Henry fidgeted with his ratty hood and tried to ignore the sensation of rainwater dripping down his back. Grey clouds crowded the sky. He took the long way around the village into the woods, retracing the path by memory from the TBWHAS expedition. The canopy provided moderate relief from the drizzle. He let his hood fall back down. All around him, there was the rhythmic patter of raindrops striking leaves—and no other noise at all. The scent of damp earth, and growing things. It was nice. With any luck, it would hide his presence.
News of Emmaline Cass’ exhumation would be a matter of public knowledge in Tortus Bay in a matter of hours. Hearing the news would require nothing more than taking a stool at Jamal’s bar and uttering a single word of interest. But could he really trust any report coming out of sheriff Leia Thao? More importantly, when would he have a more convenient excuse to see the Cass headstone again? He knew he was on the right track when he caught sight of the white marble spire peering out above the tops of the trees.
It had infiltrated his usual dreams. No longer did he see the classroom, or his childhood bedroom, or his new home, that in the corner there didn’t loom the monument.
Henry drew up as close as he dared to the old graveyard, sequestering himself away behind a broad tree trunk, and looked onto a great commotion. Leia Thao and her two deputies—was that really the entirely of the Tortus Bay police department?—loudly directed over a group of people jogging around and hauling equipment. The process had already begun. They blocked most of the view from where he stood, but it sounded like they were encountering issues with the rain.
Besides the deputies, he didn’t recognize a single person in the area. They wore slick, professional raincoats and cheap plastic visors. He let his attention slide over to the headstone, awash and streaming in the downpour. There was the protection symbol, in the center of a great deal of other iconography that he did not recognize. Notably not protecting anything. If Kara died, would the charm hanging around his neck become a useless trinket?
If he died, would she be able to feel it?
A snapping twig brought Henry back to his surroundings. His stomach dropped. Somebody had come up from behind him. “Hello.” It was a man’s voice, cool and composed. “Henry Cauville, if I’m not mistaken.”
He turned. A few paces away there stood a tall man wearing a navy blue sweater, and carrying a checkerboard umbrella. Both his eyes and his mouth were smiling, in what appeared to be an entirely genuine way. “I am,” Henry said.
“Noel Gauthe,” the man said, reaching his free hand out for a brisk handshake. “I was hoping I might run into you here.”
“Noel Gauthe—the mayor?”
His smile widened. “So you’ve heard of me. Indeed I am. Not exactly the environment I anticipated for this message, but please accept my belated welcome to Tortus Bay regardless. I understand you recently secured more permanent housing than the back room of the Tortoise Shell Inn?”
“Oh, don’t think I’m keeping tabs on you. I’m just a naturally curious individual, and keeping in the loop with the latest gossip is part of the job. Nearly all of the job, in fact.”
“Is that how you knew I’d be here?”
Noel’s lips flattened, but the smile remained in his crinkled eyes. “I overheard somewhere that you had something to do with precipitating this event. You know, they had to come to me for permission. At least, Leia said she did. Between you and I, it seemed as though she was hoping I would refuse. But if the people need to know, then I wouldn’t imagine impeding the process. And yes, as I mentioned, I also hoped to run into you.”
“So you… combed the forest?” Henry asked, trying to make it sound like a joke.
The mayor didn’t miss the cue. His laughter briefly overpowered the sound of the falling rain, and Henry was sure the exhumation crew would hear. None of them looked up from their work. “Pure coincidence,” Noel said, both smiles firmly back in place. “I became rather bored standing around watching people work, and there happens to be a pond down this way. Beautiful area, great for a walk. I had hoped to see some toads, but I suppose it’s getting late in the season for that.” He sighed, in a somewhat wistful manner, and then was silent for a moment before gesturing to the headstone which towered before them. “Quite the eyesore, isn’t it?”
“You think so?”
He spoke slowly, now. “I feel somewhat responsible for the thing, if truth be told. Bearing down the family legacy and all. You might not know this, being new to the area, but there is something of a local occult interest which has taken root around the memory of Emmaline Cass.”
“You have? Well, of course the stories are good fun. And there’s no harm in a bit of shared folklore, of course. But there are a few characters who take the whole thing a little too seriously.”
Henry knew he was supposed to say something then, by the pregnant pause. “Who’s that?”
“My job is to absorb gossip, not help spread it. That would hardly be fair. But I will say that some of the stories are ludicrous. You’ll know them, if you hear them. Emmaline certainly was a hero for all of us who live here now—as were all of the first families who settled Tortus Bay. It’s a shame that we have no primary sources from that era. So few of the settlers were literate, you know. Every one of the tall tales we have about her was made up decades later, by people trying to instill a little civic pride. Same goes for the monument here. Well, there are worse motivations in this world, wouldn’t you say?”
“I suppose so.”
Noel eyed him for a moment, then chuckled. “I think we get along just fine, Henry. I apologize if I talked your ear off about inconsequential fantasy. Now, I believe I will be missed soon, so please excuse me. It was a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Henry said nothing to that, because by the time he registered that the mayor had finished speaking and opened his mouth to respond, the man had already stalked off into the trees. He made very little noise as he went, only the soft squelching of his leather boots in the damp earth.
Sure enough, not long after he disappeared, Leia’s head popped up out of the open grave. “Mr. Mayor?” she called. “Where did he go?”
Noel Gauthe strolled casually out of the woods, no more than thirty feet from where Henry stood frozen to the spot. “Am I needed?” he asked.
The sheriff waved him over. “Come look at this.”
He joined her, looking down at the Emmaline Cass’ exposed casket. “Empty.”
“Now do you believe me? Half these plots are likely the same. Just place-markers to venerate the past.”
Leia scowled. “I need to talk to that goddamn kid again.”
Henry, from his concealed position in the woods, saw the mayor’s brows knit together. “I think you should, though I doubt it will be productive.” Did his eyes flick over to the treeline? “Like us, I am sure that he knows a great many places where Emmaline’s body is not.”