Sunday, 20 November 2016

Baby Writing Challenge SUPER//OVERTIME//MODE Story Eighteen: "The Disappearance of Harry Glass"

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we're here at the penultimate story. It's taken me a long time to write this one (almost a month this time) because of all the late night work stuff that's been cropping up. Oh, and having two kids to help bring up too. Raising kids is important because if I do it right, then I can start delegating all the housework to them.

They're lucky we don't have any chimneys that need sweeping.

This story was inspired by the word 'ultrasound', which was suggested by a good friend of mine from university, someone's whose kindness and generosity with hummus on toast knew no bounds. The random genre picker gave me 'occult detective', which was initially a bit of a headscratcher.

After an unrelated chat with my wife about one of her childhood excursions, I had a perfect setting. That's right. This place is real.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "The Disappearance of Harry Glass."





The Disappearance of Harry Glass

The ‘All-Seeing’ Inspector Esper was a fraud, but everyone knew that already. You might’ve seen him on television in the late 1970s in ‘Inspector Esper Investigates' or possibly in the mid-80s in ‘Inspector Esper: Lost and Found.’ Trashy psychic television, but very popular back then. You definitely wouldn’t have seen anything of him on the main channels recently; he’d had a psychic phone-in slot on a digital channel for a while, pinned between sports news and more risqué late night programming. It'd been the last gig I'd been able to swing for him.

In fact, it’d been so long since we’d last spoken that I'd forgotten he was still signed up with my agency.

Simon!” he slurred down the phone. “How are you?”

I sighed. It wasn’t even three in the afternoon and he sounded falling down drunk. He’d always liked a good time, especially when he had nothing worth celebrating.

Umm...hello Mister -” I started to reply.

Inspector!” he interrupted.

Memories of our shared past started surfacing, like how he'd only answer to his stage name. It had made socialising with him excruciating.

Ah...hello 'Inspector Esper'. It's been quite a while!”

His stage name was a bad joke: Extrasensory Perception. ESP. Esper. I’d broken free of him after everything had gone sour, after I'd realised that I was going to survive the collapse of the 'Esper' brand, but that the 'Inspector' would not. We'd had dinner at my house to commiserate. It hadn't gone well.

Has Miriam forgiven...” he boomed.

My wife and the co-owner of the agency was working across the desk from me. She overheard and shook her head without ever looking up.

She was never that fond of our wedding china,” I said, making apologetic eyes at the top of her head. “What can I do for you?”

I've got it, Simon!”

Got what?” I replied, but I was starting to lose interest already. It'd been a long time since I'd had to lean on one client, to rely on gimmicky 'psychic detectives', and this was an unwelcome reminder of my humble beginnings. I toyed with the paperclips in my desk tidy. How long a chain would they make all connected together?

A way back! A way back into the limelight!”

I started linking them together, pinning the phone between my ear and my shoulder. After Lost and Found collapsed and it became obvious that the whole Esper thing was over, I'd get phone calls from him a few times a month with ideas on how to recapture his old glory – all terrible. A psychic cookery show? How would that even work? The frequency of his calls gradually diminished, but they'd never completely ceased.

A man has vanished...” he said in ‘the voice’. I remembered it well; the sound brought back the stink of sweaty dressing rooms and wood glue from cheaply assembled sets.

You mean, someone's disappeared,” I said, linking two more clips together. “Happens all the time.”

But this is a mystery!” he continued. “No-one knows where he's gone!”

I think you’ll find that most people who disappear stay gone.”

Thirty more seconds. I had a client waiting to talk about his new dog food commercial. ‘Esper’ was so far in my past that he was basically fossilised. Perhaps he heard the impatience in my voice. I certainly wasn’t trying to hide it.

It's sheer gold!” he enthused. “A 24-carat mystery!”

Well…I’m very busy,” I muttered. It was about half a metre when all the clips were linked. Longer than I’d expected.

There was a long pause.

You owe me, Simon,” he said quietly.

I did. I owed him more than I could repay, a pit that nothing could ever fill. I hadn’t ever expected the debt to be called in. More fool me.

I’m listening,” I said eventually.

Just meet me,” he said. “I’m staying at the RoadMaster hotel near Swindon. Do you know it?”

I did, back from the days when I couldn’t afford anything better.

I’ll meet you tomorrow morning, but I’ll only stay if you’re sober,” I warned. Without looking up, my wife shook her head in disappointment. She'd always thought that I indulged him too much.

Capital! Absolutely capital! Breakfast is on me!” he boomed and hung up before I could tell him not to bother.

***

Even with my low expectations, the RoadMaster breakfast was disappointing. ‘The Inspector’ had gone all out to impress me and had sprung for two “Super Deluxe Emperor Class” breakfasts. I looked at my plate with an expression halfway between sorrow and revulsion. Every foodstuff seemed to be leaking a different liquid.

So…” I said, pushing the plate to one side, untouched. “You’ve got me here. What do you want?”

The mask slipped for a second; his thick bottom lip sagged. For a second, my old drinking pal was back and that ridiculous Esper character was gone. It only took a second for the delusion to re-establish themselves: the infection ran deep.

A genuine mystery…an inexplicable disappearance…” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper.

He’d aged badly. Booze and stress do that to you. He was too pale and there was a distinct tremble to his thin fingers and double chin. Drugs perhaps or just alcohol?

Look,” I said, eyeing my coffee suspiciously. “You’ve got to have more than that.”

A security guard went missing at a theme park in Cornwall, right after he’d had a blazing row with the owner. The CCTV footage shows him going in, but not coming back out. He’s not been seen for a week.”

Ah…the grisly murder angle. That could hook viewers if it was done right.

Are the police involved?” I said, chancing a sip of my drink. It tasted of dish soap and nothing else.

No,” the Inspector smiled. “They’re not interested, but this man is just gone!”

How do you know all this?”

Esper winked. I sighed: artificial mystery was so juvenile.

This is pretty thin, but...fine,” I said and went to stand.

Actually,” Esper said. “I’ve left my wallet in my room. Could you pay?”

***

It was raining gently and I had to slow the car because the autumn leaves were melting into slush. It’d been hours since I’d left the hotel and over an hour since the ‘Psychic Investigation Mobile’ had been in my rear view mirror.

When I’d seen it out in the car park, I’d actually felt a wave of nostalgia for the old days.
Good god! Where did you find it?”

The Inspector beamed widely.

Sitting out the back of the studio. No-one touched it after the show folded.”

That prompted a little pang of guilt, but I had enough scar tissue over that wound these days that it was only momentary.

I touched it gently, like it would suddenly pop like a soap bubble. It seemed to be in an even better state than when we'd used it on the show. Someone had meticulously repainted the logo on the doors. The bodywork had been polished to a shine. The tyres were all so new, they still had workshop marks on them. The Mobile was a work of love.

Esper just stood there, smiling. There was no artifice in that expression. I'd risked a grin back at him. It had been a good way for us to separate, but I hadn't seen the Investigation Mobile in my mirrors in over an hour. I suspected he'd gotten lost.

A promise was a promise, though. I'd help him with this 'investigation', take photos and film, he'd cut it into an 'Inspector Esper' one-off special and I'd try and sell it to someone. That was it; the debt would be repaid and there would be no more favours.

I got out into the drizzle and popped the boot of my car open. It was crammed full of filming equipment that Esper had hired, though why I had to carry it all in my car was a mystery. He'd just muttered something about suspension springs and fuel efficiency. I grabbed a camera and took a few pictures of the exterior of 'Fairytale Woods'.

Much like my old friend, this theme park's glory days were well in the past. The paint was peeling from the signs and the noticeboard near the entrance carried promotions months out of date. Even the chain link fence around the outside had rusted through and sagged down in a few places.

Through the fence, you could just see the titular woods and dozens of stationary figures inside the tree line. What was this place?

The Investigation Mobile swung into the car park with a loud pop from its exhaust pipe and an accompanying belch of black smoke. When Esper jumped out, I fixed him with a glare. He furrowed his brow.

I remember you being less serious, old chap,” he said. “Lighten up a bit.”

Let's just get this over with,” I muttered and we headed over to the entrance booth. There were no other cars in the car park and it might've been hours since the last admission; the attendant in the booth – a pretty girl in her early twenties with black hair – was reading a magazine with her feet up on the counter.

Esper approached the kiosk with a smirk.

Hello my dear,” he said, attempting a glint in his eye.

Two adults? £8 please,” she said, only looking up once from her magazine.

Perhaps you recognise me?” he continued.

No. £8 please,” she muttered, turning a page.

You might recognise me from the television,” Esper tried.

At that, the girl looked up and scrutinised his face as if it was a priceless antique.
No,” she said eventually. “I don’t. £8,” she said flatly and went back to her magazine.

I’m actually a celebrity,” he said.

£8,” she said curtly.

Esper's shoulders sagged. It was unpleasant to watch his pomposity punctured so brutally.
I'll pay,” I said and dumped some loose change onto the counter. I started counting through it, but the girl just waved us through dismissively.

My old friend stumbled his way into the theme park and I suddenly noticed that he had a lot more grey hairs than in his glory days. I did too, though hopefully the peak of my own career was still somewhere ahead of me. As much as this whole trip annoyed me, I couldn't bear to see him like that.

Never mind,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “She's probably too young to remember your show.”

He brightened a little and stooped less.

Hey,” I continued, “remember when we did that episode where you found that murdered monk buried outside Lincoln Cathedral. That was a good one.”

Esper smiled. It had been the highest rated episode of “Inspector Esper Investigates.” We dug up the 'skeleton' of a 'murdered monk' after painstakingly piecing together 'ancient' clues and finally resorting to the Inspector's renowned psychic insight. It was a good show; we thought it'd last forever.

So...what do you think?” he said, gesturing at the woods.

Dotted here and there were fibreglass statues of all kinds. Over by the edge of the woods, I could see a group of gnomes sitting down for a tea party. Alongside one of the paths, Cinderella was climbing into her pumpkin coach, flanked by her attendants. To our front, sculptures of the different types of staff here smiled and beckoned us further in.
It was strange. The fibreglass statues seemed to have been made by someone who was more of an enthusiastic amateur than a skilled artist. The gnomes had been sloppily painted with what must have been an interior paint: weathering was causing it to come off in colourful strips. The Cinderella statue looked like a beautiful waxwork had been pushed down a flight of stairs a few times before being forced to watch something horrifying. The metal skeletons of the attendants to our front had begun to rust and a few of them dripped rust from between their uneven teeth.

I think I need to get a tetanus booster,” I said.
No...seriously.”

I think £4 per person is way too high.”

Esper snorted.

You have no romance in your soul,” he said.

I bit my lip. I had a proper job with actual commitments, all of which I was ignoring to be here.

Besides, there are thirty acres of statues,” he said. “The value for money is tremendous.”

I sighed irritably and shifted the camera strap from one shoulder to the other.

Let's go and talk to the manager,” he suggested, pointing to a sign dangling from the security guard statue's arm that read “OFFICES”.

I nodded. I'd give him until after lunch, then I'd go – debt or no.

We crunched along a gravel path, softened with mulching autumn leaves.

So...how did you find out about this vanished security guard?” I said, feeling that some effort at reconciliation on my part might be warranted.

Well...I used to come here with little James before...”

The silence was deafening.

Yeah,” I replied sympathetically.

I still come here from time to time. Just to think really.”

I stayed silent. A cold wind shoved past us.

Anyway, I overheard some of the staff whispering. They think the owner – Bob Arrowsmith is his name – killed this guard called Harry and hid the body somewhere in the woods. Apparently, he's got quite a temper and they were weighing up whether to tell the police. I just thought finding a murder victim would be the perfect thing to get us back on TV.”

I didn't mention that I had quite a few clients these days and that they were all frequently on TV.

Our route took us past a garish and lumpen collection of statues. Recognition tickled at the back of my mind as we approached. Their construction was crude; their decoration rushed. They were mainly pink, they were short, there was some sort of marking or logo on their stomachs and they were holding multicoloured lumps of things. It was all vaguely familiar.

The Magical Fairy Friends,” Esper explained. “They were on in the early '90s.”

It hit me like a thunderbolt. Of course, they were. I remembered the incessant adverts.

You've got a good memory,” I said.

I’ve gotten to know all of the statues in the Woods,” he said sadly.

We walked on in silence. There was a queasy feeling in my stomach, like I was skirting the edge of a deep, dark pit.

Further on, past what I assumed was a teddy bears' picnic, was a small cluster of prefab buildings with ADMIN neatly spray painted on the wall of the largest. The windows were small and grimy, but a warm yellow glow radiated through them.

Footage, Simon, footage,” Esper instructed. “We'll do the scene setting today and tomorrow we'll construct the narrative and do some interviews.”

Tomorrow! He expected me to hang around tomorrow as well! I wouldn't make a scene now, but I had my agency's accounts to validate and there was no way I was hanging around this dingy tourist trap for another day. By the end of today, my lip would be bloody from all this biting.

I filmed the clusters of statues in my eye line and a few ‘spontaneous’ monologues from Esper that sounded thoroughly preprepared. How the park's owner spotted us filming through windows that dirty, I had no idea but he scurried over to us quickly, frantically doing up his tie as he did. This must be Bob Arrowsmith, I decided: slight of frame and with a moustache like a rodent terrified by a cat every day. He did not look like a murderer, but then I'd never met one before. He did look annoyed, though.

Esper caught him off balance before he could even start.

Mr Arrowsmith! How perfectly charming to meet you! You probably recognise me from the television?”

Were you on Antiques Roadshow?” Mr Arrowsmith said, baffled.

Esper's shoulders drooped slightly, but he rallied after a few seconds of self-doubt.

No, I was...and am the star of a police-themed investigative program,” Esper smiled and I tried not to roll my eyes.

The little man looked worried. His fingers clenched up into his palms, knuckles turning white.

You're with the police?” he squeaked.

Just call me 'Inspector',” Esper beamed. I shook my head. If this wasn't illegal, it was damn close.

Glancing over our shoulders into the deserted park for visitors, Bob Arrowsmith got us into the safety of his prefab with indecent haste. For a building so dirty on the outside, the inside was meticulously clean and tidy. I'd never seen rubber bands arranged in size order before.

You must be here about Harry?” Arrowsmith began, picking up a paper clip between pairs of well-manicured fingernails. He started flexing it nervously. Maybe Esper really was on to something here; fear radiated off the man like a stench.

You mean...the vanishing?” Esper said dramatically. I think he'd forgotten that I wasn't filming this and I certainly wasn't going to until Arrowsmith gave some sort of consent.
Arrowsmith bent the clip involuntarily, then looked at it in shock. That queasy feeling was back in my stomach. Something wasn't right here, but I just couldn't say what it was.

I don't know anything!” Arrowsmith hissed between his small, even teeth. “No matter what my staff say, I don't know anything.”

Was this heading towards some sort of confession already? The man seemed under so much strain that he might crack at any moment. The camera was in the satchel on my lap. Could I get it out quickly enough if something dramatic happened?

Just tell us in your own words,” Esper said, fixing him with a penetrating stare. I'd forgotten how good he was at this. Maybe a resurrection of 'Inspector Esper' wasn't completely out of the question.

There's nothing to tell!” Arrowsmith said. “I caught Harry snogging Amy – she runs the kiosk at the entrance. This place is for children! I told him that he couldn't do that sort of thing at work and he blew up and stomped off into the park to do the night time checks. That's all!”

So...how do you know he didn't just go home?” the Inspector pressed.

His stuff's still in his locker and he didn't clock out at the end of his shift. I've got the staff to search the grounds, but this place is huge – he could be anywhere!”

A wave of nausea struck me and I excused myself out into the fresh air. It didn't help at all. I breathed deeply and tried to focus.

Esper followed me out a few minutes later and looked at me suspiciously.

What's wrong?” he asked, irked.

Nothing. Probably just that breakfast of yours I didn't eat,” I joked weakly.

The shadows were starting to lengthen; the darkness between the trees was deepening. If Arrowsmith was lying about Harry, he was at least accurate about one thing. It'd be impossible to search the woods thoroughly without a massive team.

Arrowsmith says this Harry fellow's probably just run off to a bar after the argument, but I think he's hugely overestimating how intimidating he is. And it's been a whole week!”
I spat a mouthful of bitter saliva onto the gravel and ground it in with my shoe. I didn't reply; Esper watched me closely.

Anyway, Arrowsmith says we're welcome to film in the park and look for his missing security guard, but that he's got final refusal over anything that shows his park in a bad light.”

Four statues that looked like neon slugs wearing top hats watched us from a thicket of trees. Mildew covered them like a veil. Personally, I didn't think this place needed much help to appear in a 'bad light'.

He's invited us to a birthday party that's on this evening. I think he wants to convince us that everything here's above board. Some kid's turning six: there'll be balloons and cake in the picnic area and they're going to light up the nearby statues – that sort of thing.”

Finally, I spoke.

A kid wants their birthday tea here?” I said incredulously.

They love it here,” Esper replied. “Little James always did.”

I didn't know what to say. He walked off without a word. I followed after.

I wouldn't want my birthday party here if I was a child,” I said to break the silence.

They see things differently,” he replied quietly. “You never had children, did you?”

At that, I stopped talking too and we walked along, two old men filled with regret.

By the time we reached the picnic area, the sun was setting and, as promised, mobile spotlights were starting to light up different fairy tale tableaux. If the nearest one really was Little Miss Muffett on her tuffet, her expression on her face said that the spider surprising her was of the deadly venomous variety.

Nevertheless, the children there seemed to be having a marvellous time: running and shrieking with delight. The ache in my gut spread behind my eyes and anxiety clutched at my throat. It was strange having a panic attack around all these happy children. They were all so oblivious to the dirt and decay of this place in a way I could never regain. The dozen parents there were all distractedly tapping at their smartphones. The two security guards sat nearby wandered over as we approached.

Mr Arrowsmith called ahead,” the guard rasped, gesturing at her radio. “We've spoken to the father of the birthday boy – Peter - and he's fine for you to be here.”

A man with a bushy moustache and a belly straining a neatly-ironed red t-shirt came over and the guards left.

The name's Eric Kellogg – Peter's dad,” he boomed cheerfully. “Are you the police?”
Esper nodded and I wondered whether I could be arrested for not contradicting his impersonation.

You seem familiar,” the man continued. “Do I know you?”

Esper beamed.

Were you that copper who got suspended 'cos he shagged the suspect?”

His face crumpled.

No...wait. You did that psychic detective thing, didn't you? From ages back.”

Esper nodded enthusiastically.

God, that was naff!” he laughed. “I bet you're really embarrassed you ever did that!”

He clapped Esper on the shoulder but he was so rigid that it was like he’d slapped a wooden plank.

Not really,” my old friend said sternly.

Hey! Don't get me wrong. It was crap, but I loved it! I even watched the 'Psychic Ultrasound' special when you ballsed it all up!”

I froze. I'd hoped I'd never hear 'psychic ultrasound' ever again. Even with his back to me, it felt like Esper was staring right at me.

I retreated from my old friend, ashamed. Occasionally, the growing tension in their argument would inspire a parent to look up from their phone, but the kids were oblivious to the whole confrontation.

Maybe the two guards would know something useful, I thought. They eyed me suspiciously.

We're looking into the disappearance of one of your colleagues - 'Harry'.” I said. “Did you know him well?”

Who?” the female guard rasped.

Harry the security guard. He went missing about a week ago,” I explained.

Never heard of him,” the guard's partner said, scratching at his jaw.

Mr Arrowsmith had a row with him just before he vanished. Harry. The security guard,” I tried.

They looked at each other, then back at me.

Listen,” the woman said. “I've worked here three years and there's never been anyone by the name of Harry working here.”

Thoroughly confused, I retreated. It was getting dark quickly. All of the spotlights had now clicked on, but the darkness sucked their illumination away. It was just a trick of the light, though: using small lights in a vast space would always have that effect. Why was it making me anxious? What was the source of the fear that was knotting up my guts?

The Inspector was still talking to Eric, now arguing about the merits of the 'Esper' franchise. The children were having a merry time. Torches had been handed out and they were running in between the statues, thoroughly enjoying scaring each other by jumping out with screams and shouts.

Walking back to Esper, I overheard two of the mothers talking.

So...Social Services are investigating apparently. Those bruises on the boy's arms? Everyone knows Eric's got a temper,” one whispered.

I looked over at the man in the red t-shirt still arguing with Esper. He had an amused look on his face; clearly, he only had a temper with people smaller than him. The two women saw me eavesdropping and clammed up immediately. I smiled thinly and walked on quickly.
A small crowd was gathering around Esper and Eric. They were debating whether this grey old man was actually the Psychic Inspector. One of the women was holding up their smartphone, having pulled a frame from the show off the internet. She was looking backwards and forwards between the real and electronic Inspectors.

Nah,” she said. “I don't...”

Her phone went dark.

What the hell?” she hissed. “It was at 95 percent.”

Other phones in other hands died. There was a murmur of surprise from the crowd.

I...” said Eric, just before the children's torches went out.

A few people shouted in alarm, but the kids just kept playing as if nothing had happened: laughing and running and shoving each other into the statues. They didn't even pause.

Then everything else died: spotlights, the security guards' flashlights, my glowing watch face. Everything.

I had never known it so dark.

Everyone started talking at once. Someone bumped into me and recoiled. The children played on as if it was broad daylight.

Katie?” a man yelled shrilly. “Katie! Come here sweetheart!”

None of the children answered. None of them had reacted, wherever they were. They still chattered to each other somewhere in the inky black, a carefree counterpoint to their panicking parents. Somewhere, everywhere, small feet ran back and forth.

Then the dread came, anxiety so smothering that it fell on me like a tonne of black cloth. My heart started to pound and my mouth went dry. Everyone felt it; everyone went silent. 

Everyone, but the children.

I tried to speak, but I was clenching my teeth so hard that I couldn't force the words out.
There was a sob from the darkness next to me. I put out my hand but didn't touch anyone. But for the crying, I could’ve been marooned in deep space.

By the light of a few glinting stars, I saw the outline of something moving in the darkness.

I started backing away from it but collided with someone behind me. Everyone had been backing away from everywhere and now we all pinned together in a tight little knot. Fingers grabbed at my clothes and my face and always, always the children laughed. Someone fell and I tripped over then, crashing to an unseen floor.

Waves of intense cold washed across me. I flinched against its lash whenever it came.

Every sound became muffled and distant though, just once, I heard someone scream.

Suddenly, the world snapped back with a pain that roared through my head.

All the lights were back on.

The children still playing; the adults were still checking their phones.

Esper slouched alone, a vacant look on his face. The man in the red t-shirt was gone. He'd vanished.

Where's that man gone?” I demanded.

Esper looked at me in surprise.

What man?”

The little boy's father,” I insisted.

What?”

Fat man. Argumentative. Had a moustache.”

Not ringing any bells, sport. What was his name again?” Esper yawned.

It'd gone. The man's name had gone and there was nothing but a blank spot in my brain.

I can't remember,” I admitted eventually and shrugged.

Esper yawned.

All of the adults looked away from their phones at the same time. The children stopped playing at exactly the same moment and started drifting back slowly. One of the women scooped up a young boy.

Did you have a nice birthday Peter?” she said soothingly. “I'll take you home to your Mum. It's a shame that work called her in, but I've done a good enough job of looking after you, haven't I?””

The little boy didn't say anything.

The parents all collected their children and slipped away a few at a time, until it was just the two security guards with us. After a minute of awkward silence, they went too. The Inspector and I were left standing in the circle of spotlights, gazing out at shadowy statues of vaguely familiar characters. There was something deeply wrong here.

Esper knelt down and picked up one of the torches that the children had left behind.

Right then,” he muttered. “Where shall we go first?”

I'd made up my mind.

I think...I think I need to go,” I said. “This Harry chap can find himself.”

Esper gaped at me.

But we're not finished! He's here somewhere – I know it! Arrowsmith killed him and his body's somewhere out here. This could be huge Simon!”

There's something wrong here.”

But...this is my chance. Our chance!”

I'm going home. It was nice seeing you again.”

I turned to leave. Esper hissed in fury.

You owe me, Simon. You ruined everything.”

I hadn't meant to. The ratings for the last series of 'Inspector Esper: Lost and Found' had started slipping and I'd panicked. That's when I had the idea for Esper LIVE: Psychic Ultrasound Special. He'd been dead against it but, as each week's fallen rating came in, I slowly ground him down.

Inspector Esper had always been clear with his fans that his remarkable detecting skills were down to his 'psychic ultrasound', which 'penetrated the boundaries between good and evil, guilt and innocence, dark and light.' The episode was my idea: a live event, suitably rigged, to demonstrate his uncanny powers of detection. Esper versus three detectives from real police forces in a mock crime scene packed with fingerprints, riddles and scraps of fabric, all under the all-seeing eye of the television cameras. The whole event had been designed by an external agency and kept top secret from everyone, but I'd found out enough to give Esper the edge. It was going to be brilliant.

Or so I thought. On live national television, in front of an audience of millions, Esper had been soundly thrashed at every turn. The show had finished with the three real detectives having solved the 'crime', while Esper was still stumbling about with a miserable expression on his face.

Ironically, it'd been our highest rated show ever. It had also been the last.

I'm sorry,” I said, shaking my head.

Esper exploded.

Don't you understand? The show is literally all I have left! It hurt when the show got cancelled and it hurt being ridiculed in every paper in the goddamn country after your goddamn Special, but I got up and kept going!”

Spittle started collecting in the corner of his mouth; his eyes were wild.

But when little James...when little James went, I had nothing. Nothing at all! When I die, all that’ll be left will be a few people who remember me as a laughing stock and then there'll be nothing at all. I will not be forgotten!”

Tears started rolling down his face.

I didn't mean to,” he sobbed. “I checked the tyres before we left. I promise we did. You believe me, don't you?”

I reached out across the gulf between us and patted his shoulder.

The police believed me but when I saw his little face, I knew that he didn't believe me!”

I'm so sorry,” I repeated, “but I'm going to go now.”

Fine!” Esper spat. “Alone then!”

He ran off into the darkness. I didn't follow. I was afraid of what was out there. I could still feel the memory of that cold scrutiny washing over my skin.

I walked slowly back to the entrance, lost in thought. Something bad had happened back at the birthday party, but the memory had gone. I could feel the edges of the absence like it was a missing tooth.

We'd also never found what happened to the security guard. Harry. His name was Harry. If he had been murdered, we'd not uncovered anything. The two of us were just enthusiastic amateurs after all.

A light in the darkness caught my eye. Arrowsmith was working late. I should've walked on, but the guard's disappearance bothered me. Harry's disappearance. The guard was called Harry. Why had none of his colleagues remembered him? If it was gossip between the staff that brought us here, where had the gossip gone?

I walked to the office quickly. Any faster and I'd have to admit to myself that there was something here that I was deathly afraid of. The air was colder than it had any right to be, so cold that the autumnal smells had frozen from the air. More and more, the illuminated office seemed less of a destination and more of a safe haven.

I grasped the door to the office, leapt through and shut it heavily behind me. I had the overwhelming feeling that something had been following close behind.

Arrowsmith was seated behind his desk, a sheaf of papers in his hand. He didn't look surprised enough at someone bursting into his office at night. He just about managed a faintly perplexed expression.

Ah…you again,” he said drily. “How can I help this time?”

The sheaf of papers in his hand didn't move.

I have more questions about the missing guard,” I started, but he interrupted me.

What missing guard?”

I stared at him and at the papers.

The...guard. The one we talked to you about this morning. He went missing. His name was...”


I tailed off in confusion. I thought the name had gone, but it suddenly burst out of my mouth.

Harry! Harry the security guard.”

Arrowsmith looked puzzled, like I was asking him about some long forgotten acquaintance. Eventually, he started speaking slowly.

Oh, yeah. Harry went missing. Is still missing. How strange. I was about to shred his file.”

Finally, he passed the papers to me. The ink scrawled on the paper was so faded that it was barely legible.

“When did he start here?” I said, holding it up to the light.

Three weeks ago,” Arrowsmith answered.

The ink looked decades old. I continued reading. There was much that was unremarkable until the section on criminal convictions.

ASSAULT ON A MINOR – 2 YEARS SERVED

Did you know that...” I started, but the guard's name had slipped my mind again.

I reread the top of the file.

Did you know that Harry Worthington was convicted of...”

"Who?” Arrowsmith interjected.

I paused. Who had I been talking about? Why was I reading blank papers? I shook my head. Arrowsmith looked at me; I looked at him. Neither of us knew what I was doing there.
The moment was broken by a terrified scream from outside. The hairs on my neck lifted. bolted for the door and ran out into the night. There was another scream, but weaker, fainter.

I ran. My friend was in trouble.

The moon had slipped out from behind a cloud, but its quarter shape provided scant illumination. Figures – statues – loomed at me, half-remembered echoes of a distant childhood. They played together in tight groups, staring and motionless. The icy cold gazed at me from the darkness, chilling my flesh.

Where was he?

Esper?” I called. “Esper!”

A group of dwarfs clustered around a fallen lady. They'd all weathered badly, apart from the eyes which watched me as I went. I ran past.

Esper!” I shouted, but there was no reply.

Harry Glass, you answer me right now!”

I couldn't remember the last time I'd called him Harry Glass. Not since James had died, certainly. Not since he'd told me not to. Harry Glass had been complicit, but ‘Inspector Esper’ was not.

Harry! Harry, you moron! Answer me!”

Past Humpty Dumpty sitting on his wall, red t-shirt stretched tight across his stomach, I turned left. Fear was crushing my heart, but my friend was here somewhere. I had a debt to him, after all.

I stopped, wheezing and clutched at my knees. Somewhere, sometime, I'd gotten old.

I was weak; it pounced.

The blackness came back with tsunami force; my previous terror had only been at its edges. Now I was the focus.

I was crushed. My ribs were cracked open and my heart observed. Searing cold peered in through my eyeballs at my thoughts. I was a butterfly, splayed open and pinned down in front of the universe.

I thrashed at it, but my fists passed straight through the air.

It wrapped me tighter, squeezing my arms against my ribs. Air whistled past my ears, like an endless inwards breath from a giant mouth before me.

I was being judged by something that had nothing but contempt for me and people like me. My past was sucked out of my head like marrow from a bone and forensically examined for the slightest transgression.

Any excuse and it would break me, I knew.

It was so cold. Its gaze was killing me. I was desperate to be judged, so it would stop.

With a wrench and a crack, it was over. Reluctantly, I'd been released. A thin layer of frost boiled off my skin. I was free. I was innocent. Innocent of what? What had been judging me?
What was I doing, running through dark woods at my age? Would my heart ever slow down?

A glimmer of light caught my attention and I limped towards it. It was a small torch that had been dropped to the ground near a tableau of figures. I moved closer.

I didn't understand it. It was a man – dressed as some sort of police officer and holding a ridiculously oversized magnifying glass. He was clearly looking for something, but he hadn't seen the cartoonish monsters looming out of every shadow. It was clearly supposed to be something recent because it was all freshly painted, but it was all just as badly sculpted as everything else here. I tried hard to think, but nothing came. It was supposed to be someone famous, but I didn't know who they were. A memory tickled faintly, then was gone.

No matter. I picked up the torch and pointed it at the figure's face. The face was unusually well painted, considering how sloppy the rest of it was. The eyes were very vivid and lifelike but its smile was all wrong. Far too strained to be genuine.

I shook myself. What was I doing wandering around a theme park in the dead of night? I switched the torch off and wandered back to the entrance. There was nothing to see here.

When I woke up in my hotel the next morning, I had a strange feeling like I'd forgotten something so I drove back to the park to see Arrowsmith. We chatted about booking one of my clients to do a charity event at the park. That was why I was there obviously, but we both kept stopping mid-sentence like neither of us really believed it. We shook hands and agreed that I'd find someone. After all, I must have had a few Z-list celebrities on my books who'd be desperate for some free publicity.

I left his office but before I walked back to the car park, I saw a pillar of black smoke rising nearby. I wandered over.

One of the park's staff was throwing statues onto a bonfire. The fibreglass melted and its resin charred. When I asked him what he was doing, he said:

Just getting rid of the old figures. When they get too bad, we just scrap 'em.”

He heaved another figure on the fire, another character that I couldn't recognise. The paint had completely peeled off and it was streaked with rust from the steel pins running through it. It had been battered by the weather but the eyes still were very vivid. Perhaps they used a different paint. Flames started licking at it.

I pointed at another one on the stack. It looked in much better condition.

Yeah, we're scrapping that 'un 'cos the kids don't know who it is. Sometimes we make a statue and the kids just take against it. Out with the old, eh?”

I shook his hand and left the park.

On the drive home, I thought about my old friend Harry Glass and the awful psychic detective show that we used to do. I hadn't thought about him in years. It's the way of things, though: people enter your life, stay for a while and then vanish and you never see them again. That's life.

Not everyone vanishes, though. I smiled at my wife as I got back into our agency, but she was busy with her work and didn't see me. I sat down at my computer and turned it on. The first file that popped open was Harry Glass' file. Maybe that's why I'd been thinking of him. The Fairytale Woods might be the perfect place for people to see 'Inspector Esper' again.
I shook my head. No-one would remember Inspector Esper. He was long gone.


I deleted his file and got back to work.

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