1.09: Confession, part 2

Henry grabbed a tall yellow can from the bottom shelf of the mini fridge while Kara scrounged up a pair of dusty pads for them to sit on, and they cheersed. It was a disorderly mess in that attic, but nonetheless cozy—and somehow comforting. The beer tasted almost identical to what they served on tap at the Hell on a Shell Bar. 

“I almost forgot the best part.” She swiped a grey tarp off the wall, revealing a small cylindrical window. “The view’s nothing to complain about.”

It wasn’t. From where he sat, Henry could see straight out across the tops of the houses that led to the park, the lighthouse, and the dark glittering ocean beyond. More stars shone in the light above that water than he could remember seeing in his entire lifetime, and he silently resolved to spend more of his time looking skyward in the future. “Is this what you did,” he asked, still staring out of the window, “when you first got here? Odd jobs, like fixing up this house, until you found something bigger?”

“That’s exactly it. And let me tell you, I slept wherever I could. Took advantage of Jamal big time, not that he makes it difficult. There aren’t many apartments around here. Most everyone owns their own home, and most of those homes have belonged to a single family for generations.”

“I’ll take it,” he said, deciding right then and there.

They clicked their cans together again. “I thought you might. I can probably have it ready for you in a week. Depending on how toxic that insulation turns out to be.”

Henry smiled. That was, he thought, the first time he’d heard her make a joke. “I hope it really does come cheap, because I don’t know about finding a job. Everyone seems to think I already have one. Or two.”

“I don’t know if I can promise anything, but I’ll put a good word in for you at inHale. That’s our own local tech startup. Some of us are very proud of it.”

“Some of us,” he echoed.

“The ones who understand it. But as both a scientist and a journalist, I imagine you’re qualified.”

He took a deep drink, and continued gazing at the sea. It was nice, the feeling that he had someone in his corner already. When he first contemplated moving across the country to a small village that he’d never heard of before, it was the prospect of leaving his friends that rankled the most. He’d imagined tight cliques, alienating in-jokes, and months of slowly building trust. None of that turned out to be true. Jamal was willing to house him on credit, Clair cared immediately what he thought of her, and now Kara was sticking her neck out to help him find an apartment and a job. 

So, he told her everything: Jamal’s comedic misunderstanding; Clair’s cache in the park; Mathas Bernard’s strangle journal; sheriff Leia Thao’s request; and his run-in with Beth Brihte at the cafe—he babbled and babbled until he thought there was nothing left inside, and found himself completely off guard for the question she then asked. “What about your shoulder?”

“What do you mean?”

She sighed. “I just spent all day watching you lug stuff around a warehouse. You think I wouldn’t notice you keeping anything that weighed more than about five pounds off your left arm? So what happened? Did Clair get a little too rowdy for you?” The question started with a smile, but it faded when he turned to look at her. “You don’t have to tell me,” she continued, a little more chaste, “but you should at least show someone.”

That seemed fair. Henry set his beer on the ground, pulled his shirt off, and then carefully peeled the bandages off his shoulder. No matter how much gauze he used, it always hurt.

Kara sucked in air. “You were shot.”

“I was.”

“When?”

“Before I moved here,” he said. He hadn’t decided to tell her. He’d decided, in fact, not to tell anybody, but the words came out regardless. “It was my lunch break, and I really needed to stretch my legs. Work had been hell, but I can’t remember why. Normally I would pop out for ten minutes or so, but I went further that day.

“The weather was beautiful, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit back down at my desk. They wouldn’t notice my absence anyway. I made it all the way down to Frida Middle School, about twenty minutes from my work. The front doors were open, and I remember thinking that the kids must have been out for recess. When I walked past them, I heard the sounds. Firecrackers, I was sure, or balloons popping. My feet moved faster than my brain.

“I still have no idea why I did it. I didn’t accomplish anything. I didn’t help anyone. I remember the hallway, then the classroom, and the… the kids on the floor. I remember seeing that fucker’s face, only for a second. Then I was in an ambulance, trying to focus on an EMT.”

Kara was hugging him. Henry was crying. Hot, effortless tears that came more for the words in the present than the memories of the past. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You were brave. You did it because there was nothing else you could do.”

“It’s a lot.” Henry wiped at his eyes. He was shaking, and his body felt empty. “It happened a while ago, but I’m still not good at talking about it.”

“A while ago?” She pulled away from him, slightly. “This looks recent.”

“It never healed,” he said. “Doctor thought it was normal at first, said my body needed time. That time passed, and I was still wrapping the same wound every morning. Still bleeding.”

“And you never went back to the doctor?”

Henry upended the tall yellow can, finishing the bottom half of his beer in one enormous gulp. The air in that drafty attic had become cold in the deepening night. “Seeing what I saw that day disturbed my mind,” he said. “There’s no better way to put it. It separated me from my family, and my friends. It made me realize that the life I’d been living wasn’t worthwhile. It sounds like maybe you can relate to that.

“But it was this wound that made me leave. It was agonizing pain, for every minute of every day, and it’s only now been manageable since I showed up at the Tortoise Shell Inn. I would love to know why that is.”

1.08: Confession, part 1

Kara and Henry whittled away much of the evening on that disused bay in the Anderson warehouse, watching the dandelion yellow of the sky gradually fade into purples and pinks. The other three artists filed out one after another, yawning and bading them both a good night before vanishing back into Tortus Bay proper. None of them seemed interested in hanging around the place any longer. Henry supposed it was different, when you were there every day. For him the past few hours had been an interesting lark, but for them it would have been just another day. 

“Do you sell these?” he asked, fidgeting with the chain around his neck. He’d done what he was told with the protection charm, placing the leather against the bare skin of his chest.

“I do,” Kara said.

“Do you wear any yourself?”

She side-eyed him. “You trying to figure out how crazy I am?”

“Just a question.”

She pulled her left leg up from where it had been dangling out of the bay, laid her foot flat on the concrete, and pointed at a spot in the middle of her thigh. There, what Henry had previously mistaken for a paint splatter was a tattoo not dissimilar in style to the marking on his new necklace. Three rough lines, in a non-intersecting triangle. She lifted the lobe of her right ear to show him another, and pulled down the back of her shirt to reveal a third between her shoulder blades. From there, he could also see a fourth: this one the exact same rhomboid as on the necklace, centered on the nape of her neck beneath the hairline. “Vitality. Fortune. Empathy. And protection,” she said. “So ask your question.”

“Do you believe in at all?”

“I believe in miracles. Four years ago, I was homeless. Three years ago, I moved here. Two years ago, this warehouse lost its purpose, and this year I’ve found my own inside of it.”

“I had no idea. It’s amazing what you’ve managed to do with the place in a year. And I guess that means you’re also a recent transplant.”

The most recent,” Kara said, “before you. Suppose I should say thanks for that; now there’s a new baby in the family, and everyone can stop treating me like a charity. That must be why you were sent to me. Nobody else remembers what it’s like to try to get established.” She jumped off the bay, landing with a crunch on the broken concrete, and offered a hand. “Speaking of, I have a place you might want to see. I’ve been doing some remodeling work for a man named Benny for a few months, and I think I can convince him to open up a little space for an apartment.”

Henry took her hand and followed her leap out of the bay, landing with a slightly more muted crunch. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me until you’ve seen it,” she said, and they were walking back toward the heart of the village. He idly wondered if anyone in Tortus Bay owned a car, or if the perk of living within five minutes of anything a person might need made it irrelevant. The Gauthes and the Brihtes must have vehicles, he reasoned. That status symbol would be too much to give up.

“What did you think of Mathas Bernard?” he asked. It wasn’t an investigation, it was a simple curiosity.

“Getting involved in politics already?” she said. “I don’t know, I only met him a handful of times. Some of the Brihtes can be reclusive like that, not that he ever took the name. His wife never took his either. He was always awfully supportive, though. Considered himself a patron of the arts. Susan Petry was trying to swoop up the Anderson to convert the lot into a house, but Mathas outbid her and gifted the place over to us. He’s the only reason we have it.”

“I heard he was afraid of the dark.”

Kara chuckled. “You shouldn’t read too much into that. A lot of people around here get awfully suspicious about anything that moves around at night. That’s one of the weirdest things to get used to, when you’re new.”

“Speaking of weirdness: why is it that you chose to move here?”

He tried to focus on her face for the answer. The failing light and the motion of their walking made it difficult, but he thought he caught a frown. “I couldn’t stay where I was,” she said, “or keep living the way I had been. Hitching was my only way out, and I didn’t stop until I found somewhere that felt right. What do you say, when they ask?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“You should figure that out.” They emerged onto Second Avenue just as the streetlights lit the length of the street. Warmer lights, fighting through drawn curtains, joined them from all but a few of the surrounding houses. Kara led him to one of the darkened ones, a resplendent cherry-red manor with ochre window frames and a dramatically peaked roof, and fumbled around with a large keychain before swinging the front door open for him.

Inside, Henry found the skeleton of a house. It struck him as similar to the Anderson warehouse, minus the chaos and with the addition of the overwhelming scent of sawdust and cleaning detergent. The walls and floors were barren, but gleamed with fresh polish and paint. There were no doors in the frames, no appliances on the counters, and no furniture whatsoever—unless the odd step-ladder or bucket could be counted. “Benny’s harboring some sort of grand design of having the place ready for his daughter when she decides to move back home,” Kara said. “I’m not exactly a qualified contractor, but I am very cheap. There’s always a flurry of activity whenever she calls home, but we’re in-between those right now. Come on, let me show you upstairs.”

She brought Henry up, past the similarly stripped-down second floor, into a small attic space with was clearly the cause of the pointed roof. There, the situation was entirely different. Boxes lay strewn about the floor. The ceiling was only half finished, exposing insulation and wood beams. And over all of it, there was caked a layer of dust an inch thick. “Obviously it needs more work before you could move in,” she said, “but I think Benny would let it go cheap to make something off this place before his daughter comes back. Which, if you’re interested, she won’t be. Last I heard, she was having a grand time off at college.”

Henry surveyed the space, unsure of what to say. It was larger than some of the places he’d lived before, but that was something he was trying to get away from. Then there was the matter of the mess.

“Don’t say anything yet,” she said, saving him from his thoughts. “There’s an additional bonus.” She tip-toed through a narrow passage in the junk, grazing her fingertips on boxes to keep her balance along the way, and pulled a small milk crate off of what turned out to be a mini fridge. A cord led from the back into a hole in the ground, and when she opened the door there came a light and a reassuring hum from within. “Put a secret stash up here for long nights. Go ahead, help yourself.”

1.07: Arts and Crafts

Henry found his second venture through the directionless crowd of people milling around the intersection of Main and First—which Patty had fondly referred to as the AM Bazaar—to be substantially easier. Perhaps the sheen of novelty had rubbed off him already, for the familiar faces amongst the mass let him by with only a nod or a wave. It was the new faces, who still required of him a shaken hand and an exchange of niceties, which slowed him down so that he did not arrive on Hyacinth Street and Fifth Avenue until midday.

It wasn’t his fault that Beth Brihte, Clair, and seemingly everyone else in the village thought he was something that he very much wasn’t. There was nothing he could do about it; and there was especially very little he could do to help them, whatever sort of help they might need. That much he could swallow, but to try to convince himself that he wasn’t interested was another matter altogether. He could always go to the sheriff’s office and report what he’d heard, but what would that do? The sheriff herself clearly didn’t want him to be involved, and that was alright by him. But if people wanted to talk so badly that they didn’t care if they’d found the wrong ear, that didn’t make him a villain. 

With a long list of things he shouldn’t do swirling about his head, it was a desire for more mundane and tangible progress that drove him forward. Certainly he didn’t need to do anything more than shake hands and see the sights; he’d brought along with him a comfortable nest egg, and the seventy-five cent coffee he’d just enjoyed exemplified that the cost of living in the village would be even lower than previously imagined. He hadn’t lied in the cafe, when he said that his time in Tortus Bay had been great, but for him to stay he knew he had to chase down every opportunity for work that wasn’t as an extra hand plucking fruit or boning fish, and every lead on a place to live that wasn’t a hotel—regardless of how cheap that hotel might be.

He found the large grey warehouse on Hyacinth, conspicuous in the middle of an otherwise residential street, and stepped through an open side door to find color, movement, and a smell that he could only describe as ‘industrial accident.’

The floor space had been completely cleared of the belts and machinery that must have defined its previous life. In their place, streams of paint washed over the hard concrete in unconventional rainbows. Looms, tubs, basins, and drying racks were lined up in long columns. In the corner, a large kiln was halfway through its firing. Several easels stood ready on the west end of an observational balcony that ran around the interior of the building, while the east end had been given over to an enormous, half-finished wall mural of a young boy smoking a cigar. 

A balding man leaned precariously against the railing there, brush in hand, staring thoughtfully at the work. Another man, who had perhaps more hair than he knew what to do with, was hanging a strip of leather on one of the racks. There was a woman fussing about with something in the center of the room, and another sitting in a chair knotting a rope. All four of them were splattered in different varieties and volumes of paint.

Henry approached the woman with the rope, who did not look up from her work. “I’m looking for someone named Kara,” he said.

“Hey Kara,” the woman bellowed, “you have a visitor.”

“Great,” the other woman called back, “send them over.”

Henry tripped and tip-toed across the room to find Kara on the other side of a brass barrel, crouched in an uncomfortable stoop and pressing a metal stick into a rectangular strip of uncured leather laying on the floor. Her hair, straight and brown, was at that moment visibly greasy and trapped up into a messy bun. “Not the best way to do it,” she said, by way of greeting, “but it’ll get the job done.”

“Sorry,” he said, “I think I came at a bad time.”

“No, I mean to say that I would get up, but I can’t let off pressure. Can you run over to the kiln and tell me what color the light is?”

Some part of him wanted to deny her, but a much larger part reminded him that he was in Tortus Bay for something different than the usual routine, and besides he had little else to do that day. He darted over to the kiln, a red-brick monstrosity which emanated waves of nauseating heat, and reported: “green.”

Kara wasn’t satisfied by that. “Would you say it’s more of a dark cyan, or a light lime?”

“It’s like a… faded seaweed,” he said.

She nodded. “Can you stir the vat on your left? The one with the golden handle, please.”

So it went. Henry spent the rest of the afternoon jogging circles around the Anderson, performing various menial tasks for what he imagined must be about a dozen separate projects. He stirred, he strained, he flattened, he pressed, he prodded. At one point, he used a pair of tongs to entwine a thin silver chain. As soon as he was done with one inscrutable task, another was waiting. All the while, he and Kara chatted, sometimes quite loudly over the expanse of the warehouse and the rumbling of the kiln.

“So you’re the scientist,” she said.

“Nope. And I’m not a journalist, either.”   

“The news on the street is wrong! What are you, then?”

“Looking for a job.”

She chuckled. “Something other than an art go-fer, I presume?”

“I don’t know, does this pay?”

At that, all four of the resident artists laughed. “Not nearly so much as a human needs,” Kara said, “but I might have an idea for you.”

Several hours in, awash in sweat and grime, Henry belatedly realized that he’d been helping all four of them. The brown, grey, and white paints that he mixed went to the woman with the impressive length of rope, who made a quick job lathering it in color. If he was put out by the extra work, his hand in the final product made it worthwhile.

Standing on the ground, he held one end of the rope while the woman climbed to the balcony and attached the other end to the wall mural with a nail gun. “Okay, is it holding?” she called down.

The man with no hair and the man with too much hair looked on nervously. Henry gave it a tug. “Seems to be.”

“Then hang it on that hook there, and step back quickly.”

He did as he was told, looping the heavy rope around a metal hook jutting out of the wall, and as he stepped back the woman on the balcony let go. There was a tense moment of silence, followed by a round of applause as it held in place. Now standing back, Henry saw what the rope was meant to be: a dreaded lock of the young boy’s hair, curling in and out of the smoke from his cigar.

“We’re trying to spruce the place up a little,” Kara said, into his ear. He jumped. He hadn’t heard her come up behind him. “We want to start hosting exhibits here, since we have the space. And it’s easier than hauling everything down to the community center, or the cafe. Thanks for helping.”

“Does that mean we’re done?”

She rolled her shoulders. “I know I could use a break. Step outside with me?”

While the other three artists laughed and clapped each other on the back, Kara led Henry past the mural, through a rough concrete enclosure, and out to the loading bay wall. All three of the docks stood open, revealing the hazy yellow evening sky. A cool breeze rushed in to greet them, goosebumping their overheated skin. They perched there, letting their legs dangle out of the closest bay. Beneath their toes, the broken asphalt of the warehouse’s parking lot was being reclaimed by thin shoots of pale grass. “I got you a thank-you present,” she said.

“How is that possible?”

She drew a necklace out of her pocket. “I knew I was going to be making it today, but I wasn’t sure for who. Guess I know now.”

It was a simple thing, a strip of folded-over leather adhered to a silver clasp chain with a bit of industrial glue. An odd symbol was pressed, or perhaps burnt, into the leather. Four jagged lines arranged in a rhombus, with a fifth striking through. At a squint, Henry thought it could be a house. “What is this?” he asked.

“A protection charm,” Kara said, as matter-of-factly as ever. “Wear it under your shirt, against the skin. Don’t take it off unless you need to. The longer it rests on your body, the more it will learn of you, and the better it will keep you from harm.”

1.06: The Double S

The SS cafe was clean, cozy, and very nearly empty. Vaulted bay windows spilled sunlight onto dozens of high-backed chairs tucked into rustic wood tables. Two plush armchairs sat in the far corner, underneath a crowded community bulletin board. Henry approached the counter, behind which a bored-looking woman with the name ‘Patty’ on her name tag was flipping through a tattered paperback. “Slow morning?”

Patty glanced up, took a moment to dog-ear a page, then gave him a smile. “I call it the AM Bazaar,” she said, nodding at the large group of people still milling about the street outside the windows. “Nobody wants to be trapped inside, so they grab their stuff to go.”

“Not very exciting for the barista.”

She shrugged. “It all comes around in the winter.”

“Well, I’ll be sitting in, assuming that won’t mark me as some sort of social pariah.”

“It can be a lot to get used to,” she said, sparing another glance for the window.

“There’s a lot of… friendliness. Can I just have a coffee, please?” he asked, regretting the number of sausages he’d so recently consumed. The front of the counter was a glass display case stuffed with fresh blueberry muffins, orange scones, and glazed fritters. All courtesy of one Niles Homer, no doubt.

She turned to rummage through a drawer of mugs. “So what’s on the schedule for today?”

“You mean beyond shaking the hand of every single person in the village? I’m not sure. Start looking into the help wanteds, maybe.”

Patty selected a wide, ruby-red mug with ‘SS: Sip and Serve’ emblazoned in silver cursive on the side, and began pouring steaming coffee from a battered carafe. “You should check out the Anderson.”

“The Anderson?”

“Old warehouse down on Hyacinth and Fifth. Got converted into art space when our Target went belly-up. If you stop in, ask for Kara. She might have a job hookup for you, and I know for sure that she has a lead on an apartment. That is, if you’re trying to get away from the Tortoise Shell.”

“I am,” he said. That made it official: literally everyone in the village knew about his business, without having to ask. “Thank you.”

She set the mug on the counter with care. “That’s exciting. You must be liking what you’ve seen of Tortus Bay.”

He thought about that. Fewer than twenty-four hours had passed since that uncomfortable taxi ride, but so much seemed to have already happened. “It’s been great. I got sort of kidnapped, for lack of a better word, by a woman named Clair last night.”

“Wild curls? Boxy face?” Patty rolled her eyes. “Wouldn’t be my first choice for village liaison. I’ve heard she can be fun, but it’s embarrassing.” She lowered her voice a bit, though they were still the only two people in the cafe. “It’s one thing for the sheriff to chase drunk teenagers around the village, but Leia Thao spends most of her time nowadays trying to corral an adult woman. It’s a waste of time for everybody concerned, and honestly people are starting to get sick of it.”

***

Henry sunk into one of the armchairs with the intention of giving his brain a second to unspool. Perhaps he was simply unused to the intensity of local gossip, or perhaps everything was truly happening as fast as he felt it was. From his vantage in the corner, he had a clear view of patrons as they trickled into the cafe. They often said hello, or shot him a wave, which he dutifully returned, but it was as Patty said—they grabbed a coffee or a bagel and were right back out of the door, often enough with a second cheerful wave.

The card that Niles gave him bore only one hand-written line: ‘27 Glosspool Ln, 3:00 PM.’ Had Niles written that specifically for him, or did the man often advertise his Hiking Club on the backs of blank business cards? More importantly, why would he invite a complete stranger to such a club in the first place? And even more importantly than that: why did he seem to think that they had something to talk about? Henry tried to stuff all of those questions into a box in his mind, beside that buried briefcase of historical curiosities and the proclivities of a recently deceased man. It didn’t work very well.

He watched an older gentleman with a cane order a box full of muffins, then twisted in his chair so that he could see the community board. There were a pair of  fliers announcing various openings at the orchards and the fishery; a banner for the upcoming PRIDE parade; an invitation for art submissions to some sort of exhibition; a poster of a missing cat offering a hundred dollar reward for information; and a single entry at the end of the monthly calendar for something called the ‘Golden Goose Fest.’

“What’s the Golden Goose Fest?” Henry asked, loudly enough for it to carry across the room.

Patty’s eyebrows shot up, for a split second, behind her book. “Who told you about that?”

“It’s on the calendar.”

“Community event,” she said. Her voice sounded carefully uninterested. “Another excuse for everyone to get together and gab. You know how they need another one of those.”

Their conversation was cut off by the sound of the door. Patty moved to stand, ready for another rapid takeout order, but the woman who entered made a beeline for Henry’s corner without a spare glance at the counter. She was short, and her pallid skin gleamed in contrast with the heavy black jacket she wore despite the heat of the day. Without preamble this woman perched on the arm of the unoccupied armchair, leaned in close, and spoke in a sort of high-pitched, rushed whisper. “You’re Henry Cauville?”

Patty stared at them curiously, but didn’t move from her spot. He returned the whisper. “I am.” 

“Jamal told me all about you,” the woman said.

“Then I’m sure he mentioned that -”

She cut him off with the wave of a many-ringed hand. “Only good things. You met with the sheriff?”

“We ran into each other.”

She exhaled. Up close, the lines on her face were deep and drawn. “Then you know the story of how Mathas died.”

“He had a heart attack,” Henry said, trying to remember from the previous night. “While out in the lawn. Couldn’t make it to the phone.”

“While gardening. Late at night.”

“That’s right.”

She looked him in the eyes, and held the stare for a beat or two longer than was comfortable. “A man who paid a professional to maintain his yard, and was famously frightened of the dark, died while gardening at night.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“That’s information that I think you ought to have,” the woman said, prim and crisp, and then she was gone as quickly as she had come. She stalked back across the room and out of the door with only a curt nod for goodbye.

Patty, still standing behind the counter, was left agape. Her book lay forgotten beside the register. “What did she want?”

“Mistaken identity, I think,” Henry said. He hoped. “Who is she?”

“Beth Brihte,” she said, then shook her head as she remembered herself. “That’s right, you wouldn’t know. She was Mathas Bernard’s wife.”  

1.05: Meat and Greet

The sun rose bright in a clear sky, drying the storm-dampened streets of Tortus Bay and rousing Henry from what had become a pleasant slumber. He certainly hadn’t intended to wake up so early, but he felt energized in the light streaming onto his face through his open blinds. Thin, perhaps, and not too sure about the state of his stomach, but energized all the same.

A number of people milled about the Hell on a Shell bar that morning, quietly eating their breakfasts. Delicious scents wafted upwards and compounded in that dome-like structure to incite a ravenous hunger in Henry. In one glance he saw waffles piled with cream, pancakes covered in blueberries, plates of fat blackened sausages, and thick rashers of charred bacon. When was the last time he’d eaten something other than fries?

Jamal, standing behind the bar, motioned him into a stool. “Surprised to see you out and about so early. I like that!”

From his seat, Henry got an even better view of the veritable mountain of food being pumped out of the kitchen, as well as the harried woman bustling back and forth to produce it. “I’m as surprised as you are,” he said. “Bu I figured I’d stop down to see about settling up.” While the website for the Tortoise Shell Inn had featured a complete (if not obtrusive) survey prior to booking, it had not supported online payment.

Jamal shot him a wry smile, then wordlessly swiped a full plate from the serving window and set it in front of him.

“Thanks,” he said, because he knew better than to turn down a good thing. His mouth watered. “What do I owe you?”

“You can pay when you’re ready to leave.”

At that, the harried woman made a choking sound. “He’s asking!” she said. “He wants to pay.”

“My wife,” Jamal said, under his breath.

Henry leaned around the bartender to make eye contact with the man’s betrothed. She sported a paisley apron plastered in batter, and wore her hair pinned up in a tight bun. “How much, Mrs. Neath?”

“Diana.” She eyed him up and down. “Thirty dollars per night. Five dollars for a meal, when we have them.”

“Breakfast’s free,” Jamal said, forcefully. “Continental.”

Henry shoved half a pancake into his mouth to excuse himself from the awkward situation, but was saved regardless by the next distraction—which came in the form of a man named Clint. He plodded loudly down the stairs, the plaid from the previous night wrapped around his shoulders, looking wet in the eye and red in the cheek. Stale tobacco and even staler sweat emanated from his person, but nonetheless Jamal summoned him to the bar and served him a heaving plate of food. “I’m good for it,” Clint said, almost inaudibly.

Jamal returned a well-practiced whisper. “I know it. Pick up a fresh shirt on your way out. There’s a box near the front desk.”

The man grumbled something to that, then set himself wholly to the task of eating. Under Diana’s watchful eye, he steadily worked his way through the entire plate without once looking up, or reaching for his glass or water, and ladled one final spoonful of sweet syrup into his mouth before Henry had begun his sausages. Then he sat, for a long moment, staring down at the bar, before hauling himself onto his feet and heading off toward the hotel exit.

***

Outside, Tortus Bay baked under a brilliant sun. No evidence whatsoever remained of yesterday’s torrential downpour, nor did any of the people of the village appear to be showcasing any extended grieving for the recent high-profile funeral. If anything, they appeared to be in aggressively joyous spirits. Every door up and down Main Street was propped open, and knots of animatedly chatting folk formed around each entrance. It seemed an entirely social affair, and Henry wondered if anyone was honestly trying to sell, or buy, anything.

They absorbed him into their groups as he passed, with the energy and determination of a jilted relative at a family reunion. Everyone was so happy to meet him, wanted to tell him just a few things about themselves, then asked him how long he would be staying before handing him off to the next in line like a stubborn pinata. At first he tried to remember the stream of names, faces, relationships, careers, hobbies—but before long it all became a mess in his mind, and through repetition his own name began to feel awkward on his lips. 

Surrounded so closely on all sides by loud and distracting figures, Henry became aware that his hand was instinctively flicking toward his back pocket every minute or so. He worked to master that impulse.

After what was certainly a world record for the slowest walking pace down two and a half standard blocks, Henry freed himself from the mob in front of a store whose sign simply read ‘SS.’ The only clue that gave it away as a cafe was the neatly lined, hand-printed menu posted in the window. Still majorly preoccupied, he made to push open the door when it swung out toward him instead, and he nearly collided with a familiar face.

Sharp jaw. Dark, bouncing hair. Niles Homer. Strange name, solid guy. Henry remembered that he ought not to know that name yet, and stopped himself at “hello.”

“Oh, hey.” He smiled, and caught Henry in a stiff handshake. “New guy, right? Niles.”

“I’m Henry.”

Niles smelled like the rare intersection of a patisserie and a lumberyard. “Good to meet you, Henry. I saw you down at the hotel, didn’t I?”

“That’s where I’m staying.”

“And where I’m late to arrive. Diana must be losing her mind; she hates it when I leave her to handle the breakfast rush.” He pulled a plain white business card out of his pocket, and pressed it into Henry’s palm. “I’m always rushing back and forth, so in case I don’t see you before then, that’s the address of where the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Society meets every Saturday. Oh! Don’t worry, we don’t actually do any hiking during the weekly get-togethers.”

Was this overt friendliness an affectation of small-town life, or was something else at play? Henry could only nod.

Niles had managed to negotiate his way out of the door while he spoke. “So I’ll see you there?”

“Okay. Yeah, you will.”

“Great!” He waved, leaving Henry to look down dumbly at the card in his hand. “You and I have a lot to talk about.”

1.04: The Sheriff

Henry stood in the locus of the flashing red and blue lights, tired and somewhat drunk. Some small part of his brain screamed at him to run, but he mastered the impulse—primarily by leveraging it against his desire not to do any more exercise. Whatever else his first night in Tortus Bay had been, it had also inarguably dragged on for too long. Now he ruminated on the prospect of it culminating in a cell.

The wailing of the siren ceased, releasing the night to its placid silence, but the lights remained. They cast forward the shadow of a figure wending its way through the trees, strobing left and right with the rhythmic flashing. Henry watched, conjuring different pictures in his head of what this approaching small-town sheriff might look like. None of them were quite right.

She was short, with an aquiline nose framed by voluminous sheets of black hair. Her uniform was plain and crisp, except for a pair of tattered leather boots. There was a sharpness about her, from her physicality to the manner in which her eyes focused in on him like prey. “Who are you?”

“Henry Cauville.”

Her hand rested on her belt, beside her gun. “You been drinking tonight, Mr. Cauville?”

“A little.”

She nodded. “Got a call about a couple teenagers raising hell in the park.”

“Not a teenager.”

“And is there anybody else in here with you?”

He tried a shrug. “Don’t know anybody else around here yet.”

“Right. Just out for a midnight stroll.” She cast her eyes around the scene, as though willing one of the trees to step forward and admit to some sort of wrongdoing, but she relaxed when nothing was forthcoming. Her hand slid away from the holster. “You’re the new visitor everyone’s talking about.”

Henry wasn’t sure if that was a question, but he nodded to be safe. “Got in a few hours ago. Thought I’d take a look around.”

“Listen, folk around here don’t approve of people walking around their houses in the dark, and much less should they figure out it’s someone they don’t know—and not one of Harvey Bold’s delinquent brood.”

“I had no idea.”

“You must be staying at the hotel. Let me give you a lift back.” 

He wasn’t being arrested. The realization washed over him. Still, he said nothing.

She clicked her tongue. “You can sit in the front, if that matters to you.”

For whatever reason, he found that it did. He followed her back through the trees and out of the park, where an old police cruiser had been parked over the curb. In the relief of the red and blue lights, he thought he caught flickers of movement from the second-story windows of the overlooking houses. Then the dark-haired woman hopped into the car, flicked a switch, and all was dark again. Nothing more to see.

 “I’m sheriff Leia Thao, by the way,” she said, as soon as he climbed in beside her.

Sheriff. At least he’d been right about that. He wondered if that information had been contingent on his cooperation. Her ride was remarkable only in how plain it was. Only the bars that sequestered the back seat distinguished it from a civilian vehicle, and the only hint that it was anything other than a fresh lease straight off the lot was a half-empty bag of sunflower seeds laying on the dash.

“How long are you planning to stay in the village?” Leia asked. She kicked the car into drive and, with a lurch, peeled off the curb.

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Will you be looking for a job?”

“Job,” he said. “Apartment. A local cafe.”

“A whole new life. Well, here’s a tip: there’s only two ways people make money around here. Those are working at the fishery, or working at the orchards.”

“By any chance would I have to file a resume with the Brihtes for either of those gigs?”

She eyed him through the windshield mirror, then popped a seed in her mouth. “You didn’t do your research before you came, did you? The Brihtes and the Gauthes own just about all of Tortus Bay between them, one way or another. Old names. Deep roots.”

“Which is why what happened to this Mathas guy is such a big deal.”

Leia spit her shell out of the window. “Most of the village thinks that you’re some sort of journalist.”

“I’m not.”

“I know. We have a computer down at the station. But people love a rumor. And about all they can come up with that would warrant a journalist’s visit is this business with Mathas Bernard.” They pulled onto Main Street, where they were still the only source of movement. “He died of a heart attack. He’d been doing some gardening work when it happened. Tried to crawl inside, get himself to a phone, but he didn’t make it.”

“That’s horrible.”

They glided to a stop in front of the Tortoise Shell Inn. “Do me a favor, and tell people that you’re not here to write a story about it. Wouldn’t hurt if you kept your wandering to daylight hours, either.”

“I understand.” Henry stepped out of the car, but paused before closing the door. “Can I ask you an odd question?”

“You can ask,” she said, “but I might not answer.”

“Have you ever been shot?”

The expression that took her face wasn’t anger, or even shock, but curiosity. Her eyes widened, the narrowed again with that peculiar, sharp focus. “Never,” she said. “Nor have I ever discharged my firearm, for you information. And I don’t plan to.”

“Only a question.”

Leia looked like she had something to say to that, or perhaps had a question of her own, but she only leaned forward and swung the door shut for him.

***

Henry avoided the main foray of the Hell on a Shell entrance by ascending a wobbly wooden flight of stairs around back, which mercifully deposited him on the far end of the hotel hallway beside room number five. He fell immediately into bed.

He hadn’t undressed. He hadn’t unpacked. He’d made what he was sure was a bad impression on several important people. His mouth tasted like bar food and cheap whiskey. His head hurt, his arm was slipping into numbness, and as he nestled down into his pillow he couldn’t strike the broad smile from his lips.

When before had a night out drinking taken him on an adventure like that? When in his old life had he met anyone even half as interesting, or interested, as Clair or Jamal or even sheriff Thao? That night, Henry Cauville fell asleep feeling very hopeful about his upcoming time in Tortus Bay.

1.03: Night on the Town

Henry Cauville’s first impression of Tortus Bay was formed in the soft yellow glow of the moon, with fresh rainwater streaming down the streets and a drunken Clair skipping on ahead. That image seared itself forever in his mind. The air that night was crisp, and they shared between them the sort of manic energy that comes from new places and new people.

The village was centered around the twenty-or-so businesses that populated the intersection of Main Street and First Avenue. Clair flew past the area, chiding Henry all the while to keep up with her pace, but in shameless rubbernecking he was able to spot a grocer called Horizon Foods, a three-screen cinema called The Plex, a bike shop called Cycler, and the infamous Old Tommy’s General Store itself. For an institution in which a person could apparently find anything their heart might desire, it certainly looked like a single-story cabin with a sign that was missing several important letters. 

He saw now that whatever vision he’d had of a postcard village existed only from a great distance away, and through an obscuring haze of rain. Close up, he was taken by the purely functional aspect of the storefronts. There were few window displays, and no external decoration at all—as though not a single one of them ever expected a tourist.

“Is everyone from the big city as slow as you?”

“Are you always this aerobic after six drinks?”

She turned, jogging backwards, and grinned. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Then she was running, and Henry was after her. Outside of the main stretch, the roads of Tortus Bay narrowed. Long rows of old Colonial houses, which could only be differentiated from one another by the color of the stain on their wooden facades, flanked them on either side. Porches, swing-sets, and decorative mailboxes lined their path to an expansive, dreary park that occupied several blocks. The deep green foliage of tall, densely crowded trees occluded the sky.

Clair led the way inside. That night was hers, and Henry instinctively understood that there wasn’t any pulling her away from this strange course. “People like the idea of walking in the woods,” she said, “but won’t set foot in the real one because of all the stories about wolves. Here, you can get just deep enough so that all you can see is trees, but there’s always the knowledge that you’re surrounded by houses.” 

He immediately saw her point. They wound around a sea of wide trunks, squelching in the mud, and saw no paths, benches, or waste baskets. Only more trees. “Are there really wolves in the forest?”

“Anything’s possible. All you’re likely to see around Tortus Bay is the lowly squirrel, though. A turkey, maybe. If you’re lucky.” After a time, they drew up on a gnarled and towering Oak. Clair dropped down on her knees at its base, and began digging into the earth with her hands.

Now, he could no longer keep the obvious questions at bay. “What are we doing?”

She nodded her head off to the right. “Do you see, through the trees?”

At first he didn’t, but at the perfect angle he found that an open field beyond the park was visible through the greenery—at the end of which sat a squat cylindrical structure built on a rocky outcropping against what he was sure had to be the shoreline. “The lighthouse?”

“Good eye,” she said, and unearthed her cache from the earth: cheap whiskey, and a battered leather satchel. Without hesitation she unscrewed the bottle, took a pull, and handed it over. “The dock and the lighthouse have been condemned since before I was born. Nobody pays much mind to them, which is why I think they haven’t noticed how easy it is to get inside.”

The whiskey burned all the way down, making Henry miss the beer at the bar. “What is all of this?”

“This is the village,” she said, “like nobody else can show you. There’s a ton of history sitting in that lighthouse. It’s like a museum. I only took the really interesting stuff.” She produced from the satchel a locket on a thin silver chain. Inside, there gleamed a small emerald gem in the place of a photograph. A name was etched into the casing, but he couldn’t make it out.

Next, Clair showed him a yellowed and curling ship register. She flipped through the pages with the reverence of an archeologist handling a rare text, presenting a history of dates, times, and detailed lists of cargo. Then she set it aside, and handed him a notebook in exchange for the bottle. Unlike the register, its cover was clean and the paper stark white. New. “That belonged to Mathas Bernard.”

“Who?” Henry opened it up, and squinted down at an untidy scrawl. The words ran together like water, sometimes deliberate and blocky and other times a smooth cursive.

“I’m surprised Jamal didn’t tell you. It was his funeral today. He used to be a big figure around here. Married to Beth Brihte, and the Brihtes practically own the place. He ran the bank, served on the city council… and was a complete weirdo in private.”

He flicked through the notes in the book, and they became progressively stranger. Words like ‘rune’ and ‘stave’ jumped out at him. Two full pages had been dedicated to sketches of leaves and herbs. “How did you get this?”  

She shrugged, and snatched the notebook out of his hands. “People talk a lot around here. I want you to know that I love Tortus Bay.The good, the bad, and the odd. I’ve lived here my entire life.”

“I believe you. But this doesn’t count as showing me magic, okay?” 

“Do you believe in magic?”

“Can’t say that I do.”

Clair opened her mouth to say something, but before any words came out she was jumping to her feet in a frenzy. She scrambled, shoving the locket, the register, and the notebook back into the hole, and began furiously piling dirt over the lot. Henry was confused, until he too heard the telltale sound of a tire skidding on gravel just outside the park. Then there came the siren, and red and blue lights strobing through the trees.

She patted down the disturbed earth, jumped to her feet, and was running again. This time he stayed where he was, watching the lights play off the damp leaves, wondering how he’d let his first night in the village play out like this.

1.02: Barroom Promise

Henry listened to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof while he dried himself off with a fluffy white hotel towel. He took his time. The lights were dim, and it was silent but for the steady beat of the storm outside lulling him to bed. But this was his first night in Tortus Bay, and he wanted to make a positive impression. Besides, a free drink was a free drink.

He wrapped his shoulder with fresh bandages, pulled on some dry clothes, and made his way down to the Hell on a Shell Bar. It was a dark, cavernous room with curved matte walls that gave him the impression that he’d walked into an underground bunker. Lanterns placed in regularly spaced alcoves along the crest of the ceiling cast dancing shadows on the floor, and there was everywhere the scent of stale tobacco. Three older men in flannels occupied a table near the door, but the place was otherwise empty. 

Henry took a stool at the bar, and was quickly joined by a beaming Jamal. “Taking me up on my offer, eh?”

“If it’s still good.”

He laid his palms flat on the bartop. “What’ll you have?”

Henry cast his eyes around for a menu, a sign, or a blackboard, but came up empty. “What do you have?”

Jamal arched his eyebrows, and jerked his head at the shelves of liquor behind him. “Beer,” he said, “or I can pour you a couple fingers, if you like.”

“I’ll have a beer.”

He grunted, retrieved a sweaty black bottle, and began pouring it into a frosted glass.

“If I went into a bar back home,” Henry said, accepting the glass when offered, “and asked the bartender for ‘a beer,’ it would have been me who was the asshole.”

“Sounds like you and I come from different places.”

He took a swig off the top, found it to be perfectly acceptable, and was real close to thinking of something clever to say when the front door clattered open. A rush of rain and cold ushered a woman with a shock of wild, auburn curls into the premises. She shook herself off, becoming—for an instant—an image of flailing hair and spraying water, earning a few jeers from the flannel-clad men. These she ignored, heading straight to the bar to hook a stool. 

“Got a beer for me?” she asked.

Jamal frowned. “Got any cash for me?”

The woman side-eyed Henry as she threw a couple dollars down on the bar. “You believe this guy?”

“A bartender asking for money?” Henry rolled his eyes. “What has the world come to?”

She laughed, and stuck out her hand. “I’m Clair.”

Clair’s palms were leathery tough. “Henry.”

Jamal served her the beer, which earned him a sloppy salute, and then rounded back on Henry. “There’s food, if you’re hungry from the trip.”

Once again, he found himself looking up, fruitlessly, for a menu. “I would take some fries.”

“Yeah, we can get you that,” Jamal said, and promptly disappeared through the back door.

Clair took a long drink. She’d neglected to remove her raincoat, and a large puddle of water was forming beneath her stool. “So you’re the new guy.”

“So I’m told.”

“Journalist, right?”

“Why does everybody think that?”

She laughed again. It seemed to come naturally and often to her, and Henry was irked to find it endearing. “A gossipy old man who bought a new computer two years ago,” she said, “and only learned how to Google last week. Oh—speak of the devil. Hey, you’ve been spreading false information!”

Jamal emerged from the back with a long-suffering grumble. “Fries will be out in a few.”

“That’s not the news anymore,” Clair said. “Tell us: how long have you owned this place?”

“Twenty-one years.”

“And you think you have time to run around pretending to be a journalist yourself.”

“I am plenty busy.”

“Oh? What am I, the fifth ass on a seat of yours tonight?”

“There was a funeral. I spoke before the burial, which you would know if you’d bothered to attend.”

“You know very well that…”

Henry lost track of the argument swirling around his head. His attention was caught instead on the narrow window behind the bar, through which could be seen a thin slice of the kitchen beyond. Therein, a man was pulling a bag out of a freezer and spinning a knob on a fryer. He had light brown skin, a sharp jaw, and an untidy tumble of dark hair that bounced along with his steps. There was something arresting about him. Henry shook his head. He wasn’t normally the type to stare.

“You been drinking somewhere else tonight?” Jamal was asking. His previously implacable demeanor had begun to crack.

Clair scoffed. “What does it matter if I have?”

“You’re making a mess!”

She made an exaggerated ordeal of looking beneath her stool. “That’s the cost of doing business.”

“No, the cost of being served is having the common courtesy of using a hangar.”

“The cost of service is money, Jamal. I know you haven’t forgotten that. Is this water really your problem? Yeah? Then bring me a mop.”

“You want a mop?”

“Yes, I do. Head on back and fetch me one. I’m serious—I don’t want to see you again unless you’ve got a mop for me!” It ended with Clair on her feet, staring down Jamal’s retreating back, red in the face but smiling. 

Henry leaned over to her. “Who is that?” he asked.

She followed his eyes to the kitchen, and her flushing expression shifted from triumph to confusion to, finally, land on a knowing grin. She slid smoothly back onto her stool. “That’s Niles Homer. Strange name, solid guy. Baker extraordinaire. Works at the cafe in the morning to keep ‘em stocked on muffins and then books it over here for lunch and dinner service. Why do you ask?”

“Errant curiosity.”

“Right. You taking it easy, there?”

Henry was surprised to find a second beer beside his first, and even more surprised that the first was empty. He took a deep pull, and wondered if he was paying yet. “Is that what you have for entertainment around here?” he asked. “Getting drunk and abusing bartenders?”

“He acts like my dad. Probably because I’ve known his daughter since we were both in Elementary School.” She rapped her knuckles on the side of her glass. “But you want to know how we have fun? All you have to do is stick by me.”

***

Jamal never did re-appear with a mop, but he did deliver a delicious basket of fries. Thick, heavily seasoned, and drowning in vinegar. Henry and Clair relocated themselves to a table, where she finally bowed to societal norms and hung up her coat. Underneath she wore a ratty t-shirt that fit awkwardly around her broad shoulders. From head-on her face was square. Strong. She certainly drank like it—five empty glasses sat beside her, to his three.

Their conversation chewed away the night, as around them the Hell on a Shell Bar gradually filled in. Everyone there seemed to know everyone else, and everyone seemed to have something to say, but Henry and Clair were allowed their bubble of privacy

“What if you need a CD?” he asked.

“Old Tommy’s.”

“A blender?”

“Old Tommy’s.”

“Replacement frame for a photo of my mother?”

“Old Tommy’s!”

“Your answer to all of these questions can’t be to go to a General Store.”

Clair raised her sixth glass to him. “It can! Because it is. Or you can just use the internet. It’s the future everywhere, you know.” In the growing din she paused for a moment, and closed her eyes. “Listen. It stopped raining.”

“So?”

“So you can’t talk mess about a town you’ve never properly seen.” She pulled on her coat. “You’re coming to get a look.”

Henry’s shoulder still ached. His eyelids itched with sleep. “I don’t know.”

Clair leaned forward and fixed him with a smile that might have been charming, if not for its fire. “Come with me, and I’ll show you some magic.”

1.01: Checking In

Henry Cauville arrived in Tortus Bay in the middle of an inauspicious downpour, on a night when the clouds hung dark and heavy over the quaint seaside village. Save for those incessant sheets of rain and the bright moon which made the red-tiled rooftops gleam like glass, he thought the entire scene might have been ripped directly from a postcard. Not that a single postcard had ever been produced for the Bay. 

“Never driven anyone this far before,” the driver said. Up until that moment, he had been a pleasant and silent presence in the taxi.

“Appreciate it,” Henry said, leaning forward to press a couple bills into the driver’s palm.

He grunted appreciatively. “Wasn’t a sign. Did you notice that?”

“Maybe we missed it in the rain.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Henry bid his farewell, slung the top of his coat over his head, and stepped out into the storm. It was a windless sort of affair, where every fat rain-drop fell straight down and splashed back upward before joining the ubiquitous puddle that covered the entirety of the sidewalk. He was immediately soaked. The taxi wasted no time zipping off down the road, leaving him alone on the lonely intersection. 

Regardless of what the driver said, the storefronts themselves weren’t shy about signage. Henry spun in place, spotting First Community Bank, Pale Moon Buffet, Off the Edges, and finally: Welcome to the Tortoise Shell Inn! He raced down the block toward that grey brick building, feeling water soak into his socks as he went, and burst through a heavy wooden door alongside a veritable waterfall of rain. He closed the door behind himself as quick as he was able, but thick rivulets of water were already streaking across the finely polished wood floor of the hotel atrium.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but needn’t have. There was nobody else in the room. A desk covered in pamphlets and placards dominated the small space, behind which a flight of stairs led up to the guest rooms. In the corner there was an alcove that led to something called the Hell on a Shell Bar. Henry took a moment to shrug off his hopelessly sodden jacket and hang it on one of the vacant pegs on the wall before he ventured toward the desk. There was no bell. “Hello?” he called instead.

His response came quickly. A portly man somewhere in his late forties bustled through the alcove, spotted his visitor, and put on a warm smile. He was wearing a colorful apron over an untucked black button-up shirt. “You must be Henry!”

“I am.”

The man surged forward and took Henry’s hand in his own, vigorously shaking it a few times more than was perhaps entirely normal. “Jamal Neath,” he said. “Welcome to Tortus Bay!”

“Glad to be here. Sorry about the water.”

Jamal waved him off. “What mops were made for.” He positioned himself behind the desk and began to peruse through a yellow legal pad, eyebrows furrowed.

“I’m a day early,” Henry offered.

He paused, flipped a page backward, and nodded. “You’ll have to forgive me—whole village is out of sorts. There was a funeral today.”

“Was it someone you knew?”

Jamal set the pad down, then started rummaging through a drawer. “Everyone knew him. I suppose that’s how it works, if you take my meaning.”

Henry didn’t. He thought there was something strange in Jamal’s voice when he said that, but he couldn’t place what it was. “I understand if you won’t have room for me until tomorrow.”

That made Jamal bark with laughter. He found what he was looking for in the desk, and held out a novelty keychain onto which two rusted silver keys were attached. “I think we’ll manage to squeeze you in. Little one’s for your room, big one’s for the back door—which I’ll show you in a moment. Luggage?”

“Just the backpack,” Henry said, rolling his shoulders. He examined the keychain, which was a cumbersome, garish piece of bright green plastic with the name of hotel printed on it, and smiled despite himself.

“Got a question?”

“T-o-r-t-u-s Bay, spelled like that, yet this is the Tortoise Shell Inn.”  

Jamal smiled back, and indicated that he should follow him up the stairs. “Little bit of local flavor there,” he said. “We got plenty of that, you’ll learn soon enough. Word is that once upon a time we were called Tortoise Bay, before one of our illustrious Mayors decided that he didn’t like the name very much. On account of there being no tortoises here, you understand. But they say that the locals were mighty attached to the name, having lived their entire lives with it, and a compromise had to be reached.”         

Henry trailed behind the animated hotel owner, vaguely aware that he was dripping water all the way up the carpeted stairs and down the long adjoining hallway. “Same pronunciation, less false advertising.”

“So the story goes.” Jamal stopped outside of the last door in the hall, which had a brass number Five hanging above the lock. “Is that what you’re here to write about?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re a journalist, aren’t you?”

“No,” Henry said. He was taken aback, until he remembered the questionnaire that the hotel required for online booking. “I was a copy editor for an organization that published scientific materials. Informational pamphlets for national parks and advertisements for museums, that sort of thing.”

“Of course.” Jamal swung number five open to reveal a modest room. It was appointed with a squishy single bed, an empty bookcase, a corner table with two sturdy chairs, and a large bathroom complete with mint-green shower tiles and an assortment of single-use toothpastes and hair products. No television, no phone, and no standard Bible in the nightstand. “So what is it that brings you here, then?”

Such was the disarming nature of their conversation that Henry briefly forgot the lie he’d prepared, and told the man the truth instead. “I don’t know.”

At that, Jamal winked, and made to take his leave. “I imagine you’ll be wanting to change out of those wet clothes. Come down to the bar whenever you’re ready. First drink’s always on the house.”

***

Henry gingerly stripped off his clothes, setting them on the back of a chair to dry. He began with his socks, then his jeans, his sweater, and finally he fought back a grimace as he peeled his shirt away from the wound on his left shoulder. It was a small, neat hole in the flesh, red and inflamed for hours spent chafing against cloth. He sighed. It would have to be bandaged again.