Detective Paul F. Tompkins knew the signs.
He knew the sting of cold in the late October air, the threat of something more sinister to come. He knew the fog that rolled in from the woods surrounding the town, obscuring the border between here and not-here.
It was the time of the Slender Man, and Tompkins was sick of his shit.
Tompkins sent his unmarked police car careening around the perimeter of the woods of Podcast Hollow, where he knew damn well that Slender Man resided.
"There will be no luring people into the woods!" Tompkins yelled into a bullhorn, without slowing down the car. "We know what you're up to this time, Slender Man, and we are having none of it !"
"Tompkins!" a woman's voice crackled over the radio. "Just because the Captain's out of town doesn't mean you can go out bullhorn-ing."
"Sarge, we have an imminent threat --"
"Then report back and tell me about it at the station, Tompkins."
Paul sighed, put down the speaker, and turned the car around.
Sgt. Cameron Esposito was holding two slightly-different-colored leather jackets up in front of a mirror, lost in thought.
"Well, it's late October again, and you know what that means," Tompkins said, wandering into the station, hands in trench coat pockets.
"Life gets slightly easier for those of us with jacket-based gender identities?" Sgt. Cameron Esposito, acting chief of police of Podcast Hollow, pondered without looking away from the mirror.
"Well, sure," Tompkins said. "And you should go with the maroon, really complements the pattern on your vest."
"Thanks, Paul. By the way, when did you start wearing a trenchcoat over your three-piece suit?"
"Look. What I was saying was, we need to be on the lookout for Halloween bullshit ."
"Oh, yeah," Esposito agreed, wriggling into her leather jacket. "Pranks gone wrong, people getting injured, being too drunk, sure --"
that's not what I mean."
The phone on her desk rang, loudly, and Esposito jumped. "That's the captain calling from Big Podcast City!" she frantically whispered.
"She can't hear you if you don't pick up the ph --" Tompkins started.
Cameron punched the button for speakerphone. "Hi, Captain Maria Blasucci! How are you? Things here are well-run and totally normal!"
That sounded really convincing , Tompkins mouthed, supportively.
"Well, Cameron, you know, at the end of the day, we're just here to conference as hard as we can conference. We police our best out there, and that's what really matters."
"Yeah," Esposito said, nodding, calmer. "You know, I think that's really insightful."
"Captain Blasucci," Tompkins interrupted. "Sorry to interrupt. But if I were to bring up an imminent safety issue, would you be able to allocate some resources --"
"Absolutely, Paul --"
Tompkins blinked. "Wait, really?"
"At the end of the day, we're just patrolling where we can patrol."
"So you're saying I can go after Slender Man?"
"Whoops! Gotta go!" The Captain's end of the line clicked silent.
"Tompkins, what the hell was that?" Cameron gestured, aghast. "I get to be in charge for one weekend and you immediately blow right through me? You know what, if you need to get out there, and...yell at the woods or whatever you need to feel like you're making a difference, fine! But you do not undermine --"
"Next you're gonna tell me you're one week away from retirement," Tompkins said, too dryly.
"I am not even close to retirement!" Esposito yelled. "I'm thirty-seven! I'm in the prime of my dang life!" Cameron put a hand to her forehead and took several deep breaths. "Okay, Paul, what you did was still bullshit, but I know things have been hard for you since Jackson left."
Tompkins frowned, knitting his eyebrows together. "Who's Jackson?"
Esposito sighed. "Your old partner, Marc Evan Jackson. He left."
"My old partner disappeared," Tompkins said.
"No, Paul," Esposito said quietly. "He quit. After the incident, you were both pretty confused. Jackson's way of dealing was, he left. Said he wanted to learn to surf. Pretty sure he's hanging ten in Oahu right now."
"The incident?" Tompkins repeated, voice raising in alarm. "So I have amnesia?"
"Look, Paul, sometimes you think you see things in the fog. We all do. It's part of living in a small town with minimal entertainment besides talking to each other and watching recreational league basketball. Sometimes we need to look for a healthy distraction. For me, it's how awesome I look in aviators. For you, I guess that's hunting Mothman."
"Hey, Mothman is an innocent cryptid who is just looking for love!" Tompkins said, offended. "Slender Man is waaaay more of a dick."
"Tompkins. All we need to do is get through the next few days, then you can take some time off, not worry about monsters that nobody else has seen --"
Tompkins' desk phone rang, and he dove for it. "Detective Paul F. Tompkins' phone!" he answered.
"I SEE HIM AT THE BASKETBATCH," a voice answered. It was a voice that sounded like gravel, some vague part of Eastern Europe, and very thick eyebrows.
"Saw who?" Tompkins stumbled. "Are you calling my Slender Man sighting tip line?"
"YAAAS. THE SLENDERMADCH."
"Thank you so much for calling. What was the time of the sighting?"
"FIVE MINUTES ABATCH."
"Five minutes ago? At the basketball court?"
"YAAAS. DIS KUBITCH."
"Thank you for your call Mister Kubitch! I will see you shortly."
Tompkins paused. He thought he heard laughing in the background, over the sound of many sneakers on a basketball court. "McConville? Is that you?"
The giggling got quieter, but didn't stop.
Tompkins covered the phone receiver and looked around. Sergeant Esposito had returned to the mirror and started trying on different pairs of aviator sunglasses, and tossing her head back to look tough.
Tompkins decided he could go check out this lead, just in case.
Mark McConville was lying face-up on a bleacher by the indoor basketball court, with an open book covering his face.
"Whatcha readin'?" Matt Gourley asked, half-watching the game, mouth half-full of gummy candy.
"Stephen King's The Mist ," McConville answered.
"Any good?" Gourley asked, chewing.
"Well, it's no Weekend Dracula ."
McConville put his book down and picked up a microphone which wasn't plugged in to anything, and squinted toward the scoreboard of the game-in-progress. "Well, it's two minutes left here on the clock down at River Front Park --"
"Down at Piver Ront Mark," Gourley said idly. "You ever go to Piver Ront, Mark?"
" Me and Cloris Leachman doing disco bats at Piver Ront ," McConville sang.
" Me and Mark McConville havin' microphones and eating stuff ," Gourley sang.
" Me and -- " McConville started, then got distracted by an approaching figure. "Paul F. Tompkins?"
Gourley continued, full-throated and oblivious. " Me and Paul F. Tompkins seeing monster ghosts at Fuckman's Leap. "
"Hey, don't even joke about that," McConville said in a hurried whisper as Tompkins approached.
"So, funny story," Tompkins said, standing between them. "I got a strange call from this location, about a sighting? And after checking the perimeter to make sure there was no Slender Man in our midst, I wasn't able to find the strangely-voiced man who made the call. So. Buddies. Pals." Tompkins paused, and put a hand on Gourley's shoulder. "Are you guys making crank calls from the pay phone at the rec center?"
"Nuh-uh," Gourley said. "We're making...cank cralls from the fay pone at the ... kek renter."
"Referee DJ Spoonerism takes the court," McConville improvised, into the microphone. "And Paisley takes the layup with -- aw, home team lost the ball. Son of a kubitch."
"What? Kubitch? Dude was just here. Tends to disappear when Matt's around, though."
Tompkins lowered his gaze. "Really, Mark?"
"Yeah, Kubitch is just this real weird guy who shows up sometimes. I think he's not from around here." McConville said, reaching into the dwindling bag of candy and offering some to Tompkins.
"No, thanks. And you're saying this Kubitch guy just showed up in town? As in, just showed up in town around Halloween ?"
"I don't think he's the kinda guy you're looking for," McConville said.
"Honestly? Right now?" Tompkins said. "Everyone's a suspect. Especially people who photobomb, or spend a suspicious amount of time near the woods."
"Look, Paul," McConville said. "I'm sorry about Jackson."
"I thought Jackson was in Hawaii," Gourley said with his mouth full, then swallowing the last piece of candy. "Shhh! Free throw confessions."
" I saw Mothman outside the Wendy's but he just looked really sad ," McConville whispered.
" I've never actually met Cloris Leachman, and I regret it every day of my life ," Gourley whispered.
" I don't understand the point of this game ," Tompkins whispered, " and I'm terrified of things I don't understand ."
The buzzer sounded. "Welp, we lost," McConville said. "Might as well head off."
"Yeah, we gotta go pick up some kids," Gourley said, crumpling the empty candy bag.
"Some kids?!?!" Tompkins sputtered. "Um, friend? That is SUPER suspicious."
"He means candy," McConville explained.
"Sour patch kids!" Gourley corrected. "Can't get enough of 'em!"
Tompkins crossed his arms. "What flavor are these so-called 'kids'?"
"Watermelon or...regular?" Gourley guessed.
"Matt barely pays attention," McConville explained. "He's a total sugar addict."
"An addict, huh?" Tompkins said. "So...anything that might cause you to act irrationally, out in search of a fix?"
"Paul, we're not Slender Man," McConville said. "I don't qualify as 'slender,' and Matt has a beard now, for Christsakes. No way he's a featureless apparition."
"Sorry, friends, I can't leave any stone unturned. I gotta take you in for questioning."
McConville was about to signal to Gourley, just go with it, he's clearly going through something, but Gourley was already headed toward the car. "Can we at least stop for candy on the way?"
A long road twisted around the Hollow, enclosing it in a scalloped round. To the north, it would eventually connect to the highway, up toward Big Podcast City. The outer road had two inner spokes, east and west, which led inward to the quirky yet wholesome downtown. Residential areas surrounded downtown in all directions, stopping abruptly before the ring road, leaving the border between Podcast Hollow and the woods entirely desolate. The north side wasn't too isolated, on account of the nearby freeway. The west and south were another story.
Tompkins was going the wrong way.
"What the shit, Tompkins?!" Gourley yelled, over the sound of Tompkins driving much too fast.
"This is gonna take us right by Fuckman's Leap!" McConville shouted.
"I ain't afraid of no woods!" Tompkins yelled. "Hear that, Slender Man?"
Tompkins felt a smack to his forehead that reverberated like a hollow bell, and he was somewhere else.
Tompkins was standing in the woods, which seemed darker, no, more gray than they ought to have been, mist curling around the trunks of the trees.
"Nice," Tompkins said, ironically. "What did you use, an old-timey snapchat filter?"
"Tompkins," a familiar voice said, low and disappointed. "You know you don't have to be here."
"Jackson?" Tompkins said, peering ahead and seeing nothing.
A curl of mist twisted itself up from the ground and formed itself into the shape of a man. The man was a head taller than Tompkins. Tompkins figured this was just to spite him.
"You could be at rest," Jackson's voice said, as his face formed out of the mist. "I am where I want to be. Everything is fine."
"That's just what people say when things are definitely not fine!" Tompkins countered. "Also, I cannot believe ghost-you is wearing a tuxedo. I will never forgive you for looking that good in a suit."
The corners of Jackson's mouth twitched. His face was clearer now. This was the Jackson Tompkins remembered, on the verge of bursting into laughter at some inside joke of theirs.
"I miss you," Tompkins said. "What happened?"
"You don't need to be here ," Jackson repeated, voice more urgent, and Paul woke up.
"Christ on a goddamn Christ cracker!" McConville was shouting. "Were you trying to get us killed?"
Tompkins was lying across the back seat of his vehicle, and Gourley was spritzing mouthwash on his face.
"What?" Tompkins sputtered.
"I got it! He's awake!" Gourley announced.
"You passed out while speeding on a long winding ring road, while also taking us toward the woods for no good goddamn reason," McConville volunteered, before Tompkins could ask. "Luckily Gourley got control of the car because he knows about stunt driving for some reason."
"James Bond!" Gourley chirped, without explanation.
"We're taking you to the hospital," McConville said.
"No hospital," Tompkins protested. "Halloween! Important patrol!"
McConville sighed. "We are at the very least taking you home."
"You can't drive this!" Tompkins protested. "This is a police vehicle!"
"This is an unmarked Range Rover with a tiny siren inside," McConville said, climbing into the front seat. "I'm pretty sure I'm allowed to drive it."
Gourley saw it right when they walked into Tompkins' place, and it was worse than he had figured.
Tompkins had a conspiracy wall, all right. It took up an entire wall of his living room: a map of Podcast Hollow, with red push pins marking Slender Man sightings. The pins converged to the southeast, around Fuckman's Leap. There were photos, police sketches, newspaper clippings, red string connecting the newspaper clippings for some reason. Some of the photographs had a shadowy figure with too-long arms off to one side, which Tompkins had circled and written STOP PHOTOBOMBING!!! and BASIC!!! in Sharpie.
"You go on the couch," Gourley said, as he and McConville carried Tompkins in by his shoulders and feet, and dropped him on the sofa. "Drink a lot of water and don't call me in the morning."
"Something's happening," Tompkins said. "Jackson tried to warn me."
"Jackson's in Hawaii," Gourley said, absently. "Do you have any cookies?"
"What if it isn't just Slender Man?" Tompkins babbled. "What if there's something else in the woods? A secret government facility! A gateway to a pocket dimension ruled by monsters!"
"I've seen stranger things," Gourley said, distractedly rummaging through Paul's mini-kitchen and finally finding a Snickers.
Tompkins frowned again.
There was another photograph, apart from the conspiracy wall. It was a photograph of Tompkins and Jackson from when they were partners. It had been taken after hours, at a bar. Tompkins and Jackson were smiling and laughing, hands on each other's shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Paul," McConville said again. The photo made him sad, and he wasn't sure why.
"Aww, you guys're cute," Gourley said, through a mouthful of nougat and peanuts.
Tompkins slept unusually deeply that night, and dreamt of Jackson. Or, at least, someone who looked and sounded like Jackson.
"So he took you, right?" Tompkins said. "The Slender Man took you, and you're the new Slender Man? Like a Dread Pirate Roberts type situation."
"Hmm," Jackson said, narrowing his eyes without answering. "I think I deserve a bit more credit than that."
"But why go luring people into the woods if it isn't just to be annoying!" Tompkins said. "You know, you were always trying to one-up me when we were on the force together."
The almost-human smile played at Jackson's lips again. "Don't be so dramatic."
"Marc. I'm very dramatic. That is my whole thing."
Jackson's voice grew icy again. "You always wished you were more, that you could fix the scratches, find the ones who fell through the cracks. And you can't. You never could."
"Ugh, so that's why you're haunting me? Because my biggest fear is my own inadequacy?"
Jackson was human again, smiling, needling him. "Hey, you said it. Not me."
When Paul woke up, the photograph of Jackson didn't have a face.
Tompkins awoke to a call from Cameron.
"We're getting calls about skeletons," Esposito said.
"They found the bodies?" Tompkins said, in disbelief. He didn't know which bodies, he was just sure there were some.
"No, no, no bodies. Just skeletons. Just full-blown skeletons just walking around on their own."
"Sarge, the last thing I want to do in this situation is continue to undermine your authority as a woman in a male-dominated field, but...you don't think these might be crank calls? Say, if I saw you walking down the street, I could say, woah! There's a skeleton under there!"
"No, Paul, you were part right. Halloween shit's real weird. They don't seem violent, though? They're mostly just trying to communicate. Anyway, you should probably get down here."
When Tompkins arrived at the station, Esposito was negotiating with a pair of...skeletons.
"I totally understand the need to make your voices heard as part of a misunderstood community," Esposito said. "Just consider that there are a lot of ways to affect positive change. Other than violent uprising."
The skeletons looked at each other, and clattered their jaws up and down.
"By 'go haunt city hall' do you mean stage a protest with an organized set of demands?" Esposito asked. "Because I can get you that permit."
The skeletons shook Esposito's hand, which looked slightly uncomfortable, and clattered out of the office.
"What just happened," Tompkins said. "That's -- we're not -- monsters are definitely real. Do you believe me about Slender Man now?"
"They're just skeletons, Paul. I don't think this has anything to do with your skinny creepy phantom woods guy. I don't see a connection."
"Eh, I'm pretty sure everything has a connection to this crazy theory I'm obsessed with," Tompkins said. "Wait, I got it! Skeletons! The slenderest man of all!"
"Or woman or non-binary person," Cameron corrected, but Tompkins was already out the door.
SPOOKY SCARY SKELETACH
SEND SHIVACH DOWN YOUR SPATCH
SHRIEKING SKULLS WILL SHACH YOUR SOULD
AND SPELL YOUR DOOM TONATCH
Hmm, Tompkins thought. I feel like I've heard that disembodied voice before.
Tompkins figured he would head into town, where the skeletons were supposedly converging. Make sure they weren't up to any trouble. See if the little skinny guys could answer any questions about what the big skinny guy was up to.
Tompkins had driven into town a million times, and definitely knew the way. Which is why it made no sense that he had gotten turned around and headed directly toward Fuckman's Leap.
It's much cooler in the woods
, Jackson's voice said.
Far fewer people. You could take a rest.
"Get out of my head, Slender Man!" Tompkins shouted, to no one.
Then he saw them.
Dozens of skeletons, dancing in circles, playing catch with each other's heads, using each other's bones to play their ribs like a xylophone. Cartoon Halloween shit, Tompkins thought. And there were way too many of them.
YAAAS. ARMY OF THE NACHT! a voice shouted, triumphantly.
"Kubitch?" Tompkins said. The voice came from a loud, hairy little man.
THE VERY SATCH. HOW YOU LIKE MY BONY BOYS?
"They're -- I appreciate the effort, Kubitch. Did you pull all this together?"
YAAAS. NOW I CANST RULE THE WADSCHT!
"Ugh," Tompkins said, and reached for his radio. "Sarge, this is Tompkins requesting backup on the skeleton situation."
"Copy that. Location?"
"Sarge, I am somehow at Fuckman's Leap. I did not come here on purpose."
"What? Tompkins. That is the opposite of staying safe."
"There are a fuckton of skeletons here, though. Also that guy who I thought was fake."
"All right. I'll be there in a sec."
A skeleton spiked their own skull like a volleyball, and it careened into Tompkins' head. He blacked out.
He awoke in the gray mist again, with Jackson. Or Slender Man. Slenderman Jackson. Marc Evan Fuckman. Who?
Jackson -- not Jackson, his arms were too long, they didn't move like arms, had Kubitch in a headlock. The not-arms didn't have hands, they had almost-tentacles, and they whipped once, and snapped Kubitch's neck.
SON OF A BATCH, Kubitch screamed as he hit the ground and lay motionless.
"Get your own haunt, Kubitch," Jackson's voice said. "I'll take it from here."
"That was really unnecessary," Tompkins said. "Did you lure him out here just to do that?"
"Did I convince a disaffected loner that he could have ultimate power by tossing around some magic that he had literally no clue about?" Jackson said. "Yeah, I did. It was pretty funny."
Jackson's voice was human, and his face was gone.
"I probably would have come out here anyway, without all the theatrics," Tompkins said. "I missed you, Marc. Is that something I can do? Can I get through to the part of you who's still my lost friend, by appealing to your humanity?"
"I've missed you, too, Paul," said Slenderman Jackson, sliding his icy fingers into his heart.
Tompkins woke up in the woods, his mouth full of Sour Patch kids.
The sun had come up, and it was no longer Halloween.
"Paul!" McConville said, shaking Tompkins awake. "We thought you had gone to Hawaii there for a minute."
"Wait, that's a euphemism ?" Tompkins sputtered.
"Esposito said you'd gone to Fuckman's Leap and we got worried," McConville said. "Thought you were a goner for sure."
Tompkins turned his head, slowly, without getting up. There was a skeleton next to him that did not look like the dancing skeletons of last night; it looked like a squat, hairy corpse. Tompkins leapt up, screaming.
"That's Kubitch!" he yelped, pointing. "Fuckman Jackson murdered Kubitch!"
"Who's Kubitch?" McConville said.
"Who's Jackson?" Gourley mumbled, his mouth full of sour patch kids.
"Did you eat those off the ground, Matt?" McConville said.
"Maybe," Gourley said. "I guess I have a problem."
"Where's my radio?" Tompkins said, flustered. "There's a
Behind him, a disembodied voice began to sing. It sounded like Gourley or McConville, but also like Jackson, and also like nothing he had ever heard.
Down in Podcast Hollow eatin' candy kids with Slender Man
Paul turned around, and there was no one there.
"I don't get it," Esposito said, as backup loaded the body bag into the transport. "But at least there's hard evidence that something happened. We can open a real investigation. And I'm sure the Captain will have some ideas. She didn't spend all that time down in Big Podcast City studying True Crime for nothing."
Tompkins nodded. He didn't feel good, at all, but he felt more grounded, now that Halloween night was over.
Down at the station, Tompkins could already hear Captain Blasucci's chipper voice.
"Glad to hear it. At the end of the day, we solve what we can solve, and that's what really matters."
Tompkins stepped further into the room, saw who Blasucci was talking to, and stopped dead.
Jackson was back at his desk, wearing an Aloha shirt. "You wouldn't believe flight prices this time of year," Jackson said, to Maria. "But I'm glad I decided to come back."
Esposito and Tompkins were still standing stock still, looking at Jackson.
"Hi Paul. Hi Cameron. What'd I miss?"