“Where’d the Jamaican get it from?”
“The wig monsters, right?”
“What, you think Robert Marley had a ranch full of them somewhere? No, I think saying soy sauce comes from those monsters is like saying Pringles come from Pringles tubes. The sauce has a mind of its own, those things are just carriers. And these little silver vials that keep turning up, you don’t buy these at the hardware store. No, somebody was supplying Robert.”
I found myself about to suggest calling Drake the Cop, but I stopped that in midthought. I pictured all sorts of questions about the Las Vegas trip, and the missing detective, and so on. Then I thought again about calling Marconi, but that felt hopeless. John had looked up a number for his office but it wasn’t like that was a red phone that rang at his bedside. We’d get some voice mail tree asking if we wanted to order a copy of his DVD.
I wandered into the living room and sat on the couch, seeing myself do it on the TV screen at the same time. I waved to myself. I looked depressed, rumpled and tired enough to sleep on a sidewalk. People would stop and put change in a cup for me.
John went and did something in the kitchen, banging around plates and opening drawers. A minute later he sat down beside me, carrying a sandwich and a soda.
I noticed a VCR atop the TV was recording the camera’s feed. I hit “stop” on the VCR and then “rewind.”
John reached over to an answering machine on the end table. He skipped through eleven worthless messages before we heard the unmistakable voice of Action Weather Watcher Ken Phillipe:
“Danny? It’s Ken. Call me, buddy. What you saw, I don’t want you to misunderstand. Krissy and I, we been neighbors a long time, I knew her mom from way back—look, I want you to know that she and I were talking but we were talkin’ about you, Danny. You got her scared, the way you’ve been acting. Anyway. Give me a call, Danny, and I’ll be over with a six-pack and we’ll shoot the shit. I hope you’re well, buddy.”
I started the VCR from the beginning of the tape. Empty sofa. Then Danny Wexler leaned into the frame, glancing over at the feed on the TV. He sat down, looking worn and beaten and drained, in a sweat-stained T-shirt and jeans. The door we had just entered through was visible over his shoulder. He said:
“Hi, honey. Are you there? Answer me if you’re there.”
I looked at John. “Was he talking to somebody behind the camera?” John didn’t answer, just squinted quizzically as Wexler continued.
“Come on. It’s okay.”
A pause, Wexler staring into the camera in silence for a few seconds.
“Just say hello.”
“I know. It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Baby, I’ve done somethin’ really stupid. I’ve gotten wrapped up in something. Something you can’t imagine.”
“That’s bizarre,” said John. “It’s like listening to one half of a phone conversation.”
“If I told you the details, you would wish I hadn’t,” he said. “But you know by now that I’m not myself. I come and go, and right now I’m fine, but I have to fight for every second of control. It’s draining. Baby, it takes so much energy to keep myself on top, on the surface, at the wheel. As soon as I relax, he’ll take over. It will take over. And I’ll just be a spectator. Helpless.”
He broke down into sobs.
Wexler babbled on, those long pauses here and there.
I said, “So, he was on the sauce, right?”
“At some point, yeah. Maybe he thought it would improve his sportscast. And now that I think about it, it sort of did.”
“Or maybe he didn’t take it. Maybe it took him. The same way it happened to me. The reporter lady gets the envelope, she glances at it and assumes it’s from a crazy person, she tosses it in the trash . . .”
John picked it up. “. . . Then Wexler’s dumb ass wanders along, gets curious and says, ‘What’s this?’ and fishes it out. Horror ensues.”
“Fast-forward toward the end of the tape. See if he mentions where he’s going before he leaves.”
John never got the chance. On the screen, Wexler flinched and looked up. The sound of Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You’ve Got ’til it’s Gone” filled the room.
Wexler jumped off the couch and walked out of the frame. A couple of minutes later we watched ourselves burst through the door.
John and I leapt up from the couch as if our asses were spring-loaded.
“We just missed him!” John screamed. “We just missed him! Shit!”
On the TV, John and I walked passed the camera, then headed off to search the apartment.
On-screen, a shape appeared above us.
Some kind of creature, clinging to the ceiling.
On the screen, he scrambled upside down to the doorway, clutching the top of the door frame and pushing himself into the hall. Weightless. Moving fast as a salamander, an inhuman blur.
John hoisted the ghetto blaster, punched “play.” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blasted. He held the stereo over his head like John Cusack in Say Anything and charged into the hall.
We pounded down the stairs, power ballad in our wake, stupidly hoping Wexler had hung around the building.
In the parking lot, a minute later, John spun with the ghetto blaster, warding off the night. No sign of Wexler.
The parking spot was empty. The song ended and we stood there like idiots, chests heaving, chilled air frosting the sweat on my face.
John said, “Maybe he went back to the TV station?”
I shrugged. “Or to Ken’s house. Or Krissy’s house. Or to the hospital. Or that twenty-four-hour tattoo place. Or the airport where he has a flight waiting to take him to Thailand. You know where I think we should check first? The nearest all-night bakery.”
We trudged around the building and back through the row of hedges that separated the visitor’s lot from the reserved spaces. Black as pitch out here. I glanced up and noticed the lights were off in the lot—
—of course they are—
—and there was no moon. Dark as hell. It was chilly, that wet-autumn-night kind of cold, but I knew part of the cold I was feeling was coming from inside. Fear was creeping up on me, working from the guts out.
Just go back, man. Go back home, to the warmth and the light. You did your best. Now it’s over. You won’t find him. And dark like this, true dark, belongs to bats and rapists. You did what you could.
I walked on, feeling already like this was wrong, totally wrong, my car keys clutched in my hand like a rosary, our shoes crunching dead leaves with each step.
Crunch . . . crunch . . . crunch . . .
I blinked, trying to adjust to the dark, failing. Eyes watering from the chilled air, a little soreness in my knees from bouncing down the steps, a tickling around the hairs of my ankles. Every nerve alive and standing at attention.
I blinked and could see a little now, my Hyundai just twenty feet away, one of two cars in the lot. The low, cloud-filtered gloom made the blue compact appear a few shades too dark.
I suddenly had this flash of visual memory, the glimpse of parking lot as my headlights swept across it when we pulled in. Flat asphalt under circles of lamplight. That memory knotted in my gut for some reason, something I couldn’t put my finger on. We walked.
Crunch . . . cranch . . . crinch . . .
Seeing it again, the lights flashing across the lot as we turned in, a newly paved lot with fresh, dark pavement against sharp, yellow lines . . .
Crunch . . . cree-unch . . .
. . . and completely devoid of fallen leaves.
Cruuuuunch . . .
That tickling at my ankles again. I stopped, looked down.
From behind me, John screamed.
The ground was rippling.
Pulsing, as if pelted by a heavy rain.
My legs were covered with them. I squealed and crazily slapped at my pant legs, trying to knock the things off me, dropping the duffel bag and my car keys in the process. If this was one of our patented hallucinations, it was a five-senses hallucination extravaganza. Once, while half asleep, I had a cockroach crawl across the back of my neck. It’s quite the unique feeling and hard to mistake.
This was real, quite real, so very tinglingly and itchingly real, and my heart was pounding, my skin crawling and I mean literally crawling. In that instant I was sure the insects were not only on my skin but under it, burrowing through muscle tissue, spindly legs flicking over nerve bundles.
Every thought was blown from my mind.
You would think that under those conditions nothing would surprise me. You’d be wrong. I was quite surprised, for instance, when I looked down and saw that my fallen car keys were running away from me, floating as if carried downstream.
They’re taking my keys! The roaches are stealing my car keys!
I trotted toward the car, itching in a hundred places. I saw then that it wasn’t the autumn night that made the paint appear darker. It was the couple-hundred-thousand roaches swarming over the body.
I took off my jacket and used it to sweep the bastards away from the door and window. I yanked open the latch, squishing a roach between my fingers and the handle as I did. I swung the door open—
There were a lot more roaches on the inside than out. They had puddled in the floorboards and they poured out onto the pavement like the jackpot from the Devil’s slot machine, the bugs raining down with a sound like frying bacon.
There was a lump on the driver’s seat, invisible under a rippling blanket of roaches. But then the lump grew and pulsed and I realized the lump was roaches. They scrambled over one another, twitching legs entangling and knotting, piling higher and higher.
You see people in horror movies standing there stupidly while some special effect takes shape before them, the dumb-asses gawking at it instead of turning and running like the wind. And I wanted to run, to do the smart thing. But this was my car, dammit. My only car. I’d be damned if I was gonna walk to work every day.