“Not good…not good…not good.” Ezekiel’s voice crackled in my phone.
“I don’t like the sound of that…” I yelled back into the receiver.
“Me either . I’m going to find a new service once you get back.”
“You’re gonna do what?” I could barely hear him.
“I’m going to get a new phone service. The coverage is terrible.”
“What the…? I’ve got six missing kids, a trigger-happy sheriff and Boss Hogg the mayor wanting to lock me up for kidnapping…AND some costumed freak who keeps disappearing. And you want a new cell phone?”
There was another crackle before Ezekiel spoke. “Sorry, Jack. Your signal’s breaking up. Did you say the sheriff is a hog?”
Some days I wonder why I agreed to take this job. Today was one of those days. I’m Jackson Monroe, Head Something-or-Other for Monster Marketing Agency. We specialize in the tourism industry. Small town tourism to be exact. But where most ad agencies create splashy posters hawking Big Ben the Local Stuffed Steer or the Museum of Dusty Old Junk, we create tourism by supplying ghosts and spooks to empty buildings…then spreading word about them through “highly specialized channels”…AKA chat rooms on paranormal web sites. And that’s how I got stuck in the middle of this particular mess. We’d been contracted to plant a ghost in one of the old buildings. Nothing major. Just enough to get people to start talking. Yvonne was the perfect choice for the job, and we’d almost gotten her settled in when things started to go wrong. Not your “normal” wrong either. This was an off-the-charts type of wrong.
“Jack,” Ezekiel Daniels, my boss and the director of Monster Marketing Agency, was having his normal cell phone crisis. “Why is the sheriff hogging all the children?”
“No…not…never mind. Look, six kids are missing and the town blames us. They think we’re responsible.”
“No way.” Ezekiel yelled back. “I’ve known Yvonne for years. She’s a pro, and besides, she only does the mild hauntings like crying and appearing in windows. The worst she does is tap people on the arm.”
“Yeah, I know. But something’s really messed up here. I need some help. Fast.”
“Did you say someone keeps disappearing?”
“That’s the weird thing. People say they’ve been seeing some guy hanging around since we got here. Nobody can really describe him, they just see him out of the corners of their eyes – stuff like that.”
“Where are they seeing him?”
“Odd places. Outside the drug store, across from the school playground and near the city park.”
“Can they tell you anything about what they see?”
“Only a little. Tall guy. Wears a black trench coat. Long arms. That’s about it.”
“Not sure about that one…oh for…” I could hear some ruckus in the background behind Ezekiel.
“Gotta go…Mothman just got slapped around by the ceiling fan. He was staring at the lights and…GET OFF THERE! Look, Jack…I’ll call you back.” The phone went dead.
“Didja tell him what I said?” A voice rasped behind me. “Smells like rubber. Or a fart. But I think it’s rubber.”
“Thanks, Frank.” There was more than a hint of annoyance in my voice, but he didn’t catch it. As usual. Frank Wolfe was Monster Marketing’s original nut job, and our resident werewolf. Ezekiel made me take him with me on this trip, probably because Frank had gotten on his last nerve. Now Frank was wearing me down.
“If I smell it again, I’ll let ya know. It’s bad, man.”
“Must be, if you can smell it over your own breath.”
“Oh that’s brutal, man. You’re hatin’ on me.” Something suddenly distracted him. “Ooh, look! Cool lights!”
My world suddenly turned a flashing red and blue. It was the last thing I needed. The Sheriff. He stepped out of his patrol car and headed towards us.
“I reckon you’re the fellas Mayor McGonigal hired.” He said through permanently gritted teeth. “Mayor and me disagree quite a bit. Seems like I had six good reasons t’ disagree this time. But I’m a reasonable man, so I’m gonna give you one chance to tell me where them six kids disappeared to. And if I don’t like what I hear, I’m shootin’ one of you. You’re lucky I’m in such a good mood, don’t ya think?”
Frank spoke before I had a chance. “Lucky?” He tried to sound like Clint Eastwood. “Well, I’m gonna ask myself, do I feel lucky?”
Too late. I could hear a shotgun being cocked. Someone was standing next to me. The sheriff had brought backup and the guy looked like Barney Fife with a blunderbuss and a death wish. I had to do something quickly before Frank or I got shot.
“I have a signed contract in my backpack that will explain everything.” I told the sheriff as I raised both hands. “From Mr. McGonigal.”
The deputy spoke up. “Old McGonigal bought the farm.” To which Frank stupidly replied: “E…I…E…I…O.”
“Shut up! Both of you!” He glowered at his deputy. “Get that joker in the car. Stay there and keep an eye on him.”
He turned to me. “Empty your backpack. I want to see everything. Especially that contract.” I did exactly what he said, then stood back as he rifled through it all. He found my business cards and the contract. “This some kind of joke? You go around the country setting up haunted houses, and bilking money out of cash-strapped towns. That’s bad enough, then what do you do? Add kidnapping and murder to it for fun?”
“Murder?” Things were way out of control and getting worse by the second. I had to figure out what was going on. “Look,” I leveled with the sheriff. “I’m guilty of the ghost thing, but the extortion, murder and kidnapping stuff? No way.”
I watched as he read through the business contract. I didn’t think a man could grind his jaw that hard without sending teeth flying in all directions. “Monster Marketing Agency? McGonigal hired you to spook the old granary offices?” He muttered something unintelligible, but uncomplimentary about the mayor. I didn’t ask him to repeat it. “Stupid jerk. Hiring you was bad enough, but he couldn’t stop there. No. He had to hire two spook companies.”
A light went on in my head. That might explain the weird stuff going on. I just had to convince Genghis Khan here that I wasn’t his problem.
“Sir? Do you know the name of the other company?” I hope I sounded meek enough.
“Dark something. Or Midnight. Yeah, that’s it. Midnight Dark.”
I could have peed my pants on the spot. That was the last thing I’d expected. The mayor really was a fool. Midnight Dark Entertainment. Bad news.
“You know them?” The sheriff must have seen the fear in my eyes.
“Only by reputation. And they’ve got a bad one. That would explain the kidnappings.”
“And the murder?”
“McGonigal. Pretty violent.”
I winced. This had all the earmarks of a Midnight Dark deal gone wrong. We needed help.
“Can I make a call?” I prayed the phone would have a clear signal. For once it did.
“Yeah, I know what it is now.” Ezekiel’s voice came through loud and clear. I turned the phone on speaker so the sheriff could hear. “A Thin Man.”
The sheriff snorted. “A thin man? That’s stupid. You just pull that out of “thin air”?
“No, but I pull Chicago cops out of the line of fire.” Ezekiel fired back. “Remember me now?”
The sheriff turned pale. “I thought…”
“It was real. Just like what I’m about to tell you.” Ezekiel could get tough when it was needed. “A Thin Man is major trouble. He can hide just about anywhere. It’s like the guy in the comics who can stretch his body to whatever shape. Usually when a Thin Man moves in, kids start disappearing. It feeds off their vitality. If you can find its lair in time, you can usually save the kids.”
“How do we find him?” The sheriff asked.
“Where did you last see the kids?”
“The school playground. The park. There aren’t many places here for kids to go.”
“Hey, Jack,” Ezekiel said. “Ask Yvonne. She might have seen something.”
“One thing, Boss…How do we stop this guy?”
“It’s like silly putty. Freeze it. Then pack it in a cooler and bring it back here. We’ll take care of it. Just keep it on ice.”
“It’s summer! How am I supposed to freeze it? Offer it a cold beer and invite it to chill out?”
“Why not?” Ezekiel hung up.
“I hate it when he does that.” I said as I looked at the sheriff. The poor guy was dazed. I totally understood. Been there, done that and had the wet britches to show for it.
“Not quite done with tonight’s mindbender, Sheriff.” I told the shocked man. “Just pretend you’re back in the sixties and enjoy the groovy ride. You ain’t seen nothing yet. We’re gonna go talk with Yvonne.”
Sheriff Bobby Winchester had a fine baritone man-scream. He used it when Yvonne touched his arm and whispered in his ear. I forgot to tell him Yvonne was a ghost. Well, I kind of forgot. She got a kick out of it though and told him to check around some drainage ditches in the park. As we left, the sheriff grabbed my arm and threatened to shoot me unless I told the deputy that I was the screamer. He shouldn’t have worried. When we got to the squad car, we found Frank and the deputy singing the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” at the top of their lungs and belching their ABCs.
Something about seeing his deputy and Frank in full party mode made the sheriff snap back to normal. “Shut up! Both of you!” He screamed as he started the car. We sped off in the direction of the park.
Sheriff Winchester held the steering wheel in a death grip that matched his locked jaw. I hated to intrude on his intensity, but needed to make a suggestion. “About that freezing thing…” The look he gave me put ice cubes in my veins, but I doubted it would work on the Thin Man. “What if we got some fire extinguishers? They seem to cool stuff off quickly.”
Frank piped up from the back seat: “Yeah, I saw that in The Blob. Remember that movie? Some teen kid, like, grabbed one and the Blob totally freaked…”
The sheriff slammed on the brakes so hard I almost coughed up last week’s lunch. “You…” He shouted at Frank. Frank froze. “Hardware store.” He pointed to the building across the street. “You have fifteen seconds. Get ’em. And you…” He growled to the deputy. “You got the key. Let him in.”
“What am I looking for?” Frank was clueless.
“Fire extinguishers.” I said. “Cylinder tubes with a nozzle. You use them for fires.”
A few moments later he trotted back to the car carrying a large box. The deputy helped him put it in the trunk, then we again sped off.
“Oh man, the stink’s back.” Frank said as he stepped out of the cop car. “Can’t ya smell it? Reminds me of that time Swamp Man cut one so hard he ripped the side out of that old vinyl pool and the next thing I see, Sasquatch was doing trying to do the backstroke across the concrete to get away, but couldn’t because he was gagging so bad…”
“Frank!” I hissed at him. “Shut up and tell me where the smell is coming from!”
“Huh? Oh, sorry.” He sniffed the air. “Over there.” He pointed to a street drain at the edge of the park. “It’s coming from down below and it’s bad. We’re talking a new level of raunch and rotten eggs mixed with rubber.”
“I smell it now.” Winchester said.
“That was me.” His deputy whispered apologetically.
Luckily Frank spoke up before the sheriff could threaten the little man. “Listen!” From down below, we could hear the muffled cries of a child.
Sheriff Winchester may have been a mean cop, but he was also a smart one. “There’s another entrance about a block up the street. We’re gonna chase him that direction.” He looked at me, then Frank. “You two get down there and be ready to hit him with those fire extinguishers.” He looked at his deputy. “No guns unless it’s absolutely necessary. There’s a kid down there.”
“How will we know he’s coming?” I asked.
“We’ll make some noise, holler at him. You’ve got two minutes to get the fire extinguishers and get in position. No screw ups.”
We scurried down to the gutter where Frank opened up his big box and pulled out a red cylinder. But I immediately noticed something was wrong.
“Frank! You idiot! These aren’t fire extinguishers…they’re butane torches! How could you do that? We’re supposed to freeze him…not give him a sunburn!”
“Well, excuse Mr. ‘Cylinder-with-a-nozzle-you-use-on-a-fire’. Seems like Arnold Schwarzecop gave me a fifteen-second ultimatum. You could have been a little more specific. Besides, they each came with a cool clicky-sparky thing.”
“That’s the lighter. Give me that!” A second later, four butane torches were ready for business. “I hope this works. Otherwise the sheriff’s gonna pump us full of lead.”
Frank didn’t care. He wasn’t even listening. He was too busy playing with the open flames. “Look…I can write my name with fire!” He was waving the torches wildly and didn’t see the big black mass heading his direction. “F-R-A-N…” Before he could finish, there was an explosion. A fireball lit the sides of the tunnel and an eerie howl echoed off the concrete walls. The brightness of the explosion blinded us for a couple of seconds, but once our eyes readjusted, we could see that the Thin Man was burning and melting. Frank’s stupidity paid off for once. In all his flailing about, he’d set the creature on fire. We had no way of knowing a Thin Man was flammable. I stood watching the flames devour it. But not Frank. He was in another world. “Hey!” he shouted. “It’s like ‘Princess Bride’! THE DWEAD PIRATE WOBERTS IS HERE FOR YOUR SOUL!”
Frank may have been enjoying the chaos, but I had no desire to share a cramped space with a burning spook and a werewolf. The stench was overwhelming. Besides, I wanted to know if the sheriff had found the kids.
“Frank, stay. Clean up this mess and get rid of the evidence.” I ran to where I’d left the sheriff less than ten minutes ago. His deputy was standing outside the drainage ditch, fumbling with his radio. “Did you find the kids?”
He looked shaken. It’s not easy dealing with monsters. But he was doing his best to keep his composure and that said a lot for the guy. “All six. Alive. That thing was…I don’t know…like stretched around a kid and sucking the life out of her. I think we got there in time though. The kids look pretty weak, but I think they’ll be ok. Did you guys freeze that thing?”
I smiled and patted him on the shoulder.”We took care of it.” I turned to leave, then stopped. “Hey, next time the sheriff starts yelling at you,” I called over my shoulder, “Just know that he screamed like a girl when a ghost touched him.” The wiry little man smiled as I walked away.
There was a warm, familiar presence in the car when Frank and I got in. Yvonne. “Not sticking around?” A soft whisper said “Dangerous.”
“Midnight Dark?” I asked. “Did they mark the town?” Another gentle whisper: “Yes.”
“Not good. We didn’t do ourselves any favors either, and we left a signed contract with the mayor. Wish we could get those papers and cover our tracks.” There was a soft touch on my arm. Yvonne again. I looked over at the passenger seat. There was a bundle of papers – Monster Marketing’s contract with Mayor McGonigal. I smiled. “You thought about it and grabbed them before you left? Yvonne, you’re awesome.”
A line of ambulances and fire trucks sped into town. It was our cue to leave. As I pulled on to the highway, I glanced in the rearview mirror and caught site of the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles. “Good luck, sheriff.” I whispered.
A noise from the back seat caught my attention. Frank had kept the lighters from the torches. He was clicking them in time to the song he was humming: Yellow Submarine. Oh well, I thought. At least he’s occupied. I stepped on the gas and drove off into the night.
(Copyright 2011, Bill Arbuckle)