Story by Michael Botur
From The Devil Took Her – Tales of Horror.
Buy it here – https://thesagergroup.net/books/the-devil-took-her
The Devil Took Her
Put your fuckin’ money away, Patrick. You think after all the shit I’ve been through chasing Melanie for you that it’s still about money? It’s about comPLETION, son. Finalizing. Putting a summary on, on, on something that’s bigger than you or me or this whole so-called “real world” we think we live in.
What? No, I can’t give you the short version, Paddy my friend. You asked me to find out what happened to your wife in my capacity as a private investigator, okay, so the least you can do is sit there and shut the fuck up while I report like a professional. Actually, fuck you: I could talk for two hours right now and that would BE the short version, considering the enormity of what I discovered for you.
Jesus Christ, I don’t usually curse like this but the aggravation’s not insubstantial. It’s been, what, four months since you booked my services? Five? You shove a box full of papers and diaries and Melanie’s laptop computer in my hands in the rain in a god damn alleyway outside a 7-Eleven and scuttle off and I’m supposed to pick up the pieces? For, what, two grand when it’s been at least 300 hours of effort, Patrick?
The bridge pinch, they call this. I am pinching the bridge of my nose to signal to you that you’re frustrating me right now. Typical client, never ready to actually handle the news you claim you wanted to hear. Pass me some of that water. Mm. Better, now. Cheers, P. I’m cool now. ANYHOW, let’s not focus on the money. Pay me after what I’m about to tell you—if your head hasn’t exploded.
Because you see this? This brick of paper right here that I’m unveiling—I mean, fuck, sorry unwrapping, I know, I know, unveiling’s what you do with a—
It’s Melanie’s journal, okay. Your wife’s diary, her personal . . . God, call it a confession if you want. Did she do anything wrong? Have a read and make your mind up, although I’d say your mind’s already made up, isn’t it, Patrick. That fair?
I think you engaged me primarily to break the encryption on your wife’s computer account. And I think you were scared to read what’s in her journal. The journal on her god damn desktop that she obviously wanted someone to read after she was gone.
You were scared because what Melanie went through takes everything you know about the surface-level world and flushes it down the gurgler.
So. Ready to find out what happened to Melanie?
Here’s her words. All you need to do is read.
It’s raining outside. Then again, it’s always raining, lately.
Seems as soon as I started the file on the Golden State Dementor, the clouds cracked open and dripped cold all over California. Like God was weeping, or trying to wash me off my research, or . . . I don’t know what God’s position on the murders is. God allowed it all, I suppose. If you realized the attacks across inland Cali were connected like I have, you too would wonder what kind of God’s watching over. Not a God that cares about people’s wellbeing, that’s for sure.
All through Christmas, you’ve been inundating me with presents and glasses of red wine and slices of cheesecake and I’ve had to barricade myself in my study. You’re like a giant puppy dog, Patrick, a husband that constantly needs attention, and as soon as I withhold a little bit of myself, you can’t handle it. You say I’m clinically depressed, sure, but look at your neediness, Patrick. That’s a sickness too.
‘Golden State Dementor’ isn’t what the cops call him. It’s just my private nickname right now for the killer. Kinda stupid, I know, but I’m the only one in the world who’s spotted that these attacks near McDonaldses and Burger Kings and Jack in the Boxes in the central valley are connected, so it’s fair to say I have a stake in this monster and I argue the media won’t become interested unless we brand him with a catchy name. Seeing as the cops have barely given two shits about catching the killer, I feel I own him and the narrative. If YOU’RE gonna be the one to pursue this bastard, you can name him yourself. Until then, this is my passion project, and I’M in control.
Lol. I’m ragging, I know. My period stings. Guts feel like they’re petrified. Maybe the anger’s good. 25 days ago, when I last had my period, it inspired me to open this can of worms. It began with a provocative email I cheekily sent to Contra Costa County Police. It was just before Christmas, and I was pissed off that those assholes sent me a speeding ticket when I was on my way home from a shift in the newsroom in Stockton putting out stories singing the praises of law enforcement. I submitted a California Public Records Act request, personally addressed to Sheriff Livings, asking for a list of outstanding homicides. Pretty routine journalistic enquiry. I was going to publish a blog asking why there were eight murders yet to be solved while cops were wasting their time prosecuting a five miles-over-the-limit speeding ticket, except the CoCoCops—surprise, surprise—sent me back a brick of unsolved cases in a courier package the Monday after I put in my information request. Seriously, like one and a half reams of paper with a note saying “Dear Madam, we trust this information answers your query. Sincerely, The Office of Daniel Livings, Sheriff, 651 Pine Street, Martinez, Cali, blah blah blah.”
A whole ream of data? Talk about overkill.
I went to bed with my brick of paper, laptop open at my side in the empty shell where you used to sleep before you stopped coming to bed with me, Patrick. I tumbled into my black, depressed, worried world of papers and stories and affidavits.
I got ready to laugh at the officiously written nonsense in each dense page.
Instead, my jaw dropped.
I read all night.
I read all day the next day at the public library.
I requested boxes of information from the county’s repository. A truck had to deliver the files to my doorstep.
Because I spotted something. Something that ought to shock everybody.
You want to know why the door of my study is locked, Patrick? I can’t have you walking in here and upsetting the way I’ve got the paper laid out on the carpet, wall to wall, all the attacks spread out in sequence.
Because it’s only when the papers are laid out that we see how big this thing is.
It’s black and chilly and I’m positioned between a cardboard recycling dumpster and a dumpster outside the McDonald’s in Martinez, a brightly-lit triangular-roofed building on a street full of fish processing factories, squatting, waiting for someone to get attacked, notebook in hand, camera round my neck. Sunlit families disappeared hours ago, and the solemn lamps and bug zappers came on soon as night fell. This is a sad corner of America, like a sagging part of the tent-roof where moods are flat and the night is full of shame. It’s a place for lonely folks yelling as they walk out of McDonalds’ air-conditioned safety into the black, smashing their soda sippy cups on the sidewalk, heading up the street to make trouble or drive into the darkness, their voices echoing and fading. I’m wet from stepping in a puddle and my knees ache and I have my period and I tried to bleach the blood out of my favorite underwear and they got ruined, stained pink, and I’m inhaling the stink of chargrilled burger patties mixed with rotting deep fry grease. I’m suffering ’cause I’m desperate to string together enough words to sell a story to Rolling Stone magazine. If not Rolling Stone, then Newsweek, or Esquire, or Vanity Fair. Hell, maybe even the Central Cali Courier. Any place that’ll pay me enough to leave my neurotic partner and go find my future in L.A. or New York.
Sorry, Patrick. Sorry to spring that on you. But being inside, comfortable with you? That ain’t the real me. The real me is a dirty journalist, doorstepper, alleyway-lurker, carpark-conspirator. This is real journalism, this dirty dark dusty danger, so I’m not leaving this parking lot ’til I spot somebody getting attacked. I’ve spent three weeks reading up on the patterns of these inland Cali killings, muttering to myself on buses and in libraries and in the bathtub, reading old San Jose Mercury newspapers, psyching myself up to go out and confront the killer.
I swear this here and now: I am going to endure this dumpster-dwelling shit every month until I solve these killings. I am going to break out of reporting city council news and become a gonzo journalist. I’m going to go hungry for half of each week. I’m going to starve the fat off my hips. I’m gonna be Nellie Bly crossed with Joan Didion and Nancy Fucking Drew, and I don’t need your approval, Patrick. I work for the missing people whose identities have been forgotten. Well, forgotten until their names tumbled out of the police reports and gave me a reason to live.
Innocent names like Ruby and Maria and Sarah that belong safely in nursery rhymes. Names belonging to people dolled up for their school photographs. People whose eyes now reach out across time, wide and hopeful. Begging to be brought back. Recipients of the ugliest degradation, desperate to be treated right again.
I should explain what I mean by degradation, cause these girls suffered some truly appalling shit that didn’t make the papers. Here are the attacks that I want police to admit are linked:
Aug. 29, 1996—Rancho Cordova, CA—Teenage girl found murdered 30 meters from McDonald’s Restaurant. Trauma to the vagina indicating rape. Sharp torch-length implement inserted into the victim causing damage to the cervix, uterus, and bowel. Two liters of blood lost. Some unidentifiable numbing anesthetic applied to the victim by attacker. Analysis: inconclusive.
Sept. 4, 1997—Carmichael, CA—Nanny of prominent local banker raped behind McDonalds. Not a murder, just the sexual assault. No semen found, just tearing of the flesh. Choked unconscious then anesthetized and violently probed, with bleeding. Victim described a man in black and white cloth, like a chessboard. You ever see that old movie The Invisible Man? Yeah— wrapped up in cloth, like that.
Victim insisted offender was not Caucasian. The color of the night, she insisted, with skin of glass.
Oct. 5, 1998, Citrus Heights, CA—18-year-old student taken as she returned to her car opposite Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, 7098 Auburn Boulevard. Hood placed over head. Suffocated. Survived. Had her head bopped against the ground. Said afterwards that she felt the attacker ‘put something up me.’ Almost like she’d been stuck on a meat hook, or had a giant needle inject something cold and dizzying all the way through her loins and into her stomach. Actually, not a needle, the woman corrected herself in her statement, shivering under a blanket, nursing a coffee. More like a bee sting, because it was agony at first, then numb.
“You’re sure you want me to write that?” the officer noted. “Numb?”
We’re part of his collection now, the victim responded. She looked at the officer with eyes swimming with pink fizz. We’re safe among the swarm, she said. The legion.
FACT: These attacks occurred around all-night fast-food restaurants spanning 100 miles of Central Valley in all seasons of the late 90s and early 2000s. The attacks were ugly stains on inland Cali towns known for orange groves and warmth and safety.
FACT: They hit the news, some of them. Carmichael police are reporting a woman was attacked as she sat in her car feeding fries to her three-year-old daughter outside a Taco Bell on Manzanita Avenue last night. The victim is reported as unidentifiable, having failed to attend the police station to complete the second half of her witness statement.
He (and it has to be a ‘he’, surely) is sticking some long, repulsive, sharp implement up these women. It could be some freakish mutated monstrous penis, okay, sure, but the damage to the insides of these poor girls—it’s more like he hoisted them up on a hook by their nether regions and squirted formaldehyde in ’em. Put something in them that made them groggy and half-comatose and uninterested in complaining. Turned them into drones, slaves, sleepwalkers. Zombies.
Inland California is a beautiful place to go missing, Patrick. I wish you could see the romantic side of the horror. The communities these kids are vanishing from, they sleep at the foothills of mountains sprinkled with sugary snow. Cool streams flow through the vineyards. Boroughs named for apple varieties and morning views and desert plants. Safe, warm, trustworthy names. Crestview Drive, Pacific Rose Ave, Citrus Heights, Orangevale. Noble oaks on dry berms of county grass under the moonlit streetlights. Wide boulevards of fresh asphalt for kids to bike on, four abreast. Hockey on flat concrete driveways lined with perfectly mown lawns. Frisbee in the street. Schools with American flags and yellow buses. Except there’s a problem, isn’t there, Patrick, when the inland empire sprawls endlessly. When communities don’t have walls and their highways and motels and power lines march into infinity. Youngsters mad at their parents, storming off, walking the boulevard ’til it hits the interstate and becomes the edge of an ocean of strangers. Twinkling lights that call to kids, run away forever and ever.
There’s a line, I argue, between shallow night and something deeper and darker. Somewhere kids fall into and can’t come out of.
The victims, they were all weak and upset when the Dementor snatched them. They all wanted to squeeze a little more meaning from the day by buying a treat late at night. Babysitters on their way home from another crushing gig, hugging their handbags, spending half the night’s pay on curly fries and a strawberry shake, stupid financially but it brought these youngsters a few fleeting minutes of joy. They felt momentarily independent by blowing their dollars on a naughty sweet treat, too young to buy liquor and black out, too old to ignore the upset in their lives. Their Mom, back home, sobbing through divorce. Their school locker room contaminated with Crips and tag. Their alcoholic dads melting in armchairs in front of big-screen TVs.
These youngsters, they tried to find respite from all the ugliness with a tangy flame-grilled Whopper hitting their gums. Momentary delight.
He’s pounced upon these women and penetrated them with, well – with whatever that tool of his is. When the penetration of these victims has failed, he’s been killing them. Police have admitted in their reports they suspect the attacks across the hundred miles are linked— after all, that’s why the CoCoCops dumped forty files on me. I think they wanted me to identify the linkage. But what confuses matters, though, is what happens after each person is attacked, because some victims live, some die, and some simply don’t come home.
Parkwoods, 2015: victim is a 46-year-old prostitute and mother of five. She dies of bleeding, receiving tearing to the anal tissue, penetrated in a dumpster full of McCains cardboard fry boxes. Coroner believes something sharp went up inside the victim, presuming a stingray barb. Body tested positive for a neurotoxin, as yet unidentified. Witness at a Texaco observed an attacker wearing a “cloak made of Milky Way” with a gang of “black midgets” numbering as many as 40. Not black as in African American, the witness clarifies. Black as in “made of night.”
Modesto 2016: Alexandria Manning, 12, disappeared, presumed murdered. The next night, same location, but the beast attacked a couple this time: Dr Luiz Offerman, 33, and his date, Charlene Lyman-Smith, 18, dropped their prescription glasses and asthma inhalers in an alleyway one block from a White Castle where they’d been seen having coffee before they followed what—according to security footage—appears to have been an impromptu parade. A column of black child-shapes spangled with stars, playing invisible flutes and cornets, flailing their arms joyously, following their leader, a half-invisible specter with flaps of fabric under his arms like a bat.
Offerman and Lyman-Smith turned a corner, where CCTV couldn’t see them. The parade followed, like a current of night-water flowing towards them.
Offerman and Lyman-Smith are still missing as of 2020.
That’s what’s fucking me up, Patrick. All the variables, like as if anyone could be at risk. Some of these people have joined the night parade. Some have left cars running in parking lots. Some lost their keys and their driver licenses in ugly carpark puddles. Others never had a car at all.
Patrice Harrington, Keith Harrington—married, both 25. Davis, California, 2007.
Manuela Withuhn, 11—eleven, for the love of God!! —Ygnacio Valley.
Cheri Domingo, just 10. Taken while waiting for her mother to finish her shift at a McDonald’s in Cockleshell Drive, Walnut Creek.
A dozen more—a baker’s dozen, actually. 13 missing people whose lives have been packed into dusty evidence boxes. Swept like leaves into the corners of our minds at the end of autumn. Forgotten with the change of the season. Crimes made permissible when our community lets the slate be wiped clean because we haven’t risen up and reacted.
Each person taken was miserable in her or his own way. Girls who stormed out on their parents and yelled they’d never come home. Couples trying to rekindle their joy. Co-eds who got too used to taking Ultram for a bad back and slipped down the slope into using raw Tramadol then Oxy then heroin then crack then found themselves wearing high heels on a midnight street corner.
I believe these people aren’t gone forever. I believe I can find these folk, and if not, I’m going to confront their killer and ask him a question.
What are you doing with these people?
Last night, I saw him. After 22 nights in 22 ugly, stony, cold locations, playing a lonesome lottery, waiting in the black wasteland beside glowing drive-thrus with the crickets and moths, I finally saw movement in the night, and I knew it was him. Him and his followers, his parade.
I’m still stunned.
I’m not sure if I should put this on paper, actually. I sprinted after him—her, it, that, they, whatever gender it is—and he turned. Whirled, is more like it, because the night around him twisted like reality was made of silk. I’d been sitting on a barrel among a mountain of tires where Vroom Valley Automotive Panel and Repairs meets Burger King, watching an occasional teenaged slave drag out an armload of cardboard boxes for the dumpster, wondering what Patrick was doing, if he was sorry for changing the TV channel. Wondering if I was going to have to face the boss at work after I’d stormed out. I was reading on my tablet to pass the time. A Wikipedia entry about Baba Yaga took me to one about witches and child-stealers and after a few more clicks I was studying the legend of the enchanted man who leads the town’s population away, one by one. All cultures have this legend, as if he exists everywhere, popping up in civilizations whenever it suits him. In Japan, the enchanted man manifests as Fuefuki, the frog who lets youngsters bounce on his throat before swallowing them. In Laos, its name translates as Moon-Father, the man who can turn his skin into blue night sky.
In the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony, during the Middle Ages, the villagers struggled with a rat infestation problem and were desperate for relief. Legend has it a mysterious man in piebald black and white garb approached the mayor promising he could rid the city of its vermin, asking only payment of 1000 guilders. The mayor agreed, and the man played a magical pipe to lure all the city’s rats to a nearby body of water, where the rats were duly drowned. When the Piper returned for his reward, the mayor refused.
Furious he had been cheated, the piper returned to the town on St. John and Paul’s day. As the grown members of the town attended church, the Piper once again played his magical pipe through the streets, this time luring the town’s children from their thatched homes, down the creaking stairs, out onto the muddy streets to frolic, lured one by one, at first, then trios and twins and siblings, first a dozen, then forty, curious, delighted, entranced, finally over a hundred in total, laughing, clapping, dinging bells. Every child in Hamelin. Tottering toddlers, large-headed six-year-olds, confident ten-year-old girls cartwheeling, callow teen boys jostling to be head of the queue. He led them towards his cave—various versions describe it as a sinkhole or mine shaft, like something a trapdoor spider would hide in—and none were ever seen again. The only child left was blind and could not see where the other children were going. When church let out, the blind little survivor told the townspeople what had happened, and the rest is histo—
Noise. Shatter-tinkle-bang. A commotion. Somebody startled, upset.
My eyes struggle to adjust. A shape in the black. There he is. That flicker, the ripple of pebbles that indicate where an invisible man is standing. Alive and real. He has encircled a fry cook in an apron carrying twin garbage bags in both hands. The boy has just left the safe security light of the Burger King and is about to cross the rubble and sling his garbage into the dumpster, except he’s encircled. Surrounded.
I watch human-shaped pieces of night crowd the boy, who wears a startled face of surprise. They dart and nip like fish.
They bunch around him, the night-gang. Cookie cutter cut-outs made of moons and stars. One of them looks like Charlene Lyman-Smith. Another could be Patrice Harrington. I should know: I’ve stared at their photos every night for five months.
I wriggle down off the barrel and land on tingling legs made of pins and needles.
Smash, tinkle. Scrape. I’ve knocked over a soda bottle. The Burger King boy drops his load and sprints back to the loading bay where he pounds on the roller door, LEMME IN LEMME IN LEMME IIIINNNNNNNNN.
Me, I run. I get inside my safe steel car and drive twenty miles and park in the brightest, glaring-est Texaco gas station I can find. I locate my cellphone. I Google psychiatrist + Stockton + seeing things + am I losing my mind?
I’m desperate to bring excitement into my life. Last night I asked you, Patrick, to press a knife against my throat. I needled, whined, complained, followed you around the house begging. I HAFTA FEEL THE STING I screamed. You caved, finally, pinning me angrily against the wall, bumping the framed photo of us in our wedding dress. Your eyes flared red for a second. We were about to make love but you ran away, disgusted, just as my panties were dampening. You’re useless, Patrick. Pathetic. Fixated on following rules. You lock the doors at 7 p.m. and draw the curtains. Afraid of what’s out there in the night.
Patrick, babe: If we actually talked, if our home weren’t built on an icy lake, I would tell you exactly what’s out there.
Undiscovered species, that’s what.
Guess I’ll have to find excitement elsewhere. There’s certainly no excitement at the Mercury News. God knows I’ve tried to get my editor at the Mercury to pick up the Golden State Dementor story. Tried to get the old lecherous motherfucker to pay me for the hundreds of hours of overtime. D’you know he laughed and returned to typing his email then looked up a minute later and asked why I was still in his office?
Because, I told him, if we’re not going to write a headline confronting the Golden State Dementor, I’m walking out on my job. Today. Here. Now.
He told me to consult the Employee Assistance Program. You’re creeping people out, Mel. This is why you have no friends. The company’s happy to pay for free counseling sessions for psychiatric problems, he said.
Can you believe that shit?! Like I’m crazy or something! As if I’m delusional!
I certainly wasn’t delusional when I dropped into The Stockton Hope Centre. Nerviest thing I’ve ever done, Patrick. The reason for braving a homeless shelter? Because the homeless are out there, at night, in the Dementor’s territory, seeing things the rest of us are too clean and sanitized to see. I planned to ask certain questions which should set me on the path to winning the Pulitzer Fucking Prize.
The Hope Center was having something ludicrously called the “Stockton Hope International Culinary Festival.” I nearly burst out laughing at the title—it would have been perfect for our “On a lighter note” section on page 28! My head was dappled with the bottoms of flags dangling from the ceiling, some still being put up by men whose armpits I could smell from meters away. Flags from the Bahamas, Thailand, West Africa, Syria, Indonesia, Haiti. My appointment was with the colorfully-named manager Armistice Brown, who squeezed my shoulder and led me to what looked like four kitchens joined together. Industrial grade equipment, giant tumblers and mixers and a wall of bagged flour. Armistice had told me I couldn’t talk to any of the people “until you’ve put in your mandatory ten.” She meant ten hours of volunteering in the kitchen. Customary for all outsiders, apparently—I was expected to glove up and cover my hair and squish butter into flour and ruin my best shirt for ten hours before I was welcome. Okay, I told myself. Think Gonzo. Think Pulitzer. Journalism necessitates getting dirty sometimes.
The first people I was paired with to create pastry were two guys from Vietnam, father and son apparently and both named Binh. It was almost impossible to hear them over the sounds of blenders and clanging pans. Some black guy elbowed through us with a scalding pot, crying, “Hot soup, comin’ through.”
Second day, I nearly cried. Squirting cheesy sauce into a thousand tubes of cannelloni—literally, a fucking thousand—gave me a sore rotator cuff in my shoulder and I growled at Armistice Brown and she told me Thank you for your service, smirking, basically pointing out I was equating myself to a hero for giving up one day of paid work to get dirty.
Fine, I decided, fuck it. I worked despite my agonized arm then went to the Chill Out room to find a bag of peas and rest my muscles.
A young male crackhead in a singlet—no, a woman, taut, muscular, white tank top, flat tits, pronounced biceps—was giggling at me. She looked like a white upper-class Valley Girl, but with platinum hair sticking out insanely like she’d been shocked, plus a big splash of pink over one of her twin buns. She had bright eyes with lots of mascara, though her voice was pure street.
“You’s a trip, girl, you loco!” she said, and sprayed glowing fake teeth at me, “What’s yo name?”
“Melanie. And you are?”
“I’m Callisto, babe. Whatchu poppin’, Mel?”
“What pills you have for breakfast, girl?”
“I don’t really want to tell you.”
“Tell me or I’ll fuck you up.” She smiled through all of this.
Callisto—not Calista, CallistOOOO, like the second largest moon of Jupiter—was completely unfazed as I explained why I’d been finding it so hard to sleep lately. Late night after late night. Uncomfortable crouching in parking lots and grass verges. Grimacing, squinting into the inky black indigo, like working deep underwater. And when I’m not out on location I’m watching videos of women giving statements to detectives. Tracing their bloody thighs. Pointing out contusions around the vaginal area.
Photos, too. Snapshots of horror. A picture of a victim’s body in Oakdale, discovered as a leather skeleton under a pile of wood pallets where she’d crawled like a hedgehog, desperate to hide from something. Someone.
Callisto interrogated me about how much Xanax and Tramadol I had in my car and could I get prescriptions and whether I wanted to buy a rottweiler. She pointed her cigarette at me and said, “Ayyyy: so you wanna talk about the missing kids and the Stinger-Man who takes ‘em dancin. A’ight. Let’s talk.”
I pulled the plug. Everything poured out. I told her I believed this thing, this Peter-Pan-Piper-Leader-of-the-Lemmings, whatever it is, goes back to the Dark Ages. Medieval Europe, Silk Road, East Asia. Villages whose teens were becoming sick with the Black Plague would send their young ones off into the woods. There would be entire tribes of lost girls and boys in the forest, living for weeks banned from coming home until they died. Free from school and church, free from rules. That’s where Ring Around the Roses comes from, just as a sidenote, forgive me, Callisto, ha ha, too much education. A rosy rash was a symptom of the plague, and a posy of herbs in your pocket was believed to ward off the disease.
God knows what happened to them when these children were exiled to the woods. They died far from home, playing hopscotch or tag or jump rope, skipping and singing while they starved and suffered, desperate for an adult to lead them. To come play with them.
I imagine they prayed to a hundred gods. And I imagine in their desperation, someone unexpected answered.
Someone from a dark dimension. A man who promised he would shepherd the children. Take them out of their misery. All he had to do was put them to sleep first, and all it took was a little sting before the numbness set in and the children could play wayyyy past their bedtime.
Callisto was crying by now. Not so hard and threatening anymore. Crying and apologizing.
I asked Callisto if the people around here had seen anyone get attacked, or at least heard of attacks, or if they knew of people from the homeless community who’d gone missing, or been raped or seemed zombified, Novocain’d.
“Naw, nah nah nah, they ain’t seen shit,” she said, sniffing. “You’re wasting your time, white girl. But I did.”
Callisto led me out to the balcony, tugging eagerly while I watched muscles work in her bony back. She slammed the ranch slider shut, prowled the balcony, swatted everything metal away—a bean can with cigarette butts in it; one earpiece from somebody’s headphones.
“Right over there,” she said, tilting her forehead at a McDonald’s. “That’s where the choir was.”
“Like a whole song ’n dance troupe. Skipping in a circle. Ring Around the Rosy. Gahhhhhd, that brought back, like, schoolyard memories, know what I’m sayin’? You can hear ’em singing if you listen right. Choir ain’t complete, though.”
“You have to expand, I don’t know what that means, Callisto, you’ll tell me on the record, won’t—”
Callisto smashed the Dictaphone out of my hand. It tumbled into the weeds below. “Means the bad man’s looking for about another six or seven people before there’s enough in the group.”
I demanded to know how she knew.
“I’s in the choir,” Callisto said. “Ain’t easy to get out.”
Callisto opened her legs, unbuckled her belt. Showed me scars and stains in the veins and soft tissue where toxic acid wriggled around. Purple worms crawling up her stomach and away from her vulva where the poisonous sting had stuck her.
The devil took her.
The devil took mah child. Mah bubba.
That’s what I keep hearing from these people’s parents, as they fall back into their lace-covered armchairs with a lunchtime glass of whisky, numbing the injury.
The devil took my son. My daughter. My one and only.
They tell me this verb Took, take, taking. I counter with the word dement. He dements, he demented, he will dement—and then their spirits will detach from their bodies and they will walk into his arms. From the Latin dementare, meaning to drive somebody out of their mind. I ask the chain-smoking mother of Ruby Zhao, as we hang out her dripping laundry, if she has heard of Ampulex dementor.
What? she says, What’s that got to do with my Rubes?
The Dementor wasp, found in the Mekong region of Thailand, will sting a cockroach or spider, any hapless bug ambling home, and release a toxin that goes directly to the neural nodes. The toxin will act as a blocker of the octopamine receptors of the cockroach. This leaves the victim alive, but without the ability to control its own movements. This allows for an easier capture. Control. As if someone has stuck a microphone deep inside your ear so they can whisper instructions. It causes the cockroach to run into a wasp’s nest as if responding to a call or notion. To do the enemy’s bidding.
This “devil”, this “Pied Piper” is telling people to join its army of ghosts, a legion, as the Bible calls it, and I’m going to confront him. I’m going to bring them back—if I can. All the dead children.
I’m going to make the world right.
Oh . . . my . . . GOD it’s easy to find him!!!!!!!!!!!!
As soon as I recognised the pattern, I had the bastard. The first time I spotted the Dementor, the Piper, we were both surprised, but this time, it was all planning. Strategy. And I know he respects that. He respects anyone who can catch him.
Okay, okay, let me dial it back.
I’ve used shades of black to code the date of each attack, then pinned each little shaded note on four A1-sized maps of California which I’ve stuck to the wall of our hallway (and fuck you, Patrick, for complaining about the damage to the plaster, this is MORE IMPORTANT THAN MAINTAINING THE SANCTITY OF YOUR WALLPAPER!!!)
Attacks that occurred in the first quarter of the year were coded full black. Attacks in the second quarter were semi-black. Attacks in the third quarter are a very diluted black, really gray, and the final quarter of the year’s attacks I coded white. Placing the colored attack stamps on the map, the pattern is immediately recognizable. This Pied Piper, this Dementor, this Wasp-man with his paralyzing sting—he’s circling. Is, was, will be. The first attack, in Vacaville, was like a 10:30 p.m. on an analogue clockface, like north-north-west. He then shifted northeast, like 2 p.m. on a clockface, attacking at Sacramento before going southeast, attacking at Vineyard which is 4 p.m. on the clock. It wasn’t long before he’d gone as far south as Modesto before rising up again, heading north.
The clockwise cycle has then repeated.
Six attacks on six points of the compass—clock, whatever. Color-coded, we had the start of each year throbbing black, before the attacks went grey, like the color of 17-year-old Maria Lindauer’s face as the blood emptied from her My Little Pony underwear and swirled around her ankles, dripping in the drain.
The last attack I can see is in Sacramento. He’ll be headed south or southeast, coming down the 99 through the San Joaquin Valley, dipping his proboscis into the night, licking up lonesome kids in Elk Grove or Lodi in the coming month.
And when he comes, I’ll be ready with my camera and my Dictaphone and a fistful of questions.
Some say the devil’s dead,
And buried in cold harbor;
Some say he’s alive again,
And ‘prenticed to a barber.
Some say the devil walks at night
With all the village children
He clothes them, feeds them, schools them,
They’re grateful that he killed them.
Date of the big world-ruining explosions, huh. 9/11. When everything changed.
Everything’s changed in my world, too. Yours as well, right, Patrick? You don’t notice me hiding in corners, notepad and curled pen, camera on silent mode, observing you. I see you sneaking sips of wine at 11 a.m. I see you installing Tinder on your Samsung, holding your cellphone out at arm’s length, trying to snap a selfie that doesn’t reveal you’re a 42-year-old balding midget with black hair on your arms and grey wires in your whiskers. Don’t be hurt by this. Don’t be upset. I’m just a mirror. I reflect.
My back crunches when I get in and out of the car. It’s curling, my spine is, from the stakeouts where I crumple up in a dark dumpster, chin on my knees. Bending, wracked, and stressed. Panging like an alarm during the day, numb at night. Doesn’t help that I’m hunched over my laptop all the time. Whispering into the ears of stepmothers with lost daughters.
WHEN did you say you spoke to her that night?
WHAT was she pissed off about?
Hold up—skipping you said? S-K-I-P-ping? Your daughter skipped off into the night?
That was just how she walked, you tell me, gulping. Even when she was mad, she skipped. A little girl carving out a tiny piece of joy in a harsh world of arguments and slammed doors and curfew. She skipped out her window, Ruby did. Skipped away into the night.
It’s the vibrations that get your children snatched, I tell these wrought mothers and ruined fathers. A trapdoor spider hides in a black burrow. Its ears are attuned to patterns of noise. Vibrations that tell it a 90-pound girl is skipping through a vacant lot of glass shards and poison oak and rubbish and ragweed. Vibrations tell it the girl is carrying warm chicken tenders and a sweet Coke, looking for a place to go and eat and forget the world is unfair.
That’s me, I’ve realized—well, it can be. I can dress up like a child to lure the Dementor out. I can tie my hair in pigtails, wear my tiniest dress. Put on shoes with bells on the buckles. Sing Ring Around the Rosy as I dance around the parking lot with my little bag of deep-fried joy. Extend my fingers, close my eyes. Wait for a warm hand to take mine and carry me into the stars.
I met him, Patrick. I had to. Your wife Melanie, the forgotten woman, the depressed friendless headcase who sleepwalks through the day and thrives at night—she got the exclusive. The scoop.
And to do it, I crossed into his realm.
I know you’re probably reading this and I’m gone or vegetated or comatose. I want you to take a deep breath and just chill. It wasn’t bad-bad, the meeting. It was a wake-up, actually. An electric shock. A squirt of adrenaline that left me exhausted and wanting to cry. What I learned is the Legion has a life force. A pulsing heart. At the center of it, a father. A leader.
It’s children that he wants, you see, well, mostly. The doctor and his wife, and that 50-year-old in Modesto—just collateral. People who got in the way. This is me speaking on his behalf, though, because the Piper didn’t explain all this. There were no quotes, no words. He has nothing to say. All he does is hold out his hand.
We met when I was spending the night in the hedge beside a White Castle in Elk Grove. I crouched for nearly five hours, past 10, past midnight, on across 1 a.m., 2 a.m. Finally, at 2.16, with creaking knees and blaring thighs, I got up. The moon was wide awake, spread-out, yellow. Moonshadow fell under my body on the cyan sidewalk. I stood in the middle of the road, placed my right foot in front of my left, bent my knees, let my eyes drop two tears.
It hurt my back to get into position. And it embarrassed me, being alone in the night.
But I began to skip. Toes tickling the air, knees up, butt straight. I danced with the passion of a child.
The streetlight moved, bending. Little flints of light solidified into eyes. I found myself encircled as the cookie-cutter kids joined hands around me.
One child taller than the others. Black and pied with white patches, like a chessboard.
Except he was no child.
He was Leader.
He took my hand.
I let him lead.
Ring around the roses
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down
Vanished in the night-wind,
Daughter on the breeze
Skipping with our master
One, two, THREE!
The man, he lost his maiden
the husband lost his wife
The Blackness put a ring on her
Bride of the night
The robin on the steeple
Is singing to the people
Its lungs are bloody treacle
My daughter went away with him
Mama knows she’s gone.
Patrick fluffs his wifey’s pillow
Please come home.
There is nothing for December, Patrick. No entries.
Pages empty, my friend. Empty as the rubble beside these burger joints where people drop their trash.
I don’t know what to tell you. This thing, this journal of hers, it was incredibly hard to find, man. I had to drive all across the San Joaquin Valley, midnight after midnight. That’s how come I wanna charge you for 300 hours. I sniffed, essentially. Sniffed all of these towns. Using my senses to get a feel for which midnight McDonalds looked the saddest, the loneliest. Places where people would go if they needed cheering up.
Elk Grove, I found the journal. Still had a pen pinned to the cover. Stained with rain, browned with sun. Found it in a hedge full of wrappers and cups and paper bags, Patrick. A little cleared circle where a person’s bum or a pair of feet might have rested while watching folks collect little brown sacks of happiness from the drive-thru, staring, obsessed. This person – a woman, I’m guessing – left her little nook eventually. She heard some signal, some calling. She got up to stretch and see whether she’d had a sighting. Heard a chorus of kids start singing a song on every side. Took a warm hand, joined the circle. A smile spread across her face. Calm. Blissed out. I’d say she got stung, then. Injected. Drugged up on toxin, I suppose she did something, kind of—kind of wild.
She started skipping.
She’d found friends, Patrick. A community.
For the first time in ages, she wasn’t alone.