Through my windshield I saw two figures in the front yard. One was John, arms jammed in his pockets, the stiff breeze sucking away cigarette smoke in a horizontal stream. The other was a bear of a man who I recognized as John’s uncle Drake, still the only cop in town with whom we were on a first-name basis. Drake spoke, John nodded, the ember of his cigarette bobbing slightly in the darkness. John was growing a beard. He had been working construction off and on after having been fired from Wally’s a year before. He had gotten caught bootlegging DVDs and giving them away to customers, right there at the store. Not selling them, mind you. Giving them away. I climbed out and was immediately assaulted by the freezing wind.
The looming house didn’t just look empty, it looked abandoned. It had gone downhill since I had last seen it on the night I tried to return Molly. Peeling paint, filthy windows, no tire tracks in the driveway.
Big Jim had looked after Amy in the years since their parents died, but I don’t know who was looking after her now. Apparently nobody, since she was lost and all. Man, was it cold.
Drake looked shabbier than I did, the man inflated in full cop uniform and parka, complete with one of those navy blue fur earflap hats. The blue blimp of weariness.
“Wong,” he said, with a lack of enthusiasm usually reserved for door-to-door Mormons.
I don’t enjoy our little encounters either, Drake. But here we are, just the same.
“How long’s she been missing?”
“Don’t know. Neighbors saw her dog walking around the neighborhood this afternoon. They tried to return her and couldn’t get anybody at the door. I came by and saw the—”
A skipped beat, a quick glance at John.
“Uh, I thought you guys might know something.”
Tell him about your missing half hour!
I pushed that thought from my head and pretended it had never been there. Besides, I knew exactly where I had been during my missing time. Walking around and around my yard in circles. Right? Perfect sense.
John flicked away his cigarette and crunched toward the front door. “Drake is gonna see if Amy is at a friend’s house. She knows the Hoaglands, so he figures maybe she got scared off by the, uh—”
The two of them shared a second “let’s not discuss this now” glance. Opening the door to his cruiser, Drake said, “You find anything, you call my cell, right? Then I handle it.” Making it clear that we weren’t cops, that a missing person was still a cop thing no matter what weird-assedness lurked inside the house.
John tipped a finger at him and said, “Yep. Thanks for calling us, Drake. You’re the kind of man a man wants when a man wants a man.”
Just inside the door was a little entrance hall with a black-and-white tiled floor, like a chessboard. There was a plate-sized chunk of tile missing near the wall and the bare wood had been painted in to match the pattern with what looked like Magic Marker and Wite-Out.
I glanced into the kitchen.
No question it was her. A red Labrador whatever, fast asleep on the linoleum. I had the same thought from when we glimpsed her outside the abandoned mall that night.
No way. Just another dog of the same breed. Surely.
“Oh, that’s her,” said John. “Go look at the collar. Got the address on there and everything.”
“But . . . how?”
“Don’t know. She answers to Molly, though. Or at least as well as she ever did.”
I wanted to go look closer but, I admit, I was afraid to. Something coming back from the dead was almost always bad news. Movies taught me that. For every one Jesus you get a million zombies.
“So the dog we saw explode, that wasn’t Molly?”
“Or maybe that was Molly and this is, what, an imposter?”
He shrugged. “You should have seen me, when I saw her here. I freaked out.”
“You think she’s responsible for what happened to Amy? Maybe she, I don’t know. Ate her.”
“Withhold judgment until you see the jellyfish.”
I didn’t ask. I reluctantly turned my back on the resurrected dog and we pushed through a living room with a green couch that looked to be from 1905. Up a stairway, into a darkened hall. There was an unlit light fixture on the ceiling and one of those old brass switch plates on the wall, the kind with the black buttons. I punched the top button, nothing happened.
John stepped carefully down the hall, squinting into the darkness. He turned and said, “No, that doesn’t do anything. Hand me the flashlight.”
“You didn’t tell me to bring a—”
He held a hand out to shush me and ducked into a side door. We both stepped into a large room that, in the dim glow from the window, looked like a library of shelves mostly filled with odd shadowy shapes that were not books. I saw what looked like a bundle of cobweb hanging from the ceiling and reached out to brush it aside—
A shower of blue sparks flashlit the room. A bone-rattling electric sting flared up my elbow.
The fixture on the ceiling blinked once, twice and then bathed the room in light. About a foot in front of me was what looked like a bundle of wet string, suspended in the air by nothing at all. It didn’t look so much like a jellyfish as a man-o’-war, the slimy things that float lazily on the ocean surface and let their stringy tentacles hang down in the water. The creature drifted slowly up to the ceiling, toward the light. It wrapped its tentacles around the fixture and, to our utter astonishment, began frantically humping it like a puppy on a bunny slipper.
The lights dimmed, finally flickering out to darkness again. The room was silent except for the soft rattling of glass vibrating against metal with each of the creature’s spastic thrusts.
“You ever seen one of those before?” John whispered, somewhere in the darkness. Above us, a little blue spark jumped from one noodly tentacle to another with a soft FZZZZT sound.
“I like to think I would have mentioned it if I had.”
“Uncle Drake shot it, didn’t seem to bother it much.”
“He could see it?”
“Yeah. It’s real.”
So that put it in the category of the mutants at the mall, and not the wig monsters and shadow people. I’d have to make a spreadsheet somewhere to keep track.
And don’t forget, just because Drake can see it, doesn’t mean another stranger from around town would. Lots of chances for a cop to get infected in this town. Ask Morgan Freeman.
Now there was another train of thought badly in need of derailing.
I said, “You got your lighter?”
John flicked his Zippo and cast a pool of weak yellowy light around us. I glanced around, saw that only a couple of the shelves contained books, worn paper backs with white fold lines. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, somebody named Terry Pratchett. Babylon 5 novelizations. The first, third and fourth Harry Potter novels. Jim must have figured three was the most he could allow without risking turning Amy to witchcraft.
The rest of the shelves were crammed with stuffed animals and junk. I saw a row of plates on little wire stands painted with the faces of Star Trek characters.
The creature on the ceiling didn’t react.
“Well,” I said, letting out a tired breath, “I was hoping it would attack your hand. I guess it’s the electricity it likes and not the light.”
John slapped the lighter off and said, “I thought about opening a window and just shooing it outside.”
“Uh, that doesn’t seem like such a good idea.” I thought for a moment, wondering vaguely if I had remembered to turn on the porch light back home. “Can it, like, pass through walls?”
“It hasn’t yet.”
We stepped out into the hall and I closed the door behind us.
“Okay,” I said. “As long as nobody ever opens that door . . .”
“Right. We’ll put a sign on it or something,” John said, the first problem solved. “The weird thing is down here. Check this shit.”
We went across the hall and he gestured into an ancient bathroom, complete with enormous cast-iron tub and a yellowing vanity with a cracked mirror. A steady stream of drips plunked from the faucet. A pair of scissors were wedged under one of the knobs, presumably to keep the valve from running freely. He punched the switch and the light flickered on, this one apparently unmolested.
On the floor was what looked like a clear plastic bag, filled with a marbled pink-and-yellow substance, about the size of one of those giant bags of dog food. There was writing on the side in an odd, angular font.
John said, “That lock was bolted from inside. We had to jimmy it to get in here. Water was running in the sink, toothbrush laying on the counter with dried toothpaste on it. That window is painted shut, so there was no way out of the room. So she was in here and then she wasn’t. And she never left the room. Right?”
The lock was one of those little slide bolts like you’d see on old public toilet stalls. The “jimmy” of the lock had been accomplished by smacking the door, probably with their shoulders, until the little metal loop on the door frame popped out of its screw holes. I leaned over and inspected the window. It looked to have been sealed long before I was born. Not that it made a difference; even if Amy had locked the door and crawled out of the window for some reason, dropping fifteen feet or so to the ice below, how would she have gotten the window shut behind her?
“Can you think of a way that somebody could get that door locked from the other side? Like if they snatched her and then slid the bolt closed behind them?”
What you’re asking, said the irritating voice in my head, is whether or not you could have done it, Dave.
Bullshit. Forget that. I was sure my bout of missing time, during which a bullet had left my gun, had nothing to do with this person who suddenly went missing on the same day. Two completely separate events. In fact, the event I was repressing was probably Amy coming to my house to borrow a bullet, and me calmly handing it to her.
“Sure,” said John, “you could probably get the bolt slid in there with the door closed. Give a guy twenty minutes, a bent wire coat hanger. Let him try it about forty times. What would be the point, though? Just to mess with us?”