“Motherfucking bug zombies! Are you fucking shittin’ me?” Lizzie’s trademark way with words was on full display as she drove erratically up the highway. “Connor, what in the name of Joseph’s sweaty ballsack have you gotten yourself into?”
“Jesus Christ, Liz, do you think I know?”
“You don’t fucking know?! Bug people are wandering the streets of my fair city, and you don’t know? What did Charise tell you?”
“Just that it was called an Om de Daunatori, that it was a curse, and that it couldn’t jump from one spot to another.”
“How are you staying so fucking calm through this shit? Curses, zombies, bugs, and rats, I’m freaking out and I can get away from it just as soon as I kick you out of this car.”
“I AM freaking out, okay? It’s freakier than a dominatrix at a Mormon bar, but what do you want me to do? Yelling, cursing, and going nuts doesn’t make me any less dead. Playing it straight and not reacting is part of the job, but, I gotta admit things are getting way too weird lately. God, I don’t even know what to fucking do.”
She considered him quietly for a moment, her eyes two glowing shamrocks in the dark cab of the unmarked cruiser. He had biked for half an hour to reach the place he had suggested for them to rendezvous. She was waiting in the parking lot, pissed as hell, but Connor couldn’t risk picking somewhere he might end up first. The only things he knew for sure any more were that he had to keep moving and that he had to find Leyla or die trying.
Lizzie finally spoke again after clearly taking a moment to calm herself. Her voice was much more even when she continued. “Well hopefully we’ll find something that will lead us to where Leyla’s hiding out.”
“Yeah, where are you taking me, anyway?”
“It’s a little town called Millers’ Crossing. It’s one of those tiny blink-and-you-miss-it type places that mostly dried up when the interstate rolled through. That was decades ago, but the little burg keeps on going anyway. The place is so small now people sometimes even forget to put it on the map.”
“Okay, thanks for the history lesson, Detective O’Shea, but why are we going there?”
“The lease on that apartment number you gave me traced to a P.O. box registered to a Laura DuCaine. It sounded a bit familiar to your girl, so I figured it must be Leyla. I looked into her but couldn’t find much trace of Ms. DuCaine nowadays. The last time she was on the radar, she was living in this town in bumfuck nowhere. Only thing is: that last trace was twenty years ago.”
“So Laura DuCaine is Leyla’s mother?”
“I thought so, but I found something extra weird when I was digging into Laura. It’s the reason I called you.” Lizzie nudged a file towards Connor. He opened it, and Liz turned on the dome light.
Leyla’s face was staring back at him from an old newspaper clipping. She had on a formal ballgown with a sash, a bundle of roses, and a tiara. She was smiling broadly at someone slightly away from the camera. The headline of the piece read:
Small Town Girl Takes Beauty Pageant By Storm.
Laura DuCaine was named the winner of this year’s regional beauty pageant, qualifying to go on to state next month. Though a relative newcomer to the pageant circuit, she received high marks from the judges in every field.
“I’ve never seen someone ace an interview like that.” Mimi Summers, winner of 1985’s pageant commented. “I think we’ve got a star in the making.”
Not much is known about the new Queen of the County, other than her surprising hometown. “I haven’t seen an entrant from Millers’ Crossing for twelve years.” Mark Reinholdt, local attorney and long time pageant judge remarked. “If I knew they grew them like that in Millers’, I would have stopped there for some of that blueberry pie they keep advertising!”
The state competition begins in six weeks. After the pageant had ended, multiple people wished the best of luck to Laura in winning state.
Connor looked confusedly at the picture and article again. “But how can that be Laura DuCaine? That’s clearly Leyla in the picture.”
“It looks like her, yeah, but look at the date: that article’s over twenty years old now.”
“So this Laura had a kid that grew up to look exactly like her?”
“I guess. I certainly don’t have a better explanation right now.”
“You mean, other than the obvious one.”
“What would that be?”
“That Laura is Leyla, and somehow she just looks really good for her age.”
“If it were any other fucking case I’d tell you to go eat a turd sandwich to refill all that bullshit you’re spewing, but I don’t fucking know any more. I’ve never even met Leyla, do you think that’s a possibility?”
Connor sighed angrily. “I don’t even really know her, Liz. She doesn’t talk about herself. It’s kinda hard to pin down how old she is, but that’s common in your 20’s. I guess it could go either way: either Laura is Leyla’s mother or Leyla herself. Either of those seems loony, so really just take your pick.”
“Hopefully we can piece together which is true while we’re out there.”
“At the very least, we can get some blueberry pie. Apparently it’s famous.”
“I just hope it’s free of bug guys. I do not want to have to see that thing any more.”
“You and me both, Liz.” Connor thought for a moment. “That reminds me of something I should probably do.”
Connor pulled out the burner he had set aside for ‘crazy’ phone calls and dialed. A rich alto answered, “This is Dr. Charise Blackwood.”
“Hi, Charise, it’s Connor.”
“Mr. Donnelly! Still alive, I see.”
“Yeah, yeah, I am, no thanks to you.” He tried for his best cheerful voice despite his irritation.
There was a slight pause. “Was my information not helpful?”
“Oh, it was fine! Except for the part where you failed to mention that the Om de Daunatori can turn people into bug zombies. That was quite the lovely little surprise.”
“Bug zombies? I’m sorry, the book didn’t say anything about that.”
“Well maybe you should go ahead and make a little note about it.”
“That might be a bad sign, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Might be?! Charise, I can confidently say that it is indeed bad. Some poor secretary is dead now because of that thing. Have you found anything else out about the curse?”
“Nothing yet, but what you just told me does narrow down my search. Only a limited number of curses can grow in power as time goes on.”
“Well that’s good to hear … Wait, what do you mean by ‘grow in power?’”
“Well it stands to reason that, if you hadn’t seen any bug zombies up until this point, then it only recently acquired the ability to make them. I would suspect that it will only grow more and more powerful as time goes by. You should be careful, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Careful, that’s my middle name. I’m out of the city for now. At least tell me that the Om de Daunatori still has to walk from place to place.”
“Honestly, I don’t really know, but probably yes. Just watch your back and don’t sleep.”
“Gee, thanks, doc. I do enjoy these little chats. Remind me to call after all this is over and thank you with a suspicious package that may or may not be a bomb.”
“Your snide comments are not appreciated. I’m doing the best that I can. Next time, don’t go around setting off ancient Romanian curses and you won’t have to rely on thousand year old texts to keep you alive. Instead you can survive with your sparkling wit and personality.”
“Just like always, doll. Hit me back if you find anything else out. And … thanks, really.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Please just call me Connor. That ‘Mr.’ stuff is getting old.”
“Goodbye … Connor.”
Connor pressed the button to hang up the phone as his head craned back to hit the neckrest. “Remind me of this day if I ever start complaining about how bad my luck is.”
Lizzie thumbed at the wheel pensively, “What did she mean by grow in power?”
“Hell if I know. All I know is that thing is bad enough already. I don’t want to see it growing any more. I feel like my problems just keep multiplying. No Leyla, Joey out for blood, and now a bug guy on growth hormones, it’s like the hits just keep coming.”
“Hopefully we’ll find Leyla at Miller Crossing; Charise will find something on the Daunatori-thingy; and remember what I said about Joey: you can always turn state’s evidence, and he’ll never find you again.”
“Actually there is something you could do for me, Detective.”
“You could let me look at the case file your buddies Lennon and Romsky have on Terence the Chopper.”
“Are you fucking serious? You already have too many rhino-dick sized problems, don’t be adding Terence’s elephant dick to your plate.”
“Sadly he’s already on my plate, so it’s better to just know what I’m up against. Think you could swing it?”
“Of course I could, but you already owe me pretty huge for all the shit you’ve been putting me through lately. What exactly am I getting out of this deal, Connor? Seems like lately you’ve been treating me like your personal gumshoe and taxi service with nothing to show for it.”
“If I swing it right, sweetheart, your department will end up with Terence.”
The remaining drive was uneventful. Connor nodded off a bit here and there as the cruiser sped down the dark, mostly empty highway. His brief periods of lucidity were filled with worry. He was in way too deep and he knew it. Life had somehow become this big ball of insanity and danger that was constantly threatening to crush him. He had no choice but to keep running and hope he could eventually get away from it. He had always tried to be so careful, to play it safe. How had all of his planning and meticulousness gone so awry? Somehow he knew that it had all started the moment he had let the blonde dame in the halter into his life. Curses, mobsters, and magic tricks and somehow this girl was at the center of it. He hoped, almost prayed, that this trip would provide answers.
In the dark, Millers’ Crossing was not much to look at. It was the glow of a few streetlamps, one of those little stops that you only took the exit to if you were desperately low on gas or full on urine. Connor tried to blink away the exhaustion as the cruiser slowed and took the exit ramp down into the tiny little waystation.
It had once been the crossroads of two highways that wound their way across the state. Now, since most people just stuck to the interstate, the collection of houses, gas stations, and restaurants was mostly ignored. Connor tried to work up some pity for the people that must live in the little burg. It took a special kind of stubbornness to stand by a place long after any opportunities for income had dried up, and these folks had obviously seen better days. The collection of two convenience stores/fast food chains and one diner was mostly a testimony on the dangers of peeling paint and unrepaired walls. The rest of the town was filled with a tiny trailer park, a small block of houses, and one building that may have been a school at one point. The cruiser pulled into the more brightly lit of the two gas stations and stopped at the pump.
Connor stretched his body, grateful to be out of the stuffy car. He walked stiff-legged into the tiny convenience store, feeling an angry hunger in his belly and a powerful need for another cup of coffee. The bell dinged and an elderly man with sagging, sallow skin looked up. Something about the man felt off. Connor couldn’t put his finger on it, something about the eyes. They just had this hollow, empty look about them that caused Connor’s skin to crawl. He could feel the sunken eyes following him this way and that as he went up and down the aisles of the tiny store.
It was as well stocked as any little market in the middle of the backwater could be, and Connor picked out an energy drink, a bag of chips, and a candy bar. He put them on the counter, the hollow-eyed man emptily gazing at him all the while. The man’s mouth was open and his face expressionless as he stared at Connor. Connor looked around and began to feel quite nervous all of a sudden.
“Can we, um, speed it along, gramps? Take too much longer, and I might die of starvation here.”
The man continued to stare.
“You sure do got a killer business model here, don’t you? I mean, if you take too much longer, I might just give you a twenty and call it even.”
The man continued to stare.
“Or maybe I’ll just take it, since you don’t seem to care.”
The man continued to stare.
“Do I got something on my face, grandpa? Why the hell aren’t you saying anything to me?”
“You shouldn’t be at the crossroads during the witching hour.” The man’s voice was weathered and wispy as if it were coming out of a gramophone. It chilled Connor to the bone.
“You shouldn’t be at the crossroads during the witching hour. I can see the mark on you.”
“Wow, sorry gramps, I didn’t know you were trippin’. I’ll just leave you to your high.”
The old man’s hand struck out like lightning from behind the counter. The speed of the movement shocked Connor almost as much as the strength at which the man gripped him. “Don’t take the deal! Don’t do what she did. There is no price high enough in exchange.”
“You’re talking in riddles, old man. What deal? What crossroads?”
“You should go home. Go home and put a gun to your head. It would be better for you than what lies ahead.”
An eerie chill worked its way up Connor’s spine as he stood motionless, looking into those hollow eyes until a bell rang to announce another patron had arrived. Lizzie’s voice broke his petrified gaze. “Connor! Come on.”
He looked at her and blinked. He hadn’t realized up until that moment how long it had been since he had blinked last. His eyes felt dry and irritated, and he found himself blinking several more times to ease their painful remonstrations. “Huh?”
“I’m gassed up, let’s go.”
He looked back, and the old man was off sweeping the floor, his eyes still on Connor. Connor allowed Lizzie to pull him away, but couldn’t break the stare until she had dragged him out by the arm. When the sallow skinned figure was out of sight, he finally found the will to redirect his attention back to the cruiser. “That has to be the creepiest old geezer I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Maybe he’s just tired of punks like you coming for snacks in the middle of the night.”
“You didn’t think there was anything off about that guy?”
Lizzie shrugged, “Maybe a little, but he’s a gas station employee in the ass end of nowhere. The dude is four teenagers and one abandoned cabin from being a cliché. He probably practices being vaguely creepy for a living, just in case the opportunity ever comes up.”
“Liz, you really need to work on cultivating a healthy sense of paranoia.”
“Connor, you need to shut the fuck up and get in the car.”
The cruiser was moving again before Connor had even shut the door completely. Lizzie turned on a GPS program on her phone and navigated the scenic byways of Millers’ Crossing, taking a long, surprisingly windy dirt road. She clicked the program off when the device could no longer even find the road they were on, but still she remained on the curvy stretch of empty road. Connor ate hastily then gulped down the energy drink, shifting his gaze from window to window.
Everything was pitch black, and the headlamps provided the only illumination. He kept expecting an attack from the darkness at any moment, but it never came. It was still another fifteen minutes before the nearly washed out track of dirt finally led to a tiny series of trailers so far out in middle of nowhere that Connor wasn’t even entirely sure how the mobile homes got electricity and running water, if they had any. The Cruiser ground to a halt just on the edge of the aluminum bivouac.
“If you were trying to kill me somewhere where nobody would ever find the body, you sure did pick the right place.”
“Oh, I’ve got friends at the morgue if I need to make a corpse disappear.” She didn’t even give a hint of sarcasm. “Keep that in mind the next time you decide to piss me off.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Detective O’Shea. So why have we come to the final burial ground of the Winnebago?”
“This is the last listed address for Laura DuCaine.”
“Then what are we stopped here for?”
“Are you fucking mental? Were you huffing more paint in that convenience store than you usually do? It’s the middle of the fucking night, dumbass. We’ll wait until morning and make the rounds. With any luck, someone will be there who still remembers her.”
“And what are we going to do until then?”
“We’re going to fuck like rabbits until we tear the upholstery off the seats and break the suspension. What do you think we’re going to do? It’s nighttime, we’re going to catch some shut-eye.”
“Are you insane? You want to just stay still and let the Om de Daunatori catch up to me?” He was remembering Eileen’s face as the eyeballs fell from their sockets. “Have I not communicated successfully how much I do not want to meet this thing again?”
“Connor, take a breath. If I wanted whiny bitching, I could call my sister any day of the year. That thing is hundreds of miles away: you said it can’t jump over here and you were easily able to get away from it on a bicycle. You’re safe, now chill out.”
Lizzie reclined the seat all the way back and rolled over. It wasn’t even five minutes before Connor heard the snoring. Connor tried to shut his eyes, but the mix between the energy drink and the unadulterated fear kept his eyelids glued open. Outside the noise of crickets was deafening. His heart raced as he realized he was completely surrounded by bugs. The cacophony set his teeth on edge. It was going to be a long night.