that okay?"
She took the bills out of my hand, and said "Everything you'll need is in the glove box."
I shook her hand once more. Dot's hand was as soft as last time, and looked like it had never seen a day of wear. She had a crimson band on her ring finger, and a matching pendant swinging gently from her neck. I took the Jeep's key off the keychain she handed me earlier, and gave what was left back to her. She smiled, and took the keys out of my hand.
As I turned away to head back to the car, I heard her yell, much louder than I thought the woman's voice could project,
I turned around immediately, and looked at her quizzically.
"Don't change the station."
She smiled at me once more, a smile that seemed disconcertingly large, and waved goodbye. I kept my gaze for a moment longer, then walked back to the car, where Dave was standing.
"Your car now, eh?"
"Yeah, she's all mine." I smiled, before shifting my gaze to the car, then back on Dave,
"She told me not to change the radio station. Do you think that there's a reason for that?" Dave thought about it for a moment, and shrugged.
"I assume she just really likes classical music. I wouldn't think too much of it."
That seemed to resonate with me, so I hopped in the car, and waved to Dave, who did likewise to me. I turned on the ignition, half expecting the entire car to fall apart as I did, but everything was smooth as last time. The radio picked up once again, playing classic instrumental, and I turned it down a little, before putting the car in drive and heading home.
I've now owned the car for a year. It seemed almost too good to be true; I was getting nearly 50 miles per gallon, which is insane for an older Jeep. I had zero problems with any component, the tires were always inflated to the right PSI despite my frequent offroading and reckless driving, it handled high speeds beautifully, and it felt so right. So much better than my Corolla did. I felt like a real man driving this thing around.
At first, I thought the whole "Don't change the radio station" thing was a sham. I was planning on burning some songs onto a CD and putting it in the CD slot later, but I decided to just let it keep playing classical music. The station she had the car set on was so strange- I couldn't find any information about it online, and the music seemed to pick off right where it left off when I was last in the car. I was tempted many times to test changing it, but I started to question whether there was something else going on. You know, something a bit...abnormal. Maybe this station was significant to the car's perfection. It seemed to be flawless, and the reception for that station was always strong, even when I went to the desert for a few days, or underground in parking garages. I started bringing earbuds with me when I drove, or a portable speaker when others were in the car with me. It wasn't perfect, but I decided to just let it be. I could survive without playing music through the car's speakers. Plus, the classical music wasn't half bad. It seemed to get faster as my car sped up, and slow down as I slowed down. I'm sure it was a coincidence or something, but it was fun to keep track of. Plus, there were no adverts, which is something I absolutely hated on the radio and television.
I was planning on my first huge roadtrip with the people I cared about most. It would be me, Dave, Stos, and Stos' girlfriend Amber. We all loved nature and exploring, and the Jeep seemed like the best car to take together, so we planned on going up to northern California. We would leave after I got off work at 5:00, and just cycle through shifts of driving and sleeping until we made it to Shasta National Forest, and explore down California until we made it back home. I was super excited, as we all were. Plus, maybe we could do a bit of off roading in this seemingly immortal Jeep.
We were set to leave in about 24 hours. I made sure to bring a really good sound system so nobody got bored or tried to change the radio. Amber and Stos had never been in the Jeep before, so they wouldn't know anything about the classical station. I don't know if Dave remembers, he's never said anything when I drove him in the past, so I'm sure he did. Just in case, I put a little piece of duct tape over the Auxiliary port, and the CD player, that way nobody would put anything in before I stopped them.
I've never been one to believe in supernatural things, but I knew that I had to keep that station playing. No matter how badly I wanted to change it.
I picked Dave up first, then Stos and Amber who were a bit higher north, and we set off. I left a bit later than expected, because I had to address something at work, but it was no biggie. The minute Stos got in the car, I knew this was going to be a long ride,
"What the fuck are you blasting on the speakers, Dan?"
I laughed, and turned the speaker up a bit, to try to drown out the classical music. I was a bit annoyed with Stos' comment, but thought nothing of it. He put his ear up to the speaker on the rear left door, where he was seated, and shook his head disapprovingly. I thought about telling them about what the woman had told me, but decided to wait. We cruised onward.
By this time, the sun was starting to set, and we were getting close to Joshua Tree. Although I would've preferred to take a straight trip on the 5 northbound all the way to our destination. Amber wanted to see the Salton Sea, so we took a bit of a detour to get dinner and see the biggest sea in California. There was a traffic accident near Indio, the way Google Maps was telling us to go, so I decided to take a detour through Joshua Tree and stop for a bathroom break and to change positions a bit.
Throughout the trip, Stos and Amber occasionally made comments about the classical music. I eventually shut them down and told them the story. Amber seemed to understand, but Stos didn't waver his stance one bit, and chalked it up to being a crazy old lady trying to scare me.
As I got out of the car on the side of the desert road, Dave got out with me, and we spaced ourselves out to pee with some privacy. I walked about twenty seconds into the brush, and Dave just did his business right behind the car. I started to walk back to the car, pulled a handwipe out of my pocket and cleaned my hands, I saw Stos fumbling with the radio stations. I broke into a sprint towards the car, but it was too late.
"Not everyone likes fucking classical, Danny boy" he mocked, and shuffled through the stations. Stos eventually found a R&B station that he liked, and started dancing in the passenger seat.
I had a really, really bad feeling in my chest as I started the engine, but to my surprise, it started up the same as it had before. I, embarrassed that I believed a silly message that an old lady yelled at me, disconnected the speaker system, and let him have his way. We had about 15 more miles of driving through Joshua tree, and the 62 would be in sight, and I would let Dave drive for a few hours while I rested, since I was beat from work.
Even though everything appeared to be fine, I had this really bad feeling in my chest. I felt like something was off about this car, about that woman. How did a 15 year old car have not a single spec of dust in or out? The car was a bit dirty now, but the exterior seemed to never fade, and I hadn't accumulated a single scratch or dent in the car since I bought it. Either way, we trekked on, talking occasionally about what we would do in Shasta, or mocking each other. Normal stuff.
"Hey Danny, how much longer until we get to the freeway?" Dave asked from the back seat. I took a minute to look at my phone, but there was no service, and the map was in a constant state of "reconnecting..." I couldn't see our location; the entire area was a sea of grey and white loading symbols filled the map.
He was right in asking. It had felt like we were driving down that Joshua Tree road for much longer than 15 minutes. I looked outside, and the road seemed to go on forever. Not one car had passed us since we stopped to go to the bathroom.
"If we don't see anything in 5 minutes, we'll turn around. I'm sure we're almost there." I said, shifting my focus back on the road. At the same time, I noticed the odometer was gaining shockingly quick.
When we started the trip, the Jeep had about 10,000 miles on it total. It now had about 100,000, and didn't seem to slow down one bit. I started to freak out, and looked back at Dave, who was sound asleep. It must be a mechanical glitch, which happens sometimes I told myself and kept on.
But the odometer did, as well. It was at 700,000 miles when I yelled "Dave!"
Dave jumped awake, and looked at the odometer, then looked at Stos, then me.
"Turn that fucking radio back to the classical station." he said, looking right into Stos' eyes." I remembered the number, it was 999 AM. I shuffled up to 920, 930, 940, 950, 960, 970, 980, 990, 1000. I tried to fine tune the dial back, but it jumped to 998. I tuned it forward, and it brought me to 1000 again.
"I can't find the station that it was on." I said, defeated. I decided to turn the car around, and see if we can backtrack our steps and take the route Google originally told us to take.
As I did, I heard a noise come from the bottom of the car. Simultaneously, the windows cracked. All of the windows. Amber screamed, and Stos looked around in shock. Dave had grabbed the vehicle's manual, but the radio page was torn out, of course. I motioned to speed up, but eventually realized that I was not in control of the speed. It was increasing, currently at 70 miles per hour, and was not slowing down.
"The fucking handbrake!" Dave yelled, and I pulled it. To my fear, the handle completely popped off, and the car didn't slow down one bit. As the speed increased, we all began to brace for impact, grabbing whatever backpacks or duffel bags we could find to cover our heads from glass and debris. The car was going 100 miles per hour, the brake was jammed in place and wouldn't move, and the gear shifting knob didn't budge one bit.
In a last attempt to save us before the car accelerated past 100 miles per hour, I turned the steering wheel slightly to the right, and the car violently shook us as we crashed through cacti, bushes, rocks, and unsafe mounds of dirt along the side of the road. Eventually, the car began to slow down, and I motioned for everyone to jump out while we could.
At about 20 miles per hour, I leaped out of the Jeep simultaneously with Stos, Amber, and Dave, expecting the car to soar onward until it was rendered useless. But, it stopped only meters in front of where we landed. All four tires were flat and beyond the point of repair, the hood was completely dented in, there was barely a remnant of glass on the windows, and the paint was scratched beyond buffing. Pools of gas and oil collected under the car, and the lights, including the headlights and interior lights, died at the same time. There was silence.
Dave opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. I looked to my left, and saw Stos starting to get up. Amber was the only one who hadn't started to move. With all the energy I could muster, I crawled over to Amber, and tried to wake her up, but I was met with no response. She had no pulse. It seemed she had hit her head on a rock of some kind, because there was a huge wound in the back of her head that was bleeding all over the place. I tried to fight the tears, but succumbed to them. Amber was dead. Stos shortly looked over and noticed, and immediately jumped up and started walking towards me, anger in his eyes.
"How the fuck could you do this to us?" He screamed in my face, pulling me by the shirt up to see him. Stos was a big dude, he could easily overpower me in a fight, and clearly realized this.
"You're the one who got us into this, fucking retard!" I spit back at him. He threw me against the stationary Jeep, which caused a huge dent to appear much larger than my body. Dave, about the same size as Stos, held him from coming back for seconds, trying to calm him down.
"What the fuck do we do now?" Dave asked the two of us, "I'm not driving this fucking car one more meter. We have no service, nobody knows where we are, no cars have been by in hours, and Amber's fucking dead over there" he motioned towards her corpse.
"I'm going to walk down back to the road, and see if I can flag someone down," I said. "It's our only hope."
"Do you think we'd be safe to stay in the Jeep, so we don't get mauled by something?" Dave shakily asked.
"Are you fucking serious? That thing is fucking cursed! All because Stos fucking changed the radio station, I wouldn't set foot in that Jeep." Stos started motioning towards me, but Dave threw him back with more force than I expected from him.
"I'm with Dave on this one. I don't think it's going to hurt us any more. Even if something happens, we can just jump out the window, since they aren't exactly in place." Stos said. "Go fuck off and find someone to help us, Daniel."
I spit in his direction, and started limping towards the road. I looked back to see Stos and Dave get in the back seats, looking at something in the front seat, most likely the odometer that I brought up earlier. The car didn't seem to be doing anything other than sitting in the middle of the desert, maybe it was content with Amber's death, and it would leave us be.
I had walked for about half an hour, but for some reason, there was no road to be found. I didn't recognize the surroundings at all; I had been to Joshua Tree in the past, but this was different. This wasn't Joshua Tree. There were no roads, no rocks, aside from the ones near the Jeep that we almost hurtled into, no lights. Just the endless stars in the sky and brush littering the desert sand. I think it's best to head back toward the car I thought. Just as I was about to turn back, the light from the full moon hit my body, and I saw the number "999" engraved in blood on my forearm. I shuddered looking at it. I knew we all got scraped up from the crash, but I didn't notice that the number of the station was engraved on my forearm. Realizing that it probably was the same for Dave and Stos, I started sprinting back, gripping my leg as I hobbled over brush and pebbles.
Just as I was nearing the car, I heard a bloodcurdling scream.
It was Stos.
I ignored every ounce of pain that cried out from my leg and sprinted towards the car. I saw stos in the back seat, curled up in a ball shaking back and forth.
"Daniel, HELP! They took Dave!"
"Who took Dave???" I yelled back at him.
"These things! They came from the bottom of the car!"
Just as Stos said those last words, I saw four black hands crawl up from the two sides of the car, and reach their arms through the two open windows. Two grabbed each side of Stos' body, and as he screamed my name over and over again, they pulled at his muscular body until he exploded into a bloody mess and his body was no longer whole.
The arms took the pieces of his body back under the Jeep effortlessly, and he seemed to disappear into the exhaust pipe. I stood in shock as I saw every single dent, scratch, and broken window repair themselves into pristine condition. In what felt like minutes, the car was pristine once again. Not a single scratch lined the silver metallic body, the windows were scratch free and look like they were cleaned minutes before. I didn't know how to react.
The car turned itself on, and reversed to where I stood. I timidly walked up to the side of the car, and put my hand on the door. The radio was once again playing classical music, on station 999 AM, and the interior was completely ridden of dirt, dust, and garbage. Our bags were nowhere to be found- it looked as if nobody had ever set foot in it. Just as I was about to get in, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Enjoying the stars?" The old woman from earlier asked. I screamed and yelled at her to stay back. She seemed to understand my fear, but smiled.
"Don't change the station" she whispered, and turned to walk back to the gray Mazda that I didn't realize was parked next to me. The entire setting had changed, the road was now visible and there were a couple cars passing by. I looked around for Amber's body, but there was nothing except a rock in its place.
I got in the car, buckled my seat belt, and shifted the car in reverse. I didn't want to drive that car, but I had no other way to get home, and definitely didn't have the courage to ask the woman for help. Just as I was about to leave, I froze.
The odometer read 1,103.
Maria is Missing (Part Six)
(Part two here)
(Part three here)
(Part four here)
(Part five here)
The cab drive back to the apartment gives me time to think about Gardener. What he said and what he didn’t say. His story about having someone investigating Maria’s disappearance is bullshit plain and simple. If he wasn’t personally involved in her going missing…and that’s a big if…he knows something about what happened. That much was plain as the nose on his face.
But he’s definitely got his ear to the ground. He’s listening out for anyone asking inconvenient questions about her. And he’s obviously got a long reach. Enough that I wouldn’t ask Hannah for help again even if I thought she’d offer it. Enough that I don’t know if I can trust anyone to give me a straight answer or not to willing to sell me out the second he waves a wad of cash in their face.
He didn’t know I knew about the “Party”. And he sure as hell wasn’t happy about the fact that I did.
That means I can probably trust Candace. Maybe.
Unless it’s just a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Maybe he’s not got that much control over what the people he’s employing do.
Sharp sure as hell isn’t a detective. I don’t know what he is but he’s no P.I…maybe a hitman. Maybe just hired muscle. Definitely someone whose done violence for money before and would do it again. And Gardener wants me to know that. He wants me scared which means he thinks I’m a problem. Or could be one.
Which means I’m on to something.
Could be he’s just nervous that I was looking into him. But I’d barely scratched the surface yet. Unless he’s connected to whatever that shit I saw happening at the Kingfisher Theatre was. I figure they had to have seen me. And if Gardener is hooked up with them that means he’ll know I was there too.
I’m barely verbal as I make it home. Candace has a hundred questions and I haven’t got the energy to answer any of them. I tell her I’m fine as I slump toward the bedroom, the anxious energy gone from my body now. I want to ask Candace some questions of my own but right now all I can do is fall into a deep and thankfully dreamless sleep.
Morning brings with it a migraine that has me downing a couple of pills and thoughts of how badly things went last night. But it also brings with it a new resolve. I’ll be damned if I’m going to be frightened off of this thing by some rich cocksucker like Gardener and his oversized goon. But it’s clear that the direct approach has gotten me all it’s going to get.
Fortunately I know of another approach that’s already open to me.
Over coffee that tastes like drain water I ask Candace about the woman that Maria and Gardener had been connected with. Kismet. Her and Better Films are somehow tangled up in all of this in some way. I’ve already got a few nasty suspicions as to how and why that may be. From what I saw in that theatre they don’t make the kind of movies that get a theatrical release.
Some people will tell you snuff films are a myth or an urban legend.
Those people are fucking idiots who think we live in a better world than we do. But if Gardener is mixed up in that line of work that still only explains about half of what I’ve seen during this case.
“Did you ever see where she worked?
Anyone else she worked with? Any kind of business address for these people?” I asked Candace. She shook her head, her brow furrowing. I was asking a lot of her trying to remember shit that probably seemed utterly inconsequential at the time.
“I’m sorry…I mean she always just came to where we worked. Maria and me, I mean. And I didn’t really listen in on a lot of what they said…to be honest she creeped me out.
She was…off. And I don’t mean how she looked. She was just off”
“Can you remember anything about these people?” I ask and she’s silent for a moment before nodding.
“That book. The one Maria had. They were really obsessed with that book, Gardener and Kismet.
I took Maria to pick it up…the place she went to get it, it was some kind of second hand place or video rental or something. Really dingy, really shitty looking.
Maybe they’d know something?”
A long shot.
But then again both Gardener and Better Films were in the movie business. Maybe there was some kind of connection. Or at the very least maybe this place would know something more about where I could find these people.
Right now it was the most promising thread I had to follow. And I was at least pretty confident that Candace wasn’t compromised. I didn’t know where Gardener had been getting his information from but it didn’t seem likely it was her. Which meant that with any luck he and his creepy little friends wouldn’t see me coming.
Maybe that was wishful thinking. Can’t say I’m normally that optimistic but right now it felt like I had to cling to any shred of hope I could get my hands on.
“Do you remember where it is?” I asked her and she nodded again.
“I can drive you”
I start to object. I’m in no mood to get some anxious twenty two year old involved in this shit any more than I have to. Candace was desperate to find something, anything out about what had happened to Maria. I’d already put Hannah in danger just for being tangentially involved in this shitshow and that was bad enough but I at least knew she could take care of herself.
Candace I didn’t have that much faith in. She seemed nice enough. And that would probably get her killed if this case went south the way I thought it might.
“Look, it’s in the middle of nowhere and I’m bad at directions. You’ll never find it on your own.
And I…I want to help.
You’ve let me crash here. You haven’t treated me like I’ve lost my mind or that I’m making shit up when I told you about what I saw.
And Maria was my…is my…friend.
Let me do something to help”
I sigh. I wonder how it got to this point, where I’m losing an argument with someone who’s barely old enough to buy beer. I know that I’m not going to talk her out of this and I know that I need to find this place.
“You wait in the car. Understand? Do not fuck around with me on this”
She nods and smiles and god the second her mouth curls up into that genuine little smile all I’ve got running through my head are visions of the thousand and one fucking things that could go horribly wrong here. This is exactly what I wanted to avoid but here I am. I tell her to get her coat as I head to the door and mentally prepare myself for whatever may be at the end of this road.
Candace makes a few attempts at small talk on the way over. She asks about me. Asks how long I’ve been “Doing this kind of thing” and “What it was like”. I keep my answers short and to the point for the most part. The last thing I want to do is go over the details of the shit I’ve seen over the years or the things I’ve had to deal with back when I was doing this professionally. And the last thing she wants is to hear about them, even if she doesn’t realise it.
She asks me why I quit.
“Case went bad” I reply in a tone that I hope conveys that’s all I want to say about it. She doesn’t take the hint. Of course she fucking doesn’t.
Like someone died or…”
“It went bad.
That’s all there is to it”
She falls silent for a while after that. I start to wish she’d say something again. Can’t believe I’m already missing her questions. When she speaks up again it’s not to ask about my old job. It’s a question I wasn’t expecting.
“Why didn’t you ever try to meet her?
Maria I mean. Why didn’t you want to see her?”
I don’t really know what to say to that.
I could say that I was worried she’d turn out just like her father. A bigoted sack of shit spewing fire and brimstone bullshit to his moron followers. That I’d already spent over a decade of my life hearing that garbage from family members and that I wasn’t in any great hurry to repeat the experience.
I could say that it had never occurred to me and that wasn’t wholly a lie. She hadn’t much entered my thoughts over the years. My brother hiring me to look into her going missing was the first time I’d thought about her in a long time. I’d had other things to focus my mind on like where the next drink was going to be coming from.
I could even say that I just didn’t care. I thought I hadn’t, at the start of this. I really did.
“I didn’t want to see anyone” I said.
“I don’t understand…” Candace replied. Of course she didn’t. How could she?
“Look kid. I’ve fucked up, fucked over and fucked with every single decent person who ever made the mistake of coming into my life.
And the honest reason I didn’t want you coming with me on this is because I’ll probably fuck things up for you too somehow.
I don’t want people in my life. I don’t want friends or family or any of that shit. Because the only thing I’m good at doing is turning their lives to shit like I did mine”
Candace is quiet again for a little while.
“She thought you sounded amazing, you know.
Her aunt the private detective”
I feel my hands tighten on the wheel.
“Well she was wrong.
And it’s probably a good thing she never met me. I’d only be a fucking disappointment”
When Candace next speaks it’s to point out which road to drive down. We’re in the middle of nowhere feels like right now. Only thing I’ve seen for the last twenty miles is abandoned and condemned storefronts, storage warehouses and houses that look like even the inbreds from Texas Chainsaw Massacre wouldn’t be caught dead squatting in them. Why anyone would have a business out here is beyond me.
Unless of course the kind of business they do there is then kind where they don’t want a lot of eyes on them.
“Just there” Candace says and points it out.
There in the middle of what looks like it used to be a parking lot is a squat and ugly looking building. Peeling white paint on the outside, cracked and grimy windows with hot pink curtains. A garish looking neon sign which proclaims the place to be “Better Video”. A smaller but no less tacky looking one on the door letting me know that they’re open for business.
I tell Candace to wait in the car and she doesn’t object thankfully. There’s a smell in the air like someone’s been burning garbage mixed with overcooked meat. I can’t hear a thing as I stand there. No sirens in the distance, no raised voices. No other cars driving by. In fact I don’t think I’ve seen another vehicle for the past ten miles.
There’s an old overturned shopping cart on the ground as I walk up to the door of the place. Discarded clothes. A few flyers attached to the walls asking about missing pets and one missing persons flyer. I glance at them as I walk in. The girl in the picture makes me stop for a moment. She looks just like her.
Just like Maria.
The date on the poster of when she meant missing is six years ago.
I glance around and wonder if they ever found her. If the people who were looking are still here. If anyone is still here. It feels like I’ve wandered into a section of the city that’s somehow become a ghost town. All except for this place. One tiny island of human habitation amongst the silence and decay.
“Any empty space” are the words that pop into my head for some reason. And I feel a little shiver go through my body as I push the door open and step inside.
The place was about as appealing inside as it was outside. Rows and rows of shelves stacked with video cassettes that had been thrown about by the looks of it, more littering the floor. Old posters that looked like they were slowly rotting tacked up on walls covered in chipped and peeling paint. Stacks of DVD discs on the front desk along with a magazine dated 1996.
Piles of junk littering every corner of the place. A rotting and moth eaten red curtain covering the doorway to the “Adults Only” section. Rows of shelves with old books with yellowing pages stood against one wall while against another was what looked like CD’s taken out of their cases and placed in little white sleeves.
Idly I began flicking through them. Names.
All girls names with a series of dashes beside them. Ashely. Four dashes. Katie. Nine dashes. Becca. Twelve dashes. Jo-Anne. Five dashes.
I made my way around further into the building. There was no bell to call for service and I didn’t feel like I’d want to use it if there was. This whole place felt off. There was a thick musky scent in the air that made me think of blood and other bodily fluids. Every surface seemed to be covered in grime and dust as if no one had been in here in years.
Despite the sign and the unlocked door this place didn’t seem like it was open. This place seemed like it had just been abandoned and everything had been left the way it was when someone had last been here. The titles on the shelves all seemed to be in black plastic cases, each of them with a cartoonish drawing of a frowning face on them. No titles that I could see on any of them.
All of them had something written beneath that odd little logo though.
“Making Better Films for a Better Audience”
I heard the sound of movement somewhere behind me. Turning I saw someone had shuffled out of the backrooms. A thin and sickly looking guy with short dark hair and a thick aura of “Absolute fucking creep” coming off him in waves along with a sickly scent of sweat and something chemical and bitter like cleaning fluid was. I held back the urge to gag at the stink of this guy as I walked over to the desk.
He was looking at me quizzically like he couldn’t believe there was actually another person here. Couldn’t blame him…I’d be amazed if anyone had set foot in this shithole since Maria had come to pick up that book. This place didn’t need to be cleaned it needed to be burned to the fucking ground.
“Are you one of Gardener’s?” he asked. His voice had a slight southern twang to it. And his tone sounded a little curious and a little afraid.
I considered bullshitting him but that would only get me so far. And from the look of this place I could think of an easier way to get answers out of this guy than lies.
“I’m looking into a disappearance. Maria Holloway. Ring any bells?” I asked. His eyes narrows and his hand drifted below the counter. Baseball bat? Gun? Either was possible.
“You a cop?” he asked. I shook my head and reached into my pocket, tugging a roll of fifties out of it.
“I’m just someone with some questions.
And willing to pay good money for answers” I told him, placing a couple of fifties on the desk. He licked his lips nervously. I wondered if this was the most money he’d seen in months.
“Who did you say you were asking after?” he asked, snatching the money up off the table. I repeated her name and added “She came in here a little while ago to get a book.
In the House of Red and White. If that narrows it down any” I said though honestly I had a hard time believing this guy would have any difficulty remembering customers given that I doubted he’d seen more than three people this whole year walk through that door.
He fidgeted nervously and scratched at his arm in a way that made me think his awkwardness wasn’t just due to isolation. This guy was strung out on something. Which with any luck would make it even easier to bribe information out of him. I couldn’t imagine he was making enough here to support whatever he was hooked on.
“So you are one of them” he said and I asked him just what in the fuck that meant. He grinned and stepped around the counter, walking over to an old and beaten up looking wooden door, motioning for me to follow.
I know what you’re after”
“I’m after answers” I replied as I followed him towards the door. As he pushed it open I could see that it opened out into a hallway that lead into some kind of storage area. He was already walking down there and as I followed I found myself wishing I’d kept hold of that gun. Still this guy didn’t look like he’d give me trouble in a fight at least.
The sound of my footsteps echoing on the concrete were the only noise other than my breathing and his own short ragged and wheezing breaths. For such a skinny guy he sounded seriously out of shape as he moved.
The walls of the corridor were decorated with posters for films I’d never heard of, faces of people I’d never seen before staring out of them. Some in faded colour and others black and white. The smell got stronger as the corridor terminated in a large room. Though “Room” might have been an understatement.
I’d worked retail back when I was a teenager and this place reminded me of the storage area at the back of the store where we’d keep stock that wasn’t out on the shelves yet. Rows and rows of rusted metal shelving. Hundreds…maybe thousands of boxes packed high on all of them. Stacks of video tapes and DVD cases and even those old style film reels.
“Jesus fuck…how big is this place?” I asked.
“Bigger than it looks” the man replied.
“Right. Listen uh…”
“Larry” he responded to my prompting.
No offence but unless you’ve got Maria locked up back here I’m not real sure why the fuck you’re showing me this place”
He grinned an unappealing looking grin. If I’d thought the guy radiated “Creep” before now it was off the fucking charts. He didn’t reply to my question but instead scurried off somewhere amongst the shelves. He vanished from view but I could hear him rooting around back there, looking for something. As I looked around I could tell right away that none of this was for the shop outside.
I was looking at a hoarder here.
“I started in 86” he said, in answer to an unspoken question.
“I’d heard rumours. Stories, you know?
I wanted to know if they were true. A friend of mine, he got invited to one of the screenings. He took me with him.
I got to watch.
I got to watch something innocent…something beautiful… destroyed.
Slowly. In detail.
It was like a lightbulb going off in my head” he continued. It sounded like he was practically drooling as he spoke.
“After that I started my collection.
It wasn’t easy. There’s so much fake shit out there.
But I got a good eye for finding those little gems, glittering in the dirt”
“You’d know all about dirt from the look of this shithole…” I muttered to myself. If he heard me he didn’t seem to care.
The tapes all seemed to be the kind you could buy at a store years ago, old blank VHS tapes. Labels on some of them, mostly just names like the DVD’s out front. Occasionally one would have what seemed like a title. The film reels mainly just had dates and initials on them though one had the words “The Princess of Knives” written upon the white label stuck to it.
As he rounded the corner of one of the shelves I saw Larry grinning at me.
“That one…you wouldn’t believe how much it cost me to get a hold of that. Collector in Sweden had it in their attic”
“Fascinating. Look no offence Larry but I didn’t come here to see your fucking memeorabillia” I said, irritation creeping into my voice. He laughed at that. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh.
“But that’s exactly why you’re here.
You’ve got that look in your eye. You’ve already been there, haven’t you? You’ve seen it.
Just like I did”
“Seen what?” I asked him and again came that wheezy little laugh.
“The Other Place.
Just like her. I could tell even before she told me what she was here for”
I didn’t bother asking who he meant. Instead I asked him what he meant. He held up what he’d been looking for. It was a tatty and water damaged paperback. The title “In the House of Red and White” was on the cover in raised lettering.
“I have so much here. The only recording ever made of Garris Creely’s lost masterpiece. Half a dozen snuff films I’ve bartered for. Footage of war crimes in Bosnia and Iraq and Afghanistan…
Every act that can be done upon tender, innocent flesh…catalogued and stored. The only existing copy of the Princess of Knives.
Once you’ve seen something real you can’t ever go back to the same old garbage. What I have here…it punctures. It lacerates. Like a burning hot spike being forced clean through the soul.
Footage of the tall thin faceless things that stalk the woods…audio logs from those who found the soft places, the Empty Places where the Other Place comes through.
That’s not even counting the material I archive and distribute for Mr Gardener”
“What material?” I asked him. My mind went back to those DVD’s. Names and dashes.
“The Collective supplies people with very particular tastes.
Mr Gardener’s a very passionate producer when it comes to that sort of thing”
The smell and heat in the room were becoming overwhelming. That horrible grin on Larry’s face seemed to say far more than his words did.
Kemp knew, you see. He’d been there. I don’t know where he found it. You can find it anywhere…not in every place but in any place.
You step through a door and suddenly you’re not here, you’re there.
You’re in the Red King’s court.
Everyone thought Kemp was just a failed writer. But really he wasn’t an author at all…he was a mapmaker. Charting a course. Showing people the way to the House. Showing them how to find and be found”
“I said money for answers not for cryptic bullshit Larry.
What do you know about Maria?” I asked.
“I’m showing you. I’m showing you how to find her” he said as he offered the book to me once again. I snatched it off him and stuffed it into my coat pocket carelessly. He actually winced as I did it, like I’d just struck a child or a dog in front of him. Winced and drew back a little, that sickly grin fading from his face just a bit.
“She’ll already be there.
Just like all the others. That’s what Gardener wanted her for”
Where the fuck did he take her?”
My voice was even louder in the echoing caver of a room we were in. I advanced towards the little weasel as he backed up against one of the shelves, the aging metal rattling as his body impacted it. He knew more than he was saying and what he was saying was barely coherent. I wanted answers not this run-around bullshit. I wanted to know where the hell my niece was.
And in that moment I was perfectly willing to beat answers out of this little bastard if I had to.
“It’s a shadow of here. Or we’re their shadow. Their pale reflection. It intersects with here in very specific places, certain points…Kemp, he called them the Empty Places. And he called their king the god of them all.
Gardener found it years ago. And it has its hooks in him deep…just like it’s got its hooks in you. Once you see it, it can see you. The more aware you become of it the more it can creep into your head, beneath your skin.
It pulls you closer and closer.
It’s a hungry place. A curious place.
It had its hooks deep in your niece when she came here. And that map you’ve got lead her exactly where she wanted to go”
I was about ready to knock a few of this fuckers teeth out and see if he’d start talking sense then when I heard it. I recognised the noise right away. Given the circumstances I’d heard it under that wasn’t all that surprising. It was that strange fairy-tale like tune that had been playing from that bizarre contraption that had been at Maria and Felix’s apartment.
I barely glanced at Larry as I walked towards the sound of it. Past rows of shelves full of snuff films and god knows what other kind of monstrous garbage that this sick little freak had accumulated. Past boxes that stank of rats piss and shelves piled high with tapes and dvd’s whose contents made my stomach churn.
There, propped against a wall, was an identical looking device to the one that had been at Felix and Maria’s place. And somehow the sight of that thing made me more uneasy than anything else in this little pit of hell Larry had made for himself did. The sight of those twinkling and strobing lights and the sound of that eerie tune playing from the thing had my brain screaming at me to get away from it even as my body stayed rooted to the spot.
The thing seemed to radiate an endless malevolence. A wrongness that was worse than anything else here. The only way I can think to put it into words is that when I looked at it I just knew this thing did not belong here. That it absolutely should not be in this place. Not here in this shitty little backroom. I mean it shouldn’t be here in this world.
“The original was made for Adrien Dubois, a French occultist. He had the inventor killed upon its completion because he thought that would mean no one would ever be able to build another”
Larry’s voice behind me was calmer but still had that creeping mania in its words. I should have been keeping my eyes on him. But all I could look at was that thing.
“Then how have you got one Larry?”
“Oh….some things, once they’re made…they have a way of sticking around.
You’ve seen one before haven’t you. Maria had one….Gardener actually gave her one. He really thought she was what he was looking for”
That made me turn. That forced me to tear my eyes away from the glittering chiming thing in the corner and focus them once more on the greasy little creep behind me. He was a few feet back. Backing away from me slowly. Maybe he was more afraid of me than I was creeped out by him.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I asked him,
“He wouldn’t give her a König Door if he didn’t think she was something special.
The one he’d been looking for maybe”
I began to walk towards him when I heard a sound louder than the strange tune that the device was playing.
A soft growling from somewhere behind me.
They padded ahead of me before I had to turn around. Three large but underfed looking hounds, sickly looking things that resembled Dobermans or a racing hound. They were sickly to look at like they’d been starved for months on end. They began to slowly circle Larry as he dropped down to his knees, eyes still fixed upon me and a wide grin upon his face.
“You came here for answers”
The voice didn’t come from Larry. The voice had come from someone stood further back, someone who I hadn’t seen until now. I don’t know how I’d failed to spot them before they spoke. The bright red suit they wore was hard to miss. The sound of their heels clacking on the concrete echoed around us as she came to a stop beside Larry.
Up close I could see that the damage to her face was even worse than it had looked on stage. An ear had been clipped away and the socket that had once held an eye looked like it might be infected. She pointed at Larry with one of the remaining fingers on her left hand and smirked a lopsided smirk at me.
“And you thought this one could give them to you?
He’s nothing. A link in the chain. A cog in the machine. A gear”
Further back behind Kismet I could see the woman in the white latex mask. She stood about thirty feet back. That featureless smooth mask betraying no hint of her own emotions right now. Her head tilted slightly to the side. Somehow even without eyeholes she could see out of that thing. She could see me. She was looking right at me. And it wasn’t a sensation I was enjoying.
Larry’s whimpering and the soft whining of the dogs and the godawful music coming out of that fucking box behind me. All of it seemed to crowd the place out, fill it. I felt like that day when I was twelve when I’d got stuck in an elevator for four hours. Everything crowding in around me, the air compressing my body. No room to breathe, no room to move.
Needed to get out. Needed to get out.
“You want to know about Better Films.
You want to know what we do”
“I want my niece” I managed to force the words out. It was barely a whisper. My throat was so fucking dry and my clothes felt too tight and it was like something was coiling around my brain, making it hard to think. Barbed wire wrapping around my thoughts.
“But he wants her more”
The woman in the white latex mask looked down at Larry and slowly he lifted both hands into the air. Ms Kismet handed him what looked like a pair of heavy duty scissors or maybe some kind of gardening shears. The woman in the white latex mask…”The Director” or whatever she was really called…motioned with one hand towards Larry. Ms Kismet clapped her hands together twice.
“Ask a question, Ms Lane”
I swallowed hard. I asked the first thing that came to mind.
“Who the fuck are you people?”
“Artists. Creators. Dreamers. Visionaries. The children of the Other Place. It’s disciples”
When the words passed her lips Larry positioned the blades of the scissors around one of the fingers of his right hand. And before I could say or do a thing to stop him he was bringing them down, the blades cutting through flesh and muscle and bone with a sickening crunch. Larry screamed, his scream drowning out all other noise for a moment, sobbing heaving howls coming out of him as he screeched like a wounded animal.
Blood fountained down his trembling hand.
“What the fuck…what the fu…”
“For every question you ask he does it again.
What do you want more…answers or for Larry here to keep his digits?”
“Why the fuck are you people doing this?!” I snapped out. I had nothing to use as a weapon and they were blocking the only way I had to run. The dogs were lapping at Larry’s freshly spilled blood as he sobbed brokenly.
“Because she wants it.
Because she makes us.
Because she hates us all. And that hatred creates terrible beauty. It delights the Other Place and it’s regent”
As I watched Larry bring the scissors down on another of his digits I realised that I’d just asked another question. I turned away but could do nothing to block out the sound of blade on flesh and the tortured whining that came from somewhere deep inside the trembling man kneeling in front of me.
“Stop it! Just fucking stop!” I screamed at them. The Director tilted her head again and then looked toward Kismet. Didn’t say a word but it was like Kismet was receiving instructions all the same. She knelt down and picked up one of the severed fingers, offering it to the dogs as she looked up at me.
“You’re free to go.
But you won’t get another chance to ask us what you want to know”
I stared at Larry, knelt there and making broken little noises. His skin had gone sickly pale and he was trembling violently. I got the feeling he was about to go into shock either from the pain or the loss of blood. I didn’t know what he did or didn’t know about Maria or what kind of shit he was involved in in this dingy little freak cave he’d built for himself.
I just knew he was a ticket to answers.
“Did you kidnap my niece?”
“We don’t take anyone.
They come to us. They come to us to help us make Better Films for a Better Audience”
Those blades were closing on Larry’s pinkie finger this time. I didn’t know how he still had the strength to do it after the first two. His hand was trembling and unsteady. I turned my gaze away from the sight and for the first time Kismet rose her voice.
The roar made me snap my attention back towards what was happening. The Director’s hands rested on Kismet’s shoulders, those white gloved fingers tightening around them. I hadn’t heard her walk towards us, hadn’t heard her coming closer. It was as if she’d gone from where she had stood to where she now was without needing to move the way a person did.
Maybe she didn’t.
“You are her audience. You are here to watch. That means you watch”
Kismet’s voice was positively dripping with hatred.
I watched as a third finger joined the other two on the ground. Larry was gulping in air in great rasping breaths now.
Two questions left.
But I only had one.
“Where can I find Maria? Where can I find what happened to her?
As I said it I realised that technically that was two questions. From the look on his face I think Larry realised it as well.
Kismet reached her fingers into her pocket and produced a card. Not much was written on it. An address, a date and a time. And beneath that a web address.
“Maria waits in the Red King’s court, awaiting his pleasure.
And you’ll find exactly what happened to her here”
I snatched the card and took off running down the hall. Kismet and the Director didn’t try to stop me. I could hear Larry screaming behind me and the sound of the dogs letting out a guttural howling sound. I needed out of there and I needed out of there fast. I ran back out into the store and then out into the parking lot where Candace was still waiting.
I didn’t answer her questions as I strapped myself in and started the car, tearing out of there as fast as I could.
I didn’t say anything until we were as far away from that place as we could be.