2.14: Displaced, part 1

Hey, this is Kara. Haven’t talked to you in a few days. I heard you took off. What happened? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter what happened. That’s not why I called, if that’s why you didn’t answer.

Jamal says you were pretty down that night. I told him he was an idiot for ordering you the car. Guess you probably would have figured it out yourself eventually. You got yourself here well enough. He says you’ll be back. I told him that I’m not so sure. He doesn’t know about Niles. Nobody does, if you’re curious. That boy is one of the only people around here who knows how to keep his private life private.

But what did I say? I don’t care what happened. I called to thank you, for everything you did to help out with the exhibit. We couldn’t have set it all up in time without you. It’s too bad that you won’t be there for the event. I would kick Niles out, if you wanted—okay, okay, I’m done with that. 

A lot of shit got dumped on you. Nobody blames you for needing a moment to catch your breath. Or longer than a moment. Know that you can come back whenever, and we’ll be waiting. Okay? Try to take care of yourself out there.

***

Henry wasn’t met with a force field beyond the boundaries of Tortus Bay. There was no immediate compulsion to return, or any homesickness. Of course, it would have been odd if there were. He’d only lived there for a month. Looking back on that time, it felt much longer. Every day seemed so full.

Jungston was the same as it ever had been; A village, only slightly larger than Tortus Bay, but which he’d occasionally heard referred to as “the city.” He stayed at a hotel there for one night, and enjoyed a pleasant chat with the woman who owned the place. She talked about the troubles of growing up in the area, and opined on the general rarity of visitors. She’d never heard of Tortus Bay before, and their conversation came to an abrupt end shortly after he brought it up. 

The urge struck him to ask her what possible end could be served by making up a fake village, but decided against it. He didn’t know her, and she ran the only hotel in the village. So he acted dumb, dumped his backpack in his vaguely mold-smelling room, and made a few calls.

At first he used his cell phone, but nobody answered. Not his mom, not his dad, and not Ray. Then he switched to the hotel phone. None of them would recognize the number that way. Still, none of them answered. Not his mom, not his dad, and not Ray. They were all busy people. He didn’t leave any of them a message.

That night he thought about nothing, but watched the light of the bedside lamp slide off the stucco ceiling. Thoughts came to him, in that way, but he let them slip away into whatever ether from which they had come.

What was he doing? How long would he do it for? How long could he do it for? When he needed money, how would he get it? Were people ever happy, roaming the road from hotel room to hotel room? Were people ever happy, going back home? Were people ever happy?

He could write a book. People would think of it as fiction. He could tell them the truth. Seldom few people believed the truth, even back in Tortus Bay. He could force someone to come back with him, to show them what was happening in that strange village. But some people lived there, and still never saw it.

How stupid did a person have to be, to run away from magic?

***

The next day he moved on to Greenfield, which was perhaps large enough to be called a city. That, or his perception had become skewed much faster than he imagined it would. His driver seemed disinterested in small talk. They listened to a country music station the whole way. He had him stop at a Super 8 on a street outside downtown, and the teenager at the desk inside didn’t seem any more inclined toward conversation.

Henry once more retreated to his room. What was the point of travelling from place to place, if all he saw there was the inside of hotel rooms? The thoughts were coming thicker, now—hanging on stronger, and demanding rumination. He didn’t have to care where he was at the moment, if there was an ultimate destination. But there wasn’t. He didn’t have to care where he was at the moment, if he was running away.

He decided he wasn’t doing that either. On a literal level he was running from Leia Thao, of course, but that was all bullshit anyhow. Nothing he ever needed to get involved with in the first place. No matter where he went, or with what intention, he always seemed to do that. He always found something nasty to stick his nose into. Tortus Bay hadn’t worked out. Now he was moving on. That was all there was to it.

Once again his mother ignored his call. As did his father. But Ray picked up. His voice was crackly, and distant. “Hey. Henry?”

“Yes.” The voice brought back memories. He nearly hung up.

“Where are you?”

On a hotel bed. Alone. “Greenfield,” he said. “Middle of nowhere.”

“Yeah, you don’t say. Never heard of it.” There was a commotion in the background. Construction? Traffic? “Are you okay?”

“Fine.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

There was silence on the line, but neither of them hung up. 

“So you called to chat?” Ray asked. 

“But then I had nothing to say. That’s the theme of the day.”

The background noise died away. “I don’t understand. Are you sure you’re okay?”   

“My parents won’t pick up the phone. They never called me one time. Neither did you.”

“Look, you weren’t banished, Henry. You left. And I don’t know about your folks, but I never thought I’d hear from you again.”

“I think I know how-”

“And it’s kind of fucked up to call someone out of the blue, after you put a hell of a lot of effort into convincing them that they’d never hear from you again. Especially when you have nothing to say.”

***

Henry spent a lot of time re-imagining that call with Ray. There were other ways he could have started it. So many more things he’d wanted to say. He wanted to tell him about the secret magic of a small village of which nobody had ever heard. Ray knew he wasn’t crazy. Ray would have listened, at least. But instead his voice had toppled him sideways. Now it felt wrong to call back. Maybe he would, anyway.

Greenfield boasted three grocery stores. One of them was only a few blocks from the Super 8, so he hoofed it down there in the morning. He wasn’t hungry, but he couldn’t exactly remember the last time he’d had something to eat. So he bought what people buy in those situations: a bag of carrots, a rotisserie chicken, and a wide assortment of juices and colorful energy drinks. “Have you ever heard of Tortus Bay?” he asked the cashier.

“No,” she said, smiling. “Where’s that?”

“Not far from here. Maybe five hours by car.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“Not exactly. It sort of… called to me. The people there do magic.”

Her smile fell away. “Like tricks?”

“No, it’s more—well yeah, I guess. Like tricks.”

“Okay. Have a nice day.”

That night Henry’s shoulder kept him up until dawn. The old wound ached and bled as though it were new, sending him repeatedly into the bathroom to grab another cheap towel to try to staunch the flow. He wondered what the cleaning staff would think.

Eventually he scrounged in the bottom of his bag, and applied the last of Teresa Bramble’s paste. The white of the medicine clumped on his skin, and was swept away in the blood. It did nothing to help him.

***

Hey, buddy. It’s Jamal. Not answering your phone, huh? Maybe you weren’t expecting to hear from me so soon. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have called at all.

I figured you were in some kind of trouble. Thought it was personal, and I wouldn’t press too much into it. A lot of people say that I’m too nosy about people’s personal lives. They don’t think that I listen, but I do. Sometimes. 

Then I got to talking with Kara. So I’ll ask: are you in real trouble? If you are, you can come right on back. Don’t have a lot of business recently, I can put you up for a while. Could even be quiet about it, if I have to. 

If I’m rambling about nothing just ignore me, I guess. But I wanted to throw all that out there. You’re one of the good ones. Lord knows we need some more of that around here. But you have to do what you have to do, I suppose. Take care, alright? 

2.13: Altercation

Henry left Niles’ house feeling embarrassed. He felt ashamed. But more than anything, it was hot anger which clouded his senses. At what, he wasn’t yet sure; his brain spun at a nauseating pace through the laundry-list of possibilities. Niles, himself, Tortus Bay, his parents, Leia, Niles, Kara, himself, himself, himself…

Something in the minute corner of his mind, operating beneath the deafening streams of anger and blame, suggested that perhaps if he couldn’t identify at whom he ought to be mad, that it wasn’t the proper reaction to be having. But it certainly felt right.

The Anderson was still empty, but it was now fully set up for the upcoming exhibition. Every trace of splattered paint had been scrubbed off the concrete, and informational plaques attached to the walls beside the artwork. He was sure the artists were happy to take a little time away from the place, after the fevered work it took to whip everything into shape. For a moment he considered calling Kara, but thought better of it. The last thing he needed to hear was about how Niles had acted was inevitable. Or simply in his character.

Instead, Henry headed back to his lonely attic apartment—and there sat in his bed while the sun set over the village. Vibrant pink blushed the sky, struck through by streaks of soft lilac. There was a time, when he was younger, when he would have cried. There was a time, not too long ago, when he would have fallen into sleep to hasten a new day. Either one of those reactions seemed just; but what had he come to Tortus Bay for, if not to start a new life? If not to become a new person?

True night cloaked the streets, and—as usual—all movement on them ceased. Henry shrugged on his coat, collected an errant crowbar from the chaos of the construction downstairs, and headed out. His walk to Main Street was undisturbed, save by cold wind, and he drew up quickly on the back entrance of Horizon Foods.

The locks had been changed. Of course. He tried jamming the door a few times, but the wood protested loudly enough to put him off the idea. The window proved less of an obstacle. It had always been loose. He wedged the bar into the bottom corner, applied pressure, and the chipped wooden frame popped open.

Darkness met him in the storeroom. It was better that way. The industrial lights of the grocery store were strong enough to illuminate half of the street; People would wonder, if they flicked on in the middle of the night. He crept through the aisles by memory, and the thin slivers of silver light cast by the moon through the jimmied window. His hand fell on the can of beans which he had hidden away, and a wave of relief spread through his body.

The new writing on the paper was scribbled with a rushed hand: That happened faster than I thought. We need to meet. Two miles east of the graveyard. Follow the boulders.

Cryptic. Useless. Henry balled the note into his fist, and at that moment the lights came on. He was stunned, caught between ducking down and dashing for the window. A second later, it was too late to do either.

“You!” Howie’s voice was exultant. He sprinted to position himself at the end of the aisle, between Henry and the exit. “I’ve already called the police! What did you think I was, a moron?”

“Howie,” he said, slipping the note into his pocket.

The manager’s breathing was ragged, but his lips were curved in a grin the size of the crescent moon. “I suppose if you ever did something worthwhile with your life, and opened your own store, you would leave it unattended at night even when you know that a disgraced former employee of yours is a crook, huh?”

“I only assumed you had better things to be doing with your evenings off.”

“So witty! You always were. People with jobs don’t have the time to come up with perfect quips.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with having a job. I imagine you can’t think of the right things to say on account of you being a moron, Howie.”

The man’s face turned bright red. “Stop calling me that!”

“What is it, Howie? What about me struck you in such a way that you’ve felt the need to act like this?”

Step by step, the two men approached one another down the long aisle of canned goods. Howard spat while he spoke. “I am sick and tired of people like you. And finally, you’ve gone too far. You’ve crossed the line with somebody who isn’t about to let you off the hook. What, did you think you were special? I’ve been watching people like you show up in this village for decades. You didn’t have any skills out in the real world. You had a real hard time. Then you come here, and expect everybody’s charity. Their gratitude for your presence. Well I don’t care that you’re here. I don’t care which city you came from. You’re a low-life thief who’s never been willing to work for anything.”

“I was willing to work for you.”

“You were willing to take my pity. What do you have to offer this village? No skills. No job prospects. Sleeping in the attic of another man’s home.” 

That anger returned, unfolding itself deep in his gut. “What do you know about it?”

“Oh, I know plenty. I know things about you that I bet your own mother doesn’t. Unless it was her who did the right thing, and kicked you out for it.”

“Howard….”

“What use are you? You’ll never settle down here. You’ll never start a family.”

Henry took a lunging step forward, closing the distance between them, and punched Howie in the face. A satisfying crunch met his knuckles, followed by the sound of the man falling to the floor. Blood streaked his milk-white face. Tears welled in his eyes. “You live a sad life. You don’t understand why people don’t like you, and you’re intimidated by anyone who does better. I feel bad for you.”

He left his old boss laying there, on the hard floor of the storage room, failing to stifle the sound of his pitiful sniffling.

***

The Hell on a Shell bar had long since closed for the night, but he knocked until somebody roused to answer. Jamal opened the door with a wary look. His eyes widened in shock when he saw who awaited him. “Henry! What are you doing out so late?”

“I need a drink,” he said, simply, “and my mini-fridge is empty.”

The bartender was dressed in a crumpled set of white pajamas, and his hair was a frayed mess, but nonetheless he shrugged and stepped aside. “Come on in. What can I do you for?”

No lights were on inside. They moved to the bar by the illumination of neon signs. “On my very first night here, you offered to pour me ‘a couple of fingers.’ Never specified what of, but if that’s still on the menu then I’ll take it.”

Jamal ducked beneath the counter and emerged with an unmarked bottle of brown liquid. “Mostly beer drinkers around these parts, you understand,” he said, nodding his head off to the side.

At the end of the bar, blending almost perfectly in with the grain, sat a slumbering hump of a man. Face down on the wood. Clint. “Shit. Is he okay?”

“Always turns out to be. Sometimes I don’t have the heart to wake him.”

Henry downed two fingers of what turned out to be perfectly acceptable Scotch. “You ever think about cutting him off?”

“Tried it. Couple of times. He winds up drinking by himself down by the docks. Falls in, gives everybody a real good scare. At least here he has somewhere safe to sleep.”

“Guess I’m not the only one having a bad night.”

Jamal re-filled his glass, then poured a shot for himself. “What’s troubling you?”

“Tough times. I suppose I came here trying to get away from myself. That didn’t work. What do people always say? I was already here waiting.” Henry downed his drink. “Anyway, I wanted to thank you proper, for everything you did for me, and it’s only right that you’re the last person I talk to. I think I need to leave Tortus Bay.”

2.12: Noodle Blues

Henry fielded a familiar call on his walk back the park, where he’d left the sheriff to unearth his hastily concocted lie. “Oh, no,” Aria said. “You’re out in the wild. What is this, four out of five now?”

“Not much to do besides enjoy the weather, when you’re unemployed.”

“Unemployed maybe, but not inactive. Beth Brihte says that her internet is working better than ever.”

He laughed. “I know how to reset a router with the best of them.”

“Thought you might.” Aria pointedly rearranged a handful of loose papers on her desk. “She also mentioned a little side project of yours. I had to work to convince her that I wasn’t a part of it. Something about tracking down Mathas Bernard?”

“I was under the impression that you didn’t want to know anything about what I was doing.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t. But one can’t help but notice that the man in question has been deceased for some time now.”

“So he has.”

“I told you that I trust you because I trust Kara, but if you’re out there taking advantage of -”

Henry abruptly stopped walking. “I’m not taking advantage of anybody. If you want to know more I’m happy to share the details, but if you’re worried at all about getting mixed up with the police then the time for that isn’t now. The way things are headed, I’ll be hanging out with Leia Thao again in a matter of days.”

She leaned back in her chair, and frowned. “I take it that means you’re currently unwilling to accept my generous offer of employment?”

“I think it would be premature.”

“Very well. We’ll be in touch soon.”

Somehow, Henry didn’t doubt that at all. He dropped in at the Anderson for a change of clothes, and found the place deserted. He didn’t know where Kara went, or what she did, when she wasn’t at work in the warehouse. The part of her life outside of her creative endeavors seemed very small—but then again, he had hardly asked. There always seemed to be something more pressing at hand.

With fresh clothes and a clearer mind, he headed out into the village. There was nothing for him to do in the Anderson, and the less time he spent cooped up there the better. He was an unwanted man, if only for a brief moment, and he wanted to take advantage of it.

But there was little for him to do. It was too early to drink, and he didn’t feel up to fielding an endless barrage of questions from Jamal anyhow. Howie would hardly welcome him back to the store with open arms. Then there were the reactions of the people on the street, who cast sideways glances in his direction and made wide berth for him to stalk past. It was almost like being back home.

They would have all heard about his overnight stay in jail. None of them would know why—even the sheriff didn’t know that—but proximity to criminality alone seemed to prove damning enough for them. So Henry went to the only place he could think to go, and ultimately the place he most wanted anyhow. He knocked on the door to a cavalcade of excited barking.

“Hey Brucey, is your dad home?” The barking continued, followed by scratching on the wood at the sound of his voice. “Are you going to be a good boy, if I come in there?”

He tried the door, and found it unlocked. Apparently a habit that Niles was in. Bruce took one long look at him, then bounded toward the kitchen. “I don’t feed you every time I come over here,” he said. “Let’s not reinforce that expectation.”

Still, he found a box of bacon-adjacent treats in one of the cupboards and tossed a couple down to the appreciative, drooling dog. The rest of the house was empty. “He’s gone a lot, isn’t he?” Bruce snuffled at the ground, on the search for additional goodies. “Must get lonely in here.”

Henry resolved himself to keep Bruce company. He stretched out on the couch, and leafed through a couple of the more tattered paperbacks on the table. He poked through the kitchen, and spent a good amount of time running back and forth down the hallway with Bruce. “Do you have any toys?” he asked, to which the dog cocked his head. That seemed like a yes.

Past the bedroom there was a door which opened onto a small, dusty garage. He cracked it open, and peered inside. Most of the space was taken up by storage—dozens upon dozens of crates and cardboard boxes filled to the brim with indescribable ephemera. Then he did a double-take. Against the far wall there sat a cherry-red motorcycle, gleaming and freshly polished amidst the surrounding detritus.

Henry craned his neck. The garage door was blocked off by more storage, and an upturned paisley love-seat. No joy riding for Niles, then. Bruce pressed his nose into the back of his calf. “Right, right, I nearly forgot.”

The toys were stored within easy reach. He grabbed a handful of lightly slimy, chewed-upon tennis balls and tossed them down the hall, laughing as the dog toppled head over heel in the attempt to retrieve them. “Let’s not destroy the place, huh?”

In time Bruce tired himself out, and Henry knew that he should leave. He was a stranger in the house, and though the dog seemed delighted by his presence he’d never strictly been invited. While he pondered the concept of trudging off home, or to the bar, a better idea presented itself. He would cook for the cook. Had Niles ever come home to a fresh meal prepared for him? Henry wasn’t nearly as good of a chef, but he knew full well how to produce something edible.

Soon the house was awash in the heady aroma of garlic, butter, and bay. Bruce curled up on the tile, and promptly began snoring. Henry hadn’t had the privilege of working in such a well-stocked kitchen in quite a while. He couldn’t deny that it was nice.

***

Niles returned home not fifteen minutes after Henry put the finishing touches on their meal, swinging open the front door with a boisterous greeting for Bruce. Then he paused. “Hello?”

“Surprise!” Henry said, sauntering into the hallway in a messy apron, swinging a wooden spoon.

Niles smiled, and dumped his bag on the floor. “It smells… delicious in here.”

“I won’t be offended by the shocked intonation. Hope you’re hungry.”

He shrugged off his sweater, the look of pleasant disbelief still etched on his face. That was one of the things which Henry loved the most about him—that expressive face. “Yeah, I am.”

“Then come take a seat. I hope you’re not weirded out, I came by to say hello and then… well, things progressed from there. Figured I owed you for that picnic. Are you aware that you have a motorcycle in your garage?”

“I was on a collision course with a frozen dinner tonight, so this is nice. And yes, I am aware of the motorcycle. It’s an artifact of my youth. Never ride it anymore, but I do enjoy keeping it in good condition.”

“Well, we all have our peculiarities. Come on, your plate’s getting cold.”

Niles hesitated in the doorway. Oh, that expressive face. Every bit of pleasure drained away from it. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“You’re not talking about the meal, are you?”

“It’s never been easy.” He swallowed. “I don’t know what it was like for you, growing up, but it was bad for me. Maybe you’ve been able to live a life where you can do whatever you want, but this is Tortus Bay.”

Henry hesitated. “What are you trying to say?”

“I never lied to you. I liked you, and I wanted to find a way to convince you to stay. But I never thought it would work. It never has with anyone else.”

“So what, you wanted me to stay at the Hell on a Shell Bar so that you could have something to look at during your shifts?” he asked. Then the rest of those words filtered through his brain. “Never?”

A note of defensiveness crept in Niles’ voice. “I have Bruce. I have a room full of books I haven’t read yet, and a motorcycle in my garage. I have three jobs—all of which I love. That’s a full life.”

“And there’s no room for anything else?”

“A full life,” he continued, as though he had not heard, “that I worked so hard to build for myself. I’m comfortable.”

“Being uncomfortable is scary, but it can be worth it. This could be worth it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.” Henry stood. His face was warm, his vision swimming with the effort not to cry. “Enjoy the spaghetti.”

2.11: False Accounts

The interview room at the Tortus Bay police station was fast becoming a familiar location to Henry. Sitting in the chair on the far side of the empty black table, he tried to master his frantic breathing. He wasn’t restrained. There was nothing he had to panic over; he hadn’t done anything wrong. Somehow, telling himself that did nothing to stop the panic.

Leia Thao was running down Movie Cop 101. She scowled at him from across the table. She rapped her knuckles and hummed to herself, but didn’t say a word. Several times she left the room, to fill her coffee or have a loud and banal conversation with one of her deputies. When she finally sat down and spoke, it was in a calm and measured tone. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“I haven’t.”

“Don’t pull that monosyllabic stunt of yours on me now. It’s time to talk.”

He shrugged. “I’ve never had a problem with talking.”

“Fine. Then tell me why you’ve been running. This village isn’t so big; you must have known I would find you eventually.”

“I thought this was about Emmaline Cass.”

Her mouth twisted. “I’m the one who decides what this is about, and right now it’s about you.”

“I told you what I knew, and you chose not to believe it.”

“And what if suddenly decided that I did?”

“Then you would know that I don’t belong here.”

Leia leaned back, and took a long drink from her mug. “Do you know that we dug up Mathas Bernard?”

“No.”

“Empty grave. Now that’s two bodies that we’re missing. Two missing bodies, an escaped murder suspect, a disturbing goddamn scene in the lighthouse, and you somehow in the middle of it all.”

“I don’t have anything to do with any of that.”

“You and Clair didn’t dig up any bodies?”

Henry hesitated. “Why would we do that?”

“You’d have to tell me. But you claim to have seen Mathas.”

“I have.” 

After his murder.”

“So has Beth. You must know about that.”

She set her mug down hard on the table. “What is it about Clair that you’re all so desperate to protect?”

“What?”

“Don’t think that I don’t know what this is all about. All of this nonsense—this poorly conceived misdirection. You had something to do with Clair getting out of here. She was seen. We know she went to your place that night.”

“Yes, to try to collect Emmaline’s locket before the Festival.”

Leia threw up her hands in frustration. “That garbage won’t work here. Maybe with Kara, but not with me. Just tell me where Clair went.”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you had any contact with her since that night?”

“No.”

“Not a word?”

“Not a word.”

She stared at him. He blinked back. “You said that Emmaline was buried somewhere in the park. If you’re right about that, maybe I can start considering that you’re right about other things as well. So tell me exactly where to find the site.”

“Can I have a glass of water?”

“Answer the question.”

“My mouth is dry.”

“Fuck.” Leia pushed herself off the table and swung the door open. “Bring our guest a glass of water!” she shouted down the hallway. “Anything else you need?”

“That should be fine.” After a minute Taylor, eyes cast down, sidled into the room and placed a plastic cup on the table. “Thank you,” Henry said. Then, before the deputy had the chance to leave: “I wish Clair were around. She would know exactly where to look for Emmaline.”

He thought that he saw Taylor nod. “Thank you, you can leave,” Leia said, and the deputy retreated. “Now where were we?”

The water was cold on his lips. “She’s on the outer edge of the park,” he lied. “Near the street. I can show you.”

***

Henry spent the night at the station. The cot in his cell was comfortable enough, at least compared to the cot at the Anderson, but there was an uncomfortable breeze that he knew was blowing in from the hole in the wall next door. Leia made calls deep into the night. From what he could hear, she was mostly speaking with the mayor. She finally left at two in the morning, and the station lapsed into absolute silence.

There was nothing to distract his thoughts. No chance in hell that he was going to sleep. He stared up at the ceiling. If they locked him up until the next Festival, would Clair come back and knock another hole in the wall? If she did, would it be to free him or kill him? 

Had he made a mistake, coming to Tortus Bay in the first place? It had given him nothing but quasi-homelessness, unemployment, and a fresh new criminal record. But then, not all of it had been bad. He fell into a fitful sleep thinking about a pair of beautiful brown eyes.

In the morning, Leia returned with two coffees, her sunglasses, and a more conciliatory tone. Together they climbed into her patrol car and ate a donut apiece out of a box sitting on her dash, before heading over to the park. “I didn’t mean to come down on you so hard yesterday,” she said. “I appreciate your help. We’re just trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”

“What happened before I arrived, I would point out.”

“I know that. You sure picked a funny time to pop up.” The sheriff drove slowly down the main drag. “Was it Kara?”

“Kara what?”

They parked beside the police tape that stretched around the village’s only park. “That you came here for. You seem pretty deep into this local occult bullshit, if you don’t mind me referencing it that way. Beats me why it would interest anybody outside of our bubble, but I suppose you found it on some message board somewhere.”

“You know a lot about that particular bubble?”

“What I need to. What anyone learns, coming up around here. It’s folksy, when it’s coming from Teresa Bramble. I know that. But if you want a word of advice, and you never seem to, then be more careful around Kara and that lot. You and her and whoever else can believe whatever you want on your own time, but it gets a lot less cute when we’re talking about a murder.”

Leia didn’t wait for a response. She stepped out of the car and escorted him past the police line. They walked around, in and out of the trees, for what Henry dubbed to be a believable amount of time. Then he pointed out a stretch of bare dirt near the road. “There.”

“No disturbed earth,” she said.

“I’m telling you, this is where I saw it.”

The sheriff sighed. “Alright. You can leave.”

“I can?”

She crouched down, no longer paying him any attention. “Don’t leave the area. And do yourself a favor, and take my advice this time.”

2.10: Roadblock

Glosspool Lane was quiet and deserted that evening. Everyone with business to do, or gossip to share, was still out and about in the village. Everyone else had presumably turned in early. Like every other street in Tortus Bay, Glosspool was meticulously neat. Unlike any other street, a line of cars were parked along the length of it.

Henry and Kara used them to their advantage. They leap-frogged down the lane, crouching behind one vehicle before taking a deep breath and sprinting to crouch behind the next. “Do you think he’s seen us?” he asked.

“Feeling ridiculous?”

“A little.”

Kara took a sly peek over the hood of a cherry red pickup. “He’s reading a book. Hasn’t seen anything. And we’re in luck.”

Henry cast his eyes over the canopy of overlooking windows. None of the blinds stirred. “Lucky how?”

“They put Taylor on the beat. My favorite. Thought they might. He’s always getting the drudge work. Are you ready?” 

“As I’ll ever be.”

She straightened herself up and strode out into the middle of the street, waving at the parked patrol car. It took Taylor a moment to notice. When he did, he tossed his paperback into the passenger seat and rolled down his window. “Kara!” he said, beaming. “What brings you down this way?”

“Taylor!” she said. “They got you keeping the riff-raff off the street?”

“Ah, Beth hasn’t been doing so well lately. Getting a lot of unwelcome visitors. We’re just here to help offer a little privacy.”

Kara leaned up against the hood, keeping his attention forward. “Well, it’s a piece of fortune either way. I’ve been meaning to talk with you.”

“Oh, really?”

While they were distracted, Henry moved as silently as he could manage around the bumper of the truck, and out into the street behind the patrol car. He just had to cross unnoticed, and he would be home free.

“I wanted to get you alone.” Kara was whispering now, forcing the deputy to lean out of the window to hear. “Have you noticed anything different about the power lately?”

Taylor matched her whisper. “I think it might be getting stronger.”

“So you’ve noticed that too.”

“Yes, yes, I totally have.”

Henry slinked his way across the street and up to Mathas Bernard’s homely estate. It was nothing at all compared to the Brihte residence—it looked more like something a reasonable human being might actually live inside—but it was stately nonetheless. Miniature statues of goblins and lions lined the walk up to the steps. At the base of the stairs one of them lay broken in a pile of its own dust.

Beth Brihte answered the door with a wide-eyed stare. She was wearing a wrinkled bathrobe. Her skin was as pallid as ever, but now it almost glowed with a waxy shine. “Who is it?” 

“I’m here to take a look at your internet,” Henry said. He wondered, idly, if he should have put the effort into a fake uniform of some kind.

Her eyes focused. “That’s right. There was a… an issue, of some sort. Aria sent you?”

“Correct.”

“A good girl. Always has been.” Beth wavered for a second, then pulled her robe a bit tighter and stepped aside. “Where are my manners? Please, come in.”

The widow’s house had once been gorgeous. That much was plain to see. Wide spaces, sweeping arches, and highly detailed woodwork belied the amount of time and money which clearly went into the home. There was also the stench of human sweat; the thick layer of dust; and the pillows and blankets which had been chucked all around the living room. “The internet stuff is over there,” she said, with a vague waving of her hands. She didn’t seem to be in the mood to lead a tour.

“Can you show me?”

They picked through the mess into an adjoining office, which clearly had not been used in some time. The air was stale, a spider had spun a large web on the face of the bookcase, and the bay windows overlooking the messy yard were streaked with grime. On the desk beside an old-fashioned computer sat a router with three blinking green lights. “I’m sorry about the mess,” she sighed. “I haven’t been feeling much like myself lately.”

“Why is that?” He approached the desk, wondering how he was going to pretend to be doing something consequential to the woman’s perfectly functioning internet.

“Since Mathas passed, and all the affairs… the costs of it were, were unexpected,” she spoke in a lilting and broken manner, occasionally so softly that she became inaudible. “The house, I love it—lived in it, for a long… for my entire life. And it’s huge, you know, it’s hard to—it can be difficult to keep up.”

Henry switched the router off, waited a few seconds, and turned it back on again. Up close, he could see through the muck on the windows to the lush garden beyond. Where the heart attack happened. Supposedly.  “I understand that,” he said. “So you want a little privacy, while you’re getting everything sorted out?”

She said nothing to that. The lights on the router went from red to orange to green again. He turned, and found her with a dumbstruck expression on her face. “I recognize you.”

“Okay.”

“From the cafe. You’re the new person. You’re Henry.” Beth spoke with a renewed sense of energy, pacing the office. “You’re the private investigator. Aria didn’t send you at all!”

He should have faked a uniform. “I can assure you that she did.”

“You know you did such a shitty job with my husband, I didn’t even consider you, but now that you’re here…” She stopped pacing. “Why are you here?”

He took a step back. “For the internet. Only that.”

“You’re still looking into it, aren’t you? That’s always what you were looking into, wasn’t it? That’s what I didn’t understand.” Beth rushed forward and took his collar into her surprisingly strong hands. Her breath smelled of mint, and figs. “You could have told me. I haven’t slept in days. You could have told me that he would be back.”

“Mathas.”

“I found him here.” Tears slid down her face, but she gave no indication that she noticed. “Not in this office, in the kitchen. Face down. Already dead. The cops wouldn’t listen. They still won’t listen, they never do.”

He tried to speak in a soothing voice. “What didn’t they listen to?”

“Me!” Her grip tightened around his throat, then eased and fell away entirely. She sloped back. “They parked a car out front to try to chase him away. Or was it to keep me from being able to talk to anybody? It doesn’t work either way. Here you are. And he comes around whenever he pleases.”

“You’ve seen Mathas Bernard?”

She crumpled down against the wall. “At night. He never comes in. Even when the doors are open, he never comes in. Just rustles around in the garden. Taps on the windows. It’s him. I see his face in the moonlight. He doesn’t let me sleep, you know?”

“I understand.”

“I don’t know what he wants. He never speaks. He never does anything, but walk and tap. Walk and tap.” Beth’s eyes were wild again, wide and staring. “Do you believe me? Nobody believes me. Please, tell me that you do.”

Henry took her into his arms, and let her cry on his shoulder. “I believe you, Beth.”

***

He left not long afterwards, feeling distinctly like he had just poked a beehive to no apparent benefit for anybody involved. His shirt was soaked through with her weeping. Of course he believed her, but the woman was clearly distressed. He needed proof as much as she did, but that was something that neither of them could offer the other. Unless he staked out their garden. That idea rolled around in his head,

Brain preoccupied with half-formed plans, Henry shut the front door behind himself and stepped out into the cool night air. There, standing nonchalantly in the middle of Glosspool Lane, was sheriff Leia Thao. She had her uniform on, and a wicked grin on her face.

He fished his phone out of his pocket, and saw a missed call and a missed text from Kara: Sheriff here. STAY INSIDE. “Whoops.”

“Evening, Mr. Cauville,” Leia said. “You’ve been a hard man to find.”

“I like my privacy.”

She clicked her tongue. “I’ll make sure it’s nobody but you and I, down at the station.”

2.09: A Midnight Picnic, and Other Schemes

Henry tried to marshal his thoughts. Order them, to make some sort of sense. The further he traveled in time from what he witnessed on the Festival, the less real it felt. How could it have been real? People flying. Wolves in the park. A storm that hadn’t really existed. Whenever he allowed himself to sit on the memory the logical center of his mind kept insisting that it was all somehow a show, and that he needed to leave before whatever cruel play he’d found himself in progressed any further. Every other part of him told him that it was all real. Then there was the matter of his inevitable arrest, the reality of a dead man walking around town, and Niles. It all swirled together into an aching ball of anxiety in his gut.

Distraction was the only way to deal with it. The Anderson was a hive of constant activity, as the four quasi-resident artists prepared for their upcoming exhibit. Jason, the bald man who painted the mural of the boy with the cigar, spent most of his time fretting about how light was going to hit the back wall. Hiro, the man with more hair than he knew or cared to deal with, worked frantically to get his newest leatherworks ready in time for the show. Jessica didn’t show up much, and when she did she seemed distracted. 

Henry helped them clear and scrub the floor, store the supplies, and set up showcases for the finished work. There was always something more to do. It was exhausting work on an already exhausted body, but he was happy to be doing it.

Leia showed up on the morning of his second day there. She wore a plain black sweatshirt instead of her usual uniform, and a pair of shades rested on her head. Her lips were pursed tight. “I still can’t find your boy,” she announced, by way of general greeting.

“While I do find him handsome,” Kara said, pausing in her task of dragging a barrel out back, “that hardly makes him ‘my boy.’ Both parties have to be interested to make that work.” In the background the other three artists continued on with their own projects unperturbed, not even bothering to look up.

“Be that as it may, you still know him the best around here.”

Henry watched from the rafters, where his hosts had been kind enough to provide him with a blanket and a thermos for such occasions. He made a mental note to ask for a pair of binoculars next time. On the floor, Kara shrugged. “I already told you where he’s staying. You didn’t find him there?”

“Obviously not.”

“Then he must have left the village.”

Leia was silent for a moment. “Could he?”

“Don’t tell me you’re becoming a believer. I have a nifty tracking talisman on sale right now.”

“You know I hate it when you start talking cryptic,” the sheriff said. She sighed, and took a look around the warehouse as though seeing it for the first time. “But I suppose that’s the point. The place looks nice. It was the right call, pulling out of the community center. I want to know if Henry shows himself around here.”

He waited a few minutes after the door fell shut behind her, before clambering down and helping Kara hoist the barrel. “How illegal do you think it is to hide from the police?” he asked. “On a scale from misdemeanor to felony.”

“You don’t want me to answer that. How illegal do you think it is to knowingly conceal a wanted criminal?”

“I haven’t committed any crimes. Unless you count the hiding.”

“Somehow I think they will. Are you sure all of this is worth it?”

“I can’t let her dig up Emmaline yet. Not until I know what will happen. Not until I can talk to Clair.” They hauled the barrel outside, and dumped its waste water out on the parking lot. It puddled in the cracks of the broken pavement, and slowly sunk away. “Did you mean what you said, back then, about me being trapped in Tortus Bay?”

Kara considered him. “Do you want to leave?”

“No.”

She easily slung the empty barrel over her shoulder. “Well, I think that’s the heart of it. There’s no force field, if that’s what you’re asking.”

At night cold wind whistled through the empty warehouse, making it impossible for him to sleep. So he lay awake, or perched on the rafters, trying to do anything besides letting his thoughts unspool down the tangled alleys they wished to explore. Not for the first time, he wished he had some sort of hobby. Surrounded by just about every art supply a person might need, and he was bored. He added ‘TV’ to his mental wishlist.

When the wind picked up, it sounded—if only distantly—like wolves. Like howling, rising and falling. Then banging. Henry’s eyes snapped open. That wasn’t the wind.

He skimmed across the rafters, crouched against the wall, and peered out of the window. When he saw who was knocking on the door, he hurried down to answer it.

“Niles?”

The man stood there, shivering slightly, in a puffy black coat and wrapped in more scarves than Old Tommy had sold in a lifetime at his general store. “Kara came around to tell me where you were staying. This was the only time I could make it over. Figured you could use the company.”

Henry smiled. “I could.”

“I brought food. Thought we could have a midnight picnic.”

“You know there’s no refrigerator in here? You’re a lifesaver. Come in.”

He hesitated. “I know I’ve been avoiding you. I know we have to talk. But I don’t want to.”

“You don’t?”

“Not at all.”

***

Aria got in touch the next day, while Henry was stowing the last of the paints in the supply room. He smiled for the camera. “Why do you always video call?”

She shrugged, and sipped her coffee. There were heavy bags under her eyes. “I like to see who I’m doing business with.”

“Does that mean we’re doing business?”

“It does. Have I finally caught you at a good time? You’re not out for one of your constitutionals, are you?”

He perched up by the window. “I’m staying put.”

“Good. You know, you seem very outdoorsy for the kind of position I’m offering you. Athletic, almost. I hope you realize you’d be sitting in a chair all day.”

“Well, three phone calls isn’t a great sample size.”

Aria shrugged again, and set her coffee aside. Behind her, people chatted and walked in and out of view. The office was busy. “Why do you want to meet with Beth?”

“I think there’s something more going on with her late husband than anybody knows. And I think I might be in a unique position to help.”

She nodded. “As you know, my main job is managing things here at inHale. On the side, I’ve become something of the go-to person for the entire village’s technical woes—of which there are multitudes. I listen, ask them if they’ve turned it off and on again, and occasionally reset a router. Basically the same thing I was doing growing up, only now I charge for it.

“Anyway, the point is that I managed to get in contact with Beth, and convinced her that there’s something vague wrong with her internet. She’s expecting one of my people at her place this afternoon. She insisted on the time. You know the type. I don’t imagine she’ll ask too many questions.”

“I can do that. But how am I supposed to get past -”

Aria frantically waved her hands in front of the camera, until he stopped talking. “I can’t help you with any other obstacle you may or may not encounter. None of which I could possibly know anything about.”

“Why are you doing all of this for me?”

“Do you know how few people in Tortus Bay know how to answer a video call? Don’t get me wrong, you’ve had your own struggles in that department, but I figure you’re still overqualified for the position. Besides, any friend of Kara’s is a friend of mine. I’ll talk to you again tomorrow.”

Henry hung up and sat there for a minute, chewing his lip. The warehouse was cold, but the sun streaming through the window lit his back with warmth.

“Scheming?” Kara asked, as she walked with an armful of paint-splattered rags. “I know that face, and it always means scheming.”

“I have a way in to talk with Beth Brihte.”

“So your plan is to walk into a spooky murder house, from which many people have recently heard blood-curdling screams, to talk with a woman who has been seen less in the last couple weeks than her supposedly dead husband?”

“That’s right.”

She dropped the rags. “How can I help?”

“I need a way around the roadstop on Glosspool.”

Kara laughed. “You’re in luck. I may have just what you need.”

2.08: Hunted

The long arm of sheriff Leia Thao could be felt all across Tortus Bay. Police tape appeared overnight around the park, forbidding entrance. Similarly, at most hours of the day a deputy sat parked on Glosspool Lane, turning any would-be visitors away from Mathas Bernard’s old estate. “We’re here at the request of Beth Brihte,” one of them said, when asked. “The woman deserves a bit of peace and solitude, don’t you think?” 

Henry couldn’t fathom why it would be that she could command such a sizable percentage of the village’s police resources. Especially when there were people they were trying to find. Clair, Mathas, and now himself. The village hardly seemed large enough to conceal three fugitives for long.

He stood a safe distance down the road, wondering to himself how Leia was able to be everywhere at once. Her squad car was parked in front of Horizon Foods. What was Howard telling her? Nothing good—of that he was certain. And nothing true. People stared as they passed him, and he tried not to meet their eyes. Did they know he was wanted? Would they rat him out, if they did? He half expected to see his face on posters plastered down main street.

The sheriff stepped out with a sour look on her face, and wasted no time peeling away from the scene. She was heading in the general direction of Glosspool. Henry waited a few beats, then strolled into the grocery store in as casual a manner as he could muster. He ignored the eyes on his back, and the drumming sense of impending doom which told him to turn around.

Howard, face ruddy like an aged beet, seemed content for the moment to ignore him. Pointedly, he busied himself flicking through the contents of the store’s register. He didn’t speak until Henry had nearly reached the door to the storeroom. “Do you have any idea who I was just talking to?”

He turned to survey the empty store. “Yourself?”

“The sheriff.” Howard rounded the counter, but kept a healthy distance between them. “Do you know what we talked about?”

“Myself, I presume.”

“You!” he said, eyes then widening when he registered Henry’s response. “So you know. You’re avoiding her. I told you—I knew you were some sort of criminal! You think you can lay low here? Do you really think that I’m going to let you bring this whole establishment down with you?”

Cold sweat prickled his skin. “You have a flair for the dramatic, Howie. What did she say she wanted?”

“To talk with you.”

“Right. Nothing so suspicious about that. I’m going to head down to the station as soon as I’m done here, but I figured you wouldn’t appreciate me being late for another shift.”

The manager’s face flushed through several more variations of red, before landing on purple. “What did you do?”

“It’s nothing that I did. Only something that I saw.” Henry took a step closer to the storeroom. “Do you really want to be implicated with that knowledge?”

“This has something to do with Clair, doesn’t it?”

“Let me take care of the shelving, Howard. Then by all means, let the sheriff know where I am. Or let me hoof it over to the PD myself.” He didn’t wait for a response. The door swung shut behind him, and he jogged through the rows of unmarked and unsorted goods. Speed was key.

The can of beans with the torn label was right where he left it. He unfurled the hidden paper, and saw that a line had been added: Treading beans. Couldn’t hurt to know where the life preservers are stashed. He considered that a moment, before jotting down his response: Not many to go around. Might need one soon myself.

Henry replaced the can, straightened up, and was on his way to the exit when his pocket started vibrating. This time, he repositioned his phone before answering. “Ah, Henry Cauville’s face,” Aria Bethel said. A smile spread across her pointed face. “Much improved. Hello.”

“Hello,” he whispered, as he slipped by the back office. Just as he feared, Howard was hunched over the phone. 

“Are you busy right now?”

Howard looked up. Henry ducked, scurried past the door, and shouldered his way out of the exit. Fresh air met his face like freedom. “No, not at all. What can I do for you?”

“You seem quite sweaty, if you don’t mind my saying.”

He took the side way around the main street intersection, and hurried down the street. “Caught me in the middle of a walk.”

“Can you take a break for a minute? I’m afraid all the movement is making me nauseous.”

“Afraid not. Have to maintain heart-rate. You should understand that.”

“I suppose so.”

Henry turned on to Fuller, where he saw the first squad car. It crept down the road. He stopped, spun, and went off the other way. “You don’t have to look at the camera,” he said. “We could pretend this is a normal phone call.”

“That might be a good idea.” There was the sound of Aria setting her mobile down on a desk. “I wanted to congratulate you on your tenure in the village so far. You know, so few people stick around for longer than a few weeks. And I hope there’s no bad blood between us about the job.”

“Not at all.” He circled down to Fourth, where a second squad car again forced him to double back. They were surrounding him. A woman he didn’t recognize pointed in his direction. “I understand.”

“Glad to hear. And in fact, I’m calling because I’ve changed my mind. I would be honored if you accepted the position.”

Henry’s heart thundered in his chest. He ran, now. He wasn’t sure which street he was on. Sirens wailed in the distance. “I can’t do that.”

“That’s surprising to hear. You’re enjoying your current gig?”

His feet, more than his head, brought him where he needed to be. He stepped onto Hyacinth a few blocks down from the Anderson warehouse. So too did one of the squad cars. “Don’t know if I would go that far,” he said. “But I’ve got a few independent projects that have been taking up a lot of my time.”

“I see.”

He sprinted, and the squad car turned on its siren. Tires squealed on the pavement. Unthinking, he dodged back onto Sixth, leapt a white picket fence, and tore through a backyard. Somebody yelled in his direction. He barreled through a hedge, tripping, and emerged in the Anderson’s parking lot.

The siren rounded the corner. They were entering the lot from the street. Henry headed for the docking bays. Red and blue lights lit the cement. He dove, landing hard on his side, and rolled into one of the sheltered enclaves beneath the docking mechanism. His back slammed against the wall.

Leia Thao sat behind the wheel of the squad car. She drove slowly through the lot, her head swiveling left to right. She had not seen him.

He brought the phone to his ear, after the danger had passed. “Are you still there?” Aria was asking. “Hello?”

“I’m here.”

“You take interesting walks.”

“We all make sacrifices for our cardiovascular health.” He breathed out. Adrenaline coursed through his system. “There is something you could do for me, if you’re interested.”

Aria licked her lips. At some point she had picked up her phone again. “What’s that?”

“I need to talk to Beth Brihte.”

“That’s a difficult ask. And a peculiar one.”

Henry stretched out on the hard, broken concrete. Somewhere not too far away, the sheriff was circling. “It’s important. If you trust Kara, you can trust me as well. And if you do it, I’ll consider the job.”

“Do you mean that?”

“I do.”

She scratched her chin, and frowned. “She’s become a reclusive woman. I’ll see what I can do.”

The wailing of sirens trailed off into the distance, then disappeared. Thick saliva filled Henry’s mouth. He lay there, trying to catch his breath, and looked up into the sky. Clear blue.