My first attempt at working with prompts.
|Prompts: Clown school — A person in denial — A printer that prints on its own.
Word count: 2200
Douglas Peterson leaned back from his computer and ran his fingers through his greasy black hair. Investigative Journalist mocked him from below his name on a stained business card peeking from under a collapsing pile of papers. Top five in his college classes, yet unable to hold down a real job in a respectable newsroom, Peterson struggled with the idea that he might be just another hack in a world of professionals.
Nope, he chided himself, ain't going down that road! He was every bit as good as those drones who slaved their lives away under an editor's critical eye at AP or Reuter's. He was the kind of peg that just didn't fit into those carefully constructed holes. Besides, being a freelancer gave him the freedom to work whatever story he wanted, work it at his own pace in his own way without some meddling office manager trifling with his reporter's instincts.
It also left him free to take inspiration where he found it, like from the half-empty bottle of Jim Beam that sat on the shelf above his cheap Fingerhut desk. He took it down and drained a healthy slug, capped it and put it back, then sat looking at it for a moment.
Nah, he thought. After lunch.
He scrolled up the page, looking for typos. The little bastards could ruin any story, and he hunted them down relentlessly. It wasn't the sort of story that would endear him to the police, but it was the sort he was known for. His forte was speaking truth to authority, and it never occurred to him that that particular trait could have anything to do with the fact that he had spent the last decade plying his trade from a grubby apartment and being shunned by authority figures.
Cops Without a Clue, his working headline screamed, followed by a convoluted tale of incompetence that was peppered with phrases like "couldn't detect their butts with both hands," and "a police department unwilling to cooperate with members of the press." That the two things might be connected was as far from his mind as life on a distant star.
The case was brutally simple. Allison Young, the nineteen-year old daughter of a city councilman, had caused a minor scandal for her father when she dropped out of Carlsbad State and enrolled at the Pinebroker Institute, a local fly-by-night business that billed itself as a "clown college." Fights between her and her father became public knowledge, and culminated in her moving into a girlfriend's apartment. Her only answer to the burning question of why was that she wanted to bring joy to people's hearts, not take money from their wallets.
The graduate list of said Pinebroker Institute trumpeted a dozen or so names of supposedly famous clowns that Peterson had never heard of, and doubted anyone else had, either; what he got from the owner when he visited was a sales pitch in which Sal, a fat hippo of a man with dewlaps and a Jersey accent suggested that he, Peterson, could make a killing as a birthday party clown. Young had paid her $6,000 tuition in advance, completed the four month curriculum, and was last seen getting into makeup for her class's graduation and award ceremony where she was to be presented with the Most Original Makeup award. When the graduates had assembled on stage and the audience of a few friends and families, padded out with mandatory attendance by the undergraduate students had been seated, Allison didn't come out of the dressing room. He sent a classmate to fetch her, but she wasn't there. The only sign of her was a tin of pancake makeup dropped on the floor and her rubber nose lying on the dressing table, glue in place, ready to attach. Her cell had been called, her parents, her roommate, but she was never heard from again.
The police had been notified, and they proceeded to interview everyone in the young woman's life. Sal had been considered a person of interest, as had her roommate's boyfriend, but every lead quickly evaporated, and the case went on the back burner. It likely wouldn't have even stayed there but for the pressure applied by her father, and it was common knowledge that their working theory was that she had earned her diploma, lined up a job, and skipped out before the ceremony to leave the war with her father behind. There were hundreds of traveling carnivals that crisscrossed the country, not to mention fairs and circuses, and the odds against finding one clown among that group transcended astronomical.
But the story of a councilman's missing daughter wasn't the sort that would go away easily, and Peterson had found Councilman Young to be a readily talkative critic of the police. He considered Peterson his most cherished ally in his ongoing search, greeted him with a hug every time they met, and kept him appraised of every tidbit of information he laid his hands on. He had set up a hotline for sightings, and it had initially been swamped with calls from Point Barrow to Quezaltenango, but now, seven months in, those tips had largely dried up. Now, all that was left to Councilman Young was to berate the police for their inability to track down his daughter, and Peterson made it his holy crusade to give every criticism the public airing it deserved. This was the project he was working on when his printer suddenly clattered to life.
Bzzzzt, bzzzzt! Two passes across the paper, then silence.
What the hell? He hadn't hit the Print button. He swiveled his chair to examine the paper that was feeding up through the slot.
And so it began, with those stark words, "Help me!" Peterson at first thought there was a simple technical problem with his printer feed. Not being a techie himself, he enlisted the aid of a friend, who told him that sometimes a line could pick up some spurious atmospherics and run off a few letters on a printer, but it was strange for it to randomly crank out an understandable sentence. Dissatisfied with that answer, he brought in a professional at considerable cost who told him the same thing; it wasn't likely, but it could happen.
It didn't happen again for a few days, then, in a late-night session with a pint of 90-proof in his system, it came to life again. This time it spit out a name, Quinn Isaac. He looked it up in the 2006 issue of the telephone directory, the last one the library held, and found an address in a rundown neighborhood south of the college. He paid the man a visit.
"Quinn Isaac?" he asked the stringy-haired twenty-something who answered the door.
"Maybe. Who are you?"
"Douglas Peterson. I'm a freelance journalist—"
"Yeah! You're that guy that hates the pigs! I read everything you write, man. What can I do for you?"
"I don't actually hate the police, Mr. Isaac."
"Oh, right, I get it. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, am I right? That's okay, your articles speak for themselves. So, what brings you down here looking for me?"
"I got your name from a tip line" — that wasn't exactly untrue — "that suggests that you might know something about the Allison Young case."
"Who told you that?"
"It was anonymous." That wasn't untrue, either. "Just a suggestion that I talk to you. Did you know her?"
"Yeah. Well, I didn't know her, know her. She was my girlfriend's roommate."
"Did you ever do anything socially with her?"
"She came to the water park with us once. Ooh, that babe could fill up a bikini!"
"Did you have a thing for her?"
"Are you kidding? She was easy on the eyes, and that's no joke, but you don't stick your dick in crazy if you know what's good for you."
"She was crazy?"
"Probably not. Weird enough to keep me away, though. I mean, who the hell wants to be a clown? Everybody thinks you're a whack job, and your career consists of scaring the b'jesus out of little children. Takes a special kind of weird, if you ask me."
"Was she seeing anyone else when you knew her?"
"No, I don't think— Wait a minute, there was this one guy. Chad, Champ, something like that. Big guy, real sourpuss. He went to that so-called school with her. Guy was bad news. Surly, hostile. I figured he was going to clown school so he could find more children to molest."
That tip had led him back to Pinebroker, but there the trail went cold. He passed it to Sergent Jackson, the detective assigned to ignore Young's case. She was very brusque, as always, but wrote the name down and told him she'd look into it. Detective Sergeant Gail Jackson. Face of an angel, body of a fitness model, and the personality of an angry badger... speaking of crazy! Peterson couldn't leave her in the wake fast enough.
It continued for months. He'd be working himself to exhaustion, sleep-deprived, often hung-over, sometimes roaring drunk, and the printer would awaken to type the name of a person, a place, a date. It led him all over the Carlsbad Forest and into the mountains beyond, and every trip led him to a clue. Despite his complete disdain for Jackson, he always told her what he found, not for her benefit, though closing the Young case would represent a nice feather in her cap, but out of loyalty to Councilman Young and the daughter he knew only through photographs. Regardless of his intentions, he was constantly being helpful to her, and so was greatly surprised when she arrived at his apartment with a pair of uniformed gorillas to arrest him for the murder of Allison Young.
"What are you talking about? I've been helping you right along!"
"Yes, and I do appreciate it. You were helpful enough to lead me right to her body in the shallow grave where you left her, still in her clown outfit and makeup. You could have walked, Peterson. She was assumed to have run away. Nobody was looking, at least not very hard, but you gave us the clues that nobody but her killer could have known. I guess guilt manifests itself in strange ways."
"But, I'm innocent! Look at me! I'm not a killer!"
"Get him out of here."
His trial had been a blur. All he could do was protest his innocence, but that was countered by witness after witness who came forward to tell the court what a surly and confrontational individual he had always been. He was a man with no friends, and no family beyond an ex who had divorced him less than a year after they were married. No editor would speak on his behalf, not even those who had benefitted from his work. Even the councilman turned on him when the police convinced him that Peterson had killed his daughter. And the most damning evidence of all was the fact that he himself had led the police to the body when few people even thought there was one. He had received tips, he protested, but when asked from whom, all he could produce were the faded pages of clues provided by... who? His printer? And every one time-stamped when he was known to be sitting at his computer.
The case against him was air-tight. It had taken fourteen years to exhaust his appeals, and every one went the same way. Verdict upheld. His last meal lay uneaten on the table in the corner, and in another hour they would come to strap him to a gurney and put a needle in his arm. It was so unfair!
But then, the world had never been fair to Douglas Peterson. He had never been given the break he deserved, never received the recognition he should have enjoyed. The world didn't deserve him. Maybe it was better this way.
He sat down on his bunk and began to sob.