The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers gradually working his way through the Bystander Effect. I hope you enjoy.
Several Weeks Ago
Flick was lying. Lincoln Chambers was sure of it. He knew she was lying. Every time she spoke to him, she gave the same tells that he’d been able to pick up on without her realizing since she was a little girl. A father just knew when his daughter was leaving things out. Especially when it was something she was uncomfortable with.
But what was she lying about, exactly? He’d tried to pin her down without making it obvious, asking her questions about her school, her friends, her teachers. Nothing specific pinged as being the lie. Which clearly meant that it wasn’t just a single untruth. There was something… big there.
It was the school. Every time she talked about it, every ounce of fatherly instinct he had said that she was lying. She was leaving out great swaths of information. Important information. But why?
He couldn’t let that go on. He was going to have to call the school, find out what exactly was going on over there, as soon as possible.
Flick lying… the video of Joselyn that existed long before it should have… the two couldn’t be related, could they? It seemed impossible, and yet–
One Day Later
“So you’re absolutely sure about that? No question in your mind? Not even the slightest doubt?”
It was getting late, and Lincoln was still at work. The man was sitting at his desk, every light in the large, open bullpen off except for the one beside his computer. He held the phone to his ear, listening for another few seconds while tapping a pen rhythmically against the desk.
“Right, thanks, man. Yeah, I owe you. Next time you get out here.” He paused then before laughing. “Well yeah, I suppose it’s easier to make the trip out there. We’ll see. Maybe over the summer. Flick’d like that, it’s been a long time since she saw you and Carla. Yeah, soon.”
Dropping the phone receiver back into its cradle, Lincoln plucked a notebook off his desk and stared at the writing there. Scrawled across the middle of the page were the words: Fake video. Definitely fake. But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?
Slowly, he used the pen to scratch out the first four words. The video that had shown up on his desk, the one that showed Joselyn standing in that emergency room as an adult a full decade before she should have been born, wasn’t fake. If J.T. said the thing hadn’t been tampered with, then it hadn’t been tampered with. He was an old friend who had never actually met Joselyn before she… disappeared. Lincoln hadn’t wanted to try to explain her presence in the video to anyone who would have recognized her. He couldn’t even explain it to himself, let alone others.
The video couldn’t be real. But it was. Which meant… his gaze slowly moved to the other words on the page, the options he had written mainly as a jest. Time-traveler, clone, identical older sister.
An identical mother could work as well, of course. But of course, outside of television shows using the same actors for budget purposes, people’s ancestors didn’t really tend to look identical to them. Not to the degree that he could see in that video. The woman there was Joselyn. He just… knew it. He knew his wife, and the woman in the video was his wife.
So clone or time-traveler. But that was impossible. Impossible. Utterly impossible.
But still, there was–
Lincoln was walking out of the newspaper office, head shaking. If J.T. didn’t call him back soon…
Screw it. Reaching into his pocket, Lincoln withdrew his cell phone. A folded up piece of paper came with it. It was probably a receipt or something, and he idly unfolded the thing while hitting the number on the phone for his old friend. The phone rang twice before J.T. picked up.
“Hey, man, we–” He paused, listening. “This summer? Right, but when did we–” Again, he stopped talking. This time wasn’t because of his old friend, however. It was because he had finished unfolding the paper, only to find a page that had been torn from his notebook. Fake video. Definitely fake had been crossed out several times. After that, the rest of the note (But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?) had been circled several times. And beneath it, he had written, ‘check voicemail’.
“Hey, sorry, let me call you back.” After apologizing, Lincoln disconnected and switched over to check his voicemail, as he had clearly written in his own handwriting despite not actually remembering doing so.
“Video’s real,” his own voice spoke up as soon as the message started. “Not only is it real, but you had it checked twice. Once by J.T. and once by Packer up in Michigan. You just called Packer to see if he could double-check, and he talked about the video like he already knew it. You already talked to him about it two days ago. Recording this message in case I forget again.”
And he had forgotten again. Forgotten an entire conversation? Two entire conversations if the way J.T. had been talking was any indication.
Forgetting two entire conversations, and probably more than that. How? What the hell was going on? How could he just forget entire conversa–
Two days later
Groaning in relief as he practically fell into his bed after a long day, Lincoln slid his hand across the empty spot where Joselyn should have been. It was a familiar practice, one that he had taken every night since she had disappeared. Yet now, ever since he received that video, it was one that somehow seemed to mean even more than it had before.
He should really find out if J.T. had ever finished going over the thing.
With that in mind, he stretched out, hand slipping up under his pillow. To his surprise, his hand found a notebook that had been stuffed there.
Taking out the notebook, Lincoln reached out to switch the light on, squinting at the thing. In his own handwriting, the words, ‘You’re forgetting things’ had been hastily scribbled. Forgetting things? Well obviously he’d forgotten writing the note and putting it under his pillow. So…
He kept reading. J.T. had finished going over the video. Not only that, Packer had done it too. He didn’t even remember giving the video to Packer. And he’d already had two different conversations with J.T.
Forgetting things. He was forgetting things. How? Was he… was there something wrong with his mind? Oh God. No. If something happened to him, Flick would–
No. No, he had to remember. He had to make himself remember. Obviously, he’d already realized that, or he wouldn’t have started leaving these notes for himself.
Hurriedly, the man reached for the pen on his bedside table and began to scribble on the next page of the notebook.
Three Days Later
Something was wrong in his case file. Lincoln knew that much. Something within the extensive notes that he had taken about the terrorist attack that had taken place a couple months earlier was wrong. The case wasn’t leading anywhere. It seemed to be looping around in circles.
Did this have to do with his missing memories? He kept finding notes from himself, notes that he had written but didn’t actually remember writing. On top of that, he had begun finding tally marks on those notes. Tally marks that he had quickly realized indicated how many times he had found that particular note. The notes that had to do with the video that he’d found on his desk, a video that he’d had independently verified by more than one person.
Conversations he didn’t actually remember having. Notes he didn’t remember taking. Extensive letters that he had apparently written to himself, detailing his thoughts in ways that couldn’t have been faked by anyone else.
Strangely, he had started to sort-of remember things. That was, he could remember finding these notes multiple times, even if the contents of them and his own specific actions or thoughts were blurry. It was something in between deja vu and a specific recollection.
It was all a mess. None of it, his missing memories, the video being real, none of it made any sense. So, to clear his head, he had come back into his home office to look over the case files for the supposed terrorist attack one more time. Hopefully occupying his mind with something else would jog something loose.
And yet, looking over everything up on his bulletin board now, all he could think was that something was wrong. Something had changed. The still picture taken from that traffic cam that showed the limousine, another picture of the same limo in a fast food drive-through. His own note about the car being stolen. The bank accounts that had been used to pay for the food, as well as other services. Bank accounts that led nowhere but through four or five shell companies. Phone numbers he had taken from those company’s public information that had ended up rerouting him through dozens of automated messaging systems.
And worst of all, the fairly terrible picture that he had managed to scrounge up, the only one of its kind that he had been able to locate. It showed an utterly unremarkable-looking man. A man whom Lincoln was convinced had been behind those very attacks. But who was he? And why was he completely invisible to the system? No one Lincoln had sent the picture to from his extensive contacts in Los Angeles had any information at all about the figure. He was a ghost.
Standing there, looking at the information up on his bulletin board, all the pictures, all of his hand-written notes, all the photocopied articles, faxes, and the maps of where the limo could have gone in the time that it’d had, there was something… off. He couldn’t place it, couldn’t figure out what it was, but something was different from the way it had been. Something was just… wrong.
Slowly, the man let his gaze pass over the arranged notes, trying to sense what felt so off when he looked at it all together. Words, numbers, images, it all formed a single coherent symphony within his head. And yet, seeing it now, letting it fill his head, part of the song was wrong. It was small, a single incorrect note that most people would have missed against the rest of the noise. He had missed it himself for so long. Months by that point. Yet now, now it stuck out for reasons he couldn’t explain any more easily than he could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it.
Ever since he’d seen that video, Lincoln had been watching for other things that didn’t make sense. Things that seemed off or wrong around him. This… seemed to count somehow.
He stepped forward, humming a tune lightly under his breath as his hand lifted. Gradually, Lincoln traced his finger over the board. The image of the man, the bank account connected to the credit card that had paid for the meal at the restaurant, the phone number for the car service that the limo had been stolen from, the name of the company (a fake one that did no actual business in their advertised field) connected to the credit card that had paid for gas in that limo fifteen miles outside of town. The limo itself, its license plate circled in red. The… wait…
Lincoln paused. His finger halted in the air before slowly moving back along the board. The limo’s license plate. It ended in thirty-seven. Thirty-seven. His eyes scanned back over the board, searching… searching. There. The phone number for the car service. The last two digits there were a two and a four. Thirty-seven and then twenty-four.
No. That was wrong. It was wrong. The first phone number he’d had when he was just starting out as a cub reporter in California ended with three-seven-four-two. Three-seven-four-two. He remembered now. When he’d started setting up this board, he’d noticed that the last two digits of the car service and the last two digits on the license plate could go together to make the last four digits of his old phone number. It had been something completely offhand, utterly inconsequential.
And yet, he knew that was right. As little as it had actually mattered, it still stuck in his head.
Now it was wrong. Now the number for the car company didn’t end in four-two. It ended in two-four. Two-four, not four-two. But it had been four-two before. Three-seven-four-two.
It was something so minor, so inconsequential, that most people wouldn’t have noticed. But with the silly little nothing association he had made, linking the last two digits of that license plate and last two of that phone number together to make his old number, it had stuck in his head. Not perfectly. He hadn’t noticed when he went back to use the car service’s number in order to get more information from them. Hadn’t noticed for some time, actually. But it had stuck in his head, the wrongness of it. That was the source of the ‘bad note’ in the symphony of his investigation.
But why was it wrong? It hadn’t been wrong before, he knew that much. Somehow, the number he had written down had changed sometime between when he had first recorded it and now.
Had he changed it? Was this another one of his missing memories? But that didn’t make sense. Well, it made even less sense than any of this did.
Had it been different when he called the place to check up on their stolen vehicle? He paused, trying to remember. Not that he could trust his memory.
But he could trust his notes. Digging through them, he found the right paper and scanned through it. The information there matched what he remembered. Calling the car service had led him to the phone number that had been used to call for the car. According to the girl he had spoken to, the car had gone to the assigned location, only for the driver to wake up hours later with no idea what had happened. He’d taken the phone number that had called in the first place and tracked it through several names which, come to think of it, was where the whole ‘running in circles’ bit seemed to have started.
Considering that for a moment, Lincoln reached into his pocket and took out his cell before dialing the number that was written on the note, the one ending in two-four. It rang a couple times before being picked up by a familiar voice mail, announcing the name of the car service and asking him to leave his name and number and they would get back to him. It was the same message he’d heard before, when he’d left his information. They’d called him back an hour or so later and given him the information that eventually led him in circles.
Rather than leave a message, he clicked the disconnect and thought for a moment. Tapping the phone against his hand, Lincoln eventually dialed the number again. This time, he swapped the last two numbers to the way he remembered them being, the way that matched his old number.
Holding the phone to his ear then, the man listened as it rang three times before someone actually picked up. A male voice announced the name of the car service and then asked if they could help.
Pausing, Lincoln took a breath to collect himself before asking if they had any other phone number, such as one with the last two digits reversed. It was daytime, so he spoke quietly to avoid waking Asenath. The man on the phone was puzzled, but eventually replied that the service had a couple other phone numbers, neither of which were anywhere near similar to this one.
Thanking the man, Lincoln hung up. Then he stood there, staring at his phone for a few long seconds. The thought that he should have questioned the man further about the limo that had been stolen popped into his head, yet he was too distracted by the realization that his notes had absolutely been tampered with. And tampered with in a way that he hadn’t noticed except by chance. But who had that kind of access to his notes, to his home? Who could possibly have–
Slowly, the man turned his head in the direction of his daughter’s room, where his houseguest slept.
The next morning, Lincoln was sitting in his car on the way to work. Turning the car on, he flipped the visor down to avoid the glare from the rising sun. As he did so, something written on the mirror that was attached to the back of the visor caught his eye. In red marker, the words ‘cases of xeroderma pigmentosum’ were scrawled. Beside it was a hastily written phone number.
Xeroderma pigmentosum. That was the genetic disorder that Asenath suffered from, the one that made her unable to go out into the sunlight. He’d looked up the condition out of curiosity after reading the note that her doctor had sent him. But why was it written on his mirror, and what was the phone number next to it.
It was another note. Another note that he had apparently left for himself, in a big enough hurry that he couldn’t even wait for a notebook. That or he’d wanted to make absolutely certain that he saw it that morning.
Pulling out of the driveway, he hit the button for the phone on his steering wheel, then read out the number for the computer to dial for him.
It rang a few times before a female voice answered. “Syracuse University, admissions department. This is Anne, how may I direct your call?”
Taking his cue from the words on the mirror, Lincoln asked, “Yes, hi. I’m with–” He paused. They probably wouldn’t talk to some nothing newspaper in Wyoming. “I’m with the Times, doing a story on students who have to work through unique genetic conditions. Who would I talk to to find out your school’s history of dealing with people who have xeroderma pigmentosum?”
He expected her to ask what it was. Instead, the woman paused before remarking, “Boy, that’s weird. Fifty-two years old, never heard that term in my life. Now you’re the second guy to ask about it in the past couple days.”
So he had called before… Lincoln frowned. “Must be someone trying to scoop me,” he joked weakly before adding, “Does that mean you haven’t dealt with someone with that condition?”
“I haven’t, but the university has,” the woman replied. “Hold on, I’ve got it here. Yeah, one student over in Newhouse, about thirty years ago.”
She was obviously referring to S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University’s communications school. It was one of the best journalism schools in the country. Lincoln hadn’t gone to it, but he had toyed with the idea of trying to get Flick in. Especially after she was accepted into Crossroads.
The woman continued talking. “I can’t tell you much about her. Student confidentiality and all that. No names, no phone numbers. I’m not sure how much help I can be, honestly.”
Pausing, Lincoln drummed his fingers over the steering wheel for a moment before asking, “For demographic reasons, could you tell me what kind of ethnicity she was?”
“Oh, I don’t know… that sounds like a bad idea.” The woman hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before finally relenting. “Asian. The girl was Asian. Now that’s really all I can tell you.”
“It’s all right,” Lincoln managed. “That’s all I need.”
He disconnected the call, then sat back heavily while pulling the car to a stop at the red light.
Asian. An Asian girl at the journalism school who had the same condition that Asenath suffered from.
Sitting there, the man thought for a moment before looking through his phone. He flipped over to outgoing calls, the paused to stare. Several different numbers that he didn’t recognize filled up the screen.
Thoughtfully, he tapped one, listening as a different university picked up. He gave the same spiel, only to get an angry retort from the man on the other end that nothing had changed since yesterday. There still had never been any students with that problem, so stop calling.
One by one, Lincoln went through every number. Pulling away as the light turned green, he talked to people. They all remembered someone else calling about the same thing the day before (though only a couple recognized his voice) and most told him the same thing. There had never been anyone at the school who suffered from that condition. Two others, however, confirmed that they did indeed have a student who matched Asenath’s description (at least as much as they would confirm it). Different names, but clearly the same person.
And all three ‘different’ Asian students with the same allergy to sunlight attended the schools dozens of years apart. The earliest was all the way back in 1957, then Syracuse University in the late eighties, and finally another university in the early 2000’s.
This was starting to get really–
Three Days Later
He had begun to remember when he left notes to himself. Not always. It seemed random, when and what he would remember and when and what he wouldn’t. Over the past several days, Lincoln had taken to writing down every single thought he had when it related to either Joselyn, Flick’s school, or the girl currently living in her room. He’d either write it down, or record it in one of his voice recorders (which he’d dug out after getting tired of using his own cell phone’s voicemail). About half of what he recorded, he actually remembered doing so. The other half he forgot, but repeatedly reminded himself of with notes that he had taken to leaving for himself everywhere.
He was remembering enough to keep the broad strokes clear in his head. For specifics, he often had to go back to his notes and recordings. In some cases he had to do it multiple times within the same train of thought to jog a memory that stubbornly kept trying to disappear.
The idea that he couldn’t trust his memory was bad enough. But the thought that he couldn’t trust the girl who slept in the same house he did, the girl who slept in his daughter’s bedroom, that was… indescribable. So many times, so many, he had been tempted to have it out with her.
Something always stopped him. A nagging thought in the back of his head that he hadn’t yet put together yet. A lost memory? A realization that hadn’t fully formed? He didn’t know. He could barely trust himself by that point.
What kind of person was he? Was his mind even his own? Were his decisions his own, his choices? How many times had his memory been erased before he started noticing, before he started taking notes to remind himself?
And would he start forgetting… other things? Would he forget Felicity? Would he–
Stopping that line of thought, Lincoln forced himself to focus. He was back in his home office, staring at the board in front of him. It was late enough that Asenath was up. He could hear the girl down in the kitchen, clinking away with something.
From his pocket, he withdrew the familiar notebook. Tapping his pen against it, he glanced down. Time-Traveler was written there, along with the word Hostage.
Was he a hostage? A hostage of the… immortal girl who had attended at least three different colleges over the past sixty years, always the same age? An immortal girl with an allergy to sunlight, a girl who never aged, who never went out in the sun, who–
A few seconds later.
What? What had just happened? No. No, he knew this part. He had forgotten something. Forgotten–
Looking down, he found a word written not on the notebook, but on his own hand. Vampire.
Vampire. Immortal… avoided sunlight… it made–okay it didn’t make any sense, but that made as much sense as anything else considering he had unaltered video of his own wife walking around as an adult a decade before she was supposed to have been born. So sure, vampire.
God, he was going insane. He already was insane. Flick was just…
He stopped. Flick. Did Flick know? She had to have known something about–wait, no. What if—
A few seconds later.
Again. Again he had forgotten something. Looking down, Lincoln saw more marks on his hand. This time, he had written, Flick knew.
Flick knew? Flick knew what? He thought back, looking at the notebook again. What did Flick have to do with Asenath, or the video of Joselyn, or the man in the grainy picture? What did Asenath have to do with the man, and why had she switched the number so that he called the wrong place?
Not just the wrong place. Somehow she had set it up so that he would call a place that sounded like the right one, a number posing as the car service, and had actually had someone else call him back to give false information, information that had led him in circles.
So Asenath was a… an immortal… a vampire, who was working with the man who was behind the attacks right at Flick’s birthday… and… and…
Was she a guard? Had the man… had he done something to Flick, and Asenath was here to keep him in line? He looked again at the word hostage on the notebook, frowning for a moment.
No. No, that didn’t make sense. Flick liked Asenath. He could tell. And that Shiori girl. Flick… really liked her. There was more there, and he just couldn’t believe that it was fake. The affection, the jokes they told, the… it wasn’t fake.
So did Flick not know that Asenath was his jailer, for lack of a better word?
Okay, no. That didn’t make sense either.
Wait. Hold on. Flick had called him. She’d called him not long after that school started, and asked him…
She’d asked him if Joselyn had ever attended a private school. He couldn’t remember her exact words, but he knew that much. She’d asked if her mother had ever gone to a private school.
Okay. Wait. Wait a second. What if she called because she already knew the answer. Something-she’d seen something that made her think of her mother, something similar to the video that he’d received.
Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. That was what Flick had been calling about. She found something that had to do with her mother.
But if Joselyn had gone to Crossroads, that would mean–
A few seconds later.
Not this time. Realizing he’d lost time, Lincoln looked down at the notebook. He’d been writing the entire time. Notes taken in his own shorthand, almost unreadable by anyone else, but perfectly clear to him.
Reading through them, it only took him a minute to catch up. Which brought him to the fact that Joselyn going to Crossroads had to mean–
A few seconds later.
Again. He read his notes, saw where he had circled particular points. Crossroads. Crossroads was the key. Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. Flick was going to Crossroads. Asenath was here with him. His jailer? No. Flick liked her. Flick trusted her. That was–
A few seconds later.
Flick. Asenath. Crossroads. Joselyn. The man in the picture. The video.
Grimacing, Lincoln quickly scratched out where he had written hostage. Beside it, he wrote protected. Flick trusted Asenath. She wasn’t here to threaten him, she was there to protect him.
And Joselyn. Joselyn wasn’t a vampire. He’d seen her out in the sunlight plenty of times. Plus, she had his baby. Could a vampire even do tha–he couldn’t believe this was a real line of thought.
Putting his pen beside Time-Traveler, Lincoln shook his head before writing Immortal.
Was Joselyn just that old? Had something happened… wait. Wait, Flick’s birthday. The man in the picture had come–
That was it. Oh God, that was it. The man in the picture had come on Flick’s birthday. He’d come to threaten her because… because of Crossroads. No, because Flick had gone to Crossroads.
There. He had it. It was right there. Right within his grasp of understanding.
Crossroads was where Joselyn had gone. It was her school, her… they were all part of it. Shiori, she went to Crossroads and she was Asenath’s sister–
But she wasn’t a vampire? Was she really her sister or–Figure that part out later. The point was, Joselyn went to Crossroads, and Shiori went there now. They were connected to the… to the immortal thing, his immortal wife, and the vampire.
So Crossroads was a school for these people, and now they had shown up out of nowhere. They took in Flick. She found out about her mother going there, and now she had been doing her Flick thing and investigating.
Somehow, this man, who had some connection to Joselyn’s disappearance, had found out about Flick’s investigation, and came to town to threaten her, using the attacks to prove how dangerous he was.
And in reaction, Flick had asked her classmate’s vampire relative to stay with him, to protect him. That was–
A few seconds later.
Vampire relative. Vampire relative. Sister. He’d written that across the bottom of the page, underlining it. Shiori. Shiori was Asenath’s sister. Flick liked them both. She trusted them. She was–
Taking out his recorder, Lincoln hit play and spoke in a quiet voice, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”
He didn’t know how exact he was. But this felt like the right track. Asenath hadn’t changed the number on the board to hurt him. She’d been trying to keep him away from the man in the photograph.
He understood her reasoning. But he couldn’t just let it go. He had to know the truth. But to do that, he had to understand why he kept forgetting things, why… why everything was always so fuzzy. And most importantly, he had to let Asenath know that he knew, that he understood.
But to do that, he’d have to go about it in just the right way…