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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 11/13/19. NaNoWriMo, November 2019 edition.


Warning(s): traumatizing content (mild).

With eyes of darkness,
The sleep of night.

—Sappho,
“Sleep”


1


The elevator lights above Auna’s head dimmed for several seconds, then exploded one by one in a shower of sparks and glass particles when Alice yelled, “What’s the meaning of this?”

“No need to shout,” Rancaster said, and he left Auna and Akami still pressed onto the back wall of the elevator and approached the threshold, but she backed away and manifested a knife in her hand and pointed it at Rancaster’s face, till it glanced off of his invisible barrier over the elevator’s threshold. “Just wait here, till I get back. I’ve got some much-needed business I have to take care of.”

“You’ll do no such things,” she said, backing away as Rancaster passed through the barrier and approached her, still holding her knife up to his face.

“Bambina, you’re being incorrigible,” he said.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Tell me what’s going on at once!”

He smiled a rueful smile, just as the lights in the hallway dimmed before coming back on again, and said, “This isn’t your world, Alice. Here we must follow the rules, like all God-fearing folk, like them or not,” and with that, he passed through Alice’s knife and body like a ghost and ambled towards the third door to the left and put his hand on the knob, but paused there.

Even while pinned against the elevator’s back wall, Auna noticed that the door corresponded to the same position of the previous door the man had exited five flights above her.

“Alice,” he said, “I’ve tasted the cold steel of an enemy’s blade run through this mortal coil of mine, and I’ve felt the soul-severing compass of death’s scythe, but your doubting me is a blade too sharp for even myself. There are chords in the hearts of even the most steadfast that cannot be touched without emotion, for your words are swords, Alice, and you are a cruel child.”

“Is that all I am to you?” Alice yelled, turning around and dimming the lights of the hallway, till they exploded, one by one, in a shower of glass particles. “Am I nothing but a child to you?”

“I’m an adult, Alice. I don’t need to answer you when I already know how you’re going to take it,” he said, then turned back to the fuming Alice and added, “You’ve wounded me enough for one day. If you can’t realize that, then I’m afraid you’ll be a worse queen than the Queen of Hearts, and even she has her limits.”

“Answer me, damn it!” Alice said, shedding tears because herself Auna herself felt those very tears trail her cheeks. “Yes or no?”

“At least you have the courage to face me, so I’ll give you that much,” he said, then paused for another moment. “Tell you what, though,” he added. “Why don’t you and Anna have a little chat and catch up while I’m away,” and he opened the door and walked in.

The door shut with the soft swoosh of a phantasm passing through, unnoticeable to all eyes except for the eyes of sleep and dreams and nightmares.

As soon as the door shut, Rancaster’s hold on Auna and Akami ceased, and both girls staggered on wobbly legs and doubled over, wheezing and coughing.

When they regained themselves, Auna dissipated her revolver on the floor, while Akami dissipated her knife on the floor and crouched and picked up the Red Knight’s sword and resheathed it in her belt. Then both girls walked up to Rancaster’s glass enclosure and saw Alice’s hands curled into tight knuckle-white fists, one still grasping her knife, and the other unarmed.

“Try to make amends,” Akami said.

“What if it doesn’t work?” she said.

“You need to try, Auna,” she said. “She’s the part of you that you need to reconcile, for all of our sakes.”

So Auna gulped down her qualms and said, “Are you okay, Alice?”

When Alice turned around, wiping away tears, she glared at Auna through the glass and said, “Why do you care?”

“Because . . . because . . .” she said, but the rest of her words drifted away into nothing, for Auna had no words to describe how she felt.

“Because of what?” Alice said.

Akami whispered into Auna’s ear and said, “Do it.”

Auna looked at her, saying, “Are you sure?”

“I’m as much a part of you as Alice is,” she said. “Now do it.”

So, in lieu of words, Auna grasped onto Akami's hand, lacing Akami's fingers through the key ring, and both girls placed their other hands against the glass, palms forward, and pushed into it and then through it as if it was made of water.

And as they walked through with matching steps, step for step, Alice backed away with her knife pointed towards them, saying, “How can you get through that barrier?”

As Akami and Auna stepped forward, Alice stepped back while keeping her eyes on both of them, till both girls came through the barrier in a single body wearing Akami’s red Sunday dress and Auna’s oversized hand-me-down jacket over her shoulders. And with one heart, as in one body, Auna’s heartbeats thumped through the hallway in rolling echoes, fixing Alice’s gaze on the bloodstain over her bosom.

Alice put her own hand over her bosom and backed away along the hallway and said, “Who are you?”

“Your friend,” she said.

“Liar!” Alice yelled and kept backing away, as more tears trailed her face. “You left me! You abandoned me!”

“I was just as scared as you, Alice, believe me,” she said, approaching with open arms, “but I’m here for you now. That’s all that matters.”

Yet through it all, Alice kept backing away like the scared little girl she had been on that awful night, like the scared little girl Auna had become when her father . . . her father . . . her—

Alice blinked back more tears and wiped them away, then shook her head and glared at Auna’s approach, pointing the tip of her knife towards her foe, and blinked back yet more tears.

Auna had not seen Alice cry since that fateful night in the refractory moments after Auna’s father had defiled her at the age of ten when she and Alice wore the same face and shed the same tears and felt the same pain between their legs. Since then, Auna had donned a mask of indifference and buried Alice in the tomb of her soul, while Alice’s shadow trailed after her wherever she went as a reminder of what had been taken from her. From then on, Alice became the twisted personification of everything Auna feared, casting the memories of that awful night out of herself and into the pit of forgotten memories, forgotten to all except herself, the keeper of her own nightmares and her own shame every time she looked in the mirror and saw Alice Liddell looking back at her.

Now the tables were turned, the roles reversed.

Auna found herself looking back on the shadow she had discarded and said, “Please, don’t be scared.”

“Who said anything about being scared?” Alice said, standing her ground in the middle of the hallway, laughing like a madwoman trapped in the nightmare of her own self. “You want to fight me, is that it? Lay down our cards and play for keeps, is that it?”

“I’m not here to—”

“Silence!” Alice yelled.

“For God’s sake, listen to me!” And Auna sprinted up to her long lost friend, ready to hug her close to her—

“STAY AWAY FROM ME!” Alice yelled, rumbling the central corridor and blinking the wall sconces and ceiling lights on and off, halting Auna’s advance for but a moment. “You want my crown and throne, don’t you?“

“I don’t want those,” Auna said, “I want you!

And for a moment, Alice’s evil-eyed glare ceased and her face softened to a look of surprise, and the cracked stone of her heart pulsed with warmth like a candle igniting into flame against the wind, flickering for a moment before smoldering away. In its place, Alice disappeared from her shoes and her legs and the skirts of her dress, leaving her upper half from her waist and her arms to the top of her shoulders suspended above the ground.

“Saucy girl! You love games as much as I do, don’t you, Auna?” Alice said, and smiled a slasher’s smile as she disappeared from her waist to the tops of her shoulders, leaving her head suspended in the air like the Cheshire Cat’s. “You’re on! But you’ll have to play by my rules, and I don’t play fair.”

“Alice, wait!” Auna said, and sprinted up to Alice.

For Alice’s smile was all that was left of her, which said, “Tootles,” before disappearing from view—

Just as Auna was about to get there, stretching out her hand, but only felt the lingering warmth of Alice’s presence slide through her fingers like vapor.

“Where is she?” Auna said.

I don’t know, Akami said in Auna’s mind, but it looks like

Then came a snap of unseen fingers resounding through the corridor behind them, and when Auna turned, she saw two rows of Alice’s red musketeer girls blocking her position from the elevators with muskets aimed. One row was kneeling, the other row standing, both ranks poised to fire the moment Alice willed it.

“It only happens when you’re not looking,” Alice said as she pressed the button that opened another elevator to the fifth floor, for the other one still had Rancaster’s barrier over its entrance. “By the way,” she added, “if you manage to escape this, meet me in the throne room. Fire at will!”

At that moment, in the lunatic seconds before a volley of lead flew at Auna, before Auna sighted Alice inside the elevator, before she could even gasp, Akami took over Auna’s body.

Shots fired, filling the hallway with thunderclaps and gun smoke, and letting loose a volley of lead at almost mach one.

Yet Akami ran halfway down the hall and exceeded mach one, sending a booming shockwave that blew doors off their hinges and peeled off the wainscoting and cracked the drywall. When she reached the end of the hall, she reached mach two, caving in the wall with a booming percussive shock, before she juked to her left and sprinted down another corridor in a whirlwind of haste. She then took another left turn at the end of the hallway, tearing off wallpaper and pieces of wainscoting and rattling doors loose from their hinges, then took another left turn, then another, and then another, till Auna realized she was going around in a loop.

Akami skidded to a stop halfway through yet another hallway and relinquished control of Auna’s body, saying inside her head, Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

“Yeah,” Auna said. “If this is a loop, then it’s an endless path, and we won’t be able to reach our destination, even with this key,” and she inspected the key to room no. 99 and looked back at the door without a room number on it.

She was about to turn back when Akami said in her mind, All the doors are numberless, Auna.

“Fuck!” Auna said. “What do we do now?”

Try turning the knob, Akami said, and see what happens.

“Why?” she said.

It might be a shortcut, Akami said.

“Or a trap,” she said, spying all the doors along the hallway beckoning her to open them into countless iterations of possible outcomes. Still, Auna put her hand on the knob of the door and turned it. “It’s unlocked.”

Then open it, Akami said.

Yet Auna paused for a moment of reflection, as if she were about to turn the Wheel of Fortune or flip a coin. It was like fate in the palm of her hand waiting for her to pull the trigger.

What are you waiting for? Akami said in her mind.

Auna hadn’t a clue, for she fixated on something that was just beyond her comprehension, just on the tip of her tongue to pronounce, a lilting sound like an L-sound . . .

Leslie? Akami said.

“Is that her name?” she said.

Yes, Akami said. Shiromi and I encountered her in your dreamworld just before you died. Why are you thinking of her?

“I don’t know,” Auna said, gripping the knob in a sweaty grip, but stopped upon yet another thought fluttering through her head of a bespectacled Gibson girl, so she let go of the door knob.

Why did you stop? Akami said in her mind. Is it Leslie?

“No,” she said and backed away from the door. “It’s another girl, but I’ve never—”

That’s when she remembered herself back at the Arcana Bookstore, where she took that book off the shelf and perused some of its pages, though the title of it escaped her. The image of this Gibson girl had flashed through her mind the moment she touched that book, the same way she had touched the very door knob in front of her.

Never what? Akami said.

“I’ve never met this other girl before,” she said and placed her hands over the paneling of the door, looking down at the flooring beneath her feet to sort out these anomalous thoughts flashing through her head every time she touched certain objects.

Met who? Akami said.

“How should I know?” she said, trying to find a clue beyond a hazy memory of that book whose title had slipped from her ability to pronounce but whose author’s name also began with an L-sound. “Why am I even having these thoughts? Who is this girl, anyway?”

So Akami said, Auna, put your hand over the knob.

“Why should I?” Auna said.

You won’t know for sure who that girl is, until you open that door, she said, manifesting herself beside Auna in her red Sunday dress and taking a hold of the key from Auna’s hand, so that Auna was back to wearing her Shad-Row uniform with her oversized jacket over her shoulders. “I’ll take this for safe keeping.”

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” she said.

Akami smiled and grabbed Auna’s hand and placed it over the door knob, cupping it there with her own hand, and said, “We’ll find out together.”

And with that, both girls turned the knob and pulled the door open to another place thick with the fog of Amelia’s memories churning through the air they breathed. They then stepped past the threshold of Amelia’s reflection spell, stepping across a century of space-time from 2018 to 1913 in the process, and witnessed one of her memories reflected from the mirror of Leslie’s unconscious memory of it.


2


By the time Amelia Hearn had finished mourning the death of Ronald Hamilton, she heard other voices reaching her inside her dream realm and looked back along the floating bridge she had traversed. At first, these voices were just on the edge of earshot, but when a series of bangs shook the space around her like those of a fist hitting a door, the voices escalated, and she cupped her hands to her ears when a girl screamed, “Open up, God, damn you!”

More banging noises resounded through the space, rumbling the deck boards beneath her feet and rippling the water margins along the bridge. She then felt as if a tight band were clamping around her head and over her brows, before a nausea in her stomach bowled her over onto her knees when another girl said, “Ánoixe!” (Open!)

The whole realm shook around her, followed by a metallic clunk resounding through the space, like that of a tumbler turning over, and she knew that someone was trying to access her dream realm. The latch clicked off the slip plate in her mind, and the door screeched open on rusty hinges, and for some moments, she blinked back tears as the nausea clenched around her stomach, then clearing from her like an antacid after dinner.

She looked back along the bridge, listening to the dying echoes of the incarnation and the continued squeaking of hinges, and said, “Kendra? Nico? Is that you?”

Then another voice, a man’s voice, said, “I guess I’ll take that as a ‘No,’ 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, drew Amelia’s attention to the image of a shotgun in her head.

“Ah, fuck, we’re screwed!” one of the girls said.

So Amelia cursed and sprinted back down the floating bridge, rippling the water margins into small wakes in her strides, and said, “Kendra! Nico!”

The squeaking of the hinges kept up, till the boom of the shotgun exploded through her dream realm like a thunderclap, and the same lurching ache of her stomach, like shrapnel through her insides, nearly bowled her over in her run. Another metallic double-click and another boom ripped through her stomach, yet she gritted her teeth and kept running—faster and faster and faster. Then another double-click and a third boom (three time’s a charm!) stopped her completely, and Amelia felt her left hamstrings give way, crumpling her into a screaming ball of agony as she started hemorrhaging onto the boards of her bridge, yet in her mind, she saw another girl (not Kendra or Nico) suffering the same agony.

Another girl screamed out this girl’s name and reached out and grasped onto her wounded comrade. Amelia then heard another bang resounding through her dream realm, like that of a trapdoor lid landing flat onto the floor. She heard this same girl saying, “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!) thundered through Amelia’s dream realm, and she felt buckshot pellets passing through the small of her own back, just as she saw in her mind’s eye yet another girl falling victim to the same attack that spattered blood against the lid of the trapdoor and the floor and the lower part of the wall.

When Amelia unclenched her eyes, still squinting and grimacing from the lingering pain, she looked before her and saw two girls she had not seen before crumpled before her over the bridge. When the pain of both injuries finally fled from her own body, she crawled to these girls and recognized the one called ‘Ramona’ still clutching her lacerated left hamstrings at the back of her thigh, while her friend lay beside her with her arm still wrapped around Ramona’s shoulder. Both girls lay face down and motionless before her, but Amelia saw their silver cords still attached to the center of their backs, even as their blood had been splattered on the deck boards of her floating bridge.

She placed her hand over their backs and felt their hearts still beating against her palms and breathed a sigh, then said, “They’re still alive, thank God!”

Then she blinked back inexplicable tears and noticed the waft of blood lingering in the air and stinging her eyes, but in that single blink, the outlines of a man in a white suit flashed through her mind. She looked up and saw Aaron Rancaster closing a door behind him as wisps of fog emanated from his feet and curled its tendrils over the deck boards, spilling over the bridge into the watery sheen below. And, what’s more, she thought she smelled the scent of propellant and gunpowder from him as if the man had fired off several shots before entering her dream realm.

“Why are you here?” she said.

The man faced her and said, “Just to chat, darling.”

“About what, exactly?”

“About your fate, should you go through with your plans tonight,” he said, then raised his hands up as if to placate her. “Pray, I’m not threatening you, darling. You’ve got nothing to fear from me.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Amelia said.

“Just to give you a sporting chance when the hour of your decision arrives, whenever that happens,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this,” he said. “You could either leave this business alone and go on with your life in peace, or you can continue with your plans and face a later retribution even I can’t control. It’s your choice, darling.”

“If I go for the latter option,” she said, feeling another pair of eyes behind her, “what happens then?”

“I don’t know, honest to God,” he said, then turned his gaze behind Amelia, as if someone else stood there behind her. “Scrying into mirrors can only get me so far into the limbo of things without the rest clouding my view of them.”

“So you just came to warn me?” she said.

“That’s it,” he said, then turned and opened the door and stood at the threshold amidst the fog and added, “Do you believe in fate, darling?”

“Why should I tell you?” she said.

“Just wondering,” he said and passed the threshold, where his afterimage lingered in Amelia’s vision long after he closed the door, lingering there into the world of the living—


3


Through the anomalous memories of Leslie Amame and the gazes of shock and awe on the faces of her listeners in the living room. Leslie let that last word, ‘fate,’ sink into their minds for a minute longer and said, “What I told you just now is not how I originally remembered it. That meeting between Amelia Hearn and Rancaster is different from I remembered before this morning, as if that scene was implanted in my head right beside what I actually remembered. In my original memory of it, Rancaster was never there when Ramona and I woke up and met Amelia Hearn. In the original, we didn’t come in with injuries, and I specifically remembered not waking up screaming at the top of my lungs.”

“Then what can you recall in the original version?” Randal said.

“In the original,” Leslie said, “Ramona and I woke up with migraines, so Amelia took us into her shop and cared for us, till we fell asleep for the rest of that night and woke up in the morning. After waking up, we asked Amelia what had happened to us, because we both still remembered getting trapped inside the bedroom in our previous dream sequence, and she told us that she brought both of us into her dream realm just before we . . . well, died in the previous dream sequence.”

“Died?” Randal said. “What exactly happened?”

“It’s a long story,” Leslie said. “I don’t wanna dwell on it, but suffice it to say that it was totally different from what I remember after this morning.”

“I see,” Randal said, “but can you at least give us an idea of just how much it differed from what you remember now?”

At this, Leslie sighed and said, “After we got trapped inside the room, Ramona and I needed to find a way to get out of the room, so we repeated the same steps I already told you. Ramona gave me part of her second sight, then I put up my seal on the door, Ramona used her astral projection to see a way for us to get out and find Lima. In the original version, Ramona checked everywhere in the house but didn’t find anything, so she went to the front door and opened it and found nothing out of the ordinary outside. Then I asked her to come back inside, and after she looked around some more, Ramona returned to the room, and we were back to square one.”

“Then what happened?” Randal said.

“Well,” Leslie said, “just after Ramona got back inside the room with me, we both heard someone knocking on the bedroom door. We asked who it was, and I already had my hand on the knob thinking it was Lima on the other side, but the one on the other side answered with a different name. I’m sure you know what it is by now.”

“Alice?” Randal said.

“Yep,” she said. “We asked Alice if Lima was with her, and she said that she was and that if we opened the door for her, she’ll show Lima to us. Of course, that tipped us off, and we refused to open the door for her. Then we both heard Lima’s voice telling us to let her in and meet her new friend, and that’s when we both said that she wasn’t getting inside no matter what. That pissed Alice off and caused her to bang the door and changer her voice into something totally demonic. So we did the same thing I told you earlier: we barricaded the door with the bed and armoire and vanity table, then opened up the trap door and got inside before whatever was on the other side of that bedroom door broke in, and that’s when we found ourselves inside Amelia’s dream realm when we woke up.”

“I can see why you said it was different,” Randal said. “Were there other differences you noticed in the version you remember from this morning?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“What are they?” Randal said.

“For one,” Leslie said, “I didn’t wake up screaming. And for another, I didn’t remember seeing anything else other than what I’ve told you when I woke up in Amelia’s dream realm.”

“Wait,” Randal said. “Are you telling me you saw something else in the version you recall from this morning?”

“Yep,” she said.

“What did you see?” he said.

“Even though Ramona and I were still out of it at the time,” Leslie said, “I saw two other visitors besides Rancaster entering Amelia’s dream realm.”

“Who were they?” he said.

Leslie took a deep breath, then said, “I saw Auna Wenger and another version of her dressed in a red Lolita dress.”

Celia and Madison traded a knowing look.

“Wait,” Madison said, “you saw them?”

“Yeah,” Leslie said.

“Wait a minute,” Katherine added. “How do you even remember this if you were ‘out of it’ at the time?”

“And if this was one of your memories,” Colbie said, “then how were they even there?”

“God, I don’t know. Your guesses are as good as mine,” Leslie said, thinking back on last night’s dream dive, wherein she met Auna Wenger and her red and white doppelgängers on the pier, “but I think it might have something to do with Auna Wenger. I don’t know how or even why, but . . . it has to be her. She’s the common link in all of this, even if we don’t know why yet.”

“And how did you figure that?” Randal said.

“Because I met Auna in my own dream dive last night,” she said, “both the young version and the teenage version.”

“Is that so?” he said.

“It is,” Colbie said. “She told me about it during my own dream dive last night.”

“That’s another second-hand account from a primary source,” Randal said, “passed on from Leslie to you.” He then paused for another spell, rolling the connections through his head, and turned his attention from Leslie to Katherine beside her, now fidgeting under his gaze and looking down on the floor.

So Leslie put her hand on Katherine’s back and said, “You okay?”

Katherine nodded.

“Kathy,” Randal said, drawing Leslie and Katherine’s eyes on him, “did your mother’s account differ in any way from what Leslie’s told so far?”

“Yes,” she said. “When my mom told me what happened—”

“Not yet,” Randal said. “After Leslie finishes, you’ll get your say, but not until then.”

Katherine nodded her head.

“Okay, we have an opening door, then shots fired because Rancaster was there, and then two girls showing up out of nowhere,” he said, then paused as if he was rolling Leslie words through his head, then: “What’s the fourth difference?”

“When Ramona and I woke up and talked to her,” Leslie said, ”Amelia mentioned meeting two other girls before Ramona and I came to her, which she never did in the original when we met her the first time. It only happened a moment ago when I stopped.”

“Because you misremembered what happened?” he said.

“Exactly.”

Her observation left Randal silent for a spell, till he said, “And these two other girls she mentioned: they’re not the same as Auna and her double, the ones you saw, right?”

“They were different, yes,” she said.

“Did she mention their names?” Randal said.

“Yeah, she did,” she said. “She mentioned meeting Nico and Kendra visiting her shop before our arrival. That’s why I stopped, because the memory kind of . . . popped into my head.” And she looked at Colbie in particular and added, “Kind of like the Mandela effect.”

And before Randal came up with another question, Colbie paled and gaped, saying, “No fucking way,” and she caught everyone’s attention in the room.

“What is it, Colbie?” Leslie said.

“Did Amelia actually mention their names?”

“She did,” Leslie said.

“Did Amelia say anything else about them?” she said.

“Like what?” Leslie said. “Colbie, where are you going with these questions? Do you know something we don’t?”

Colbie nodded that she did, then gulped and looked at Leslie’s eyes and said, “Did Amelia mention that one of these girls was looking for her sister?”

Leslie inhaled and raised her hand to her gaping mouth, looking at her daughter with wide eyes, wondering how she was able to glean her own memories like that, and said, “Amelia specifically told us to keep that secret, and Ramona and I haven’t told anyone about it, not even Lima. How do you even know about that?”


4


Aaron Rancaster opened the door into the hallway after talking with Amelia Hearn and shut it behind him. He then noticed the scent of cordite and gunpowder lingering in the air, so he crouched to the floor and put his hand to the carpet and closed his eyes. Inside his mind, he saw Alice’s red musketeer doppelgängers firing off a volley in the hallway and pursuing Auna and Akami through the hallways.

When he opened his eyes, he took his hand off the floor and noticed black powder residue on his palm and fingers. So he checked the floor and saw a layer of the same residue on the carpet, but he saw no blood spatters anywhere on the floor or along the walls.

“You love playing dirty, don’t you, Alice?” he said.

He approached the elevators and pressed the button leading up. When the door slid open, he stepped inside and pressed the 10th floor button on the panel, continuing the elevator ritual as the doors slid closed behind him. And almost on cue, the speaker above him began the first movement of Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil's Trill Sonata in a languid melody that fired his memories from a past life, a life he had left long ago before an Englishman and an American ended his undead tyranny over Europe.

In his revery of that fateful day, just before his head detached from his shoulders, Rancaster remembered seeing his last sunset blazing red behind the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, his beloved homeland where his Wallachian forefathers fought and bled for the Wallachian throne that was his birthright, his lineage, and his destiny. Ah, but it was a destiny cursed with the blood of his enemies and the betrayals of his brothers. Even after the passing of centuries, his mind still replayed the life of bloodshed and pain he had lived as a mortal man under a cursed lineage of many pretenders to his throne. He remembered the Romanian boyars murdering his father and eldest brother and replacing his own rule with that of his cousin as a puppet ruler with the help of the Hungarians. He remembered killing that puppet ruler before fleeing to the Ottomans for refuge from the vengeance of his cousin’s allies. He remembered forcing his younger brother to dig his own grave before beheading him. He remembered impaling the Saxons and Ottomans and Bulgarians, pushing back the Ottomans in the wake of his cruelties, till the Hungarians had him captured and imprisoned. And last of all, after regaining the Wallachian throne for a short time, he remembered dying in battle with all the courage of his forefathers bleeding out of him on the field of his homeland, where his enemies mutilated his corpse and scattered the remains and damned his soul to an eternity of wandering, till he came back as an undead shadow of his former self . . .

Till the elevator door opened on the 10th floor.

He stepped out and crouched to the floor and closed his eyes, sensing the location of the entrance to the throne room of Chess Cathedral, and thought of Alice and Auna and their impending contest there and said to himself, “‘Uneasy lies the head the wears the crown,’” and he took care to observe the rules of the elevator ritual and not look back.

As such, he followed the original path to room no. 99 that Auna and Akami would have taken had Alice not tried to cheat by ‘playing dirty’ on the 5th floor. After passing several doors, he reached the end of the central hall and turned left and headed down a secondary hall past several more doors, then turned left again and went down yet another hall, till he reached the last door to his left at a dead end that said, ‘Room no. 99.’

He then reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, but found no key there. He then checked the other pocket of his jacket, but found no key there, either. So he checked both pockets of his trousers and his vest, but alas, he found no key to this very door anywhere on his person.

Then he thought of his former friend, Ronald Hamilton, and said, “You conniving little prick!” But then he laughed and added, “Even in death, you’re always full of surprises, Ronnie, old boy!”

So, without further recourse, he knocked three times at the door and waited. And waited. And waited. Yet after a time, he was about to give another three knocks, till the door opened into the ambulatory from a side chapel showing Alice with a knife gripped in her hand and a row of Alice’s red musketeer doppelgängers with their muskets aimed at the door.

“What did I say about playing dirty?” he said.

Alice dissipated her doppelgängers and the knife from her hand and said, “You’re no fun,” and she looked behind him. “Is that girl-character with you?”

“No,” he said, “but try to play by the rules, Bambina. This is a queen’s duel, not an assassination,” and he passed the threshold, closed the door behind him, and waited for Auna’s arrival. And during that interim, Rancaster told Alice why Auna had left her all those years ago, why she never acknowledged Alice whenever she reached out to her, and why Alice had become a monster.


5


Colbie looked down at the carpet between her feet, avoiding every gaze (especially her mom’s) as she organized her thoughts, then took a deep breath and said, “There's a lot you don't know, and it’s really complicated, but I'll try my best.”

And try she did, recounting the things she had seen and done when she left her mother in the time trap in Cooley’s underground vault with Nico and Cooley and Blaze. She told them about taking Mara with her to the wrecked sukiya-zukuri mansion and entering the hidden door behind the pantry into Connie’s dream simulation, wherein they met Kendra and Nico entering moments later. As such, she also told them about Kendra and Nico’s own journey into the Rancaster district before the start of the War, wherein they met Amelia Hearn in her old shop, who helped them get to Mara’s last known location in Katherine Hearn’s dream mansion.

“Is that another secondhand account?” Randal said.

“Yeah,” Colbie said and paused upon noticing her labored breathing for the first time, then looked at Leslie on the divan and Connie leaning against the sofa’s armrest by Kendra’s feet. “Kendra and Mara told me everything. Should I go on?”

“You don’t have to,” Katherine said, catching her attention from the sofa. “I already showed my sisters what happened to them, and we told Roy about it before you came in.”

“What about the two Nicos?” Colbie said. “Did you—”

Two Nicos?” Katherine said.

“Are you serious?” Madison said.

“You’re joking, right?” Celia said. “Right?”

“I’m not making this up!” Colbie said.

“I know you’re not, but you threw me for a loop when you told me that,” Leslie said, looking at her daughter in between Celia and Madison on the sofa. “And when I talked to Connie about it over the phone, she couldn’t make sense of it, either. Unless . . .”

“Unless what?” she said.

Yet Leslie remained silent, rolling the memories of Nico’s mind through her thoughts when she was with Cooley and Blaze in the underground vault beneath Cooley’s mansion.

“What are you thinking?” Randal said.

“Cooley, Blaze, Nico, and I were caught in a time-trap beneath Cooley’s underground vault,” Leslie said, “but when we came out of it, we found Nico in pain, bleeding from a wound to her stomach and her head. Blaze helped wash out the blood on her stomach, and Cooley helped wash out the blood from her hair, while I was looking into her mind to see what happened, and . . .”

“And what happened?” Randal said.

And in her mind, while peering through Nico’s mind at the time, Leslie remembered the skirmish between Mara and Kendra and the Red and White Queens beneath her in Katherine’s ballroom.

Leslie said, “I saw the fight below me from a chandelier overlooking the ballroom. Mara had just stabbed one of the Queens against the wall, while Kendra had been injured and was bleeding from a stab wound on her stomach by the roadblocks. As I was looking through Nico’s mind, I felt that same stab and found that I was bleeding from the same wound just before I pressed the detonator and blew the doors of the grandfather clock at the end of the ballroom. After that, I fell to the floor, but . . .”

“But what?” Randal said.

Leslie took a deep breath and said, “I heard Mara calling out Nico’s name as I was falling. I think Nico was on that chandelier when all of this happened, but I still can’t make sense of it! Nico was with me in Cooley’s vault, so how could she also be in Kathy’s ballroom at the same time? It just doesn’t make sense!”

“I think I know what’s going on,” Randal said, turning everyone’s head towards him, then: “Colbie, how did you know about the two Nicos?”

“From Mara,” she said. “She told me, Kendra, and Nico about it.”

“Yet another secondhand account,” Randal said. “When Mara told you this, how did Nico react?”

“Nico was just as stumped as me and Kendra,” Colbie said. “None of us could understand it, not even Mara.”

“So we have a secondhand account from one of the secondhand witnesses,” Randal said and looked at Colbie. “And we have a firsthand account from a witness who looked into Nico’s memories,” and he looked at Leslie. “Kathy,” he added, looking at Katherine on the divan beside Leslie, “you said you showed your sisters what happened to Kendra and Mara. Did you three also see what happened to Nico in the ballroom?”

“Yeah, we did,” Katherine said.

“And does what you three saw correspond to what Leslie saw?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“What exactly happened?”

“After we saw Nico fall to the floor,” Katherine said, wiping tears that had begun to well up in her eyes, “we saw Mara come up to her and cry over her, till Nico disappeared in her arms.”

“So, basically,” Randal said, “Nico died in that ballroom?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“What about Kendra?” he said. “What happened to her?”

“She died in the ballroom,” Katherine said, looking at Kendra’s comatose form on the sofa between Roy and Connie. “That’s why I have my shroud over her.”

“To keep her spirit from passing on?” he said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“So that takes care of Nico in the ballroom,” Randal said. “Now let’s focus on Nico in Cooley’s underground vault. How did she get there?”

“Through one of my mirrors,” Katherine said. “I sent Mara and Nico through my mirror, so Cooley could look after them.”

“From where did you send them?” he said.

“From my private boudoir,” she said.

“And where’s that?”

“In my mansion,” she said.

“And were your sisters there with you at the time?”

“Yeah,” she said.

Randal passed for a bit, then said, “How did you three end up in your dream mansion?”

“Celia came in before we did,” Katherine said, “and we followed her after Maddy and I felt something happen to her.”

“What do you mean by ‘felt’?” he said.

“I mean that Celia’s image flashed in our minds,” Katherine said. “That’s why I picked up Maddy and drove home to find her and found her door locked when we arrived, so I accessed her room and found that Celia had used one of my mirrors to get into the Phantom Realms.”

Randal paused for a bit, then said, “Did you know where in the Phantom Realms she went?”

“We didn’t know, at first,” Katherine said, “till Maddy clued me in on her location in the Phantom Realms.”

“Then what happened?” he said.

“We went there looking for clues,” Katherine said, “till Maddy had her own vision.”

So Randal turned to Madison and said, “What happened in that vision of yours?”

“I saw Rancaster forcing Nico and Mara to play Russian roulette in front of their parents,” Madison said, “and I saw Nico die.”

“I see,” Randal said. “Did you two run into Rancaster?”

Katherine said, “We did, so we escaped to my mansion, where we found Celia and Mara and Nico in my private boudoir.”

“I see.” Randal then paused for another spell, then said, “Out of the three of you who met Mara and Nico, which one of you met them first.”

“I did,” Celia said.

“How did you meet them?” Randal said.

She stole a glance at Madison and said, “I took the key ring from Maddy and used one of the keys, along with one of Kathy’s mirrors.”

“What key did you use?”

“It’s the ‘dreamer’s key,’” she said.

“Do you have it with you?” he said.

“I have it,” Katherine said, fishing out the key ring with the dreamer’s key from the pocket of her Shad-Row University blazer, and passed it to Randal. “The key is the one shaped like an arrow.”

So Randal picked it out and said, “This one?”

“Yeah.”

Randal then took the key out of the key ring and placed it in Celia’s hand, saying, “Did you use this key to find Mara and Nico?”

“I used it to find Mara first,” she said.

Randal paused at this statement, then said, “Did you find Mara and Nico at the same time?”

“No, I didn’t,” she said. “I found Mara first, and she was asleep on a bed of roses.”

“Where?”

“Under a Chinese pavilion,” she said, “inside her mind.”

Her answer left Randal silent for a spell, till he said, “Did Nico appear to you while you were there?”

“She didn’t appear to me,” she said. “I heard her say something, so I turned around, and there she was.” Celia’s observation garnered her hard stares from Leslie and Katherine on the divans and Madison and Colbie on the sofa next to her, so she added, “What’s going on? Why are you all looking at me like that?”

Colbie, for her part, was thinking back to when Celia had invited her and Kendra into her dorm room to review Nico and Mara’s medical records. Based on Celia’s review of it, she specifically remembered Celia observing that Nico had the telepathic kind of ESP that traveled across dreamscapes. And when Colbie thought back to the harrowing events of her group dream dive with her friends the night before, she specifically remembered hearing Nico’s voice at the time.

“I think they’re starting to catch on to what I’m thinking,” Randal said. “My next question is a two-pronged question. Are you ready?”

Celia nodded that she was.

“When you met Mara and Nico,“ he said, “where did you take them?”

“I took them to Kathy’s mansion.”

“Why did you take them there?” he said.

“To escape Rancaster,” Celia said.

“And before you took Mara and Nico there,” he added, “was there anything that Nico said or did that you found unusual?”

“What do you mean?” Celia said.

“In other words,” he said, “did she do anything that made you look into another person’s mind?”

Celia sucked in breath, her eyes fluttering wide, and said, “Yeah, she did. Nico kissed me, and I saw everything Nico saw.”

“What do you mean by ‘everything’?” he said.

“I mean everything,” she said, “from sharing her first kiss with Mara and her parents’ last fight to . . .” And at this point, she began to cry, rousing Katherine and Leslie from their divan towards her on the sofa, yet Celia kept saying, “I saw her last moments when she and Mara were on the stage. Mara was screaming for her to keep trying as she put the gun to her head and . . . and . . .”

Katherine and Leslie told Celia to stop, while Colbie and Madison put their arms around Celia’s shoulders and said that she didn’t have to say the rest of it if she didn’t want to.

Yet Randal said, “Let her get it off her chest.”

Katherine glared at him, saying, “Can’t you see she’s upset?”

“I know,” he said, “but this is her story to tell.”

“But—”

“It’s okay, Kathy,” Celia said, wiping the tears from her clammy cheeks. “I need to finish.”

“Please, stop,” Madison said.

“You don’t have to,” Katherine said.

“It’s okay if you can’t,” Colbie said.

“I’m not doing this, because I want to,” Celia said. “I’m doing this, because I promised Nico to find her sister, and by God, I will! So just lay off, please!”

Everyone around her went silent after that.

“Please, just let me finish this, okay?” Celia said.

So Katherine and Leslie told Celia not to push herself before going back to their divans and taking their seats.

When they had settled down, Randal said, “You made a promise to Nico?”

“Yeah,” Celia said.

“Did you make this promise after you found her?”

“No,” she said. “It was earlier than that.”

Randal paused for a moment, then said, “When was the first time you met Nico?”

“The night before last night,” Celia said.

“What happened?” he said.

“It happened during my dream dive with Kendra and Colbie,” she said, then took a deep breath and let it out. “Colbie and Kendra found Mara unconscious in the garden and took her in, and we all tried helping Mara out, but she was inconsolable and raging so hard, it was scary to watch. Yet Colbie wouldn’t give up on her, till she stabbed Colbie right in front of me and Kendra. I cried over Colbie, while Kendra punched her through the wall and was about to kill her, but she didn’t. She just came back, and we both cried over Colbie, because we honestly thought she was dead,” and she wiped her tears away.

For her part, Colbie bunched her knees together on the sofa as she wrapped her arms around Celia’s shoulders, wanting to tell her that she was sorry for putting her through all of that. She wanted to hug her to comfort her crying friend who needed her, but the more Colbie thought about it, the more she realized that Colbie herself needed comforting when stabs of guilt began pulsing through her heart. Celia and Kendra had cried over her, because Colbie had tried to act the hero’s part, because she was foolish enough to believe that her act of courage could save the day without thinking about the suffering she had caused her friends.

“When did Nico come in?” he said.

“She came in immediately,” Celia said, “but Kendra, Colbie, and I only heard her when we were trying to calm Mara down. Nico was trying to help us calm Mara down, but after Mara stabbed Colbie, that’s when Nico appeared to us when Kendra and I were crying over Colbie.”

“What did Nico do?”

“She brought Colbie back,” she said.

“And how did she do that?” he said.

“She invoked God to save her, saying, ‘My God, my God, please hear my prayer. The living save the living, but help me save the dead,’” Celia said, “but not before making us promise her to find Mara. That’s why we were in the Rancaster district, and that’s why I did what I did. Kathy, Maddy, I know I put you two through hell, and for that I’m really sorry, but I need to find Mara. I needed to fulfill my promise to Nico because of what she did for me and Kendra, because of what she did for Colbie. I needed to help Nico however I could.”

At her words, Leslie began to tear up, so she wiped her tears away and said, “Thank you, Celia,” and she buried her face in her hands.

“Mom,” Colbie said, letting go of Celia and walking over to her mother on the divan, just as Katherine got up from hers for Colbie to sit by her mother, which she did. “Mom, are you okay?”

“Does it look like I’m okay?” Leslie said, wiping more tears away and hugging her and looking her daughter in the face. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Did you think you could hide this from me?”

“Mom, I was gonna—”

“Don’t you even trust me?”

“Mom, I didn’t mean to—”

“God, you’re so grounded for this!” Leslie said, hugging her daughter again. “I don’t know if I should be glad you’re alive or fucking angry at you! God, Colbie, from now on, no more secrets!”

At this, Katherine said, “I’m sure Colbie didn’t mean to make you so upset. If anything would’ve happened to Celia last night, Maddy and I would’ve had a hard time breaking it to our parents, and I’m pretty sure our mom would skin us alive.”

Leslie kissed Colbie's forehead and looked at Katherine and said, “I know, and I get it. Really, I do. Just go to your sisters.”

“Are you sure?” Katherine said.

“They’ll need you soon enough. Now go,” she said, and when Katherine did, sitting between her sisters on the sofa, Leslie took a few deep breaths and said to her daughter, “Colbie, when I ground you, I’m gonna feed you with so much food, you’ll be too fat to get off the couch!”

“MOM!”

Sniggers erupted from everyone in the family room.

“And that’s just the start,” Leslie said and attempted to smile. “I’ll also make you go to the gym and do laps every day to lose all those pounds. Only then will you know exactly how much pain you put me through today, so there!”

More sniggers erupted, and Roy said, “Maybe I should do that after Kendra wakes up.”

“Geez, you two are cruel!” Celia said.

“Oh, trust me,” Leslie said. “Lima’s worse.”

“You can’t be serious!” Celia said.

“She’s telling the truth,” Madison said.

“You’re kidding!”

“I’m not,” she said. “You don’t know our mom like Kathy and I do. She was way more strict on us than she ever was on you, and it shows, because you’re a real brat, you know that?”

“Our mom has spoiled you rotten,” Katherine said to a nervous Celia. “That’s why Maddy and I are gonna straighten you out soon, so you won’t face Mom’s wrath, because when she gets angry, she really gets angry.”

“Oh, really?” Celia said. “Then I wonder how angry she’ll get when I tell her about your naughty room full of—”

Katherine put her hand over Celia’s mouth.

Your naughty room?” Leslie said.

“Don’t believe her,” Katherine said, keeping her hand over Celia’s mouth. “She’s lying!”

“It’s true,” Madison said.

“Maddy, what the hell?”

When Celia pried her hand off of her mouth, she also said, “You won’t believe what’s in that room.”

“Arrrrgh, that’s it,” Katherine said and put Celia in a headlock on the sofa with her left arm. “After they all leave, I’m so punishing you for this!”

So Madison added, “And she does it with whips and dildos and strap-ons—”

“Stop it, Maddy, geez!” she said and put Madison in a headlock with her right arm.

But then Leslie added one more jab at Katherine, saying, “Do you think you can lend one of your sex videos, so my hubby and I can try out some of the—”

“Oh my God, not you, too!” Katherine said, letting go of her headlocks on her naughty sisters, and stared at Leslie as if she was doing a striptease in front of her. “Please, tell me you’re joking!”

That’s when Leslie, Roy, Connie, and Randal Larking broke out laughing to Katherine’s chagrin and to Celia and Madison and Colbie’s surprise.

“Calm down, Kathy,” Leslie said amidst her own girlish giggles. “Can’t you take a joke?”

So Katherine deadpanned, saying, “That’s . . . not . . . funny.”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” Leslie said, “but at least I’m not as upset as I was earlier. And I’m pretty sure Celia appreciates it, too. Laughter helps, you know.”

“I guess, but why do I have to be the butt of it?” she said.

“Because Celia started it,” Leslie said, “but please don’t be too mad at her. We’re all going through the same thing, and you will, too, when it’s your turn to speak. Just know that you’re not alone. You wanted me to be here for you, so I’m here, and so is everyone else, including your sisters. They’ll need you as much as you'll need them when the time comes, trust me.”

“You really think so?”

Leslie nodded.

So Katherine grabbed her sisters’ hands, Madison’s to her right and Celia’s to her left.

And with that, Randal looked from Leslie and Colbie on the divans to the three Hearn sisters on the sofa and said, “Based on what I’ve heard from all of you, I’ll lay out all of your observations based on what Stephen and I have found out in our investigation so far. Is that clear?”

They all nodded.

“Exhibit A: Nico in Kathy’s ballroom. First point,” Randal said. “From what Leslie said, when Kendra died from her injury to her stomach, that also caused Nico to succumb to the same injury and fall to her own death on the floor of the ballroom. That means there was a psychic connection between Kendra and Nico, so when Kendra died, that psychic connection was severed. Does that make sense?”

They all nodded.

“Second point,” he said. “From what Colbie said, when Kendra entered Connie’s dream construct of the ballroom with Nico, she wasn’t the same Nico who was with the Hearns in Kathy’s dream mansion based on Nico’s reaction to what Mara said about there being two Nicos. That means the psychic connection between Nico and Kendra was still intact and that this connection existed solely in Kendra’s presence, in which Kendra and her Nico informed Colbie and Mara on what had happened in their dream dive. Does this make sense?”

They all nodded.

“Third point,” he said. “From what Kathy said, when Nico disappeared in Mara’s arms in the ballroom, her disappearance corresponds to Kendra’s tenuous condition between life and death, for which Kathy placed a shroud over Kendra’s body to keep her soul from passing on the way Nico’s did. Does that make sense?”

They all nodded.

“Now for Exhibit B: Nico in Cooley’s underground vault. Fourth point,” he said. “From what Leslie and Kathy said, when Kathy sent Nico and Mara from her private boudoir through her mirror into Cooley’s place, that same place became the scene where Cooley, Blaze, and Leslie check up on Nico’s condition soon after Kendra and Nico’s death in the ballroom. This means that when Nico died with Kendra in the ballroom, Nico in the underground vault experienced the same injuries they had sustained. Does this make sense?”

They all nodded.

“Fifth point,” he said. “From what Leslie, Kathy, Maddy, and Celia said, when Celia kissed Nico, she saw Nico’s memories with Mara up to the point where Nico killed herself, which corresponds to Maddy and Kathy’s vision of Celia’s location in the Phantom Realms, which corresponds to Maddy’s vision of Nico’s death in Russian Roulette, which corresponds to Leslie looking into Nico’s memories in Cooley’s underground vault. All of this means that everyone connected to Nico in Cooley’s underground vault shared visions from Nico’s perspective. Does that make sense?”

They all nodded.

“Sixth point,” he said. “From what Celia said, when she came looking for Mara in the Phantom Realms, she found Mara first but didn’t find Nico, till she heard Nico’s voice and turned around to see Nico there with her, which corresponds to Nico helping to calm Mara down with her voice without showing herself to Colbie, Celia, and Kendra. This means that Nico tends to reveal herself with her words before she appears to others. Does this make sense?”

They all nodded.

“Seventh point,” he said. “Also from what Celia said, after Nico made Kendra and Celia promise to find Mara, she brought Colbie back to life with spoken words. This means that Nico is aware of the power of spoken words, which are powerful enough for spoken promises to bear the weight of life and death on those who make them, which is why Celia and Kendra did what they did in the old Rancaster district and in their dreams last night. Does that make sense?”

Everyone in the family room just stared at Randal, neither nodding or saying a word, till Roy said, “So you’re going off of my findings on the power of words?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve reviewed your case, and your observations make sense.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Leslie said and looked from Roy to Randal and back to Roy again. “What do you mean by the power of words?”

“For instance, words can spell anagrams,” Roy said, “such as ‘sword’ and ‘words’ or ‘listen’ and ‘silent.’ Words also have specific meanings, especially in connection with names. For example, take Nico and Mara’s surname, ‘Cairns,’ which are burial monuments.”

“I’ve heard of that family,” Leslie said.

“Have you now?” Randal said. “What have you heard?”

Leslie said, “The old Cairn family was actually a famous family of occult detectives who helped reestablish the Phantom Office during and after the Baronetcy War through the efforts of Dr. Bruce Cairn and his son, Robert Cairn, though I’ve heard rumors that the war split the family’s loyalties.”

“It did,” Randal said. “Hence, Robert Cairn’s son, Marcus Cairns, added an extra ’s’ to his surname to distinguish his part of the family from the old Cairn family that sided with the house of Rancaster during the war and ousted his father and grandfather, who is the paternal ancestor of Mara and Nico. I can’t take credit for this part of the investigation, though, since I’ve followed Roy’s findings before his department transferred his case to my department. Based on Roy's findings, I’ve also found that even their given names have a meaning. For instance, the given name of Lucy Cairns, the mother of Nico and Mara, is the same one as Lucy Westenra, one of the first of Dracula’s victims on British soil.”

“Lucy Westenra?” Leslie said. “From Stoker’s novel?”

“Yes,” he said, “but you’ll have to ask my brother about that. He’s the one working on that angle of the case.”

“What other connections are there?” she said.

Colbie just stared at her mother next to her, wondering how much she knew about this whole thing and how far down the rabbit hole she and Ramona and Lima fell before coming back up. And deep in her heart of hearts, when she thought about the emotional gulf that always seemed to exist between her mother and father for as long as she could remember, she wondered if this case had anything to do with it.

“More than I thought,” Randal said. “I’ve found out that the given names of Nico and Mara also have specific meanings: Nico’s name comes from the Greek word for victory, while Mara’s name is the same as the Buddhist demon of death and desire and rebirth. And since Mara and Nico are identical twins, their names (when taken together) form the meaning of victory over death and desire, which results in a rebirth. From what Stephen and I have looked into over this whole investigation, we’ve seen many parallels with Rancaster’s involvement in their abduction, and this interview has revealed so many other parallels we’ve overlooked. To be honest, I was supposed to be with Stephen and his team to interview a key witness, but I’ll report my observations to him while I’m here.”

“So what’s your theory on this case?” Roy said.

“I don’t know,” Randal said. “I’m only gathering information. I’ll let my brother do the theorizing after Kathy’s had her say, but before we do that, I need to finish what I’m saying. Are you all ready?”

They all nodded.

“Eighth and last point,” he said. “Also from what Celia said, when Kendra and Celia promised Nico to find Mara, their promise created a psychic connection to Nico that manifested her into their dreamscapes as separate entities, one for Kendra and one for Celia. This means that their promise to Nico kept her memory alive in their thoughts and dreams. That’s why Mara saw two Nicos, why Celia, Katherine, and Madison all had their shared visions, and why Leslie saw what Nico saw in the ballroom while she was with the other Nico in another location. Does this make sense?”

After a few moments of silence at his last observation, they all nodded that it did.

For her part, Colbie noticed Celia shifting in her seat beside her sisters on the sofa, and she wondered what she was thinking, what she knew.

Randal then turned back to Leslie and said, “Do you have anything left to add before we go on to Kathy?”

“I do,” Leslie said.

All heads now turned back to Leslie.

So she took a deep breath and steadied her nerves and said, “When Ramona and I woke up and asked Amelia to help us find Lima, we did everything the same as we did in the original version, but with one key difference.”

“And what’s that?” Randal said.

Leslie said, “I’m still not sure how I even saw this in my memories, because I was unconscious during this part, but Auna came in somehow and . . .”


6


Auna and Akami just stood there in silence after witnessing the exchange between a bespectacled Gibson girl and Rancaster on the floating bridge, till both girls noticed the two girls lying crumpled by Amelia’s side, their faces over the deck boards. When the Gibson girl turned them over onto their backs, revealing their faces, all at once the images of Leslie and Kendra flashed before their mind’s eyes like ghosts.

Which caught the Gibson girl’s attention, and she turned her head in Auna’s direction and said, “Who’s there?”

Auna and Akami froze, yet Amelia cast her gaze left and right as if she could only sense their presence, while Akami dug into the bodice of her Sunday dress and slipped the key underneath the cup of her bra for safe keeping.

“Who are you?” the Gibson girl said.

The girls remained silent.

“I know you’re there,” she said, getting up and approaching them and reaching out her hand that passed through their faces. “There’s two of you at present.”

But still the girls remained silent and took a step back, but when her hand passed through Auna’s face, Auna’s mind flashed onto the memory of that book she had found in the Arcana Bookstore with the name of it’s author lilting an L-sound on the tip of her tongue.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” the Gibson girl said. “I’m not associated with Rancaster in any way, I promise.”

So Auna said, “We’re here,” and broke through the hazy fog clouding her and Akami from view, appearing right there on the deck boards in front of the Gibson girl.

In turn, the Gibson girl just stared, wide-eyed, at the sight of them as if she were seeing double vision and said, “Alice?”

“No,” Auna said, and stuck out her hand to this strange Gibson girl. “I’m Auna Wenger.”

The Gibson girl took her hand and shook it, saying, “Sorry about that. I’m Amelia Hearn.”

Anna gaped at her response and had the same vision of the book in the Arcana Bookstore whose author was the very person she was greeting, and so she knew the truth. She had heard of the Blood Rose Witch, but she’d never thought she would get the chance to meet the authoress in person, even in her dreams.

“My reputation precedes me, doesn’t it?” Amelia said.

Auna nodded, saying, “You’re the Blood Rose Witch.“

“You’re the second person who’s said that,” she said, “but that’s the future me, not the present me you see before you. I’ll probably be a different person when I adopt that moniker, but for the present, I’m only a reflection of the woman you speak of.”

“But . . .” Auna said, but she let her words drift off when she thought back the anomalous book she had found and wondered at something when she remembered the date in which that book was published.

“What is it?” Amelia said.

“What year are we in?” she said.

“1913,” Amelia said. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“You’re right,” Auna said. “I’m not, but do you know someone by the name of Linda Kouri, by any chance?”

“No, I haven’t,” Amelia said. “Why do you ask?”

“I was thinking . . .” Auna said, but let her words drift off.

“Thinking of what?” Amelia said.

“I was thinking,” she said, “about the author of a book, and I thought you knew her, but never mind.”

Her words left Amelia silent for a spell, till she reached out her hand for Akami’s and said, “And you are?”

“The Red Queen,” Akami said and shook Amelia’s hand.

“Just the Red Queen?” Amelia said.

“That’s my title,” Akami said, “but Akami is my name.”

“Nice to meet you, Akami,” she said, then turned her attention back on the pair of girls lying unconscious on the bridge and headed for Leslie and grabbed her leg and ranger-rolled her body over her shoulders into a fireman’s carry, then turned to her new acquaintances. “Can you get the other girl for me?”

Auna and Akami went over and hoisted Ramona by her arms over their shoulders and carried her body along the bridge, the toes of her socks dragging on the deck boards. For a time, they walked on in silence, with Auna wondering over Rancaster’s parting words before he left this realm, that the future Blood Rose Witch could really wield ‘fate’ in her hands like the toss of a coin or the throw of a pair of dice.

“Who is this girl?” Akami said.

“One of the most famous witches in America,” she said.

“Yet she doesn’t know who this Linda Kouri is?” Akami said.

“She will, even if she doesn’t know it yet,” Auna said, then: “Um . . . Amelia?”

“What is it?” she said, lagging back till she was walking shoulder to shoulder with Auna and Akami with the second girl hoisted over their shoulders.

“What was Rancaster talking about?” Auna said.

“You know Aaron Rancaster?” Amelia said.

“I thought I did,” she said, “but now I’m not so sure. What was he talking about?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Amelia said and paused, rolling the possibilities through her head, “but he seemed out of place to me. And he’s not the only one. I am, too, and many of the people I’ve encountered lately were out of place, including you two and the pair we’re carrying. And there were two other girls that entered my shop last week, and they seemed out of place, as well.”

Auna and Akami traded quizzical looks.

Auna said, “What other girls?”

“I’m not sure if I should answer that,” Amelia said.

So Auna thought back to the images of Leslie and Kendra flashing before her and Akami upon their entrance into this part of the Phantom Realms, linking their faces in her mind with her own encounters with them throughout this topsy-turvy dream dive.

“Was one of those girls,” she said, “named Kendra?”

Amelia stopped at the mention of that name, halting the progress of her new acquaintances who turned back to face her, and said, “How did you—?”

Auna and Akami then lowered Ramona’s astral body back onto the deck boards, and Auna said, “Akami and I met her under different circumstances.”

Amelia then lowered Leslie’s astral body onto the deck boards and said, “What circumstances are you talking about?”

So Auna told Amelia of her failure to stop the game of Russian roulette between Mara and Nico in front of their parents on Rancaster’s stage, which ended in their parents and Nico dying on stage in front of a cruel audience and a shell-shocked Mara. In addition, she told of her accidental death during her fight with Celia Hearn, her initial brief encounter with Kendra just before she was about to kill Nico in the hallways of Katherine’s dream mansion, and her subsequent adventure with Kendra in the Looking-Glass mirror and the flowerbeds of Wonderland, where Alice’s doppelgängers separated her from Kendra.

Akami, for her own part, told Amelia of the events just before the battle in Katherine’s ballroom, where she and Shiromi both forgot their names and fought Nico and Kendra under some influence she could only describe as selective memory. By the time she had regained her memory and sense of self, she found herself sitting at a table with Celia and Nico pouring tea before drifting off again. The next time she regained herself, she was inviting Nico to tea with a sleeping Shiromi at the table and pouring tea for them before—

“Wait a minute,” Amelia said. “The Looking-Glass mirror? Wonderland? Doppelgängers? Pouring tea? . . . Who are you, really? Where do you even come from?”

“If you must know,” Akami said, “I come from the pages of Lewis Carroll, where Auna found me . . . and Shiromi . . . and Alice.”

“Okay,” Amelia said, looking first at Akami. “If you’re the Red Queen, then is this ‘Shiromi’ the White Queen?”

“Yes,” Akami said.

“Then is this ‘Alice,’” Amelia said, connecting the dots, one by one, “Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the books?”

“Yes,” Auna said.

“But Alice looks just like you?” Amelia said, looking at Auna.

“Yes,” she said. “What are you getting at with these questions?”

“Here’s what I’m getting at,” Amelia said. “Who are you?”

“What do you mean?” Auna said.

“I mean what I ask,” she said and approached Auna, face to face and at eye-level. “Are you even aware of your true self? Do you even know who you are?”

“I already know that,” she said. “I’m Auna Wenger.”

“That’s not what she meant, Auna,” Akami said.

Auna turned to her childhood friend and looked into her eyes, seeing something deeper lurking there, then turned back to Amelia and said, “What do you mean, then?”

“Come to the water’s edge, and you’ll see,” she said.

So Auna and Akami came to the edge of the bridge and looked down on the rippling mirror sheen Amelia’s dream realm, where they found . . . only Amelia and Akami’s reflection in the water.

“What the hell?” Auna said, then looked up at Akami and then at Amelia. “Where’s my reflection?”

“That’s what I mean when I said, ‘Who are you?’” Amelia said. “That’s why I couldn’t see you at first, because I couldn’t see you through any of my mirrors in this place. I could sense your presence, all right, but I couldn’t see you or your friend till you announced yourself to me.”

“Have you seen anything like this before?” Akami asked.

“Once when I infiltrated Rancaster’s house last week,” Amelia said. “I found Alice Liddell asleep over a bed of roses in one of the bedrooms, but when I touched her, I felt her skin as cold as ice, and that’s not all. When I found the bed on which she lay empty in my mirror’s reflection, I saw the same result as yours.”

“No reflection?” Auna said.

Amelia nodded and said, “Both of you, show me your hands with your palms up.”

When both girls gave their hands, Amelia placed her palms an inch above theirs and felt a distinct difference between Auna’s and Akami’s. She then took up their hands and placed them against her cheeks (with Auna saying, “What are you doing?”) and added to her suspicions about Auna Wenger. Amelia then stretched out her hand and manifested a lamplight in her hand and aimed its rays at the girls before her and saw only Akami casting a shadow, while Auna had none at all, adding more to her suspicions.

She looked at Akami first and said, “Your hand is warm like that of a living person, and you cast a shadow when I shine my light on you.” She then looked at Auna and said, “Yet your hand is cold like that of a corpse, and you cast no such shadow.”

“What does that even mean?” Auna said.

“Your observations are quite cryptic,” Akami added.

Amelia ignored Akami’s comment and said to Auna, “Are you averse to holy symbols, such as crosses and rosaries or the like?”

“I’m not,” she said.

“Really?” Amelia said.

“I keep two rosaries in my socks.”

“Show me,” she said.

So Auna crouched and pulled down her socks, only to find no rosaries there, so she stood back up and searched both pockets of her skirt but found no rosaries there, either.

“Where did they go?” Auna said. “Akami, do you have yours?”

“I do,” she said, and she manifested her rosary in her hand and showed it to Amelia for her inspection. “Here’s mine. Shiromi has her own, and I know Auna carries two of them on her person at all times. She never goes anywhere without them.”

Her observation left Amelia silent for a time, as she looked at Auna and then Akami and back to Auna again, and said to Auna, “See if you can take her rosary from her.”

“Why?” Auna said.

“Here,” Akami said, handing it to her. “Take it.”

Auna looked at the rosary in her friend’s hand, then at Akami, and then at Amelia, who said, “Go on.”

So Auna reached out and wrapped her fingers around the strings of prayer beads and singed her hand (“Ow!”) and pulled away, then noticed black marks on her fingers and palm.

“What does this mean?” Auna said.

Yet Amelia evaded her question and placed the palm of her hand against Auna’s bosom and said, “There’s no heartbeat.”

“I don’t understand,” Auna said. “What are you trying to say?”

Amelia said, “You have no heartbeat or reflection or shadow or rosaries, and when you try to hold one, it burns you. All of this means you’re a vampire, and so is Alice. Everything I’ve done here on you, I’ve also done on Alice when I secreted myself into her room last week. You and Alice are one and the same.”

“You’re lying!” Auna said, backing away from her damnable companion, denying the damning evidence of her missing heartbeat and her missing reflection and her missing shadow and her missing rosaries and the burning of her own flesh.

“I’m not lying to you, Auna,” Amelia said.

“I don’t believe you!” she said, backing away from her damnable companion. “Leave me alone!”

“Auna, wait!” Akami said and grabbed one of her hands.

“I’m not like Alice!” she said. “I’m not a monster! Let go of me,” yet Akami didn’t let go.

“Auna, please, calm down,” Akami said.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Amelia said.

“Then what the hell are you saying?” Auna yelled, backing away from Amelia and Akami as if they were accusing her of being something she had never known about herself, but in the back of her mind, she knew it with a child’s virgin taste of carnal knowledge forced upon her. She knew with the residual sting of it still fresh between her legs, knew with the scent of it still in her nostrils and the taste of it still on her tongue, knew that the wolves had not killed her father on that godless night. Oh, no. She remembered nothing between the interval of her father’s escalating touches and her waking up after the deed was done, just like the previous nights . . .

But on that last night, she remembered waking up to the sight of her father’s corpse beside her on the bed, his neck slashed open with a spreading pool of it over the bedsheets, the fingers of her hand curled over the handle of a bloodstained knife, and the tears she had cried still wet on her face. Akami and Shiromi were there with her on the bed, their bodies pressed close to hers, their legs entwined around Auna’s, their breathing labored and deep and in synch with Auna’s, and their hands clasped with Auna’s around the handle of that very knife.

All the while, Auna stared at the ceiling with tear-filled eyes, grimacing against the pain between her legs, a grimace that would become a slasher’s smile the more times she fell down the rabbit hole of her mind and submerged herself behind the mask of Alice Liddell’s face.

“Is that why I’m dead?” Auna said.

“Don’t think like that, Auna,” Akami said and wrapped her arms around her shoulders and held her crying companion close to her bosom. “Please, I’m begging you!”

“Is that why I can’t even see my own face?” she said, collapsing to her knees and taking Akami down to her knees with her, and cried a growing Pool of Tears onto the deck boards and into Amelia’s dream realm. “Is this why Alice hates me?”

At her words, Amelia herself crouched down to Auna’s level and grabbed a hold of her hand and pressed it over her own bosom, whereon she felt Amelia’s heart beating against her palm with a warmth she herself had lost and looked at Amelia’s face.

“Auna,” she said, “I promise you’re not a monster. You’re not a monster, because you feel pain and remorse and despair, but you’re not alone.”

“But she hates me,” Auna said.

“She doesn’t,” Amelia said, pressing Auna’s hand to her bosom and causing her heartbeats to thunder through her dream realm around them. “I promise you, she doesn’t. She’s just scared. I bet Alice needs you more than she knows, believe me.”

And in Akami’s arms, she kept crying as thunderous heartbeats pulsed through Amelia’s dream realm, while the water level rose past the pylons of the floating bridge and submerged the deck boards under a rippling sheen of a mirrored surface with Auna’s tears. Yet through it all, with the unconscious bodies of Leslie and Ramona lying inert on the deck boards, Akami and Amelia cast their gazes afar over the mirrored surface and found a bored-looking Alice sitting on a throne atop a raised platform surrounded by four pillars.

“What’s that?” Amelia said.

“Chess Cathedral,” Akami said, “for Auna’s coronation.”

“You want me to take you there?” Amelia said.

Akami nodded and pressed Auna’s tear-stained face to her bosom and ran her hand through Auna’s hair, saying, “We’re almost there, love,” and she kissed her forehead and turned to Amelia: “Do it.”

So Amelia kneeled down on one knee and placed her hand over the surface of the watery brine, shimmering it into ripples, and said, “My mind is my mirror. Let them see what I now see, let them find what I have found. Reflect!”

And Auna’s world turned upside down, and blood rushed to her head, and she felt light-headed and tipsy on her knees, tumbling head over heels along with Akami through the century of space-time from 1913 to 2018—


7


When Auna found herself lying on her back between Akami and Amelia and clasping onto their hands against the turning of her senses in an endless circle. Yet when she regained her bearings, she roused herself between the choir stalls on either side of her and saw the raised platform surrounding the throne. And atop that throne sat Alice in the cathedral crossing, her legs crossed at the knees beneath her white Sunday dress, her head resting over her palm with her elbow over the left arm of the throne and her face scowling as if she had been kept waiting.

“It took you long enough, love,” Alice said.

She felt Akami’s grip on her hand when she sat up, but when Auna noticed that Amelia’s hand passed through hers, she looked at Amelia’s transparent self as she sat up beside her.

“So glad you made it, bambina,” Rancaster said, “and you brought along some friends, too,” and he approached the trio of women from the opposite direction of the altar, rippling the mirror sheen of the watery checkerboard tile floor in his wake. “I wasn’t sure you’d show up.”

When Auna and Akami and Amelia got to their feet, Alice smoothed the creases on her dress and got off the throne and walked to the edge of the raised platform and crossed her arms, tapping her foot and saying, “I’m waiting, Rancaster.”

“Be patient, Bambina,” he said. “All good things come to those with patience.”

“What’s the meaning of this?” Akami said.

Rancaster smiled and said, “Don’t ask me, darling. Ask that lying witch who brought you here,” and he pointed to Amelia.

Gritting her teeth, Amelia stomped up to Rancaster and balled her hand into a trembling fist and swung at him, yet her hand just passed through him as if she was a ghost: “Fuck!”

“Bad manners for a lady to swear,” he said, “let alone lie to the very people she claims to help.”

“Fuck you, Rancaster! You framed your friend and murdered an innocent girl!” And she glared at the man in the white suit, shoving his finger in his face, and said, “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you!”

“No, you won’t,” he said. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Ta-ta, darling. You’ve had your say, and now your role is over.”

“What role?” Amelia said, but the man paid her no heed and turned to Auna. “What are you talking about?”

Yet the man just ignored her as if she was just another throw-away extra.

“Answer me, damn you!” Amelia yelled, but her voice began to fade, and even as she swung another fist at his face, her hand passed through him, and her own reflection spell began to dissipate from view. Auna and Akami reached out their hands to touch her, but their hands passed through Amelia’s astral reflection as she disappeared from this plane of existence, leaving Auna and Akami to their fates.

Then Akami gave Auna the key ring and said, “I’m sorry, Auna,” and reached out to touch Auna’s face, but her hand passed through, as well. “This is as far I’ll go with you. The rest is up to you.”

“Wait! Don’t leave me,” she said, reaching out to grab her hand, but Akami the Red Queen dissipated from view. Auna turned and leveled a glare at Rancaster, saying, “Why are you doing this?”

“Don’t look at me, darling. I’m just a spectator,” Rancaster said. “If you want answers, talk to Alice,” and he nodded to Alice behind her.

Auna turned and made the briefest eye contact with Alice, then faced Rancaster and said, “What do you want from me?”

At this, Rancaster drew in a long sigh and said, “It’s not about what I want, Auna. It’s about what you want. I’ve given you every opportunity to take the stage and steal the show—”

“I don’t want to be in your damn show anymore!” Auna yelled, taking Rancaster off guard. “I never asked you to do this for me! I never wanted to see anyone die because of me! I never even asked for you to save me!”

“You know what you don’t want,” he said, “but what is it you want? Look in your heart, darling. What is it?”

“Why should I tell you?” she said.

Yet Rancaster smiled, then looked at Alice standing on the platform and whispered into Auna’s ear, “I don’t need you to say it when Alice gives it away.”

So Auna faced her doppelgänger and said, “What did he tell you?”

“Everything I need to know,” she said.

“And you actually believe him?” Auna said.

“I know what I want,” Alice said, “and it doesn’t include you, you two-faced back-stabbing bitch!”

Rancaster whistled and said, “Why don’t you both work out your differences while I’m away?”

“Where are you going now?” Alice said, crossing her arms over her chest and pouting.

“I’ve got one more thing to settle with Amelia Hearn, but I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, then to Auna: “And, bambina, whatever your reason for being here, you must fight for it. I’ve already informed Alice about this contest, so I’ll make things snappy with you. This is a queen’s duel, and in this duel, you fight your opponent, till you win.”

At his words, Auna looked at Alice in horror and said, “What the fuck did he tell you?”

“I have nothing left to say,” Alice said and walked the other way into the nave, rippling flooded floor in her wake, but Auna followed her across the raised platform of the cathedral crossing and into the naive between the pews.

“Alice, talk to me,” Auna said. “What’s going on?”

And in their wake, Rancaster took himself away from Chess Cathedral in a gray haze of fog, leaving a spread of ripples behind him, and left Auna alone with Alice.


8


Leslie stopped in her narration once again and sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes with her shirt sleeve, while the rest of her listeners in the living room stayed silent. When she composed herself, Leslie said, “I didn’t see what happened after that, but I distinctly remembered waking up screaming in Amelia’s dream realm. Amelia had to slap me out of my fit, and when I stopped screaming, I bawled my eyes out. It took some time for me to calm down afterwards.”

“Did they ask you what happened?” Randal said.

“No,” she said, wiping the last stray tears from her eyes. “And even if they did, I wouldn’t have said anything.”

“Why is that?” he said.

“Because I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “There just weren’t any visual cues for me to describe, only a feeling of despair and regret, almost like . . . like . . .”

“Like what?”

“Like visiting the funeral of a friend,” Leslie said, “and giving the eulogy while you’re drunk. That’s the closest way I can describe it,” but then she buried her face in her hands and sniffled some more before wiping more tears from her face.

“Mom,” Colbie said.

“It’s okay, Colbie,” Leslie said, but she wasn’t.

So Colbie and Madison and Celia left the sofa and came to her on the divan, saying that it was okay, that they were here for her, while Katherine put her arm around her shoulders and rubbed circles on her back.

It took some time for Leslie to fully recover herself, but when she did, Randal said, “I have one more question for you, and then we’ll let Katherine tell the rest.”

“What is it?” she said.

“When you felt that emotion in Amelia’s dream realm,” he said, pausing again as if searching for the right way to phrase it, “what were you thinking of?”

“I was thinking of Auna’s last words to me before we parted ways,” Leslie said. “She said, ‘The next time you see me, I'll be a different person. When you see me, when you see Alice, remember me as you see me now.’ I don’t know what that means, and I’m not sure I want to.”


9


Fifteen minutes ago, three party-drunk men had entered the clothing store, but now three party-drunk blue musketeers exited the same entrance and garnered the attention of store patrons doing double takes and gawking at them in their wake. All the while, their two followers exited immediately afterwards and kept a sight line on them, speeding up to a full run to catch up to the trio of musketeers.

Then, as they rounded the corner of the street, Ronald Hamilton took one glance down the sidewalk at the pair of men and said to Frank Shaefer and Todd Curvan, “They’re masqueraders, all right. Keep your eyes open, boys. They’ve ditched their cloaks and masks, so they’ll be harder to spot from here on out.”

Then he bolted down the sidewalk, and his two companions bolted after him past startled pedestrians before juking into the entrance of a flower shop, opening a door and shuffling in and heading ups towards the backroom behind the counter.

“What’s the meaning of this?” a stodgy woman said behind the counter with a customer, who seemed just as perplexed.

All three men stopped in their tracks and faced the woman and her customer, both of whom traded whispers amongst themselves, then turning back to them.

“Um . . . Excuse us, ladies,” Frank said, “but could you help us for a bit?”

“Depends on what kind of ‘help’ you’re asking for,” she said, looking at the three strapping musketeers before her.

“It’s not evening yet, boys,” the customer said. “Festivities don’t start till 4:00 p.m., you know.”

“It’s not that,” Todd said. “We’re in a bit of a pinch.”

“What kind of a pinch?” the store owner said, till two individuals appeared outside and opened the door—

When Frank and Todd drew semiautomatic pistols from beneath their blue tabards at the intruders, who both held up their hands as gestures of no resistance whatsoever.

Which Ronald recognized and said, “Don’t shoot! We don’t want to disturb the peace here.”

Frank and Todd traded glances and looked at Ronald, but they lowered their weapons as the two intruders came in through the door as if it was an ordinary day like any other day in the Phantom Realms, still with their hands raised.

“Thank you for your consideration, Mr. Foster,” one of them said, then turned to the store owner and her customer. “Sorry for the intrusion, ladies, but my associates and I would like to have a little chat with Mr. Foster and his friends in the privacy of your backroom, if you will allow it.”

The store owner just looked at the two groups of men, from one to the other, and said, “Is this a part of the festivities?”

“Why do you ask, ma’am?” the other man said.

“Because we’ve been seeing lots of people dressed up on the streets lately,” the customer said. “First, it was troops of masqueraders, then red musketeer girls, and then these three blue musketeer men. Is this all part of the act?”

Both groups of men just stared at each other, so Ronald Hamilton acted his part as Mr. Foster and said, “Yes, it is. We decided that in addition to the normal festivities of firecrackers and dragon parades, we’d add in our own shenanigans to the mix and see how things turn out. I hope things haven’t been too boisterous for you.”

“Not at all, boys,” the store owner said. “Carry on.”

“I do like a bit of the unexpected every now and then,” her customer said.

So Ronald played his part and led Frank and Todd through the doorway into the backroom behind the counter and spotted the exit door to the sidewalk outside. He ran towards the door and opened it, letting Frank and Todd sprint out into the sidewalk, before slamming it back onto his two pursuers just before they came through, forcing them to double back.

He bolted down the sidewalk with his friends past the growing crowd of startled onlookers and passersby and managed a glance back behind him. He saw two pursuers emerging from the flower shop and pulling out their guns, so he turned another corner along another sidewalk, his friends following close behind.

He then cut into traffic past phantom rickshaws and their yokai runners, saying, “Sumimasen!” (Excuse me!)

He led his two companions along the sidewalk and cut straight into the crosswalk, getting cursed at in Japanese (“Oi, kisama!”) (Hey, you assholes!) by more yokai runners with their passengers cursing at them in Chinese (“Shabi!”) (Cunts!).

“Fuck off,” he said, ignoring the fact that they didn’t know a word of English, and led Frank and Todd through another crosswalk and another less crowded sidewalk. “I know a place where we can hide, but it’s still some ways away from—”

Pedestrians of yokai and ghosts and dreamers alike scattered from the scene in a flood of screams and panic.

And before Ronald could get out another word, and without even realizing he was in the iron sights of a singular troop of Alice’s red musketeer girls formed into two ranks, one kneeling and one standing and both ranks aiming flintlock muskets at him halfway up the sidewalk, Frank and Todd tackled him to the ground just as a volley of gunfire came thundering out in plumes of gun smoke.

Then Frank and Todd got up and drew their guns and aimed and emptied their magazine clips, gunning down several musketeer girls up the sidewalk, while the surviving ones broke from their ranks and scattered in pairs along the sidewalk and around the corner of another street.

“Jesus H. Christ, what was that?” Ronald said, and he got up with the help of Frank and Todd hoisting him to his feet and turned back down the street they had come.

The two masqueraders that had been tailing them now turned tail themselves and ran the other way, before disappearing into one of the alleys between the storefronts.

Then a series of broken sentences came through the static of Ronald’s microphone, saying, “What’s going on? I heard gunshots.”

“We’re fine here,” Frank Shaefer said.

“Any casualties?” Stephen said through the static.

“Not us, sir,” Todd said, “but we came across a few hostiles.”

All three men looked back at the bodies of the red musketeer girls on the sidewalk, and they slowly approached the massacre with guns drawn, yet Ronald refrained from drawing his out.

“How many?” Stephen said.

“About a dozen of them,” he said.

“Jesus!” Stephen said. “Are they masqueraders?”

“No,” Frank said. “They’re red musketeer girls. The store lady said something about red musketeer girls running around the place. Did the concierge say anything about them on your end?”

“Yeah,” Stephen said. “He said they were causing a row with a group of masqueraders at the Dragon Volant.”

“Did you witness it?” Frank said.

“No,” he said. “It happened during my phone call to the concierge before I came in. I’ve been trying to contact the concierge’s number, but he’s not responding. All I’ve been getting are phone recordings. Is there anything you notice?”

“They're clones,” Todd said.

“You’re kidding,” Stephen said.

“I’m not, sir,” he said, then to Ronald: “Ronnie, do you have any idea who these are?”

“What are you doing?” Frank said.

Yet Ronald stayed silent for the entire time Frank and Todd had been talking to Stephen Larking, crouching down and reaching out and closing the eyelids of the dead as a sign of respect for the departed.

“My God,” he said under his breath, getting a better look at the identical faces of the one girl he had failed to save from the cursed mansion of Aaron Rancaster all those years ago in another time and another life. “What did Rancaster do to you, Alice?”

“You mentioned her in our briefing,” Frank said.

“Do you know anything else about her, Ronnie?” Stephen said.

“She’s the very damsel I failed to save, sir,” he said, and got up and walked away from the massacre amid a teeming throng of onlookers loitering on the other side of the street and keeping a safe distance away, “but there’s another girl who shares the same face.”

“Copy that again?” Stephen said through the scratchy static of the hidden microphone beneath Ronald’s tabard. “Speak up, man. Did you just say, ‘another girl’?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve only got a few glimpses of her when I was still undercover with the masqueraders, but I think Rancaster called her Auna. Did you get anything on ‘Auna’ on your end, sir?”

“I did,” Stephen said, “from my phone call with the concierge at the Dragon Volant. He mentioned her as ‘Auna Wenger,’ and there’s another girl with her called ‘Akami,’ but— . . . What the fuck?”

All three men halted at the corner of the sidewalk.

“What’s happening?” Frank said.

“I’m watching the street below me from the window,” Stephen said, “and I just saw a bunch of red musketeer girls exiting the Dragon Volant. Wait . . . Holy shit! Are you fucking kidding me?”

“What’s going on, sir?” Frank said.

“Where are you?” Stephen said.

Ronald looked at the road signs and said, “We’re at the corner of Brad Street and Colliers Street. How many are you seeing?”

“I’m seeing dozens of them,” he said, “and it looks like they’re headed your way. Get out of there, pronto!”

“And go where?” Todd said.

“Somewhere out of sight,” Stephen said. “Just get out of there!”


10


Back at the Daimyo, Stephen listened to the scuffling across the microphone connection and the jolting noises of his friends’ running footsteps scratching through the static for several moments as he waited. Then, as the huffing and puffing static of winded breathing flared through the connection, letting him know that they had stopped somewhere, Stephen heard another succession of running footsteps and a flurry of yells to stop running and more yells to not shoot and lower their guns, till someone yelled through all the commotion:

“Ronnie, don’t shoot! We’re on your side!”

Then followed a pause of silence, and that’s when Stephen remembered the inclusion of one of the names the concierge had mentioned during his phone call. He turned the dial of the monitor and raised the volume, so he could listen in on his team, and opened his suitcase at the foot of the console and fished out a stack of manila folders and placed them on the bed. He then came back and pulled out a typewritten manuscript of a collection of stories, entitled Entering the Secret Room by Linda Kouri, and began flipping through the pages at a rapid pace—

When Ronald said through the connection, “Benson? Cory?”

“Yep,” Benson said. “Took you long enough.”

“Jesus, you scared the shit out of us!” Todd said.

“Well, so did you!”

“I almost shot you two,” Lt. Shaefer said.

“I don’t blame you,” Cory said. “Those damn red musketeer girls have been running amuck throughout this city gunning us down!”

“Jesus!” Ronnie said.

“Any casualties?” Lt. Shaefer said.

“Several,” Benson said through the static. “It was a massacre!”

“Where?” Todd said.

“Between the Daimyo and the Dragon Volant,” he said. “We hightailed our asses out of there.”

“What about John and Bailey?” Ronald said.

A pause came over the static, while Stephen took a deep breath and continued his perusal through the pages of the manuscript, trying to find the name—

When Benson said, “John managed to get to the Nura Club, but Bailey’s KIA.”

“Aw, shit!” Lt. Shaefer said.

“And it’s not just Bailey, either,” he said. “I tried contacting George, Finley, Shane, Rick, and Norman, but I haven’t received any word from them, and I have no idea where they are. Till they call me back, they’re all MIA.”

“Fuck!” he said. “What about Anne?”

“She ordered us to meet you,” Benson added.

“Then call her back, Goddammit!” Lt. Shaefer said.

And as Benson did just that over the microphone connection, calling her call sign over a radio transponder, Stephen turned the dial of the monitor and lowered the volume, so he could concentrate better. After two failed attempts, Stephen wiped the sweat from his brow and started from the title page again and turned the pages deliberately as he scanned each page for that name, yet he couldn't find it. Instead, what he found three pages in on the dedication page was this:

For Ronald Hamilton
(1888-1913)

He stared at the page for several moments as the conversation through the speakers continued, unabated, about the casualties of several Phantom Office operatives, before Lt. Shaefer (ever the pragmatist) changed the subject onto a more pressing issue at hand. All the while, Stephen thought about his conversation with the concierge over the phone, wondering if the concierge had purposely misled him, yet something in his gut told him it was something else, something he had yet to consider, something that was just under his nose.

Stephen looked down at the dedication page and ran his fingers across the page, feeling the dents of letters that formed Ronald’s name in the dedication page, and thought of the pseudonym Amelia Hearn had used in place of her actual name: Linda Kouri. It shared the same deceptive end as his hypothesis of Rancaster’s body substitution method to pin Alice Liddell’s abduction and murder onto Ronald Hamilton.

Stephen continued making connections between Rancaster and Amelia’s methods of deception. While Rancaster’s method emphasized the use of another body, Amelia’s emphasized written names and written words. Following on Ronald’s harrowing story, Stephen noticed that Rancaster had used mirrors to enact his deception, while Amelia used her words on the page. Both methods, totally different in their applications, reproduced the same effect of covering things up, one with a reflected image and the other with written words. Ergo, if Rancaster had used the surface of a mirror, then Amelia must have used the surface of the page.

“The page,” Stephen said to himself, thinking of how written words on the page could be used to deceive someone, and turned his mind onto another line of thinking in connection with Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, that had forced its author into temporary hiding during its tumultuous publication. Based on this line of thinking, tenuous as it was, Stephen surmised that Amelia Hearn’s use of a pseudonym was meant to hide her identity. As such, if Amelia had meant to hide her identity when she had Entering the Secret Room published, then she must have hidden something within the pages of the manuscript itself.

With this in mind, he went to the windows and closed the curtains, blocking out the daylight, and turned off the lights, casting the room in relative darkness. He then went back to the suitcase and rummaged through one of the inner pockets and pulled out a blacklight, then came back to the manuscript and flashed it over the title page.

It read,

Entering the Secret Room

by Linda Kouri, and right below the by-line, fluorescing in invisible ink, was the real name of the authoress herself: Amelia Hearn. He then flipped to the dedication page, and right below Ronald Hamilton’s dedication was another dedication that read,

For Auna and Alice,
Two sides of the same coin,
Two faces of one soul I have loved,

and right below that was a written notation of Matthew 24:35, a bible verse he knew well.

Stephen recited it by heart, saying, “‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’” And thinking along these lines, he thought of the Revelation of John of Patmos, whose harrowing verses tell of a sword coming out of Jesus’s mouth, which he would use to ‘smite’ the nations, reminding Stephen of an observation that Randal had made after reading up on Roy’s findings in the Cairns case. It was something about the power of words, which Stephen rephrased in his own words, saying, “Words are swords.”

He stayed silent for a moment, thinking of Roy’s voicemail message on his phone, notifying him that his case had been transferred to Stephen’s department, and the subsequent findings of Randal’s own observations on the Cairns case in connection to everything Stephen had investigated on his end of this complex bastard of a case.

In turn, Roy and Randal’s observations lead him to an apocryphal couplet, said to be from the pupil pen of Shakespeare, that he thought summed up the whole thing in a nutshell, so he recited it and said, “‘So listen to the words your heart should know: / That we are twain, but one where love can grow.’”

Stephen then turned the dial and raised the volume again, and he heard the static of his team now moving on from their impromptu hiding spot to the third drop zone.


11


Moments passed as Leslie struggled to regain her composure in front of her peers, so she let her thoughts drift onto one more difference between what she thought she remembered and what she now recalled. It was by no means a big difference, per se, but it straddled the line between a mere alteration of her perceptions and a full-blown Mandela effect. And the more she rolled this instance through her head, the more it loomed over her like the sword of Damocles.

“Mom, what’s going on?” Colbie said.

“Did something else come up?” Randal added.

“Maybe,” She said, “but I’m not sure. It’s . . . When I woke up, everything else was the same from that point onwards, but I just can’t shake the feeling that something else was going on.”

“Just tell us what you’re thinking,” Randal said, “and we’ll have Kathy bring in some contexts, if she can.”

At his words, Leslie looked at Katherine’s ashen face and noticed one of her hands gripping the edge of her divan, so she placed her hand over hers and said, “It’s okay, Kathy. You don’t have to be scared.”

Katherine gulped but nodded her head.

Leslie then said, “I don’t remember what happened to Auna after I woke up in Amelia’s dream realm, but I felt so horrible I was bawling my eyes out. With the way I remember it now, Amelia had to slap me across the face to snap me out of it, and I still couldn’t shake that feeling, but then . . .”


12


For a time, Amelia shadowboxed images of Rancaster appearing around her, saying that she was as much a liar as he was, that two wrongs wouldn’t make her next decision right, no matter how good her intentions were. For that, Amelia screamed and yelled for Rancaster to come out of the shadows and face her for real, yet when Amelia had yelled herself hoarse, she materialized back in 1913 over the deck boards of her floating bridge, where the tide of her spell had receded and left the deck and the two girls soaked.

Yet upon reaching her dream realm amid a stir of more screams echoing through the place, she looked behind her and found one of the girls in the throes of a fit. She ran up to the screamer and crouched and walloped a good one across her face, halting the screams amid the residual echoes of her slap. Amelia then looked over the girl’s wide-eyed glassy expression and passed her hand across her field of vision, breaking her momentary trance into sobbing fits. She let her cry and turned her attention to the other girl, who was just beginning to rouse at the sound of her friend crying.

With both girls rousing out of unconsciousness on the wet deck boards of her floating bridge, Amelia noticed that their injuries had healed in the flood of Auna’s Pool of Tears, so she put her hands over their shoulders and said, “Are you two all right?”

Her words seemed to spark something in their minds, for both girls checked themselves for bodily injuries, one girl feeling for something around the small of her back and the other girl feeling for something on the back of her left leg.

“Don’t worry. You’re safe now,” she said.

And both girls looked at her for several long seconds, both gaping at the sight of her as if they recognized her, though Amelia herself couldn’t recognize them.

“Have I met you two before?” she said.

“Not yet,” one of them said, the one she had slapped.

“What do you mean by that?” She said, but when she remembered her strange encounter with Nico and Kendra in her shop the week before, she added, “Don’t answer that.” She paused again for another spell, looking for her words to disentangle the weird trifecta of encountering three pairs of wayward girls entering into her life. “Who are you?”

“I’m Leslie,” said the girl she had slapped.

“And I’m Ramona,” said the other girl.

“Why are you here?” Amelia said.

Both of her visitors traded quizzical looks, till Ramona said, “I don’t know how we ended up here, but we need your help.”

“What kind of help?”

“Our friend is missing,” Leslie said.

“A friend?” she said, thinking once again of her two previous visitors to her shop the week before. “Is this friend of yours named Mara Cairns?”

Both girls shook their heads in the negative.

“What about Nico Cairns or Kendra?” she said.

Again, both girls shook their heads.

“We don’t know anyone by those names,” Ramona said. “Why are you asking us this?”

“Because they were looking for Mara Cairns when they entered my shop,” she said, “but that’s a week ago. This is now. Who are you looking for, by the way?”

Ramona said, “We’re looking for your da—”

“Lima,” Leslie said. “We’re looking for our friend, Lima. Can you help us?”

Amelia blanched at Ramona’s last word and gulped, gleaning the import of Rancaster’s warning to her before he left for the throne room five floors above her in the Dragon Volant. Fate, she thought, then paused on that word, knowing that she was about to steer the fates of Leslie and Lima and Ramona (and even Nico and Mara and Kendra and others) with her next few words.

She took a deep breath and steadied her nerves and said, “What’s her full name?”

“Lima Hearn,” Ramona said.

“Is she alive?” she said.

“Yes,” Leslie and Ramona said. “We’re sure of it.”

“What makes you say that?” she said.

Neither girl added anything more.

“Okay,” Amelia said. “Do you know the circumstances of her disappearance?”

“A little girl named Alice came to her house in her dream,” Leslie said, “and Lima took her in.”

“But then she changed into this older version of Alice,” Ramona added, “and took your daughter—”

“Lima,” Leslie said. “Her name’s Lima.”

“Took Lima to see . . .” And Ramona paused before she completed her statement, looking to the floor and away from Amelia’s gaze.

So Amelia gleaned just enough of the context to figure it out and said, “To see me? Alice took Lima to see me?”

Leslie and Ramona nodded in the affirmative.

“Why would Alice do that?” she said.

“We don’t know,” Ramona said.

“And if Alice were to take Lima with her to see me,” Amelia continued, going along the chain of logic, “wouldn’t they already be here when you arrived?”

“Maybe,” Leslie said, “but Lima wanted to see her father, first, so Alice took her out of her room and out of the house.”

“That was the last time we saw her,” Ramona added, “before Rancaster came in and—”

“Attacked you two, right?” Amelia said, and when both girls were about to speak, she added, “I heard those gunshots and saw your injuries,” and she pointed them towards the remaining bloodstains on the deck boards that had yet to wash out completely when Auna had submerged it with her Pool of Tears. “I already know what that man tried to do to you two. Both of you, give me your hands.”

When they gave her their hands, Amelia took out a sewing needle from her jacket pocket and pricked their ring fingers, drawing blood and making them wince. She then led them to the edge of the deck boards and held their hands over the water’s edge, letting their blood drip over the water.

Two drops.

Another two drops.

And yet another two drops.

Amelia then put their fingers in her mouth, first Leslie’s and then Ramona’s, making the squirm and fidget when she licked their fingers clean, before letting them pull away in disgust.

“Ugh, that’s disgusting!” Leslie said.

“Why do you witches have to do that?” Ramona said.

“Trust me,” Amelia said, winking at them, “you don’t know the worst of it, but look at your fingers.”

Leslie and Ramona then looked at their hands.

“It’s gone,” Leslie said.

“How did you do that?” Ramona said.

“What we witches can shed in blood,” she said, “we can also heal with our saliva.”

“Ugh! We didn’t need to know that,” Leslie said.

“Knowledge is knowledge,” she said, then pulled out another needle from her jacket pocket and pricked her index finger and crouched down and touched it against the mirror sheen, gritting her teeth in concentration and saying, “Blood on blood, blood to blood, Life is in the blood. Help me find the living blood, help me find Lima Hearn.”

And 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 Lima Hearn upside down in the water. In its reflective sheen, they saw her taking an unassuming key off of her night stand and putting it in a box beside a lighted lamp and opening it . . .


13


Connie Davis gaped, saying, “You’ve got to be shitting me! There’s no way I could’ve dreamed that! No way!”

“Wait a minute,” Leslie said, turning to the woman leaning on the armrests by Kendra’s feet as she slept on the sofa. “You dreamed that, too? Were you actually there in Amelia’s dream realm with us?”

“No,” she said. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then where did it happen?”

“In my own dream,” Connie said, “in the first-person. It’s just as Randal said about looking into someone else’s dream, only I didn’t really know who I was at the time, but I know what I did. I found a key atop a nightstand, and when I touched it, I saw you in my mind’s eye. Leslie, was that your totem?”

So Leslie pulled out the very totem she had pocketed after retrieving it from Colbie’s hand from when she found her asleep in the closet under the stairs and reached across the coffee table to show it to Connie, saying, “Is this really the key you’re talking about?”

“That looks like it,” Connie said and took it from her hand. “Yep, that’s the one I found on my nightstand. Well, not on my nightstand. It was on Lima’s nightstand, but I didn’t know I was Lima at the time.”

“So that’s where it went,” Colbie said. “I found it inside my drawer before my dream dive, but I lost it during the dive. God, I was looking everywhere for that key, and Mom was hounding me for losing it, when you’re the one who had it the whole time.”

“Not the whole time,” Connie said. “I only had it for a few moments in my dream, and that was just before I woke up.”

”Then how did it end up in your dream?” Colbie said.

“I don’t know,” Connie said, “but you said you had it, right?”

“I had it in my hand till I made the dive,” she said, “and that’s when I lost it. The next time I saw it, my Mom and I found Mara holding it when she was frozen in a time-trap, so my mom gave it to me for safe keeping till I woke up.”

When Leslie put out her hand for her key, Connie gave it back, saying, “But that doesn’t explain how it ended up in my dream.”

“Let alone why I saw Lima with it in my memories,” Leslie added.

“Was that another difference between what you remembered then,” Randal said, “and what you remember now?”

“It’s not different,” Leslie said, pocketing her key. “That was in my original memory as it was, but something about it felt off somehow. I don’t know how, but that memory felt odd.”

“Was it because I dreamed it, too?” Connie said.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “If it had actually been you, Connie, Ramona and I would’ve seen you taking it—not Lima.”

“Did you ask Lima about it?” Randal said.

“I did,” she said, “but she was really tight-lipped about it.”

“I know why,” Katherine said.

All eyes turned back to her.

Randal was about to ask her what she knew, but Leslie beat him to the punch and said, “Did your mom tell you?” And when Katherine nodded her head, she noticed the girl keeping her eyes to the floor as if she were ashamed of something. “What did Lima tell you?”


つづく

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About the author

Fox-Trot-9

Bio: 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!

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