THE REFERRAL • by Rachel Stainer

Jay had seen some wild shit working for Dulles Pest Control. But he hadn’t been expecting a light-distorting anomaly that reportedly absorbed a housecat.

“I heard you were good at handling the weirder stuff,” the client — Mr. Michaelson, Jay’s tenth-grade English teacher from years ago — said over the phone.

It was technically true. Jay’s boss — the Ed Dulles of Dulles Pest Control — was the one good at handling “weird stuff.” It’s not something they could easily advertise, but word got around somehow. But the messiest requests? Ed passed those on to someone he’d only ever referred to as “the Specialist.”

Some customers asked for the Specialist right away, like teenagers buying their first dime bags. Ed would hand over a black metal business card embossed with a phone number and the words “Specialized Services.” He’d instruct the client to tell the Specialist Ed had sent them, and that was it. Jay was just along for the steady paycheck. After the third Specialist referral in a two-month period, Jay got curious. So, he’d asked Ed just who the Specialist was.

“Someone who charges too much,” Jay’s boss had said, almost laughing, “And shouldn’t be fucked with. But we have to refer anyone who asks.”

Jay stopped asking questions after that.


Three hours after picking up Mr. Michaelson’s call about a cat-eating anomaly, Jay was standing next to the older man’s neat suburban garage staring at the thing. It floated directly in front of him, about a foot off the ground and two feet from the exterior garage wall. At first glance, it looked like a ball of dense fog. Its ink-black center slowly faded to translucent edges that gently pulsed even in the still summer air. Jay could just barely see a blurred, bent version of his former teacher’s patchy lawn through its edges.

It felt like the bottom of Jay’s stomach had dropped out. He had no idea what to do. Ed usually handled these jobs. But Ed had gone to renegotiate their referral fees with the Specialist ten days ago with a cheerful “text me if you need anything, kid” and hadn’t contacted Jay since.

Jay knew his suspicions were irrational — Ed could have had a family emergency or something. There was no proof that something had happened to Ed, let alone something to do with the Specialist. Still, maybe Jay could at least spare Mr. Michaelson from whatever steep prices the Specialist charged.


“I really can’t help you with this.” Jay said with what he hoped was a nonchalant shrug.

Mr. Michaelson — Tom, as he’d insisted Jay call him on the phone earlier — looked more like a dapper grandpa these days than the tired, middle-aged educator in Jay’s memory, but his eyes were still just as kind as they’d been when he’d let Jay use a fictional “Literature Club” to avoid going home at the end of the day.

“Please, Jay,” his teacher pleaded. “It’s getting bigger, we just—”

“Tom, Dulles Pest Control isn’t equipped to deal with this kind of problem,” Jay tried to keep his voice as even as he could.

“It ate our cat,” Tom replied, his voice edging from pleading into a wail. He took a deep breath before speaking again.

“I’m sorry, Jay, I’m just at the end of my rope,” he said. “The city won’t help us, and every other contractor I’ve called has walked away. You guys are my last shot.” He paused for a moment, running ruddy fingers through his gray hair. “I’ve heard you guys know someone that can fix this.”


Christ, there it was. So much for trying, Jay thought.

“Alright,” Jay said, hating every word as it came out of his mouth, “I can refer you to someone.”

Tom snapped to attention. “You can?”

“Yeah, but…” Jay paused, trying to find the right words to describe what came next. “His price might be steep.”

“At this point I’ll pay anything,” Mr. Michaelson replied.

You might regret saying that, thought Jay as he pulled out his phone. He thought briefly of Ed. This can’t be worth whatever Ed’s paid, something in Jay’s mind whispered. The thought stopped him cold.

It occurred to Jay then that he didn’t know what — or if — this was costing Ed. They stayed out of each other’s private lives. Jay should at least check to see if Ed was okay instead of assuming the worst, right?

“Give me one sec, Tom,” Jay said, tapping out a quick U ok? text to Ed. “Gotta confirm they’re available.”

In less time than it took for Tom to murmur in agreement, Jay’s phone vibrated with a reply from Ed.

All good.

Jay let out a shaking breath.

“We’re good,” Jay continued, pulling the Specialist’s black business card from the folio in his belt bag and handing it to Tom with steady hands. “He’ll be able to give you a quote, sir.”


When Jay pulled up his own driveway twenty minutes later, he felt calm. As soon as he saw the cops on his doorstep, that calm had frozen into fear.

“Jay Clark?” an officer called. Jay nodded, so the cop continued. “We need to ask you some questions about your employer, Ed Dulles.”

Jay didn’t respond. The cops looked at each other before one of them spoke again.

“Ed Dulles was found dead this morning.”

For a long moment, no one spoke.

Then Jay felt his phone vibrate. It was another text from Ed’s number.

Keep sending them.

Rachel Stainer writes in Brooklyn, NY.

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