Teresa Bramble met Henry and Kara at her door the next morning, bearing a half-concealed scowl and a pot of what turned out to be exceptionally strong coffee. She beckoned them inside regardless. “My daughters spoke with you?”
“They did,” Henry said. “Paying you a visit was pretty high up my on priority list in the first place, but they made it sound especially important.”
“Are they around?” Kara asked.
“No.” Teresa led them through to the kitchen, where she set to work hunting down three mugs. “They ran off before I got up. Who knows what they get up to recently. Kids love their little secrets.”
They lapsed into comfortable silence for a time, arrayed haphazardly around the room, sipping coffee. They were a rough and disheveled trio. A casual observer might have reasonably guessed that all three of them had spent the last few days of their lives in jail, when in fact only one had. Neither Henry nor Kara had eaten breakfast, and he was just starting to wonder if it would be rude to ask to raid Teresa’s pantry when she suddenly set down her cup and smacked her lips. “Alright, let’s see it.”
Henry didn’t need to ask what she meant. He promptly pulled his shirt over his head; he hadn’t bothered to wrap the wound that morning, and he regretted it as the cloth pulled away at drying blood.
Teresa swooped in like a hawk, circling him as she had before, but it did not take long for her to pull back. “You got the new ointment?” she asked.
“And you used it? Last night and this morning?”
Her scowl returned, full force. “Well, fuck.” The word hung in the air. She caught their aghast expressions. “What? I told you, my kids aren’t home.”
“Is something wrong?” Kara asked. “I mean, more wrong than normal?”
“It’s gotten worse.”
He knew that. Somewhere deep down, he knew that. Over the past few days he’d avoided looking at his shoulder. Took care to wrap and unwrap it in dim lighting. “I think it happened when I left Tortus Bay.”
“Exacerbated or not by your leaving,” Teresa said, “the fact remains that it is destabilized, changing for the worse, and not responding to treatment.”
“What does that mean?” Kara asked. She was a good checkup companion. The important questions seemed to filter into her head so much quicker than they did into his.
Teresa sighed. “It’s worse than I thought.”
With a caliper and a notebook in hand, she resumed her hawkish circling, prodding him occasionally and taking notes. “Difficult to say. I’ve done all of the research that I can, at this point. There’s not a lot of records of wounds like these. But they do exist. And they’re grim. You could lose the arm.”
Henry felt capable of fielding the next question. “How do we stop it?”
“There are things we can try,” she said, poking away with abandon, “on the next confluence. The festival. I need to learn more, but I know where to look now. Do you mind if I take a blood sample?”
He nodded. “What are my odds?”
“I’m not a doctor. And even if I were, I wouldn’t give odds on a procedure I haven’t yet learned and never heard of being performed before.”
She inserted a needle into his arm, just beneath the red-raw rim of his eternally festering wound. He jumped, and bit down hard on his lip. “I never said that.”
“Have you heard anything strange lately?” he asked. Kara shot him a look, but he continued on. “Anything about Mathas Bernard?”
Teresa pulled the needle out of his arm and tottled over to the counter, where she began working on something he could not see. “I think you need to work on resting and recuperating. If what we’re going to try on the festival is going to work, we’ll need you at full strength.”
“So you have heard something.”
She shot a look at Kara over her shoulder. “Can you talk some sense into him?”
“Wish I could,” Kara said, “but your help here might do more good. Without it, I imagine Henry will be tripping and stumbling around the forest by himself.”
“I saw Mathas on the day that he died,” Teresa said, with a distinct note of reluctance in her voice. “I was the one they called, you know. And I can tell you that he most certainly passed away.”
That took some of the wind out of him. “But I’ve seen him.”
“Yes. A good number of people are saying that.”
“Then is it possible? Could he be… I don’t know, back somehow?”
Teresa paused in her work, and turned around. Her face was no longer a scowl. Something more speculative, and perhaps tired, had taken over. “I don’t know. I’ve never heard of anything like it, and I hope it is not as it appears.” She spread her hands. “I truly hope not.”
“We need to find Clair.”
“You need to rest.”
Henry shook his head. He didn’t yet know how to explain what he felt, but he felt it with a certainty which would not let him go. “It’s all connected. This wound, Mathas, Clair, Tortus Bay, and Emmaline Cass, somehow.”
“Do you know that? Or does it only feel that way because it’s all happening to you at the same time?”
Kara coughed. “Or are you in a manic state after a bad breakup?”
He turned on her. “Whose side are you on?”
“Yours, of course” she said, “but I don’t know why both couldn’t be true. Teresa, is there a way you can find Clair? She can’t be far from the village. Probably out in the woods somewhere.”
She began grumbling, resuming her work on the counter with extra vigor. “Nobody listens. I tell them to eat a vegetable, they go out and buy a bag of potato chips. I tell them to rest, they want to stay out all night romping through the forest. Yes, I could probably track the girl down. But it will take time before I’m ready to start.”
“That’s alright by me,” he said. “I’ve got a different lead to follow.”
Henry had long since crumpled and discarded the cryptic series of directions he’d fished out of the can of beans in Horizon Foods, but he remembered the hastily scribbled words perfectly. Two miles east of the graveyard. Follow the boulders.
Finding the old graveyard wasn’t difficult. Now that he knew to look for the towering marble Cass headstone, it proved nearly impossible to miss. The area called to him, and he briefly considered stopping to peruse the graves, but he resisted. Instead he plunged eastward, deeper into the trees, eyes peeled for signs of the next clue. There were large rocks on either side of him, and scattered at random further afield. Is that what Clair had meant? How was he meant to follow them?
He skirted around a dense copse, and understood. Before him stood a weathered and mossy boulder, with the faint indication of an arrow scratched onto its surface. It pointed left. Then perhaps thirty feet in a straight line leftwards, there was another boulder, this one pointing him to the right. And so on, boulder after boulder, turn after turn. The marks were rough and faded, as though they had been etched with the edge of a sharpened stick. It was lucky anything remained of them at all.
As the scenery swirled together and he started to think that he was going in circles, the boulders ceased and the forest opened up onto a small, beatific lake. The regular sounds of the surrounding woods fell away, replaced by the distant chirping of grasshoppers and the faint sloshing of water. The sky overhead went yellow. A memory surfaced in Henry’s mind, of someone telling him of a nearby lake they enjoyed visiting.
By then it was too late. The Mayor, in his casual sweater and well-pressed slacks, had already turned from where he had been gazing out over gently rippling waves. “I’ve been waiting for a long time.”
Henry was rooted to the spot. He couldn’t speak.
“There is a delicate balance to our lives here in Tortus Bay,” Noel continued. “I believe you yourself have stumbled onto that truth. It exists, as you no doubt know somewhere deep within yourself, between the haves and the have-nots. Between those who know, and those who refuse to see.”
Words returned to him. “You’re the one who left me all of those notes.”
“What is the expression? It takes all kinds. I believe that to be true. My newest friend, my dearest child, nobody here could begrudge a man with the strength of spirit to seek the truth.” As the Mayor spoke, pairs of yellow lights appeared in the shade of the trees around them. Eyes. Tens of them, then hundreds. “What we might take exception with is a man who uses his knowledge to upset a balance that we have worked so long to establish.”