May 4, 2020.
The lands swam in silent voices. There was a motion there, like the wind pulling through the hills and trees, invisible and intangible but for its touch on other things. Natives, slaves and the unrecorded eons whose only testament was the oil and soil and hollowed caves deep beneath the feet that never saw the sun. You could colonise the wild, but you could never make it speak its conqueror’s tongue. And the sullen hills and trees would be waiting, silent still, when the shore tilted up and the people here slid back into the sea and left the land to its ancient, passive purpose once again.
Something could hide here. Forever, if it was good at hiding. Or if it was hidden. And there was only one place you could hide something, thought Nic, so that it could never be found.
Her eyes were wide and red, in the mirror. It was hard to tell whether or not they were worse than the night before. Hard to remember either way. Perhaps she should consider keeping a log.
Haplan and Gyre were at the door when she got in. Before they could speak, she ordered – ‘Sunshine. Bring him in, Haplan. Right away. Beaumann stay in town overnight, Gyre?–’
‘I don’t know. Think so.’
‘Find out where.’
‘Alright. Will do. You should see this, though. It’s online, Vorpal.’
‘Shit indeed. Terry put word out in a post like an hour ago. Been shared. Said he texted like five–’
‘Get down to his. State and Twelfth. After you get to Beaumann.’
‘Should be you, Nic.’
‘No ma’am. Will do. After I find the Congressman.’
‘Congressman-in-waiting. Let’s not forget.’ Ma’am. Haplan was spooked, too. Christ, take a number.
‘You know what I used to think to myself every day, as a police officer of these United States, in this day and age? I wish people told the truth. Online. Over the phone. In person. Then I realise that means nothing, these days. People tell their own truths all the time. They can’t help themselves saying it. They tell anyone who’ll listen. The whole planet’s on transmit. Leaking. Blasting our personal opinions out at each other a hundred decibels. A never-ending siren-call – me, me, me, me. That’s the truth. Reality, on the other hand. That’s the important thing. That’s what gets you to proof. It’s reality that gets convictions, not conviction in reality. And it’s lies that get people killed, Mr. Jonson.’
Old Sunshine looked distinctly dishevelled. That said, he had never not looked dishevelled, in Nic’s experience. Force of habit, she supposed.
Haplan wasn’t in for this one. Nic had bid a moment alone in the small kitchen/eating area after Sunshine had been retrieved from his home-hole. The station had nothing more imperious in stock, though she painted it with forbidding steel walls and a two-way mirror in her imagination.
‘Are you interested at all in what’s real, Mr. Jonson?–’
Old Sunshine chuckled. ‘Mr. Jonson.’ He found it funny, evidently.
‘Mr. Beaumann approached you.’
‘Come straight from the town meeting. Said he was sorry and all. ‘Bow filmed it on her–’
‘No. Before. You know each other. You two – You’re in – cahoots.’
‘Gyre filled me in on your background, Sunshine.’ Nic was suddenly channelling Dick Tracey. ‘Gimlin too. You wouldn’t have ashed in Beaumann’s mouth five years ago. What’s the aim, though? Get the town all riled up over some boogeyman? Get back at the people who’ve kept you down? Something worth killing your daughter over?–’
Sunshine Jonson said nothing for a while. He was rubbing his hip ostentatiously in that silence, a wry expression still tugging at one corner of his face. After a minute or so –
‘You don’t think much of me, do ya? Huh, Officer – Vorpal?–’ She let him talk. ‘And you accuse me of havin’ an active imagination. I tell you, man – Why don’t ya bring Ray in here, huh? He support your – theory?–’
‘Why don’t you tell me your theory, Mr. Jonson. What happened to your daughter?– Because Rainbows has some ideas. And they didn’t come from me.’
The damn look was still on his face. He looked unbearably peaceful. ‘Bow don’t listen to me. Shit, wish she would. Specially since – She just talks to the phone, now. Beep-boop-bip–’ Sunshine burbled and gesticulated as if to demonstrate the ephemerality of the technosphere. ‘And now I don’t know who’s talkin’ to me no more when she talks.’
‘–How is she?–’
‘–I dunno, man.’
When Nic spoke, it was hard not to shout. ‘You and Mr. Beaumann have been wilfully indoctrinating the young–’
‘Indoctrinating? Shit, I wish. Little late to the party on that one.’ Sunshine broke, suddenly – ‘What makes you think I’m the guilty guy here? I’ve lost my daughter goddamn it, the only –’ He gagged on it, swallowed, and it came back up. ‘The only one who really believed –’ Take three. ‘The only one who believed in – my goddamn Lolly, man–’
Nic shut her eyes. ‘We’ve had another disappearance.’
She wanted not to answer, but relented. ‘Another kid.’
‘Right. So you mind what you say. Right?–’
He didn’t speak. She saw how tired he was suddenly. Perhaps scruffiness was more circumstance than habit. Not too tired to be afraid.
‘It’s just the two us, Mr. Jonson. We can talk.’
‘I ain’t too proud to admit what I don’t understand. There more to this world than you or I see with our eyes, man.’
Don’t shout. ‘If you say its name, it won’t appear, Sunshine.’
Had she just said that? She thought so. Nothing changed in the room, nor Sunshine’s face waver one inch. He neither smiled nor spoke. Then he simply said –
‘Am I free?–’
He rose, and squeezed past her to the kitchenette door. She didn’t turn to see him go. After a pause, she heard him say –
‘I hope the universe loves you, Officer.’
‘–And you, sir.’
He was gone. A minute later, Gyre entered the kitchen.
‘–Sunshine. Rainbows. Lollypops.’
‘You still getting hung up on their names?–’
‘No. Just the order.’ Nothing there. Maybe. ‘How much older’s the eldest?–’
‘Ten years. Eleven maybe. What’s Beaumann want with them, anyway? What Sunshine say?–’
‘Said he didn’t know.’
‘Well, sometimes that’s the smartest thing to say.’
Nic had a cutting retort, but kept it. A wise man once said nothing at all.
She wasn’t built for being in this deep, she realised. More used to not caring one way or another, to not making the deliberate investment. In a good week, you solved one crime in twenty. You got used to not knowing, when everyone else thought they knew. Or at least, you got to knowing when you knew. And got used to leaving it open when you didn’t.
Doubt is the greatest virtue you could cultivate. But like so many such qualities – mercy, charity, patience, punctuality – it was only a virtue in other people. Chore as it was, it was good practise when considering any stance to immediately consider the exact opposite, at least momentarily. Nic stood generally by that Cartesian axiom that, in order to be sure of anything, you had to consider all contrary positions – in order, as it were, to be certain of your certainty. If anything could be known without doubt, first you had to doubt everything you thought you knew. Proselytising was the only sin, by her eye. What a world we could have, if everyone would only stay in their lane, consider the alternatives and not impose their own false certainties on others. If only, if only.
Nic emerged back out into the office. Haplan was at his desk, still looking at where Sunshine had exited.
‘I say he did it.’
‘Innocent ‘til proven guilty, Officer.’
‘You can’t prove it ain’t true.’
‘You can’t prove anything isn’t true, Haplan.’
‘Proving someone killed someone else is easy as pie. Proving they didn’t – is impossible. That’s why they invented reasonable doubt.’
‘Yeah – My wife says she ain’t sleepin’ around. I say – “Prove it”. She says – “I can’t, baby, I can’t”. Huh. I always thought she was talkin’ stupid before.’
Lucky lady. ‘We get Beaumann’s spot?–’
‘Airbnb on Fifth. I texted the address. You on it?–’
‘Yeah. Close to home.’
‘Officer, so good to see you. And take a seat. I hope you are keeping well, and you have my thanks for your service in this difficult time.’
‘Service doesn’t require thanks, Mr. Beaumann.’
‘Quite.’ Beaumann’s face was oily, up close. Too smooth. Like he had no pores. Smiles came easily, to such a face. ‘I’d be remiss if I didn’t apologise for that scout leader crack the first time we met, Officer Vorpal. Merely an attempt at levity in front of a difficult crowd.’ He took a backless seat across a lacquered coffee table from her own armchair. The fashionable living space he had rented in a complex off of State Street seemed to function as both lounge area and campaign headquarters, its proportions doubled by a long row of floor-length mirrors along one side. Demographics charts had been tacked up wholesale on one of the walls, and news feeds were running constantly on TVs on the other two, soundless amidst a din of hideous images.
‘So, I’m sorry. But I must say, it is good to see a member of the service that isn’t above self-improvement. Despite troubles in their past.’
Nic held his gaze for what she hoped was long enough. ‘I don’t need your apology either, sir.’
‘Well–’ the smile widened – ‘Just tell me what you do need.’
‘Well, sir, the fact is we have had a second instance reported to us this morning of a child in the area having gone missing overnight. In town, this time.’
‘Yes I saw. Poor Niall. Sweet boy.’
‘We’re interviewing Terry and his wife at the moment. We did not want the general public being involved at this time, but we have to – Adjust to the conditions of the social media age.’
‘As do we all.’
‘We want to manage the narrative here. Most important thing in a public and ongoing investigation. And that means doing and saying nothing without consulting every member of that investigation. We want a unified front while we’re searching for Niall. Try to get to – Try to get some justice. For the families.’
‘You haven’t worked in Harville long, have you ma’am?–’
Nic hated it when assumptions were correct. ‘No, sir.’
‘Well, I grew up not ten miles from where we’re sat, Officer. I know these people. I know my people. And I tell you, the things they’ve suffered over the last twenty years. Closures. Corruption. Scandal. People way up the chain screwing them over for reasons they can’t see or comprehend. They just want to understand what’s happening. And why. That’s not the wound, Officer. It’s the bandage. Now this tragedy – these tragedies – might not be anyone’s fault, as of yet. That’s the problem.’
‘Sir, have you ever heard of a Snallygaster?–’
Beaumann laughed abruptly. It was more of a bark. ‘A what?–’
‘That was my reaction. It’s just some local – superstition. Mr. Jonson, the guy you – filmed a message of consolation with. He happens to be what some would call a believer. And he and a couple others are blaming this – ghoul thing. It’s absurd. Really preposterous. I just need you to – see where I’m coming from on this. People are scared for themselves. Scared for their kids. And their kids are scared most of all. And they need to have their eyes open to the real threats that could still be present. We have to open them.’
Beaumann didn’t speak. The sincerity with which he kept eye contact unnerved Nic slightly, but she dared no look away. Across the room, their mirrored doubles did just the same. When he did speak, it was as if he had hit zero on some internal timer and, knowing he had to say something, he became instantly ingratiating –
‘Officer Vorpal, I understand completely. Lord almighty knows it’s a hard enough job at the best of times. You just keep me abreast of the investigation, and you have my word you will have my platform to connect with the community just as you see fit–’ His phone twanged and he checked it. Reaching for summary, he simply said – ‘I’m with you, one hundred per cent, Officer, absolutely.’ His mind was already elsewhere entirely, screwing his earpiece in. ‘–If there’s nothing else, I need to take this, I’m afraid.’
They rose, and their doubles did the same in the great mirror.
‘You can find your way out?–’
‘Hopefully. Just one last thing, Mr. Beaumann?–’
‘Yeah?–’ He pressed the phone to the shoulder of his jacket and put his other hand to his earpiece.
‘That your Mercedes parked out front?–’
‘Sure. Symbol of success, right?–’
‘Right. Thank you. Take care.’
He flapped a palm and disappeared into the adjoining bathroom and closed the door. Nic picked up her purse and made a move. She paused for a moment at the door, her hand on the handle. The en suite’s door was just to her left and she could hear Beaumann’s voice, muffled but eking through–
‘Yeah, well, that’s how it is with Democrats, Bob. They’re squeamish. You just gotta sit it out and wait for them to suck each other unconscious. Hope will defeat them. Always has.’
Stop it. Stop, Nic. Strings and pins. She turned the handle, and the shut his voice behind her.
Rainbows’ wall was plastered with consolations. She had few friends, but her page was a busy one now. She followed more than she had followers. Her face wasn’t visible in her profile pic, staring out across a snow-blanketed meadow somewhere out in Shenandoah. She looked good, at least. But then – everyone looks good in their profile picture. That’s why it’s their profile picture.
Do people hate that the internet doesn’t show who they really are, Nic wondered. Or is it that it only shows the things people are actually interested in? The bare essentials, face and age and orientation. Interests. I live here, I go there. I know these people, we said this. On such and such a date. Horrifyingly accurate and sickeningly simple. It was good that people wrote their own profiles, now. Saved a shitload of work for her.
A playlist was linked at her page. Nic played it through her laptop speakers while she read. Mournful dirge. All wails and stuttering high-hats. Nothing on Joni.
Most of her pictures were with Lolly. Mostly in the forest. Balancing atop a toppled trunk, arms akimbo. A squat and docile toad held up in splayed palms. Posing with vast deciduous ferns whose leaves dwarfed them both to pixieish proportions. Guess she always wore all black.
Nic sat, thinking a moment. Maybe the music was rubbing off. She typed a message to Rainbows. Paused. And pressed send.
Paterson Gill Gimlin. PhD.
Christ. Laverhill Polytechnic. Who the fuck gives out cryptozoology doctorates?
Easy enough to find. His website was clearly self-made, adorned liberally by animated conceptual artwork of variously appendaged beasts from imaginary realms. The first was most hideous of all. It was Gimlin.
The header featured a GoFundMe link and prominent donation box with suggestion bubbles in optimistic increments. She scrolled past it to where Gimlin detailed his past expeditions. Lake Baikal. Borneo. The Himalayas. They didn’t sound cheap, and she doubted Laverhill Polytechnic had deep pockets for funding.
Below that was another link to his GoFundMe page. Below that was a link to his HelloCupid.
There was no other social media under that name that she could find. The station email was thankfully no longer receiving his molestations, but Nic was sure he had not left town. Doubtless he would be at the gymnasium that evening. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.
There was a fresh video on Terry’s wall. Nic didn’t need to see it. Not if she didn’t have to. Beaumann’s solemnised face occupied most of the thumbnail. There was only so much you could take in one day.
The rest of the wall was hateful comments against the Harville PD. Their indifference. Their ignorance. Their ineptitude. Haplan front and centre, natch. But Nic too. She sighed, and swallowed the rest of her glass. They could’ve spelled her name right.
Her messages lit up. It was Rainbows. She was coming to the meeting tonight.
‘–Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for being here. These are strange times. Sad times, anxious times. I was hoping when Officer Haplan and I spoke to you yesterday that it would be a long time before something so ungodly descended on this town again. Lord knows you have all been suffering enough lately, and you have plenty much on your minds as it is. I don’t need to jaw on about what the police know or don’t know. Many of you have been sharing your frustrations with me lately, and fact is word gets out whether they want it to or not. What there is to know, you know. Now – I stood here in this very hall not two days ago and talked to little Niall. Seemed he was scared, and with good reason. I’m afraid something was preying on that boy. It has been preying on you folks for a while now. Keeping you from sleeping right. Scaring away the folks. Scaring away the money. And right now it has placed another of our little community in the gravest of danger. Now, we’ve got a choice to make. Each and every one of us. A choice. And a choice is a precious thing, believe me. Believe me. We must not squander this choice. We can act, and I say we must act. As Americans. Act on our beliefs, if we hold them deeply. And that is what I am authorising you to do here today. Act in defence of our past. Our future. Act in defence of that which we hold dear, or risk it being taken from us. Snatched away in the night. From out of nowhere. And you’re told to say nothing. To stay calm and act like it never happened. Like nothing is responsible – – I say – We’ve got a right to know. And we’ve got a right to believe too. And, finally, we’ve got a right to act on our beliefs – – A right to speak, and be heard – Are we going to wait and subject ourselves to this monstrous injustice – Any – Longer?– Or are we going to take our strength and do something – with it?–’ At this point the general din cut him off for good. The ecstasy was overwhelming.