Once Koren finished telling me about her horrifying childhood experience with the flower-leaving abductor, I stared at her, mouth open. My first impulse was to grab and hug her after hearing something that damn traumatizing. But, well, we didn’t exactly have that kind of relationship yet. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t react well to it. Which meant that I was left staring, tamping down my impulses.
There was, however, one reaction that I couldn’t quite avoid. “You mean your mother dismissed it? What the hell? Believe in the supernatural or not, you don’t tell your kid that something that made her run out of her own house and sleep in the backyard because she was so scared was just a damn dream!”
I was even more disturbed than I would have been, since this was my own half-sister we were talking about. It sounded like she’d ignored and dismissed the terror of her own child, which was just… wrong.
“What else was she supposed to do?” Koren demanded. “Even if she believed me, telling a ten-year old that there really was some kind of man in her room wouldn’t exactly help me sleep at night. She and my father went through the motions for about a month with me, checking under the bed, checking the closet, leaving the hallway light on, the usual. My father even put in an extra lock on the window. It was attached to this big red lever that glowed in the dark. All I had to do was look and I could see that the lever was down, which meant the window was locked. They didn’t ignore the fact that I was afraid.”
That was a little bit better, but still. It didn’t stop me from kind of wanting to shake my half-sister. With that option off the table, I just stood there for a moment before finally managing a weak, “But you never, um, said anything to anyone else about what happened, even after your babysitter disappeared?”
Koren gave me a brief dirty look. “I was ten years old, Chambers. Everyone said I was wrong, that she never existed. I let myself believe they were right. Because, again, I was ten years old. Oh, and I didn’t actually want my parents to think I was crazy. So I just,” she shrugged helplessly, “let it go, I guess.”
I hesitated before nodding, having to accept that. She had a point, what could a little girl actually do? “But what about after you learned about Strangers? Did you realize then that it was probably–”
“Probably a Stranger?” the other girl interrupted impatiently. The sarcasm in her voice was so sharp it could have cut steak. “Nooo, that never occurred to me. I guess the fact that I chose the Investigation track after having a childhood Stranger experience that traumatized me was just one big coincidence.”
“Too bad they don’t have an Acrimony track,” I muttered. “You’d be awesome in that one.” Then I shook myself as something else occurred to me. “Wait, your vision from the Edge. Was it about this thing?” I wasn’t exactly sure whether it was possible or not. Did the vision from the Edge have to be an ancestor’s interaction with Strangers, or could it be one of the same person’s? I needed to ask Gaia.
“No,” Koren replied in a short, sharp tone. She wasn’t looking at me. “My vision wasn’t about my damn childhood. It was about…” The girl trailed off before finally shrugging. “It was about something else.”
Something about the way she said it made me want to ask exactly what her Edge vision had been, but I couldn’t think of a way to present the question without crossing some kind of line. Instead, I simply tried a smile. “Hey, at least you’ll get some kind of closure. Professor Dare said the case was solved.”
Her gaze found mine. “Yeah, and now I just have to wonder why Dare wanted me to take a case that she had to know happened right around me. Probably even knew it involved me. But investigators usually aren’t allowed to take cases that personally involve them. So why’d she make sure I got it?”
Hesitating, I offered her a shrug. “Maybe she thinks letting you go through the steps of how the case was solved will help you? Like I said, it’s a chance for you to get some closure for a childhood trau–”
“Closure for childhood trauma, yeah, yeah.” Koren waved a hand dismissively while pressing on. “My question is, what’s her angle? What does she get out of it? Why does she want me to get closure? Was she part of the case? Does she know something else important? What’s in this thing for her?”
“She could just think that it’s the right thing to do,” I pointed out. “Not everyone has some deep ulterior motive.” Even saying it, I knew it didn’t sound convincing. Particularly since I knew that at least one motive Dare had was for me to spend time alone with Koren in a way that the other girl couldn’t ignore.
And judging from the way she looked at me, Koren didn’t find it at all convincing either. “Right. Sure.” Rolling her eyes, she opened the folder once more. “Fine, whatever, let’s get on with it then. The file says there’s a couple audio-annotated PAWS walkthroughs. We might as well ask if we can see them.”
I followed after her, and we got permission from Dare to go into the Pathmaker building so we could use the PAWS. Which meant that before long, the two of us were standing in a holographic recreation of the house of one of the families that had been hit by this Stranger. According to the file, the family that lived there had been three children living with a widowed mother before this had happened.
Koren and I were standing on either side of another figure, the holographic recreation of the Runner who originally investigated the case. I was pretty sure that I’d never seen him before, though I couldn’t put any actual money on it, considering how utterly and completely average he looked in every conceivable way. He was the kind of person that you could stare at for a solid minute, and later still not be able to pick him out of a lineup. Absolutely everything about the man made him look utterly bland. Brown hair, forgettable face, eyes that were a sort of forest green but in an unremarkable way, and a slim but not too slim build. This was a guy who faded into the background no matter where he was.
“Case Two-Seven-Venus-Four,” the Runner’s hologram announced. “My name is Runner Kyre Templeton, and I’ll be doing a brief walkthrough of the situation for our records. Jackie, if you’re reviewing this, you still owe me for those Dodgers tickets. Which is pretty bad, since the team doesn’t even live in Brooklyn anymore, man.” Despite the man’s light tone, I could see the tension in his eyes. He may have sounded like he wasn’t taking the situation seriously, but I’d seen enough from my dad to know that wasn’t true. Some cops, and Heretics too, I guessed, had to find any way they could to stay sane while spending so much time peering deep into the depths of human (and inhuman) brutality.
Runner Templeton started to walk slowly away from the front door and deeper into the house then. “The family that lived here was the O’Hannity’s. One mother, Harriet, widowed from Richard O’Hannity three years before this happened. Three children. Twins, a boy and a girl, age nine, and a younger boy, age six. Personal note, look into how the husband died. The record says car accident, but you never know. There could be a connection. Also check the grave, make sure he’s still in there.”
By that time, the man had walked up the stairs. We followed him into what looked like the twins’ room, considering the two identical beds on either side of it. As the two of us watched, Runner Templeton put his hand on what was obviously the girl’s bed. When he spoke that time, his voice cracked a little bit. “According to the mother, she put her twins into bed at nine o’clock on September fourth. Two hours later, she heard music coming from the room while walking past. When she opened the door, she found the twins, Dylan and Dinah, sitting together in the girl’s bed. They had a radio with them. Harriet told the children they had to turn off the music and get back in their own beds, and the children informed her that the music made ‘him’ stay away. The mother told the twins that their younger brother, Max, would stay out of their room even if they weren’t playing music, to which Dinah replied that they weren’t talking about him. According to the mother’s testimony, both twins informed her that the music was to keep away what they called, ‘The Hiding Man.’ Note: try to find out what music the twins were listening to. It might end up being relevant to their belief that it kept this creature away from them.”
The man walked to the middle of the room then, turning in a circle to take in the whole thing. “The mother asked them where the man was hiding. Dylan said he was under the bed, while Dinah said he was in the closet. Harriet turned the light on and checked under both beds, then she opened the closet.”
He followed the same motions, crouching to see under the beds before rising. As he stepped toward the closet, I saw Koren get noticeably tense. She stepped back and away from me to give herself room, her hand moving down to one of the Hunga Munga on her belt, even though we were in a simulation.
“Harriet,” the man continued, “opened the door of the closet.” He did the same, revealing a small space full of children’s clothes and a few toys. “According to the mother, the next thing she remembers is waking up in her bed the next morning to the smell of burning toast. Max, the six-year old, was in the kitchen trying to make breakfast. Both of the twins were missing, and neither of them have been heard from in the three days since this happened. Note: find out if Max had any similar experiences.”
Pausing the holographic simulation, I looked toward Koren, who was even more tense by that point. “I know you’ll probably throw something at me for asking this, but are you sure you’re all right?”
Her gaze snapped from the closet to me, then back again. “I’m fine, Chambers. I’m not some shrinking violet pussy little baby you have to take care of. Just shut up so we can get through this. Believe it or not, I’m more interested in finding out what happened to the Stranger that tried to kidnap me when I was a little girl than I am in playing touchy-feely hug time with you. Besides, don’t you have your own issues to handle without grabbing onto mine? Half the school thinks your roommate is the one who killed Professor Pericles because he found out she’s actually some kind of spy from Eden’s Garden.”
“What?” I did a quick double-take. “She’s been attacked several times already. People tried to kill her. Why would anyone think she was the one who killed Pericles? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“That’s how gossip works,” she replied expertly. “It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to incriminate someone and make people feel like they’re smarter than the average person, like they know something they shouldn’t. It’s like a conspiracy theory. Jeez, you have gone to high school, right?”
She had a point. I sighed, glancing toward her. “You said ‘half the school.’ Does that include you?”
Koren met my gaze, her own expression unreadable for a moment before she looked away. “Doesn’t really matter. But for the record, no. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense.” Her shoulders raised in an elaborate shrug. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like her. I think she’s a bitch. But she’s not a murderer, and she’s not some kind of spy. Arrogant and full of herself, sure, but she didn’t kill Pericles. The evidence isn’t there and the only proof people are using is the Eden’s Garden thing. Which is stupid.”
“You know,” I started, “you’re actually a lot better at this whole investigation thing than I thought you’d be at the start of the year.” I hadn’t expected Koren of all people to keep her personal opinion separate.
“But I have to ask,” I went on, unable to help myself. “Why the thing with the Pathmaker building back on the first day? I mean, you just found out magic was real, the twins warned us about crossing the line in front of this place, and you were just gonna throw Vanessa over the line to test what would happen?”
She squinted at me before just shaking her head. “For god’s sake, it was just a fucking joke. I wasn’t actually gonna shove the little nerd over the line. I’m not an idiot. I was just kidding, Christ. Then that arrogant bi—your oh-so-pleasant roommate showed up and threw me on the fucking ground.”
Before I could find a response to that, Koren started the recording once again. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk anymore. So I shook it off and focused on following along as the scene reset to a different house, and Runner Templeton took us through the next house on the list of this ‘Hiding Man’s’ victims.
In the end, there wasn’t enough time to go over all of the evidence that Templeton had recorded. There were over a dozen missing people, and he had detailed walkthroughs of all their homes. Part of me (and I was sure a large part of Koren) wanted to skip to the end to see exactly what this ‘Hiding Man’ had ended up being, how they caught him, and exactly what had been done. That whole closure thing.
But Professor Dare made us go through things one step at a time. We were supposed to watch and listen to all of the recordings of the initial case, then look through the exact same books that Templeton had used to narrow down what the creature was and how to stop it. It would take more than one night to get through everything. So I made plans to hit the library with Koren the next evening (after my detention), and made my way back up to the dorm since it was time for curfew by that point, and I still didn’t have permission to be out and about while everyone else was sleeping.
I had been planning on asking my roommate how her track meeting had gone, and if she’d had a chance to ask Gaia about visiting Tangle’s hospital. Unfortunately, Avalon’s side of the room was shrouded in darkness as I went in. Which wasn’t surprising. The other girl was always up before dawn, and since I didn’t sleep very much, she spent most nights with the privacy screen active.
So I just tugged out the chair in front of my desk and took a seat, clicking the button on the mouse by my computer. Curious, I started to do a search for ugly, humanoid creatures that liked to hide a lot, manipulated memories, and focused on children. Hey, maybe I wouldn’t find anything useful, but it couldn’t hurt.
I’d just started to squint through the results when the phone that Gaia had given me buzzed from its place nearby on the desk. Expecting Asenath or Miranda, or maybe even my dad (though I wasn’t sure why he’d be calling so late), I picked it up and looked at the number.
Shrugging, I started to hit ignore. Then stopped. How would I know what phone Miranda would choose to call from? Even Asenath or Twister might end up needing to contact me from a blocked phone. It was probably nothing, but just in case, I quickly answered. “Hello?”
“Are you going to visit me?”
The voice was muffled somehow, almost distorted. Yet it was still familiar, even though I couldn’t place it just then. “I’m sorry? Who’s this?”
“I asked if you were going to visit me. It’s my birthday, you know. I visited you on your birthday.”
My chair squeaked as I stiffened abruptly. My throat went dry, and I had to swallow a couple times. Now I knew why the voice was familiar. “… Ammon. How did you—what do you want?”
“Duhhhh, Flick, I told you,” his innocent, childish voice insisted. “I wanna know if you were gonna visit me. I visited you on your birthday, shouldn’t you visit me on mine? That’s the polite thing to do.”
I started to interrupt, but he continued. “Our mom talks about politeness a lot. She wants me to be um, respectful? But how can I be respectful when my own sister won’t even visit me on my birthday? It’s mean. Family is supposed to help each other, but you wouldn’t even help me find out if I care about you or not. You’re a really bad sister.”
“Ammon,” I managed through gritted teeth. “I don’t even know when your birthday is, where you live, or how to get there. How could I visit you even if I wanted to?”
He was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to make me think he might’ve hung up. But just as I was about to check the phone to see if we were still connected, the boy made a noise. After a moment, I realized that he was giggling. “What’s so funny?”
The boy continued to giggle for a few more seconds before the laughter stopped abruptly. Yet there was still amusement in his voice as he answered, “See? We really are related. We thought the same thing. You couldn’t visit me, so I visited you.”
“Yeah, I know,” I muttered. “You came to my house, you tried to have my dad murder someone. That’s not something I consider funny, Ammon.”
“No, no, no,” the kid retorted, still giggling. “I didn’t mean then. I meant now.”
“You mean now, what?” I asked, frowning.
“I mean,” the voice came back. Except this time, it wasn’t coming from the phone. I looked at the device. It was already disconnected. Spinning and jumping to my feet so fast I knocked my mouse to the floor and tipped my chair over as my heart leapt into my throat, I found myself staring at the other side of the room.
The privacy screen was off, so I could see Avalon lying there. Her eyes were open, her arms locked to her sides as she lay completely still. And Ammon, sitting beside her, waved while finishing his sentence.
“… I came to visit you, now.”