Doug didn’t remember going to bed, and he figured the entire event was just a frenzied dream when he awoke before dawn fully refreshed. There was no cigarette ash on the kitchen table when he went downstairs to make coffee. Perhaps he’d talk with Pastor Bob about dreaming of meetings with the devil, as well as the idea of renouncing one’s faith to save children. It was strange, to say the least.
The only thing out of the ordinary was how energized he felt. Even before the coffee was finished brewing, he found himself doing squats, lunges, and pushups in the living room. He considered going for a run, which he hadn’t done all year. He was in a very, very good mood. Maybe the dream had reminded him of his purpose in life.
When he opened the door to the medicine cabinet to start his daily shaving routine, though, he saw the vial from the devil’s pocket standing front and center. Its amber color seemed to glow in the low light of the bathroom cabinet. Doug didn’t touch it and quickly got out his shaving soap and razor and closed the cabinet door. He had a long day ahead of him at the VA, with a stacked schedule of clients in need of therapy for their PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Doug’s wife always had the local morning news on full blast in the living room as she was getting the kids ready for school, and Doug could hear the leading headlines at the top of the hour as he got ready for the day. “And some local news that is making headlines in national papers today: a Cleveland businessman was arrested this morning on charges of both insider trading and child pornography,” Doug heard. “We’ll have reactions to Craig Stillwater’s arrest later in the hour.” Doug shook his head.
When he was done with his normal morning ablutions, he got dressed in his “counselor outfit”, as Margie called it — blue button down, plain khakis, brown shoes, brown belt. He combed his hair before the bathroom mirror once more. Just before he left, he opened the cabinet and put the devil’s vial in his pocket.
The counseling sessions went smoothly for Doug, and he felt like he was truly helping his patients. Every patient arrived on time and most had some kind of breakthrough without going over time. It was the first time since he’d become a licensed therapist that he could remember everything going on schedule.
His last patient was Mitch, a difficult guy who was usually hard to get through to. Mitch was willing to talk your ear off, but never about his problems; he had trouble being vulnerable and tended to blame everyone else. He was coming to therapy for PTSD from his two tours in Afghanistan and alcoholism, which had ruined his relationship with his wife. But he also hinted at a few extreme political views that Doug wasn’t particularly keen on discussing. Namely, the way he talked about “those dirty immigrants” and “urban ghetto dwellers” made Doug more than a little uncomfortable.
Still, today Mitch seemed to be in a place where he could receive what Doug was saying without making statements about anyone else, including his ex-wife. They even laughed together about a meme they’d both seen thanks to their teenaged children.
Mitch coughed a little in his laughter and then said something that made Doug’s hair stand up. “You know, if those pedos ever tried to get to my kid I’d just kill them. Straight up.”
It seemed to come out of nowhere, except that they’d been talking about their teenagers.
“Which pedos?” Doug asked cautiously.
“Oh, there’s a bunch of ‘em,” Mitch said, leaning back in his seat and crossing one leg over another. “All the democrat rats.”
“Is this from QAnon?” Doug asked, recognizing the signs and ready to make a note about his patient’s belief in conspiracy theories.
“Yeah, Q has it right, I think,” Mitch said, as Doug scribbled the note. “But he’s just got the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of local predators, here, that I know. Personally.”
Doug stopped. “You know child predators?”
Mitch nodded. “Friends of friends,” he said. “Not guys I’d ever want to associate with. But they come to barbecues or whatever and just say things and you know. You know.”
Doug nodded. He’d never had a conversation with someone like this, but as a pastor, people tended to hide their vices from him unless he was helping them in an official capacity. “What kinds of things do they say?”
“Just stuff,” Mitch said. “You can tell they’re feeling their way around other guys to see who’s open to it or not. Talking about how easy it is to meet new people on social media or something, or they’ll have a picture of a really young girl and see what you think about her. You have to just shut it down, real quick. But you know in the back of your mind what they mean. And you keep them away from your family, that’s for sure.”
“I see,” Doug said. He paused and cleared his throat. “Do you think you’d ever actually kill any of them?”
Mitch laughed. “No, doc, of course not, not literally,” he said. “I don’t even keep a gun in the house anymore because I don’t ever wanna’ chance it, you know that. I don’t wanna’ go back to jail ever again.”
Doug made a note that his patient wasn’t expressing true rage, thankfully. But Doug was intrigued.
“Who are these guys?” he pressed further. “Are they vets?”
“Not the ones I’ve met, so far,” Mitch said, scratching his chin. “There’s a guy, Dave, I’ve talked to once or twice. Again, not at my house. Backyard barbecue with a neighbor kind of thing.”
“Dave,” Doug wrote. “Dave who, do you know?” he said.
“Miller?” Mitchell said. “I think? I know he works for that big construction company Jim Young works for. He’s an electrician. In the union and everything.” Mitch snorted. “I guess he pays his dues.”
Doug wrote down the info. Maybe he’d look up this Dave person, just to see, he thought.
“Do you know if he’s ever contacted any kids?” Doug asked.
Mitch nodded. “Oh yeah. I overheard him bragging about some really young girl,” he said. “I don’t know how young. He showed someone some pictures and they weren’t comfortable with it. I guess he got her to send them to him. I don’t know. She could’ve been 19 but it didn’t feel like it.”
Doug wrote “has pictures of young woman”.
“But Q has plans for guys like that,” Mitch said.
“Oh?” Doug said. “Like what?”
“There’s going to be a big uprising,” Mitch said. “Obviously Trump will lead it. But there’s a bunch of Q people keeping track of these pedophiles and they’re going to take them down.”
“Is there, say, a local chapter for Q and his people or something?” Doug asked. “People who hunt down the predators and keep track of them?” He wasn’t sure about the nomenclature. Mitch was his only patient who talked about QAnon.
“Probably,” Mitch said. “I’m just a casual observer, you know. I don’t know who these people are.”
Doug nodded. He looked at his watch.
“Well,” he said, “I think we’re about done for the day. Same time next week?”
Doug’s last patient canceled last minute, much to Doug’s surprise, but it afforded him time to catch up on some paperwork. He typed up notes and made marks in case files about the day’s breakthroughs. He was still done half an hour before he usually would be.
But instead of calling his wife and saying he’d be home early, he decided to do some internet sleuthing. He looked up David Miller in a Google search to see if he could find this alleged child predator.
There were, of course, thousands of David Millers on the internet, and even in Cleveland, the number seemed insurmountable. But the David Millers who were licensed electricians and worked with Jim Young made up a much shorter list. It wasn’t hard to find this man on Facebook and Instagram. He didn’t post much, but what he posted was public and it made him easy to figure out. Doug learned that this David Miller often checked into a dive bar where he watched Thursday night football. He loved the Cleveland Browns, which either made him charmingly loyal or extremely pathetic.
It was Thursday night, Doug realized. Often he’d go straight from the VA to the church downtown to help with Narcotics Anonymous, but there weren’t any meetings tonight because of some construction at the church.
He felt the vial in his pocket. He thought about the Browns sweatshirt his wife had bought him last Christmas as a half-joke, since he rarely watched football and certainly didn’t love the Browns.
But maybe tonight would be a good night to try it out.
Doug had to stretch the truth slightly to his wife about why he was suddenly interested in watching football on a Thursday night.
“I promised Trent I’d go and be sober moral support,” Doug told her, talking about a church member who’d recently had a struggle with alcohol. He was taking a chance that she wouldn’t talk to Trent in the coming weeks at church, or that he wouldn’t show up to Sunday services. His wife didn’t really like talking to Trent, anyway. He couldn’t possibly ask Trent to come out to a bar, especially when he knew what he was really planning to do.
Doug’s wife didn’t question this. She trusted him, which made him feel anxious. But he felt right. A small fib wasn’t a full betrayal of his wife, especially because his intentions were good.
The bar wasn’t too crowded when Doug arrived just after kickoff. There were enough people that it wouldn’t be obvious if he sat next to a stranger. And luckily, he could pick Dave Miller out easily enough from his Facebook check-ins — he sat at the same spot at the bar where he could best watch the game. Even more lucky was the fact that Dave had an open seat next to him.
Doug sat next to him and ordered a club soda and chicken wings. He wasn’t hungry, as he’d had a quick dinner with his family before coming out, but he didn’t want to stick out. Dave Miller appeared to be the kind of man who ordered boilermakers, chasing a shot of Old Grand-Dad with a Coors Light. He had just ordered another when there was a fumble in the game and Doug found his chance to start up a conversation.
“Heartbreaking,” Doug said to Dave, nodding to the screen.
“The Browns do break your heart, yep,” Dave Miller said, noting Doug’s orange sweatshirt. “Every year.”
“My girlfriend was in diapers the last time they had a good season,” Doug said quietly.
Dave looked at him with recognition. “You mean 2007?”
Doug nodded. “Yep,” he said, and took a sip of his club soda. He squeezed the lime into it, hoping Dave hadn’t noticed it wasn’t alcoholic.
“That’s hilarious,” Dave said. “My current piece wouldn’t believe me if I told her the Browns went to the playoffs in my lifetime.”
“You wanna see her?”
Doug felt his heart beating. Was it really this easy?
The bartender, a middle-aged woman with smudged eyeliner and a shirt that Doug would not have allowed his daughter to leave the house wearing, was looking at them both with a bit of side-eye. But she didn’t say anything and went on serving other customers.
“Sure,” Doug said. Dave fished his phone out of his pocket and opened it up. He clicked through a few screens and then offered the phone over to Doug to look.
It was just as Mitch had warned him — a girl of indeterminate age, but clearly very young, her shirt pulled up to reveal her budding breasts. Doug had to try hard to keep cool. He felt his pulse racing.
“Nice,” he said, handing the phone back. He couldn’t believe Dave was being this cavalier, showing a complete stranger nudes from what he figured was a teenager. “How, uh, how old is she?” he said it quietly, ashamedly, because he was ashamed.
Dave looked around and leaned in. “If Babs over there asks, she’s 19,” he said. “But between you and me, this one is 15.” He grinned from ear to ear and patted Doug on the back.
“And she just sent that to you?” Doug asked.
“Kik,” Dave said. “It’s great. Didn’t take long, either. She has daddy issues.” He laughed. “I didn’t even have to pretend to be, like, at her school or anything.”
Doug nodded. “Ah,” he managed to get out. Was he being too awkward? Maybe Dave would just think he was nervous because it was his first time.
“I’ve got plenty more like it, too,” Dave said, scrolling a little more before he put the phone back in his pocket. “If you’re interested.”
Was this man offering Doug access to child pornography? Doug couldn’t even use his voice. He just nodded and drank some more club soda.
A few minutes later, Doug managed to eke out, “Have you, uh, met her?”
Dave leaned back in conspiratorially. “Not yet, not this one,” he said. “But others, sure. I can tell you how.” He glanced at Babs. “Maybe later.”
Doug nodded and swallowed. His head was spinning as they watched the rest of the game, an interminable three hours sitting next to a man he found absolutely despicable, who thought they felt the same way about sexually exploiting children. He wasn’t even sure exactly what he would do next. He kept feeling the vial in his pants pocket, checking to make sure it was still there.
Finally the game was over and Dave and Doug paid their bills.
“Nice to meet you, man,” Dave said, and offered to shake Doug’s hand.
“Oh, shoot,” Doug said, faltering. He did not want to shake this man’s hand. “Chicken wings, man, sorry.” He grabbed some napkins and tried to wipe off the imaginary sauce.
Dave waved it off. “I feel you,” he said. “See you next week? I can, you know, tell you a thing or two before kickoff.” He winked nauseatingly.
“Sure,” Doug said. “Next week.”
And Dave walked out the door.
Doug’s heart was pounding. He couldn’t do this another week. He also couldn’t let that man abuse more children for another seven days. He pulled the vial out of his pocket and looked at it. Then he opened it and dabbed some on each wrist and followed Dave out the door.
The parking lot was empty, thankfully. Dave had parked in a far, dark corner.
“Hey, Dave,” Doug said. “You wanna show me a few more of those pics or give me some ideas on how to get some of my own real quick? Before you go?”
Dave laughed. “Of course, man. Happy to share with a fellow connoisseur.”
Doug shook that off. His blood was boiling now. This man had to go.
“You mind if we do it, like, in private?” Doug asked.
“Sure,” Dave said. “No skin off my back.”
“I think behind the building here would be ok,” Doug said, motioning to the darkest part of the deserted parking lot where the streetlight didn’t reach.
He followed Dave to a secluded, quiet corner behind the building, near the dumpsters. As Dave was opening his phone and looking for pictures, Doug felt something change in him. His blood was still boiling, but it felt hotter than usual. He looked at his hands and saw them growing in size, with hair coming off the knuckles and sharp claws emerging.
Dave was looking at his phone, or he might have noticed sooner that Doug was growing in size before his eyes, splitting the Browns sweatshirt from his back and emerging as a giant, hairy beast, with a snarling snout and hairy giant ears.
Dave looked up just as the transition was complete. “What the fu–”
But before he could even get an exclamation out, Doug had ripped out his throat with his new claws.
The pedophile fell to the ground, clutching uselessly at his neck, blood flowing like a hot red river onto the asphalt. Doug watched from his new red eyes as the man choked to death on his own blood, confused and scared.
Doug stood over him well after he had bled out, panting to catch his breath. He didn’t feel the need to howl at the moon or go on a rampage elsewhere. But he felt sweet vindication. He had removed a pedophile from circulation.