The Lost Girl

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The Lost Girl

Me at the time of my birth. Minny said smile. I met her halfway. I took out my cigarette.

Me at the time of my birth. Minny said smile. I met her halfway. I took out my cigarette.

Warner Bros.

Me at the time of my birth. Minny said smile. I met her halfway. I took out my cigarette.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Me at the time of my birth. Minny said smile. I met her halfway. I took out my cigarette.

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I stopped wondering how normal people celebrate their birthday when I stopped believing there were normal people. It came late, long after I’d stopped believing there was a Tooth Fairy. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Normal People.

My birthday’s not a celebration. That’ll be my funeral. My birthday is when I check in with my god. My god’s name is scotch, and if I’m lucky after we check in I usually check out.

We’d finished the formal introductions in my own private place of worship, my office—a peck here, a peck there, and soon slobby dog kisses. I was looking forward to checking out: my adopted brother Nat So was in D.C., absorbed in state affairs, my cousin Ivana was in Russia, where she belongs, I’d taken a vow of celibacy until Lucy Lawless returned my fan mail, and the September night was the same temperature as my scotch. In other words, I was lonely and a year older.

My assistant, Minny, checked in.

“Hey Dick,” she squeaked, “there’s someone here to see you.”

“He or she?” I asked.

“He.”

“She have bangs?”

“I said ‘He.’”

“How’s her hair? Jet black?”

“It’s a he, Dick.”

“A he-dick? What’s it do, powerlifts?”

Minny gave me a look. “Hide the scotch.” She walked out.

First I kept sipping, then I got paranoid. If this dick could do powerlifts, god knows what else it was capable of.

When the man in question came into the room, I flung the bottle at the nearest wall. It smashed into pieces and bled scotch. I stood up and held out my hand.

“Richard Schlong.”

He was a businessman. No doubt about it. Crisp suit, white shirt, ironed tie. Double chin, mole. Quick eyes. Graying hair. He shook my hand.

“Pleasure,” he said. If that was true, he used pleasure as a synonym for anxiety. “Mike Hunt.”

I look at Minny in the doorway, baffled. “Pleasure… your… ?”

She shook her head, eyes wide.

I cleared my throat. “Won’t you sit?”

We both sat. Minny said, “Coffee, dick?”

“Not since I tripped in that café.”

No one laughed.

“Mr. Hunt?”

“No, thank you,” he said. “Mr. Schlong, I’d like to get right down to it. You’ve heard about Mira Onderwal?”

“The girl that’s missing.”

He nodded. “Right.” He hesitated. “My son is also missing.”

“There’s a connection. And not a positive one. You’re afraid your son will be taken in.”

“How did you… ?”

“It’s my birthday. One year older, one year wiser.”

Minny put away the 40×30 “Client Information” cards she’d been holding.

“Is your son involved in her disappearance?”

He emphatically shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. When she disappeared, he was shocked. He just sat in his room crying. He looked like he was thinking. Really thinking. All the time. Now he’s gone.”

I nodded. “Okay. Any clues?”

Hunt half-shook his head, then went all the way. “No. No.”

I shrugged. Added a sigh for good measure. Didn’t all the wisemen sigh?

“I’ll get started in the morning.”

Hunt pulled on his collar. He cleared his throat. “Actually, I was hoping you could start now.”

I looked at him. He said, “The police will be there in the morning.”

I took out my wallet. It was harder to open than a mummy’s fist. I pried open the folds. Drier than Betty White’s –

“Okay,” I said, and put my wallet away.

The girl had disappeared three towns over, town called Mallory. It took me 25 minutes to get there. The moon was Marilyn Monroe, the clouds her feather boa, and between the two the sky was putting on one hell of a striptease.

The only lights in town came from a corner store. I stopped in.

I had a picture of Mike Hunt’s boy. I showed it to the guy behind the counter. He looked like an Amish country star.

“He stopped in.”

“When?”

He thought. “‘Bout four hours ago.”

“He buy anything?”

“No. He was askin’ questions.”

“About Mira Onderwal?”

He gave me the once-over. “Who are you?”

“Richard Schlong. I’m a private dick.”

He hesitated, then nodded. “He was askin’ about her.”

“What’d you tell him?”

He nodded up. “She went up the mountain.”

I drove to Mount Hur. I climbed it once a year. There was one car in the lot. It was the kid’s.

In 45 minutes I was a third of the way up the hill. I was used to walking trails in the dark. There were fresh tracks. The kid must be desperate. He wasn’t trying to hide.

An hour up I heard twigs crunching. I stopped.

“Harry?”

Silence. I saw a hundred shadows in the light of Marilyn’s peeking.

“I’m a private dick. I’m not going to take you anywhere.”

More silence.

“Look, it’s my birthday. Give me a break.”

A twig crunched. A figure came toward me. Tall. Limber. Lanky.

“Harry Hunt?”

“Yeah.”

He had sandy blond hair and was clearly an athlete.

“You find her?”

“What are you gonna do?”

“I was just hired to find you. I’ve found you. Maybe I can help you.”

Harry put his hands on his hips. “She’s up here.”

“Mira?”

He studied me. “Yeah.”

“Do you know where?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“I’ll help you look.”

We started walking, heading up along the trail.

“She’s been gone three days. Yeah?”

“Yeah.” We walked on. “Is it really your birthday?”

“For a few more hours.” We were halfway up the mountain. “You know why she ran away?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Depressed? Inconsiderate parents? Exchanged candy for drugs?”

He was silent.

“Your dad says you just turned 21.”

“You’re a private detective?”

“Got a license and everything.”

“How can you detect when you talk so much?”

“Oh, just like a bat uses sonar. I translate the echoes. Hey…”

I stopped him and pointed up the hill. There was firelight.

We went off the trail and started crunching up the hill.

“When we get to her, you stay the hell out of it,” the kid said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve read about you guys. Raymond Chandler, ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ knights in cynical armor. All that. The older you get, the wiser you are. You’re more careful, you’re more questioning. Bullshit. Just stay the hell out of it. Okay?”

“You’re awful cynical about it,” I said.

The kid breathed like a dog about to bark, but he just picked up speed.

The firelight was coming from a hole in the ground—the kind of hole a burrowing animal makes. It would’ve been one hell of a big badger. We could fit through standing a little taller than a crouch. I looked for shovel marks. I didn’t see any.

“How do you think she did this?” I asked the kid.

“I don’t know…”

His previously firm jaw was hanging open.

It looked like firelight was flickering from inside the hole.

“You really want to go first?” I asked.

He hesitated. He made his jaw firm again. “I better,” he said.

I didn’t like it. If it wasn’t the girl in there—if it was D. B. Cooper, all holed up with his $200,000—it was very likely the kid would take one to the face. I’d be out a client. And my birthday would be ruined.

But I stepped aside, and followed the kid in.

The hole wound to and fro. It must have been 50 feet long. Then it opened.

It was like something out of a children’s story. We were in a living room.

There was a fire raging in the fireplace. The walls were the yellow reserved for the English countryside and Genesis albums.

The floors were wood, and the boards were uneven, like they’d been placed there around 1922.

Mira Onderwal was on the floor, on her knees. Tear streams had frozen on her cheeks, but fresh tears welled when she saw the kid. She was kneeling beside a rocking chair.

There was a wolf rocking in it. It was taller than me and covered in shaggy grey fur. It was wearing long-sleeve flannel tucked into grey slacks.

“Harry,” it growled. “Dick.”

I looked down, then understood.

Harry said, “Mira…”

She looked at him with a fresh flood of tears.

That was when I noticed time was moving differently—like a glitchy Internet video. We seemed to be skipping frames.

I asked: “What are you?”

The wolf chuckled. Then giggled—a low, basso giggle. Then it laughed.

Its laugh was like a new ozone layer, spreading across the world, and mutilating everyone in it. Sonic pollution.

I said to the kid, “My birthday’s ruined.”

Harry ran for the girl. I couldn’t shout. My lungs were locked.

I saw the wolf leap out of its clothes. Its jaws were pointed toward Harry’s face.

Mira’s shriek was a heart attack.

I looked over my shoulder. The hole was gone.

When I turned back around, the wolf was lunging for my face. Its claws dug into my chest, ripping open my shirt, shedding flesh and spilling blood on the floor.

In that moment, I had this thought process.

The kid compared me to Chandler and Sam Spade…

What was it he called me?

“A knight in cynical armor.”

He’s got me confused with those guys.

I’m not cynical, except about emo-rock and my love life.

I don’t need armor.

Optimism grows your armor into existence.

Spade would die now.

Maybe Marlowe would bite it, too.

I got something they never did.

An iPhone.

But also optimism.

I could taste the wolf’s breath when I punched it in the face.

“It’s my birthday,” I said.

There was a gasp and it was gone.

The place was shrinking, like it was folding in on itself. Mira was getting further away. She was silently sobbing.

Harry was a mutilated mass of bones, flesh, and blood on the wood floor. I said his name and went to him. I touched what was left of him, pulling as if I was going to take the corpse home for dinner.

Instead, I pulled Harry out of the mess. He was transparent.

As the world shrunk, the hole was getting larger. I ran through it, clutching Harry. I stopped when I was in the woods again.

I turned around. The hole was nothing but a dent in the hill.

I looked at Harry. He was looking at himself in shock. I could see the forest through him.

He faced me. “What’s the point in living?” he asked.

I looked back at him. “I don’t think you have to worry about that,” I said.

We started walking down the hill.

When we could see the parking lot, I said, “Anyway, you’ll be a hit on Halloween.”

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