I nudged the bag on the floor with my foot. Dense liquid, a bag of sludge. He said, “The writing on the bag, that’s a weight, right?”
“I guess.” I leaned down. “Forty-four-point-four-two kilograms.” I scratched my head. “I give up.”
“You, uh, think that’s her? In the bag?”
“Ew. No, let’s assume not for now. That’s just gross.”
“You think the jellyfish ate her?”
“Bones and all?”
“We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?”
I stepped out of the bathroom and wandered down the hall, passing a room stacked with cardboard boxes and some broken chairs. There was another door that had been nailed shut, that seemed to lead out into midair.
John said, “You know what that is? They used to build these old houses with doors that just led to a big drop, to fool burglars. They’d label that door TREASURY or something like that. The guy busts through the door and finds himself falling straight down. They’d put spikes or something down there. They used to call it an ‘Irish Elevator.’ ”
“Or, John, they tore a balcony off here years ago and just never bothered to take out the door.”
We passed a bare guest room that smelled of dust and old varnish, then at the end of the hall came to a door standing open with a band poster stuck to the inside, a group called VNV Nation.
I leaned into a chaotic bedroom, crammed with furniture and carpeted with wrinkled clothes. Posters on every wall, bands I’d never heard of and one of a shiny Angelina Jolie as the Tomb Raider. There was a very nice laptop computer, a Mac, propped up on a pillow on an unmade bed.
“The computer,” I asked, “it was like that when you got here?”
“Yeah. We didn’t touch a thing.”
On a nightstand off the bed there were four empty plastic bottles with orange juice labels and half a dozen brown prescription bottles. There was a box of Froot Loops on the floor, open.
I saw all this from the doorway but didn’t step inside. I felt dirty just for peeking my head in, invading this person’s space. John pushed past me, though, and I realized we probably didn’t have a choice if we were serious about this. Cops do this every day, rifling closets and digging through your dildo drawer. I noticed the bed laptop was on, ironically in sleep mode, a single power light glowing along one side. I tapped the space bar, the screen fading up from black to reveal a white screen with blue text scrolling down.
“Check it out.” John nodded his head toward a dresser, one drawer half open, a couple of bras trying to escape. Atop the dresser sat a little black object, round and not much bigger than a roll of film. A lens in the center.
“A camera,” I noted.
“It’s one of those wireless camera deals,” he said. “For the computer.”
“What, like a webcam?”
“Yeah, or something.”
“Was this Jim’s old room?” I asked, for some reason having trouble picturing Amy “Cucumber” Sullivan knowing how to shop for and use computer gadgetry. Before I encountered her while trying to return Molly a few years before, my only memory of Amy was from the Life Skills class at the Pine View Alternative School for Mentally Fucked Students where I had spent my senior year. She always had her head down on her desk, asleep, to me just a mop of red hair spilling over bony forearms.
I think I only heard her say a dozen words my whole time there and most of them were “please move or I’m going to puke on you.”
John muttered, “dunno,” in the way that people do when you ask a useless question that deserves nothing more. I glanced around and saw a second camera, a square one, sitting atop a shelf on a department store sortawood computer desk across the room. It wasn’t aimed at the chair in front of it like you’d think a webcam would be, but sideways, toward the hall.
“This camera is aimed over at the door,” I deduced. I looked up and saw a ceiling fan with a set of four little canister lights aimed around the room. Taped to one canister was another of the wireless cameras. “And another one,” I said. “Aimed right at the window. All the entryways covered, like a security system.”
A little tingle of ner vous ness rose in my gut for reasons I couldn’t wrap my sluggish brain around.
“Okay . . .” John said, moving toward the laptop. “You know, I just thought about something. Why would she lock her bathroom at all if she lived here alone? You’d just poop with the door open, right?”
I nodded and said, “So maybe she was already scared. If this were an episode of Law and Order we’d have a nice shot of her getting abducted right on camera. And yes, before you give me that look of yours, I do realize whatever happened, happened in the bathroom and not in here. She didn’t have a webcam in her bathroom, did she?”
“I want you to think about what you just asked.”
John picked up the laptop and sat down with it in the computer chair.
“Well,” I said, “she could have caught somebody in the hall.”
That feeling again. It was like a faint alarm in the back of my skull, like the creeping sense that you’ve left something important at the house just as you’re leaving for vacation.
He’s going to look for the webcam stills on there.
So? I shoved my hands in my pockets and wandered around the room, wondering how our getting first-look at the evidence would fuck up a prosecution should this turn out to be a run-of-the-mill kidnapping and murder, flying jellyfish notwithstanding. Welcome to Undisclosed.
I fingered a loose key in my pocket that had apparently fallen off the key ring. I ran my other hand through my hair, which was drying in a mushrooming Carrot Top spray. I said, “Is there any place open in town that sells that red Mountain Dew? I had some today, it’s like somebody melted a box of cherry Jolly Ranchers and stirred in some crack cocaine. Is that one convenience store on Lexington a twenty-four-hour deal?”
John wasn’t listening. He was studying the flat monitor on the laptop.
FOR THE WEBCAM STILLS. TO SEE WHO TOOK AMY.
My mouth was going dry, my heart thumping just a little too fast. The caffeine, probably. I leaned over John’s shoulder and saw the phrase MY CAT PEED ON MY BED at the top of the screen. It was a series of broken lines, each beginning with a name in brackets. I knew the format.
That’s a chat log. She was on there when she got up to brush her teeth. Then somebody took her, maybe somebody or maybe some thing. But the key is she knew they were coming, somehow. She knew because she set up cameras so she would have evid—
I stood bolt upright.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY IF THAT’S YOU ON THE CAMERA, ASSHOLE?
That thought—like a hammer to the balls. John actually glanced over at me and I suddenly felt naked. I tried to remember what my body language looked like when I was at my most casual and innocent, then the whole effect was ruined when I pulled my other hand from my pocket and saw what I was holding.
It was the key to the toolshed in my backyard.
I normally keep it on a nail near my back door. I do not normally keep it in my pocket.
Oh, what did you put in your toolshed, Dave?
I held up a declaratory, “I’ve got an idea” finger and said, “Wait.”
John turned to me, his sudden attention like a heat lamp on my face. I realized I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say next.
“We shouldn’t, uh, we shouldn’t do that yet.”
“Because, uh, I think it would be better if—look, we have one witness to this thing, right?”
“Yeah, the thing. The jellyfish thing. I mean, we’re up here dicking around with computers and that thing could take off in the meantime, go back to wherever it goes. The computer isn’t going anywhere.”
John glanced into the hallway and said, “You think it talks?”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I think you can make it talk. Whether it wants to or not.”
He scratched his chin thoughtfully, then said, “I’ll need a toaster.”
“I saw one in the kitchen. Here, hand me the laptop, you go beat some information out of that slimy bastard.”
John strode out of the room with newfound purpose. I took his seat. The desktop wallpaper on the laptop was a photo of Orlando Bloom, in full Lord of the Rings costume. I waited until I heard John’s footsteps clomping down the stairs before I started clicking through folders, as fast as my fingers would go. Sweating a little now, my heart thumping against bone, my knee bouncing.
I eventually stumbled across a folder full of little icons that came up as grainy camera stills. I clicked on one, saw a dim image of a lump sleeping soundly under the covers of the bed. Another, same thing. A third, a shot of an empty bed. A fourth, the lump again. There were hundreds.
I heard John stomp back up the stairs and I glanced toward the hall, not returning to my task until I heard him open the library door.
I was stuck. Deleting the pictures was out of the question. I was not covering up a crime here and at that point I fully intended to tell John if it somehow turned out I was the culprit we were after. But I wanted him to find out my way. I needed time to figure it out, to pro cess it, to have some control over the revelation. I needed options.
I cut the whole folder of pics and moved them to the most obscure location on the hard drive I could find, inside a subfolder of a subfolder of a subfolder of a subfolder of printer drivers. I closed up the computer and leapt out of the chair, suddenly a bundle of nervous energy.
You’ve got to get home. You’ve got to see what’s in that toolshed.
Yes. That was right. I plunged a hand into my pocket and clutched my car keys so tightly they etched marks in my palm. I strode out and down the hall, feeling a cloud of guilt around me like a stench. I passed the library just as John came flying out, slamming the door behind him.
He said, “That dangly bastard knows something. I can read it in his body language.”