An essay by Curtis Hale, as provided by Nathan Crowder
Art by Luke Spooner
The detective paced the room, making a great show of looking over my arrest report, but it was the ventriloquist dummy in the rumpled blue suit that really held my attention. The detective barely spared me a glance when he came in with the wooden monstrosity. He set it in the chair across from me, picked up my file, and started pacing as he read.
He seemed to notice me for the first time, an apologetic smile flickering across his thin lips. “Don’t mind my partner Detective Pine,” he said.
“Yeah,” the dummy said. “Pretend I’m not even here.”
I almost fell out of my chair. “What the fu–”
The detective interrupted me. “Please, no swearing. It says here that when the officers picked you up, you were driving a 2017 Pegasus 3000XS, pearl white, with dealer plates. You claimed you had recently purchased the vehicle but had not yet transferred title. Is that correct?”
My attention never left Detective Pine, who seemed to be staring at me with his glassy eyes, and I only caught part of what the detective had been saying. “Yeah. I just bought the car.”
“Do you have proof of the transaction? A receipt, perhaps? A cancelled check?”
“A photo of you shaking hands with the previous owners, maybe?” the dummy said.
A trick. It’s gotta be a trick. Gotta be some new way to rattle me. A radio maybe, with a remote control for the jaw. Someone’s crazy science project.
The detective shook his head and advanced to the table. He set the file down in front of his wooden associate. “Although a photo with you and the previous owners might not help your case too much. We found their bodies in a vacant lot off Adams Street.”
I kept my trap shut. I figured they would probably get a stolen vehicle charge to stick, but I’d be damned if I’d give them enough rope to hang me for murder.
The detective turned to look at the dummy, and the little wooden head returned the gesture. They eyed each other for way too long for my comfort, then both of them turned their attention back to me like some exaggerated vaudeville bit.
The detective pulled up the other chair and sat down, elbows on the table like the dad in some 1950s sitcom, getting ready to dispense some wisdom with a smile. “Do you know the history of ventriloquism, Mr. Hale?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, not sure where this line of questioning was going. “The circus or something?”
The detective leaned back, smiled at the dummy, then at me. “The circus? Wrong by a few thousand years, Mr. Hale. Ventriloquism comes to us from the ancient Greeks. Venter for belly and loqui for speak. They devised it as an oracle, a voice conjured from the belly of a corpse, gastromancy. It was passed through the ages as a form of spiritualism.”
“Like a literal voice from beyond. Witchcraft,” Detective Pine added, drawing it out into two words and really cracking the whip on the end. “Witch. Craft.”
We sat in silence for several minutes, staring at each other. Trick or no, the dummy was starting to get under my skin. The goddamned thing even blinked occasionally as if for my benefit.
“Listen, about the car, I didn’t know it was stolen when I bought it. I just thought I was getting a great deal.”
“We don’t give a fuck about the car, dummy!” Detective Pine yelled, leaning in toward me at the table. “We care about the innocent people who were hauled into the street and shot point blank in the head like goddamned animals. Show him!”
The detective pulled a series of glossy 8×10 photos from the folder and splayed them out in front of me. Jesus … what a mess. It had been dark when I pulled the trigger, and I didn’t bother to look at my handiwork, but I recognized the victims, sure as shit. Bile, harsh and acidic, bubbled up to the base of my tongue.
They had no proof. I knew that. Deep in my gut I knew that. Otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to get a confession out of me. I tried to wrestle down my racing pulse, control my breathing, though the urge to throw up wasn’t helping with either.
I leaned back in my chair and fixed the little wooden policeman with a wavering smile. “So, I guess you’re the bad cop?”
The other detective turned pale, and I immediately regretted my words.
Detective Pine didn’t move. Didn’t blink. Just sat there like the inanimate fucking toy that he was. “Detective McCarthy,” he said slowly. “Are the suspect’s cuffs secure?”
“Yes.” No hesitation on McCarthy’s part. I caught myself wondering who the senior officer was, despite the fact that one of them had been carved out of wood.
“Why don’t you go fetch coffee for everyone,” the dummy said. “I want a few minutes alone with Mr. Hale.”
The detective started to stand up, hesitated, looked back and forth between me and the dummy. “I don’t think–”
The wooden head spun so suddenly to face the detective that he startled, knocking his chair over in his haste to back away.
See, here’s the thing about fear. Fear is motherfucking contagious. And it was pouring off Detective McCarthy in waves. Not a fear for his own safety, necessarily. More fear of uncertainty. And that uncertainty fear, it gets in and eats a person up inside. Because your brain is so damn good at imagining the worst possible outcome. The way McCarthy looked at me, it was like he would never see me again.
And I knew it was a trick. It had to be a trick, right? But what if it wasn’t?
“You’re not going to leave me in here with him, are you?” I asked, testing the limits of the restraints. My left hand was cuffed securely to the arm of the chair, which was in turn bolted to the floor. I regretted putting up a struggle when they brought me in.
The detective couldn’t even look me in the eyes as he moved past me to the door.
“I’m serious,” I said, trying to reach over my body with my right hand to grab the guy’s arm, his coat, anything to keep him in the room. Detective Pine stared glassy daggers at me. Waiting for the moment when we’d be alone. I didn’t know what he would do, what he’d say. But I knew, I knew from the look on McCarthy’s face, that it was going to be bad.
“I swear to you, I didn’t know the car was stolen when I bought it off Mr. Miller!”
“How much did you pay for it?” the dummy shouted, hauling himself onto the table between us.
“I don’t know!”
“You don’t know?” He walked across the table, three swift strides punctuated by words that hit like hammers. “You. Don’t. Know?”
I swear to fuck I felt his breath on my face, and my bladder got all quavery. It was all I could do not to piss myself.
“I don’t remember!” I was crying, sobbing. The fucking thing was right up in my face. I could smell furniture polish and sulfur. Fuck if I knew where Detective McCarthy was at that point. I couldn’t see him or even feel him at my back. I was as good as alone.
“You don’t remember?” Detective Pine said, his voice low, threatening as a truncheon. There was the cold menace of intent in that voice. “What do you think I am? Some kind of dummy?”
On the backswing of his tiny wooden fist, I cracked.
God help me, I cracked.
“I didn’t mean to do it. I swear,” I sobbed, head cradled under my free arm, eyes pinched shut. “I just wanted to scare them, and he grabbed my arm.”
I could hear the soft sounds of little shoes walking away from me across the table. Then a scuff sound as hopped down into his chair. “And the wife?”
“She wouldn’t stop screaming.”
I waited, eyes closed, for someone, anyone, to say something. Detective McCarthy returned to his seat in slow, foot-dragging steps, but other than my own heaving sobs, no one made a damn sound for several minutes.
Finally, Detective Pine said, “We have everything we need here.” The interrogation room door opened to admit a pair of officers to escort me to a cell. I looked across the room as I was being helped from my seat to see Detective Pine propped in his chair, glassy eyes watching me impassively.
Detective McCarthy sat next to him, his eyes staring lifelessly, jaw hanging agape. His arms dangled loose at his sides like a doll at rest. I remembered the dummy’s words. Like a literal voice from beyond. Witchcraft.
The two officers led me away, screaming, leaving behind not a single living soul in the interrogation room.
Curtis Hale is currently serving a thirty-year sentence for second degree murder. He spends his time at the Sugar Mountain Penitentiary in the woodshop and has been a model prisoner.
Nathan Crowder intends to spend the rest of his life ventriloquist dummy free. Creator of the Cobalt City shared fiction universe, he is a writer of horror, fantasy, and superhero fiction. Found at both NathanCrowder.com and in Seattle, he owns a well-used wood axe.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Dummy” is Copyright 2018 Nathan Crowder
Art accompanying story is Copyright 2018 Luke Spooner