Golden rays of sunlight roused Henry from a deep and dreamless slumber. He was laying on a beaten-in leather sofa in an equally beaten-in living room, with mushroom grey walls and brown carpet. A chipped glass coffee table held stacks of tattered fiction paperbacks. They were roughly sorted out into Romance, Mystery, and pulpy Sci-Fi. A book titled The Alpha Alien Patrol Saves Jupiter… Again! sat on the stack closest to the couch.
He found it comfortable, and comforting, after more than a week in the sterile and barren environs of the Tortoise Shell Inn. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a striped yellow armchair, upon which sat a spotted lab mix named Bruce. The dog regarded Henry curiously, head tilted to the side. His floppy ears twitched.
“Good morning,” Niles replied, rounding the corner and making Henry jump. Sleep still pulled at the man’s puffy eyes, and his hair stuck straight up on the left side of his head. He bore two steaming mugs. “Like tea? It’s black, with raspberry and honey.”
“Sounds great.” He sat up, acutely aware that he was still wearing his outfit from the previous day.
Niles looked from one graphic mug to the other. “Do you want ‘Judith with Holofernes’ or ‘Giant Squid Attacks City?’”
“I’ll take the squid.”
“Thought you might.” He set the chosen mug down atop one of the more structurally stable stacks of books, and took his own back with him across the narrow hall to the kitchen. “I’m making omelettes, to thank you for the company last night.”
A long night, during which they hadn’t talked about anything. By the time they got Bruce settled down and Henry had apologized a hundred times for stopping by so late, exhaustion had taken them both. Niles insisted that he take couch. “Why were you up so late, anyway? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I went down to talk to the sheriff. Had to stand in a line.” Niles spoke loudly to be heard across the hall and over the clattering of pans and the subsequent cracking of eggs. “She didn’t take me seriously. Didn’t take a single note. She told me that everyone has their ‘own theories,’ and that she’s ‘investigating every angle.’ Whatever that means. I was too anxious to sleep, after that. Until you showed up. It’s good to have somebody who understands.”
Bruce, belatedly recognizing that the target of his curiosity was awake, stretched his way out of the armchair and padded over to sit on Henry’s feet. “Were you close with Mathas Bernard?”
“I was. The man could be a bit arrogant, but he put his money into what he loved. Not anything that he knew even the first thing about, mind you, but the things he loved all the same. Plus, he always took me on for catering jobs. Take a look at that bookmark beneath your mug.”
Henry scratched Bruce on the head while he negotiated his hot tea to safety and pulled an aged photograph out from within the yellowed pages of Alpha Aliens. It showed a visibly younger Niles, chin round and eyes bright, grinning over an elaborately decorated birthday cake. Standing beside him, giving a thumbs up, could be nobody but Mathas himself. The man was dressed in a suit that matched the grey tone of his receding hair, and there was a serene—if somewhat distant—smile plastered on his face.
A small group of people fanned out behind them, including Beth, dressed in bright yellow, and her sister Lucy, who looked as insubstantial as ever. Crowded around them stood several other people Henry didn’t recognize, but who all bore the distinctive jagged jawline and dominant brow ridge that marked them as Brihtes. Behind them were a varied assortment of others, hovering a slight distance away from the family. The bald man from the Anderson warehouse waved. Aria Bethel glowered at the camera, and beside her Patty wore a confused expression.
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately,” Niles continued. “I’m sure everyone has. Things like this don’t happen very often around here. People tend to pass away from old age, and believe me when I say that age tends to be particularly old.”
Henry swallowed. Seeing an image of Mathas Bernard made it real. A weight he had not noticed in his chest now dropped down to settle in his stomach, where it festered and kicked. A man was dead. Perhaps murdered. All he had managed to worry about was how foolish the village was acting, or how unfair it was that he was involved. Suddenly he felt silly, sitting there on a stranger’s couch in his day-old clothes.
The scent of egg, pepper, mushroom, and cheese filled the living room. Bruce drooled on Henry’s leg. Niles continued to talk, his voice drifting in from the kitchen, apparently unconcerned with his audience’s prolonged silence. “I guess I did what I could, but I still feel like an idiot. I don’t have any evidence. Nothing real.”
“We did what we could do,” he said, but it sounded thin coming out of his mouth.
“Then what was keeping you up so late last night? If you don’t mind my asking.”
He could have told him everything before, and saved him the concern over Beth Brihte. He should have. Henry pet the dog absent-mindedly while he told the story about his night in the park with Clair, his run-in with Beth at the cafe, and the mixed results of his excavation the previous night. By the time he was finished speaking he was sitting at Niles’ alcove-style kitchen table, halfway through a delicious omelette.
Niles toyed with the locket, thumbing it open to reveal the gem inside. “Emmaline Cass,” he said.
“Does that name mean anything to you?”
“She was one of the original founders of Tortus Bay. The wife of the man who led the expedition that discovered this valley. If this really belonged to her, I know quite a few people who would be interested to know.”
“Do you know why Clair would have it?”
A strange look crossed his face. “The park was named after Emmaline Cass, not that you would know it. No signs, obviously. There’s a lot of history to that name. A lot of things a person can’t know until they’ve been around for a while.”
“You keep saying that.”
Niles closed the locket, and slid it across the table to Henry. “I don’t think Clair had anything to do with Mathas’ death.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I’ve known her almost my entire life. She grew up here. She loves Tortus Bay. She used to love her job down at the orchards, too, until the fire. The Brihtes say it started on her shift; she says she wasn’t even scheduled to work that day. Either way, it made her unemployable afterward. You can’t imagine how hard it is to have an entire community, your only community, turn against you. But she would never have killed Mathas. She knew better than anyone what he meant to the people she loved.”
“I do know,” Henry said, “what it’s like for a community to turn against you. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Beth had anything to do with the murder either. Not after what she said to me at the cafe.”
Niles was silent for a moment, but then nodded and took a thoughtful bite of his omelette. “So where does that leave us?”
Talking would get them nowhere. Taking no action would be unconscionable. Speaking to the sheriff again would be pointless, without some kind of proof. So the only thing for them to do was to find it. They emerged that afternoon into the dreary cover of black clouds, intent on doing what Henry should have days ago: speaking with Clair.
Not ten yards from Horizon Foods they knew something was wrong. A throng of people were gathered there, in the street. The mob watched, silent, mouths hanging open as though they had interrupted some ongoing scandal. Two police cruisers were parked on the curb, flanking the fluorescent-haloed grocery entry.
Henry felt what was going to happen even before the door opened. A uniformed deputy stepped out, clearing the way for Clair. Her arms were pinned to her sides, held on the left by sheriff Leia Thao and on the right by a second deputy. Together they hauled her forward.
“This is bullshit!” Clair screamed, straining against the twin vice grips. Her face was a curtain of red. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Clair Knoss,” Leia said, in a smooth and steady voice, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “you are under arrest for the murder of Mathas Bernard. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say now can and will be held against you in a court of law.”
The crowd broke into raucous murmurs. A few people nodded. Some jeered, and many others cheered. “I didn’t do anything!” Clair screamed again. She twisted and turned, dragging her feet on the pavement, but the officers pulled her on regardless. “I can’t have! I already told you!”
Niles wasn’t standing beside Henry anymore. He’d stepped forward, placing himself between Leia and the police cars. “What’s happening here?”
“Make way,” the sheriff demanded.
The unencumbered deputy stepped forward, and placed a hand on Niles’ shoulder. Half of the crowd tried to peel back, away from the unfolding confrontation, while the other half pressed forward—and in that moment Henry was stuck in the middle, shoved left and right simultaneously, unable to move. Leia’s jaw tightened, and the deputy by her side let his hand fall to his belt.
The moment passed. Niles raised his arms, and stepped aside. They marched Clair past him, her head swiveling frantically from side to side. Her eyes fell on Henry.
She opened her mouth, a new brand of urgency written on her face, but then her lips twisted and she closed it again. The fight left her body. Leia folded her into the backseat of the squad car, barked at the crowd to disperse, and wasted no time vacating the scene.
Henry and Niles watched their tail-lights disappear around the bend in the road, and with them their chance at an easy way forward.