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.

2.07: Uninvited Guests

Henry leaned against the light-post on the corner of 2nd and Fuller, doing his best to keep a low profile, phone pressed to his ear. “Do I even need to say that it was a weird conversation?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve had a single normal conversation since I got here.”

Kara laughed. “You want to talk about taxes?”

“I have no doubt that even if the mayor and I had been talking about taxes, he would have made it sound sinister.”

“By now you’ve met enough of the Brihtes and the Gauthes to know that they’re strange people. Something about generational wealth scrambles the brain.”

He repositioned himself slightly, double checking that he was still alone on the street. “He didn’t turn me in.”

“So you’re in the clear. What’s got you so paranoid?”

In the distance, he watched the door of his house swing open. Sheriff Leia Thao stepped out, rolled out her shoulders, and leaned up against her squad car. He flattened himself further against the post. “I can’t tell them where Emmaline’s body is. Not after what happened the last time somebody messed with it.”

“That ‘somebody’ being you?”

“Irrelevant information. I already let it slip that it was in the park. Do you think they’ll do some exploratory digging?”

“Not likely. Even if they knew exactly where to go, they’d have a hard time convincing people to let them tear the place up.”

Leia rustled through her pockets for a moment, produced a small bag of sunflower seeds, and popped a few into her mouth. She spat into the gutter. “Then I’ll just have to avoid them for a while,” Henry said.

“It’s a small village. You’re welcome to pop around the Anderson. Lots of hidey holes I can stick you in.”

He took a few slow, careful steps backward, then pivoted and hurried off in the opposite direction. “As much as I might like you to fold me into a wall, there’s something else I have to take care of.”

“Oh really?”

“We haven’t said a word to each other since we kissed.”

Kara made a noncommittal noise. “He’s a busy guy.”

“Everything is getting so complicated. It would be nice to have one thing going that was simple.”

“Romance is a rocky road if you’re after simplicity.”

***

Henry worked to master his frayed emotions, walking up to Niles’ house. He tried to move fast, but not so fast as to be suspicious. Every voice he heard, and every car turning a corner, made him whip his head around to investigate the source. How long could it possibly take the sheriff to track him down? In a village like Tortus Bay, it felt like it would be a matter of minutes until the rumor mill alone found him.

Then he would find himself in front of Leia once more; except this time, she might take him seriously. She might force him to point out exactly where he dug down to Emmaline’s grave. There was nothing he could say to stop her, if she wanted to check. No threat of magical repercussions would sway a woman who did not believe in the first place. And there Henry was, knocking on Niles’ door instead of dealing with any of that.

He felt ridiculous. There was no way around that. But of all the questions he had, this one would certainly be the easiest to answer. He knocked again, and Bruce’s deep booming finally replied. The dog audibly skidded down the hallway, then resumed barking.

That was all, for a while: the barking, which started slightly deeper than normal and gradually piqued into a whine. “Are you okay in there?”

The whining redoubled. Bruce pawed at the door. Henry tried the knob, and found it unlocked. He only experienced a moment of indecision, before pushing it open. The dog did not bound at him, lick him, or even raise a hackle at the near-stranger. Instead, he took one look, turned around, and raced into the kitchen—where the loud whining continued.

“Is anyone here?” Henry crept down the hall. “Not a burglar. Just a concerned neighbor. Part-time amateur mystery investigator. Viable romantic interest.”

Bruce’s odd behavior was explained the moment he stepped into the kitchen. A cutting board and a bread knife lay on the floor. An empty plastic container was wedged in the gap beneath the fridge, clearly torn open by canine teeth. On the counter sat a partially opened can of dog food, and a stainless steel dish. “You were about to get fed, weren’t you?”

Bruce boofed.

He picked up the mangled container, and immediately regretted it. The plastic was dripping with saliva. “Or did you take matters into your own… paws?”

Bruce boofed again, this time with a hint of guilt in his large brown eyes.

“You had no idea you were dealing with Tortus Bay’s pre-eminent PI, did you?” Henry found the can opener beneath the stove, and popped the lid on the food. The dog promptly spun in circles. “So what happened to Niles? No, nothing. I see you’re a shrewd negotiator.” He slopped the can’s contents into the dish, set it on the floor, and had to snatch his hand away from Bruce’s slobbering maw. “Very shrewd.”

He collected the knife and the cutting board, and set them in the sink. Niles’ kitchen was busy, but immaculately organized. Glass jars of rice, beans, and a dozen different varieties of pasta that he didn’t recognize lined the cabinets. A heavily laden spice rack hung on the wall beside the window. Colorful mixing bowls, strainers, pasta makers, and various utensils took up the rest of the space. It was warm, somehow. A lot of time was spent in this room.

Henry took a stroll around the rest of the house, accompanied by a zoomy and effusively happy Bruce, and found every room empty. He settled in on the couch. The dog leaped up beside him, and buried his snout in his lap. Stacks of books still towered on the coffee table, but they had been rearranged. No sign of The Alpha Alien Patrol at all. Time-consuming hobby, for a supposedly busy guy.

Would Leia think to look for him here? Did anyone beside Kara know that this might be somewhere he went? And why was he here anyway? Was that connection real, or had he imagined it? Was that connection real, or was he trying to force it? He allowed his eyes to drift shut.

The front door swinging open woke him, sometime later. A tight ball of anxiety pulsed in his stomach. Bruce bounded off his lap, racing to the entryway. There, he was met with two pairs of footsteps. “I’m sorry it took so long,” a woman’s voice said.

“You don’t have to apologize,” Niles said. “Except maybe to Brucey. Hey, bud! You hungry?”

“I already fed him.” Henry stepped into the hallway. He recognized the woman from his first visit to the Anderson. Jennifer, the one who’d been working with the rope. Dried tears lined her cheeks, and her eyes were puffy. “I came around and found the door open. Bruce guilted me into the rest of it.”

Niles snapped his gaping mouth closed. “He’s good at that. Thank you.”

Jennifer splayed her hands and awkwardly stepped back toward the door, murmuring something about “not wanting to disturb,” but Niles caught her in the small of the back and pushed her forward. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said. “I think you two might have a lot to talk about.” At that, he caught Henry’s eye—only for a second.

The three of them shuffled into the living room, where Henry took a seat on the armchair and was instantly leaped upon by Bruce. “You feed a dog one time…”

“And you have a friend for life.” Niles and the woman sunk into the couch. “But apparently feeding one every day of your life gets you nothing.”

“Only the most recent meal counts.” He scratched behind Bruce’s ears. “Jealous?”

“It’s a display. Don’t get a big head.”

Again, Jennifer raised her hands. “You’re sure I’m not intruding?”

“No, no, of course not.” Niles shook himself. “Can you tell him what you told me?”

She squinted over at Henry. “Kara says you’re not who everyone thinks you are.”

“I’m not a reporter,” he said, “and I’m not any sort of cop.”

“But you seem to be involved in just about everything.”

“You have a very engaging community.”

She smiled, for a moment, but then it wavered. “You’re not going to believe me. I don’t know, I don’t think anyone will believe me. I saw Mathas Bernard.”

“I believe you. I’ve seen him too.”

Astonishment lit her face. “When? How did he look?”

“On the last festival day. He looked exactly like he did in his pictures. Except older.” So he hadn’t imagined it. It was real. “Where did you see him?”

“Out behind the hotel.” She shivered as she spoke. “Lurking around the dumpsters. There was something wrong about his face, but you’re right: he looks the same. His suit was dirty. I didn’t get a good look. I panicked, and ran for the nearest friendly face.”

Niles nodded. “We went back to check it out, but there was nothing there.”

“Was he going through the garbage?” Henry’s head spun. “If he’s faking it, he’s not doing a good job of keeping a low profile.”

Jennifer leaned back into the couch. “I don’t know what he was doing. And I don’t know what a person like him would have to gain from faking his own death.”

“No shady mafia ties?”

She rubbed her eyes. “The Tortus Bay mafia isn’t scary enough for all that.”

“Has anyone else seen him?”

“Aria mentioned that there’s been some screaming lately, coming from Beth Brihte’s place. The police have gone to check it out a few times, but they never seem to come back with anything.”

“Maybe she’s had enough of her husband’s antics.”

“Or maybe he’s rooting around her trash cans as well.”

Niles cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said, “I think it’s been a long enough night for us all. Jennifer, please stay on the couch. Henry, do you need to crash?”

“No.” He stood, disrupting the slumbering Bruce, who sloped away with a baleful groan. “I’ll be fine on my own.” On his way out of the room he glanced back, and once more locked eyes with Niles. Large, and brown. Beautiful. Words formed noiselessly on his lips: we’ll talk.

2.06: Exhumation

Henry fidgeted with his ratty hood and tried to ignore the sensation of rainwater dripping down his back. Grey clouds crowded the sky. He took the long way around the village into the woods, retracing the path by memory from the TBWHAS expedition. The canopy provided moderate relief from the drizzle. He let his hood fall back down. All around him, there was the rhythmic patter of raindrops striking leaves—and no other noise at all. The scent of damp earth, and growing things. It was nice. With any luck, it would hide his presence.

News of Emmaline Cass’ exhumation would be a matter of public knowledge in Tortus Bay in a matter of hours. Hearing the news would require nothing more than taking a stool at Jamal’s bar and uttering a single word of interest. But could he really trust any report coming out of sheriff Leia Thao? More importantly, when would he have a more convenient excuse to see the Cass headstone again? He knew he was on the right track when he caught sight of the white marble spire peering out above the tops of the trees.

It had infiltrated his usual dreams. No longer did he see the classroom, or his childhood bedroom, or his new home, that in the corner there didn’t loom the monument.

Henry drew up as close as he dared to the old graveyard, sequestering himself away behind a broad tree trunk, and looked onto a great commotion. Leia Thao and her two deputies—was that really the entirely of the Tortus Bay police department?—loudly directed over a group of people jogging around and hauling equipment. The process had already begun. They blocked most of the view from where he stood, but it sounded like they were encountering issues with the rain.

Besides the deputies, he didn’t recognize a single person in the area. They wore slick, professional raincoats and cheap plastic visors. He let his attention slide over to the headstone, awash and streaming in the downpour. There was the protection symbol, in the center of a great deal of other iconography that he did not recognize. Notably not protecting anything. If Kara died, would the charm hanging around his neck become a useless trinket?

If he died, would she be able to feel it?

A snapping twig brought Henry back to his surroundings. His stomach dropped. Somebody had come up from behind him. “Hello.” It was a man’s voice, cool and composed. “Henry Cauville, if I’m not mistaken.”

He turned. A few paces away there stood a tall man wearing a navy blue sweater, and carrying a checkerboard umbrella. Both his eyes and his mouth were smiling, in what appeared to be an entirely genuine way. “I am,” Henry said.

“Noel Gauthe,” the man said, reaching his free hand out for a brisk handshake. “I was hoping I might run into you here.”

“Noel Gauthe—the mayor?”

His smile widened. “So you’ve heard of me. Indeed I am. Not exactly the environment I anticipated for this message, but please accept my belated welcome to Tortus Bay regardless. I understand you recently secured more permanent housing than the back room of the Tortoise Shell Inn?”

“I did.”

“Oh, don’t think I’m keeping tabs on you. I’m just a naturally curious individual, and keeping in the loop with the latest gossip is part of the job. Nearly all of the job, in fact.”

“Is that how you knew I’d be here?”

Noel’s lips flattened, but the smile remained in his crinkled eyes. “I overheard somewhere that you had something to do with precipitating this event. You know, they had to come to me for permission. At least, Leia said she did. Between you and I, it seemed as though she was hoping I would refuse. But if the people need to know, then I wouldn’t imagine impeding the process. And yes, as I mentioned, I also hoped to run into you.”

“So you… combed the forest?” Henry asked, trying to make it sound like a joke.

The mayor didn’t miss the cue. His laughter briefly overpowered the sound of the falling rain, and Henry was sure the exhumation crew would hear. None of them looked up from their work. “Pure coincidence,” Noel said, both smiles firmly back in place. “I became rather bored standing around watching people work, and there happens to be a pond down this way. Beautiful area, great for a walk. I had hoped to see some toads, but I suppose it’s getting late in the season for that.” He sighed, in a somewhat wistful manner, and then was silent for a moment before gesturing to the headstone which towered before them. “Quite the eyesore, isn’t it?”

“You think so?”

He spoke slowly, now. “I feel somewhat responsible for the thing, if truth be told. Bearing down the family legacy and all. You might not know this, being new to the area, but there is something of a local occult interest which has taken root around the memory of Emmaline Cass.”

“I’ve heard.”

“You have? Well, of course the stories are good fun. And there’s no harm in a bit of shared folklore, of course. But there are a few characters who take the whole thing a little too seriously.”

Henry knew he was supposed to say something then, by the pregnant pause. “Who’s that?”

“My job is to absorb gossip, not help spread it. That would hardly be fair. But I will say that some of the stories are ludicrous. You’ll know them, if you hear them. Emmaline certainly was a hero for all of us who live here now—as were all of the first families who settled Tortus Bay. It’s a shame that we have no primary sources from that era. So few of the settlers were literate, you know. Every one of the tall tales we have about her was made up decades later, by people trying to instill a little civic pride. Same goes for the monument here. Well, there are worse motivations in this world, wouldn’t you say?”

“I suppose so.”

Noel eyed him for a moment, then chuckled. “I think we get along just fine, Henry. I apologize if I talked your ear off about inconsequential fantasy. Now, I believe I will be missed soon, so please excuse me. It was a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Henry said nothing to that, because by the time he registered that the mayor had finished speaking and opened his mouth to respond, the man had already stalked off into the trees. He made very little noise as he went, only the soft squelching of his leather boots in the damp earth.

Sure enough, not long after he disappeared, Leia’s head popped up out of the open grave. “Mr. Mayor?” she called. “Where did he go?”

Noel Gauthe strolled casually out of the woods, no more than thirty feet from where Henry stood frozen to the spot. “Am I needed?” he asked.

The sheriff waved him over. “Come look at this.”

He joined her, looking down at the Emmaline Cass’ exposed casket. “Empty.”

“Fucking empty.”

“Now do you believe me? Half these plots are likely the same. Just place-markers to venerate the past.”

Leia scowled. “I need to talk to that goddamn kid again.”

Henry, from his concealed position in the woods, saw the mayor’s brows knit together. “I think you should, though I doubt it will be productive.” Did his eyes flick over to the treeline? “Like us, I am sure that he knows a great many places where Emmaline’s body is not.

2.05: Checkup

Henry half stood to chase the Bramble daughters through the kitchen, to explain and apologize, but thought better of it and instead settled back into his chair. The dancing animals on the carpet below looked up at him with judgement in their unblinking eyes. He pored over the interaction, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. Was he really that frightening? 

In their wild flight the girls had knocked the door ajar, and it did not completely shut behind them. Teresa’s voice floated into the hallway. “… about that. You know how kids can be.”

“Suppose I don’t.” This was Clint’s rough voice. He sounded the same as he did in the bar, turned down a few notches. “Never got around to that part of life.”

The sound of ripping cloth. “It’s a lot of extra stress, anyway.”

“They keep telling me I need less of that.”

“You do. Since when are you listening?”

Clint laughed, producing a noise like a piece of plywood being torn in half. “Can you fix me up?”

“I can do what I always do. It’ll ease the pain. But the only fix is for you to stop doing this to yourself.”

Two solid thumps of heavy boots hitting the floor.  “That ain’t the fix. When the world’s broken, it can’t be on me to be the solution.”

“If you think the world is your problem, you may need to adjust your perspective. Take this, either way.”

“Thank you.”

“Would you like to go out the back?”

There was silence for a while, punctuated only by the soft echo of footsteps and the creaking of a door somewhere deep in the house. Then Teresa’s face unexpectedly appeared, leaning into the hallway. “I know you weren’t harassing my daughters out here.”

Henry jumped out of his chair. “I wasn’t.”

“I know,” she repeated, “because if you had, you would have been the one running. Come in, Mr. Cauville.”

The Bramble’s kitchen looked substantially the same as it had before. If there was any difference, then it was in the variety and volume of herbs and vegetables scattered about the expansive room. Hanging in the background, there was also the scent of something unpleasant. Faint, but undeniable once noticed. Vomit. “They’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Especially my little one,” Teresa said. She was dressed in a simple white pantsuit that day, in place of her colorful shawl. Her eyes were drawn, but she spoke with energy. “We’ve been busy lately, and you know school doesn’t get any easier.”  

“I remember what that was like,” he said, trying to inconspicuously cover his nose. “Thanks for making time to see me.” 

“That’s what I do. Hop on up. How’s that shoulder looking?”

Henry sat himself on the table, and pulled his shirt over his head. “It’s about the same.”

“No improvement at all?” She clucked at that, removed the bandaging from the wound, and spent several silent minutes examining the area in question. She poked, prodded, and circled him like a bird of prey. “It’s worse,” she announced, stepping back and rubbing her hands together.

“Worse?”

“It is clearly agitated. Producing copious amounts of pus and blood. Have you stressed the area recently?”

He didn’t have to think very hard about that. “Yes.”

Teresa fetched a leather-bound notebook out of a drawer, and began flipping through its thin pages. “Would you listen to me, if I told you to keep weight off the arm?”

“Would you write me a doctor’s note for work?”

“I’m not a doctor.”

“And I still need to pay rent.” She continued to peruse the book, her eyes scanning rapidly down the pages. “Would it help anything if I told you that I know?” he continued. He still felt awkward bringing it up, certain that someone would eventually have no idea what he meant and demand a thorough explanation. Was he supposed to throw around the word ‘magic’ like it was normal? “The Festival, I mean.”

Teresa only nodded. “I might have figured, with that chain around your neck. One of Kara’s?”

“It is.” He absently fingered the charm. “Do other people make them?”

“Not for many years. Not like that.” She spoke out of the corner of her mouth, fully engrossed in finding whatever she was looking for. “I have wards around the house, of course. Several people do. And the tattoos.”

“Does it work better, as a tattoo?”

She shrugged. “Harder to misplace. And they don’t leave the burns.”

Henry’s finger fell into a shallow groove centered above his breastbone, where he knew the skin was still red raw. “There’s one on Emmaline Cass’ headstone.”

“It used to be customary, to leave marks of protection around a grave. Whoever carved that one is long gone. No power left.”

“Kara mentioned that you helped her with the symbols.”

Teresa turned the final pages of the notebook, tossed it down on the counter, and started the process anew with a second, identical notebook. The handwriting inside was spiraling and dense. “The magic of Tortus Bay is old, and stubborn. It has found its favorite shapes, and its favorite numbers.” She spoke in a rote fashion, as though reciting dates from a dry text. “Every thirty days it comes. Every seven, it rests. Circles channel. Divets—or straight lines—direct. There is an incredible amount of theory, as the state of this house might suggest. Magic came easily enough for Kara; she just needed help focusing it.”

“How did you know that it was going to come easy for her?”

At that, she peered at him over the top of her book. “Travelers who find their way to Tortus Bay often discover that they were called for a reason. That is not to say that your destiny will be to wave your hands and produce balls of fire, mind you.”

“Can I come visit again, on the Festival? I want to see what you do.”

Somewhere in the middle of the second book, Teresa seemed to find whatever she was hunting. She exclaimed, brought her palm up to her head, and promptly bustled over to the pantry. “I’m afraid I don’t do much fire throwing myself, but you’re welcome to join. The Bramble house has always been a safe haven during trying times. Oh, and the times sure are getting trying again.”

“You don’t use magic?” There it was. He used the word.

Teresa went after her pantry with a passion, pulling out leeks, berries, bundles of dried Aldounis, and jars of unidentifiable objects floating in viscous liquids. “It’s a subtle thing, deary. There are old stories about people who could stitch wounds together with a touch of their hand, but my expertise is more focused on earthly matters. Everybody needs looking after, regardless of what day of the month it is.”

Henry watched her set about grinding her ingredients into a thick green paste, tasting as she went and adding pinches of various herbs. “Is this another ointment?”

“A different ointment. There are some other old stories,” she nodded her head toward the open book on the far counter, “about people with persistent wounds.”

“And this worked for them?”

She captured the paste in a delicate glass phial, and pressed it into his hand. “No. But it did halt the expansion.”

The expansion. What a purposefully vague and non-medical word to describe what was happening to him. “What’s wrong with me?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but I promise you that we will figure it out.” He wrapped his fingers around the medicine, and slipped it into his pocket. “It’s a dangerous world out there. We have to look out for one another.”

“I don’t think my shoulder is really all that dangerous.”

Teresa shook her head. “Not the shoulder. It’s everything else. There was a storm in the park. I haven’t heard of reality warping itself that strongly in years. Then there are the rumors about Emmaline Cass—don’t ask me about it, I don’t know. And stories, from several of my patients, about horrific screaming coming from Mathas Bernard’s late estate. Well, I suppose none of that has anything to do with you, does it?” 

 

2.04: Covert Messages

Howard, the unfortunately proportioned manager-owner of Horizon Foods, leaned against the register with a frown on his pale lips. The store had been open for almost an hour, but the doors remained locked. “You missed two full shifts.” 

Henry tried his best to remain calm. They were going around in circles. “I had no idea I was scheduled.”

“You’re my only employee right now,” he said, for the tenth time in a row. “Do you know what happens when you decide not to show up? I have to cover for you. Don’t you think I have more important things to be doing?”

“I think about five people come through this store on a busy day.”

“Shipping. Receiving.” He stuck up a finger with each over-enunciated word. “Inventory. Payments. Advertising.”

Many aspects of life were different in Tortus Bay. Some were down to the slower pace of a small town, and others were downright fantastic. The one unifying constant between the old and new worlds seemed to be a reddening man listing off vague business terms as a threat. Henry couldn’t imagine why that would be the case, but there was the proof throwing spittle in his face. “Howie, do you believe in magic?”

“What?” His face contorted in fury. “You think I’m being funny? Do you know what you are? You’re a criminal. That’s right, I know where you were: in the clink! That’s what I get for trusting a reference from Clair. That’s what I get for offering people second chances. What do you think about that?”

“I think you should either fire me, or let me get to my job.”

“Then start working!”

After a confrontation like that, there was a soothing simplicity to be found in the inventory. Henry knew from long ago that the trick to endurance was in maintaining a healthy mental distance from the world. To that end he focused his thoughts that morning on the beautiful engravings on Emmaline Cass’ headstone, and the comforting warmth of Niles’ lips. He held that beauty and that warmth up as a shield, and with it could have bore a century of pointless abuse. 

In the storeroom he busied himself with the rote repetition of grouping like with like—creating mountains of vegetables and imposing bunkers of colorful cardboard boxes. It looked as though nobody had touched a thing in his absence. That, at least, was how he wanted it; there was no reason to waste extra time sorting out whatever chaos Howie would have created. 

He saved the most cumbersome group of the lot, the canned goods, for the end. It was there, halfway through unboxing a crate of baked beans, that he noticed a torn label. Underneath the tear, the label bulged as though someone had stuck something inside. A folded slip of paper. There was a single line of clean print inside: ‘Help. I’m trapped in the beans! Can anyone hear me?’

Howard’s footsteps startled him. The man was making quite a show of walking around the place in a huff, talking loudly on his phone about all of the vital store functions which were now hopelessly delayed and which he personally had to set right. His voice and his heavy footfalls echoed around the empty space. He had forgotten to unlock the front doors. 

Henry set the can aside, and went about the rest of his shift, thinking idly of how nice it would be to have a different job. Even the orchards, or the fishery, didn’t strike him as that bad of a prospect in that moment—if only he could keep up. As it was, his shoulder hurt too badly for him to do the job he already had. He stocked the shelves with his good arm, one item at a time. Box after box after box after box.  

He imagined a life in which he could craft necklaces for a living. He imagined a life in which he could mix poultices in peace in his kitchen. He imagined any life, in a healthy body. The shield over his heart melted into a dagger pressed into the flesh. At the end of his shift, he returned to the storeroom and scribbled a short reply on the opposite side of the hidden paper: ‘Only I, lowly grocery servant. Can you swim?’

***

“I don’t know, he probably never changed the locks.” Henry walked down the street at a brisk pace, his phone pressed to his ear. “And I doubt Clair turned in her keys.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kara said.

“Who else could it have been?”

“You’re right. At least now we know she’s nearby. And that she has access to food.”

The roads of Tortus Bay were rapidly emptying, as evening veered off toward night. Those occasional stragglers waved as they passed, but thankfully didn’t stop to talk. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Implicate your friends, I guess.”

He ignored that. “I don’t want to turn her in.”

“Presumably you also don’t want to be linked with a woman who’s been accused of murder.”

“Preferably.”

Kara was silent for a moment. “I know some things have changed. You told me how she acted in the woods. Do you think she had anything to do with Mathas Bernard?”

“I think there’s still a lot that she hasn’t told me.”

“But murder?”

“No.”

“Then if you want my two cents, I say you sit on it. At least until you know more.”

Henry turned onto Spruce, and into the oncoming wind, bracing himself against the chill. The weather was turning. Summer was almost over. “Wouldn’t that make me an accomplice?”

“I don’t think anonymous conversations with beans can be tried in Tortus Bay. We got rid of that ordinance a long while ago. Now, can we move on to what you really called to talk about?”

He smiled. “I don’t know. We kissed in the forest.”

“Romantic!”

“Right outside of the graveyard.”

“Still romantic.”

“He seemed nervous. Or surprised, maybe?”

Kara cackled. “That’s Niles for ya. I swear, I was starting to think that boy was a potted plant for how little…”

Their conversation trailed off as Henry approached number 41. He picked through the overgrown garden of the Bramble’s front yard, gave brief pause at the prominent window sign (which brightly told him to ‘Fuck Off’) and knocked on the door. When it swung open, he found himself looking down at the older of Teresa’s two daughters. She regarded him with cool eyes under long locks of dark hair. He worked for the name. “Sofia.”

“Mr. Cauville.” She inclined her head. “Like my sign?”

“Yeah. Does it work?”

Sofia smirked. “Not as well as you’d think. Come on in. My mom is with someone right now, but you can wait.” The girl led him inside, through a long hallway laden with eclectic art and dusty bookshelves, sitting him in a straight-backed chair outside of a door which he knew opened onto the kitchen. She sat across from him, joining her younger sister on the floor. “Say hello, Lola.”

Lola was curled against the wall, worrying a stuffed bear in her hands. Her corkscrew curls hung in an obscuring mess over her face. She gave no indication that she heard anything.

“It’s been a long day,” Sofia said softly.

“I understand.” He twisted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. “The last time I was here, you were reading a book. Do you remember that?”

She flashed him a guarded look. “I read a lot of books.”

“You told me it was an old diary, and that you liked to draw,” he continued, and she stared at him with tight lips. “I only bring it up because I thought I saw a strange plant on one of the pages. Jagged on one side, smooth on the other, with six or seven fingers?”

“Oh.” Sofia relaxed a little. “Aldounis. And they’re called ‘leaflets.’ I guess it doesn’t grow much outside of the village, you might have never seen it before. Mom has us collect it for its ‘natural soothing agent.’” Her impression of Teresa was spot on.

“Soothing? Is that all it does?”

Lola mumbled to her bear, under her breath: “it regrows the skin.”

“Our bodies mend themselves over time.” The smile on the elder sister’s face became forced. “Something like Aldounis makes the process a little more pleasant.”

Henry held his hands up. “You don’t have to hide anything from me. I know the village’s little secret now. I know what the Festival is.”

“I believe you,” Sofia said, in a tone of voice that also told him she didn’t care, “but I’m not trying to hide anything. It’s a mildly medicinal plant. There are probably hundreds of sketches and pictures of it around here.”

“Okay.” He relented, and an awkward silence settled over the hallway. From the kitchen, muted sounds of shuffling cloth and the indistinguishable cadence of a quiet conversation. The sisters settled in and stared off in opposite directions, boredom glazing their eyes. Plainly they were accustomed to this process. He wondered why they weren’t sitting in on their mother’s appointment, as they had during his original visit. “That’s a very nice bear,” he said.

It happened very fast. Lola repositioned herself, not meeting his eye, and for a second he mistook the motion for her offering out the toy. He likewise turned in his seat, leaned forward, and reached out. Her eyes, wide and terrified, jumped up to meet him—and then she sprung up, and sprinted away through the kitchen door.

“Shit.” Sofia shot him a bewildered look of disgust, leapt up right after her, and likewise disappeared. The stuffed bear lay forgotten on the garish carpet, arms splayed open.

2.03: Leaves and Lips

Despite everything he now knew, Henry felt no more informed than he did the first time he stepped foot in Tortus Bay. Every answer led to another ten questions, and nobody would speak to him with authority. All he got were rumors, stories, conjecture, and ritual. He would have been mad, but he’d seen the magic work regardless.

He considered that for a moment, and decided that he was still mad. Ugly purple bruises lined his fingers, his shoulder wound looked no better despite days of soothing ointment, and streaks of pain still occasionally seared across his body along the shadows of the welts the wolves left. The pain was a constant dull throbbing. He grumbled it about it all the way across the village that afternoon, and into the heavy canopy of the surrounding trees.

There, he quickly found the huddled mass of the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Appreciation Society. They were a conspicuous lot, with their festive shirts, cameras, and binoculars. Like a flock of stranded tourists. Already a few of them were looking around nervously, even though they were hardly ten paces into the woods.

Niles peeled himself away from the group and waved at him as he approached. “You’re here!” 

Henry reminded himself of all the sleuthy and incredibly legitimate reasons he had to be joining the hiking society on their trek that day, despite the ache in his shoulder and hands, but he was saved from having to speak by the abrupt appearance of Lucy Brihte. She was the same whispery, aloof presence as he remembered, speaking more to the horizon of trees than to any of her congregated club-mates. “Is that everyone now?” she asked. “Are we free to move forward?” 

“Yes.” Niles looked down at his feet.

“Today, our only goal is to explore. The paths through these storied woods have been eroded by time and disuse, and they need our attention. As we walk, try to listen to the earth. The animals. Keep yourself open to it. Take your pictures. Document your birds. Together we will rediscover the heartstrings that our forebears birthed here.”

Lucy was more herself in the company of trees. No more cogent, perhaps, but passion and confidence came through in her voice regardless. She led the group forward into the light undergrowth, following the faded grooves of an old wagon path, and Henry filed in at the back of the ranks.

Inevitably, Niles dropped back to walk beside him. He was dressed for the occasion, in a pair of lime green shorts and a v-neck that showed a glimpse of smooth skin with a prominent clavicle. “I’m glad you decided to come on the hike.”

Henry kept his head pointed forward. The TBHWAS made slow progress along their chosen path, due to the tendency for half of them to stop and take pictures of moss, and for the other half to then admonish the photographers for scaring away the birds. “I didn’t follow along with Lucy,” he said. “What are we supposed to be doing out here?”

“Supposedly there are tons of hiking paths around here. There used to be other villages in the vicinity, you know, and folk would walk back and forth between them. But a lot of those paths are gone, all of their signage lost. If there was ever any signage to begin with. So we’re trying to determine where our resources are best spent, in terms of resuscitating some of that.”

“Oh. Why didn’t she just say so?”

“She has her own way of things.”

Lucy turned and halted the group as soon as they were out of eyesight of the edge of the woods. Tod, the corpulent man who spoke with Henry at the last meeting about birds, clutched his binoculars to his chest with white-knuckle intensity. “Remember to pay close attention to the heart of the wilderness,” she said. “We will follow the path which calls out to us most clearly.”
“I think Tod might have a heart attack,” Henry whispered. “Haven’t you guys done this before?”

Niles stifled a laugh. “Not really. The club used to be for talking about local environmental concerns, until Lucy took an interest in it. Now we’re trying to be more active.”

“But you’re all scared of wolves.”

“Is that unreasonable?” The group set off again, at a comfortable crawl. Niles and Henry kept pace behind them, walking in silence for a time.  “If you came here for the woods, I can leave you alone.”

Henry was surprised how easy it was to talk with him—and annoyed, because he was still supposed to be mad. “Kara mentioned something about an old graveyard around here.”

“That’s right. The only one we have. Is that what you want to see?”

He pulled up short. “Would that be possible?”

“Officially speaking, I’m the group cartographer.” Niles tapped a bulge in the pocket of his shorts. “It’s up to me to map out what we see, and help Lucy with the ultimate decision about which paths are worth our investment.”

“Is there an ‘unofficially speaking?’”

He shrugged. “I think we can get away with a little excursion.”

They slowed their pace even further, distancing themselves from the rest of the pack. “You know the way?”

“They didn’t make me the cartographer for nothing.”

In due time the colorful mob of the TBHWAS trailed out of eyesight, and Niles took them off in the other direction. They picked their way through sparse shrubbery, forgoing the path to make better time. Birdsongs and the skittering of squirrels filled the void of idle chatter and shuttering cameras. “Lucy’s really into the heart of the forest.”

“Always has been,” Niles said. “She used to come walking out here alone, before anyone else was brave enough to join her.”

“What changed?”

“She never got eaten.”

As they approached the old graveyard, Emmaline Cass’ ludicrous headstone rose out from the tops of the towering trees like a beacon. “Is she talking about magic?”

“It’s hard to tell. Some people just talk like that. And as someone who stays inside on Festival days, it can be hard to know.” Niles stopped, breathed, and looked Henry in the face for the first time that day. There was anxiety written all over it. “I’m sorry I never told you about the Festival. I’m sorry that I didn’t even try.”

They stood in a sliver of light amidst the shade of the trees. For a moment, all of the various sounds of the surrounding wildlife ceased. “That wasn’t the point.”

Niles took a step toward him, palms upturned. “Then what is it?”

“My god, it’s hard enough as it is. Did you have to erect the false pretense? Did you have to make me wonder if this thing only existed on my side? The first time I saw you, it was through the kitchen window of the Hell on a Shell Bar. I don’t know if you saw me that night, but I was taken with you. Then, off all things, you came to me. But it was to invite me to a hiking club. It was to help you with a piece of murder trivia that you didn’t need help with at all.”

He blushed like a strawberry, blooming from his chest out to his arms and up his neck. “I saw you, that first night.” His voice was quiet. “I shouldn’t have misled you.”

Henry closed the distance between them, and there was a moment of heat. An instant of anticipation so strong that it twisted his stomach. Then their lips briefly brushed, and parted. A second to breathe. And back together again. Something strong uncurled in his core, telling him to push Niles back against one of the trees. They both wanted it. At the same time, something in his chest told him to stop. He broke the kiss, and stepped away.

Niles steadily progressed beyond strawberry, going the color of a dark cherry from the tips of his fingers to the lobes of his ears. He looked down at the ground, and smiled broadly. “I didn’t want to presume.”

“A little bit wouldn’t have hurt anybody.”

***

The old cemetery turned out to be a relatively small plot of land which had been almost completely overgrown with vines and moss. An ornamental fence ran around the circumference, but it was decrepit with age and would have kept nobody out by itself. The police tape sectioning off the area looked far more imposing. “They’re exhuming Emmaline’s grave,” Henry explained. He and Niles kept to the treeline, despite the fact that the graveyard was currently empty.

“That makes it a crime scene?”

“Maybe. If someone really dug her up.” Approximately a dozen plots comprised the space, their ornamentation ranging in pomp from a simple white cross to the towering plinth of the most famous Cass herself. Up close, it resembled the trunk of a tree—round and gnarled, but constructed of immaculate white marble. Delicate inscriptions ran up the length of the headstone, some meant to be the waves of the wood, and some meant to be words, but it was not always easy to tell the two apart. “It’s beautiful.”

“Pride of the village. Carved by a local, or so the legend goes.”

The inscription of her name was clear enough, but the dates of her birth and death were partially worn away. Beneath that, a quote was rendered illegible by curlicues and decorative twirls. Henry stepped out of the trees, and over the police tape. Something different had caught his eye. “What is that?”

Niles hung back, behind the line. “Where?”

“I’ve seen that before.” Ten feet off the ground on the southern face of the headstone, all of the swirling converged on the image of a many-fingered leaf with one smooth side, and one jagged. “It was in Mathas Bernard’s journal, and a book that one of the Bramble daughters was reading.”

“Aldounis,” Niles said, matter-of-factly.

“What?”

“The leaf. It’s called Aldounis.”

“Okay, do not pretend that that’s common knowledge.”

He rolled his eyes. “It grows in the forest here. I guess I only know that because I come out here sometimes. Not surprising that you saw it at the Brambles, though; everyone knows they use it in their concoctions. Sort of like aloe, I guess.”

Then it was for healing. “Can we pick a sample?”

“We can do whatever you want.” 

Henry returned his attention to the inscriptions, circling the headstone with his neck craned back. Dozens of other images were scattered across the base of the marble, and even more above. Among them he recognized the simple geometric slashes of Kara’s protection charm, and several artful depictions of trees and crashing waves. It was a masterpiece. In the sun it glowed, pools of light catching in the fine grooves. He could have stared at it for hours. 

After a time Niles gingerly stepped over the police tape to join him, resting his warm hands on his shoulders. He forgot about his pain.