“This feels weird, right?” Koren asked, while the two of us stood at the edge of the gas station parking lot, staring at the place ahead of us. December and Tabbris were talking about some sort of spell nearby in their rapid way, while Rebecca was checking on something in her cannon backpack, giving us time to look the place over before going in. Asenath hadn’t arrived yet.
“Weird?” I echoed in a flat voice. “Oh, you mean seeing this place in real life after using the PAWS thing to see it in holographic form last year back in Investigation class? Yeah, it’s pretty weird.” I couldn’t stop looking at the specific pump in question, where Denise had originally been murdered by Ammon. It was the furthest one from where we were standing, past a couple other cars that were fueling up. Their drivers were just standing around, having no idea they were so close to a spot where such a horrific act had been committed the year before. Because of course they didn’t know. Even if Mom’s whole thing with Denise hadn’t actually erased the fact that someone had died right there (and I still wasn’t completely clear on how much of those memories were left in the general public, or what they knew about it), these people had no reason to pay much attention to that. Especially over a year later. The thing was just a normal gas pump for them.
And yet, as I stood there and squinted that way, I could have sworn there was something weird about it. Frowning, I started walking that way without knowing exactly what I was seeing. All I knew was that something was off. But even under the sharp glare of the heavy canopy lighting, it wasn’t visible from where we were. I needed to get a closer look.
The others followed without questioning it. I crossed the lot, moving around one of the cars to go straight up to the pump itself. By that point, I could see what I had only barely noticed from further away. Dents. There were dents on both sides of the pump. It looked like someone had literally slammed their hands into the thing, caving it inward partway. Not so deep that it was broken, but definitely visible. Frowning, I ran my fingers over the dents, while the others crowded around to see what I was so focused on.
“What the hell happened to it?” Koren asked, reaching out to brush her own hand over one of them before squinting at me with a very quiet, “It looks like… you know.”
“Pretty fucked up, huh?” That wasn’t me. It was a thin, pale guy with short blond hair and a scraggly beard in a Coke delivery uniform, coming out of the store while dragging his two-wheeled cart thing behind him. He nodded our way. “Looks like someone went after that thing with a bat or something. Damn cameras didn’t catch whoever it was though. Pieces of junk. I keep telling Zane he needs to upgrade his security. ‘Specially after that poor girl offed herself right there.” He had stopped walking by then, clearly more in the mood to gossip than get back on the road. “Such a goddamn shame.”
Right, so they did remember that someone died. Hesitating, I asked, “A girl killed herself here? How, why? Uhh, who?” That last one was what I was really interested in, to be honest. I was curious about what exactly was in their heads after Denise’s connection to the situation was erased. Not to mention the little bit about who exactly had punched this gas pump. Because I had a feeling it was connected to our situation. It seemed a little too coincidental otherwise.
“Oh, yeah, you didn’t hear about that?” the guy whistled, nodding to the pump we were standing by. “Happened right there. Some guy came in and tried to rob the place, but she took his gun and shot him. Guess she couldn’t deal with what happened, cuz she came out here and used the pump to drown herself.” He was grimacing then, shaking his head. “Isn’t that screwed up? I mean, sucks to kill yourself anyway. But why wouldn’t she just use the gun? Drowning herself with gasoline, just–” A sigh escaped the man before he crossed himself. “So screwed up.”
“Who was the girl?” Rebecca piped up when the man fell silent, clearly just as curious as I was about how that had been adjusted.
The man, however, simply shrugged. “Oh, you know, one of the girls who worked here. She was from out of town, hadn’t really lived here long. Maybe that had something to do with why she killed herself, you know? No support system, no friends. I don’t think anyone even really remembers her name. And ain’t that just awful? I mean, bad enough to go through something that screws you up that bad, but then no one even knows much about you?” He grimaced to himself, looking a bit shaken by his own words before giving us a distracted nod and heading for his truck to get back to work.
Which left us standing there, staring at the dents on the side of the pump. My voice was quiet. “Do you think someone or something came trying to find out the truth? Someone with a connection to Fossor or Ammon. Maybe they found the pump and… got frustrated because of the spell that changed people’s memories. If they were trying to find out who the girl who died here was, and nobody could tell them…” I trailed off, mentally working through the possibilities. None of them made me exactly cheerful. Even if that was true, we still had no idea who or what could possibly have been trying to get at Ammon or even Fossor himself. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of people they had made enemies of, and I was pretty sure plenty of those wouldn’t care about hurting Denise on their quest for revenge. Especially if they hadn’t heard about both of them being dead already. Much as I wanted to think that any enemies of Fossor would be friends of ours, that wasn’t necessarily true. He’d pissed off plenty of bad people as well.
Rebecca spoke up after a moment. “Maybe that’s how they found Denise. If she was having nightmares or just… memories, she might’ve come here. Then whatever made those dents noticed her and figured out she had some sort of connection to Ammon.”
That sounded like a strong possibility, and I was about to say so before Asenath arrived. I sensed someone approaching from behind, and turned to see the vampire girl on her way. She looked uhh, not great. Between her and my mother, I wasn’t sure which was more upset about this situation. What I did know was that I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible when those two found them. I had a feeling the results wouldn’t be pretty.
In a low voice as she stared at the same dents in the pump, Senny announced, “You think whoever left those is the one who knows where Denise is now? Then I suppose we should find out who, or what, it was.” Glancing to the others, she added, “We probably shouldn’t all crowd around inside to ask questions. Do you think you can look around out here? Check for anything unusual. Signs of magic, anything… odd like those dents right there, whatever might be a sign that something was lurking around this place. There might even be a nest nearby, on one of the roofs or in the alleys. If something was really trying to find Ammon by coming here, it might’ve staked the place out for awhile before seeing Denise. Worth a shot, anyway.”
The others agreed with that, Tabbris mentioning that she had a couple spells that could help check. She and December split off with Koren and Rebecca, all four spreading out to search the surrounding area. Which left me to go into the shop with Asenath. The two of us headed that way together, as I glanced at the (much) older girl. “I wish I could give you a platitude that would mean anything. But I’m pretty sure it would just be insulting. We both know how bad this looks.”
She, in turn, gave a very slight nod, her mouth pressed tightly closed while she opened the door and gestured for me to go in. “Doesn’t look good, that’s for sure.”
The shop itself was empty, save for the teenage clerk. She had dirty blonde hair and was reclined in a chair behind the counter, paying more attention to her phone than us, though she did take a second to raise a hand in silent greeting when we looked that way. Her thumbs danced over the screen, texting away while clearly waiting for us to go about our business.
Exchanging a look with Senny, I shrugged before walking through the store to look around to give the place a once-over. Yeah, it looked just like the simulated version back at Crossroads. And gave me even more of the creeps. Sure, it looked completely normal, but something about the place just… made a chill run down my spine. Probably because I knew what had happened here.
“Thirsty?” Asenath asked while I was thinking about that.
“Huh?” I blinked, then looked down. There was a Sprite in my hand that I didn’t remember picking up. “Oh. Uh, I guess.” Frowning briefly, I shook my head. “This place and me picking things up, I swear.”
“What do you mean?” the vampire girl pressed, squinting at me.
I shrugged. “It was… well, obviously now we know it was because of the whole Ammon being my brother thing. But back when we were looking into the recreation of this place for Investigation class, I picked up a few different things that happened to be like… the exact stuff Ammon bought when he was here.”
Asenath raised an eyebrow. “And now you just picked up that Sprite without thinking about it?”
“Sure, I guess. But… he’s gone,” I pointed out. “I just… picked up a soda while I was thinking about all this stuff, that’s all. I mean, that’s not that weird, right?”
“Maybe.” From her tone, Asenath wasn’t really convinced. Which was okay, because neither was I.
But, I shook that off for now. Though I put down the Sprite before purposefully walking to the counter where the clerk was. “Hey, uhh, can I ask you something?” Might as well jump straight into things. We needed to find some answers.
Glancing up from her phone, the girl raised an eyebrow. “You need the key to the restroom? It’s supposed to be for customers only, but you know, fuck that. If you gotta piss, you gotta piss. No skin off my back. Mostly that rule’s supposed to keep the druggies out of the restroom, anyway.”
I checked the name tag on her shirt. “Uh, Kalia? Right, nah, it’s not about the restroom. But thanks. Actually, we were wondering if anything weird had happened around here lately. You know, anything different from usual I’d say, probably within the past few weeks. Maybe three weeks ago to be specific?” Yeah, I was being about as straight-forward as possible. There wasn’t time to be cute about it, not with Denise’s life on the line.
Something about the question had clearly immediately struck the other girl, judging from the brief expression that crossed her face before she wiped it away and offered us a squint. “Unusual? We get a lot of weirdos in here. Comes with the territory. You know, open all night, close to a homeless camp about three blocks that way, and an improv theater about two blocks the other way. Weirdos are like, our number one customer base. So you’re gonna have to be a bit more specific.” Belatedly, she added, “Why, you looking for someone?”
Well, screw it, time to go all-in on that whole not beating around the bush thing. “A girl, about ten to twelve years old. This tall, dark hair. She would have come in at some point in the past few weeks. And we think she might have, uhh, been hanging around out there to get a look at the gas pump where that, uhh, girl died.” Yup, just jumping straight on into the whole thing.
Kalia, for her part, blinked at the question. Again, there was something telling in her expression for just a moment before she shook it off, eyes narrowing. “What, did someone send you in to play games too? Cuz it’s not fun. It wasn’t funny then, and it’s not funny now. So you can just–”
“Whoa, hey.” Asenath held up both hands while protesting. “I promise, we’re not playing games, and nobody sent us in here. What are you talking about? We’re looking for a girl who went missing, and someone said she might’ve come in here and started acting weird. That’s all.”
I nodded. “What she said. We’re just looking for this girl. But uhh, why do you think someone’s playing very not-funny games with you? What does that have to do with a girl?”
Kalia looked back and forth between us as though trying to decide if we were being serious. Finally, she exhaled and answered. “A little over a year ago, a guy came into this place and started to rob it. But the clerk who worked here shot and killed him. Then she killed herself.”
“Yeah,” I started to confirm, “we heard about that much, but I don’t–”
“He was my dad,” the girl replied. “He came to rob the place to make up for… because he borrowed money to take care of me. He borrowed it from a really bad guy named Mercer. He’s like this gang boss or whatever. Real lowlife, but don’t let him find out I called him that. He’s scary. Like, really scary. That–that son of a bitch was gonna do–he was gonna do something bad, to me, because he wasn’t getting his money back fast enough. My dad was desperate. He came here and he got killed. The owner gave me a job because I was hanging around just trying to see the place where my dad died. He gave me a chance. But then Mercer kept coming around, trying to get money out of me instead. He wouldn’t leave it alone. Nothing was enough for him. I didn’t–I didn’t have a chance. I kept trying to tell him to wait for me to be paid enough, but he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t–and then he just… he just…”
Frowning, I asked, “He just what? Did he do something to you?” Oh boy, was I not in the mood to find out about some guy hurting and terrorizing a girl. I was already reeling from the revelation that she was the daughter of the original robber. That was–yeah. Eesh. It complicated that whole situation, that was for sure. And now to find out that the prick who had set the whole thing in motion was still trying to force this girl to give him more money after everything she had already been through? I really wanted to find whoever that was and give him a piece of my mind. And maybe a piece of my staff while I was at it. Fucking piece of shit.
Again, the other girl hesitated. It looked like she was afraid to get into the details. She had a pensive look on her face and squirmed a little while fidgeting with her hands.
“It’s okay,” Senny gently reassured her, raising a hand to touch Kalia’s wrist while meeting her gaze. “Trust us, we don’t have anything to do with that Mercer guy. We’re not here for him, just looking for the girl. But tell us what happened. Did he hurt you? Has he threatened you again?” Despite the gentleness of her tone as she tried to keep the girl calm, I could tell that she was just as close as I was to demanding directions to that guy so we could do something about him.
Kalia, however, shook her head. “No, that’s the thing–I mean he was. He was being really demanding.” A frown crossed her face again. “He was really pushing hard, wouldn’t let up about it. He was supposed to come in the other day. I was waiting for him, but he never… he never came. Then I went to see him, I had fifty dollars. And he… he said he didn’t know who I was. I mean, he took the fifty bucks, but he didn’t know my name. He didn’t know who I was or who my dad was. He terrorized my father into getting himself killed, which–which drove another girl to kill herself because of it. Then he kept pushing me for more money. And then suddenly he doesn’t know who I am?”
Yeah, she was right. That did sound pretty weird. And distinctly unnatural. Before Asenath or I could say anything, however, the girl went on. “And with that girl going on about some tattooed monster coming in, I just–it was a weird coincidence. Especially with you coming in now.”
“Hold on, a girl asked about a tattooed monster?” Asenath pressed, giving me a brief look.
With a nod, Kalia confirmed, “Yeah, a little girl like the one you described. First she came in and was asking me about what happened with my dad and that clerk. I mean, she didn’t know he was my dad before. But she was asking about that. Then it was like… she went nuts? She started asking about some monster with scales and tattoos before just taking off and running outside. Then I never saw her again. Hell, might not even be the right kid.”
To that, I dug in my pocket for my phone. “Hang on, I think I have a picture.” I had a copy of the video that my mother had shown us before when she revealed that Denise was alive. Bringing up a still shot of that, I held the phone out for the other girl to see.
Kalia’s head bobbed quickly as she pointed at the screen. “Yeah, that’s her. Who is she?”
“Her name is Denise,” Asenath explained. “And you’re sure you haven’t seen her since that day? She hasn’t come in again, or been hanging out or anything?”
“I mean, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t,” Kalia replied with a shrug. “She just yelled about the tattooed monster and ran out. I didn’t really think much about it until all the stuff happened with Mercer. Like I said, he was supposed to show up that day and he didn’t. And he’s got tattoos. Big bright red ones all over his body. No scales though. But I mean, she was a little kid, and kids have imaginations, you know? It’s just really weird. He completely forgets about the whole thing and acts like he’s never heard of my family, right after this kid was asking about stuff related to that and then went off about a tattooed monster? It’s two weird things in one day, and it sort of seems like they might be related. But I just sorta decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Then you guys came in and started asking about it and are you sure you don’t know him?”
“No, pretty positive we don’t,” Asenath murmured, gazing off into the distance thoughtfully.
“But I’m starting to think we should.”
Leaving the store, we met up with the others just behind the building and explained what we’d discovered. Then they told us about what they had found in turn. Apparently December and Tabbris had picked up signs of a big Alter of some kind, probably accompanied by others, hanging around the store several weeks earlier, but not recently. The traces were old and pretty faded.
“Yeah,” Rebecca put in, “That totally fits with what we heard.” She nodded in the direction of some old homeless guy laying in a doorway across the street. He had a Coke he was sipping that had clearly come from the nearby vending machine, probably courtesy of her and Koren. “Elmer over there, he told us there used to be this guy who is really bad news with tattoos and stuff that came around the station, but he stopped a few weeks ago. And, get this, he saw a little girl with dark hair too, the same day the big guy stopped showing up.”
Yeah, this was all sounding pretty suspicious. I had a bad feeling that this Mercer guy was related to why Denise had disappeared. Which was a thought that suddenly made me wonder–
“What if Ammon killing that guy wasn’t as random as we thought?” I put in. “I mean, what if this Mercer guy actually had some connection to Fossor after all? Then Denise shows up because she’s starting to remember stuff, and Mercer finds out, so he takes her and… and goes somewhere.”
“That doesn’t explain why he would forget about the debt,” Asenath reminded me. “This guy hounded her dad into the grave and then kept pushing her about it. And then one day he just stops completely? Not just stops, seems to literally forget about it entirely. And it doesn’t explain those dents in the gas pump, like someone attacked it. There’s something really… strange about this whole bit. It feels like we’re missing something obvious. It’s right there, but I just can’t get a finger on it.”
Tabbris piped up, “Maybe you could just ask him why he forgot the debt. I mean, possess him and read his mind. We should be able to find his memories from back then, and Mama taught me some about finding lost memories.”
“Right,” I murmured to myself a bit thoughtfully. She had a point, that might be the easiest way to actually get a firm idea of what was going on. “We just have to find the guy.”
“Ohthat’seasy,” December immediately informed us. “Thespellwe… wereusing…thatshowedushe…. washangingaroundhere… wecanusethat… totrackwherehewent.”
“Uh huh, uh huh!” Tabbris bobbed her head quickly alongside the other girl. “He left a trail we could follow all the way back to his base.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Asenath murmured, already taking out her own phone. “Let me call Twister, just in case we need a little more muscle.
“Then we can pay this Mercer guy a visit, and find out what really happened that day.”