The Hunt for the Snallygaster .

April 19, 2020.

1 –

The woods of Shenandoah are more alike to company than any you might have known. They accost the walker immediately on leaving Harville westwards by the I-94, a wall on either side of the road punctuated by sharp, lancing roads that depart at odd and unfashionable angles. They keep close, familiar almost, only opening up once you have spent some time deep amongst them. Certain trees look the same in different lights, or one might hold several different aspects on the same day, and the paths themselves could throw unpredictable fits minutes from the allocated parking lots that the National Park had carved out for visitors on Skyline Drive. Each one has been known to play their tricks on the travelling eye, but they are known to those familiar as one person to another. Which is to say, never really known. Only remembered.

One could be alone in such a setting. If only for a time. If only with the trees. Habit and precedent could teach a soul to read their mood. And on this day, they were afraid. A certain eye, the sort that spots constellations, would find the certain signs of catastrophe.

The dawn birdsong had long-since learned to coexist with the background rumble from the distant overpasses which spliced through the remaining woodland at various vectors – but now, all was quiet. The sunlight kept its low, cinematic angle through the upper branches and below them the green creeks slid by unseen. There was no sound but the little crepuscular rustles as the undergrowth began to stir itself awake.

At the bank of a brook that parted the woodland path from denser thickets on its far side, Gimlin paused for a moment, as still as his surroundings. Then he stooped, stripping the sweat-wet bandana from his forehead without untying it and dipping it into the stream. He wrung it out, and submerged it again, until it was heavy and saturated and he let it drip for a moment or two, pattering softly against the still surface.

Gimlin fished his phone from his pocket and opened its maps. Satisfied he was still on track, he fitted the wet bandana over his bald head. The taste of the river water mingled with the tang of sweat. He exhaled, theatrically, for no one to see, to steel himself for the trudge ahead.

There was a rustle in response.

The shadows rearranged themselves on the far bank. In a moment, they were framed by the cast of Gimlin’s phone screen. Nothing moved for a few seconds, and Gimlin fiddled frantically with his phone settings, upping the contrast just enough to discern something figure-of-eight-shaped that flitted by on the edge of apprehension – then was gone, if it had ever been there to begin with. Replayed birdsong lisped just out of sync from his phone speakers, and Gimlin cut the recording, catching his own eye in the still surface and feeling oddly awkward.

The image shivered in crisp ripples. Gimlin pocketed the phone and rose, wading clumsily out into the creek, bag slung over one shoulder. The water rose deep enough to wet the hems of his shorts before he crested the far bank, out of breath already. He was not a fit man.

The crowds of trees contained within them such abrupt clearings, sudden empty spaces like roads for those with no direction. Perhaps they had been burned out by some bygone population for hunting grounds, or for some purpose of worship whose nature is now forgotten. When you come upon them, as Gimlin did now, you feel something palpable and distinct that you won’t find on any map. One would have to think exactly what – but it manifests in the arthritic creak of crickets in the tall sedge on a hot day, and the crepitating sounds of the forest underfoot and all around.

It was Gimlin’s habit not to venture too far out into the open in these meadows – like a rat around a room’s perimeter, he trod the shallow forest about its outer edge. The sky was a gift in such a setting, and on a clear day you could just see the curve of the distant hills sloping the glade’s western ridge up towards the morning sun. Gimlin could feel the weight of his gear in the warm patch of sweat across his back, the way his shirt adhered to him and wetted at the straps. It was still cool, but he was perspiring heavily.

There, lying in the grass, was the simplest of symbols, abandoned like some useless tool. Two sticks, lashed about by their midsections, willow branches hewn of their bark so that they shone like bone. At this, Gimlin abandoned the treeline and struck out diagonally where a flattened path made a chord in the long grass towards the eye of the clearing some twenty feet from shore. He was following his feet – GPS maps were little good in the rough.

And there, in plain sight, laid amongst the blades and wild flowers of the meadow, was the body of a girl.

Gimlin stopped stock still. Then he drew in slowly, phone in hand. His glasses were fogging with condensation, mist-tinting the moment. He scanned the periphery quickly but kept his aim steady. He wasn’t going to miss a thing.

You could smell the odium in the room.

Something about the lacquered boards of a public gymnasium sends whatever’s said inside ricocheting around eerily independent of its speaker. When someone spoke continuously, it compounded the tones and intonations and drew them out in monotonous echoes. It bored through you, it bored through everyone, and through every single person sitting on the hinged metal chairs that were stood like poised mousetraps in the erratic circle at its centre.

Nic knew they were all thinking the same thing.

Asshole brought his own goddamn mic. To a meeting.

‘I want to thank the Program again for hosting me at the Gertson Recreation Centre in Harville. While it saddens my heart to see so many soul labouring under the dreadful curse of addiction, I know this country has bred no more resilient patriots than those sitting right here with me this morning.’

            It was his smart, gloating tone, she though. There were hidden boasts in his advice. Somehow Congressman-to-be Martin Beaumann’s flag tie pin always seemed to catch what little light there was in the room.

‘This fair town’s clinics are a shining example of how our great country fights sickness in our midst. We don’t let it beat us, now. We beat it. Now I see a fair few people out here today who look like they been letting life give ‘em a bit of a beating. And you all know that ain’t American. And it never has been. In God we Trust. No one who blamed their lot on the system ever found a thing in themselves worth fighting for. Now all I want to do if help you folks help yourselves, and these clinics are how we’re going to fight this epidemic, and that’s exactly how we’re going to do that.’

Amazing, Nic thought, how politicians could talk for hours without saying a single goddamn thing. Election years gave her hives.

‘Here we are less than an hour from our nation’s capital and still can’t nobody hear us. Now, we could curl up and hide. But this epidemic is a – a monster. And good old boys like you and me, we don’t give in to monsters. We don’t let monsters consume us, consume our kids. Consume our schools, consume our community. No. We don’t feed the monster.’

Beaumann seemed a little younger than the types who normally made the drive down from DC. Nic had breezed through his manicured social media profile while he was being introduced, all immaculately filtered and framed pictures of him and his wife grinning like Alsatians, like some never-ending wedding album. Artificial lens flare and all. Really above and beyond for a politico. From what Nic could tell he hated being hated. But then, everyone hates their job.

‘I know you folks here know more than some about all that. And it ain’t my aim to preach to the choir here. I’m here to hold out my hand, and it’s up to you to take it. I want to work with every member of this fine town. Thanks to you all for listening to me. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take just a few moments to listen to you. What’s been on your minds, folks?–’

Uck. Folks. Bugs Bunny, in the house.

‘Excuse me.’

Nic saw Terry Hachette’s hand raise, the other folded close about his flannelled chest. Oh, for God’s sake, Terry. Don’t bite.

‘Yes, sir?–’

He stood and took Beaumann’s proffered mic, one hand still wedged into the opposite pit. ‘I heard about the government fluoridating our water supply in Harville. They been targeting the disadvantaged communities in our state for the past three decades and I just wanna table that discussion right here and now, if I may.’

Beaumann waited a fraction, then nodded. He retrieved the mic with a wordless gesture.

‘What’s your name, sir?–’

‘Terry.’

‘Sure, Terry,’ he said. ‘Sure, you haven’t been given all the facts. We certainly can’t say for sure that the water batches that were cleared by the Health Department last month were somehow tampered with. That’s simply a question of circumstance. But–’ Terry was making beckoning gestures towards the mic, but Beaumann seemed determined to keep momentum, ‘–Yes, yeah. When I represent you, sir, I’ll be darn sure to clamp down on corporate deals we’ve all heard so little about up in the corridors of power. Something’s rotten up top, alright. I think we can all taste it.’

And how, Nic thought, are you going to help, exactly?–

‘And I want to know what you think. I want to know your hopes, your dreams. And I want to know your fears, ladies and gentlemen. Now how about you, darling?–’

            Oh for fuck’s sake. Beaumann had caught sight of Nic’s death mask of an expression and he obviously couldn’t resist. He was that kind of showman, she realised – the kind that has to crack every single face in the room, at some point. And he wasn’t going to leave a dry eye in this house.

            ‘Now I see from the uniform you’re a scout leader.’

            Few appreciative chuckles from the dim side of the circle. Nic grimaced in a way she hoped looked in on the joke.

Beaumann had a Cadillac for a mouth, all grille.

‘Seriously, my darling, Harville thanks you for the constant and diligent standard you and your fellow officers maintain to protect and serve the members of this community.’

            She nodded graciously. Call me darling again, bitch.  

‘Now, Officer – Vorpal – I know its getting on and you’ll probably be missed down at the station if I keep you.’ More monosyllabic laughs scattered. ‘But I want to know more than anyone – What keeps you up at night?–’

In that instant the air went out of the room. You couldn’t say exactly how so, but it was palpable, like a great shared inhalation. You could feel it. Beaumann could feel it, because he dropped his attention on Nic entirely and turned to a room as a whole that was suddenly still, and cold. She was invisible again, in a circle of faces that were as stony as hers, and as hard.

‘I want to hear from all of you,’ Beaumann went on, ‘I’ll get to each and every one of you, I promise. I want to know what keeps every one of you up nights.’

A couple of people were leaving, now. Beaumann kept talking over the sound of grating chair legs and the squeak of sneakers making their way towards the distant gymnasium doors –

‘I’m happy to talk as long as you all want to listen. I’m here to hear you. I’m here to help. I’ll stay here all day, if that’s what it takes.’

Well, thought Nic, reaching for her purse. That makes one of us.

Nic’s eyes were killing her. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell anymore.

She’d finally caved and had to go in to the Harville clinic the previous week. Three hours wait, and another two and a half sitting through every test and probe that they could think to bill her for – and nothing to show for it. No change of prescription made the slightest real difference. Hours on end with some old coot gazing directly into her aqueous humour and he didn’t even propose. By every medical test available, her eyes were completely normal. But then, they had little incentive to say anything else. Second and third opinions meant little. They were her eyes, after all. Who knew them better than her?

But Nic couldn’t even tell which eye – if either, or both, or neither. It just hurt. Whatever it was.

It had got to the point where it was just impossible to tell whether her eyes were genuinely caning her, or whether she had worried it into existence, like an itch you make by scratching. After so long lying awake in the dead of night, obsessed with the throb, the undeniable physical sensation somewhere in the midst of all that jelly that said that something, somewhere was surely wrong – a parasite perhaps, some coiled worm or dying tissue, or – worse than the worst – whatever unnamed or unspeakable disease imagination could concoct to rot away her optic nerve and leave her finally, blissfully blind. After so much speculation, it felt like fact.

She rubbed them both to be sure.

It was late, and she had been staring at screens since she’d woken up. Whenever that had been. It was hard to keep track when so much of her mental energy was trained on her eyes, rather than what they were seeing.

It was an image of the girl. She was lying down in a field, her surroundings cropped by the frame to the dimensions of a casket. Her hair was splayed meticulously across the grass, light enough to halo in the lens-flare. From the image, her clothes looked untouched and spotless save for the residue of dew that specked them. In the still light of a phone screen, she hardly seemed dead at all.

‘Now I hope you don’t mind if I get a thing or two down in black and white before we get to the statement, okay?–’

‘Not at all.’

‘Full Christian name?–’

‘Paterson Gill Gimlin.’

‘D-O-B?–’

‘Oh-six-one-eight-one-nine-seven-six.’

‘–And profession?–’

‘Cryptozoologist.’

‘In English, please?–’

‘I am. That is. I mean – That is my profession. Listen–’

‘I’m listening. A crypto– what, exactly?–’

‘A cryptozoologist. Look, I’ve told you all you need to know, there’s a girl out there in the woods–’

‘I’m looking. I’m listening. But you are what I say you are. And I don’t know what you are, right now.’

‘I track – document – the activity of wild fauna as yet unrecognised by the scientific community.’

‘I’ll bet you do. What are you though?–’

‘Look – Listen–’

‘Looking. Listening.’

Gimlin leaned in conspiratorially, and she recoiled before she could help it.

‘I have reason to believe that this girl’s death might have something to do with some sightings that have occurred in the area.’

‘And what would these be sightings of, sir?–’

‘The–’ he leaned in closer, and the Nic caught another fresh whiff of his peculiar musk – ‘the Snallygaster.’

‘The Snallygaster.’

‘Yes, the Snallygaster. It’s a dangerous cryptid that calls the woods here home. It’s been taking people for centuries.’

‘I see. And what makes you think this – Snally – this thing, is responsible for this girl’s death?–’

‘Patterns and precedent. It’s killed before. It’s been in these parts for hundreds of years. Maybe even thousands, who knows?–’

Nic thought she knew.

‘These sightings you mention. They recent?–’

‘Fairly recent. December eighty-six was the last.’

‘Christ,’ she said involuntarily.

‘You haven’t lived here long, ma’am? Have you?–’

Nic balked a little. ‘–No sir, I have not.’

‘Just ask around here. The thing’s notorious. No one outside hears much of these legends.’

‘Except you, Mr. Gimlin.’

‘Except me.’

‘Well many thanks for your input. We have no further reason to hold you, if that’s what you’re anxious about.’

‘No, not at all. I only wish I could help more.’

‘You can’t. You really can’t.’

‘So do you know – Who was she?–’

‘We’ll check in on any outstanding missing persons from the town – but this girl could be from out of town, out of county – out of state, even. But if it’s local, it won’t stay hidden long. As for your cryptid – thing, I don’t–’

‘It’s an interdimensional being, ma’am. It slips through the folds in our time-sphere. These interstices are only in certain places though – usually where an arc of the Earth’s magnetic field meets its surface. You wouldn’t happen to’ve heard any report of odd physical phenomena?– Cars appearing to roll uphill, distortions in perspective and proportion, sightings of paraphysical fig–’

‘Nope. Nada. Nothing like that. No.’

‘Well maybe I could ask around?–‘

‘And maybe you couldn’t. I’m not having you spreading that shit about here. Paraphysical perspectives and – What I don’t know.’

‘But – I mean – More information could only help, right?–‘

‘If you’ve got any. But that’s not information, now is it?– Just – Speculation.’

The boys came back with a plastic box full of shit from the crime scene, and the little girl’s body placed tastefully under a sheet for later identification. It wasn’t as if Nic was much involved with the case after slotting Gimlin’s testimony up on the database, but in a station like this you could hardly get away from anybody’s business. Where only years before there had been a thriving and well-funded, dep, now there were just the three of them – Nic and Officers Haplan and Gyre. But they got shit done in Harville, population four-twenty-one, widely speaking, despite a distinctly informal approach to policing. She wasn’t too certain of their relative ranks, for example. They rarely had enough pressure to warrant anything more than a loose ad hoc system of delegation about the place. It was something of a stark contrast to the sort of PDs you found in the city, but Nic settled into it easily enough. The trick was not giving a shit unless you had to. This, unfortunately, seemed to be one of the latter situations.

The state forensics squad emailed through their pictures from the scene a little after ten. There were apparently only four things worth capturing from the clearing in Shenandoah where the girl had been found.

One – the body. Nic had already seen plenty, albeit from Gimlin’s various gaudy angles.

Two – landscape of the surrounding scene. Flattened path arcing away towards the treeline, grass splayed and disturbed uniformly along its sides.

Three – another landscape, showing nothing in particular but the immediate foreground of the meadow. Could have been a screensaver, for all it was worth.

Four – a little wooden cross lying in the grass, bound up of twigs and twine. Scale was tough to judge with nothing else in the frame to give it reference, but compared to the little yellow marker at the edge of frame, it looked about a foot across. It was slightly wider than it was tall.

They were clinically framed, functional. Scant kindling for the imagination.

These were as nothing, though, compared to the wealth of data offered by Gimlin on a slim USB bearing the letters STICK THIS on its nether side. He’d taken four hundred and twelve photos of the scene in total, and trampled over God knows how much of the surrounding area in the process. There were many redundancies and some pictures were completely unusable, as they had been taken at ridiculous angles or so close as to turn their subject into a myopic, artisanal blur like an abstract print in some pretentious Brooklyn studio. It was evident Gimlin had gotten a little carried away with himself.

‘Do we know who she is?–’ Officer Haplan had materialised at Nic’s shoulder, identifiable by the slight white noise of munching mini-pretzels in her left ear.

‘Do you?–

Haplan seemed positively entranced by Gimlin’s photocopia. ‘Where was this exactly?–’

‘Bald in the valley. Little ways off the AT.’

‘And what was you doing out there sir, may I ask?– Ain’t it off the trodden path?–’

Gimlin was about to speak, but Nic cut him off. It wasn’t worth it.

‘–Exploring. Day pig. Drop and shop. Tourist, Haplan.’

Gimlin seemed to understand deep down, but he looked a bit salty. After a moment, he collected himself for formalities. ‘D’you think it might be worth going to take a look at the crime scene, Officers?–’

‘Nah,’ said Haplan, not looking up from the screen and flipping another pretzelette into his mouth. Nic shrugged, then looked at the clock. It was a ways still to lunch. Fuck it.

She dog-whistled, and Gyre stuck his head through the distant doorway to the office kitchenette.

‘Field trip.’

After so long staring into the diamond of sweat on the back of Gimlin’s shirt, Nic felt like she was back in therapy. What do you see, in the stain? A horse skull maybe, or a set of dilated labia. Either-or. Maybe that was what they meant by seeing things.

Even having left the majority of his gear back at the station, their guide was sweating profusely. The three officers were following him down a close path that was little more than a razor line in the forest floor underneath an archway of stooped boughs of conifer and fir that all but met in the middle, and vast spiderwebs like trapeze nets gleaming silver in the sunlight, spangled across with dew. This was part of the Appalachian Trail, and every now and then a white blaze on a tree told them they remained on track. It was quiet here, creaking with soft forest noise, with every now and then a break of the peace when a flushed grouse would explode from the undergrowth with a fussy, bitching noise and give the four of them a start. The patroller already felt a long return journey back where they’d left it on Skyline.

Somehow, Gimlin never got out of breath. ‘You know they found a few extant groves of the American Chestnut in Shenandoah valley over fifty years after it was supposed to be extinct in North America? These mountain coves nested southbound species fleeing the continental ice sheets during the Younger Dryas period, and they still linger here in small and isolated populations. Halt!–’

Gimlin stopped abruptly, and Nic almost ploughed face-first into the moist cleft of her own personal Rorschach test. The foot train of Gimlin, her, and Officers Gyre and Haplan concertina’d on the spot, at the head of which Gimlin stood with one finger aloft, stock still. They remained so perhaps ten seconds before he spoke.

‘You hear that, Officers? Lesser. Spotted. Sapsucker.’ He pronounced each word as its own sentence. ‘You wouldn’t have heard one of those beauts lower than Albany ten years ago. Now, though–’

Nic couldn’t read the expressions of the guys behind her any more than she could read her own. But she knew equally what both would be.

‘I was not aware you were into real wildlife, Mr. Gimlin. But we’ve all of us got access to Wikipedia, here–’

‘Hey – what’sat?–’

‘What?–’ Nic and Gyre whipped round to where Haplan was staring out at something among the trees, squinting uncertainly. He was sweatier even than Gimlin.

‘Something glowin’, up here.’

Glowing?–’

Nic followed his gaze out into the gloom. There was a faint light detectable somewhere out there, outlining what looked like a tall, still figure. A pale areola, halo-shaped, as might linger on the eye after staring into the sun. A stain on the retina that remained and surrounded and involved objects in its glow.

‘–Am I imaginin’ that?–’

‘Nah. I see it.’

Haplan tripped his flashlight, and trained it on a tree about thirty feet from the trail. Its lower branches were aglow with an eerie, radiant green in the constant twilight.

‘It’s just them foxfire in the branches, Ray. Pixie shrooms. Bio-what’sit.’

Bioluminescence.’ Gimlin looked positively thrilled.

‘Yeah.’

‘Oh yes, and all sorts else. This is one of the most diverse floral realms on the continent. They’ve been finding new species here since the settlement. Venus fly trap, euphorbia, camelia hydrangea, wild cherry, rudbeckia, azalea, ostrich fern, catolpa, spice bushes, the Virginia creeper, wild tobacco. The Native names have all been forgotten, of course. Soon as they were discovered stripped from the forest by the settlers shipped to Europe for scientists to label them, or to rich persons’ greenhouses to show off to guests. This was an alien world not too long ago. It was like buying Martian specimens. That’s what we do to new things. Buy them, bottle them–’ Gimlin continued his trot happily, and Nic allowed some distance to open between her and his pores before she followed on. ‘–Used to be a whole lot more of it in these woods, back when the Park service had a pair. Now the amount of traffic on the roads, on the trails, in the shelters – a million visitors to Shenandoah a year, now – and talk about the dumping in the streams that goes on down in Georgia. Soon as PetroAmerica got the go ahead by the EPA, the Smokey Mad Tom all but disappeared from the Southern brooks. Half of trout species went about the same time. Terrible. And it’s like no one down here really cares. No one anywhere even. If people would just care – Okey-dokey, anyway, let me just – Yeah–’

Gimlin looked at the GPS on his phone, then abruptly left the path at a right angle and without preamble dived up a seemingly impenetrable wall of foliage and disappeared. Nic hesitated, then for fear of losing Gimlin – he hadn’t forged a path exactly so much as been swallowed up and submerged – she dived in after him. Everything was a blur of scratching twigs and variously yielding shrubbery, and the slope was steep and mulchy underfoot – but then she broke out into sudden sunlight, bleary, blinking and confused.

‘Better stay sharp, Officer. Timid things, cryptids. Won’t let humans close. You reach for you camera and zoom –’ Gimlin’s silhouette clapped its hands askew at an angle meant to indicate swift departure – ‘straight through an interstitial vortex into the invisible realms.’

The light was killing her. As somewhere out in the morning haze Gimlin began enacting his exact motions that morning in exaggerated detail, his voice prattling like a woodpecker, Nic turned back to the treeline to see Officers Gyre and Haplan emerging from the forest wall at opposing angles. Haplan merely looked displeased, Gyre conspicuously out of breath and muttering ‘What the fuck, what the fuck–’ to himself inaudibly. After a couple of steps, he removed his trooper hat and began fanning himself with it like a Southern belle at the Derby, panting heavily. Nic rubbed her eyes. They were caning and in the dark the pain seemed to blot everything else out. Everything was very still all of a sudden. Gimlin seemed to have lapsed out of audible range somewhere beyond the bank of sedge.

‘Wat’cha thinking, Vorpal?–’ Haplan sounded discomforted. At least he had the wits for deference in a situation like this.

‘Fuck this is what I’m thinking.’

‘I second and third that.’

‘You don’t think there’s nothing to be found?–’

‘In the woods? You a goddamn Shoshone tracker, Dwayne? If we do find something out in the fuckin’ wilderness I guarantee it’s that sad sack left it here.’

‘So what you think happened to that girl?–’

‘Search me. Vorpal?–’

Nic’s eyes were still closed. Christ, just let me sleep, and stop hurting.

‘Could’ve been a bear, right? Black bear.’

‘Or a salamander.’

‘Serious, Dwayne?–’

‘They get big. I saw something online. Them hellbenders get like six feet long.’

‘Serious? That’s a gator, man.’

‘Not this far north. No way.’

That’d be the day, said Nic. Or thought it. I’ll believe it when I see it.

‘When’s last time you seen a gator round here, Ray?–’

‘When’s the last time you seen someone attacked by a fuckin’ salamander, Duh-wayne?–’

‘Officers! Hey, Officers! This way!–’

Gimlin’s voice came hallooing excitedly from somewhere distant. Haplan gave the deep inhalation of someone steeling themselves for a feat of patience. ‘Better take a look.’

‘Oh God. Let’s not, and say we did.’

Gyre’s radio crackled up suddenly, coarse in the still air. He took a breather to call it in, and came back looking relieved.

‘Missing person report at camp. Seems Sunshine Jonson’s girl been gone overnight. Matched the description. But they ain’t ID’d a photo yet and they ain’t know yet. Looks like we might have to cut this lil’ jaunt short then, huh?–’

Nic opened her eyes. The sky was dazzling. Everything was alight.

‘You know the family?–’

‘Know of ‘em.’

‘Where do they live, do you know?–’

‘Yeah. I’ll take you if you wanna talk to ‘em.’

Nic exhaled. ‘Someone’s got to humor Dr. Crankenstein, though.’

Haplan grimaced. ‘Lucky I.’

Gyre grinned. ‘You gonna write it up, too?–’

‘Yeah, whatever. Kids get lost in the woods all the time.’

The Jonson’s didn’t live in luxury. That much Nic had assumed on reputation. Their prop was some ways out of Harville, nearer the edges of the National Park, but not so close that the land was good for soil or good for placement, or for building, or good for anything much at all. A broad slope in the hill line had been hollowed out, rather than pay for materials, with the back awning opening onto a portion of a marshy lake at the forest’s edge. The structure itself looked self-assembled, no angles quite orthogonal, with allotted walls propped here and there with literal stacks of insulator.

‘Lollypops,’ said Gyre. They were parked out front.

‘What?–’

‘That’s her name. Was her name. The Jonson girl.’

Lollypops. Fuck me.’ The air in the patroller got stale early, and stayed so. ‘You know the father?–’

‘Yeah. Ol’ Sunshine. He was here before the town, I think. He’s older than the trash. Pure-bred hippy shit.’

‘Mom’s gone?–’

Gyre nodded. ‘Both of ‘em. His daughters don’t go to the schools or nothing. We’re outside the zoning board, right now. He’s on Trust property.’

Nic sighed, and rubbed her eyes. ‘No lacerations.’

‘Huh?–’

‘No marks on the body at all. No visible damage they could find. No bumps, no bruises. Not an owie.’

‘What you thinking, then?–’

‘Less evidence means less theories. But it wasn’t a bear, Gyre.’ He was silent a moment. So was she. ‘–You do the talking.’ She pried the patroller door, and fresh air swept in. Light obscured the scene.

‘Okey doke. You got the sister, though.’

Sunshine Jonson answered the door bare-chested, and remained so while Officer Gyre outlined what little they knew at his living room table. He didn’t use the pictures, or speak above a conversational pace or tone. For someone who had never done this before, he was remarkably good at breaking the news, Nic thought. Maybe that was the secret. You get jaded from repetition in the city.

At one point, when Old Sunshine cowed his head to bury the heel of his hand into an eye socket, racked with inexpressible feeling, Gyre reached out spontaneously to seize his other hand. He kept speaking at the same pace, and stretched his other out for his other daughter, who sat sullenly to his right in an old Armistead chair, legs crossed, to take cautiously to form a human chain of which he was the anchor. Bravo, she thought. Good indeed. He must’ve been watching The Counsellor.

The other Jonson girl was older – fourteen or fifteen, maybe older, there was no profile on the books – mixed-race and utterly inscrutable. She didn’t shift or stir apart from that little séance, or even move her eyes from where they rested just below Gyre’s chin. She hardly seemed to be there at all. By the end, Gyre seemed to be focusing most of his assurances onto her, as if taking her unresponsiveness for incomprehension, and calmly taking it upon himself to shock her into acceptance of the situation. Nic was mystified too, for a while. Almost impressed. Then it dawned on her, and she considered the girl’s slack stoicism with fresh appreciation.

Her name, Nic learned, was Rainbows. Natch.

‘We’ll keep working at it. Day and night.’ Gyre said, by way of wrapping up. ‘But the truth is we still don’t know what happened. We just don’t know how she died.’

Old Sunshine raised his head at last to look the officer straight in the eye. The impression of his hand was a red stain across his face, and he clenched Gyre’s as if it were the only branch to keep him from being swept away in a flood.

‘We don’t want to know how, man. We wanna know why.’

‘Anything at all would be helpful. Anything you noticed that was off.’

While Gyre had taken Sunshine out to the back porch to nod sympathetically along to his various cosmological models of meaning, Nic had a minute or two alone with Rainbows. She was just as expressive as she had been when she’d first heard it.

The Jonson’s place was small and cluttered, but small enough for Nic to be able to discern through a thick haze of incense smoke like the air over a Napoleonic battlefield. One low-ceilinged living space with a couple of adjoining rooms, covered in what looked like the plunder from a hundred garage sales – lamps in the shape of things, pointless anthropomorphised objects on every horizontal surface with googly eyes fixed in place with poorly-applied rubber cement, eccentric, saxophone-sixed bongs perched atop curvaceous furniture sets. A single small kitchen in the far corner barely bigger than one you’d get in a trailer. It looked like the girls’ bedroom might be shared, a threadbare floor littered with spilled toys visible through one doorway.

Up on the TV, the news was muted. The election was a mess. As per usual.

‘Any new friends. I know you two didn’t go to school, but –’ she shifted on her tripod milking stool and searched for a way to finish the sentence, and spread her hands in a way she hoped was accommodating. Rainbows was not forthcoming, but fixed Nic’s chin with an unwavering squint. She was wearing a lot of makeup without being pretty, Nic thought, idly. Then fished for something further to throw in.

‘–What sort of music was she into?–’

Rainbows’ dark eyes roved upwards a moment. ‘What’sat matter?–’

‘Just trying to gauge her mood. Her state of mind. She have any favorite podcasts?– Some people – you know, they go jogging, wandering in the park with their earphones in, they get – lost. I don’t know.’

‘Morons.’ Rainbows didn’t smile. ‘Lolly didn’t listen much. Didn’t walk much neither.’

Sunshine was crying, again. They could hear it softly from the porch.

‘Your dad’s going to be okay,’ said Nic emptily.

‘I know he is. He’s just tired, okay? We ain’t been sleeping anyways.’

‘Why not?–’

‘Hip keeps him up. Got fucked up a while back by a Benz on Skyline.’

‘How’d that make you and your sister feel?–’ Seemed like something someone in her position would say.

She shrugged. ‘Pays the bills.’

‘And what about you?– Sleeping alright?–’

Rainbows didn’t speak for a while, and Nic felt her retreat. It was icy, and sudden – and Nic realised it was the same silence from that morning, when Beaumann had asked the townsfolk about their sleep.

‘Look – Ms. Jonsson–’ Nic couldn’t bear to use the Christian name at this moment – ‘I know you’ve been getting to sleep somehow. They give your Dad something after that accident?–’

‘No.’

‘Come on, now. Help me out, here–’

‘No.’

‘You give any to Lolly? She want some? She had trouble sleeping, too?–’

‘No.’

‘–What was it, then? If you don’t want me to–’

‘It wasn’t – it wasn’t that – It–’ Rainbows was adamant, at last. That still repose broke with an almighty shattering of will, and she began shouting. It was the same words over and over, until Gyre and her father came in to see what all the fuss was about. Again and again, at wavering pace and volume, no matter how Nic tried to lull her down and talk some sense into her, she kept repeating –

The monster came, the monster came, the monster came, the monster came–’

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