One of the few things Riley liked about working at the Gold Crown Club was the bathroom. He’d tended bar at many venues where the bathroom would qualify as a circle of hell. He wouldn’t call the GCC a high-end establishment, but David made sure the bathrooms were always impeccably clean. Riley appreciated that. What he appreciated less was how some of the other patrons showed their appreciation.
He walked in just in time to see a well-muscled man with a chiseled jaw and expensive blazer eagerly snorting cocaine from the enthusiastically bulging cleavage of his buxom blonde companion. She smiled mischievously, winked and mouthed, “Hi there,” as Riley walked past on his way to the urinals. The man didn’t notice; his face was buried in her boobs.
He looked away awkwardly. He was quite certain the cherub-cheeked girl wasn’t old enough to be in the club, and he had doubts as to whether she was even an adult. That was one of the things he hated about the Gold Crown Club. Just about any pretty girl with a fake ID could get in, and David looked the other way. And the GCC’s clientele knew this.
Which led to another thing he hated about the GCC. As he stood there answering nature’s call, he heard the couple stagger into a stall and close the door. He’d witnessed more bathroom sex at this club than at any other he worked at. He finished his business and washed his hands. He could easily hear their moans from their makeout session over the sound of the running water and the muffled music coming from outside. He wanted to get out quickly before things progressed.
Kaitlin playfully shoved Grant onto the toilet and peeled off his blazer. She licked her lips at the sight of his full-sleeve tribal tattoo.
“Nice ink,” she murmured before kissing him. She unbuckled his belt while he lifted her dress up over her hips.
Then he stopped.
“What’s wrong, baby?” she asked. “You feeling okay?”
“I dunno. I feel weird.” He looked slightly dazed, swaying a bit.
“Well you just did a whole buttload of blow,” she giggled.
“Don’t think that’s it, Katy. I feel — what the fuck?” He felt as much as heard a low hiss rising within him.
“What’s that sound?” Kaitlin asked, worried. Grant’s breathing quickened, but she could still hear the hiss over his rapid, alarmed inhalations.
“It’s — it’s me!” he cried out. He felt a surge of pressure and looked down to see his stomach bulge forward. His shirt lifted, his buttons pulling taut before snapping off one by one as his six-pack rapidly ballooned into a keg.
“What’s happening to you!”
“I don’t know!” His arms and legs followed suit, straining the fabric of his clothes. He looked back to her, eyes wide with panic.
Frozen in place, Kaitlin trembled as she saw his face puffing up.
“Get help!” he shouted. “I feel like I’m gonna mmmrrrrph!” His lips were too swollen to allow his words to escape.
Kaitlin, however, suffered no such speech impediment. She screamed.
“What’s going on in there?” Riley called out. He saw the door open inward just a few inches before slamming back shut.
“Mrrmmph! Hrrnnnf!” came the muffled cries from inside the stall, accompanied by the screech of rending cloth and a strange gurgling hiss.
“Help!” Kaitlin shouted. She’d gotten down onto the floor and was trying to scramble out under the stall door. Riley grabbed one of her flailing arms and pulled her clear. She staggered to her feet, her heaving bosom spilling out the front of her dress.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Something’s wrong with Grant!” she wailed, sobbing. “He’s blowing up!”
“What do you mean?” Riley asked, confused. His question was answered by a creaking of overtaxed metal, followed by the stall door being blasted open by an enormous flesh-colored bubble.
Riley was struck dumb by the sight before him. Impossible though it might be, Katy was right; Grant was blowing up. Riley could see the puffed-up face atop the swollen mass of a body that had overfilled the stall. The side walls buckled, then collapsed. Having broken free of those constraints, the distending form surged into the adjacent stalls and was swiftly filling the restroom.
“Hrrrrmph!” came the terrified cry from the quivering, swelling balloon. Puffy hands flapped frantically from indentations on the surface of the ball. His tattoo was stretched and distorted across his increasingly taut surface.
Katy gave a horrified shriek as she ran from the restroom as quickly as her platform heels allowed, stumbling along the way.
Riley snapped out of his trance quickly reached for his phone.
“911, please state your emergency.”
“I’m at the Gold Crown Club. We need an ambulance here now!” Riley stepped aside to avoid being pressed into the sinks.
“Sir, please tell me what’s wrong. Is somebody hurt?”
Grant’s screams were steadily increasing in volume, pitch, and urgency as he grew ever larger. “Just send someone!” he shouted into his phone.
Paul, one of the bouncers, rushed in as Riley was making his way toward the exist. “What's with all the commotion — holy shit!” He’d arrived just in time to see Grant’s swollen head disappear, his ballooning body having filled the bathroom from floor to ceiling. The gurgling from deep within him turned into a rumble, his overstretched skin flushing pink.
“We need to get outta here,” Riley said, his voice shaking. “I don’t think he’s gonna stop.” Grant tried to shout a protest as loudly as he could, but the sound was almost completely muffled by his massive bulk. Paul merely nodded.
They emerged to find a small crowd gathered around a hysterical Katy. She was babbling incoherently while a woman held her hand and tried to calm her.
“We have to get these people back,” Riley called out to Paul.
The two of them were trying to herd the crowd away when an explosion shook the building and fractured the bathroom door.
The music stopped and the club fell silent for a moment. Then all hell broke loose.
“I wish I had more for you, Ms. Tylor,” Detective Warren said.
“I chase ghosts for a living,” June said. “If you had more, then there’d be no reason for me to be involved.” June was poring over the case files.
“All three cases involved men consuming cocaine shortly before...” He couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Inflating,” June finished for him. “I know, it’s hard to believe. Which means it’ll be even harder for you to believe that this isn’t even the weirdest case I’ve taken on.” Warren briefly considered asking for elaboration, but quickly decided that he didn’t want to know.
“But do you think that’s the connection?” He asked. “There’s a rumor going around that the new dealer in town is selling bad product. Could tainted drugs do this?”
“It’s possible, but I doubt it,” she replied. “Something feels off here. I’m certain something other than cocaine connects these men.” Over the years, June had learned to trust her gut during her investigations. Reason and logic often failed.
“The creepiest thing? They just vanish. All Mr. Crowe left behind was his torn clothes and a demolished bathroom.”
That was the truly tragic part. June had seen it far too many times. With such an impossible situation before them and no scapegoat to hold accountable, the authorities would always try to bury the incident. They’d craft a cover story to explain the blast, Grant Crowe would be reported missing at some point, and his case would never be solved. There would be no closure for his family or friends.
June sat bolt upright. “How did you identify him?”
“Riley gave us a description, and we had his clothes. We had to go through a lot of pictures and videos from other club-goers that evening, but eventually we were able to piece together who he was.”
June was certain the detective’s choice of words was unintentional, and tried to shrug off the dark implications.
“And the one before Crowe?”
“That was easy. He needed an ID and a credit card to check in to his hotel room.”
“And what about the first one?”
“He exploded in his dorm room. His roommate came back from a party that night, but he never did. We assumed it was him.”
June smacked her hand to her forehead. Of course the police wouldn’t think anything of it; they’d never seen anything like this before. But she should have caught it immediately.
“Okay, what about this case? What information do we have on the girl?”
“Not much. Her name is Katy. She bolted after the explosion. She was most likely underage and high on drugs, so it’s understandable that she wouldn’t want to wait around for the police to show up.”
June sighed. “We need to find her. We need answers, and I suspect she has some.”