Eyes continued opening in the forest surrounding them, glowing like fireflies, illuminating the lumbering forms of shaggy four-legged bodies. Henry took a step back. He didn’t want to run. Not yet. Information is what he came for, and information is what he would get. “What did you do with Clair?” he asked. “Where is she?”
The Mayor smiled, serene. “I honestly haven’t the faintest impression. Clair does not concern me. She is a part of the balance. There is nothing more important than maintaining that delicate tight-wire act. Do you understand?”
“No. No, I don’t. What are you?”
“There’s more at play here than the Bramble’s folksy remedies, or Kara’s quaint charms.” Noel raised his arms, palms up. “I’m only me. And you, I presume, can only be you. Why is it that you returned from Greenfield?”
As far as Henry could tell, the surrounding field of eyes was no longer multiplying, but had begun shifting around. The wolves were spreading themselves out. “I’ve made friends here.”
“So you came back to see them. How charming.” The Mayor paused, lifted his chin into the air, and breathed in deep through his nose. “Do you know that everything has a smell? Sorry, perhaps that seems obvious. I am not speaking only of physical objects. Do you know that ideas have scents? And words? Intentions? They are faint, like a lemon wedge squeezed into a gallon of water, or a single sprig of lilac laying over a distant hill. But they are distinct, and they do not lie. Unlike you.”
It was time to run. He knew that, but couldn’t convince his feet to part the ground. “It wasn’t a lie.”
“And people, of course. Each and every one of us has a particular scent—beyond the sweat and the salt and the bacterial mass of our bodies. We had you pegged from the moment you stepped foot in the village. Trouble, one way or another.”
The Mayor inclined his head, and a howl went up through the woods. One, to start, then joined by another and another until the sound filled the air in a deafening, unified cacophony. Birds shot out of nearby trees. Squirrels dove into their hidden holes. Henry regained control of his body, turned, and sprinted in the opposite direction. Back toward Tortus Bay. Back toward safety.
He kept his eyes trained on the ground in front of his feet. He never looked back to see, for he didn’t want to know, if he was pursued.
“It’s quite the story,” Aria eventually said. Her chin was planted firmly in her hand, her eyes closed. She was sitting on a metal folding chair in the loading bay of the Anderson warehouse. Beside her, Kara was pacing in a circle. Tortus Bay’s inaugural editorial board meeting had been rapidly convened in the middle of the night.
“You believe me, don’t you?” Henry asked.
“Of course I do. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the Mayor is up to some spooky shit. There are worse rumors than what you just told us. But there’s a difference between pissing off the powers that be, and coming right out of the gate with a left hook for their face.”
Darkness poured through the windows like an invasive stain, shrouding the flickering fluorescence. “What I’m worried about,” Kara said, “is believability. If people pick up the first issue of the Tortus Bay Examiner and see a headline story about their Mayor being some sort of dark magician, what are they going to think?”
“That we’re some sort of click-bait organization for the physical print crowd,” he said. Unfortunately he could not entirely disagree with the reasoning. More unfortunately, it seemed as though the name Tortus Bay Examiner had stuck. “I want to publish the truth.”
“And we can do that,” Aria said. “But maybe it’s a better idea to earn trust first. Run with the first-hand stories you collected about Mathas Bernard. Those are from the people who will become your first wave of readers. They’ll respond well.”
Henry chewed his lip. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He ignored the call. “I don’t know.”
“It’s your decision. You’re the one in charge.”
He joined Kara, in pacing. Making decisions was easier with some blood flow. They could work up to the big truth. He didn’t know enough details about what he’d just seen, anyway. If he only waited, and dug in deeper, what he ultimately published could be that much more complete. And yet….
His pocket buzzed again, jolting his thoughts off track. “What the hell? Who thinks it’s okay to call me at -” He saw the number, and answered immediately. “Niles?”
“I’m sorry.” He spoke in a quavering whisper. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be calling you, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
Henry was already headed for the door. “What’s wrong?”
“I know you’re looking for information about Mathas.”
Kara and Aria stood to join him, but he waved them back into their seats. “You’ve seen him?”
“He’s here. He’s inside my house.”
Henry wondered if he would ever get any sleep. The reflective purple of the sky told him that it was sometime pre-dawn, but he dared not glance at his phone to check. He didn’t want to know. It stood to reason, if some significant part of his life was going to include chasing down Mathas Bernard, that he would have to get used to staying up all night. That’s when nearly every sighting had so far occurred.
When he got within eye-shot of Niles’ comfortable bungalow, he slowed and fell into a crouch. Naturally he hadn’t thought this far ahead. All of the momentum which had propelled him halfway across the village from the Anderson drained out of his system, as he slowly approached the front door. It hung ajar.
No sign of Niles. No sound of Bruce. There was not a hint of motion anywhere. Henry slipped into the front hallway as quietly as he could manage, and stalled in place. There, finally, was a noise: faint snuffling, and that of fingers being dragged across linoleum.
Niles’ face appeared, from around the corner leading into the living room. His hair was mussed, his eyes wide with terror—and so disarmingly warm. The fear and unease roiling in Henry’s gut were overpowered by something more familiar. More pleasant, at first, until it too began to kick and writhe inside him. “Over there,” Niles mouthed, nodded toward the kitchen.
At first, there was nothing to see. Then, creeping forward another inch, Henry found the angle of reflection from the stove-top mirror. Standing unperturbed amongst the cutlery, running his flat hands back and forth across the counter-top, was Mathas Bernard.
The man did not look much different. There was a sallowness to him, which perhaps had not been present that day at the park. His skin looked stretched, where it was not wrinkled or doubled up on itself. Dirt covered him from head to toe, giving his bald head the appearance of a poor toupee, and his grey suit the appearance of being brown. Clumps of grass sat atop his shoulders. Something wriggled around his coat sleeves.
Mathas looked up, and turned his head to gaze into the mirror. They locked eyes.