Before he moved with my mother to the much smaller and quieter Laramie Falls, my father’s work in Los Angeles had sent him to a lot of disturbing scenes. He wasn’t a cop, but in some ways, his job had been almost as dangerous. He had investigated serial killers, arsonists, child abductors, and worse, all without the benefit of a badge. He’d carried a small gun for protection after an incident where a man followed him home, but for the most part, it had been up to him to keep himself out of too much trouble.
Of course, he’d gone right into trouble, because that was where the story happened to be. Dad’s primary purpose and goal had been to expose those monsters, to drag them into the light of day and tear away the shadows of mystery that kept people terrified of them. He used his writing to shine a spotlight directly on the sick pieces of shit, not to simply scare his audience but to educate them.
After changing cities and mostly settling down, he had kept boxes full of all his old work hidden under camping equipment in the attic. To this day, he had no idea that I had found those boxes back when I was twelve. I’d pored through them, seeing all the stories he’d written, all the pictures that had been taken of those awful scenes, even the reports filed in such dry and concise language by the police.
Most of it had made me physically sick, but I had gone through it anyway. I’d looked at the pictures of violent, soul-crushing death and human misery, not for the thrill, but to inoculate myself against the horror of it. My thought, as a child, had been that if I saw those things through the pictures, it wouldn’t be as hard to see it when I grew up. Because even back then I had known that I wanted to do the same job that my father had. I wanted to help people by exposing the monsters as the humans they were.
And now I had found out the truth. Many of those monsters weren’t human at all. They were things that no amount of light would bring answers to, not for the vast majority of humanity. There were creatures, foul, evil monsters who could not be held by any human prison. Their crimes would go forever unsolved by human authority, the families of their victims left without any real closure. They would escape any and all justice and be left to freely prey upon the innocent, treating humanity as toys.
Except for one thing. The Heretics. These were the people who could bring those monsters to justice, who could stop them from preying upon the innocent. That was why I had chosen so easily to join them, to set aside my desire to be a reporter. My goal all along had been to stop the monsters hiding in the shadows. I just hadn’t realized how literal that term was. And now that I did? Now that I had some idea of what creatures were out there, I was going to learn everything I could about how to stop them.
All of that and more passed through my mind as I stared at the projection of the crime scene. The hologram, if that’s what this could be called, was so realistic that I almost forgot we were in a room. From all appearances, we were standing on the edge of an actual gas station parking lot. It looked absolutely real, and I would have believed that we had teleported here. Even the sky above looked convincing. Behind us, the door we had come through appeared to be a simple doorway standing right in the middle of an empty street. When I put my hand out toward what looked like empty air beside the door, I found the wall. There was no indication of its existence until I touched it.
Turning back, my eyes found the poor girl on the ground with the gas nozzle duct taped into her mouth, and I felt that familiar taste of sick rising up in my throat. Even looking through my father’s old files and pictures hadn’t prepared me for seeing this sort of thing as up close and personal as this was.
Beside me, I heard a girl gasp the words, “Oh my god….” Then a hand caught my arm and squeezed. When I looked that way, I found Koren of all people. She was staring at the dead girl. Her eyes were wide with shock, and I saw a bit of dampness leak through the corners. She worked her mouth with a small, barely audible whine, and I could almost see the bile making its way up her throat.
Wincing, I turned to grab the girl’s arm, turning her away from the scene and bending her over slightly even as her body started to heave. When she puked, it hit what looked like pavement beneath our feet.
Once she had finished, Koren spat at the ground a couple of times to clear her mouth, then gave a little shudder before straightening up. Her eyes found me and I saw a look of confusion and uncertainty touch her gaze for just a moment before she pulled away with a mumbled, “I’m fine.” Her face was flushed with embarrassment, which stood out a lot against her naturally pale skin.
“Here,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up, and I saw her extending a glass of water to Koren, along with a napkin for her face. “If you need to take a break, you can go back through the door and sit down for a few minutes.” Raising her voice then, she added, “That goes for everyone. Go back to the other side and give yourself a break if you need it. No one is going to shame you for it. The fact that seeing something like this makes you sick is a good thing, and is not to be mocked. Any person that I see doing something like that will be in my office every day after classes for the rest of the month.”
Once that was acknowledged, the blonde woman gestured. “Look around, trust your instincts and see what you can find. You can touch things in here and move them around. The scene can be reset by the lead investigator, in this case that would be me, so do not worry about disturbing things. Look around as much as you like and then we will all discuss what we believe happened here.”
“Um, Professor?” I raised my hand before pointing. “What about the cameras?” They were clearly covering not only the lot, but the inside of the store. The whole thing should have been recorded. “I mean, is there any way to make that work?” Not being able to view footage would have made any investigation a lot harder than it had to be, and I couldn’t imagine that they didn’t have a way around it.
Smiling faintly, Professor Dare gestured. “The PAWS system automatically copies any recordings within the area and will play them accordingly, yes. I suggest you look inside the office for that.”
Most of the group spread out, the majority going to look either at the girl’s body, or the one inside the store. I hesitated before looking toward the twins, who seemed to be waiting for me. “Video then?”
Sands nodded, and the three of us made our way inside, moving through the almost obnoxiously bright store. My eyes tracked the trail of blood to the back coolers, where the second body lay in a heap. Remnants of both the glass of the coolers, and their contents covered the body, mixing with the blood.
Swallowing, I forced myself to look away, returning my attention to the twins. “Are you guys okay?”
Sands actually seemed to be the more affected of the two. Her lower lip trembled slightly while she stared, clearly unable to look away. It was Scout, her expression sad but controlled, who moved in front of her sister to block her view. It was a subtle thing, the girl turning her body as though reacting to me, which maneuvered her directly into Sands’ eye-line. Subtle, yet I had no doubt it was purposeful.
Scout looked at me, meeting my gaze before giving a slight nod. She was okay. She had seen worse.
Back under control, Sands breathed out before nodding as well. “L-let’s go see this video.”
We found our way to the manager’s office, and it only took a few seconds to spot the computer in the corner. I shrugged at the others before reaching out to hit a key. For a hologram, it certainly felt real. The key brought up the computer screen, and it only took a minute to find the security footage.
Unfortunately, it was spectacularly useless. Though the cameras were clearly high quality, capturing both the interior of the store from several angles, and the parking lot including the pumps, none of it mattered, because the actual scene itself was completely missing. I was able to set the video to show the doomed clerk standing in her spot behind the counter, with the equally doomed man in the back of the store, glancing nervously around as though waiting to be sure the place was empty. Then, without warning or apparent reason, the view jumped instantly to show the scene we had just walked through. One second everything was fine, and then there were two dead bodies on camera.
“Whoa, whoa, what?” I clicked the button to send the footage back, then let it play. Again, the scene jumped. According to the video details in the corner, it had jumped almost twenty minutes.
Professor Dare spoke up from behind us. “Most Strangers project a field that inhibits being recorded by ordinary human technology. The strength of this field varies. Some are so weak that details of the event or creature can still be made out. Even the quality of those best videos, however, are rendered so poor so that almost any Bystanders dismisses it as a poorly made edit, a prank. Others, like vampires, simply don’t appear on video at all while allowing it to continue recording other subjects. In this case, it would appear that the Stranger who was responsible for this… situation was sufficiently powerful that the entire recording was simply frozen from the moment they arrived, and did not resume until they left.”
“But why?” I asked with a frown. “Why would creatures of magic have an effect so specialized as messing with technology like that? Cameras are a very new thing, I mean, as far as the Strangers go. How did they develop that kind of defense so quickly? And why? Would humans be a threat to them?”
“A united humanity, joined in power against the monsters that stalk the darkness?” Professor Dare gave a single nod. “Indeed. That would be a genuine threat. Unfortunately, that is not what would happen.”
Frowning, I glanced to the security footage (or lack thereof), and thought for a second before responding as I turned back to the teacher. “Because humans don’t tend to unite like that?”
“Precisely.” Professor Dare met my gaze. “If humanity as a whole knew about the Strangers, they would fall on each other. Paranoia would run rampant. Every disagreement would be magnified to the point of absurdity. Ordinary disputes would be tainted by the fear that the person they were arguing with was a monster posing as a human being. You believe that humans have treated each other horribly throughout history simply due to a difference of belief, skin color, or economic status? Add in the fear of monsters posing as humans, and society would tear itself apart. Trust outside of close acquaintances would quickly fall apart, and even friendships and families themselves could be strained.”
Biting my lip, I looked back to the useless computer monitor once more with a frown. So much for getting anything here. “I guess we should look around the rest of the scene,” I said quietly.
“Do not feel bad,” Professor Dare urged. “It is never a waste of time to examine such footage, even if it rarely pans out. Sometimes, as I said, enough of the video remains to identify the creature responsible. Or there may be clues and evidence before or after the event itself that can help. It is always a good idea to check, just to rule out an easy solution before moving on to the next possibility.”
“Before and after…” I murmured under my breath before turning back to the computer. Sands had been about to close out of the footage. “Wait, send it back to right before the scene jumps and pause it.”
With a shrug, the other girl complied. After two clicks, the ordinary scene returned, freezing in place.
Lifting my hand, I indicated the vehicles that were in the lot or on the nearby street, committing them to memory. “Remember all these cars that are in view. Okay, let it skip ahead, then pause again.”
Sands did so, freezing the image as soon as the newly horrific scene returned. This time, rather than focus on the dead bodies, I scanned the scene for any of the same cars that had been there before.
It was Scout who raised her finger, pointing to a sedan on the road to the right of the station. Her finger touched the screen, and then she gestured to her sister. Getting the point, Sands rewound the footage once more. This time, Scout moved her finger down to one of the other camera views, which showed the left hand side of the station lot. In that view, the same car was just pulling in. Unfortunately, it was impossible to make out the occupant in either case. The angle was wrong.
I smiled in spite of myself. “Good eyes, Scout. Look, Professor. That car pulls in right before everything skips ahead. When the cameras come back, it just pulled out.” Turning a bit, I asked, “The license plate is right there. Can you send it to the Heretics that are actually investigating this?”
Her head dipped in acknowledgment. “An excellent use of resources, Miss Chambers. And well-spotted, Miss Mason. You’ve done well so far. And… precisely what the investigators assigned to this case have already done.” She gave a smile at our collective wince. “Do not feel bad. The fact that you’ve done precisely what the Runners on this case have done should not be a cause for embarrassment, but pride. Our investigators know their jobs. Of course they would think to do exactly what you just did. Be proud that you thought the way that they do, not ashamed that you have not single-handedly created a whole new avenue of investigation.”
She was right. The Heretics that were looking into this were trained professionals. The best of the best. Of course they had already thought of something as simple as comparing the before and after footage. Just because we were being tutored using this crime scene didn’t mean we were going to spot anything that the actual professionals missed. Not that easily, at least.
Sands was already straightening up, her voice as confident as ever. “Let’s see what else we can spot out there. There’s gotta be something the investigators missed.”
Professor Dare stepped aside, saying only, “I am here to answer any questions that you have.”
The three of us walked back out into the main part of the store, and the professor moved to help Travis and Rudolph over by the cash register. The two of them had apparently found the dead girl’s purse.
“I don’t think there’s gonna be any answers there,” I murmured under my breath to the twins. “I doubt she was a planned target.”
“Why not?” Sands asked, glancing my way with a raised eyebrow.
Shrugging, I replied, “It just doesn’t feel like that, I don’t know. I can’t explain it. But everything here says it was a crime of opportunity. Think about it. A twenty minute jump? Whoever or whatever did this was having fun. They took the time to enjoy themselves before… somehow forcing that girl to kill that man and then… I don’t know, kill herself? Strangers can have mind control powers, right?”
Both girls nodded, and Sands spoke up. “Some of them, yeah.”
“I think… someone was playing.” After hesitating, I started to pace while thinking about it for another few seconds. “They didn’t care about making a scene. There was no attempt to cover this up at all. Part of that was relying on the whole camera-futzing thing, but they didn’t even try to make the scene look realistic. What kind of girl commits suicide like… like she supposedly did? Plus, look at the difference between the two deaths. That one there was sudden and simple. Shot in the back. The one out there was elaborate and nasty. This was powerful, but also… immature. Unplanned. It’s almost like they were… I don’t know, testing their power or playing with it?”
“You know that stuff isn’t real, right?” Sands asked, gesturing. “Can’t really take it with you.”
Blinking down in confusion, I found myself looking at a candy bar and a bottle of orange soda. “Huh?”
Sands snickered. “You picked them up while you were talking. Need a snack when we get back?”
Shaking my head, I set both the soda and the candy down, squinting at them briefly. “I guess so. Sorry, I didn’t know I was doing that.”
Shrugging, Sands tapped the bottle. “Your subconscious makes good choices, anyway. But yeah, holograms probably don’t taste that good.”
Before I could say anything else, a voice spoke up from nearby. “Heh, guess you saw it too, huh?”
Looking back, I saw Koren standing there. She still looked a little flushed, but was clearly doing her best to hold it together. “Saw what?”
“The receipt?” She offered, the tone of her voice implying the unstated ‘duh.’
I shook my head at that. “What receipt?”
“Oh for the love of…” Trailing off, the girl spun around, making her long brown braid fly as she stomped back toward the registers to where Travis and Rudolph still were. Without ceremony, she snatched away a paper that the two were examining and brought it back, thrusting the paper into my face. “This receipt. You know, the one you saw before you picked those things up, like they’re gonna tell you anything.”
It took me a second to focus on the words on the receipt, but when I did, my throat closed up. Orange soda and a candy bar. The same candy bar I had picked up. “What… where was… this?”
“Seriously?” Koren squinted at me. “Back there, on the counter. It was the last thing on the register, so it was obviously the last thing that dead girl out there sold before all this shit happened.”
Her head tilted at me, her squint turning suspicious. “If you didn’t know what was on the receipt, then how the fuck did you just happen to pick up exactly what was on it?”
That… was a very good question.