A disgraced deputy investigates a string of missing girls in the shadow of an abandoned amusement park...
Captain Clive's Dreamworld
It was the way the black clouds hid the yellow moon, the way the desert rain deluged the asphalt and gutters, the way the wind whipped through the gnarled branches that caused Deputy Hardy to shiver, not the violence, not the blood, not the death.
And now the muffled voice on the radio ordered them to the worn-out motel where the whore had slit her throat, and his partner Kline shook his head and gripped tighter the steering wheel, although Hardy was convinced he saw the makings of a faint grin on his fat face. “This fucking town,” Kline said. “It ain’t what it used to be, that’s for damn sure. A week ago, a drowned toddler. Two days later, a stabbed Mexican. Day after that, a brained dealer. And now this. You know what I think, buddy? I think somebody oughta douse the whole town with gasoline then take a torch to it. And I'll be in the front row watching it burn. Be doing everybody a favor, you ask me.”
But nobody had asked Kline, certainly not Hardy. The way he figured it, this little town, stinking of slaughter (see the hogs shackled and stuck) and poverty (see the filthy children peering from shotgun shacks) was no different than the wealthiest suburb or loveliest island. Everybody suffered, everybody died—they just went about it in different ways.
And so the deputies drove, the siren echoing down the avenue, and Kline talked and talked and talked. That’s the way it always was. Kline talking and Hardy listening, only occasionally acknowledging his partner with a grunt. Kline needed noise, and Hardy understood that. Because without noise you were forced to focus on the images in your brain, and they were always filled with corpses, eyes staring right back at you, hands clawing at the air...
“The longer you do this job,” Kline said, “the more you realize that they live like fucking animals. Look at the squalor. Look at the ignorance. Drinking and whoring and raping and killing. And it never stops. Never.”
Hardy turned and rested his head against the window. The asphalt reflected the blurry stoplights and taillights. An old woman, wearing a yellow raincoat, stumbled down the sidewalk, a bag of groceries pressed to her hip. A small town whore crouched beneath an awning, a cigarette dangling from candy cherry lips. A drunk and an addict and a bum and a child. Hardy looked to the sky, hoping the moon would reappear, but it didn’t. It was visible somewhere, though. Somewhere a nice boy and a nice girl sat on a porch swing, listening to the crickets and katydids, staring up at a sky filled with stars and that yellow moon. Somewhere people were happy.
More Kline: “My old lady, she's had it. She’s tired of her job. Tired of my job. Wants to get the hell out of Dodge, despite the fact that her parents and brother and cousins all live here. Scottsdale is where she wants to go. Can you believe that shit? What, does she think I’m going take up golf? Now San Diego on the other hand. That’s something I could work with. Sitting on the beach all day, watching all them tight-assed girls. Seventy-two degrees every day. That would be okay with me, you know what I’m saying?” No response from Hardy. More talk, talk, talk from Kline. “Just gotta work on my gut, that’s all. Show those girls what I’m made of. Yeah. But what about you, Hardy? Cause I gotta tell you. These days you’re looking more and more like a corpse. You ever sleep? You ever fuck? Maybe you should consider packing up yourself. You ever thought about that? Going somewhere else? Making a new start?”
For a long time, Hardy didn’t respond. Then he shook his head and frowned. “No. Never thought about it. But I don’t think it matters much where you go. Because you’re always stuck with yourself. Day and night. Week after week after week.”
Kline glanced at Hardy and then back at the slick blacktop. “Well, shit. Thank you for that. That’s a fucking depressing sentiment if I ever heard one.”
A few minutes more and the car slowed to a stop and Hardy stared through the rain-blurred windshield at the derelict motel just ahead. A place he’d been before. There were a dozen or so drab yellow units, a handful of them boarded up. The Breezewood Motel, it said in broken red and blue neon. A rusted metal “Office” sign hung from a corner unit, and a cutout silhouette of a cowboy leaned against the wall. A crowd of people were milling around, whispering what they knew, whispering what they’d heard. And now, staring at the motel, Hardy felt a sense of despair that he’d never felt before, a despair that, he was sure, no amount of time or tears could ever heal. He didn’t want to go in. He didn’t want to see the blood. His own hands weren’t even yet dry...
Kline killed the engine and radioed in their location. They stepped out of the car, the wind whipping around, the rain falling sideways. And then that old thought. Maybe none of this was real. Not the rain nor the wind nor the death. Maybe. Hardy remembered when he was a child, bedridden because of pneumonia. And one night, in the throes of a relentless fever, he had a terrible dream. In the dream, he was wandering across the desert, lost. All around him was death and carnage: rivers of blood, bodies on the highway, maimed children begging for help. And so he ran and ran, a mortise key hanging around his neck, and eventually he came to his neighborhood, and finally to his house. But then he noticed that next to his house was another one that was identical in every way, and he became unsure about which was the real one. He heard screams, and when he glanced behind, the wounded children were closing in on him, dragging themselves across the dirt, and he had to pick a house. He chose the house on the left. He used his key to open the door, and when he stepped inside he saw his parents sitting in the living room, his father reading the newspaper, his mother knitting a sweater. They greeted him with hugs and smiles. But even though they looked and sounded and acted like his parents, he felt something was wrong, that perhaps they were imposters, that his real parents were in the house on the right. And even after he woke, when he saw them, he doubted that they were real, feared that at any moment they would tear the skin off their faces, revealing hideous new ones beneath, and drag him back to the nightmare from which he’d come...
“Just look at this dump,” Kline said. “I'm telling you, some gasoline and a book of matches...”
Hardy pulled back his wetted hair and surveyed the scene. The poor and the mangled huddled in the parking lot, bathrobes slipped open, cans of Budweiser crushed in hands, mumbling fragmented narratives at the weeds and asphalt beneath their feet. One of them mentioned how the devil was making nightly appearances at this motel. Another remembered her Aunt Riddle who died a year ago Wednesday from a mysterious plague. And a third swore that blood was seeping beneath the motel door and would soon cover the parking lot, spread to the avenue, and make its way to City Hall.
Hardy and Kline stepped through the crowd toward Room Six. An older woman with a mouthful of gums grabbed Hardy’s arm and said, “How long she been dead, you think? A week, maybe more? Just rotting, rotting, rotting. It don’t matter, though, not to me. Just another dead whore. There’s plenty more like her, crawling beneath the bridge and creeping around in alleys.”
The manager had relocked the door after the discovery, so the deputies had to wait several minutes for the Brillo-haired woman to return with the key. “Don’t know who she is,” she said, even though neither of the deputies had asked. “I just came to get money owed. Wouldn’t have opened the door if it wasn’t for that stench.”
Her hands were unsteady (Parkinson’s), and it was a challenge for her to get the key in the hole. The crowd murmured impatiently, delivered more philosophical and religious sermons. Finally, the lock clicked and she pushed open the door. The deputies stepped inside and indicated for the manager and the bystanders to move away. Kline shouldered the door shut, leaving the crowd to scratch at the wood and scream at the moon.
You never get used to the smells. Blood, shit, decay. Death. Hardy covered his mouth and nose with his arm. He felt unsteady on his feet and thought he was going to vomit but managed to swallow it down.
The floor was a mess of clothes and sheets and broken glass. A lamp glowed on the nightstand, but the rest of the lights had been removed or had simply burned out. The window was pulled halfway open and a soggy curtain flapped in the wind and the rain.
The girl, fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, lay on a mattress crusted over with blood, her legs and arms splayed at grotesque angles. Her naked skin was a pale shade of purple, her eyes bulged from their sockets, and her tongue protruded from an agonized mouth. There was a gaping wound across her throat, and a blood-coated knife rested inches from her clutched hand.
Kline sighed and shook his head. “Ah, Christ. Look at that. What a waste.”
Hardy took a step back and then another. It was too much for him. Every man had a breaking point. The room began spinning and Hardy gritted his teeth and gasped for breath. Behind his eyes, he saw an image of an obese man, thin hair plastered across his head, fat lips curled into a grin, grunting as he fucked the hell out of the corpse, its skin beginning to slough off onto the bed. And behind the fat man, a row of more men, all of them nude, all of them waiting patiently for their moment. Ah, hell. She had it coming. Being born in this world. She had it coming.
A voice in the distance: “Hardy? You okay there, buddy? You don’t look so good. Maybe you should...”
And then he felt himself falling. The floor sped toward him and his body pulsated with pain. Behind his bloody eyes, her face appeared, flickering, and now she was alive, now she was young, now she was smiling, and then Hardy forgot who she was, a sinister elf robbing him of memory, and he closed his eyes and listened to a lullaby played on a harpsichord.