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The Case of the Kid With COVID

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Estimated reading time — 37 minutes

Who the hell needs a Private Investigator during quarantine?

I was obviously grateful to have contact from any client while social distancing, even one that would probably turn out to be some kind of scam.

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Staying indoors had me going insane. As Steve McCroskey once said, I picked the wrong year to quit drinking. I had given up the sauce right after a spectacularly failed New Years party, and four months deep into it, and being stuck doing jack-s**t all day, I really needed a drink.

Plus, my business, the investigator racket, had gone from emaciated to straight up skeletal. The slow trickle of cash flow that kept food in the bellies of me and my four employees had been sufficiently staunched by the virus. Business was never booming; you work through word of mouth when you aren’t associated with one of the big investigation firms that mainly employs ex-cops and exploits criminology graduates.

My work was boots on the ground stuff, and my boots were firmly on the shoe rack, and my ass was in the couch. People weren’t hiring me to check on their unfaithful partners because they were stuck inside with them all day, wishing they were out cheating. There were no mysteries (or beers) that needed cracking, so all I could do was eat like s**t, play video games, pound off and worry about the financial future of my business while

I lay awake, painfully sober.

Then $50,000 dangles in front of my face, and like the small fish in the big pond that I am, I bite, ignoring the glint of curved, barbed steel.

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My brain was stagnating for a case, so I started to hyper analyze the email right away. He had sent it from his work email, no doubt to add an air of authenticity to it. I googled the domain, it seemed legitimate.

That meant he wasn’t afraid of the security personnel who read company emails to know his personal business, or more likely, he had blocked them from accessing his emails because he’s the owner, and it’s good to by a hypocrite at the top.

The email had a standard company signature at the end of it, adding another layer of authenticity, as well as driving the point home that he was very much a CEO and I very much was not. Or maybe I was a little bitter from sleepless nights agonizing about an empty bank account.

Probably both.

The most surprising aspect was the fact that he told me the details of the case, at least the meat of it, right away, before any correspondence. That spoke to either his urgency and desperation, or he knew the case was strange, which would entice me in ways the money couldn’t.

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I mean, I don’t really give a s**t about the plight of a pharmaceutical big wig who got rich by jacking up the price of Ritalin. How do you even swing getting rich on medicine in Canada and not feel like a douchebag? Not to mention, a few years ago, his son had done some serious prison time in an American jail for selling unregulated drugs to various hospitals. The drugs had turned out to be stored in unsafe conditions (basements, the back of cars) and were next to useless when they reached the patients, who suffered serious negative effects.

Honestly, f**k this family.

But when I say that, I’m saying f**k my own family (see: employees) because we all deserved to get paid. $50, 000 split five ways is still a few months rent money in Toronto. So I was giving the case some serious thought.

Honestly, I think the guy told me the details of the case right away because they involved his kid daughter, and my business had the shitty reputation of being run on emotion. Tracking down lost teddy bears and bullshit like that. Everyone likes taking on a case that helps a kid.
So the thickening agent of the whole mystery was that he wanted me to track down who had given his daughter the COVID. Already, super bizarre, I kind of love it. He claims that he suspects she snuck out of the house, went to a party, and caught it from some reckless youth.

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I sit there, pondering whether to message him back. It seems morally dubious to help an obscenely wealthy man track down a kid that he intended to sue. But, the chances of a rich kid sneaking out to see other rich kids was pretty high, so this would end up a case of two well off families duking it out in court, and I don’t mind throwing a little fuel on that flame, especially if it keep my cupboards full of instant noodles.

Maybe I had drank too many coffees to replace whiskey, but I decided to email him back. Doesn’t cost a thing to be curious, unless you’re a cat.

I asked him for some more details, like what makes him think she has COVID and not just the flu, what makes him certain his daughter snuck out, does he have any suspects, the usual.

Right off the bat, like alarmingly fast, like I picture him hunched over his laptop, frantically refreshing his email to see if I respond kind of fast, he replies. Along with the reply is a money transfer of $25,000.
Half now, half upon completion, I assume. How gauche.

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What could I do? The money was already mine; I didn’t even get a chance to say “no” to the money! I mean, if you want to get all technical about it, I could have rejected the money transfer on my bank’s website, instead of clicking that unassuming grey button that accepted it. I’m human, and poor.

So, the case was opened.

He’s as helpful as a big, floppy hat in a windstorm, telling me that he’s sure it’s COVID, he absolutely knows that she snuck out and that he has no idea who she hangs out with.

This turns into a back and forth of my being reasonable (I’m allowed to be a dick, I already have the fucking money) and him being a standard rich, white dude. I tell him to contact the Public Health Agency or whoever, I’m not a Doctor. I tell him to stay inside, and especially keep her inside if he suspects she has been sneaking out. He tells me no Doctors, they’d find a way to mess up his fame/wealth in (deserved) revenge for his unscrupulous business tactics in regard to medicine.

I ask if he has any servants who could have spread the virus to her, and he counters indignantly that his staff haven’t been able to butter his brass and shine his toast or whatever. He’s really miffed that thousands of people dying is negatively affecting his ability to never touch an appliance.

Finally, and I can tell he has been ramping up to this stomach punch, he asks if I’m this disbelieving of all my clients. Especially the mob.

Yes, I also have a reputation for taking cases from the mob.

He kind of breezes over the fact that I took those cases to either clear my own name of murder charges, stop someone from being murdered, or prevent being murdered myself. The bottom line is, he knows I took mob money, which means I’m fine with working extra-legally and that’s exactly how he wants this handled.

Okie dokie.

I tell him to call me, and give him my number. He says he doesn’t see the need, and I say I don’t care what he sees, he’s hired me (yes, he fucking hired me) because I see what he doesn’t.
So, he calls, fairly quickly.

The quickness is important, because the call display says his name.
Normally, I know that given a little bit of time, a phone number can be tampered with to read as if it is someone else’s via call display, but I’m assuming I didn’t give him the time to do that. I also make a mental note to call it later, to try and catch the dude off guard. Yes, I’m this suspicious of all my clients.

Over the phone, all the bluster that filled his emails is faltering, because every time he starts going on an entitled tirade, I talk over him. I anticipate his boardroom bullshit, his mergers and acquisitions energy, his rampant car salesman aggressive in-your-facery. I’m an employee, so he’s used to being benevolent when it suits him but condescending and belligerent whenever I show some spine, but I’m not that kind of employee. For one, I have his money, for two, I have his secret, for three, I don’t have a sick daughter.

All he has is the second half of the money, which I might be ok with walking away from, I tend to be fickle. So he genuinely has to figure out what limits he has with me, and the limit is, that he needs to stop treating me like I’m from his first abusive marriage. He needs to talk only when I need him to.

This power dynamic feels nice for a change. He’s probably going to use his vast power to ruin my life once the case is over, of course, but that happens like every third client for me, so what do I care?

I ask him for his daughter’s name, which he is hesitant to give. For once,

I get it, I’m a voice over the phone and I could be a pervert, so
instinctively, he’s guarding her. Eventually his wisdom talks down his reptile Dad brain and he gives it. I write this down, because I’m bad with names. Amber. Sufficiently both upper class and new age. Classic.

I then ask for a list of Amber’s friends, and he draws a big fat goose egg. He doesn’t meddle in his children’s affairs. Helpful.
Then I ask his address, which he doesn’t understand at all. I explain I need to know the architecture and layout of the neighborhood to better retrace his daughter’s footsteps. He harrumphs appropriately and says he supposes that makes sense (it doesn’t, I made that up, I have no intention to do any of that.)

To make it seem like these are important clues, I ask the names of his business partners, his working relationships, any enemies he might have, his wife and his ex wives. I want him to think he’s getting his money’s worth of detective work. I really do write these down, but in a kind of lackluster handwriting that looks like the pen just kind of sadly rolled across the paper and spelled out a couple of names. I get some small satisfaction in the length of his enemy list, especially when I recognize some particularly dangerous names, like “Maniac” Murphy.

Amber is the lead, and since he has openly shown that he has zero fingers on the pulse of his daughter’s social life, I’m going to have to figure out where she snuck off to myself. And he doesn’t need to know how I’m going to do that.

Peppered inside of my useless questions about his church (Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church, which is a silly name but I bite my tongue) and how many business building’s he owns (seventeen seems like an unreasonable number), I ask what school his daughter attends (Branksome Hall). This he knows, since I’m sure he’s filled out cheques to the place. Very upscale, only the best for this stranger whom he loves.

I tell him I’ll contact him if I think of any questions, and that I’ll give him updates on the case. He turns this into a scheduled thing, because his business brain never turns off, and I tell him I’ll give him a call at three every day. He wants an email. I’m already giving an inch with the phone call instead of texting, which I assumed these pressed suit types dig, but now he’s just going for a power play again. I don’t have the spoons to fight him on this. Fine, he’ll get a daily email.

Now comes the outsourcing. As great an undercover detective as I am, I’m not particularly adept at impersonating teenage girls, which I’m going to need to do if I’m going to grill Amber for details. I could make a go of it, but then if she ever asks to video chat, I suddenly need to frantically find a real live teenage girl to go in front of the camera, and if her cadence and mannerisms are different from the way I’ve been typing, the jig is up.

Plus, the creep factor is through the roof. I have enough problems without ending up on a watch list.

Luckily for me, I have just the outside consultant.
Clarissa is a girl who regularly hires me, whenever money gets tight for her. She comes from an extraordinarily rich background. She has me dig up dirt on her mom/dad/stepmom/stepdad and then proceeds to blackmail them out of their own vast fortune. She paid me at the beginning, but for the last few sessions, I took a reduced price and asked that she owe me a few favors.

Having an inside person worming through the upper crust of society can have a variety of uses. In my experience, in this city, rich people all hang out in the same circles. It gets even worse for kids, who are all forced to attend the same stuffy private schools.
So I hit up Clarissa, and give her the deets on Amber. I ask her if she can send her a friend request on Facebook, I’m sure she has friends in common.

I’m laughed at for still using Facebook, but she says she knows Amber already. She won’t tell me what social media platform they use. I’m not cool enough. Fair.

I ask her to find out if Amber has been sneaking out of the house, and if so, where? I trust Clarissa implicitly to know how to work it in organically. I know that a spoiled brat blackmailing her parents doesn’t scream “smart as a whip” but she uses the money for pretty charitable causes (and sometimes drugs, she’s still a teenager) so her head and heart are always in the right place.

Understandably, it’ll take her a while to build up to getting a girl to spill her guts, so I leave it in her capable hands.
While that kettle boils on the back burner, I need to start doing some detective work of my own. I’m itching to get out of the house anyways.

The air in here is thick, I’ve burned too much incense and boiled too many pots of coffee. The video games are blending together, Max Payne, Joel, Sebastian Castellanos, these are all the same fucking character. I’m beginning to enjoy doing dishes. I’m listening to jazz sometimes. Who am I?

To shake off the approaching insanity, I’ve decided to stretch my legs and steal an expensive car. I know just the one.

So, normally, I would just park my rust bucket PT Cruiser on the street I need to survey, since nobody really looks twice at a PT Cruiser. They resent being forced to look at it even once.

That s**t won’t fly in the ritzy neighborhoods, though, because people will assume that there’s an Amber Alert if they see that thing dripping brake fluid anywhere near their Fine Fescue. So I need something nice.
Not Bugatti nice, either. It can’t be flashy, or collectors, or anything like that. It just needs to cost a lot in its blandness. A Merc-Benz SUV should do the trick nicely.

Now, I’m not going to keep the fucking thing, I don’t hate the environment that much. I’m just going to borrow it for the case, and from people that won’t even know it’s gone.

There’s a rich-ish family that I used to date a member of, and they have that exact car. They’re also hiding away from the pandemic up in Muskoka while the rest of us rot in the city, so their house is empty. I only know this because I follow my ex on Twitter, in the healthiest way possible.

The house being empty is important, because I’m not just stealing the car,
I’m breaking into their house. I can’t really hotwire a car made after like 1985, and for this fancy of a car, I’d need to be a pretty adept hacker/engineer/electrician. I’m amateurish at best. I could hire one of those, but that means more outsourcing, and I don’t have the time.
Easier to just break into the house, take the car keys, take off. I have a spare key (I never returned mine after the breakup, ain’t I a stinker) and
I know the security code to the house. It should be simple.
And it is. Eerily simple.

I don’t even need my spare key; the front door is unlocked. Odd, but people can be forgetful.

The house is cold, too. I feel an intense draft coming from upstairs, like a window is open.

Half out of a creeping dread, half out of respect for people’s privacy (I’m a bd, not a fucking bd) I decide not to investigate upstairs. The house feels wrong, and not just because I’m breaking and entering. I do that all the time.

No, the house feels like it’s in the first stages of being abandoned, but
I can’t put my finger on why. I look for a few details while on my way to the wooden bowl they keep the car keys in. There are plates on the kitchen counter, which is out of character for everyone in this fastidious house.
I think I hear a tap running in the basement. A lamp is on in the living room.

I chalk it up to the family leaving in a rush, more than one of them had tonnes of anxiety so maybe the pandemic had them pulling their hair out. Sure. People do funny stuff.

I grab the keys and scamper off to the garage like the intruder I am. Idly, I notice that all the pictures of the family have been taken down.
No, not exactly taken down, there are holes and rips in the wall where the nails use to hang. They were torn down in a rush, but there is no broken glass from the frames on the floor.
People do funny stuff.

I hurriedly swap the PT for the Merc-Benz in the garage. I swear I’m hurrying so I’m not seen by neighbors, not because I’m scared.
So now I have a bad feeling in my stomach and an ill-gotten vehicle, and
I’m back on the road. I grabbed my bug-out bag, complete with the Blackmagic pocket cam and the Canon, from the trunk of the Cruiser before
I left it in the best garage its ever been inside. Time to stake out Amber’s abode and see if I can catch a girl sneaking out of her house. I pick up PG Cluck’s on the way, stake-out food. I make a mental note not to leave any greasy chicken stains on the rich, Corinthian leather.

I pull onto the street and do a silent, thankful prayer to the detective gods that it isn’t a gated community. I veer off in my patented Private Investigator seclusion and watch the house. I’m practically invisible, a god damn vehicular ninja.

The house sits large and layered; the jewel of the crown that is this McMansion Tiara. There’s a wall to keep unwanted watchers and neighbors at a healthy distance, as if the massive lawn and roundabout driveway didn’t do that enough.

The windows on all three floors are all dark from what I can see from the street. There looms a massive, dark forest behind the property, and I know from doing my homework that even if the kid did beat feet into those woods, she would wander it for about an hour before coming out at either a golf course or a health centre. I’m fairly confident that any self-respecting rebel would just sneak out the front door.

I opt not to snap any photos. There’s nothing to look at so far, and it’s not like I can show the client that I was watching his castle. Plus, I’ll have a hard-enough time explaining to a cop why I’m parked here with a slew of cameras without having a memory card full of a teenage girl’s darkened windows.

A few hours pass without event, and I’m resenting the soggy fries. I have a moment to myself to get pissed at COVID for a brand-new reason: the food. Usually one of the perks of having a rich client is the food. When you first show up at their inevitable mansion, they will have the most opulent food you can think of set out. They know the detectives make butt-f**k all for money before taxes, so they finally have an audience to show of their grandeur to. They’ll have quail eggs and caviar just laying out, then they’ll come out in their tennis shorts and have a nosh, like eating this gout-acular spread is a regular and casual occurrence for them. I wouldn’t complain, free fancy grub for me before I go back to lengthening my tapeworm on Kraft Dinner.

While I stew in my non-problems, something happens. There’s an amateur on the street, in a jet black, expensive Range Rover. Someone who isn’t as good at staking out a mark as I am, because again, I’m great. They’re checking their phone in their car, and even through tinted windows, the blue light is shining through. Plus, they’re moving around a heck of a lot, causing subtle shifts in the suspension of the car. Fucking rookie.
Learn a book

Who the hell is watching the same house I am?
Me, with my screen brightness turned down so low it’s basically braille, I’m keeping in contact with Clarissa, who is not filling me with hope.

She tells me that Amber is a goody two shoes and doesn’t sneak out. Amber’s all torn up that her precious father is accusing her of breaking the rules. Plus, she really is sick. Super sick.
Clarissa tells me that when they spoke on video chat (incredibly careful to avoid telling me what app they’re using, because I’m so uncool) Amber looked like death warmed up.

She also went above and beyond and pressed Amber for her symptoms, which were increasingly worrying. She says that on top of the fever and body pain, she is also pissing blood and losing her back teeth. I don’t ask how
Clarissa got friendly enough to squeeze these intimate details out of her.
I tell Clarissa she’s doing amazing work, as always, and ask her to get more if she can, but at least stay in contact with Amber to make sure she’s alright. Update me if anything changes.

I’m left to ponder these new case details while I keep one eye on the mansion and one eye on the shadowy car parked across the way.
Amber’s symptoms sound like something different, if not worse, than COVID. So while that doesn’t seem to be the detail her father hired me to find out, it seems an important one. This could be a case of a dreadfully sick girl, a paranoid father and a poorly timed outbreak making a perfect storm of medical mishaps. Calling 911, or at least Children’s Aid Society, needs to happen sooner rather than later. F**k the mystery.

But then who is the goon in the Rover? They’re clearly not even slightly versed in the art of being a lowlife stalker, but they’re bankrolled enough to afford a high-end car like that.
Everything was getting weird. And not a cool weird, like trying butt stuff for the first time, but a scary weird, like the ingredients in cereal.

The sun begins to chase away the night sky, and that’s when my co-watcher decides to peel out of there. I slump in my seat out of habit, despite being safe behind tinted glass, and try to get a better look at the plates of the fleeing vehicle.
It’s a personalized plate: SHUD.
Something to look into later. I snap my first pic of the night.

Well, I have no idea what the f**k to do with that information, so in an attempt to feel like I have some control of the situation, I decide to follow up on a hunch.
I grab some nitrile gloves from out of the bug-out bag, lather them in antiseptic gel, and grab a mask I hurriedly hook onto my ears. I bend the metal guide of the mask onto my nose, give a shifty looking glance up and down the street, grab the Canon, and I’m off.

It feels good to be doing some boots on the ground st, even if it was for a case that was quickly feeling hinky. It’s funny the things you miss when you’re stuck at home, resenting the color of paint your landlord won’t let you change. You miss the squeak of your combat boots across a smooth blacktop (no potholes in this neighborhood, I wonder why.) You miss the chance to parkour over some ostentatiously high yard walls. You miss that goofy half crouched run you do to avoid being seen, like you aren’t a stooped figure, out in the open, running across the world’s largest lawn. You miss the feeling of a clunky camera banging against your chest and knees, definitely voiding the warranty. You miss scaling a drainpipe (or whatever the fk that pipe was.) You even miss glancing around the neighborhood, so people don’t mistake you for a regular peeping tom and not a professional one.


My heart is pounding because I could be made at any second. If someone on the street sees me, they’re gonna call the cops, and that’s, like, the last thing I need. Worse, someone could look out of the house and catch me creeping along their rooftops, in which case I’d probably be shot, which I also don’t need.
I feel a pang of guilt as a begin looking in windows, trying to find a young girl’s room. Despite my profession, and my actions, I really don’t enjoy violating people’s privacy like this. I see the man who hired me, sleeping mouth agape. I see his wife sleeping in another room, indicative of how great their marriage is.
I note that nothing looks amiss at either of these windows. I also note the layout of the house, and how I passed a large bathroom window before I finally happen across Amber’s room.

She’s sleeping fretfully, tossing and turning at a rapid pace, clearly in the middle of a fever dream. The snatches of her face I do see, her face is contorted in pain, and her skin is slick with sweat while also a pale yellow.
Her phone close by on a desk next to her bed, under an expensive pink lamp. A half-drank glass of water has beads dripping into a coaster. Who the fk has a coaster in their bedroom? Inoffensive band posters pepper the walls at respectable intervals. I don’t know how her father can think she’s ever done anything bad, when I was her age, I was both not in my bed at this hour, and my room was a smokey mess. Hers is tidy and looks like you could actually get some serious studying done. Heck, my office at work isn’t this clean. My brain wonders how afraid of your parents you have to be in order to have a room like this, when I notice the clue I thought might be here. There were clear signs of a break in at her window, with paint being broken in a groove, and splintered wood being pushed away from the wound. It was fresh, too, with no sign of wind or rain smoothing out the sudden rupture. Someone had broken IN, not her breaking out.

I look for any more clues, but I can’t make out much in the meager morning light. I shake off the feelings of being a worthless creep and snap pictures of what I can. The evidence of someone having broken in, mostly. After that, I shamefully slink back to my stolen car, and begin the long drive back into poorer neighborhoods The drive back is dreadful, breathing hard into a mask, which does nothing to filter out the smell of stale chicken grease. I realize that I hurt my shoulder when I scaled the wall, and only now is it starting to throb. All that running, climbing and ninja st helped me work up the kind of thirst and soreness that’s only settled by a cold rum & coke.
Why in God’s name would someone break into a teenage girl’s bedroom? How did that relate to her sickness? Why was he father so convinced that she didn’t have COVID?

Who the fk is SHUD? My brain rolls right into the Tamam Shud Mystery, which is 80 years old and almost certainly unrelated to whatever bullshit is uncoiling in front of me. But what if…? While driving the speed limit like an asshole, I carefully peel off the nitrile gloves and deposit them in my take-out bag for later disposal. I re-sanitize my hands and use voice activation to have my phone dial PIG FRIEND. That’s a cop that I’m an acquaintance of. OK, I’m blackmailing him. Don’t blame me that he tried selling coke to one of my employees. He works a night shift, so I know he’ll be at the station right now. He picks up, surprisingly plucky. Despite being blackmailed, he’s always been cordial, which is nice, I suppose. I tell him I need to run a plate. At first he gives me the run around, telling me it doesn’t work like in the movies, he can’t just look up a plate at the drop of a hat, I let him go through the motions of telling me why being a police officer is more technical than a civilian like me could possibly understand. He gets it out of his system, so while his ego is already stroking itself, I wrap a second hand around that shaft and explain how an officer as powerful and resourceful as him could figure a way around the red tape. I keep it to myself that it seems kind of fucking stupid that he’s willing to smuggle out blow from the evidence locker but not to run a plate. He agrees, and I tell him to look up SHUD. He asks if he heard correctly. When I tell him he has, he smugly brings up the Tamam Shud case. I tell him I may have solved it, and he doesn’t pick up on the sarcasm. He’ll never make detective, by the way. I hear some keyboard clacking coming from his end of the conversation, which tells me that looking up the plates was easier than he let on. He then tells me that the plates are registered to The Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church. Odd, that’s the same church the client told me he went to. I know I was half paying attention cuz I thought it was useless details, but it’s hard to forget a nonsense word salad like that. Shouldn’t the flock be wayward, and the shepherd be guiding? I ask my guy if it’s normal for a church to own a car, and he tells me it absolutely isn’t, nor is it legal. He doesn’t know how this kind of paperwork ever passed through the system. He’ll resolve it. I ask him to hold off on resolving that until I finish my investigation, if he could. I don’t need them going to ground before I chase down all my leads. He reluctantly agrees, annoyed that he has to hold off on his own super important cop work. The sun is blasting my eyes right out of my skull at this point, so I figure it’s an acceptable hour to contact one of my employees. I demand my phone call up my head researcher (also my only researcher, and my secretary/assistant.) I get him to start looking into Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church. He agrees that the name is ridiculous. He’ll get back to me. I’m back at my ex’s eerie pad, and despite it being broad daylight, I dread going back inside. I make sure nobody in the neighborhood is watching as I pull back in. As I park the car back in its rightful place, my depressing as st PT looks like a heap next to it. While pondering this sad state of affairs, I swear, my car was facing the other direction when I left. I chalk it up to nerves, plus I have the car keys on me, so someone moving it should be impossible.

But I sort of have an eye for details. I’m a goddamn private eye. I would swear…

I creep back in the house, tip toeing more carefully this time than my first intrusion, for reasons I don’t admit to myself.
Beams of buttery sunlight prop up the windows at delicate angles, large clouds of dust hanging motionless in the air, frozen impossibly in time. More dust than you find inside a lived-in home, if you ask me.
Through a kitchen window, I see the backyard illuminated fully by the day. A rusty stake is pounded into the earth, something that wasn’t there back when I was a wanted visitor. Tied to the stake is a dog collar. I remember the dog, and I never remember it being tied up.
Probably nothing.

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I’m back at the wooden bowl, and I flippantly chuck the keys in there. I want to prove to myself I’m not afraid of this home, and that I know it’s empty. I can make as much sound as I want, I tell myself, as the keys jangle noisily into their home.

A creak upstairs. Where that cold draft is coming from.

What is probably the house settling but absolutely sounds like a chair squeaking across a floor.
My mouth goes dry, and I think to myself whether it would be ok to check their fridge for some wine.
I’m about to call out a “who’s there” and the question gets lodged somewhere on the way out. I have no desire to know if someone is up there, and I certainly have no desire for them to know I’m here.

I pause to see if there are any more sounds. No, I’m not freezing in panic, I’m prepping a lie. It would be easier to explain my presence than to try to flee out of the house, start my car, peel away and also shut the garage behind me. Despite all those logical thoughts, my hand is still clamping a knife I keep on me.
When nothing further happens, I back out of the house, slowly. I’m silent. I curse my clunky boots, why wouldn’t I wear sneakers, for sneaking!? My eyes keep fixed on the stairwell. If whatever is up there comes bumbling down, that’s where they’ll come from to get me.

I take all traces of myself (I leave the chicken stink behind) out of the car and put it back in the Cruiser. I start up my bucket of bolts as quietly as a decade old engine can, and glide to the end of the driveway. I lock up behind me.
A gloomy drive back to my shanty, alone with insane and implausible thoughts, has zero events. As I pull into my parking space, a back-alley cove under the fire escape, a Range Rover lumbers past at a suspiciously slow speed. I don’t manage to catch the license plates.

The keys can’t enter my door lock fast enough, and I’m back inside. I put my mask into a bowl, wash my hands and begin to boil a kettle of water to pour over my mask. I take a wooden folding chair out of a forgotten corner of my cramped apartment and place it at the window, where I can watch my parking space, on a hunch.
I plop my phone, my laptop, some muscle relaxants, a gun, the pocket cam and just so fucking much coffee on the windowsill and prep my “work” day. The relaxants taste more acidic than I remember. I wash them down with caffeinated bitterness.

The area smells of long overdue cleaning, dust baking on glass in the heat of the sun.
When I was a child, I assumed this was what all windows smelled like, associating the smell with glass rather than a need for cleaning. I used to spend a lot of my childhood looking out windows at the world beyond, smelling that glass & dust bouquet.

I wonder why these thoughts are in my mind now. It’s not like I don’t have more pressing matters to worry about.
People do funny stuff.

I sip the acrid coffee, wishing it had at least the bite of some whiskey in it, and in classic pathetic fallacy fashion, the sunny day begins to cloud over rapidly. I can smell the approaching rain in the air, despite all my windows being closed. I read once that human beings are better at smelling rain than sharks are at smelling blood. Never bothered to check if that was true or not.

I still don’t know what to do about Amber’s declining health. If I report it to the authorities, I could be shooting myself in the foot and cutting off avenues for future investigation. Am I being selfish?
While I ponder how to approach a medical emergency, I get a call from my researcher. He’s done some digging into the Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church, and its members. Through a digital trail that I’m rapidly becoming too old to follow, he’s traced about 70% of the membership back into one single company.
My client’s company.

My researcher also said that all of the websites for the Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church seemed odd, outdated, and banal.

I tell him that’s what church websites are like.

He tells me not like this. He found backdoors, links, areas of the website that only responded to certain words or phrases, that lead to completely different layouts. If you make a donation of $17.45, you get access to brand new suggestion box.

If you type in the word “SHUD” into the suggestion box, a flurry of new pages open up to you. Weird pages.
He took screen shots, which he sends over to my email. I thank him for doing an amazing job, and to keep digging up anything he can find.

The new email bubbles up on my screen, and I scroll through the screenshots, glancing over at my car every few moments.

As my fingers dash and scroll across the touchpad, the window begins to blur under the first dapples of rain.
I inwardly compliment my assistant for having the reservation to downplay how completely fucking batshit these screenshots are. There are talks of people becoming the beasts that we once used to fornicate with. There are pages of nonsense rants about filling some colossal belly with all the gold of the earth while the faithful dance as mites in chaotic fur. They describe society as the true hell we were condemned to for forgetting the taste of our brother’s blood. There’s a bizarre metaphor about a suit and tie being a massive hammer with which to grind peasants into a paste, to become the lubricant that will usher children into the paradise of flesh and “skeyes.”

Oh good, a cult, that’s refreshing.

Luckily, we haven’t stumbled across any photographs of anything untoward happening, so this might just all be an ARG or some such thing. I hold onto the hope of fiction. That doesn’t stop me from jumping when the first bolts of lighting crack open the grey-black sky.

I pour over every image I’ve been sent, determined to find a clue. But I can’t find a single thing of use, just more and more descriptions of a beastworld, drawings of beings made of molten gold, promises of a mountain of broken bodies on top of which creature kings will rule. There also seems to be a page of fan art, which shows office skyscrapers with billowing banners stitched from the skin of human faces. A Rolls-Royce with a human skull hood ornament. Children being thrown into the engines of a private jet.

What really chaps my ass for reasons I can’t explain, is that I can’t find the name of their deity anywhere. I’m certain they have one, some huge thing that loves opulence, violence, exploitation, because there’s hints of this motherfucker everywhere, but no name. I really don’t know why this bothers me so much. It’s not like I can do anything with the information. It just seems important, y’know?

When I’m done, I shake the whole thing off. I’m sure this will stick with me for a while, but it’s no biggie. I didn’t actually SEE anything horrible happen, just descriptions and art. I’ve dealt with cults before, so I know what kind of sick they can get up to. I got off easy with just a fan page to some shithead god.
While I soothe my brain with all-healing coffee, which cures only half as good as a shot of vodka, I look out the window at the car, now runny through the filter of streaming rain. I think I should just go full cliché and take up smoking.
Ahead of our scheduled check-in, I call my client. I promise myself, and Amber, that I’ll call CAS and 911 as soon as I have just a few more answers. He picks up after just one ring.

I tell him that I have reason to believe that his daughter has not left the house. He doesn’t believe me, and asks for my sources, which I tell him I am unable to provide. I also tell him that I have good information that his daughter is sick with something other than COVID, and he needs to get her to a doctor. He scoffs. He’s certain it’s COVID, and doctors are out of the question. If anything, he will call a specialist to him, if it comes to that, which it won’t, he assures me. I’m less than assured.

Now I press for some details about the Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church. He assures me that information isn’t relevant to the case. Guy’s full of assurances all of a sudden. I keep inquiring, but now he becomes suspicious. Why do I want to know? I tell him it’s routine questioning, which he doesn’t buy at all.
Back and forth, and through subtle dialogue cues, I get the impression he left the church, and not on great terms. There’s an odd air to the way he describes it, like it’s above people of my ilk, but beneath people of his stock. I also sense some fear there.

I flat out ask him if anyone there would like to harm him or his family, and he pauses. It’s brief, but it’s there, like he is just realizing that he might be in danger from them. But again, all assurance that they wouldn’t do that. I ask him what “that” is, and he gets comedically flustered before saying it was just a vague “that” and I should shut the fk up. He basically founded that church, he tells me. The words tumble out of my stupid fucking mouth before I can think better of it, and I ask him the nature of his church, and the name of his god. I can basically hear his eyes narrow in suspicion over the phone. He worships the one true god, obviously. I mean, doesn’t every cult think that, though? The monotheistic ones, at least. I suppose I’ve let it slip that I know his church is more a cult, so I decide to go for broke. I ask him why he left the church. Again, a silence, but this one had a tone of sadness to it. Yes, silence can have a tone. When he finally answers, he sounds the most forlorn I’ve heard him yet, which is saying something considering he thinks his daughter has Corona Virus. He ambiguously states that his faith wasn’t strong enough for what was needed. Well, obviously, I can’t just let that go, and ask him what was needed, and he proceeds to tell me that information is above my pay grade. Ironic, considering he set my pay grade for this case. After hanging up, I wonder how I could contact authorities anonymously without giving myself away. I need to get some medical help to that kid, but why would anyone believe me? I’m also mentally beginning to see a picture get painted before my eyes. A cult that’s a company, or a company that’s a cult, begins to get too extreme for their founder, so they poison his daughter. Could be, people do funny stuff. As if on cue, through my window I spot two goons emerge from a nearby alley and begin to poke around my car. I’m fully fucking alert now, leaning forward in my increasingly uncomfortable seat. I’m rolling on the pocket cam, getting every moment of this happy horseshit. The zoom function allows me to close the distance between my vantage point and their snoopery in ways my eyes never could. My knee jerk reaction is to get pissed off that these two chuckleheads aren’t wearing masks or gloves. If one of these bitches coughs on my car, there’s gonna’ be trouble. The one in charge has on a nice blue suit jacket and matching pants, with a crisp white shirt, open at the top two buttons. His hair is dark, and if it weren’t for the rain, I can tell he’d have it in a stylish do to match his stylish tan. He points at different areas of the car before pointing up at my window. Because my lights are turned off and the sky is overcast, I’m confident he can’t see me. I get a good look at his face, recording it all the while. Pretty handsome dude, but you can tell most of his good looks come from wealth and living well, not from naturally occurring smolder, like myself. He goes back down the alley, out of my line of sight, and leaves his second in command to do whatever it is that needs doing. Enormously tall, brown slacks, light blue dress shirt rolled up to the elbows, boring striped tie, this guy looks like Bizarro Jim Halpert. He hasn’t tampered with my car yet, so I haven’t been given a reason to race downstairs and beat some answers out of him. Which I’m hesitant to do, because this guy has a weirdly long body, like he had Marfan Syndrome. Fighting him would be like fighting Stretch Armstrong or Dhalsim. Because of my elevated position, the rain on the glass, his hunched posture and him looking down into the Cruiser, I can’t make out features on his face. Brown hair, pale face, towering with disproportionately long arms, good luck sending out an all points bulletin with that description. Keep your eyes peeled for Shaggy rogers, everyone. He snoops around some more, just looking, like a cave dweller discovering an obelisk. The bizarre pendulums that are his arms swing oddly as he hobbles about. He doesn’t take pictures, he doesn’t take notes. I don’t know what this asshole expected to find. I’m next to certain this is SHUD’s driver, judging by his amateur tailing ability, but he should be planting a bomb or a tracking device or something. Nothing. I genuinely think I see him sniff the car. And then he stops. Just freezes, like he’s glitching out. And he turns. He looks up at me. He looks right in my eyes. I should’ve hidden or something. My apartment is dark, and it’s raining, there’s no way he can see me, right? We stare at each other. His face is too blurry through the rain, but something funny happens to my stomach as I look at it. His ears are enormous and jut out from his head. His eyes are so deep into his face so as to seem at the back of his skull. The camera is having trouble picking it up through the rain and distance, but his eyes seem to blaze in a furious amber. His mouth, thick and fish-like, with large, uneven bottom teeth jutting out, droops in a perpetual scowl. I hesitate to call him ugly, not just because it’s a dick move to shame someone for their looks, but more so because he seemed beautifully repugnant. It didn’t make sense.

I couldn’t stop looking, but I also needed to look at anything else. I’m getting a headache. He was weird. That’s my official diagnosis. He looked fucking weird. Of course, all of this was seen through a wall of water and a pixelated screen, so I could be way off here. I think I see him smile at me before sauntering off in a grossly bowlegged way. He disappears behind a neighboring building. That was fucked. I pop the memory card into my laptop and frantically begin analyzing the two dudes I just saw. I don’t recognize them, but I commit their faces to memory so I can pick them out in a lineup. The stretched-out freak proves difficult to memorize, partly because he’s blurry as st, even in the footage, partly because my brain does a good job of forgetting him as soon as I look away.

While I ponder whether I am getting that disease that stops you from seeing human faces, I decide to upload the scant few photos I managed to take while on my stake out.

There’s SHUD looking humdrum and expensive as ever. I squint until my face threatens to stay that way, just like my mother warned me. No sign of my two visitors, but it’s frightening to think that just behind this tinted windshield was the same Abraham Lincoln looking mother fucker that just gave me the death stare.
When I come to the conclusion that the picture tells me precisely jack and st, I move onto the jimmied window. As I’m looking over the wood, like I’m going to be able to tell the exact make and model of a crowbar just from looking at a picture, I notice that some of the room was picked up in the picture as well. There’s Amber, nestled in some pillows, a sweaty, freckled, and pale arm poking out from some sheets. Freckles. Something in the freckles. Could just be a smaller freckle, a beauty spot. Kind of looks like an injection site, if I’m going to allow myself to be paranoid. I pick up my phone to call someone to tell them to check on Amber, when the phone rings in my hand. Clarissa has more news, all of it bad. Clarissa is shook, and that takes a lot, considering she used her dad’s sexual proclivity to blackmail him. She spoke to Amber this morning, who despite looking worse, seemed oddly serene. I ask her what she means by worse. She describes Amber as bone like, her skeleton pushing through her skin. I suggest that people lose weight when sick, and Clarissa shuts that down right away. She knows what a girl rapidly losing weight looks like, she goes to a private school where anorexia is super chic. This looked different. Like her eyes had stayed the same size, but her head had gotten bigger, but her skin didn’t. She could see the blue veins struggling their way across a thin and shiny forehead. And when Amber stood up during video chat, Clarissa would swear she was taller. I tell her that’s impossible. She agrees, but is just telling me what it seemed like. Her pajama pants, which should have gone down to the floor, now barely passed her knee. I suggest that what she’s describing is shorts, and Clarissa appropriately chews me out for being a condescending asshole and not taking her seriously. I apologize, and ask her for anything else. She says the reason this all freaked her out so much was the writing on the wall. In the background of the video call, all along Amber’s bedroom, was freshly drawn writing. It looked like it was written is some sort of sludge, sometimes brown, sometimes red. Clarissa didn’t want to guess on what was being used, but both of us could hazard a guess. I keep it to myself that I had been there last night, and didn’t see anything on the walls. How funny would it be if I had staked out the wrong house? The answer is not funny at all. To verify I haven’t made the most idiotic blunder of my career, I ask Clarissa to describe Amber’s bedroom. Tidy, a pink lamp with a few band posters. The exact posters I saw through the window. I tell Clarissa that she’s done incredible work, to just unwind, I’m going to take care of it and that everything is going to be ok. There’s no way I can guarantee that, but I give my vow all the same, because I can handle being freaked out for the both of us. I regret getting her involved. I regret being involved. I call The Children’s Aid Society, and tell them I have reason to believe that a child is sick and being denied treatment. I give them what details I can, and wish them good luck. I ask them if I should call 911 as well, and they say they will take care of it. It all feels too late, regardless. I call my client, not sure what I’m going to say, wondering if I’m going to be honest and tell him I told CAS that he fucking sucks as a father. Maybe I’ll just demand to know the name of his god, to know what they are planning. I’ll probably just ask if I can have the rest of my money now. It goes to the answering machine, and I choose not to leave a message, because I’m not an annoying dinosaur. I shoot him an email, though. He doesn’t answer every time I call him, for hours. Eventually, it even stops ringing and goes straight to his machine. I don’t hear from him all day. And I never would again. The hours in the next day dribble by to match the rain on my windows. No updates. I’m left to my own worry, filling in blanks with nothing but darkness. I don’t even hear back from CAS, those useless fucks. I don’t mean that, they’re doing alright work. It’s just the coffee talking.

There’s nothing to do but drink some more hot brews, fret, watch my car (nobody comes back) and call again and again and again. He never answers. Instead, sometime in the afternoon, I would get a call from PIG FRIEND who would ask me why I’m the last inbound number on my client’s phone. This isn’t good. After explaining to him that I was hired by my client, for reasons I can’t divulge, he says he’s going to do me a favor, and that will be the end of the blackmail. I agree, with no intention of ever honoring that bargain. He tells me my client is dead, torn apart in his mansion, along with the wife, the dog, the live-in maid(I knew that cocksucker still had servants) and a Children’s Aid Society worker who was there investigating an anonymous tip. No forced entry. The daughter is still unaccounted for. The upstairs window is smashed outwards. It looks like whoever did this escaped into the woods with Amber after killing the family. They’ve evaded capture so far, but he assures me that they’ll be caught within the hour. People need to stop giving me assurances. Can’t they tell that I have less than zero faith in them? He spends longer than is really necessary describing how badly the family is torn apart. The word “disarticulated” gets used more than once, so I’m impressed with the cop’s vocabulary. There’s apparently tongues rammed down the garbage disposal, intestines decorating the chandeliers, most of the dog was found stuffed up the dad. I’m feeling somewhat numb, so it’s hard to say why I asked, but I enquire about the family photos. He stalls, trying to figure out why I would want to know that, before telling me. Of course they’ve been torn right out of the walls. What else was I expecting? I thank the gruesome bugger for the update, which I can tell absolutely makes his day. He assures me he’ll keep me in the loop. Oh good. This does nothing for my paranoia, and I’m sure Business Casual Waluigi is going to come back for me. I banish thinking about what happened to that poor fucking kid that I couldn’t save by burying myself in the most mindless of tasks. I re-watch Kenny Vs. Spenny, doing my level best not to think about literally anything. I finally get around to washing the windows. When I finally feel like my heart can take it, I check the news for updates. They haven’t found Amber. But the weird thing is, the cops never question me about it. Her father had both text and email transactions with me, plus he had just sent me a large sum of money, right before being gruesomely murdered. How was I not a suspect? But no, nothing. And that just raises more questions. Later still, I feel brave brave enough to check the news again, and I notice a cute little piece, seemingly tucked away between more important stories. A mass suicide in a church. Two guesses for the name of the church. The Wayward Shepherd of Guiding Flocks Church. The cops were called to investigate an excessive number of cars parked in the church’s lot. Naughty them, gathering in large groups during lockdown! The crime scene footage they do show on the news shows one of the cars parked there. License plate of SHUD. Well isn’t that just slightly familiar? A few hours later, the news seems almost annoyed that this fluff story won’t just go away, and begrudgingly reports on some of the people lost in the suicide. Hey, who’s that handsome tan fella there? Didn’t I see him snooping around my car? I also notice my bizarre looking stretchy friend is suspiciously absent from the known dead. At least I think he is, I’m having trouble remembering his face. It’s almost not worth stating that the church’s website is down now. If everyone killed themselves, who took down the site? I can’t help myself and call PIG FRIEND and ask him if he knows anything about the suicide. I don’t even need to threaten to blackmail him, he’s happy to tell me everything. I think he assumes he’s helping on one of my cases. He tells me that most of the cops on the scene have taken time off or outright quit. There are stories, but all of them unconfirmed. Everything is very hush-hush. Classic. They say that a huge back section of the church was blown out in some sort of explosion, but they didn’t find any scorch marks. They say that although every single member of the church is currently missing, not all of the bodies are accounted for. They say that they found a bunch of empty syringes lying around the bodies, and the lab boys can’t make heads or tails of whatever cocktail was in them (everybody did work for a pharmaceutical company, they had access to all the best, designer drugs.). They say none of the bodies have injection sites, but that doesn’t mean much considering the condition of the poor bastards’ bodies. They say that the suicides don’t look like normal suicides. PIG FRIEND gets all quiet. He’s telling me what he feels is the good st.

They say that it looks more like mass hysteria than a suicide pact. People dashing their own brains in against the concrete floor of the basement, people frantically pulling out their own throats, plunging anything nearby into their eyes. More than one person had taken the money and credit cards out of their wallet and swallowed them, gagging themselves to death.
I hear myself asking him to go on.

The weirdest rumor of all, and this is all unconfirmed he reminds me, is that one floor below the basement where all the bodies were found, they had made some sort of makeshift forge. They had molds in the shape of life-size, impossibly thin people, and there were remnants of gold in the molds. The technicians say there was evidence that they had melted down their jewellery into those shapes. But whatever shape they melted it down into, was never recovered.

I guess what he’s about to say.

They found the faintest traces of gold footprints leading out of the church.
He gives me more details that I didn’t ask for and don’t bare repeating, but I get the gist of it. In a faraway voice I tell him that I want to give an anonymous tip.
He tells me it doesn’t work like that, but after a moment of deliberation he thinks he can make it work.
I tell him to check on my ex’s place. I think something awful has happened there.
I can hear him scratch down the address on a piece of paper, and he doesn’t even bother asking how I know. Good boy.
So that seems like the best place to end this sad story, of how I was paid $25,000 for a single night’s work and I figured out absolutely nothing. I failed the client, I failed the kid in danger, I just failed.
I don’t know what Amber had. Maybe she had Corona, maybe she had been poisoned by a cult, maybe she just had wacky old cancer.

I don’t know what happened in that house. Maybe Amber went crazy with whatever was making her sick, someone grabbed her and dragged her off into the dark unknown night, maybe she ran away from her parent’s attackers.
I don’t know what happened in that church. Maybe they used their corporation to develop a drug that caused intense mania, maybe they summoned their frustratingly nameless god and killed themselves rather than behold his wickedness, maybe they were just a bunch of privileged kooks who got bored and killed themselves in fun and exciting ways.
People do funny stuff.

I can almost guarantee that the first cops on the scene stole those gold statues, though, and made up some bullshit story of gold footprints as a smokescreen of the supernatural.
People also do predictable stuff.

I don’t even know what happened with my ex. There’s nothing in the news, and they aren’t updating their Twitter. That could be because something happened, but more than likely, they’re up in the woods with piss poor reception, waiting this whole pandemic thing out with their family.
That just leaves me here, alone, in a stuffy apartment, with too many coffees and too few shots of tequila, a few months rent tucked away in my bank account, and a nagging concern. Plus, I’m coming down with a cold. With my luck, it’s COVID.

Whatever just happened, whatever weird series of events I just caught a fleeting, indescribable glimpse of, they don’t feel over. Maybe that’s just the detective in me talking, wanting the story to keep playing out so I can see the loose ends wrapped up.

Somebody has to wrap up those loose ends.
I failed Amber by not getting her help fast enough, but that doesn’t mean I should give up on her. She still needs to be found, and don’t I run a Private Investigation company? We find s**t all the time.

I’ll sell it to my employees by telling them that there are also some missing gold statues somewhere in the mix, so if we find Amber we will likely find those effigies, and if we find those, we can live like kings. I don’t want them to think I’m going soft; I’ve got a reputation as a morally dubious investigator to uphold.

I’ll tell them to keep an eye out for a long guy who may or may not want to kill us. I’ll leave out that a major medical corporation that’s secretly run by a cult may have developed an insanity drug. I don’t need them worrying what’s in their painkillers, especially since this case promises to be a headache.
Yeah, I’m going back into the case.
People do funny stuff, like need a private investigator during quarantine.

CREDIT : Dakota Lee Dahl

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