2.22: Logistics and Crime

The number of days until the next festival—the next unpredictable confluence of magic—steadily ticked down. Something shifted about the energy in Tortus Bay, and Henry was astounded that he had not noticed it last time. Perhaps it hadn’t happened then. Or perhaps he had chalked it up to the newness of life in the village. 

The streets thinned out early in the day, transforming the usually bustling A.M. Bazaar into a sidewalk event. Yellows and greens snaked into the sky, ushering along with them the repressed electricity of a coming storm. Henry’s main focus, to everyone’s general frustration, continued to be finding Clair. Aria encouraged him to focus on the paper, Kara insisted that he go back into hiding, and Teresa wanted only for him to rest. But he was certain that if he could only find the girl, and hear what she had to say, that it would resolve every other one of his issues at once. She would be the linchpin.

“Why not talk to this Taylor person, then?” Teresa asked, with a sigh of frustration. She had herded her daughters upstairs to afford her guests a private conversation. They spread out, as usual, in the Bramble’s kitchen, sipping strong black coffee as they spoke. “If you think he knows where she is, that should be your first step.”

“No good,” Kara said. “I talked with him the other day. He got Henry’s covert message alright, but the only thing he did with it was hide a note for her in her house.”

Henry held his head in his hands. “We could have done that.”

“Only reason he got in is because he’s a deputy. Supposedly Leia is in and out of there every day. Top priority surveillance.”

“Then we use him to get back in,” he said, “at least to look for clues.”

Kara shook her head. “Leia is suspicious. Of everyone, I think, but especially Taylor. He used to get all the drudge work—now he gets no work, period.”

“But Clair must have seen the message,” Teresa said, “or else where did Emmaline Cass’ body go?”

Henry had been through all of this, over and over again. It only led in circles. “The fact is, we don’t know anything. Anything could have happened to that body. We can’t assume that we were the only people who knew about it. Not after what happened with the Mayor.”

“Yes,” Tersa said, “the man who can consort with wolves. If what you have said about him is true, then we have a much bigger issue on our hands.”

“It’s true. What else could it have been?”

She shrugged. “He lured you to that spot in the forest specifically to show you that scene. He wants you to know what he can do. But let me ask: how is it that you managed to outrun an entire pack of wolves? And why didn’t you clearly see any of them?”

“You’re saying it was a trick.”

“A glamour, perhaps. The ability to exert control over animals, especially that number of animals simultaneously, is vanishingly rare. Especially outside of the confluence.”

“So, as you’ve said, is bringing a dead man back to life.”

“That is not necessarily what we are dealing with there.”

Kara cleared her throat. “Okay, we’re getting off track again. What is our plan for right now? For today?”

“We don’t have enough information,” Henry said. “If Emmaline’s body isn’t in that park when the festival dawns, we’re in for a repeat of last month. And Mathas might only be a nuisance right now, but who knows what will happen to him then. We have to find Clair. Teresa, are you willing to help?”

“The girl is alive, at least. And not too far away from the village. Every bit of magic leaves a trace, and I am familiar enough with her to know those things. For anything else, we will have to resort to a bit of trickery.” She drew a small, plain brown strip of leather from her pocket, and pressed it into Henry’s hands. A strange symbol was burned into the face of it, blackened around the edges. 

“What is this?”

“Call it a totem, if you need a name.”

He turned it over in his hand. “And this symbol?”

Teresa pursed her lips. “Kara, why don’t you tell him?”

“It was a secret,” she said. “I was never supposed to know. Clair came to me one night a few years ago, after she found out what it is that I can do. She told me she had something tattooed on her, and she wasn’t sure if it was safe. It worried her. She wanted the opinion of an outsider, of someone she could trust.”

Henry held the swatch face-up in his palm. The symbol was similar in design to the charms he wore around his neck, and the sigils he’d seen carved onto the Cass headstone, but it was more intricate. More fleshed out. The longer he looked, the more it seemed to resemble a pair of legs. “What does it do?”

“Never found out,” Kara said. “She needed to trust, so I didn’t ask. It wasn’t a threat, which I told her. Then I forgot about it, until the day you told me you saw her floating outside of your window.”   

“Who gave her the tattoo?”

Teresa clicked her tongue. “Now who’s getting off track? We don’t know anything more than that she has the thing. The point is that we can track her. All magic calls out, and responds when called upon. What the girl has on her leg is almost certainly experimental, and so also assuredly unique. The tattoo and the leather will recognize one another, if they should get close, and they will sing to one another.”

***

There was no singing that day. Henry and Kara ventured into the woods, starting close to Clair’s house and radiating out from there, but the leather totem remained inert. Neither of them knew what they were waiting for, exactly, but Teresa had repeatedly assured them that they would recognize it once it happened.

“Could we make more of these?” he suggested, several fruitless hours into the exercise. They had circled the village twice, and his legs ached. “Then we could split up, and cover more ground.”

Kara shook her head. “Weren’t you listening? If this is going to work, then it will be because these two symbols are the only two which exist in the area. If there were three, then they would interact with each other and spoil the whole thing.”

“Meaning that if there’s already more than one, we’re just wasting our time out here.”

“Quite right.”

They walked in ever widening circles, until the sun began to fail. The yellows became goldenrods and the greens became purples above them. It wasn’t long before Kara called it quits. “We have a few days left,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to burn ourselves out.”

Henry continued despite that logic, worrying the leather in his hand until it was damp with sweat and warm with the heat of his body. His breath fogged into a cloud. Whatever anybody else said, he knew they were running out of time. And it was he who wasted it. It would be him with whom the fault lay, if anything bad were to happen. But Teresa’s plan was not his only option.

He frowned down at his phone, but followed the directions he’d been texted regardless. They brought him through the wild woods and into the more tamed horticulture of Glosspool Lane, where Niles sat waiting for him on a white park bench beside a small, still pool. “You made it!” he said, jumping up and visibly restraining himself from initiating a hug.

Henry went in. The man was warm, and pleasant, against his chest. As usual, he smelled like the delicious intersection of a bakery and a sawmill. “We’re allowed to do this.”

“Only this?” Niles whispered into his ear.

He coughed, breaking their embrace, and was thankful for the obscuring dark. “Why are we meeting here?”

“Lucy Brihte invited me over to strategize for the next TBHWAS meeting. I think that means she just wants to go over the food options, but still—I can stretch it out for a while.”

Henry blinked. “So?”

“So, Lucy is Beth’s sister, and she always hated Mathas. I even thought she knew something about how he’d been killed, don’t you remember?”

“Do you still think that?”

Niles nodded. “I’m sure of it. Listen, I told you that I had an idea to help you track Mathas down again. This is it. There’s information here, and Lucy is home alone. I’ll distract her, and you sneak in. I can probably buy you an hour to snoop around. I have a lot of elaborate and important opinions on cake.”

It was crazy, dangerous, and unlikely to work—but no less crazy, dangerous, or unlikely to work than wandering around the forest at night. Henry nodded. “Okay, get me inside.”

Niles smiled and took the lead, bringing him across the expansive backyard of the Brihte Estate. Outside the patio door Henry crouched to the side. Niles waited until he was in place, shot him a thumbs-up, and rapped on the wooden frame. After a moment, lights flashed on and footsteps approached.

“Niles!” Lucy said, swinging the door open. “I’m glad you made it. We really have to discuss our next hike. Come in, come in.”

Niles followed her inside, taking an extra second on his way to kick the mud off his shoes. Henry caught the corner of the door and held it ajar. He waited there, crouched and shivering in the cold, heart in his throat, until he could no longer hear their footsteps. Then he exhaled, and slipped inside.

The Brihte Estate’s famed opulence was obscured by the dim light in the hallways through which Henry crept. He slowly tip-toed through the house, trying to avoid making noise while straining his ears to track Niles and Lucy’s conversation. From what he could tell they were in the kitchen, still working their way through pleasantries. He steered himself in the opposite direction, through a well-appointed parlor and several smaller rooms which he could only guess were studies, until he found the stairs.

On the second floor he knew there would be several bedrooms, but only one would be unlocked. Only one was still in use. He walked with less caution now, so far removed from the kitchen, but tested his weight carefully with every step. Old houses were creaky houses, and one creak might give him away. He found himself surrounded by less lavish decorations; this area was clearly meant for family, not guests. There was a small secondary kitchen and dining room, followed by a crooked hallway.

As promised, Henry came upon locked door after locked door. His sweaty hands slipped off of polished brass. Then, finally, a doorknob gave way, and opened with a slight click. He stepped into what was the least decorated and most plainly lived-in section of the enormous house. Clumsy, unframed landscapes hung on the walls. Clothes lay scattered on the floor. In the corner sat a single mattress, its sheet twisted up in the middle, covered in colorful pillows. On the shelf beside the bed there was an old-fashioned landline, where Niles must have overheard the conversation which originally roused his suspicions.

There was no better place to start. Henry opened the top drawer of the shelf, and thought at first that it was a junk drawer. He saw scattered, uncapped pens, bobby pins, and the bottom half of a stapler. But underneath, there was a slim black notebook. He reached for it.

Behind him, the door opened. “You’re not supposed to be here,” Lucy Brihte said. 

2.21: Temptations

Henry stood paralyzed in the hallway, staring down the unblinking gaze of Mathas Bernard. The man’s eyes, he could now see, were not quite right. They were filmy, and unfocused. Yellowed. And there was dirt in them, clumping along the ridge of the eyelids.

Niles waved to get his attention. “In here!” he mouthed.

He beckoned Into the living room, which would require Henry to approach Mathas. But even as he pondered the thought, the man’s head turned away, once more resuming what looked like a blind search of the counter-tops.

Henry took a deep breath, steeled himself, and darted across the hallway into the living room. To enter, he had to vault over a sort of barricade which had been set up. The armchair sat toppled on its side, blocking the entrance. A few boxes had been piled on top, for weight. He sat with his back against it, waiting for the inevitable sound of the dead man’s approaching footfalls. It did not come.

Bruce lay huddled in the corner, soundlessly whimpering. Niles sat on the floor behind the couch, clearly trying to decide whether it was worth the effort to add it to the barricade. Sweat poured down his face. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “I mean, obviously I believed Jenny, and you, but I didn’t believe, you know? Now he’s here.”

“We have to get out of the house.”

“No,” Niles snapped. A rare hardness entered his voice. “No, he’s not kicking me out of my own house.”

Henry peered over the top of the armchair. From his angle, he could only see the faint reflection of movement. Mathas was still safe in the kitchen. “What happened?

“I didn’t realize anything was off until Bruce started whining. I thought he was sick, at first, but he kept nipping at my heels and staring off at the kitchen. I walked in there, Henry.” He shuddered.

“What was he doing?”

Niles covered his face with his hands. “I don’t know.”

He wanted nothing more than to crawl over to the couch, and take the man by the shoulders. But he stayed where he was. That would be too much. “Did he come in through the front?”

“No, through the back. I had the door open. I was baking a cake, and I wanted to air the place out.”

That settled into Henry’s mind. “You were baking a cake?”

“Yes. What does that matter?”

“Where is it now?”

Niles drew his hands away from his face. “I think he ate it.”

And he’d stayed in the kitchen since, looking for more. “You used to bake cakes for his birthdays, right? How often did you do that?”

“Every year. And more, besides. The man had a sweet tooth.” 

“I think he still does.”

Niles’ eyes widened in understanding. “He’s looking for the things he used to love.”

“Which explains why he was caught circling his old house.” Henry leaned over and pulled the bookmark out of the ratty paperback copy of The Alpha Aliens Save Jupiter… Again! A photograph, featuring a slighter younger Mathas Bernard standing in a crowd of people. Most notably amongst them was his wife. Beth Brihte beamed out of that photo as Henry had never known her to in real life. He stood, and whistled.

“What are you doing?” Niles hissed, but the trick had worked. Mathas looked again into the stove-top mirror, and saw when he did the photograph which Henry held above the barricade.

In this way they lured the man out of the house. He moved with a limping gate, but a surprising speed, once he was focused on a target. There was a single-mindedness to it which recalled a cat, or a toddler.

“Now what?” Niles asked, when they had moved a good distance down the road. They kept a comfortable pace ahead of Mathas. There was no longer any possible way that the man could still see the photograph, but it did not appear to matter.

“The Anderson,” Henry said. They could hold the man there. Lock him in one of the back rooms, and call the sheriff to come see. He smiled at the thought of Leia Thao coming face to face with the reality of the dead man walking. But it turned out to be a premature fantasy.

On the corner of Fuller, where the road curved away from the forest border to connect Tortus Bay’s northernmost neighborhood to the rest of village proper, there came a scuffling from the grass. It was a substantial noise, like a deer jumping up from where it had settled or a flock of birds scattering from a bush. Either way, Mathas turned at the commotion, and stepped off of the road into the obscuring night.

“Get him back!” Niles said.

Henry raised the photograph further above his head, and whistled. “Mathas! Hey, Mathas!”

By the time they jogged over to where the man had stepped off the trail, there was no sign of him. Not a sprig of displaced grass nor a depression in the damp earth—at least, not that they had the ability to see. He had disappeared into the trees. Henry looked out after him. Pale yellow fingers of light streaked over the sky, the herald of a cold morning approaching, but it was not yet bright enough for him to see anything. Not by far. “What’s out there that he’s more interested in than Beth Brihte?”

“A picture of Beth Brihte,” Niles corrected. “Maybe he was trying to stay out of the sun.”

“Maybe. Was he a hunter?”

“People around here need the support of a dedicated club just to set foot in the forest. No, he wasn’t a hunter.”

The two of them lapsed into silence, looking out over the cusp of the forest into the coming dawn. Adrenaline drained out of Henry’s body. Exhaustion did not rush in to fill the void, as he expected. As it deserved to. He found it nearly impossible to feel tired, while standing out in fresh air, watching the birth of a new day. 

Instead he was overcome with the desire to turn, grab Niles by the shoulder, and spin the man into his embrace. To kiss him. To run his hands over the nape of his neck, the small of his back. In that moment it felt like the most natural and correct thing in the world, like it had before their first kiss in the trees, and like it did in his dreams. But Henry mastered himself, and simply looked on in silence—until Niles cleared his throat. “You can walk me home.”

“That’s fine. I’ll probably head off. I’m already halfway back to the Anderson.”

“Sorry, I meant… will you walk me home?”

Henry nodded, and they turned back at a leisurely pace. Perhaps they were more tired than either of them were willing to let on. Perhaps it was the dread of the arrival. “I looked for you at the exhibition,” Niles said. “Thought for sure you’d be there.”

“I was meant to be.” He gave the whole story: Howard, the fight, his parents, Ray, and Greenfield.

Niles gasped and groaned at all the appropriate moments. He cheered, at the part of the retelling when Henry punched Howard. Then, naturally, he chose to focus on the least pleasant aspect of the entire ordeal. “Who is Ray?”

There wasn’t much to say about that. Infatuation and passion, followed by zero commitment and inevitable heartbreak. Like everybody else’s first love story. By the time Henry was through telling it, they were walking through Niles’ front door and setting to work righting his belongings. 

The armchair had to be flipped over and set back in its intended position. Scattered paperbacks had to be collected and returned to the coffee table. The kitchen was a mess. Mathas may indeed have consumed a sizable portion of the cake, but more than that had been smeared on the counter-top and across the cupboards. They coaxed Bruce out of his hiding spot with treats, and kept up with pets and encouraging voices until he became comfortable loafing around all of the rooms of the house. Immediately after performing such a loop, he curled up on the couch and fell asleep.

Niles ran a hand through his hopelessly ruffled hair. “Listen, what I was trying to say earlier is that I’m sorry about -”

Henry took him, then, and pulled him close. Ninety percent, and then he let Niles close the gap. It no longer felt right. It felt necessary. There was a balloon expanding between them, whose vibrating tension needed to be punctured. Their lips met with a delayed electricity, like the heartbeat between lightning and its thunder. “I’m sorry, too,” Henry said, stepping back. “I don’t want to be the thing that makes your life difficult. I don’t know, because I’ve never had to live it, but I can imagine the reactions you’d get in a place like Tortus Bay.”

“Anybody who matters, knows. Everybody else could guess. I’m sure they already have. But I’ve done a lot, to make myself comfortable on my own. I’ve never tried it any other way.” Niles paused, and looked around the room—at the slightly off-kilter furniture, and hastily re-arranged books. “Nothing is going to be the same, no matter what I do, will it?”

“I don’t think so.”

He breathed. “I can’t tell you exactly what I want. I don’t know if I know exactly what I want. I like being around you. And I like kissing you.”

Henry took another step back, and looked into those warm eyes. How easy it would be, to give in. To give him everything he needed. Whatever he wanted. But Henry had been down that path before. “I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”

Niles smiled, then, in a mischievous sort of way. “What if I told you that I have a lead on tracking Mathas down, and a great story for this newspaper of yours to boot?”

The sun had fully risen. Its warmth blanketed the small, comfortable living room. “Then I’d say that you have my continued attention.”

2.20: Connections

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.”

“Who’s we?” 

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.   

2.19: Following Directions

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.

“Yes.”

“And you used it? Last night and this morning?”

“I did.”

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.” 

“How bad?”

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.”

“So, low.”

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.”

2.18: Respect

The scraping of a key into his cell door lock interrupted Henry’s frantic dreams. There had been something about… teeth? Or had they been streets? He shook dense cobwebs from his mind, and sat up as Leia Thao swung the door open. Her mouth was a thin line. Her face was red. She was livid. “Explain yourself.”

“Excuse me?”

“The park,” she hissed. “The supposed burial site of Emmaline Cass. There was nothing.”

He blinked, struggling to get up to speed. He hadn’t expected that shoe to drop so soon. 

The sheriff dropped into a squat, to lower herself to his level, and spoke softly. “I don’t give a shit about recovering any Cass bones. The Mayor doesn’t care very much either. But the village sure as hell does. Those people want answers, and they know enough to realize that those answers have been coming from you. It’s them you have to worry about.”

“That’s funny. I thought it was you, who threw me in here.”

“And if they want me to keep you in here, I won’t cry about it. Do you understand that?”

“I gave you the wrong location.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Is that right?”

“If you want, I’ll bring you to the real place. No tricks this time.”

“This is your last chance,” she said, straightening herself up and speaking once more in a normal tone. “One more mistake, and I’m going to make it my life’s work to bury you.”

***

Henry figured she was telling the truth. He brought her to the park and flagged the area beneath the old gnarled oak where he had first seen Clair unearth her special cache. There were so many things he’d meant to do, before giving up the real location. Speaking with Taylor and finding Clair were chief amongst them. If he hadn’t left the village, perhaps he would have had time.

He shook his head. There was no time now to dwell on past time wasted. Or on why he’d wasted it. Or on hearing Ray’s voice again. The deputy who was not Taylor drove Henry back to the station, and locked himself out of the building after securing him in his cage.

Then there was nothing to do. No visitors. No books. No phone. Nothing. He browsed through the notes he’d taken over the previous day, trying to synthesize some sort of trend out of the mess of stories, but there was little to work with. It seemed as though Mathas Bernard liked to go out at night, and had some sort of affinity for routing around in trash. Perhaps he was hungry. Perhaps he was lost. He either despised, or was intrigued by, light. And he was sometimes seen chasing someone. Or being chased.

Useless thoughts and theories flitted about his mind, colliding and ricocheting off one another, until finally the station doors clattered open—and two pairs of footsteps made their way down the hallway floor. “Of course you can see him,” Leia said. “You can take as much time as you need.”

That was all the warning Henry got, before Howard sidled into the room. He had a nasty sort of grin plastered on his face, and an even nastier welt on the side of his nose. What had before been a red complexion was now verging on cherry. The man stood in front of the cell, arms crossed, saying nothing.

“You’ve come to gloat,” Henry said.

“Not worth it anymore, is it?”

“Howie, if I could go back in time, I would do everything in the exact same way.”

His face twisted into a scowl. “I actually came here to be reasonable. To offer you a way out of this mess you’ve found yourself in.”

“Is that right?”

“It is. I’ll drop the charges, if you apologize. To me, and to everyone else in this village.”

Henry laid back on his cot, and considered the man standing before him—from his beady focused eyes all the way down to his anxiously tapping feet. “Howard,” he said, “how in the hell is that going to help you?”

He missed a beat. “What?”

“I told you this already. You live a sad life, Howard, and you have no clue how to make it any better. Nobody respects you. Did the sheriff look you in the eye when you called her with a bloody nose? I think, deep down, you know that what I’m saying is true. And I think, deep down, that you understand that my punching you in the face was far more than you ever deserved. I treated you like an equal. Which you are not. That’s the most respect you’ll get out of me, and that’s more than you’ll get from anyone else, either.”

His face contorted even further. His meaty cheeks curled into dense folds. “I came here,” he spat, “to offer you a chance. I came here to be the bigger man.”

“Howie, you don’t have to try for that. You’re already the bigger man.” 

***

Little else of note happened that night. He was fed—takeout from the buffet. He wondered if that was their standard procedure. There was no kitchen in the station, as far as he knew. Nobody bothered him. Off and on there was the noise of the main door sliding open, presumably to let Leia in and out, but nothing beyond that.

Henry eventually found comfort in the silence and boredom. It wasn’t so different, laying on a cot instead of a cheap hotel mattress. The calm was arguably the superior companion to the background noise of basic cable TV. He drifted in and out of light sleep.

Through the window the sky lightened to a pastel purple. Hours or minutes had passed, he wasn’t sure. It was the break of dawn, and the sheriff stormed into the station with her characteristic fury. He sprung up, prepared for what was about to happen. 

“We found the damn casket,” she said. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her uniform hung loose around her shoulders and waist. Had she been up all night? “Want to take a guess what we found inside?”

“Nothing.”

She gave a hoarse bark of a laugh. “Not exactly. An empty bottle of whiskey. What kind of joke is this?”

“I keep trying to tell you, it isn’t a -”

“Why the hell am I even asking? You’ve done nothing since you got here but lie. You should have stayed out in Greenfield. Yeah, I know you took off for a couple days. Against my explicit directions, mind you. It isn’t hard to keep track of people in a place the size of Tortus Bay.”

Except she hadn’t been able to track him down, at the Anderson. “But the casket is proof that -”

“I don’t want to hear anything more out of you,” she snapped. “I don’t know what I’m charging you with, but I’ll have something.”

***

Henry had plenty of time to wonder how Emmaline Cass’ body had been moved from her casket. Perhaps Taylor had passed his message on to Clair. Or maybe more people than he thought knew about the burial site. He had no opportunity to ask anyone about it. The sheriff sat at her desk for the entirety of the day, loudly turning away potential visitor after potential visitor. Even Kara had no luck. “Tell the Mayor, then,” Leia yelled. “March him down here and let him sort it out, but until that happens you’re not getting back there.”

It took until nightfall for someone to finally break the sheriff’s will, by which time Henry had already given up hope. He heard someone enter, and the pursuing lilting noise of a conversation, but the words were too soft for him to decipher. Gradually they got louder. “I don’t understand what you think your authority here is.” It was Aria’s voice. “The charges were dropped.”

“I have the authority,” Leia spat the word, “to hold him for as long as I need.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Listen, I’ll tell you what I told Kara: if you don’t like it, you can go to the Mayor.”

“The Mayor? What’s he got to do with it? If I go somewhere—and I will—it will be to the State. I do a lot of business out there in the wide world. How are they going to like a report of indefinite detention?”

There was silence. From his cell, Henry thought he could feel the seething anger. Then there were loud footfalls down the hall, and Leia unlocked his cell without meeting him in the eye. “Mathas Bernard is out there,” he said, instead of stepping out. “That’s what you need to be worried about.”

“Leave.”

“Look for him,” he pleaded. “A word from you could mean a lot.”

Her voice was cold. “Stop spreading misinformation in my village.”

“Next time you bury me, right?”

She had nothing to say to that. Aria met him by the entrance, with a brief smile and a harried look about her face. “The charges were dropped?” he asked.

“Early this morning,” she said. “Some people went to intervene with Howard on your behalf, but he’d already done it. Wouldn’t tell anyone why the sudden change of heart.”

He grinned. “Thank you for talking sense into the sheriff.”

“That was never my intent.” She held the door open, and they stepped together out into the blustering autumn air. “Simply wanted to give a business partner a quick update, but she wouldn’t let me back to see you.”

“There’s an update?”

“Everything’s set up. All we need is the copy for the first issue, and we’ll have the Tortus Bay Examiner out in people’s hands by the end of the week.”

“The Tortus Bay Examiner?”

“Yeah, I thought of it myself.”

“Doesn’t that make it sound a little bit like, I don’t know, Turtle Fancier?”

“You’re going to need more imagination than that, my friend, if you want to succeed in the publishing business.”   

2.17: Stories of a Dead Man

Henry was thrown directly into a cell—his cell, as he disturbingly now thought of it. No sarcastic remarks from the sheriff. No interrogation room. He made himself as comfortable as he could on the thin cot, rolled out his aching shoulder, and waited for the first sign of deputy Taylor. If anyone would listen to him, it would be Taylor. He might even be able to provide a clue about Clair’s whereabouts, if their significant eye contact during Henry’s last incarceration had been anything more than the product of a desperate imagination.

But Taylor never materialized. Nobody at all walked down the long hallway that connected the cells to the main body of the station. He was, apparently, forgotten. Night fell, and his stomach grumbled. No food came. For a time, he considered calling out. Certainly somebody was on duty. But it felt undignified, so instead he curled up and fell into fitful sleep.

A slight commotion roused him in the morning. There were a pair of voices arguing in the station. “I have every right to be here,” Kara said.

The sheriff sounded tired. “I get to decide that.” 

“No, you don’t. I’m allowed to be here, and he’s allowed to have visitors. What would the mayor think?”

There was a pause. “Fine. You can have ten minutes.”

Henry managed to sit up and blink most of the bleariness out of his eyes before Kara rounded the corner. “You decent in there?”

“Not really.”

“Well, what’s a little indecency between friends?” Kara pulled a stool from the corner over to sit in front of his cell. She was smiling, and holding a small bundle of white towels and bandages. “How’re you holding up?”

He laughed. “Better in here than a two-star hotel in Greenfield.”

“Yes, well. I made it out to Teresa’s last night.” She handed over the bandages, along with a fresh vial of the ointment. “She figured you might be out.”

“Thanks. Mind blocking the view?”

Kara obliged, turning her back on him to cut off the narrow line of sight from the main room to the cells. Leia didn’t need to know about his shoulder. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that you punched Howie.”

“Seemed like a minor piece of information, at the time.”

She shrugged. “Seems fairly important now. Word on the street is that he’s pissed. Wants to take this thing as far as he can.”

“If that man scared me, I wouldn’t have hit him in the first place.” Henry dropped his shirt back over his head. “Alright, we’re good.”

Kara reached through the bars to retrieve the ointment and the used bandages, and stuffed them neatly under her shirt. “I also come with a present.”

“That wasn’t the present?”

“Of course not.” She fished in her pocket, and after a moment produced another pendant. This one was different from the one currently hanging around his neck, or any of the others that he had ever seen. The metal was a glittering gold. The design was simple: three concentric circles, connected by double bars. “This is a secret,” she said. “I’m serious. Nobody gets to see this. Not even a glimpse.”

Henry nodded. “What is it?”

“I don’t make these. And if anyone asks, even Teresa Bramble, you tell them I wouldn’t even know how.” She sighed, wrapped the chain up in her palm, and handed it over. “It amplifies power. I know you’re curious about whether you’re connected with the magic of the village or not. If you are—even by just a hair—this will make it obvious to you.”

He put it on, and felt the metal sizzle, if only very slightly, when it made contact with his skin. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Thank me by not thinking about it too much. I started work on that charm a few weeks ago, well before you had this idea of yours for a newspaper. You know as well I do that you were brought here. And that wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t needed. I don’t think it matters if you end up having any ‘power’ one way or the other; this thing you’re trying to do is going to be more important.”

“This thing I’m trying to do might never happen, if I can’t get out of here.”

The smile on Kara’s face widened. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I’ve been spreading the word around town.”

***

Tod, the most prominently white-whiskered and pot-bellied member of the TBHWAS, was the first to brave the Tortus Bay Police Station to speak with Henry. “I’ve seen Mathas Bernard,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it at first, but it was definitely him. Walking through the park, like he was going somewhere, you know? I didn’t call out to him or anything. Something felt wrong about it. About him, I mean. There’s something the matter with the man, isn’t there?”

Then came Patty, from the cafe. “He tried to get in,” she said. “I haven’t told anybody else. Nobody would believe me, right? It was late at night. I stayed to finish up a load of dishes.” She shuddered. “I haven’t stayed past nightfall since. There was a scuffling from outside, and I figured it was an animal trying to get into the trash. I opened the back door, and there he was: Mathas Bernard, looking exactly like he always did. Except for the grimy clothes, I suppose. He looked up at the light from the door, and jumped at me. I slammed it in his face, ran to hide in the kitchen, and he was nowhere to be seen by the time I got the courage to go look again.”

Jamal was next, beaming from ear to ear and sporting a grease-stained apron. “Knew you’d be back,” he said. “Felt mighty guilty after you left, but I told everyone you wouldn’t be gone long. Shame about this.” He rattled his fingers against the bars, and his smile faltered. “There’s no sense I can see in locking somebody up over a well-intentioned punch. Not like you broke anything. But that’s not my expertise. I only run a bar.

“Anyway, I hear you’re collecting stories. You know I’m good at that. And this one’s true. I was out late a few nights ago, helping… well, helping someone up into their room, and I saw a strange figure sort of loping across the street. Didn’t think too much about it, until I noticed two more figures behind it. Kind of chasing it, I thought. When that first figure passed under a streetlight, and I was that it was Mathas Bernard… let me tell you, it was almost me who needed to be carried to bed.” 

The woman who ran Cycler told him that she had seen Lucy Brihte chasing Mathas Bernard down Main Street. The man who worked at the Pale Moon Buffet swore up and down that Mathas Bernard had faked his death to be with the woman he truly loved—though he had not actually seen the man himself. Just about everyone in the village seemed to have one story or another, and Henry diligently wrote them all down. He had no idea how he was going to go about verifying anything he heard, but he figured that recording it was the right first step.

Sofia and Lola, the daughters of Teresa Bramble, visited him late that night—and had to spend a good amount of time arguing with the sheriff before being allowed in. The concern, it seemed, was both with their number and the time of day, but in the end Leia relented. They were the only ones to visit him that day without a sighting of the not-dead man.

“Our mother wanted to come herself,” Sofia, the elder daughter, said, “but she got caught up. Did you get the ointment?”

“Yes,” Henry said. He eyed Lola, the younger daughter, for signs of distress. The memory of her panicking at bolting at his slight movement was still fresh in his mind, but she seemed fine at the moment. “Tell your mother that I appreciate it.”

“We will. She wants you to come to her as soon as you get out of here. It’s important.”

“I understand. I will.”

The girl hesitated, biting her lip, and Lola spoke up to fill the ensuing silence. “You’re looking for Mathas Bernard.” Not quite a statement, not entirely a question.

“I am.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t think he’s really dead.”

Sofia cleared her throat. “You’ve seen him?”

“I have.”

Her expression was unreadable. “That’s interesting. If we see anything out there, we’ll let you know. Please, try to get out of here as soon as you can.”

2.16: Off to the Races

The weather turned in Tortus Bay. Morning frost clung to the eaves of the shopfronts on Main street, as well as the auburn leaves of the trees in the park. The sun shone in a clear sky overhead, but despite the light it was a frigid day. Despite everything that had happened, the village still felt more like home than anywhere else in the world—and returning was a joy.

Aria Bethel wore an overlarge, puffy white sweater which covered most of her body. In person the sharp lines of her face were softer than they appeared via phone screen, and the red of her lips was a gentler pink. “So you’ve returned from your sojourn to Greenfield.”

“I have,” Henry said. He shifted to make himself comfortable in the hard plastic chair on the opposite side of her office desk. It felt like a bit of an afterthought, as though she didn’t take meetings in her office very often. “And I know what I’m doing.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“A newspaper.”

She smiled. “A lot of people aren’t going to like that idea.”

“I don’t care about a lot of people. I care about you, right now.”

Aria leaned back in her chair. Behind her, wall-length windows revealed the breadth of inHale’s open space office space. It wasn’t a large operation; perhaps five other people worked for her, flitting from desk to desk to lean and chat. “I take it you mean to publish the truth?”

“Nothing but. About magic and Mathas Bernard and anything else that I can get my hands on.”

“A print newspaper?” she asked, then shook her head. “Of course a print newspaper. You want people around here to actually read it. Well, it’s not at all what I had in mind when I initially offered you a job, but I’m willing to help.”

“You’ll print it?”

She nodded. “Give me a little time, I think I can arrange printing and distribution. You realize this is going to make us supremely unpopular individuals?”

“I believe I’ve already accomplished that. Is it worth it for you?”

Aria lifted herself out of her seat, flicked closed the blinds, and sat back down. “I’m not a stupid person.” She spoke very softly, leaning forward over her desk. “And I cannot tolerate being willfully ignorant. Not any longer. Even a person—such as myself—who is not touched at all by the magic of this place cannot live here for long without encountering some aspect of it. I tried to deny it, for much of my life. Even after I accepted it personally, I pretended publicly not to know. I’m the tech person, for God’s sake. What would people think?

“That worked well enough, for a long time. Now things are changing. There are storms over the park. Nothing like that has ever happened before. Nothing like that could have ever happened before.  I don’t know how you stopped that thing from enveloping the entire village, but I’m glad you did—because while it was swelling, about ninety percent of the population was determinedly looking in the other direction.

“I’ve been tossing it all back and forth in my mind since then. Everyone in this community needs to be on the same page, if we’re going to deal with whatever happens next. I don’t think I can keep looking in the other direction any longer.”

Henry found himself mimicking her body language, leaning into the conversation and responding in an equally hushed whisper. “Is the sheriff, or the mayor, going to try to shut us down?”

“I’ve no doubt they’ll both try. We’ll do this thing in secret. I have contacts out in Jungston who should be able to print. We’ll do distribution through the Anderson, assuming Kara and her cohort are happy to turn a blind eye.”

“I don’t think that group will take much convincing.”

She offered her hand. “Then we’re partners. Fifty-fifty, after I recoup losses.”

He took it. “Partners.”

“The trick now, Henry, will be convincing as many people as we can, as fast as we can and as thoroughly as we can, so that the powers that be will be unable to shut us down when they inevitably route us out.”

“A race against time.”

Aria grinned. “A race against convenient ignorance.”

***

Kara nearly lifted Henry off his feet with the ferocity of the hug she administered when he stepped into the warehouse. “Of course we’ll do it,” she said. “This old place was practically constructed out of hidey-holes. Trust me, you only know a couple of them. But where in the hell did you get the idea for a newspaper?”

“Always struck me as odd, that Tortus Bay didn’t have one. I think it’s been on my mind since I saw that bulletin board in the cafe.” 

“Just took you a mini mental meltdown to put the pieces in place?”

The Anderson was freezing. Much of the art was still hanging in exhibition, but here and there pieces had been moved. Paint cans and drying racks were once again making their way back out onto the floor. “I’m sorry I missed the exhibit.”

“It was nothing special. Lot of folks milling in a circle, reciting old art terms they learned in high school. The mayor bought Cigarette Break.”

Henry looked to the far wall, where the mural of the young boy smoking a cigarette was hanging in a partially deconstructed state. “I didn’t know that was for sale.”

She shrugged. “Neither did I, but he made a very generous offer. Wants it installed in his house.”

“What a house that must be.”

“The man is a long-term supporter of local art.”

“Rings a bell. That makes him a friend?”

Kara arched a brow. “Of course not.”

Henry took a long look around the warehouse. They appeared to be alone. “Listen, there’s something else that I need to do. Something I didn’t mention to Aria. And I might need your help.” 

“What do you need?”

“To find Clair. She’s a part in all of this, and there’s a lot more that she can tell me. There has to be. She left me a note with directions on where to find her, but I don’t know if it’ll be good anymore. It’s a place to start, at least.”

She leveled a shrewd look in his direction, and folded her arms. “You mean business.”

“I can’t hop from place to place,” he said. “Not anymore. For whatever reason, Tortus Bay is the only place I’ve ever found that feels right. It’s the only place where the bullet wound in my shoulder doesn’t ache. But I need to help it as much as I think it can help me—and now I know how.”

 She nodded. “You’ve seen how I work. What I do. The magic that I imbue into the things that I create is carried out into the world by people who believe in me, and once a month we are connected through that craft. All magic works like that. It’s a connective force.”

“What are you saying?”

“Clair has a particular tattoo on her leg. It wasn’t something of mine, but it is something of the magic of Tortus Bay. And so it is connected in some way to the village.” Kara began pacing, arms still tightly crossed, as she talked it through. “I know exactly where everyone who bears one of my trinkets is, on a festival day. Tracing that at the right time, in the right way, might clue us in to her location. I don’t know the first thing about how to tap into that, but someone with a deeper understanding might have the secret to get it started. Someone like Teresa Bramble.”

***

They didn’t make it to the Bramble estate. As Henry and Kara walked down the street, a squad car pulled up beside them. Sheriff Leia Thao jumped out, her face a mask of determination. 

Henry knew what was about to happen the second before it did, and his overwhelming reaction was confusion. He should have had more time. Did she know that he’d skipped town? Had she already dug up his fake plot in the park? 

He didn’t have to wait long for the answer. In a single motion, Leia fished a pair of manacles from her belt with one hand and pulled his arm behind his back with the other. “Henry Cauville,” she said, “you are under arrest for the assault of Howard Drucker. Anything you say now can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

2.15: Displaced, part 2

Hey, honey. I see you’ve been trying to get a-hold of me. Your dad says you’re calling him as well. We’re both very busy at the moment. You should know that. We love you. You know that, too.

How long are you planning on keeping up this charade? I still mean what I said. We’re not interested in speaking with you unless you’re willing to come home. Can’t you see how worried you’ve made everyone? And money is right out of the question. I don’t know where in the world you are, but all you’ll get out of us is a ticket back to the city. 

Oh, of course I would love to talk. I don’t mean to be so harsh, but we think it’s the only thing that will work. I’m sorry about what happened. I’m sorry about everything. 

Nobody sees you in this way that you think they do. You have to know that. You’re not some supervillain roaming the streets. Come home, okay? Give me a call back, and tell me you’re on your way.

***

Henry hadn’t noticed how displaced he’d become, until he wanted to reconnect. He never realized how far he’d traveled from the rhythm of a normal life. The only thing he wanted to talk about was Tortus Bay. The only thing he wanted to do was make someone believe him. But nobody wanted to talk to the crazy, disheveled man on the street.

He wasn’t running away. To run away, he would have needed to intend to stay in the first place. To intend to stay, he would have needed to find something new. There wasn’t anything new there. Not really—not anything more than a fancy veneer on the same problems he’d been trying to escape. Every place in the world had a Howard. Not nearly enough Howards had a broken nose.

No regret there. Of everything he’d ever done, he was crystal clear on that point: He should have punched the man the moment he met him, instead of subjecting himself to the extended misery of his company. If that punch became his legacy in the village, then so be it. Hell, if that became the legacy of his life, so be it. And maybe by default it would be. There wasn’t much opportunity for notable deeds, in the confines of a hotel. 

He sat inside, and looked out of the window. Passersby didn’t pay him any mind. They all looked like normal people, walking back and forth to work. Around noon they started carrying sandwiches, and chatting happily. In the evening the teenagers came out, milling on the corner or shouting out of their cars.

He sat inside, and scrolled through the endless reams of his contact history—imagining the conversations he might have if he reached out. Imagining the lives those people might now be living. Certainly they would all be living a life. None of them would be caught in a limbo, laying in a temporary bed on temporary sheets thinking temporary thoughts.

That’s what his life had felt like, since that day at Frida Middle School. Temporary.

***

Henry had never been afraid of danger. He had, in fact, always displayed an unnerving tendency to saunter head-first into the midst of it. There was nothing brave about it. The habit was stupid, if anything. There’s nothing heroic about walking into a busy intersection because you feel the need to get to work on time.

There was nothing heroic about wandering onto the scene of a school shooting.

He watched basic cable. There were channels upon channels upon channels of loud commercials. Game shows. People shouting at one another. And cooking. A man in a bright apron slapped a giant salmon down on a counter beside a grill, and walked through the steps of cleaning and preparing the fish. He transformed the animal into a slab of mouth-watering meat.

Then he added the spices. Lemon pepper, garlic, brown sugar, soy sauce, salt. Did anybody watching need to know those proportions? How many people watching a cooking show in the middle of the day on a workweek would attempt to emulate the recipe for themselves? Perhaps they just enjoyed watching the process of something being improved.

Because they can’t improve the conditions of their own lives? Two tracks of thought converged in Henry’s mind; the one attached to the cooking show, and the one that he had been trying to drown out with said cooking show.

He’d never been particularly scared of anything in his life. He still wasn’t scared of the things he should be: guns; schools; loud noises; and the crushing weight of the cruelty of mankind. That was what he told the therapists, and that was the truth. They told him he was deflecting, and that was also probably the truth.

What scared him was the thought that the entire world was painted with the same shitty brush—with the same little people and the same little problems—and that nothing and nobody was capable of rising above it.

There was nothing left to improve of his old life. Once he’d loved Ray, as a man can only love his first love. Once he’d loved his mother, as a man can only love a parent. But too much had come in the way. It was stagnant, now. Too large for him to hold or handle.  

***

His phone rang. “Hello?”

“Ah, Henry Cauville’s… is that a chin?”

He pulled the phone away from his face to reveal Aria Bethel on his screen. She was standing outside of her office building, leaning against the brick wall. “We’ve traded places,” he said.

“Thought I could use some fresh air. And fewer prying ears. Don’t worry, I promise not to break out into a run.”

“Can’t say the same.”

Her eyes swiveled, right to left. “Where are you?”

“Greenfield.”

“I take it that means this phone call to convince you to come work for me isn’t going to be a success?”

“I don’t know if I’m coming back.”

“You got something good out there in Greenfield?”

She didn’t know about Niles. She didn’t know about Howard. She had seemed to make it a priority not to know anything about anything inconvenient. “Magic is real,” he said.

“Yes, I know.”

“Mathas Bernard has come back from the dead.”

A nod. “I figured something like that was going on.”

Henry laid back on the bed, tossing his phone onto the pillow beside him. Aria could look at the ceiling for a while. “There’s nothing here in Greenfield. I don’t know what to do out here. Start a normal life? I tried that. Twice.”

“It takes plenty of people more than two tries.”

“Tortus Bay is the last place that I felt good. But it wasn’t because it was normal. It was because it felt impossible.”

“I know exactly what you mean. That’s why I could never leave. That’s why I run my tech startup from the actual middle of nowhere. Do you know what it took to bring decent internet out here?”

He was looking up at the ceiling as well. Orange, rapidly shifting light from the TV spilled over the bed. “You stayed, and you changed things.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

 “If I come back, it won’t be to chase a regular life. It’ll be to make people see the truth.”

She paused. “That Mathas is back.”

“All of it. Everything I know that everyone else refuses to see. Everything that makes the village so unique, but which nobody cares to recognize.” He picked up the phone. Aria was smiling broadly.

“I can help you with that.”

“You can?”

“Pay a visit to my office. The secretary is expecting you anyway. It’s not exactly what I had in mind for your employment, but I’d be glad to see somebody try to do it. Tortus Bay could use a little bit of education.” 

***

It’s Kara again. Wasn’t planning on calling you back so soon, but I wanted to let you know that the exhibit went really well. Everybody loved it. I was rude to Niles. He seemed to get the picture. Surprised he even showed up, honestly. Maybe he was trying to run into you?

How am I always getting mixed up in the lives of the most dramatic boys? And stupid. Listen, I know we haven’t known one another for that long and I don’t know that much about you, but you’ve told me a thing or two. Maybe more than you realize you have. You might not want to hear it, but those people who haven’t contacted you since you left aren’t worth the time.

Your future isn’t in the past. It’s here. So come home, alright? Get back to it.

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.”