It was just after dawn last Saturday morning and the sound of my cellphone was pulling me from a genuinely pleasant dream, which is a rarity in my field. I knew who was calling even before I looked at the screen and read the name “Dead Things Mikey” displayed above a smirking photo of my new boss. If you skipped my last story (jerk), then picture a teenage boy’s haircut on Anthony Stewart Head (and if you know who that is without Googling him, congratulations. We are friends now.)
“Good morning, Mikey.”
“Thank god! You’re up! I need you to come to the Wily Tower downtown. Like immediately. There’s a keycard waiting for you at the front desk. If they give you any shit, just ask for Raoul.”
“Bring a change of underwear.”
Nobody gave me any shit but the concierge who introduced himself as Raoul still insisted on accompanying me over to the bank of classy glass elevators at the back end of the Wily’s marble-floored lobby. We entered one of the elevators and Raoul hit a button labeled “P”, because of course Mikey had booked the penthouse suite.
We road up in silence and when the elevator doors finally slid open again with an artificial chime, Raoul gestured down the hallway to the left and smiled. I tried to tip him a five-spot, but Raoul refused to take it.
“I thank you,” the concierge said in a clipped, ESL tone. “But Mr. Things Mikey is a regular guest of the Wily and he takes great care in providing for us. As he would say, his friends do not have good money here.”
I shrugged and gladly shoved the crumpled Lincoln back into my pocket as I exited the elevator and turned to nod at him. “You’re a good man.”
“I do apologize.”
“For what, being awesome? Let me tell you something, Raoul. You can’t go through life worrying what other people think about you. Look at me…” I waved a hand at myself and continued, “Clearly, also awesome. Last week, I told my family and respective loved ones that I was quitting my day-job so some rich gay dude could pay me to transcribe his ghost whispering. You think they were supportive about it?”
Raoul nodded and hit a button on the elevator’s inside panel. “Very good, sir.”
“Hell no! Those prude micks shit enough bricks to build a goddamn house but did I let that stop me? Nope! And that house would be disgusting, Raoul. Think about it… DISGUSTING. And here I am anyway because fuck what people think.”
The elevator doors began to slide closed and Raoul’s awkward smile finally dropped away as he looked down and sighed, muttering something in Spanish. Luckily, Mikey already had me in the habit of wearing a pen-sized micro-recorder whenever I was “on the job.” I had the forethought to thumb the little switch to “REC” in the elevator and according to my buddy, Christian, Raoul said…
“In Cabo, I was a surgeon. Seriously, man? You took three years of Spanish.”
In case you couldn’t tell, I was still feeling a bit nervous about the drastic life-altering change I recently made by accepting Mikey’s job offer. Even after I signed the one-year contract he emailed me, it still didn’t feel real. My cousin who’s a lawyer looked the whole thing over beforehand and he said the terms were so good, the only possible issue would be the Feds thinking I was a professional rent-boy.
I asked my cousin why that would be a bad thing and he explained what a “rent-boy” was and that made me want to rewatch Midnight Cowboy, which was not the best idea under the circumstances. It’s a great movie but all it did that night was bum me out.
Now here I was, Harry Nilsson’s angelic voice WHA-UH-WHA’ing in my head while I gaped at my own exhausted reflection in the closed elevator doors of some swanky downtown hotel way too early on a Saturday morning and looking like a walk-of-shame played in reverse.
I won’t let you leeeeeeeave…
I told Nilsson to cram it and turned to stare down the corridor before me, which was a good bit wider than your typical hotel hallway. It was lined in a gaudy patterned carpet that was vaguely disorienting to look at for too long; an effect which naturally drew my eye to the lavish set of double-doors at the other end…
Fuck you, carpet! I’ll get there when I’m damn good and ready!
With a heavy sigh, I started toward the penthouse entrance. Even though Raoul had given me a keycard, I still knocked. PRO-TIP: Don’t ever enter a hotel room that isn’t explicitly yours without knocking first. There are things in this world that you can’t unsee, like what my college debate team captain looked like with a dildo strapped to his forehead (the answer being “a bald, sweaty unicorn.”)
From inside the penthouse, I heard Mikey shout, “Joely Poley?”
“I told you don’t call me that. ”
I slowly shook my head as I slid the keycard into its slot and pushed open the door. I entered and glanced around, half-expecting to find Lil’ Wayne accompanied by a drum-loop and some big booty’ed bitches because holy shit, you guys! Have you ever been in an upscale metropolitan hotel penthouse? And not just during your Entourage-themed daydreams. Like REALLY been inside one?
And if you have, don’t take this the wrong way but fuck you, dude. You’re really screwing with my story here. I don’t care if it was an accident. It was a dick-move and you’re ruining this for everyone. As for the rest of you…
Like seriously, it was awesome. I could see the Superdome from the couch in the living room! It had a living room! I didn’t see Mikey at first but then I started across the seemingly vacant den and, from overhead, I heard him say, “What’s up?”
I looked up to see Mikey pinned to the ceiling above me. He was completely naked and his arms were extended in either direction like Jesus, or maybe just a guy who caught a really big fish.
“Very punny.” I gave the penthouse another cursory scan and asked, “Where’s Mauricio?”
“In Honduras, tending to his dying mother. That’s why I’m here. I can’t stand being in that huge house by myself.”
“Aw, is she okay?”
“His mother? She’s like a hundred and a black-hearted bitch from hell who used to punish my ‘Cio by putting cigarettes out on him. So, no. Okay is not what she is.”
“Jesus. Why would he ever go back there?”
“Because his mother is dying. You mind if we worry about my thing now?” I nodded and Mikey continued, “See that small nest of what look like quartz crystals on the table there?”
I spotted them and nodded again. “I do.”
“They are currently generating a gravitational anomaly.”
“Right? There’s this guy I get ‘em from in Pasadena. He told me he’s the Dalai Lama. Usually, anyway. The last time he died, there was a hiccup in the system and he was reborn the bastard son of a syphilitic prostitute. But the silver lining is that every full moon, he sheds all of his hair and vomits up a molten plasma that hardens into these crystals when it cools.”
I gestured at the crystals and said, “Well that makes perfect sense.”
“The guy could’ve been lying. I mean, he was on a LOT of meth.”
“So, can I just ask: Are you tucking your junk like Buffalo Bill for my benefit or because it makes you feel pretty?”
“Obviously, it’s the gravitational anomaly!” Mikey sighed and continued, “And if we’re being honest, a little bit of the second one. To get an effect this strong, you need to arrange the crystals just right. I had the bright idea to superglue ‘em in place last night while I was here getting shitty drunk, and of course I left it sitting out. Later, I was half awake and making my way to the kitchen when I tripped over the coffee table and yeah…”
“So what’s with the, uh, full-on dude nudity?”
“I sleep naked. I’m sorry I’m not an animal.”
“Literally every animal sleeps naked.”
“Yes. Would you mind if we continue this rousing conversation AFTER you get me down from here?”
Mikey instructed me to slide the couch into the coffee table, pushing the table aside and also providing him with a soft place to land when he abruptly fell from the ceiling. Mikey quickly stood and cupped his junk as he nodded at me, “Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome. So was the change of underwear for you?” I asked as I pulled a pair of boxer-briefs from my back pocket and tried to hand them to Mikey.
“No, I’ve got my own underwear but thanks. They’re for you.” Mikey turned and started toward the hallway as he announced, “We’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us and will more than likely be spending the night. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go have myself a well-earned bowel movement and shower.”
“Just curious. Were you planning to wear pants on this road-trip?”
“I was flirting with the idea… Hey, Joel!” Mikey suddenly spun around to point his finger at me as he said, “You always have nerdy video game shit on your shirts.”
“Not ALWAYS… Sometimes it’s comic books.”
“I meant it as a good thing. I was wondering if you knew how to get an old DOS game running on a newer computer.”
I let out a scoff and, in what has to be the most condescending tone anyone has ever used to answer that question, I said, “I do.”
When Mikey had returned from his shower, I handed him a graphing calculator which was currently emitting the sounds of gunfire and grunting. Mikey began to thumb the keys as he said, “What is this? What am I doing?”
“That is id Software’s 1993 classic, Doom, and what you are doing is playing it on a calculator. You were wondering if I knew anything about making old games run on stuff. Now you don’t have to wonder.”
“Uh-huh. And which button is fire?”
Of course, I had my laptop and Mikey used his phone to email me the game file, which he said was his only lead in a case he had just started working. We made our way down to Mikey’s porsche and I had the game running before we were out of the hotel parking garage. According to the title screen, it was called…
“HELPLESS HERMAN AND THE HELL UNDER HUMBUG HILL”’
Below that were the words “a game by Jeb Casteel”. Though the game itself was more-or-less a clone of the popular 80’s title, Boulder Dash, only with one notable caveat: Despite its graphical limitations, Helpless Herman had one of the most disturbing opening sequences I had ever experienced in a game.
At this point, the actual game began as the dialog box disappeared to reveal an underground labyrinth of claustrophobic dirt pathways and murderous rocks waiting to crush you at every wrong turn. We stopped at a diner for lunch and I brought my laptop inside so I could show the game to Mikey, who watched me play it while chewing his food in thoughtful silence.
“Basically, you’re the scary face there near the center and your objective is to collect the jewels while avoiding rocks, which fall when you dig the dirt out from under them. You can also trap yourself between boulders for which there is even a suicide button, see?”
I demonstrated by tapping the S key (you moved using the arrow keys; very old-school) and another dialog-box appeared below Herman which read:
“Are you sure you want to die? Y/N”
“If you pick yes, it says ‘Too bad!’ And then it restarts you at the beginning of the first stage.”
“What happens if you pick no?”
“You just stay stuck where you are.”
“That’s pretty dark.”
Mikey then caught me up on his new case as we resumed our road-trip.
“About ninety miles North-East of here, there’s a town called Clear Lake where things seem pretty normal from a distance. The Clear Lake town council is still making its weekly updates to the municipal website and all of the local businesses are caught up on their taxes but according to reports and confirmed by Lynn and Grace who are there right now, it’s a ghost town. Not a single human in site.”
“You’re telling me in two weeks, no one who knows this has contacted the authorities?”
“Of course they did. Who do you think called me? Chris Carter got it wrong. The Federal Bureau of Investigation could never get away with spending their already limited resources on something as superfluous as the X Files.”
“That argument is actually a key plot-point in the series,” I abruptly added, causing Mikey to roll his eyes.
“AS I was saying… You need to remember this is America. When there’s a problem not covered by the skill-set of public authority, the government turns to private contractors to get the job done. Even then, they’ll usually find a way to make some other private corporation foot the bill.”
I tilted my head at him in a curious gesture and asked, “How do they manage that?”
“Usually, it’s the corporation’s fault to begin with.”
I snapped my fingers and pointed at Mikey as I said, “Oh! Like when a housing developer builds suburbs over an ancient Native American burial ground and then you have to show up to stop Coach’s house from imploding.”
Mikey nodded at me as he replied, “Or like when BP awoke that dormant Krakin under the Gulf of Mexico or in this case, where the check is coming from a major chemical manufacturer with a facility just outside of Clear Lake. Something like ninety percent of the facility’s employees were residents of the town and the manufacturer would like to know what happened to them about as much as it would probably DISLIKE a public investigation into where they went.”
“So where does Helpless Herman come in then?”
“Well, the first thing I noticed when the case came to me was a discrepancy. One of those municipal website updates I mentioned was a town census which contained a name that hadn’t appeared on there since the eighties. The name of a young boy who went missing a little over thirty years ago… Jeb Casteel.”
“That’s the name on the game’s title screen.”
Mikey nodded and said, “Yesterday, Lynn was able to locate Jeb’s middle school records, which contained some notes about possible parental abuse and a floppy disk with that game on it. Apparently, the kid was only 12 and already a gifted programer when he disappeared.”
I actually knew how “gifted” you would have to be to make a retitled clone of Boulder Dash (when I was twelve, I was making my own multiplayer maps for Duke Nuke’Em and I was an idiot, as evidenced by my most popular map being titled “Joel Takes His Big Dick Out and Oh My God It’s So Big V_3”) but I kept my mouth shut because I wasn’t the type to speak ill of possibly dead children.
Instead, I simply asked, “Is there a Humbug Hill in Clear Lake?”
“Not officially. I checked. But it could be a colloquial title. Like the nickname teenagers used for a make-out spot, something of that nature. Too bad there’s no one there that we can ask.”
It wasn’t immediately after that line when Mikey’s cell started ringing, but let’s pretend it was for the sake of pacing. He glanced down at the name on the screen.
“It’s Lynn. Hold on.” Mikey accepted the call and put the phone to his ear as he said, “What’cha got?”
Mikey paused to listen and then turned to look at me as he replied, “Interesting…”