SOLVING THE FOLLOWING riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead.
Let’s say you have an ax. Just a cheap one, from Home Depot. On one bitter winter day, you use said ax to behead a man. Don’t worry, the man was already dead. Or maybe you should worry, because you’re the one who shot him.
He had been a big, twitchy guy with veiny skin stretched over swollen biceps, a tattoo of a swastika on his tongue. Teeth filed into razor-sharp fangs—you know the type. And you’re chopping off his head because, even with eight bullet holes in him, you’re pretty sure he’s about to spring back to his feet and eat the look of terror right off your face.
On the follow-through of the last swing, though, the handle of the ax snaps in a spray of splinters. You now have a broken ax. So, after a long night of looking for a place to dump the man and his head, you take a trip into town with your ax. You go to the hardware store, explaining away the dark reddish stains on the broken handle as barbecue sauce. You walk out with a brand-new handle for your ax.
The repaired ax sits undisturbed in your garage until the spring when, on one rainy morning, you find in your kitchen a creature that appears to be a foot-long slug with a bulging egg sac on its tail. Its jaws bite one of your forks in half with what seems like very little effort. You grab your trusty ax and chop the thing into several pieces. On the last blow, however, the ax strikes a metal leg of the overturned kitchen table and chips out a notch right in the middle of the blade.
Of course, a chipped head means yet another trip to the hardware store. They sell you a brand-new head for your ax. As soon as you get home, you meet the reanimated body of the guy you beheaded earlier. He’s also got a new head, stitched on with what looks like plastic weed-trimmer line, and it’s wearing that unique expression of “you’re the man who killed me last winter” resentment that one so rarely encounters in everyday life.
You brandish your ax. The guy takes a long look at the weapon with his squishy, rotting eyes and in a gargly voice he screams, “That’s the same ax that beheaded me!”
IS HE RIGHT?
I WAS PONDERING that riddle as I reclined on my porch at 3:00 A.M., a chilled breeze numbing my cheeks and earlobes and flicking tickly hairs across my forehead. I had my feet up on the railing, leaning back in one of those cheap plastic lawn chairs, the kind that blow out onto the lawn during every thunderstorm. It would have been a good occasion to smoke a pipe had I owned one and had I been forty years older. It was one of those rare moments of mental peace I get these days, the kind you don’t appreciate until they’re ov—
My cell phone screeched, the sound like a sonic bee sting. I dug the slim little phone from my jacket pocket, glanced at the number and felt a sickening little twinge of fear. I disconnected the call without answering.
The world was silent again, save for the faint applause of trees rustling in the wind and crumbly dead leaves scraping lightly down the pavement. That, and the scuffle of a mentally challenged dog trying to climb onto the chair next to me. After two attempts to mount the thing, Molly managed to send the chair clattering onto its side. She stared at the toppled chair for several seconds and then started barking at it.
The phone again. Molly growled at the chair. I closed my eyes, said an angry five-word prayer and answered the call.
“Dave? This is John. Your pimp says bring the he**in shipment tonight, or he’ll be forced to stick you. Meet him where we buried the Korean whore. The one without the goatee.”
That was code. It meant “Come to my place as soon as you can, it’s important.” Code, you know, in case the phone was bugged.
“John, it’s three in the—”
“Oh, and don’t forget, tomorrow is the day we kill the president.”
He was gone. That last part was code for, “Stop and pick me up some cigarettes on the way.”
Actually, the phone probably was bugged, but I was confident the people doing it could just as easily do some kind of remote intercept of our brain waves if they wanted, so it was moot. Two minutes and one very long sigh later, I was humming through the night in my truck, waiting for the heater to blow warm air and trying not to think of Frank Campo. I clicked on the radio, hoping to keep the fear at bay via distraction. I got a local right-wing talk radio program.
“I’m here to tell ya, immigration, it’s like rats on a ship. America is the ship and allllll these rats are comin’ on board, y’all. And you know what happens when a ship gets too many rats on board? It sinks. That’s what.”
I wondered if a ship had ever really sunk that way. I wondered what was giving my truck that rotten-egg smell. I wondered if the gun was still under the driver’s seat. I wondered. Was there something moving back there, in the darkness? I glanced in my rearview mirror. No, a trick of the shadows. I thought of Frank Campo.
Frank was an attorney, heading home from the office one evening in his black Lexus. The car’s wax job gleaming in the night like a shell of black ice, Frank feeling weightless and invincible behind the greenish glow of his dashboard lights.
He senses a tingling on his legs. He flips on the dome light.
Thousands of them.
Each the size of a hand.
They’re spilling over his knees, pushing up inside his pant legs. The things look like they’re bred for war, jagged black bodies with yellow stripes, long spiny legs like needle points.
He freaks, cranks the wheel, flips down an embankment.
After they pried him out of the wreckage and after he stopped ranting, the cops assured him there wasn’t a sign of even one spider inside the car.
If it had ended there, you could write it off as a bad night, a trick of the eyes, one of Scrooge’s bad potatoes. But it didn’t end there. Frank kept seeing things—awful things—and over the months all the king’s doctors and all the king’s pills couldn’t make Frank’s waking nightmares go away.
And yet, other than that, the guy was fine. Lucid. As sane as a sunset. He’d write a brilliant legal brief on Wednesday, and on Thursday he’d swear he saw tentacles writhing under the judge’s robes.
So? Who do you go to in a situation like that?
I pulled up to John’s building, felt the old dread coming back, churning like a sour stomach. The brisk wind chased me to the door, carrying a faint sulfur smell blown from a plant outside town that brewed drain cleaner. That and the pair of hills in the distance gave the impression of living downwind from a sleeping, farty giant.
John opened the door to his third-floor apartment and immediately gestured toward a very cute and very frightened-looking woman on his sofa. “Dave, this is Shelly. She needs our help.”
That dread, like a punch in the stomach. You see, people like Frank Campo, and this girl, they never came for “our help” when they needed a carburetor rebuilt.
We had a specialty.
Shelly was probably nineteen, with powder-blue eyes and the kind of crystal clear pale skin that gave her a china doll look, chestnut curls bundled behind her head in a ponytail. She wore a long, flowing skirt that her fingers kept messing with, an outfit that only emphasized how small she was. She had the kind of self-conscious, pleading helplessness some guys go crazy for. Girl in distress. Makes you want to rescue her, take her home, curl up with her, tell her everything is gonna be okay.
She had a white bandage on her temple.
John stepped into the corner of his tiny apartment that served as the kitchen and smoothly returned to place a cup of coffee in her hands. I struggled to keep my eyes from rolling; John’s almost therapist-like professionalism was ridiculous in a room dominated by a huge plasma-screen TV with four video game systems wired to it. John had his hair pulled back into a neat job-interview ponytail and was wearing a button-up shirt. He could look like a grown-up from time to time.
I was about to warn the girl about John’s coffee, which tasted like a cup of battery acid someone had pissed in and then cursed at for several hours, but John turned to her and in a lawyerly voice said, “Shelly, tell us your story.”
She raised timid eyes to me. “It’s my boyfriend. He . . . he won’t leave me alone. He’s been harassing me for about a week. My parents are gone, on vacation and I’m . . . I’m terrified to go home.”
She shook her head, apparently out of words. She sipped the coffee, then grimaced as if it had bit her.
“Morris,” she said, barely audible.
“Ms. Morris, I strongly recommend a women’s shelter. They can help you get a restraining order, keep you safe, whatever. There are three in this city, and I’ll be happy to make the call—”
“He—my boyfriend, I mean—he’s been dead for two months.”
John cast a little gleeful glance my way, as if to say, “See how I deliver for you, Dave?” I hated that look. She went on.
“I—I didn’t know where else to go. I heard, you know, through a friend of mine that you handle, um, unusual problems.” She nudged aside a stack of DVD cases on an end table and sat the mug down, glancing at it distrustfully as if to remind herself not to accidentally drink from it again, lest it betray her anew. She turned back to me.
“They say you’re the best.”
I didn’t inform her that whoever called us “the best” had pretty low standards. I guess we were the best in town at this, but who would you brag to about that? It’s not like this shit has its own section of the phone book.
I walked over to a cushioned chair and scooped out its contents (four worn guitar magazines, a sketch pad, and a leather-bound King James Version of the Holy Bible). As I tried to settle in, a leg broke off and the whole chair slumped over at a thirty-degree angle. I leaned over nonchalantly, trying to look like that’s exactly what I had expected to happen.
“Okay. When he comes, you can see him?”