2.19: Following Directions

Teresa Bramble met Henry and Kara at her door the next morning, bearing a half-concealed scowl and a pot of what turned out to be exceptionally strong coffee. She beckoned them inside regardless. “My daughters spoke with you?”

“They did,” Henry said. “Paying you a visit was pretty high up my on priority list in the first place, but they made it sound especially important.”

“Are they around?” Kara asked.

“No.” Teresa led them through to the kitchen, where she set to work hunting down three mugs. “They ran off before I got up. Who knows what they get up to recently. Kids love their little secrets.”

They lapsed into comfortable silence for a time, arrayed haphazardly around the room, sipping coffee. They were a rough and disheveled trio. A casual observer might have reasonably guessed that all three of them had spent the last few days of their lives in jail, when in fact only one had. Neither Henry nor Kara had eaten breakfast, and he was just starting to wonder if it would be rude to ask to raid Teresa’s pantry when she suddenly set down her cup and smacked her lips. “Alright, let’s see it.”

Henry didn’t need to ask what she meant. He promptly pulled his shirt over his head; he hadn’t bothered to wrap the wound that morning, and he regretted it as the cloth pulled away at drying blood.

Teresa swooped in like a hawk, circling him as she had before, but it did not take long for her to pull back. “You got the new ointment?” she asked.

“Yes.”

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

“I did.”

Her scowl returned, full force. “Well, fuck.” The word hung in the air. She caught their aghast expressions. “What? I told you, my kids aren’t home.”

“Is something wrong?” Kara asked. “I mean, more wrong than normal?”

“It’s gotten worse.”

He knew that. Somewhere deep down, he knew that. Over the past few days he’d avoided looking at his shoulder. Took care to wrap and unwrap it in dim lighting. “I think it happened when I left Tortus Bay.”

“Exacerbated or not by your leaving,” Teresa said, “the fact remains that it is destabilized, changing for the worse, and not responding to treatment.”    

“What does that mean?” Kara asked. She was a good checkup companion. The important questions seemed to filter into her head so much quicker than they did into his.

Teresa sighed. “It’s worse than I thought.” 

“How bad?”

With a caliper and a notebook in hand, she resumed her hawkish circling, prodding him occasionally and taking notes. “Difficult to say. I’ve done all of the research that I can, at this point. There’s not a lot of records of wounds like these. But they do exist. And they’re grim. You could lose the arm.”

Henry felt capable of fielding the next question. “How do we stop it?”

“There are things we can try,” she said, poking away with abandon, “on the next confluence. The festival. I need to learn more, but I know where to look now. Do you mind if I take a blood sample?”

He nodded. “What are my odds?”

“I’m not a doctor. And even if I were, I wouldn’t give odds on a procedure I haven’t yet learned and never heard of being performed before.”

“So, low.”

She inserted a needle into his arm, just beneath the red-raw rim of his eternally festering wound. He jumped, and bit down hard on his lip. “I never said that.”

“Have you heard anything strange lately?” he asked. Kara shot him a look, but he continued on. “Anything about Mathas Bernard?”

Teresa pulled the needle out of his arm and tottled over to the counter, where she began working on something he could not see. “I think you need to work on resting and recuperating. If what we’re going to try on the festival is going to work, we’ll need you at full strength.”

“So you have heard something.”

She shot a look at Kara over her shoulder. “Can you talk some sense into him?”

“Wish I could,” Kara said, “but your help here might do more good. Without it, I imagine Henry will be tripping and stumbling around the forest by himself.”

“I saw Mathas on the day that he died,” Teresa said, with a distinct note of reluctance in her voice. “I was the one they called, you know. And I can tell you that he most certainly passed away.”

That took some of the wind out of him. “But I’ve seen him.”

“Yes. A good number of people are saying that.”

“Then is it possible? Could he be… I don’t know, back somehow?”

Teresa paused in her work, and turned around. Her face was no longer a scowl. Something more speculative, and perhaps tired, had taken over. “I don’t know. I’ve never heard of anything like it, and I hope it is not as it appears.” She spread her hands. “I truly hope not.”

“We need to find Clair.”

“You need to rest.”

Henry shook his head. He didn’t yet know how to explain what he felt, but he felt it with a certainty which would not let him go. “It’s all connected. This wound, Mathas, Clair, Tortus Bay, and Emmaline Cass, somehow.”

“Do you know that? Or does it only feel that way because it’s all happening to you at the same time?”

Kara coughed. “Or are you in a manic state after a bad breakup?”

He turned on her. “Whose side are you on?”

“Yours, of course” she said, “but I don’t know why both couldn’t be true. Teresa, is there a way you can find Clair? She can’t be far from the village. Probably out in the woods somewhere.”

She began grumbling, resuming her work on the counter with extra vigor. “Nobody listens. I tell them to eat a vegetable, they go out and buy a bag of potato chips. I tell them to rest, they want to stay out all night romping through the forest. Yes, I could probably track the girl down. But it will take time before I’m ready to start.”

“That’s alright by me,” he said. “I’ve got a different lead to follow.”

***

Henry had long since crumpled and discarded the cryptic series of directions he’d fished out of the can of beans in Horizon Foods, but he remembered the hastily scribbled words perfectly. Two miles east of the graveyard. Follow the boulders.

Finding the old graveyard wasn’t difficult. Now that he knew to look for the towering marble Cass headstone, it proved nearly impossible to miss. The area called to him, and he briefly considered stopping to peruse the graves, but he resisted. Instead he plunged eastward, deeper into the trees, eyes peeled for signs of the next clue. There were large rocks on either side of him, and scattered at random further afield. Is that what Clair had meant? How was he meant to follow them?

He skirted around a dense copse, and understood. Before him stood a weathered and mossy boulder, with the faint indication of an arrow scratched onto its surface. It pointed left. Then perhaps thirty feet in a straight line leftwards, there was another boulder, this one pointing him to the right. And so on, boulder after boulder, turn after turn. The marks were rough and faded, as though they had been etched with the edge of a sharpened stick. It was lucky anything remained of them at all. 

As the scenery swirled together and he started to think that he was going in circles, the boulders ceased and the forest opened up onto a small, beatific lake. The regular sounds of the surrounding woods fell away, replaced by the distant chirping of grasshoppers and the faint sloshing of water. The sky overhead went yellow. A memory surfaced in Henry’s mind, of someone telling him of a nearby lake they enjoyed visiting.

By then it was too late. The Mayor, in his casual sweater and well-pressed slacks, had already turned from where he had been gazing out over gently rippling waves. “I’ve been waiting for a long time.”

Henry was rooted to the spot. He couldn’t speak.

“There is a delicate balance to our lives here in Tortus Bay,” Noel continued. “I believe you yourself have stumbled onto that truth. It exists, as you no doubt know somewhere deep within yourself, between the haves and the have-nots. Between those who know, and those who refuse to see.”

Words returned to him. “You’re the one who left me all of those notes.”

“What is the expression? It takes all kinds. I believe that to be true. My newest friend, my dearest child, nobody here could begrudge a man with the strength of spirit to seek the truth.” As the Mayor spoke, pairs of yellow lights appeared in the shade of the trees around them. Eyes. Tens of them, then hundreds. “What we might take exception with is a man who uses his knowledge to upset a balance that we have worked so long to establish.”

2.18: Respect

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I gave you the wrong location.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Is that right?”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve come to gloat,” Henry said.

“Not worth it anymore, is it?”

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

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

“Is that right?”

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

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

He missed a beat. “What?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“You know that’s not true.”

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

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

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

“Leave.”

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

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

“Next time you bury me, right?”

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

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

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

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

“There’s an update?”

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

“The Tortus Bay Examiner?”

“Yeah, I thought of it myself.”

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

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

2.17: Stories of a Dead Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not really.”

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

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

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

“Thanks. Mind blocking the view?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That wasn’t the present?”

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

Henry nodded. “What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand. I will.”

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

“I am.”

“Why?”

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

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

“I have.”

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

2.16: Off to the Races

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

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

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

“Let’s hear it.”

“A newspaper.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll print it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took it. “Partners.”

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

“A race against time.”

Aria grinned. “A race against convenient ignorance.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What a house that must be.”

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

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

Kara arched a brow. “Of course not.”

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

“What do you need?”

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

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

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

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

“What are you saying?”

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

***

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

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

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

2.15: Displaced, part 2

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

His phone rang. “Hello?”

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

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

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

“Can’t say the same.”

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

“Greenfield.”

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

“I don’t know if I’m coming back.”

“You got something good out there in Greenfield?”

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

“Yes, I know.”

“Mathas Bernard has come back from the dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess.”

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

She paused. “That Mathas is back.”

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

“I can help you with that.”

“You can?”

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

***

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

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

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

2.14: Displaced, part 1

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you?”

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

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

“Fine.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

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

“So you called to chat?” Ray asked. 

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

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

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

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

“I think I know how-”

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Is that where you’re from?”

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

Her smile fell away. “Like tricks?”

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

“Okay. Have a nice day.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

2.13: Altercation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was willing to work for you.”

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

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

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

“Howard….”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”