Caleb Azalea regretted destroying the property of the coffee shop. Well, almost. He didn’t really care. Though, he did break a chair by setting it on fire, then had spilled bubble liquid all over the floor, causing someone to slip and fall. And so here he was, sitting in an office with the owner across a table, and Azalea calling his boss, a man known only as ‘Director’ through his phone.
The Director was not pleased.
But as the Director had no choice, Azalea’s little mishap was paid for and no charges were pursued, provided Azalea never return to the coffee shop.
Nobody except a select few knew who the Director was, just that even the founder took orders from the person. Everything was mostly run by the founder of the investigative agency, a bright young man named Julian Page.
The service itself was a sizable building which one random day, started construction. A year later, it was complete. This was the Julian Page Investigative Service, a service that dedicated itself to collect stories and investigate, as the name suggested.
What also came with the service, were employees already working there. People who were seemingly nobodies came with the service, except for the few interns that were selected.
People were confused, as nobody knew why or who wanted the service created. At first, people were reluctant, but in a month, they had risen to popularity for their cheap services and their stunning accuracy.
Except there was a catch. Nobody could simply walk-in or contact the agency. They, it seemed, found you.
“I need a Caleb Azalea to report to my office,” a man announced. “Now!”
The man was none other than the founder himself, Julian Page. With devilish eyes, pure night hair, demonic glasses, and a pointed chin, he ran the service with an iron fist. Well, except for Taco Tuesday- everybody got along on Tuesdays.
Caleb Azalea rose from his wooden desk, which contained a laptop with a transcript of the conversation with Jessica Io, the woman stalked by a genderless figure. Caleb sighed, said goodbye to the collection of doodles etched into the wood, hundreds of small crocheted teddy-bears, bubble liquid, and began to walk away to his presumed doom.
Azalea opened the door to Page’s office, where the devilish Julian Page sat on his throne-like sofa, on one side of a table. Sitting across the table was a woman. Azalea knew her, a friend named Paris Chambers. In contrast to Azalea, Paris did not bother with silly habits and was always straight to the point.
Azalea met her dark eyes, waved hello, and awaited orders from Julian Page, who was mixing coffee aimlessly.
“Ah, Caleb Azalea,” Julian noticed. “Meet Paris Chambers.”
“We know each other,” Paris informed, a certain quality of seriousness to her tone.
“If this is about the coffee shop, I am extremely sorry that-”
“This is exactly about the coffee shop, Azalea!” Julian lectured. “Your antics in Kintain and other places have cost us hundreds of dollars! Nobody gets our cost that high!”
“If I may,” Paris began, thinking of ways to defend Caleb, “I will vouch for Caleb. Though his antics may be costing us, he does get the job done.”
“Ah, Chambers, you are indeed correct,” Julian complimented. “Don’t worry, Azalea won’t be fired. See, I need someone to keep Azalea from wasting money, and that someone is you, Paris Chambers.”
“Oh? So the two of us will be on an investigation?” Paris inquired.
“It has come to my attention that there may be some truth to the happenings in Kintain,” Julian began. “I believe you two are up for the job. One notorious for his antics, and, in contrast, someone who gets straight to the point.”
“Brilliant!” Azalea cheered, clapping with no rhythm or reason. “Do you mind if I blow bubbles?”
“Caleb, no!” Paris growled.
“Oh,” Caleb sighed, putting down his container of bubble liquid back into his strange suit that seemingly had thousands of pockets, “In that case, where are we going next?”
“Paris Chambers will be heading to a small city in Florida, and I’ll have someone email you the details.”
“Alone?” Paris questioned. “Isn’t the point to keep us together.”
“I’m afraid Caleb’s antics might be required. I’ve arranged himself to...” Julian began, cutting off as he mumbled something.
“I’m sorry, what?” Azalea voiced.
“A… a cow. Azalea, you will be investigating a cow.”
“What?! Interrogating a cow?! Brilliant!”
“Founder Page, how is Azalea going to interrogate a cow?”
“Let’s just say it’s punishment- and it isn’t a cow he’ll be an interrogation, it’s a farmer. Don’t worry, Azalea’s just collecting a story, nothing to do with your actual investigation,” Julian clarified. “Let’s just say the witness won’t be entertained by Azalea’s antics.”
“Can I give the cow yogurt-”
“Get out of my office! I-I mean, dismissed!”
Azalea scrambled to his feet, ran to the door, and bounced out the room. Paris sighed and followed.
“Azzie, what exactly happened in this coffee shop?”
“Don’t call me that! It’s either, Caleb, Azalea, or The Great One.”
“Whatever Azzie, now let’s grab some tacos before we part ways.”
Three hours later, Azalea departed to interrogate a cow, while the more relevant Paris departed to collect another story, one relevant to the investigation. According to the message Chambers was sent, they were dealing with an abduction with mysterious circumstances. Details were forecasted to below, but the algorithm decided it was relevant.
Later in the day, Chambers found herself ringing a doorbell far above the ground in a poorly maintained apartment.
“Coming!” a muffled voice yelled.
A moment went by as whoever was inside rushed to the door. But soon enough, the door was opened, revealing an older man with dirty, messed, hair who also wore an old discolored sweater.
“I’m… you can call me Chambers,” Paris began, “and I’m here about your advertisement.”
“Oh- sorry, if I knew I’d be getting a new job I’d be wearing a suit-”
“Oh, I’m not here about any sort of job. I’m an investigator.”
“Oh… I can’t believe somebody noticed! I still don’t have any money-”
“That is not a problem. Now, may I enter. The aircon out here is terrible, and far too warm for my tastes.”
“Oh, sure- but it’s freezing in here, so don’t be surprised.”
Paris silently thanked Azalea for convincing her to wear a trench coat to the mission, claiming it would make her look professional.
Paris followed the man into the apartment. The man invited her to sit on an old brown sofa across a table, and the man sat on the opposite end, on another old sofa.
“Now, your name?”
“We’re going straight to business? I thought there would be some small talk or something?”
“I know this investigation is hard for you, but the faster we get this done, the better it will be for you. Now, your name, please?” repeated Chambers.
“Good. Now, your note mentioned the kidnapping of your son, Harry Fairchild. Can we begin?”
“Do you want tea? Or snacks-”
“No. Delays will only worsen the… condition.”
“Alright,” Quinn sighed, preparing to begin the story. In response, Chambers took out a notepad and a pen, “it all happened almost a month ago. As usual, I was taking my son, Harry to the school nearby. I believe it’s called Lizardot Elementary.”
“Grade?” Chambers inquired.
“First,” Quinn told.
“I sent him to school that day, and everything appeared to be fine. Yet I couldn’t shake off this feeling that something was going to happen. Of course, I wrote that down in my journal. Nothing happened that day, just that odd feeling.”
“Describe this feeling.”
“It wasn’t exactly fear, it was like… I can’t explain it. The feeling sort of reassured me as well.”
“Well, then it’s a sort of an incomplete fear?”
“Yes, a not-fear, is what I can describe. I know you won’t believe any of this, but please bear with me. Please.”
“I will, but please, get on with the story.”
“Nothing happened, everything was fine that day. The only reason I remember that day is because I wrote that down in my journal. I think the real problem began the next day. I sent off Harry to school again, as usual. This time, I didn’t have any feeling of any kind that might’ve related to the feeling.”
“How strange, and may I have this journal? It may prove useful in our-”
“No! It’s personal.”
“At exactly two-twelve, I got a phone call from the school. I wrote this down, which is why I’m sure,” began Quinn. “The school notified me that good old Harry was acting strange, and that his behavior was unlike him. I, of course, asked what had happened. The other person said that his friends- he’s quite popular, you see- and anyways, his friends said he didn’t talk to them and spent time facing the fence, talking to himself. But his friends said he wasn’t talking to himself, but one side of a conversation.”
“And you’re sure this isn’t normal?”
“Yes, I know my child well.”
“What did you think at the time?”
“Nothing- I thought he might be sick.”
Paris pondered a moment, then wrote something down and highlighted it. “Continue, if you will.”
“So I asked my boss to leave, and she let me. I drove to the school, where I was sent to the infirmary to speak with the nurse. The nurse said nothing was wrong and it could’ve just been a phase. I was allowed to take him home, which is what I wanted.”
“Your son, the witness… is he reliable?”
“I think so? It all sounded so fake… but now… I don’t know.”
“Please continue,” Paris told.
“I will,” Quinn sighed, preparing to resume the story, “I took him home, not this apartment, but a better one across the street. I asked him why he was talking to himself, and he answered. I knew this could be important, so I recorded it on my phone.”
“Your phone? Can we listen to the recording?”
“No, my phone vanished. No idea where it is. The only record of the incident is the police report… and the journal.”
“I’ll note that,” Chambers noted. “Please resume.”
“He told me that he was talking to someone- a character from his favorite television show- Fun Science Now! He said the main character, a bipedal humanoid rhino I’ve always found creepy named Gerald. He said Gerald told him to come to the fence to just talk. I know Harry, and he should have known not to trust strangers. The police even tested him on stranger danger and he passed!”
“Let me guess- a strange feeling?”
“Precisely! He told me he just knew it was Gerald the Rhino from the show. It just felt he knew it was him.”
“Do continue. Oh, and I’ve been recording this conversation, is this alright?”
“It’s fine. I need to know what happened.”
“Then,” Paris began, sucking in air, “resume.”
“I wasn’t creeped out at this, and I chalked it up to an active imagination, which I now realize is odd, as he didn’t exactly have one. Now, that was the first day of this Gerald encounter. The next time happened exactly one week later,” Quinn began, holding himself from tears. “According to the teacher that had been sent to keep an eye on the students, Harry and a crowd were playing tag when he just stopped mid-run, and just walked towards the fence. The others were too busy to notice this. The teacher didn’t do anything but kept a note in his head. The teacher only noticed something was amiss when it was dismissal time and a full ten minutes passed when other teachers realized Harry never returned. A monitor found him still talking to Gerald.”
“I don’t like how this is going,” Paris commented. “As a child, I hated kids’ shows. Always creeped me out.”
“Not me, I loved them. When dear old Harry was asked why he was still there, he said only a minute had passed, and that he was confused. He showed them his watch, which indeed showed a minute had passed, and that it was still in working order. I was called, but this time I didn’t pick him up. At home, I yet again chalked it up to an overactive imagination. Reflecting now, I shouldn’t have felt that. It’s as if it was calm, normal.”
“The watch, do you have it?”
“That’s the thing- I-I don’t. I asked for the watch, which had been given to someone a day later. I was told that I had already taken it up yesterday, hours after I had picked up Harry. I was confused because I wasn’t there yesterday- I was at a restaurant.”
“Is this proven?”
“It is. The police reports confirmed all of this. There’s a video of the two of us eating a burger.”
“And the next week, it was the incident, was it not?”
“It was,” Quinn mumbled. He prepared himself and spoke once more. “It was. That day, the teachers kept a close eye on him at recess. Nothing happened, and he just played with his friends. It’s what happened during the pick-up time.”
“And this, the incident, was recorded on camera.”
“Yes. The camera showed me, but it wasn’t me picking up Harry. Harry got into a car exactly like mine. A few minutes later, I drove up, but all the teachers were confused. They said I had picked up Harry. My camera on my car proved that they were wrong. At once, the police were called- and a search began.”
“This has been most peculiar. What next?”
“For days, nobody could find him. School was canceled, and all the parents helped search everywhere. We’re a small town, so there was a lot of pointing fingers. But in the end, everyone was cleared, and just as we were all just about drained, he appeared. Just… walked into the police station. Completely normal- except what he said. Harry told us that he got picked up and that I, or whoever took him said he got a reward and took him to a circus where he met Gerald. We told him that wasn’t me and that days had passed. He went silent after that.”
“T-there was no circus,” Quinn stammered. “After we mentioned that, something changed. There was no Harry. Now… it doesn’t seem like him. Just empty. And that’s it.”
“Can I see Harry? You said you have him here.”
“Harry stayed quiet the next week, and I got fired from my job. Whenever I was at my job, I would be doing it right when I would just fall asleep for a minute, and when I woke, my work was all wrong. And I’ve been here, just here, ever since.”
“Okay. I need to see him.”
Quinn sighed, went to the kitchen, made tea, and drank it. He then made his way to a room and opened the door. “H-Harry, there’s someone here to see you.”
Paris looked in, seeing a boy that had not showered yet had an oddly clean room. Nothing was touched, except the bed, which was now dirtied. His hair was long, scraggly and dry, while his eyes appeared empty, staring into nowhere. “Hello? I’m Chambers.”
“It’s like this for the past month.”
“Well, there’s nothing I can do. I’ll take a picture, then I’ll see what my agency can do.”
“Thank you. By the way, who do you work for?”
“Julian Page Investigative Services. We send our best wishes.”
“I see. Please, help us.”
“We will,” Paris assured, “but I can’t do anything more now. I’ll be taking my
leave- the more time I waste, the worse.”
Quinn led Paris out of the apartment, where they shook hands. Paris wished them well and waved goodbye. She then called an Uber and awaited the taxi’s arrival.
Back in the apartment, something awakened.