Story by Michael Landry / Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
“You’re making a mistake.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Monahan. Our decision has been made.”
“There’s nothing more to be said. Your final check will be in the mail tomorrow. Molly and I thank you for your services.” Click
I sit behind the desk in the dingy room that serves as my office, staring at the now silent receiver held in my hand willing the voice at the other end to come back. After a few moments, the phone starts beeping, letting me know it’s still off the hook. I resist a strong urge to bash the thing to pieces against my desk and instead, ever so carefully place the receiver back on the cradle with a resounding click of its own. The sound echoes hollowly throughout the room, perfectly mirroring the empty feeling that has suddenly appeared in my gut. Dammit, I’d been so close!
My right hand, almost of its own accord, reaches down to the drawer where I keep a bottle of cheap bourbon, half empty and soon to be more so, and a glass that is only slightly dirty. I set the two next to each other on the desk and, after a moment’s consideration, return the glass to the drawer. I remove the top from the bottle and take a long swallow; a slow burning sensation traveling from my belly up to the base of my throat driving the empty feeling back ever so slightly. I sigh. Drunk or no, either way this is going to be a bad night.
The case had been about kids, but for me it had started with just one. June Benson, eight year old daughter of Chase and Molly Benson, had gone missing after school one day about three weeks ago. Her parents are decently well-off but no ransom or other demands ever came. The cops asked some questions at the school, filed some paperwork, and ultimately ruled her as a runaway. The Bensons weren’t satisfied with that assessment and hired me to follow up where the uniforms wouldn’t. I agreed with them that something smelled off.
A little digging showed the rabbit hole went down a helluva lot deeper than June Benson. Carefully applying some financial lubrication, I got one of my old contacts in the department to spill the beans; there were a lot of kids that had gone missing in the last two months, almost three dozen all told. Part of the reason for the general lack of panic was that most of the kids were low income, if not outright homeless. On top of that, my contact heavily hinted that there was pressure from a very long way up the food chain to keep a lid on the cases and sweep each and every one of them under the rug. That thing that smelled off started to stink like a fish market.
I hit the streets. I went to June’s school and the surrounding apartments. Then, finding nothing, I rolled up my sleeves and waded into the scum on the other side of the city. I canvassed the halfway houses, the tent city under Eastbrook Bridge, the Wakeside slum where cops only go in force. Everywhere I went I asked the same questions: Has anyone seen anything? Does anyone know about these missing kids? For a week I was disappointed, until finally, I got a bite.
The informant was obviously a drunk, and was even more obviously looking for another bottle. But he said he’d seen something, namely two goons in suits shoving a black bag over a young boy’s head and throwing him into a truck outside an abandoned building the lush had been flopping at. What’s more, and what earned him the fiver in my outstretched hand, was he’d heard one of the goons say a name: Marx. Suddenly the pieces had begun falling into place.
Graydon Marx was the owner of a pharmaceutical company that kept a production plant outside of town. It made a sick kind of sense that Marx might have decided to take kids as unwilling, unpaid subjects for new drugs they were testing, and he was one of the only individuals with both enough political and monetary pull to keep the mayor’s office and police department on lockdown. Granted, it was a long shot, and June didn’t fit the profile of the rest of the missing kids, but I’d been desperate to find even the thinnest thread to follow.
The plant lay on a sprawling property outside of the city limits where Marx kept a house that served as his primary residence when he was in town. I had been surreptitiously staking the place out for the last three days, and had seen several unmarked vans driven by pairs of suit- wearing tough guys coming and going from the main entrance of the compound. I’d planned on taking a closer look tonight. But now, just as I’m at the office getting ready to head over to the plant, Chase calls me out of the blue and says, thanks, but they won’t be needing me to keep looking into June’s disappearance after all. End of discussion.
I lean back in my chair and look into the bottle, pensively swirling the bourbon around the bottom. Fuck it. I come to the decision abruptly, standing up and slamming the bottle down onto the desktop. I haven’t known the Bensons for long, but this is completely out of character. Something is up and, dammit, there are kids at risk. I might not be getting paid to follow up the lead, but my conscience isn’t going to let me just sit and get wasted.
I take my overcoat from the back of the chair and throw it on before reaching into the other drawer where I keep Cheryl. The Colt is a thing of beauty, and I do a quick check to make sure each of her six cartridges are loaded before sliding her into my shoulder holster and slipping a box of spare shells into my jacket pocket. With that, I step out into the hallway and resolutely lock the door behind me.
Dark clouds cover the pale winter moon as I move the car to the side of the road and pull into a small clearing I discovered earlier in the week. I get out and hastily remove a tarp from the back seat and throw it over the car. In the dark, the vehicle will be effectively invisible to anyone on the road. It has been steadily snowing for the last few hours, so I briefly go back to the road and do my best to cover the tracks leading into the clearing. I’ve stopped about a mile short of the entrance to the compound; with only one road leading in or out and no other turnoffs, getting too close won’t serve for any kind of sneaking. The approach to the plant is thick with trees so I should be able to stay in the woods but keep in sight of the road to guide my path. Wrapping my coat more tightly about myself against the cold, I start trudging towards the compound.
A strange moaning causes me to start, my hand flying under my coat to rest on Cheryl. I scan around, heart beating wildly. The trees in their stark nakedness reach into the bleak sky like the fingers of the damned, a light wind causing them to creak and groan in their torment. Otherwise, all is silent. Despite the cold, a slow bead of sweat rolls down my nose, the tiny hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention. After a few moments, I turn and continue my trek; my hand remains on the butt of the revolver.
I reach the perimeter fence without incident. I had scouted the area and found an expanse of fence where the trees mask the view of the security cameras, and is out of sight of the main gate. Earlier today I had used a pair of wire cutters to make an entrance. Slightly winded as I squeeze through the fence, days like this serve to remind me that my youth is a distant memory. I curse under my breath as I feel sharp edges of wire catch on my coat. Then I’m in.
My reconnaissance hadn’t let me work out the patrol patterns of any security guards, but now I see I needn’t have worried. In fact, other than the guards in the shack at the main gate, there don’t seem to be any physical security on the grounds. I decide to start looking at the house.
Making my way across the snowy terrain, I see the residence atop a low hill a couple hundred yards ahead, light glaring from every window. I creep closer, doing my best to use the trees that dot the yard to mask my approach. I stop behind the closest tree, and consider how to proceed, when the front door opens and three figures step outside.
The first I know only by reputation, but the oily sheen that emits from his too wide smile identify him as Graydon Marx. My jaw drops when I see the people behind Marx are Chase and Molly Benson. I’m just close enough to hear the end of their conversation.
“…en can we see her, Mr. Marx?”
“Oh presently, presently my dear, Chase. In fact that’s where we’re going now. Come along.”
The millionaire switches on a large industrial flashlight and leads the Bensons around, behind the house. I follow, silent as a shadow.
At first, I assume they will be going to the pharmaceutical plant to the west of the house, but soon find I am mistaken. Instead, Marx walks directly south, straight into woods that are even thicker than those through which I approached the compound. They walk for maybe twenty minutes, as I struggle to stay quiet and keep the bouncing beam of Marx’s flashlight in sight. After a time, I see a strange flickering ahead which, once we get close enough, I can identify as a roaring bonfire set in a small clearing. I stop about fifty feet short of the fire and hide myself behind a tree. I can see the Bensons are agitated; Molly clings to her husband, Chase obviously enraged, shouting at Marx.
“What’s the meaning of this, Marx? You said you were taking us to see our daughter!”
“And so I have, Chase, so I have. She’ll be here shortly. The fire, you see. We’ve found it draws them.” The millionaire smiles and moves to a tree at the edge of the clearing. In a smooth motion he hoists himself up into a hunting platform set on the lower branches. “Ah, here she is now.”
The pale shape of a little girl moves into the clearing. I recognize June from the pictures her parents had given me, but only just. Her once sparkling eyes are dull and empty, lacking even the most rudimentary intelligence, her face slack. A dried reddish smear is crusted around her mouth. The girl is dressed in rags, her hands and feet bare. She shuffles forward, almost stumbling into the fire, paying no mind to her parents or the heat. Something is very wrong.
“Oh, my God! Baby!” Molly Benson throws herself at her child sweeping her up in a hug. I see a look of ecstasy pass across the girl’s face and a terrible hunger enter her eyes, as she suddenly opens her mouth and sinks her teeth into her mother’s neck. Molly screams and Chase lunges for his wife as a fountain of blood erupts, washing June’s face in gore. The girl rides her mother to the ground, worrying at the wound like a wild animal. I feel the world lurch.
Chase is struggling to pry June off Molly when I see other small shapes enter the clearing. Chase doesn’t notice until the things that were once children are practically on top of him, and by then it is far too late. I turn and run.
I sprint through the forest, mindless now of the noise I’m making, my only thought on escape. Branches reach out and try to tangle my arms, stones seek to trip me up. Abruptly, a root catches my foot and sends me tumbling head over heels. My head meets a tree with a sickening thud. Then, blackness.
When I awake the first thing I notice is the pain, next the cold. Shaking my head to try to clear it, I look around. I’ve been stripped down to my t-shirt and skivvies, my hands secured with rope to the trunk of a tree above my head. To my front, Marx stands in the clearing, the bonfire burning merrily behind him, two piles of rapidly cooling red and flesh-colored pulp pouring steam into the frosty air at his feet. He holds Cheryl in his hands, the revolver glinting cruelly in the firelight.
“Ah, Mr. Monahan, good you’re awake,” he smiles. “You have my admiration. Commendable detective work these past few weeks, if not the most discrete.” He clicks his tongue, “I hope you didn’t think you were being especially sneaky.” He sighs, “Still, it would have gone easier for you if you would have just taken the hint when I had the Bensons let you go. They were so frantic at the thought of being reunited with their daughter, they were fully prepared to do any little thing I asked. But here we are. I must say, this is truly an excellent firearm.” He admires the magnum for another moment before pointing it at me and pulling the trigger.
The sound is enormous. A blossom of agony roars up my leg and then dulls. When I open my eyes I see the shattered ruin that was once my right foot.
Marx stoops down in front of me, “Must be going, old chap. I’d tell you to simply walk away from this but you’ve squandered that opportunity already and, well, it’d be quite impossible now for a multitude of reasons.” He inclines his head towards my destroyed foot. “However, as I’ve confessed my admiration, I’ve decided to give you a sporting chance. There’s a very realistic possibility you’ll bleed out before the children get hungry again. Good luck!” With that, he walks out of the clearing into the darkened woods.
I lay there in the snow, the white around me slowly turning red. My eyesight fading, the dull pain that has been emitting from my foot gradually builds to a crescendo. At the edge of my vision, I can just make out a small shape enter the clearing and slowly shuffle towards me, soon followed by another. I begin slipping into unconsciousness as I feel the first tiny, questing hands start to explore my exposed, freezing flesh. My last thought, before my entire world is consumed by blackness and pain is that, I guess I’d been right at the office after all: either way this is going to be a bad night.
“The Pen” by Ashley R Lister
Illustration by Sheik