[Agathos] Did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?
―Edgar Allan Poe,
“The Power of Words”
Leslie stopped in the middle of her narration, her brows knitted over the disparity of the details between what she thought she remembered and what she now recalled. She had recounted everything as it had occurred at this point, up to when Lima and Alice exited the bedroom and made their way to Amelia Hearn’s door, up to the point when they both placed their hands on the knob, but that’s where the congruence ended.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Leslie said to herself.
“What doesn’t make sense?” Katherine said, eyeing Leslie beside her.
“I don’t know why I’m remembering it that way,” she said, “but I know for a fact it didn’t happen like that.”
“Are you sure you’re not misremembering it?”
“Oh, I’m damn sure,” she said. “I remember every detail, even down to where the garlic cloves and the crosses were in this house. Ramona, Lima, and I—all of our lives changed that night. You just don’t ‘misremember’ something like that.”
“Wait,” Colbie said. “Do you mean, like, the Mandela effect?”
“Yeah, something like that,” she said, looking at the perplexed looks at her audience around her, then noticed Randal Larking’s gaze fixed on her like a hawk’s. “I mean, I remembered it happening in a different way. Look, I know it sounds crazy, but that’s not how it happened. The door never opened the way I remember it. I’m damn sure about this.”
“Do you mean,” Randal Larking said, “that you know of a different turn of events?”
“Yeah,” Leslie said, nodding her head.
“Can you recall both versions of what happened?” Randal said.
His question threw her, but Leslie squinted her brows, thinking of the discrepancy of the door opening in her current recall, when she distinctly remembered it remaining shut the way she knew she remembered it. She said, “I know it sounds crazy, but the way I’m remembering it now is not the way I’ve remembered it back then. It was way different, trust me.”
“Back when?” Randal said.
Leslie then looked to an ashen Katherine next to her, who had balled her hands into knuckle-white fists the sides of her divan, and placed her hand over hers and said, “When Kathy talked to me about it during Colbie’s birthday.”
“Where?” he said, eyeing Katherine and Leslie.
“At this house,” Leslie said.
“Why at this house, in particular?” Randal said. “Why not at your own house?”
And before Leslie replied, Katherine said, “Because I asked Celia to invite Colbie and Kendra to this house,” and she looked at Colbie with her sisters on the sofa in front of her, then at Kendra wrapped in her blood-colored shroud on the sofa beside her. “I wanted them to keep my sisters busy, so I could talk to Leslie about it in private.”
At Katherine’s words, Leslie looked to the sofa at Madison and Celia’s reactions and then at Colbie’s; both Hearn sisters pouted and cast glares at Katherine, while her daughter bit down on her lower lip, so Leslie said, “Maddy, Celia, it’s not what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know what we’re thinking?” Madison snapped.
“Stop!” Katherine said.
But Madison didn’t, saying, “You seem to trust Leslie and Colbie more than your own flesh and blood, so maybe you should try to—”
“It’s not like that!”
“Not like what?” Madison said. “What are you trying to say?”
“God, you’re hopeless,” Katherine said.
So Celia looked at the flustered expressions on Colbie and Katherine’s faces and said, “What were you two doing up there, anyway?”
Colbie and Katherine groaned where they sat, with Colbie grimacing and biting on her lower lip again, and Katherine gritting her teeth and glaring at her sisters, just moments away from snapping at them if they kept pushing the issue any further.
So Leslie said, “Look, it’s complicated, okay? And it’s definitely not a part of—”
“A part of what?” Madison said, glaring at Leslie. “What are you talking about?”
“Maddy, please stop harping on it,” Colbie said.
“Harping on what?” Madison said, now glaring at Colbie. “I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about. All I know is that my own sister seems to trust you more than me or Celia, and it’s—”
Colbie leaned forward on the sofa and buried her face in her hands, rousing Katherine and Leslie from the divans towards her, but then she stood up and walked out of the family room.
“Colbie, wait!” Leslie said, following her into the entrance hall and towards the entrance door—
(while Katherine chewed out her sisters, saying, “Damn it, Maddy, why’d you go and do that for? And you, too, Celia! Can you two not be bitches, for once? . . .”)
—and catching her daughter by her wrist before she reached the door. “Colbie, please! It’s gonna be okay, I promise.”
Colbie just stood there before saying, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” she said.
“Do you love Kathy that way?” Colbie said.
“No,” Leslie said. “Why do you even ask that?” Colbie stayed silent, yet Leslie gleaned on the reason why and said, “I still love your father, Colbie. Nothing’s ever gonna change that.”
“Even if I like other girls?” she said.
“Colbie, look at me, please.” When Colbie did, Leslie saw her daughter’s tear-stained cheeks and hugged her daughter close to her, saying, “Believe me, there’s nothing wrong with being yourself. Your father and I love each other, and we both love you, too, and we’ll always love you no matter what.”
After talking to the French concierge of the Dragon Volant, Inspector Stephen Larking hung up and dialed the number for the hotel next door, the Daimyo, and booked two rooms for four occupants, a pair for both rooms, and paid over the phone with his credit card, saying that he and his friends wanted to see the night’s festivities.
He then pocketed his phone and thought of Roy Dolan’s report to him this morning, sounding high-strung like a guitar string stretched to breaking point. Last night, Roy had staked out the location of the Daimyo next to the Dragon Volant during his own dream dive and informed the inspector of the addresses and phone numbers of both hotels earlier this morning before resigning himself from the case to look for Kendra.
Stephen poured himself another cup of tea and toasted roy’s efforts, saying, “C’est la vie,” (Such is life) then added, “My hat’s off to you, old boy,” and he downed the drink and got up from his wicker chair, till his smartphone chimed in his pocket.
He picked up and said, “Who is it?”
“Shaefer here,” Todd said over the connection.
“You at the drop zone already?”
“Yeah,” Todd said, “but we’ve been tailed.”
“Shit!” he said. “How many?”
“Ronnie says two,” he said, and there was a turning of the door bolt as if he were locking a door. “Both of them are acting like customers in the clothing aisles.”
“Are you safe over there?” Stephen said.
“For now, they’re just playing dumb,” he said. “We’ve got Roy’s stash, and we’ll call you when we’re ready.”
“I’ll check with you guys later,” Stephen said and grabbed the suitcase from the floor. “Keep me updated. Over and out.”
He then strolled towards the door of the Secret Room, bearing in mind the hole he had seen on the wall of the old Rancaster district on his drive to the Phantom Office, then thought of the hotel room he’d purchased for the night on the other side of it and opened the door—
And stepped into that very hotel room and saw the hotel key near the left door jamb. He reached down and picked it up, then shut the door, passed the galley kitchenette and restroom on either side and entered the rest of the room.
Here, over the bamboo flooring and two oriental rugs were two twin beds newly made, with pillows newly fluffed. The shaded floor lamp in between the beds and the accent lights on the ceiling and the desk lamp by the console table were turned off, and the curtains hung closed against the balcony window, letting in slices of light on the edges. And atop that console table was the latest evidence of Roy Dolan’s setup for the operation: headphones with a mini-microphone attached, connected to a monitor with a battery-operated feed of the Dragon Volant next door if Roy had left it turned on, but Roy was smart and turned it off to save the battery life of the cameras.
Last night, while Kendra had her dream dive involving Nico at the top of the dragon’s staircase, Roy had his own dream dive into these parts of the Phantom Realms and set up all three drop zones: the first one at a clothing store for Lt. Shaefer and his two-man team of Officer Curvan and Ronald Hamilton; the second at an abandoned fort atop a hill; and the third at a nondescript warehouse. All three locations were within a three-mile radius of the epicenter of Stephen’s position at the Daimyo, right next door to the intended target zone of the Dragon Volant. With both field headquarters (located on either side of town) within blocks of these drop zones, the nondescript Nura Club located on one side of that radius and the backup base at the Bangsian hotel on the other, Roy Dolan had to get all of the equipment they needed for the operation to all three drop zones, make preparations at the primary headquarters in the Nura Club and at the secondary headquarters in the Bangsian (in case of emergencies), in addition to his preparations for Stephen’s current location at the Daimyo, and all of this done in one night after Roy had informed Stephen that his supervisor had taken him off of the case. Hence, if Roy Dolan was anything in Stephen’s eyes, he was an iron workhorse of a man and an indispensable part of this operation, no matter what the higher-ups at the Larkington Metropolitan Police Department said about his conduct. Thus, thanks to Roy’s efforts, Stephen could direct the movements of his lieutenants during the infiltration and exfiltration of the target zone in a two-pronged attack, with Lt. Frank Shaefer’s boys mobilizing from the third drop zone and Lt. Anne Granger’s boys mobilizing from the second drop zone.
So Stephen placed his suitcase at the foot of the console and booted up the monitor, then tapped the button to flip through the screenshots. Only one showed a stationary shot of the revolving glass doors of the Dragon Volant with a pair of red musketeer girls coming out and standing guard at the entrance, facing the Daimyo side of the street, while the other three body cam feeds showed static. Lt. Frank Shaefer, Todd Curvan, and Ronald Hamilton were still prepping themselves at the drop zone, so he decided to contact them. He put the headphones on and positioned the mini-microphone to his mouth, then dialed another number on his smartphone and waited for someone to pick up on the first ring, then the second, then the third, then . . .
Someone picked up on the fourth and said, “This is Curvan.” And his voice resounded through both the smartphone and the headphones.
“Are we ‘Go’ yet?” the inspector said.
“Not yet,” Curvan said through the static over both connections. “We’re still setting up the body cameras.”
“What about the microphones?” Stephen said.
There was a pause over the smartphone connection, then the scratching and bumping of two other microphones getting connected came through Stephen’s headphones, so Stephen closed his smartphone connection.
Then Curvan said, “Okay, they just connected the mics. You wanna talk to them? Test it out?”
“Yeah,” he said, and waited out the interim for someone else to come on over the static. He then saw a second screen appearing on the monitor, which showed the interior of a closed-in changing room and a body-length mirror on one of the walls in the room. It showed a doppelgänger of Colbie Amame wearing a blue tabard like that of a blue musketeer, at which Stephen blushed and gulped, wondering if Ronald Hamilton really was into that kind of thing, but he perished the thought as just another of his eccentricities.
“One two three, testing,” Ronald said in the voice of a young woman and tapped the microphone beneath the tabard. “Testing. You there, sir? This is Ronnie, by the way.” And three taps came through the audio as if someone were tapping a microphone through fabric.
Stephen took off his headphones and readjusted the volume dials, then put them back on and said, “Don’t tap the microphone, please.”
“Sorry,” Ronald said, then smiled at the mirror and pointed at the hidden body camera clipped over the collar of the tabard just above Colbie’s bosom in the reflection. “How do I look, love?”
“Absolutely smashing,” Stephen deadpanned.
“You want a more intimate look?” Ronald said, taking up the body camera and aiming it down the cleavage of Colbie’s undershirt. “This girl’s got a decent—”
“Jesus, Ronnie,” Stephen said, covering the third screen with his hand. “Keep your Goddamn fantasies to yourself!”
At this, Frank Shaefer and Todd Curvan sniggered over the audio of Stephen’s headphones.
“Sorry about that,” Ronald said in a not-so-sorry tone. “Frank and Todd dared me to do it, and I just couldn’t resist.”
“God, you guys are sick,” Stephen said.
“Anyway,” Ronald said, “you’ve got everything set up on your end, sir?”
Stephen looked at the voice recorder on the edge of his desk, complete with the empty cassette tape inside it, and said, “I’ll start recording as soon as we get started. Just tell me when.”
A third screenshot of Lt. Frank Shaefer appeared on the monitor, and he said, “It’ll be in oh-seven thirty, sir.”
Stephen leaned back in his chair and said, “This isn’t a military coup d'état, Frank.”
“Yeah, but this is an infiltration and exfiltration mission,” Frank said. “Since this is my op, we’ll do it my way.”
Stephen shook his head and said, “Whatever you say, man. Just keep me informed on what’s going on.”
“Roger that,” Frank said. “Over and out.”
Again, Stephen shook his head but let it slide, saying, “You’ve got the beacon with you?”
“Got it right here, sir,” he said, tapping something metallic attached to his leg holster that pinged over the static of the connection.
Then yet another series of scratches and bumps came over the line, and the fourth and last screenshot turned up in the monitor showing Officer Curvan in the mirror of another changing room, and he said, “Are all the connections working on your end, sir?”
“Yeah, it’s working,” Stephen said. “And remember now: Roy set up this whole thing during last night’s dream dive, so we all owe him something big when we wrap this all up.”
“Oh, I’ve already got something in mind,” Ronald said, posing in front of the changing mirror.
“Definitely not what you’re thinking, you sicko,” Stephen said, then: “Frank, you ready?”
“Yep,” he said.
“Ronnie, you ready?” Stephen said.
“I guess I am,” Ronald said in his woman’s voice and tapped the microphone through his tabard again. “You moderns are always so interesting with your little gadgets.” He then paused for a spell and added, “You sure you don’t want a peak, sir? There’s still time.”
“Dear God, don’t start, you sicko!” Stephen said.
And more yet another round of sniggers came from Frank Shaefer and Todd Curvan through Stephen’s headphones.
“Told you he was a shameless prick,” Todd said.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.”
“All three of you bastards are fucking sick. Contact me when you’re done jacking around,” Stephen said and took off his headphones and set them on the table, then took up his smartphone and noticed a text message in his in-box. He swiped the screen and read it to himself, saying, “’Comrades, Emergency meeting at the Nura Club. Hurry!’ God, what the hell is going on now?” So he contacted his second lieutenant on a secure line and said, “This is Steve. What’s going on, Anne?” He then looked at the text message again and said, “Comrades, this is Steve. . . . Okay, what’s going on?”
Upon receiving Lt. Anne Grangers’s intel from Benson about Alice making red musketeer clones of herself out of everyone she sees from the rooftops of the city, Stephen said, “Jesus! How many are there? . . . Where are you? . . . Stay there! I don’t want any— . . . Wait, what? . . . You’re kidding me! Why’d you send them out? . . . Ah, Jesus! Just stay put and don’t do anything crazy! . . . Yeah, I got it. Over and out.”
He was about to call directly and relay the information to his team when his smartphone vibrated in his hand, so he picked up and said, “Steve here. Are you guys done jacking around or what?”
“This is Roy speaking,” Roy said over the smartphone’s connection. “Who’s jacking around, sir?”
“Forget what I said. What is it?”
Roy paused over the line and said, “I’ve just observed another instance of false memories, sir.”
“Who is it this time?” Stephen said.
“Leslie Amame,” he said.
“I see,” Stephen said, turning his mind back to the investigative side of this whole operation, and thought about the three cold cases connected to this anomalous detail of false memories in the first two weeks of this investigation. First, he had studied the 24-year-old cold case of Amelia Hearn’s death that the witnesses Leslie Gardner and Lima Hearn and Ramona Laramie had filed to the Phantom Office when Roy Dolan’s late father was head of the Phantom Office. He had also studied two cold cases from his own father’s tenure as head of the Phantom Office: one was the 14-year-old case of Ramona’s death that Edmund Tellerman (her widower) had filed during the early part of his father’s tenure, and the other was the 3-year-old cold case of Edmund Tellerman’s death that Roy Dolan had filed during the latter part of his father’s tenure a year before his retirement. In all three cases, the witnesses (Leslie Gardner, Lima Hearn, Ramona Laramie, Edmund Tellerman, and Roy Dolan) showed signs of false memories when questioned under hypnosis. And apart from Ronald Hamilton and Amelia Hearn and Ramona, who were dead, Leslie and Lima were the last verified living witnesses to have seen Alice Liddell and Aaron Rancaster in person.
“Sir?” Roy said.
“There’s one more thing I should add,” Roy said.
“What is it?”
“We have a fourth witness, and I think—”
“Firsthand witnesses are all affected,” Stephen said.
“She’s not a firsthand witness, sir,” Roy said. “She’s a secondhand witness.”
Stephen sat up on his chair and said, “Are you serious? One of the primary witnesses told someone else about it?”
“Yeah,” Roy said.
Stephen got a pen and a notepad and said, “What’s her name?”
“Katherine Hearn,” Roy said.
An inroad of 50 Phantom Office operatives, marching in two lines along the tall grass of an open field, were within view of the hill and its abandoned fort with the sun casting moving shadows across their profiles as they walked. They moved with a two-hand grip over their surplus bolt-action rifles, their itchy trigger fingers across their trigger guards, ready to fire the moment they saw action.
And as per Lt. Anne’s orders, the middle-aged Sgt. Rousseau led his troop up through the tall grass surrounding the hill and had them split up into five squads of ten men each to look out for any sign of Alice’s red musketeer girls within the area. But when they regrouped at the base of the hill and began their ascent, they spotted the heads of several of Alice’s red musketeers moving about the fortifications, all of them with their flintlock muskets aimed at them, and were met with a thunderous volley of exploding plumes from the old bulwarks, obscuring the drop zone and biting off chunks of dirt clods around them.
“Fall back and fire!” the sergeant screamed.
So they ducked back into the tall grass beyond the edge of the hill and opened fire, sending dozens of rounds down range into the bulwarks.
They kept firing, till mortar shells began blasting craters close to their positions, throwing up plumes of smoke and debris and quaking the grounds beneath their feet.
“Retreat!” the sergeant screamed.
So they all scrambled from the no-man’s land of enemy gunfire and exploding mortar shells, hightailing their asses out of there. They sprinted through the tall grass, as red musketeers continued firing volley after volley at them, hastening their retreat under groans from fresh wounds, till they entered the old cross streets of the abandoned buildings.
Here Sgt. Rousseau had them stop for a brief respite and took up roll call, counting heads, till he got a full headcount of 50. Nobody had been left behind, which meant nobody needed to go back and rescue anyone under fortified attacks.
“Thank God, we’re all here,” he said, and made the sign of the cross (since Sgt. Rousseau was a man of faith), but he noticed that several of his men had been walking wounded and required immediate attention. Making these wounded trek all the way back to the Nura Club in their current conditions was out of the question. So he decided to make them march to their backup base a few blocks away at the Bangsian hotel, just outside the one-mile radius of their primary base at the Nura Club, and picked up his radio to call Lt. Anne Granger there and inform her of their current predicament, but he found his radio had been disabled from enemy fire. “Ah, fuck!”
“What happened?” his corporal said.
“The radio’s shot to hell,” he said.
“What do we do, sergeant?” his corporal said.
“I’ll have to contact Anne at our backup base,” he said, then to his men: “Let’s get to the Bangsian, boys!”
And the sergeant led his wounded and weary soldiers through the streets of this godforsaken part of the Phantom Realms, catching the attention of several stay yokai and drifting spirits loitering along the nearby streets in the old part of town.
And so they trekked down the sidewalks past gawking onlookers, spreading a path for them as they limped their way in two rows down the street. Several of Sgt. Rousseau’s wounded men were assisting those wounded that couldn’t stay on their feet, draping their arms over their shoulders and making them hop on their good leg, like a ghastly parade of war veterans making their last journey home across the front lines.
When they finally reached the double doors of the Bangsian, the sergeant approached the concierge at the front desk and commandeered several rooms for his men and asked for medical supplies, for doctor’s services, and for permission to use the phone to call someone.
“It’s important,” the sergeant said.
Yet just as the concierge handed him the phone, the concierge said to him, “There have been rumors from many of our patrons there of something going on at the Daimyo and the Dragon Volant.”
“What’s going on?” he said.
“Well,” the concierge said, “there’s talk of a group of red musketeer girls causing a ruckus in town, and I’ve heard some of our returning patrons that a group of them are headed towards those hotels. Do you have any idea what’s going on?”
The sergeant just stared at the concierge, his face going white, as he nodded his head and dialed his lieutenant’s number and waited for her to pick up.
Back at the Nura Club, Anne got the call from her sergeant and said, “What’s going on, sergeant?” And when she received intel from the middle-aged man that he and his men were ambushed by Alice’s red musketeers at the second drop zone, she said, “You’re kidding! Didn’t Roy have that place prepared last night? . . . Then how did that place get compromised so quickly?”
Several of her fellow Phantom Office operatives quieted their conversations over what their next move would be and just listened and stared at her, wide-eyed.
Anne furrowed her brows at her sergeant throwing useless guesses as to why the second drop zone had red musketeers occupying its abandoned fortifications, so she changed the subject and said, “Where are you right now? . . . Any casualties? . . . Oh, thank God about that,” she added with a sigh of relief, till her sergeant noted that several of his men had been wounded.
“Do you need me to be there?” she said and listened to her sergeant’s response. “Are you sure? . . . You weren’t followed, were you? . . . All right, I’ll stay put. Oh, and, sergeant, I just received word from Steve that all our forces are grounded at this time, so if you see anything happen where you're at, keep me updated. I’ll tell Steve what you told me. . . . Stay safe, and keep your eyes peeled. . . . All right, I will. . . . Wait a minute, what—”
Anne listened as her sergeant informed her of the tip he’d received from the concierge of the Bangsian, and said, “My God, they’re headed his way?”
Upon receiving the news, Anne hung up and told her colleagues, “I have to go. If anyone calls for me, tell them I’m away.”
And she bolted from the antechamber and down the hallway towards the front entrance and out into the streets, dialing Stephen’s phone number, but got no answer. So she kept calling again and again, but kept getting no answer, since Stephen had been using a private phone connection in his conversation with Roy Dolan and had immediately turned it off to save the battery life on his smartphone before Anne could dial his number.
Soon afterwards, she gave up on calling him and just sprinted down the street towards the direction of the Daimyo, hoping she’d make it in time as she cursed out her superior in her mind and said, “Steve, you fucking idiot!”
And she ran and cursed and ran and cursed and ran and cursed, turning the heads of passersby her way along the street.
By the time Leslie and Colbie made their way through the entrance hall towards the family room, Katherine’s tirade against her sisters had erupted into a full-blown argument. The argument amounted to Katherine saying that her sisters were insensitive and selfish brats, and Celia and Madison were saying that Katherine was a domineering and uptight prude. All the while, Connie was trying and failing to calm the situation, with Katherine using her ‘assistance’ (as Katherine called it) to show her sisters how selfish they were, and Celia and Madison accusing Katherine of trying to gang up on them and saying that she wasn’t their mother, anyway, which almost pushed Katherine over the edge. Yet when Leslie and Colbie entered the family room, the rest of the occupants fell silent, and Roy Dolan put his smartphone back in his pocket when they entered.
Then Katherine and her sisters came up to Colbie at once, all three sisters apologizing to her at the same time, but then they accused each of starting it, with Katherine saying that her sisters were too insensitive to notice when they were trudging onto a sensitive topic, and Celia and Madison saying that Katherine should’ve been more open to them in the first place, so they wouldn’t have to do that.
As such, Leslie laid down the law and said, “You three calm down, or else Colbie and I are leaving!”
The trio of Hearn sisters quieted afterwards and apologized again, then sat at their designated spots in the family room, with Katherine on the divan, and Celia and Madison on the sofa facing their eldest sister.
Leslie turned to Celia and Madison on the sofa and said, “Don’t ever make my Colbie cry like that. Ever.”
“We’re really sorry, ma’am,” Madison said.
“We didn’t mean to make her cry,” Celia added.
So Colbie faced the two Hearn sisters and said, “I’m okay, guys, really. It’s just not something I’m ready to talk about.”
“We understand,” Madison and Celia said.
Then Leslie came to Katherine on the divan, who began shedding tears at Leslie’s approach, so she said to her, “Look, I know you’re trying your best, and I know it’s hard, and I wish to God your mother were here to take care of this for you, but you need to stay calm.”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” Katherine said, “but (God) my sisters keep getting to me, and I know I’m making excuses—”
“I understand, trust me,” Leslie said. “I know how it feels. It feels like you’ve got the whole world on your shoulders, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You need to open up to your sisters, okay?” Yet Katherine seemed to waver, so Leslie said, “You need your sisters more than you know. Trust me on this . . . okay? Okayyy?”
“I’ll try,” Katherine said.
It was as good an assurance as she’d get, so Leslie turned her attention to the gathering of Randal and Roy and Connie at a corner of the family room near the bookshelves, all three talking in low whispers, with Roy and Randal doing most of the talking. When she approached them, Connie waved her in and said, “Bring Kathy over here.”
“Why?” Leslie said, looking back at Katherine sitting by herself on the divan, while her sisters started talking to Colbie on the sofa. “Is something the matter?”
“Of sorts, yes,” Randal Larking said, looking at Leslie, then at Katherine, then back to Leslie. “Does Katherine Hearn know what you know?”
“Most of it, yeah,” she said.
“Did you tell her?” he said.
“No,” she said. “Her mother told her.”
“When did her mother tell her this?”
Here Leslie had to think about it, thinking back to Colbie’s sixteenth birthday last October when Katherine told Leslie what her mother (Lima Hearn) had told her when she was sixteen, the same age when Lima and Leslie experienced the horror of it for themselves, the age when their lives were changed forever. She said, “Kathy was sixteen when Lima told her, and that was three years ago. That was also the time when Lima began her archeological trips.”
“I see,” Randal said, staying silent for a spell and thinking about something, though Leslie couldn’t fathom his thoughts. For all she knew, the topics could range from the mundane like curiosity on Randal’s part to the outré like . . .
She blanked out on the possibilities, so she set that aside and said, “What’s going on?” Yet Randal Larking seemed to waver on some decision that had yet to be revealed to her, so she egged him on, saying, “Whatever it is you’re thinking, you can tell us.”
Randal looked up at her and said, “What do you mean by ’us’?”
“I mean everyone in this room,” she said, returning to her divan and sitting by Katherine’s side. “The reason why we’re in this room is because we’ve been keeping too many secrets,” and she looked at Katherine and Colbie in particular, saying, “and some of us have kept them for too long.” She then faced Randal Larking from where she sat and said, “Tell us what’s going on. Please, for the sake of everyone involved.”
At her words, one by one, all eyes turned from Leslie to Randal, who exhaled a heavy sigh, then walked to the center of the room and stood at the coffee table between Katherine and Leslie on the divans and Colbie and the younger Hearn sisters on sofa, then said, “My brother and I visited the Nayland Hospital to see Mara Cairns earlier this morning, but when arrived at her room, we only found an empty bed. . . .”
“WHAT?” said Leslie and Colbie and the three Hearn sisters.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Connie said, walking over to the sofa Kendra slept in, and leaned against the armrest by Kendra’s feet where Randal had been moments before. “I’m having a hard time believing it myself, because Roy and I actually visited Mara at the hospital yesterday.”
“I just got off the phone with Inspector Larking,” Roy added, walking over and taking up his prior position on the other armrest by Kendra’s head, “and he’s pretty much confirmed everything he said.”
Leslie then looked at Randal, then at Roy, and said, “Do you know what time she disappeared?”
“We don’t know the exact time,” Randal said, “but judging from the surveillance footage we obtained, we narrowed down the time frame to about ten minutes from 5:55 a.m. to 6:05 a.m. We’ve talked to the nurses and orderlies there, and the last person to see her said that Mara Cairns was there when she left her room at around 5:30, so she hasn’t been missing for long.”
“Is that why,” Leslie said, “you asked me about Kathy?”
“You asked about me?” Katherine said. “What for?”
“You’re not in trouble, I assure you,” Randal said, “but what Mrs. Amame’s told so far about you and your mother and Amelia Hearn, specifically about misremembering certain details, has allowed me to see a pattern here. My brother observed similar conflicting details in the observations of the nurses and orderlies looking after Mara Cairns at the hospital prior to her disappearance. My brother’s also observed similar conflicting details in several past cases, but those details can only get us so far, and we’ve exhausted our efforts on firsthand observations at the hospital. At this point, we don’t know what happened to Mara Cairns. That’s why I’m here.”
“So you need another angle?” Katherine said.
“Yes,” he said, “and you’re our best shot we’ve got at it.”
“Me?” she said.
“Yes, you,” he said, then back to Leslie: “Mrs. Amame, did the same thing happen to Amelia Hearn? Did she disappear on the night you were there?”
“Yeah,” she said, putting her hands on the bridge of her nose and looking out with eyes that peered into a different version of the fateful night she remembered. “There were other things I remembered happening back then that don’t coincide with how I remember them now.”
“Just like the witnesses at the hospital?” Randal said.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense,” Leslie said. “I mean, how does that even connect with the events at the Rancaster district? Colbie and Celia and Kendra—none of them accompanied Mara to the hospital. They were at the Police Station when Kathy and Maddy and I saw them. You two remember that, right?” she added, looking at Katherine on the divan beside her and Madison on the sofa with Colbie and Celia.
“Yeah,” both sisters said, nodding their heads.
“I’ll add some context,” Roy said, and all heads turned to him. “After I dropped off the girls at the Police Station yesterday, I drove straight to the hospital and saw Mara just after they admitted her into one of their ICU rooms. Connie arrived a few minutes later, and when we both saw Mara, she was in a comatose state at the time, so I asked the doctor in charge of her case for updates on her condition when they came up.”
“I would’ve stayed with Mara myself,” Connie added, “but since I wasn't an immediate family member, they wouldn’t let me. And I had to inform Leslie and Kathy and Maddy about the whole thing, and afterwards followed conversations with the police, specifically Roy and later Inspector Larking.”
“And to top all of that off,” Roy added, “just before 6 a.m. this morning, while I was freaking out over Kendra’s whereabouts, I received a phone call from the doctor overseeing Mara’s condition, saying she was awake, but I couldn’t go. Because of my visit, I’m a firsthand witness, so my observations are just as susceptible to change.”
“Which is why you and Roy called me and my brother to check up on her,” Randal said.
“Yep,” Connie said. “And I visited along with you, that also means I’m a firsthand witness, as well.”
“And and since I was with Mara at the hospital,” Roy added, looking at Leslie in particular, “and with Kendra at the house, whatever made Mara disappear at the hospital also made Kendra disappear at my house by proxy. I even checked the surveillance cameras around the house and found static interference at around 6:00 a.m., which is the same time frame of Mara Cairns’ disappearance at the hospital.”
“And one more thing,” Randal added, looking at Roy. “When we followed up on your phone call with the doctor overseeing Mara’s care, she said she never made that phone call, but she thought one of her subordinates did. We asked her who that subordinate was, but she couldn’t remember who, so we ended up interviewing all the nurses who checked up on Mara during the night shift but got nothing conclusive. We then asked the doctor if we could see the phone records to make sure, so she called up the phone directory, and sure enough, they confirmed that someone had indeed called asking if Mara Cairns was at the hospital, though nobody there could trace the origin of the caller.”
“But here’s where it gets crazy,” Roy said. “There’s a reason why my department called off the investigation into the disappearance of the Mara and Nico Cairns yesterday morning, pending further review for transfer to the Phantom Office, and that’s because of the same occurrence. When the operator called me in, I found out that she had been on the line with a panicked Nico Cairns telling her that her mother disappeared in front of the house. And just before the call disconnected, she told me that both sisters started freaking out over the line. From what the operator heard through the connection, she thought that they must’ve seen their father disappear at that moment. But that’s not the worst part.”
“Oh my God,” Leslie said, putting her hand to her gaping mouth. “What’s the worst part?”
“When I called up the phone directory,” Roy said, “they confirmed that someone else had intercepted their land line after disconnecting their call to the operator, someone with an untraceable number. When I asked if the sisters made any other calls that night, the phone directory said they did, through two smartphone connections, and I found out that Mara Cairns made a brief phone connection before it cut out almost immediately afterwards. On another review of the house, I found the remains of her smartphone shattered to pieces near a wall. Mara must’ve thrown it, and I’m thinking that whoever tapped the landlines must’ve tapped their smartphones. Nico, on the other other hand, called Lucy Cairn’s smartphone within the Rancaster district—”
“Which led your department to quarantine the Rancaster district,” Celia said.
“Yes,” Roy said, looking at Celia.
“Which trapped me and Celia and Kendra in when we rescued Mara from that place,” Colbie added.
“Yes,” Roy said, looking at Colbie, “which makes all three of you indirect witnesses to a separate event related to Mara’s initial disappearance with her family. Do you all see the connection? First, the entire Cairns family in one location in one night, then Mara and Kendra in two separate locations on the next night.”
“So it’s our fault,” Celia said.
“Celia, stop thinking that way,” Madison said.
“But what if—”
“Stop it, Celia,” Katherine said. “It’s nobody’s fault, so stop saying it is!”
At this, Roy sighed and said, “Look, I’m not here to place blame on anyone here for what happened to Kendra or Mara. That’s not the point of our being here. None of us would’ve noticed this pattern—not my department or even the Phantom Office—if it wasn’t for you at the Rancaster district. Are you getting it now?”
All heads turned to the trio (Colbie and Celia sitting on one sofa, and Kendra lying asleep on the other sofa) in the family room, while Colbie and Celia gulped and nodded their heads.
“Okay,” Leslie said. “That makes sense, but how does Kathy fit into all this?”
“I’ll answer that,” Randal said, and everyone in the room looked at him. “First, my brother and I looked into several instances of these kinds of disappearances during our investigation, from the most recent to the oldest case: Kendra’s disappearance from Roy’s house and Mara’s disappearance from the Nayland Hospital this morning, the Cairns family’s disappearance two days ago from their house before getting found in the Rancaster district yesterday, Auna Wenger’s disappearance from her house before getting found a week afterward in 2012, Amelia Hearn’s disappearances from her house from 1966 to 1976 when she came back, Alice Liddell’s disappearance from her family mansion in 1913, and Aaron Rancaster’s disappearance in 1897 when he was just five years old. In each case, something happened that has affected everyone with firsthand experience of a disappearance, so that rules out all primary sources connected to each of these events, because they’re all subject to change.”
“Wait,” Katherine said, “why did you mention Auna Wenger?”
“Because her disappearance fits the pattern,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m asking,” she said, looking at Madison and Celia, “because my sisters encountered her in our dreams last night.”
“I encountered her in my dream, too,” Leslie said.
“How old was she when you encountered her?” he said.
“She was around Celia’s age when she and I ran into her,” Madison said.
“I saw her as a child and then as a teenager around Colbie’s age,” Leslie said, “and I met her mother, as well.”
“I see,” Randal said. “Auna’s disappearance was a special case, since hers coincided with her rape and with the death of her father. My brother and I only found two other cases that shared those details: Alice Liddell’s case with her rape, and Aaron Rancaster’s case wtih the death of his grandfather, Ezra Rancaster.”
“Does Auna live in this town?” Celia said.
“Yes,” he said, “but the exact location is kept confidential.”
“Who was the one who adopted her?” Leslie said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The name of the adopter was undisclosed. Why do you ask?”
“I’m asking,” she said, “because I saw her with Aaron Rancaster in my dream.”
“You’re kidding,” Randal said.
“I’m not,” Leslie said.
“My sisters and I also saw her with Rancaster in our dreams,” Katherine said.
“Do you really think she’s with Rancaster?” Roy said.
“Yeah,” Celia said. “At least, she was.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw her die in front of me in my dream last night,” she said, gritting her teeth and squeezing her hands into knuckle-white fists. “And I saw Rancaster there, too, the bastard!”
“Hey, calm down,” Madison said, as she and Colbie put their hands on her forearms. “It’s not your fault.”
For her part, Celia said, “I know! It’s just . . . I’m still mad at that bastard for everything he did to us last night!”
“Where did you see Auna?” he said.
“At my dream mansion,” Katherine said, “where we all saw her.”
“What about you?” he said, turning to Leslie.
Leslie said, “I saw her on a yellow-brick road for most of my dream and at her house near the end.”
“I see,” Randal said. “I was asking all those questions, because from what my brother and I have observed in the reports on Aaron Rancaster’s disappearance and what you have all said about Auna and Rancaster, I’m thinking Auna’s case might have something to do with a dual identity or even a body double, but we don’t know yet.
“Anyway, where was I?” he said, pausing for a time. “Ah, yes. As I was saying, firsthand experiences of disappearances are all subject to change in all the cases my brother and I looked into. Second, those who were not present in each case have no bearing on these disappearances, including Celia and Colbie and Kendra,” he added, indicating Celia and Colbie on the sofa and Kendra asleep on the other sofa. “So that rules out those who were never there in the first place. But there are exceptions.”
“Like me?” Katherine said.
“Yeah, because you’re a secondhand source,” he said, gazing at her as if he were gauging her reaction. “Secondhand sources are those who obtained knowledge of what happened from a firsthand source, which is your mother in this case. In lieu of her, we need you and Leslie to cooperate with us to get to the bottom of all this. Is that clear?”
Katherine and Leslie nodded that it was, and Katherine said, “So you want me to tell you what my mom told me?”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re our control source, so we’ll have you tell what you remember after Leslie tells us her version of it.”
“And when I tell you my version of it,” Leslie added, “you want me to tell you the version I remember now, not the version I remembered then?”
“Yes,” he said, looking from Katherine to Leslie. “You’re our variable source, so depending on what you remember, we might get an idea of what must’ve happened to Amelia Hearn, Nico and Mara Cairns, and Kendra.”
Stephen just sat their mulling everything over in his head for the umpteenth time. After listening to Roy Dolan’s observations on Katherine Hearn’s connection to the case, Stephen Larking had asked him for advice on Shaefer’s plans for the infiltration and exfiltration of the Dragon Volant, saying that two enemy combatants dressed as masqueraders have tailed them to the drop zone. He had waited for Roy to mull it over in his head, then got a suggestion that left Stephen silent for some moments, as he probed the pros and cons of yet another variable in Lt. Shaefer’s part in this field operation and another headache in Stephen’s case on top of the ones his other field operatives have given him. In the end, he had told Roy that he’d talk to his team about it before hanging up, yet Stephen had been thinking about it for several minutes now.
When he felt ready, Stephen put his headphones back on and reconnected to his friends over the static and said, “Listen, guys, I’ve got some bad news from our undercover operatives.”
“Uh oh,” Lt. Shaefer said. “What is it, sir?”
“I’ve talked with Anne,” he said, “and she got this from one of our guys on the field. She said that Alice is making clones of herself as red musketeer girls, and several of our guys have seen them patrolling the streets and killing several enemy masqueraders and our undercover operatives, alike.”
“Ah, Christ!” Shaefer said. “First, these masqueraders, now these red musketeers?”
“I know,” Stephen said. “Just keep your eyes peeled and stay on your guard. Don’t act all gung-ho and do any of that crazy Rambo shit, you hear?”
“Roger that,” Shaefer said.
“Good,” Stephen said. “And I just talked with Roy, too.”
“Oh, yeah?” Lt. Shaefer said. “Is Kendra all right?”
“Don’t worry,” Stephen said. “Roy and the Hearns are looking after her.”
“Thank God,” Todd said. “Oh, and one more thing. Was it Roy’s idea that we dress up like blue musketeers?”
“Or was it Ronnie’s?” Todd said.
“It was Roy’s,” he said, “but he said something else over the phone. Two things, in fact.”
“What did he say?” Todd said.
“He got us a big lead, for one,” Stephen said.
“What’s that?” Lt. Shaefer said.
“Ah, do tell, sir,” Ronald added in his woman’s voice.
“Not till you change back, Ronnie,” Stephen said.
“What’s the matter, old boy?” Ronald said and winked at him against the reflection of the changing mirror. “Catching a shine to my alter ego, eh?”
“Damn it, Ronnie,” Stephen said, “this is important. Stop jacking around!”
“All right, all right, all right,” he said. “You don’t need to get all prissy on me! It was Shaefer and Todd’s idea, anyway.”
“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Stephen said, his voice screeching through the audio static. “Just change already, Jesus!”
So Ronald fished out another vial from his pocket and drank it and waited, till he gained several inches and pounds, and his hair changed from long brown strands to short black ones, and the features of Colbie’s face shifted into those of Ronald’s face. “There,” he said in his now-male voice. “Now what is it?”
“It’s Katherine Hearn,” Stephen said. “He and Randal are there with her and the rest of the Hearn household as I speak, and they’re questioning them and building on our case. Ronnie, do you know anything about the Hearns? Besides Amelia, that is.”
“No. Can’t say I do,” Ronald said. “Other than Amelia, I’ve met none of the other Hearns. What’s the other thing?”
Stephen leaned over the four-paneled split screen of the monitor showing Ronald Hamilton (posing in the mirror as if he was still Colbie Amame) and Todd Curvan and Frank Shaefer on three of the screens, and focused his attention on the one unoccupied screenshot of the entrance lane to the Dragon Volant, then took a deep breath and said, “Roy suggested something that I . . . think could work.”
“I don’t like that pause there,” Todd said. “Sounds high-risk.”
“It is,” he said. “If we go with Roy’s suggestion, then we’re gonna have to shift our plans a bit and do something I’ve never asked you to do before, but if we all play our cards right, then I think we’ve got a chance in this operation and this case.”
There was silence on all three of their microphones, as if all three of his operatives were mulling over his words in their heads like riddles in the sand.
“Those are some scary-ass words you’re using,” Lt. Shaefer said, “but we’re listening. Just tell us what he said already!”
Meanwhile, Amelia kept up with her act till she got to Richet Square under cloudy skies, the moisture and the smell of ozone still in the air from last night’s shower. When she sighted the storefront of her establishment, the Arcana Bookstore of Odds and Ends, she dropped her act and sprinted past pedestrians and waiting Model-Ts parked near the curb and entered a narrow alley adjacent to her store.
She put her hand flat over the keyhole, said an incantation in her mind that turned over the deadbolt and freed it from the slip plate. She tripped the bell as she opened the door, then shut it fast and locked it and left the CLOSED sign where it was at the front display window and headed towards the backroom of her shop. Only then did she open her mouth and take out the key that Ronald had secreted to her during their ruse at the jail cell. She then rummaged through her desk drawer behind the counter and pulled out a chain necklace made of silver and strung it through the hole in the key and connected it, then placed it over her neck and hid it under her blouse.
She needed to wait till well after nightfall before making her secret rendezvous, so she occupied the closed hours by organizing the tomes and various odds and ends in her shop in the shelves along the back wall and the display shelves in the window. On occasion, she even shooed away the stray visitor to her little corner of this floating world, pointing to the CLOSED sign on the front display window. After that, she went upstairs, reheated some tea over the burner and poured herself some, got herself a bite to eat, some leftover pastrami sandwiches, and downed a few cups. All the while, she thought of Ronald Hamilton and Kendra Tellerman and Nico Cairns, her only three visitors in her little corner of this strange world. And when she finished with her menial chores, she sat at her dining table and pulled out the key from her blouse and thought of Ronald and Kendra and Nico, while she felt the key in her hand like a totem in a lucid dream.
When the clock struck midnight in her shop, she put her plan into action and descended the stairs and headed into the back room behind the counter, wherein she reached beneath the shade of a floor lamp and turned it on. The click of a latch resounded from the floor, and Amelia crouched and knocked on the floor three times, where the parallel hardwood design manifested the borders of a trapdoor. Here, she reached for a latch and opened the the false floor door, letting it rest against the shelves of a back wall, picked up the hems of her dressed and walked down the steps, then turned on the wall sconce and descended the steps to the basement below—
To a different part of the Phantom Realms, another pocket dimension blooming into view before her. When she alighted from the staircase onto the ground, Amelia’s blood spell activated, opening into a colonnaded gazebo that overlooked a glassy sea, rippling against its water margin and stretching out towards an unseen horizon. The whole place was enshrouded in a darkness more than night, like the dark night of an unfortunate soul or the abysmal depths of a subconscious mind.
She walked towards the water’s edge and pulled out a needle from her jacket pocket and pricked her finger, then pinched it over the water’s edge, letting her blood drip over the water.
Yet another drop.
Amelia then put her finger in her mouth and licked it clean before spitting into the water, creating ripples growing into the darkness.
And when she crouched and touched the watery sheen, the mirror sheen rippled from her finger out into the watery expanse towards the unseen horizon and glowed from the depths, manifesting into the image of a large mansion reflected upside down in the water.
She then alighted from the gazebo and stepped onto the invisible platform and walked, her footsteps rippling the waters against an invisible bridge. The further she walked, the more the bridge manifested under her feet, a bridge made of marble arches that stood on pillars across the water, now reflected upside down in the rippling mirror sheen along with the mansion ahead of them. And even as she walked, Amelia saw the outline of the mansion manifesting in the horizon, getting closer like a mirage in the mind’s eye. And in the mirror sheen, but absent from the night sky above her head, was the moon that had loomed over Katherine’s dream mansion in its reflection. It reminded her of Nico and Kendra when she had accompanied them halfway to their destination, seeing them . . .
Through the chamber of my brain—
Quaintest thoughts—queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away; . . .
She stretched out her hands to them in her mind, hand in hand, side by side, remembering the many things they had talked about to keep herself occupied—their families and friends, school rivals and bullies and innocent crushes, everything and anything to keep herself from dwelling on what lay ahead of her.
So for the next three hours, she walked and talked with them in her mind, trying to get her mind off of Ronald Hamilton’s false incarceration, until she felt a tingling on her lips and saw the image of Ronald himself flashing across her mind’s eye.
She stopped at once along the bridge, her reverie of Kendra and Nico dashed and replaced with the echo of gunfire ringing in her ears and the smell of cordite wafting at her nose.
That’s when she realized what had happened to Ronald, so she crouched down over the bridge and cried into her hands, crying out her own Pool of Tears from her hands in a waterfall of pain that shimmered the waters below her with glow of Ronald’s face reflected in its shimmering sheen . . .
Till her sadness turned into rage as Amelia slammed her fists down on the bridge, causing a concussive shock throughout the chamber of her dream realm.
And from that expulsion of anger, a wave of spray gushed up from below, soaking her amidst the epicenter of her tantrum and spreading out in another series of waves, till they became ripples fading into the horizon ahead of her.
Death was a son of a bitch tonight, so Amelia screamed, “GOD DAMN YOU, RANCASTER!”
And the echoes of her rage receded into the distance, dissipating like the fading ripples.
Back at the Hearn Household, everyone now waited for Leslie to continue her story, but she had misgivings about the turn her memories took on Amelia Hearn’s disappearance. Leslie glanced at Colbie on the sofa with Madison and Celia, and she remembered her daughter telling her about similar changes called “Mandela effects” three years ago, such as Nelson Mandela’s supposed death in prison in the 1980s, for which the phenomenon was coined. There were other examples she’d heard of since, from Jackie Kennedy shooting her husband in the car in Dallas in 1963 to the unknown Chinese protester getting run over by tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
So Randal prompted her, saying, “After Lima and Alice opened the door, what happened next?”
With these thoughts and more running circles in her mind, Leslie closed her eyes and cleared them away, then took a deep breath and said, “Ramona and I followed them into the bedroom, but it wasn’t Amelia’s. It was a different bedroom altogether, like one you’d see in an early 19th century mansion.”
“Do you remember what it looked like inside?” Randal said.
“Yeah,” she said, closing her eyes and visualizing it in her head, and from the shadows of her mind arose impressions of the interior. “The walls of the room were shaped like a pentagon that tapered into the ceiling, and a giant censor hung there that smelled of poppies. There were a pair of ottomans and lighted candelabra next to a curtained four-poster bed against one wall, with the drapes opened and the bed empty. There was also an old armoire on another wall, a vanity table on another, and a window on another wall facing the front of the bed.”
Randal paused for a spell, then said, “Did you see anything outside the window?”
“No,” she said, still keeping her eyes closed, “but I could tell it was night outside.”
“After you came inside,” Randal said, “what happened?”
On passing the threshold, Leslie and Ramona waited for their eyes to adjust to the flickering pair of candelabra next to the bed, then saw Lima Hearn and Alice climbing into bed and drawing its drapes closed, obscuring them from view. So they sprinted after them and pulled the curtains aside, but saw no sign of Lima or Alice there or anywhere else inside the room.
The door slammed shut just then, and both girls rushed at it and jiggled and tugged at the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. They kept tugging and turning it for time, trying to force it give, but it never gave way.
“God, damn it!” Leslie said, stamping her foot on the floor.
“Leslie, put up your seal,” Ramona said.
“On this door,” Ramona said.
“No way!” Leslie said. “I’m not letting you go out there.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be safe, I promise. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck here till we wake up—if we wake up.”
Ramona’s words seemed to decide her, so Leslie put her hand flat against the door, but refrained from manifesting a charm there and said, “I can’t be there to watch your back if you go out there by yourself.”
Ramona looked at her friend, rolling her words through her head, and said, “Leslie, close your eyes.”
“Why?” she said.
“I just need you to do it,” Ramona said. So when Leslie closed her eyes, she cupped her hands on Leslie’s cheeks and kissed her left eye and said, “With this kiss upon the moon, you will see beyond the blindness of the dark.” She then kissed Leslie's right eye and said, “With this kiss upon the sun, you will see beyond the blindness of the light.” She then kissed both of Leslie’s eyes, first the left and then the right, and said, “Now my eyes are your eyes. What I see, you now can see.”
“Can I open my eyes now?” Leslie said.
“Not yet,” Ramona said. “Keep them closed for me.” She then kissed Leslie’s lips and said, “With this kiss upon your lips, my words will be your words.” She then kissed Leslie’s forehead between her brows and said, “With this kiss upon your mind’s eye, your thoughts will be my thoughts.”
Ramona paused for a spell, then said, “There. You can open your eyes now.”
But when Leslie opened her eyes, she saw herself looking back at her in her mind’s eye.
“Whoa,” Leslie said, blinking. “What did you do to me?”
“I gave you part of my second sight, but it’s only temporary,” Ramona said. “Now put your hand on the door.”
Leslie seemed to waver for a moment, but she did as she was told and manifested a blank omamori charm against the door panel and said, “If we see anything weird, or if anything weird happens, you come back here right away, got that?”
Ramona nodded and put her hand over Leslie’s on the door, said an incantation in her head, and passed like a ghost through the door into the upper hallway outside.
Leslie took her hand away and found Ramona’s glowing silver cord wrapped around her hand. She closed her eyes, bringing up Ramona’s point of view in her mind’s eye, and said, “Be careful.”
“I will. Don’t worry,” Ramona said, and made her way up the corridor towards Lima’s room and paused at the door before pushing it open into a darkened bedroom, where the scent of Lima and Alice’s love-making lingered in the air. It was enough to bring scenes of it percolating through her thoughts (and through Leslie’s thoughts, as well).
Ugh, stop thinking of that! Leslie said in Ramona’s mind, but Ramona ignored her words and approached the bed, their thoughts recreating a glowing afterimage of their friend letting Alice take advantage of her on the bed. Even the rustling of the bedsheets and bedclothes and the smacking of lips fluttered through the space in waves and caught at their ears. Ramona looked away and scanned the dim interior around her, looking at the outlines of furnishings in the darkness, but she couldn’t account for the goosebumps on her forearms, nor the phantom shivers galloping up and down spine.
“Do you notice anything weird?” Ramona said.
Well, duh! It’s right in front of you, Leslie said through Ramona’s mind, and she felt her silver cord tugging behind her back. Come on, I don’t wanna see this again! Hey, are you listening? I said, I don’t wanna see this!
“Pipe down, will you?” Ramona said. “I can’t concentrate with you rattling off in my head. Just tell me if you notice anything weird going on.”
What kind of ‘weird’ are you talking about? Leslie said.
“Weird, as in any kind of visual change,” she said. “You know, any kind optical shifts or changes of any kind in the image. I need your help here.”
So Leslie ‘piped down,’ allowing Ramona to concentrate, even when it roiled both of their stomachs to peep on their friend like this, even in the realm of dreams. Even so, Ramona approached the scandalous afterimage on tiptoe and stretched her hand out towards them. She crept closer and closer and closer still, focusing on the outlines of their bodies, as Lima and Alice helped each other take off their clothes before continuing their escapade. And just as she approached the bed, Just as Lima began moaning from Alice’s caresses over her body, Ramona paused at the shifting afterimage of Lima turning Alice onto her back on the bed and collapsing soon after into Alice’s embraces.
“Did you see that?” Ramona said.
Yeah, but I’m not sure what to make of it, Leslie said in Ramona’s mind. It’s too fast for me to make out.
Yet even as Lima rested on top of Alice, letting Alice rub her heaving shoulder blades and whisper breathy nothings into her ear, Lima’s image kept shifting in and out of focus on the bed. For there on the bed she stayed in fallen bliss, stayed in the false paradise of Alice’s arms, stayed in the knowledge of a guilt-ridden conscience manifesting in the tears trailing down her cheeks and into the parting between Alice’s breasts.
After a while, Alice said, “Lima, when you make love to me, who are you really thinking of?”
“My father,” she said.
“What makes you say that?” Alice said.
“Because my mom divorced him,” Lima said, and sniffled back the tears running through her sinuses.
“Do you miss him?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Tell you what, then,” Alice said. “If you want, I’ll take you to your father, if you want, but in return, I want you to do something for me.”
Lima propped herself above Alice and said, “Really? You’d do that for me.”
“Yes,” Alice said.
“What do you want, then?”
“Your mother,” Alice said.
“Are you serious?” Lima said, and shifted her body off of Alice and lay on her side of the bed. “What do you want with her, anyway?”
“To make love to her one more time,” Alice said, then turned on her side and propped herself on one elbow and put her hand on Lima’s face and wiped away her tears. “This is just my second night with you, but I can tell who you got your skills from. Your mother was as pliant as you.”
“I’m not my mom,” she said.
“Maybe not in your mind,” Alice said, and she grasped Lima’s wrist and turned her onto her back, “but you are in your body, and your body never lies.” And she planted her lips on Lima’s and seemed to inhale her soul through that lingering kiss, then left her breathless and wheezing in ecstasy.
It took some moments for Lima to regain herself, but when she did, she said, “Take me to my father first.”
“All right, all right,” Alice said, and got off the bed and pulled Lima to her feet, putting her arm over her shoulder and guiding her from the bed and past the threshold of her door, where both girls disappeared into the hallway as Ramona looked back.
Ramona followed them through the hallway and descended the stairs, then sprinted through the entrance hall, passing the family room, and caught up with them at the entrance just before they opened the door into the night. But just as they opened the door, Lima and Alice disappeared across the threshold, leaving the doorway clear.
What the hell’s going on? Leslie said in Ramona’s mind.
“I don’t know yet,” Ramona said, approaching the threshold, “but I have to find out.”
Don’t! Leslie said, and Ramona felt her insistent tugging of her silver cord against her back. I don’t like this one bit. Now get back up here!
“I’m not changing my mind,” she said, and she turned around and grasped her silver cord in both hands and held it taut against Leslie’s tugging, which glowed with each pull from Ramona’s hands down to the entrance hall and up the stairs and through the door of Amelia’s bedroom, till the tugging subsided and the line fell slack in her hands.
I can’t talk you out of this, can I? Leslie said.
“Look, I’m just gonna take a peek outside,” she said. “Then I’ll come back up. Deal?”
I hope you know what you’re doing, Leslie said.
“It’ll be quick,” she said. “I promise.”
Whatever you say, Leslie said in her mind.
So Ramona approached the doorway on tiptoe and straddled the threshold, one foot in the entrance and one foot out on the veranda, and peered past the railing into the moonlit night of the neighborhood.
She scanned the rooftops of the neighboring houses and noticed a spectral glow emanating from them, indicating the occupants were dreaming in their sleep. She then brought her focus closer onto the street and sidewalk bordering the Hearn household, then onto the lawn and sparse landscaping of desert palms swaying in the night breeze, and then onto the veranda as she looked from one end of it to the other end.
“Nobody’s here,” Ramona said.
Yeah. No shit, Sherlock, Leslie said in her mind. Now get your ass back up here.
“All right, all right,” she said, and leaned out for the knob and pulled the door shut, which resounded through the interior of the house, then she locked the door and turned to go—
When a knock at the door made her jump, and Ramona looked back at the door while . . .
On the verge of brimming tears,
All her soul within her burned;
All her pluck had changed to fears;
All her courage overturned.
Now her stomach flipped and flopped,
As her beating heart corrupts her,
When pulsation nearly stopped
At a thought that interrupts her.
What was that? Leslie said in her mind.
“God knows,” she whispered, so as not to alert whoever was on the other side of that door to her presence.
“I say, the Hearns have interesting taste in houses,” a male voice said beyond the door. “I used to live in a house like this, only much grander. I loved the gaudy colors and the spare style of houses like this. Care to let me in?”
For a time, Ramona stayed silent.
“I know you’re there, darling,” he said.
“Who the fuck are you?” Ramona said.
“Lord Aaron Rancaster, 6th Baronet Rancaster,” he said, and Ramona imagined him taking off his top hat and bowing his head at her like a gentleman of an earlier time. “Now will you let me in?”
Ramona gathered her courage and said, “Why should I?”
“You may not know me, darling,” he said, “but I knew the owner of this house once. And what’s more: a scion of hers has already invited a friend of mine into this place. A friend of a friend of mine is also my friend.”
Damn it, get back up here! Leslie screamed in her mind, rattling Ramona’s thoughts, and Ramona felt another tug of her silver cord—harder this time—against her back.
So she said to this ‘Rancaster’ fellow, “You’re not my friend,” and turned to go down the entrance hall and up the stairs, but just before she reached the foot of the stairs, she looked back at the door and saw wisps of fog curling underneath the door past the threshold onto the floor. “Oh, shit!”
Ramona sprinted up the stairs, just as the man on the other side of the door said, “Astral projection, eh? I can do much better than that, darling.”
As she cleared the top of the stairs, she heard the door fling open with a bang against the wall, rattling the hinges and cracking the wainscoting, rumbling the floorboards beneath her feet with booming steps. Before Leslie could tell her to slow down, Ramona passed through the door—
And collided with Leslie on the other side, toppling her backwards, while Ramona herself fell on top of her, both girls landing with a heavy thud over the floor, dissipating Leslie’s blank charm over the door on impact. The added weight of Ramona’s body knocked the wind out of Leslie, and Ramona’s face-plant over her sternum had her wheezing and grimacing.
With stars still flashing through her eyes with every blink, Ramona raised herself and said, “Hey, are you okay?”
“Does it look like I’m okay?” Leslie said, propping herself up on her elbows, still grimacing and squinting back tears. “Ugh, God, get off of me!”
So Ramona picked herself up, then grabbed Leslie’s hand and pulled her up, but she doubled over and planted her hands on her knees, taking in gobs of air, trying to catch her breath.
Ramona was just about to apologize when the sound of heavy footfalls stomped up the stairs beyond the door.
Both girls looked at the door, eyes wide, their breathing stilled in a moment, both now thinking the same thing.
They sprinted towards the door, with Ramona pushing up against it to keep this ‘Rancaster’ man from entering, and Leslie placing both hands flush against the door and manifesting two omamori charms there, saying, “Empódio!” (Barrier!)
Both girls then backed away from the door, as the spell took effect with a glowing sheen over it.
Yet the footsteps proceeded up the stairs at a leisurely pace, like those of a party-goer about to meet an old ‘friend,’ as the man had termed it.
“What’s the matter, girls?” he said, reaching the upper hallway and stopping just behind their door. “Don’t you want my company?”
And below the door’s threshold, there drifted small wisps of fog curling around in tendrils along the floor.
Yet the girls kept backing away with slow deliberate steps, passing by the four-poster bed and the ottomans, till they were up against a corner of the back wall between the armoire and the vanity table, trying to keep as low a profile as possible.
“Is there any way out of here?” Leslie whispered.
“How should I know?” Ramona whispered back. “Can’t you use one of your charms to take us out of here?”
“I can’t,” she said. “There’s no time for that!”
“What about the window?” she said. “Can’t we—?”
Three knocks cut Ramona off, which shimmered the spell over the door, and both girls fell silent.
“I know you’re in there, girls,” Rancaster said, “and I know you’re trapped. And it seems that one of you is practiced in the art of sealing charms. What do they call it in Japan? Kotodama or kototama?“
“Shit!” Leslie said.
“What do you want from us?” Ramona said, and balled her hands into tight knuckle-white fists.
“I just want to have a little chat, that’s all,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”
Ramona scanned her surroundings, then grabbed Leslie by the hand and pulled her towards the four-poster bed, then said, “We’ll barricade the door. That’ll buy us some time.”
So they pushed the old bed, its wooden feet screeching along the wooden floorboards, putting their backs into it, till it thudded flush against the bedroom door.
“What’s this?” Rancaster said. “Don’t you want to talk to me?”
Yet the girls ignored his question and went for the Armoire and nudged it off of the wall, tearing off bits of the plaster that had stuck to it over the years. Ramona helped Leslie guide the armoire towards the bed, with Ramona guiding one side of it, and then Leslie guiding the other side, till they had it next to the bed.
“It’s rude to ignore your guests, you know,” he said.
“Yeah? Well, fuck you, asshole,” Ramona said. “You’re not getting inside!”
And with that, Ramona helped Leslie tip the armoire over the bed, knocking clothes from the hangers and other objects inside it, till it leaned in a diagonal over the bed. Then they shouldered the armoire up and across the bedding and against the door, where it thudded against the paneling.
“Really, now? Do you have to use foul language to get your point across?” he said, before knocking three more times on the door. “Hey, are you two listening to me?”
But the girls ignored him, as they pushed the vanity table up against the bottom of the armoire, pressing the bed and the armoire tighter against the door.
“All right, then,” he said. “You leave me know choice,” and there followed a snap of two fingers and a thud of a small table echoing in the hall beyond the door. He snapped his fingers again, and another smaller object echoed with a metallic clanking on the table. “Let me tell you a story, then. Care to listen?” Yet the girls ignored him as they pushed the ottomans up against the corners of the doorjamb and the bed, so he continued, saying, “No? Well, I’ll tell you, anyway.”
No sooner had the girls finished, when they spotted the outline of a false floor where the bed had been.
“Now listen to this riddle? There was a girl named Alice Liddell,” Rancaster continued, “but not the one that did inspire Lewis Carroll’s two books entire. She was a different girl, a noble girl, a girl of just sixteen—”
They sprinted towards the false floor and crouched, trying to dig their fingers under the lip of the false floor.
“—with a froward personality and mien,” Rancaster continued. “Then one day a very wicked witch, who was just a jealous bitch, decided to kill my darling Alice with so much fucking malice, because she was full of spite over her beauty and her might.”
Yet try and try as they did, struggling and cursing as they did so, neither Leslie nor Ramona managed to get so much as a finger under the lip of the false floor.
“And yet,” Rancaster continued, “the blood of my dear Alice was as hearty as a chalice made of precious gold, though my blood had turned so cold. With the knowledge of the dead, I brought her spirit back into my bed, to have and hold just for a night, till dawn would rob her from my sight. And so—”
With nothing working, Ramona resorted to pounding on the false floor, saying, “Open up, God, damn you!”
“—my lovely dears,” Rancaster continued, “who have many things to fear, my lovely Alice has taken your friend away, though you’ve tried your best to jump into the fray. Your precious little Lima’s gone, and now I’m almost done. I’ll kill your precious friend with all the malice that the wicked witch had done to Alice, for I’m still full of spite over her murder on that night!”
So Leslie placed her hand over the false door, manifesting another omamori charm on it, and said, “Ánoixe!” (Open!)
The false floor glowed before their eyes, and some working of the mechanism within—like the click of a latch—resounded through the bedroom. Then the parallel design of the hardwood floorboards morphed into a lighter shade, revealing the borders of a trapdoor with a latch that wasn’t there before.
“Now my tale has come to an end, my dears,” Rancaster said, “and so draws the end of our stay here. How do you like it?”
Yet the girls were heedless of the man’s question, as Leslie grabbed the latch and pulled, dislodging it from its place just enough for both girls to dig their fingers beneath the lip.
“I guess I’ll take that as a ‘No,’” the man said, “but not to worry. I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve.”
Then a metallic double-click, like the action of a foreshock loading a cartridge shell into a loading port of a shotgun, caught both girls’ attention, both of their heads turning towards the door.
“Ah, fuck, we’re screwed!” Ramona said.
Together they heaved the lumbering trapdoor up past their knees, dislodging old nails that had been hammered into place years ago, then urged it past their thighs and up to their waist against the squeaking of rusted hinges. They then readjusted their hold and lifted it up past their shoulders and onto a vertical position—
When the boom of the shotgun blasted off part of the door panel and bit a chunk off the top of the armoire and ricocheted like shrapnel through its insides, shifting the armoire on the bed. Another metallic double-click and another boom blasted through the door panel, taking off more chunks from the top of the armoire and ricocheting into pieces and dislodging part of its base. Then another double-click and a third boom (three time’s a charm!) dislodged the base completely and ricocheted into pieces on the vanity table, sending hot shards through the room.
Three of these shards bit into Ramona’s left hamstrings, crumpling her into a screaming ball of agony as she started hemorrhaging onto the floor.
Leslie screamed out her name, reaching out and grasping onto her wounded comrade before she fell down the stairs, just as the lid of the trapdoor landed flat onto the floor with a resounding bang. Leslie pressed her hand hard onto the back of Romana’s leg to stop the blood flow, watching her friend grimace and grit her teeth, and said, “Don’t move! It’s gonna be okay! It’s gonna be—”
Then yet another double-click and a fourth boom (fourth time’s a kill shot!) ricocheted into shards against the table and passed through the small of Leslie’s back, spattering blood against the lid of the trapdoor and the floor and the lower part of the wall and crumpling her into Ramona.
Both girls toppled down the stairs, while they went into a free fall in their minds through the decades of space-time from 1994 to 1913, like one of those falling dreams they couldn’t wake themselves out of. They just kept falling and falling and falling down the rabbit hole of their minds full of dreamless dreams amid the screamless screams of the silent dead, there to dwell in forgotten memories, forgotten to all except Lima and their parents and God and Amelia Hearn on the other side of the Phantom Realms.
- Las Vegas
- Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber!
From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!
Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.
Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!