Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: . . .
—Percy Bysshe Shelley,
“Sonnet: ‘Lift not the painted veil’”
While Katherine was regaining her composure with Celia and Madison holding onto her hands again, Stephen shuffled more papers around through the connection of Randal’s smartphone for a time, then said, “Okay, here’s what I’ve found in the dedication page of Amelia’s manuscript of her book. Right below the dedication to Ronald Hamilton, there’s a second dedication that reads, ‘For Auna and Alice, / Two sides of the same coin, / Two faces of one soul I have loved,’ but this second dedication is invisible under normal light. I had to use a black light to read it.”
“Wait a minute,” Colbie said from her divan beside Leslie, “a black light? You used a black light to read an invisible message?”
“Not really a message, per se,” he said, “but it’s invisible in normal light, so I’m thinking that Amelia Hearn only intended her family to know about this. Why do you ask?”
“It’s because I used a black light to read a hidden message in my dream dive last night,” Colbie said, keeping her gaze away from Katherine on the sofa.
Yet Katherine looked at Colbie and said, “You read my letter?”
Colbie nodded and added, “And the postscript. That’s how we learned where you were in the ballroom.”
“‘We’?” she said.
“Me, Kendra, Nico, and Mara,” Colbie said.
“That makes two separate instances of using a black light to read invisible messages,” Stephen said through the connection. “I’d call that another synchronicity. Okay, Kathy, Colbie, I’ll read the dedication again, and you tell me what you notice about it, if anything. Here it goes: ‘For Auna and Alice, / Two sides of the same coin, / Two faces of one soul I have loved.’ Notice anything?”
Yet before Katherine or Colbie said anything, Celia beat them to the punch and said, “I’ve heard of that phrase before, ’Two sides of the same coin.’”
“Where did you hear that?” Stephen said.
“From my own dream dive last night,” Celia said.
“Do you know who said that?”
“Yeah,” Celia said. “Nico Cairns said it to me after I entered my dream dive and found Mara Cairns beneath a Chinese pavilion. When I first saw Nico, I mistook her for Mara, till she pointed to Mara still sleeping.”
“Did she say anything else to you?” he said.
“Yeah, she did,” Celia said. “Nico recited a verse. I think it goes something like, ‘. . . listen to the words your heart should know: / That we are twain, but one where love can grow.’”
Stephen paused for a spell over the connection, as though he was shifting more things through his mind, and said, “When she said that to you, what did she mean by it?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Celia said, “but I think Nico meant that since she and Mara are identical twins, they both sometimes take on each other’s personalities.”
“Like they’re two sides of the same coin?” he said.
“Yeah,” Celia said.
“Did Nico say anything about Rancaster?” Stephen said.
“Yeah, she did,” Celia said. “Nico and I were in Mara’s mind at the time, so she said that she couldn’t say Rancaster’s name without revealing her intentions to him.”
“Why did she say that?” Stephen said.
“Because she said he had control over part of Mara’s mind,” Celia continued. “So instead of using words, Nico showed me telepathically.”
“How did she show it?” he said.
“With a kiss,” she said.
“And what did she show?” he said.
At his words, Celia fell silent.
“Celia, are you there?” Stephen said.
“I’m here,” she said.
Then Katherine squeezed Celia’s hand, letting her know she was with her, and said, “Hey, are you okay?”
Celia shook her head.
“What’s wrong?” Madison added.
Yet Celia said nothing to either of her sisters.
“Are you okay, Celia?” Stephen said through the connection.
“I’m fine,” Celia said, though Katherine knew better.
“Are you sure?” he said.
So Stephen said, “Then can you tell us what Nico showed you?”
“Yeah,” Celia said, then closed her eyes as tears trickled down her cheeks. “Nico showed me how she died.”
The room fell silent upon her words. The morning light filtering through the shuttered windows of the family room seemed to flicker, and the shadows on the walls took on a darker hue.
Stephen paused over the connection, seeming to give Celia time to regain her composure, and said, “How did Nico die?”
After a moment of silence, Celia took a deep breath and exhaled and said, “Nico died onstage playing Russian Roulette, and she wasn’t alone. Her parents were there, Rancaster was there, and Mara was with her, and they both had guns—”
And Connie and Leslie put a hand to their gaping mouths.
“—and Nico died,” Celia said and broke down crying, so Katherine hugged her close, letting her little sister wrap her arms around her waist, while Madison got up from the sofa and sat back down beside Celia and rubbed her back between her shoulder blades, saying that it was all right, even when it wasn’t, because that was all she could do to comfort her little sister.
Stephen then sighed on the other end of the connection and said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pressed you like that.”
“No shit, Sherlock! She’s a witness, not a suspect,” Madison said, then leaned in close to Celia’s ear and whispered, “Hey, do you want me to roast his ass for you?”
Katherine punched Madison’s arm and said, “Don’t.”
“I was joking,” Madison said.
“You’re not helping,” Katherine said.
“I was just trying to lighten things up, geez,” Madison said.
Then, as Celia regained herself and sat up while wiping her eyes, Katherine said, “Steve, if you’ve got more to say, make it brief. Celia’s upset, Maddy’s angry, and I can’t take any more of this. So for the love of God, make it brief, I’m begging you!”
“I will. Don’t worry,” Stephen said, taking a deep breath and exhaling through the connection. “From everything Celia said, I see quite a few synchronicities between Nico and Mara and Auna and Alice.”
“Which ‘Auna’ are you talking about?” Katherine said. “There’s Auna Hearn and Auna Wenger. Which one is it?”
“Auna Wenger,” he said.
So Celia said, “You know about her?”
“Yeah, I do,” Stephen said. “She came under my notice just before Randal called me, and I was pulling up her case file when Lima called.”
“And you told me about the Wenger case over the phone, too,” Randal said. “Is there anything you’ve noticed?”
“Yeah,” Stephen said. “I reviewed Roy’s notes on the Cairns case when I began to notice similarities with the Wenger case, because both cases shared the same M.O. The circumstances surrounding those cases were different, but the overall M.O. was the same. In both cases, the victims’ disappearances coincided with immense family stressors, so I figured that whoever was abducting them was targeting victims experiencing these stressors.”
That’s when Roy looked down at the sleeping Kendra on the sofa beside him, wrapped up in Katherine’s blood-colored shroud, and said, “What stressors are you talking about?”
“For the Cairns twins, it’s marital stress between their parents,” Stephen said, “but for Auna Wenger, it’s sexual abuse, which is putting it lightly. Why do you ask?”
“I’m asking,” Roy said, “because Kendra lost both of her parents, and we’re still adjusting to everything.”
“Do you think Kendra fits the same pattern?” Stephen said.
“I’m starting to think so, yeah,” he said. “Kendra disappeared from my own house this morning, the same morning Mara disappeared from the Nayland Hospital. Kendra may not fit the pattern like the Cairns twins or Auna Wenger, but I’d still call that another synchronicity.”
“Fair point,” Stephen said and shuffled more papers through the static connection of Randal’s smartphone, “and after listening to everything Kathy and Lima said about Rancaster’s familial connection to the Hearn family, I can also picture his motives.” Silence reigned for a moment longer, till Stephen said, “Okay, this is what we have so far. If we take everything into account, then we have a vampire adopting various identities and strategies to regain his family, and since his previous efforts have proven fruitless, he’s adopted another strategy of abducting vulnerable women to help him regain his family. Does that make sense to everyone?”
Silence followed for a time as everyone nodded that it did, so Katherine said, “Yeah, it does.”
“Okay, good. I think that’s it for now,” Stephen said, shuffling yet more papers through the connection of Randal’s smartphone. “If nobody has any further questions or concerns, then I’ll end this call and handle things from my end.”
“I have a question,” Katherine said.
“What is it?” he said.
“How does Rancaster influence people?” she said.
“You and your mother both said it,” he said. “Those with the letter L in their names have come under Rancaster’s influence, including Mircalla Karnstein, the three daughters of Friedrich Max Müller, Lucy Westenra and Wilhelmina Harker, Amelia Hearn and Lima Hearn—”
“Steve, I get what you’re saying,” Katherine said, “but I don’t have an L in my name.”
“I know, but Celia does,” he said.
Katherine then looked at Celia’s ashen face, realizing the connection, and said, “Wait a minute, you don’t mean—”
“Kathy, I talked with your mom before I called you back,” Stephen said. “There’s a reason why Lima wanted you to keep this a secret from your sisters, and that’s to protect Celia from Rancaster.”
“But why?” Katherine said, looking at Celia. “I don’t see any other connection besides sharing the letter L with his original name, Vlad.”
“Here’s what you’re missing,” he said, “because Lima specifically talked to me about this over the phone. In addition to bearing the letter L in her name, Celia shares another synchronicity with Alice that makes her especially vulnerable to Rancaster’s influence. Can you guess what that is?”
For the moment, Katherine thought about the names, Celia and Alice, and before she sucked in her breath and looked at Celia and said, “Oh my God, their names are anagrams!”
“Exactly,” Stephen said. “Your mother didn’t want to risk you knowing that synchronicity, because Alice has already infiltrated the house, as well as your own dream. So any mental connection at all between their names, no matter how slight, might tip off Rancaster through Alice’s encounter with you. That’s why she’s been so cagey.”
“Jesus Christ!” Katherine said. “I can’t believe this! How could I have been so stupid!”
“Hey, I’m alive, okay?” Celia said and grabbed onto Katherine’s hand. “A lot of things happened last night, but I’m alive, and so are you.”
“I know,” Katherine said, turning to Kendra asleep on the adjacent sofa, “but it could’ve been much worse.”
“She’ll be okay, Kathy,” Roy said. “She’ll pull through this. Oh, and one more thing, Steve.”
“What is it?” Stephen said.
“Kendra’s last name is Tellerman,” Roy said, “which also has two Ls in it. Does the number of Ls have any difference in the amount of influence Rancaster has over those with Ls in their names?”
“From everything I’ve looked into,” Stephen said, “the number of Ls doesn’t make it better or worse.”
“So she’s not a vessel?” he said.
“She might be,” Stephen said, “but that’s all I can say. Do you think she’s a potential vessel?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Roy said, looking down on the sleeping Kendra Tellerman again, “but I won’t take any chances due to her condition, and I’m staying with her. Oh, and what about gender differences? Does that factor in at all?”
“Nope,” Stephen said. “Quincey Morris and the original Aaron Rancaster were exceptions, but they were Rancaster’s vessels. We’re talking about female vessels for an entity whose name we don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“I’m just wondering,” Roy said, “since my last name is Dolan, which has an L in it, too.”
“Rancaster’s targeting female vessels, not males,” Stephen said, “but I understand you erring on the side of caution. Is that all?”
“Yeah,” Roy said. “That’s all.”
“All right,” Stephen said. “Anyway, Kathy, Lima also told me that Rancaster’s using a specific name with the letter L in it as a spell to influence and control others who share the letter L in his name.”
“Lilith?” Katherine said.
“Or a similar name,” he said. “Lilith is the mother of all vampires, so your mother thinks that she named her first child with the letter L in her name to look after her child via telepathy. This also fits with Wilhelmina Harker’s use of telepathy to help her party track down Vlad in Transylvania. This is from your mother’s findings, but she thinks that Rancaster learned from Wilhelmina Harker’s use of telepathy and used the same method to influence his future victims, but he changed his tactics. He changed his own name to Rancaster and adopted another identity and used body doubles to protect himself from the same method of influence. Your mother knew this before she started her journey, because that’s exactly what happened to her after realizing she had killed Amelia under Rancaster’s spell. In addition, this also happened to Ronald Hamilton, who has Ls in his name, when Rancaster controlled him to turn Alice Liddell into a vampire in the first place and used a body double to pin her murder onto him afterward. But above all else, Rancaster knows that name.”
“Which we don’t know,” she said.
“Exactly,” he said.
“Hey, Steve,” Celia said. “I’ve got something to add.”
“What’s that?” Stephen said.
“Since Alice and I have anagram names,” Celia added, “then do you think Rancaster can control me the way he controls Alice?”
“Yeah, that’s possible,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m asking,” Celia said, “because he made me do something I’ve never done in my life. He made me kill someone.”
“Celia, stop!” Madison said. “You don’t have to—”
“Why do you keep interrupting?” Celia said.
“Because you don’t have to—”
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute,” Stephen said. “Maddy, you need to let your sister speak.”
“Maddy, it’s fine,” Katherine said and grabbed her hand, as well. “Let Celia get this off her chest.”
“All right, you win,” Madison said, then reached over and grabbed a hold of Celia’s hand, which Katherine placed on top of her own, connecting the three sisters in one grasp. “Kathy and I are here for you, okay?”
Celia nodded and said, “I’m ready.”
“Okay,” Stephen said over the connection. “When you said Rancaster made you do something to someone else, are you talking about Auna Wenger?”
“Yeah,” Celia said, “but it’s a long story.”
“Then we’ll make it brief,” he said. “Where did this happen?”
“On the staircase in Kathy's dream mansion,” Celia said.
“And what happened while you were there?” he said.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” she said, “but Kathy had been put under a sleeper curse, and Maddy and I were trying to break her out of it. I confronted Auna in the hallways, while Maddy dealt with Auna’s two doppelgängers. Long story short, I fought with Auna and ended up at the top of the stairs. We were still fighting, and one thing led to another, and we both fell down the stairs. Auna was gravely injured, and that’s when Rancaster came in, and I felt his power over me. The bastard forced me to kill Auna with her own gun, and I watched her die on the steps.”
“Then what happened?” he said.
“I saw her come back to life again,” she said, “but as a different person.”
There followed silence on the other end of the connection, but then Stephen said, “By ‘different person,’ do you mean she came back as Alice?”
“Yeah,” Celia, “but there was something else I saw.”
“What was it?” he said.
So Celia took in a deep breath and exhaled, then said, “Just before I shot Auna, Auna manifested another gun and shot at Rancaster just as I shot her.”
“And what does this tell you about her?” Stephen said.
“Auna had free will,” she said.
Celia’s observation left Stephen silent for a time, and the sound of shuffling papers and writing issued through the static connection of Randal’s smartphone.
Then Stephen whistled and said, “Celia, you’re a genius!”
“I am?” she said.
“Yep,” he said. “I didn’t think about that.”
“What exactly are you getting at?” Katherine said, wondering what in God’s name Stephen was thinking as she looked at Celia’s blushing face. “I don’t get it.”
“Neither did I,” Stephen said, “till your sister pointed it out. I never factored in free will into this investigation, but the more I think of it, the more it makes sense. Look at it this way. Rancaster has more than one way of influencing people. For those individuals who have the letter L in their names, he can control them even against their will by using an unknown name as a spell over them. That’s exactly how Rancaster controlled Ronald Hamilton when he used him to turn Alice into a vessel against his will, which Amelia Hearn later canceled out by renaming her ‘Auna’ after her own mother, Auna Hearn, which doesn’t have an L in it. But for those people who don’t have the letter L in their names, Rancaster adopted a different tactic—”
“—by going after vulnerable women with family trouble,” Katherine said.
“Exactly,” he said. “And based on what Celia has said, I’m starting to think that Rancaster must have taken Auna Wenger into his care after her father sexually assaulted her.”
“Yeah,” Katherine said, “but she doesn’t have the letter L in her name, so she can’t be a vessel.”
“True,” he said, “but Auna wasn’t meant to be a vessel.”
“You mean,” Katherine said, “she was meant to be a sacrifice?”
“A willing sacrifice,” he added, “to invoke Alice back into the Phantom Realms. It’s exactly as Celia said.”
“So I played into Rancaster’s plan?” Celia said.
“Don’t think that way!” Madison said.
But she wouldn’t listen and renewed her tears, saying, “So it really is my fault.”
“Celia, it’s not your fault!” Katherine said.
“WERE YOU THERE?” Celia screamed. “WERE EITHER OF YOU THERE?”
So Leslie and Colbie arose from their divans and approached the sofa on which the Hearn sisters sat, and Leslie crouched in front of the crying girl and said, “Celia, you’re not alone. Your mother went through the same thing, and I know because I was there with her in the aftermath. Ramona and I were there for her when she needed us, and we helped her through it. So Celia, if you need to talk or vent or cry, you can come to me or Colbie or your sisters. We’re all here for you, okay?”
So Leslie kissed her forehead and hugged her, and then Colbie hugged her, and then Madison and Katherine hugged her in turn, all of them comforting a fellow sufferer in need of compassion and understanding.
Stephen then breathed a sigh through the connection and said, “We’ll end it here. We’ll figure out what we’ll do later today, but for now, we’ll end it here. Do you copy?”
“Yeah, we copy,” Randal said, and after the connection cut off, he picked up his smartphone from the coffee table and checked the time. “Hey, it’s 7:45. Is anybody up for some breakfast?”
Leslie, Colbie, Madison, Katherine, and Celia looked back at Randal from the sofa for a moment, while Roy and Connie got off of their leaning positions on the armrests of the other sofa, where Kendra was sound asleep. All of them smiled up at Randal and nodded that they were quite ravenous this morning.
So Katherine and Madison got up from the sofa and marched out of the family room.
“We’ll make breakfast,” Madison said.
“Making breakfast for eight is a lot of work,” Leslie said, catching up to them in the entrance hall past the guest restroom and towards the kitchen. “I can help out.”
“We can handle it,” Katherine said, turning around and facing Leslie, while Madison began opening the lower cabinets and upper cabinets and taking out pans and dishes and setting them on the kitchen counter. “You’re one of our guests in this house, and Maddy and I are the hosts. It’s okay.”
“Are you sure?” she said.
“It’s fine,” Katherine said, while in the kitchen there was the sound of a soap dispenser dispensing soap and the faucet running water through washing hands. “Really, it’s fine. We’ll handle it.”
Then the faucet turned off, and Madison said from the kitchen, “Kathy, can you get the eggs from the fridge?”
“I better go,” Katherine said.
“Three pairs of hands are better than two,” Leslie said.
“But three chefs in the kitchen is too much,” Katherine said, while Madison turned on the stove top and took out the cooking oil from the pantry for the pan.
“We both know Maddy’s the chef,” Leslie said and passed her into the kitchen, “and she’s waiting for you. She might roast you for delaying, you know.”
“All right, you win,” Katherine said, following her into the kitchen. “Just stay out of her way when she’s cooking. I don’t want her to roast you, either.”
“Hey, I’m not like that!” Madison said.
For the twelve tumultuous minutes of his interview with the witnesses at the Hearn household, Inspector Stephen had his team maintain radio silence over the microphone connection. After hanging up, he readjusted the dials and lowered the volume, then put his headphones back on and positioned the mini-microphone to his mouth and said, “This is Steve. Are you there?”
“We’re here,” Todd Curvan said through the static, so Stephen readjusted the dials again.
“What about our two friends?” Stephen said.
“Benson and Cory are here,” Ronald Hamilton said.
“Shaefer, are you there?” he said.
“I’m here, sir,” Lt. Frank Shaefer said.
“All right, good,” Stephen said and turned on the monitor with a battery-operated feed of the Dragon Volant. For much of his time during the interview, he had the monitor turned off and only turned it on and flipped through the four camera feeds every five minutes to make sure things hadn’t hit the fan with his team on the field. Thus, he had them maintain radio silence, unless something turned up. “Where are you at right now?”
“We’re at the third drop zone,” Lt. Shaefer said. “It’s at an unmarked warehouse.”
“I trust nothing was amiss?” Stephen said.
“Nothing from our end,” Lt. Shaefer said, “but some of our incognitos, including our friends Cory and Benson, ran into those red musketeer girls on their way to the second drop zone.”
“Any casualties?” he said.
“Several,” Ronald man.
“Give me that,” someone else said through the static connection, and there came a flurry of static as the mini-microphone was transferred to another person. “This is Benson, sir.”
“What’s going on, Benson?” Stephen said.
“Oh, it’s bad, sir,” Benson said, his voice flaring through the static. “Alice turned a quarter of our operatives into clones of herself just as Cory and I ran out of there—”
“Ah, shit!” Stephen said.
“—and I’ve received word from Anne,” he added. “She said she sent out more of our guys before you gave orders to ground our operatives at the Nura Club.”
“I already know that, and I’m still pissed off about it,” Stephen said, flipping through the four screens on the monitor, and saw a few red musketeer girls standing guard at the front entrance of the Dragon Volant and the shaky but uneventful footage of a warehouse interior from the three body cameras of his team members. “Where did she send them?”
“She sent them to the second drop zone,” Benson said.
“What about Anne?” he said.
“She told me to get to your team, ASAP,” Benson said. “I tried calling her again, but I haven’t heard from her.”
“Damn it all!” Stephen said. “I ordered her to stay put!”
“Well, something must have spooked her,” Benson added. “After failing to reach her, I tried calling our guys at the Nura Club about it, but all they told me was that she ran out of there like a bat out of hell.”
“What do you think happened?” he said.
“I don’t know, sir,” Benson said. “All I know is that something must have spooked her. Till Anne calls back, she’s MIA.”
“Christ, this op is turning into a shit-storm,” Stephen said. “Are there any of our guys with you or are you the only ones there?”
“I’ve got a head count of 97 of our operatives at this drop zone,” he said. “They’re getting prepped as we speak, but they’re kind of complaining about what Roy sent us.”
“What do you mean?” Stephen said.
“I mean,” Benson said, “this stuff is old WWI stock. They’re fucking antiques.”
“Hey, if it’s good enough for WWI, then it’s good enough for this op,” Stephen said and looked at his watch that read 7:50 a.m. “Now get yourselves ready, all of you. We start at oh-eight hundred hours.”
“Copy that, sir,” Benson said.
Then came another flurry of static as he handed the mini-microphone back to Ronald, who put it back beneath the blue tabard of his musketeer outfit.
Then Lt. Shaefer said, “Wait, so we’re starting at eight o’clock? I thought you said we’d start at nine?”
“A minor addition to our plans, lieutenant,” Stephen said. “Since I don’t know what’s become of Anne or the guys she’s sent to the second drop zone, I need volunteers for a fire team. I need that fire team to scout that drop zone and find out what’s going on there. Update me once you find out, but for God’s sake, no Rambo shit, got that?”
“No Rambo shit, got it,” Lt. Shaefer said.
“Good,” Stephen said. “Over and out,” and he put the mini-microphone away from his mouth and leaned back in his chair, before realizing he had been using military slang. Stephen exhaled his frustrations, knowing full well that Lt. Shaefer wouldn’t let him hear the end of it once they all got back from this operation, but that thought got Stephen wondering what had happened to Lt. Anne Granger. “Jesus, Anne, what are you thinking?”
After talking with Stephen, Lt. Shaefer went over to the operatives getting themselves geared up and informed them of Stephen’s ‘minor’ change to their plans, then asked for three volunteers to form a fire team and scout out the second drop zone. He specifically said it was to find out the whereabouts of Anne Granger and the guys she’d sent out there.
Many of the operatives hesitated, looking at him but not speaking out.
So Ronald volunteered, saying, “I’m in, old boy.”
Lt. Shaefer smiled and said, “Good man, Ronnie,” and he clapped him on the shoulder.
Then Benson and Cory came up to Lt. Shaefer and said, “We’re going, too.”
“Ah, good men,” he said and clapped them on their shoulders.
“Hey, it’s only natural,” Benson said and went over to a stack of old bolt-action rifles leaning against a crate of surplus ammunition, grabbing three of them and coming back. “Somebody’s got to cover Ronnie’s ass. Here,” and he handed Ronald and Cory a gun and said to Ronald, face-to-face, “I hope you know how to use those things.”
“Of course I do,” Ronald said. “I used to crack these off at target practice.”
“This ain’t target practice, old boy,” Benson said.
“These targets shoot back,” Cory added.
Lt. Shaefer and Todd Curvan headed towards a crate of supplies and popped the lid, revealing a stack of boxes inside, which they hauled out and opened with a knife. Inside were twenty bandoleers all rolled up full of bullet clips, which they pulled out (three of them) and draped over the shoulders of Ronald and Benson and Cory.
Lt. Shaefer then took Ronald aside and said, “Okay, since you’re new at this, it’s briefing time.” So he took Ronald’s rifle and slid back the bolt and said, “This is how you open it.” Then he took a clip from another bandoleer and loaded it into the gun and said, “This is how you load it.” Then he slid the bolt back into position and pointed the weapon with his finger on the trigger and said, “Pull the trigger, and it fires.” Then he slid back the bolt, ejecting a round, and slid it back in, reloading another round from the clip, and pointed the weapon again with his finger on the trigger and said, “This is how you reload and fire. Do that five times, then replace them with another clip and do the same thing. Understand?”
“You’re talking to a dead man, lieutenant,” Ronald said.
Lt. Shaefer smiled and clapped him on the shoulder again, “You’ll be fine. Just don’t do any Rambo shit.”
“Rambo?” he said. “What’s that?”
“Jesus,” Lt. Shaefer said. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”
“Ah, that I understand,” Ronald said.
“Sure you do,” Lt. Shaefer said and unclipped a radio transponder from his belt and handed it to him. “Keep us updated while you’re out there. If anything happens, you call us, and we’ll back you up. Understand?”
Ronald just smiled and nodded his head, “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” Lt. Shaefer said, then went to Benson and Cory and added, “Don’t let him do anything stupid.”
“Yes, sir,” both men said.
Lt. Anne Granger of the Second Division of the Phantom Office was one of Stephen’s top lieutenants, along with Lt. Frank Shaefer of the First Division, that he handpicked for this op because of her discretion and decisiveness on the field. As such, as far as Stephen knew, Anne wouldn’t disobey an order without just cause, so he felt his stomach churn over what that cause might be.
Then he heard several light footsteps along the hallway outside his apartment door. At first, he thought they were just other guests of the hotel returning to their rooms, but when he heard no door opening or closing, he began having second thoughts. So he took off his head phones and the mini-microphone and picked himself up off the chair in a slow and deliberate manner, trying to make as little noise as possible, and tiptoed towards the window overlooking the street between the Daimyo and the Dragon Volant, where he spied several of Alice’s red musketeer doppelgängers entering his hotel hideout.
“Fuck!” he said under his breath.
Then another set of footsteps came rushing up to his door, and several frantic knocks followed.
So Stephen fished out a semiautomatic from his side holster and slid back the slide, and holding his weapon at the ready in a two-handed grip, he crept past the galley kitchenette and the restroom door on either side and approached the door.
When the knocker rapped several more times, he aimed his gun with his finger on the trigger, aiming the barrel along the lower part of the door where the center mass of a human torso would be if he had to shoot, and said, “Identify yourself!”
“Lt. Anne Granger,” a winded woman said. “It’s me. Open up!”
Stephen opened the door, revealing a sweaty young woman with her sweaty dark hair lying limp across her uniformed shoulders, and was about to say, ‘What the fuck is going on?’
Yet Lt. Granger put her fingers to Stephen’s lips, telling him to “Shhhhhh,” as she pulled the door closed behind her with her other hand, then turned around and locked the door. She then stalked into the room and came back with the chair Stephen had been sitting on during the interview and jammed it up against the door knob and whispered, “That won’t hold them out for long.”
Stephen re-holstered his gun and said, “What’s going on?”
“This place is compromised,” she said as she doubled back into the apartment, while Stephen tailed her and saw her shifting one of the mattresses off its bed frame. “Are you gonna help?”
But instead of helping her, Stephen began collecting the various files of his investigation and shoving them into manila folders and then stalking towards the suitcase by the console table and shoving them inside, while Anne just stared at him, agape.
“Are you kidding me right now?” Anne said.
“You fucking disobeyed my orders,” he said, grabbing Amelia Hearn’s manuscript and plopping it into suitcase before closing it shut. “Why didn’t you stay put?”
“The ones I sent out got ambushed at the drop zone,” she said, then raised the mattress up against its side. “Will you help me with this or not?”
“Just give me a second,” he said, reaching for a backpack and stuffing the briefcase into it and struggling to get both zippers up beyond the rounded corners of the case, till he managed to get one zipper up and over. But when he tried the other zipper, he broke it off.
“Really?” Anne said, deadpanning as if her life depended on it. “We’re about to get besieged by a bunch of underaged cosplaying pieces of jailbait, and you’re over there playing with a Goddamn zipper? Are you fucking kidding me right now?”
Stephen looked up from what he was doing and stared at her female colleague’s deadpan face, then looked at the suitcase stuffed inside a backpack and said, “Screw it,” and he got up and helped Anne push the mattress into the entrance hall and up against the door beside the chair. Then they headed back in and pushed the other mattress off its bed frame, then raised it onto its side and pushed the whole thing up against the door beside the other bed, barricading the entrance.
And just in time, too.
Several light footfalls came rushing back along the hallway, and there was knocking at the door, as Stephen picked up the suitcase-stuffed backpack and hoisted it over his shoulders and snapped the strap over his chest, so it wouldn’t slip off.
“Open the door!” a young voice said.
“Or we’ll blow the door down,” another one added.
Stephen and Anne traded glances and said, in unison, “Not by the hairs of our chinny-chin-chins!”
And Anne yanked Stephen from a thunderous volley of gunshots tearing through the door and both mattresses, filling the room with scattering splinters and tufts of fluttering foam and feathers into the air. Both woman and man landed on the floor, then scrambled to their feet as their foes began shooting at the knob holding the chair wedged against the door.
They sprinted towards the balcony window and opened the top window pane into the open air. Stephen cupped his hands and hoisted Anne through the window, where she got a hold of the balcony rails and pulled herself up into the balcony and reached down a hand and hoisted him up.
Then, five stories below them, a dozen red musketeer doppelgängers came storming out of the front entrance of the Daimyo and aimed their flintlock muskets and carbines up at them, about to fire a volley.
So Anne picked Stephen up onto her shoulders and leaped through the air, saying, “Sponge effect, on!”
Just as a thunderous volley filled the street below with plumes of gun smoke, pinging leaden slugs against the metal railings of the balcony window.
And after completing a somersaulting arc over the street, Anne and Stephen fell down and down and down towards the sidewalk, landing on it so hard that the astral space-time of dreams bent and flexed the whole street and rebounded everybody in it like a trampoline, rebounding Anne onto her feet over the bouncing surface of her spell and bouncing the red musketeer girls onto their asses.
After placing Stephen back onto solid ground, where he felt woozy and clutched his knees to regain himself, Anne Granger said with her arms akimbo, “Now thank me for saving your ass back there.”
Stephen looked up at her and said, “If this had been any other day, I’d fire your ass, but thanks for saving me. Let’s just call it even.”
“Whatever. Now let’s play a game of tag,” Anne said and pointed towards the group of groaning red musketeer girls getting to their feet and grabbing their guns, while rubbing their asses. “Those girls are ‘it,’ and we’re out of here. Now move it,” and she grabbed Stephen’s hand and ran down the street, forcing him to run behind her on tenuous legs with a suitcase-stuffed backpack weighing him down.
Yet soon enough, Stephen started running on his own, tailing Anne as they themselves were under hostile pursuit from a bunch of angry red musketeer girls shooting at them in a running skirmish. Neither of them had rifles, only handguns, and if they decided to engage their pursuers in a running two-man skirmish against a surging onslaught of enemy fire, that would entail firing off wild shots and wasting ammunition.
So they footed it down the street, instead, running for one block, then another block, and then third block, wheezing on their feet as they kept running. Then, as they made their way up yet another block, they spotted a street up ahead lined with phantom rickshaws and angry yokai runners haranguing several drunken customers for refusing to give them payment for services just rendered. The wheezing duo ran down that street towards one of those yokai runners at the end of the line of rickshaws near the corner of the street.
Stephen dug into his pockets and fished out his wallet and took out a wad of cash and shoved it at the startled yokai runner, while Anna grabbed the yokai’s arm and pointed down the street corner, where a surging mass of red musketeers began popping off shots in their direction, sending everyone on their street running for their lives.
With several pedestrians and yokai runners and their customers running for the double doors of the hotel, the detained yokai runner stared at them, saying, “Soma?” (Are you serious?)
“Hai,” (Yes) Stephen said and took out another wad of cash and shoved it at him, then said to Anne, “Where are we going?”
“To the Bangsian hotel,” Anne said, climbing into the rickshaw. “That’s where they’re holed up at. Now get on!”
Stephen gave the yokai runner directions to the hotel, then climbed into the rickshaw beside Anne as the yokai runner grabbed the handles of his rickshaw and pulled them from the curb at a running gait out past the line of rickshaws amidst a flurry of shots from the approaching red musketeers.
Stephen then turned around in his seat and watched the red musketeers lagging behind through the back window of the rickshaw, then turned his attention back at Anne and said, “Why the hell didn’t you stay put?”
“Hey, you listen here!” she said. “My men and I got there before you even gave out that order, but then . . .”
“Then what?” he said.
“I still can’t figure it out,” she said, seeming to mull over something inexplicable in her mind.
“Figure what out?” he said.
“Listen, Steve,” she said. “I don’t know how it happened, but just as we were about to enter the premises of the second drop zone, we found ourselves near the Dragon Volant where Alice intercepted us with her red musketeer girls.”
“What?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s mind-boggling, I know,” Anne said. “I still can’t wrap my head around it.”
“Then what happened?”
“It was a massacre,” she said. “I lost most of my operatives, except for Benson and Cory.”
“Damn it!” he said.
“But here’s where it got crazy,” she added. “We managed to get out of there just as Alice turned our dead operatives into doppelgängers of herself.”
“Ah, shit!” he said. “I’ve been hearing about these doppelgängers all morning. Then what?”
“I ordered Benson and Cory to the first drop zone to contact Lt. Shaefer and his men,” she said. “Then I footed it all the way to the Nura Club and had Sgt. Rousseau out there with another contingent of our guys, while I stayed at the Nura Club.”
“Didn’t you receive my order?” he said.
“I did,” she said, “so I tried contacting them to order a retreat, but I couldn’t reach them. I had no idea what was happening out there, but soon afterwards I received a call from Sgt. Rousseau at the Bangsian, and he told me that they got intercepted at the second drop zone and that their radio had been shot to hell.”
“Ah, Jesus!” he said.
“I know,” she said. “I asked them if they needed me there, but they told me to stay at the Nura Club.”
“Did he report any casualties?” Stephen said.
“Several wounded, but no deaths, thank God,” she said. “I’ll admit I shouldn’t have sent them out after all that, but I had them sent out before you ordered us grounded, so there!” Then she shoved her finger into Stephen’s chest and added, “But then I found out from Sgt. Rousseau that there were red musketeers headed your way, but I didn’t order another contingent to get you, as per your orders. So I went out myself and tried contacting you, but your damn phone was off! I had to foot it all the way to the Daimyo to save your ass, and this is the thanks I get?”
“Jesus! Okay, I get it,” Stephen said, raising his hands up to placate her. “I fucked up, big time.”
“Damn straight you did,” she said.
“But what happened at the drop zone?” Stephen said.
Anne said, “It got compromised.”
“How?” he said.
“How the heck should I know?” Anne said. “All I know is that when they got there, they encountered those damn musketeer girls firing on them from inside the fort.”
“Ah, shit!” So Stephen fished his smartphone from his pocket and opened it and called Lt. Shaefer and said, “This is Stephen to Lt. Shaefer. Call off the fire team! I repeat. Call off the Goddamn fire team!”
“What did you do?” she said.
“I ordered a fire team over there.”
“You WHAT?” Anne said.
Ronald Hamilton’s recollections of his father, the Pinkerton agent Scott Hamilton, were sketchy at best, though he had always believed that his father had served in the Spanish–American War. In fact, whenever he accompanied his father to the firing range, he remembered the stories he had told him about accompanying Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders into battle. In particular, he remembered his father’s stories about his charge up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, repulsing the enemy and overtaking their position. But most of all, he remembered his father showing him his bolt-action rifle, claiming he had used it during that charge.
Yet Ronald had no way of knowing that these glorious anecdotes were the sympathetic fantasies of a father who loved his son, who wanted to take the burdens of life off of his shoulders and uplift him with half truths.
For Ronald didn’t know that the gun his father showed him wasn’t the gun he had used in battle. He didn’t know his father had been wounded during the battle of San Juan Hill and had missed out on that glorious charge up the hill with the future president of the United States leading his Rough Riders on horseback. He didn’t know that his father had originally enlisted in the army during the Spanish–American War after the Pinkerton Agency took him off active duty for ’suppressing’ the details of the disappearance of Tobias Rancaster’s son in 1897, because Tobias had called him off the case and bribed him to never reveal his findings to anyone.
But these deficiencies couldn’t keep Ronald from fantasizing as he accompanied Cory and Benson on their scouting venture into the second drop zone at an abandoned fort atop the hill. As he followed in step behind his comrades towards the foot of the hill, with Cory and Benson looking ahead of them and Ronald looking behind, he couldn’t stop thinking of San Juan Hill. And despite Cory and Benson’s promise to Lt. Shaefer, Ronald couldn’t stop doing something stupid when a contingent of red musketeer girls fired on their positions in a thunderous volley, biting off chunks of dirt clods around them, filling the top of the hill with clouds of gun smoke and obscuring their view of the drop zone.
At once, Benson and Cory footed it back to a safer position behind a nearby grove of trees, calling out to him and saying, “Ronnie, get over here! Ronnie!”
Yet Ronald stayed behind amidst the confusion of his fantasies overtaking in his mind, for Colonel Roosevelt’s Rough Riders had manifested around him at San Juan Hill amid a storm of enemy fire and a hail of mortar shells blasting craters around them. Ronald found himself with the Rough Riders, pinned down beneath another volley of enemy fire thundering from the top of the hill, while mortar shells kept exploding closer to their ranks.
Clouds of gun smoke and flying debris obscured their view of the hill, yet through the hellscape rode Colonel Roosevelt on horseback, riding out in front of the ranks of his men, waving his hat and cheering them onward.
And through the gun smoke, through the mortar explosions, arose Roosevelt’s voice booming over the hill and saying, “Give ‘em hell, boys! GIVE ‘EM HELL!”
And a roaring battle cry swelled the ranks around him, urging Ronald forward along with an entire brigade of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders climbing up the hill and firing at will against thunderous plumes of enemy fire. And out of the plumes of gun smoke came a wall of death slicing the through their ranks, culling the charge like the sweep of death’s scythe, felling soldiers left and right in a splatter of blood and gore, yet the advance continued like an unstoppable flood. And as Ronald pushed his way up the hill, stride for stride, yard for yard, keeping up with his comrades in arms, closing in on the enemy atop the hill, yet another enemy volley of cruel thunder culled the ranks.
And Ronald tumbled off his feet amidst plumes of guns smoke and mortar shells exploding around him, while Roosevelt and his Rough Riders continued the charge up the hill without him, till Ronald lost consciousness—
As Benson and Cory witnessed the spectacle behind a grove of trees, neither man believing what he was seeing. They saw Ronald’s fantasy manifesting itself on the hill and witnessed Ronald taking on another persona and acting another man’s role amidst the mad effulgence of the scene.
Then Benson’s pocket vibrated over his thigh, so he fished for his smartphone and opened it and clapped it to his ear and said, “Yes, this is— . . . But, sir, there’s something— . . . Look, I know, I know! . . . But there’s something I have to tell you. It’s— . . . Oh, Christ, no!” he said, as Lt. Shaefer informed him of the latest development from Stephen. “My God! . . . No, he’s not with us. . . . They captured him, sir. They captured him, but— . . . Damn it all, sir! I’ve got to tell you this before it’s too late! . . . It’s the whole scene, sir, the whole scene that’s changed. . . . An entire unit of American soldiers just appeared atop that hill,” he added, but then Lt. Shaefer’s order came blaring so loud against his ear that he pulled his smartphone away from himself, then said, “All right, all right,” and he closed his phone and pocketed it.
“What did he say?” Cory said.
“Fall back,” Benson said. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
So Benson and his remaining comrade hightailed it across the tall grass back to the third drop zone, wondering how he’d explain to Lt. Shaefer what they had both seen.
The next thing he knew, Ronald found himself falling down the rabbit hole of broken dreams, in which he saw his father Scott Hamilton bleeding from a gunshot wound in his leg near the top of San Juan Hill from a barrage of enemy fire that had cut through him and his comrades. From this vantage point, he saw the heroic Roosevelt on horseback urging his men up the hill, waving his hat in the air, while Ronald’s father lay bleeding from afar like a spectator in his own nightmare as Ronald screamed . . .
Till his mind shifted into the inert consciousness of a sleeping Oyster on a beach dreaming that he was a Crow, cycling through the same set of dreams that resembled reincarnation to Buddhist eyes. From an Oyster dreaming he was a Crow to Chuang Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, then from dreaming he was a Chippewa elder talking with a Hopi elder to dreaming he was Tweedledum arguing with Tweedledee over a ‘nice new rattle’ before duking it out with platters for shields and silverware for weapons and scattering at the shadow of a giant Crow flying overhead, and then from dreaming he was an old White Knight and a young Red Knight sleeping under a tree and dreaming they were oysters on a beach, thereby restarting where he had begun as an Oyster dreaming he was a Crow.
In this way, for the next several minutes, he dreamed he was a Crow flying over a familiar stretch of yellow-brick road. Then he spotted someone riding on horseback along a wooded section of the road and decided to follow, till he recognized Nico dozing behind the rider in the saddle, her arms wrapped around the rider’s waist and her head resting against the rider’s shoulder blades.
Then he looked at the rider and thought, Is that you, Auna? At least, he thought she was Auna, for this look-alike was wearing a White Sunday dress instead of the Shad-Row Academy uniform and the hand-me-down jacket when he sighted Auna earlier this morning.
So he followed them, climbing higher in the sky and looking ahead to see where they were going, till he spotted a pair of shaded figures to his left in a denser part of the woods near the roadside. He swooped down overhead to get a closer look and spotted another Auna look-alike wearing a red Sunday dress keeping a lookout on the road near an old willow tree, and just beneath its branches lay a sleeping blue musketeer.
He then circled around and got a closer look at the blue musketeer’s face and cawed, causing nearby crows to caw and macaws to cackle. Roy, is that you? he thought and circled around again to get another look through the trees.
He cawed a high shrill upon confirmation and circled back along the course he had flown along the yellow-brick road. He kept retracing the flight path of his previous dream sequences as the Crow, till he spied a familiar clearing a little ways from the roadside. After that, he descended upon a familiar spot by the roadside and transformed into a wizened Chinese man and settled himself under the shade of a tree by the road.
He was now Chuang Chou, who had a scraggly beard and wore the long and loose garments of Hanfu clothing like that of a philosopher, stroking his beard in thought. This was the spot where Nico had asked him about the whereabouts of Auna Wenger during his sleep when he was Chuang Chou and where he had spotted Auna skittering from the roadside towards the clearing when he was the wayward Crow.
With his thoughts fixed on this wayward girl, he closed his eyes and fell asleep and dreamed of Auna.
After finishing her prayer, Amelia got up to her feet and thought of her options. She could go back the way she had entered Chess Cathedral and use the same door that Rancaster had shown her, but she despised ever seeing his face again. So she resorted to a different method to get back to her shop.
She crouched to the floor once again, placing her hand atop the stony cold floor, and summoned a mirror flat over the surface beneath her. She then laid herself flat over the surface and closed her eyes and began repeating an old spell in her mind like a mantra, getting her mind to that trance-like state of sleep and inducing herself to wake up from this place.
She then repeated the spell aloud, saying, “Row, row, row your boat / Gently down the stream; / Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily, / Life is but a dream! . . .”
And as the words danced along the edges of her mind, the mirror beneath her glowed and bathed her astral self in its light, submerging herself through the reflection.
With Roy occupying their time with funny anecdotes from his adventures with the Larking Metropolitan Police Department, the breakfasters shed the weary mood of the last hour for a welcome respite of good cheer. Thus, by the time 8:00 a.m. rolled around, they received Madison’s arrival with two big bowls full of pan-fried sausages and scrambled eggs, Katherine’s arrival with a big rice cooker of freshly cooked rice, and Leslie’s arrival with a stack of plates and forks and napkins with smiles and compliments. When the trio doubled back toward the kitchen to get the glasses of orange juice, Celia got up from her seat and followed them into the kitchen to get the last pair of drinks. And after they set the drinks on the table, they took their seats, while Madison did her guests the honor of scooping out rice from the rice cooker and putting it on their plates, then scooping a portion for Katherine and herself and then a whopping amount for Celia.
“This is way too much,” Celia said.
“Try your best,” Madison said. “Your path to being a good girl starts now, so make sure you eat everything on your plate,” and she served her younger sister an oversized helping of sausages and scrambled eggs over the massive bed of rice.
“Are you trying to make me fat?”
“No,” Madison said and smiled at her. “I’m just trying to compensate, because we didn’t get a chance to eat dinner last night. Now eat up,” and she was about to get her another huge helping of scrambled eggs.
The girl just looked at her Madison and then at Katherine on her other side, who nodded her head, so Celia took the hint and said, “Okay, okay, okay, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for causing you so much grief yesterday.”
“And?” Madison said.
“And for screwing your chances with another boyfriend,” she said.
Sniggers broke out from the other guests gathered around the breakfast table, making Madison gape. For this, Katherine just deadpanned at Celia, while Madison shoveled yet another massive helping of scrambled eggs onto Celia’s plate and said, “And?”
Celia just looked at Madison, then at Katherine, and then back at Madison and said, “What else do you expect me to say?”
“I’m not the only one,” Madison said. “You’re forgetting someone else sitting right next to you.”
“Oh, sorry,” Celia said, turning back to Katherine. “I’m really sorry, Kathy, for putting you through everything.”
“And?” Katherine said.
“And for making you ditch class,” Celia said.
Katherine deadpanned and said, “And?”
“Geez, what do you want me to say?” Celia said.
So Katherine dug into her pocket and fished out the ring of keys from the pocket of her Shad-Row University blazer and dangled it in front of her, saying, “Does this ring a bell?”
Celia winced and said, “Sorry about that.”
“And?” Madison added.
“Geez, what else do you want?” Celia said.
“Dad’s bookshop,” Madison said.
“She doesn’t know what you did, Maddy,” Katherine said. “Stop harping on it.”
“Take responsibility for your own actions, Maddy,” Katherine said and helped herself to one of the sausages on Celia’s plate. “We’ll let Dad know soon,” and she bit into the sausage.
So Celia turned to Katherine and said, “What happened?”
“You’ll know soon enough, you little troublemaker,” Madison said and put some more sausages onto Celia’s plate. “Now eat up!”
Celia just looked at her plate filled with a massive helping of rice, two giant servings of scrambled eggs, and a row of six sausages over the scrambled eggs. She said, “How am I supposed to eat all this?”
“With gusto,” Madison said and cut a chunk of scrambled eggs from Celia’s plate and put it on her plate. “Now eat up.” And she cut the scrambled eggs into smaller chunks and ate them.
“Don’t worry,” Katherine added, taking a chunk of rice from Celia’s plate and sliding it over to her own plate, “we’ll help you out,” and she mixed it into her scrambled eggs and ate it.
Meanwhile, in between mouthfuls, Roy looked at the way the Hearn sisters shared their food and said, “Did Kendra visit this house while Edmund was alive?”
“Yeah, she used to when she was younger,” Madison said. “She and I alway had fun. Why do you ask?”
“I’m just asking,” Roy said, “because Kendra tends to do that when we go out to eat,” and he pointed his fork at Madison and Katherine taking food off of Celia’s plate.
“Oh,” Madison said, blushing.
“Sorry about our table manners,” Katherine said.
“No, it’s okay,” Roy said. “It’s actually kind of endearing.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too,” Randal added. “Kendra tends to do that a lot when we go out.”
“Wait,” Madison said, pausing after taking a sausage from Celia’s plate, “are you and Kendra dating?”
“Yeah, we are,” Randal said, looking down at his own plate of dwindling scrambled eggs and the last portion of sausage and rice. “Why do you ask?”
And before Madison could stop her, Celia said, “It’s because Maddy’s having boyfriend trouble.”
“Hey!” Madison said.
“Well, it’s true,” Celia said.
Madison glared at her mutinous little sister and said, “Okay, have it your way,” and she scooped up a third of the contents of Celia’s plate and slid it over to her own.
“Hey!” Celia said.
“That’s for talking out of line,” Madison said, then picked up Celia’s glass of orange juice and downed half the contents in one gulp (Celia saying, “Hey!”) and added, “And that’s for being a little brat!”
Another round of sniggers issued from the breakfasters.
“Calm down, you two,” Katherine said and helped herself to some more sausages from the bowl and cut them into chunks with her fork. “Not in front of the guests.”
“Okay, okay, Momma Goose,” Madison said.
“Maddy, what did I just say?” Katherine said, throwing Madison a glare of her own. “Not in front of the guests!”
“Okay, okay,” she said.
Then Leslie pitched in between mouthfuls, saying, “Mamma Goose Kathy: there’s a nice ring to that.”
“Oh my God, really?” Katherine said, blushing. “Really?”
And yet another louder round of sniggering erupted around the breakfast table, with the two biggest sniggerers being Celia and Madison to her right.
“Sorry, Kathy,” Leslie said, smiling. “Ramona and I used to mess with your mom like that all the time.”
Then Celia added under her breath, saying, “Crisis averted,” and gave Leslie a smile and thumbs up.
“Not you, too!” Katherine said, but when Celia smiled up at her, she then scooped up a third of the contents of Celia’s plate and slid it over to her own.
“Hey!” Celia said, crouching over her plate to stop her two food-snatching sisters.
“Somebody, please change the subject,” Katherine said.
“Hey, Maddy,” Connie Davis said, who had been listening and laughing to the ebb and flow of a trio of sisters messing with each other at the table, “how’s it going in the cooking department? Are you getting better at it?”
“I’m making progress,” Madison said, because Connie had been encouraging her in these cooking experiments to work on controlling her heating powers by applying them to cooking recipes, tempering her destructive potential into a more nuanced and constructive skill.
“Anything tasty I should know?” Connie said.
So in between big bites of rice and scrambled eggs and chunks of sausage, Madison said, “Well, there’s this one guy who combined a French onion soup recipe with instant ramen, and after watching that video, I tried to . . .”
Back inside her loft above her shop, Amelia manifested bodily into her bed and stayed asleep for the next few minutes, tossing and turning from side to side and rumpling the sheets. In her mind, she was still chanting the spell of ‘Row, row, row your boat’ and slurring out the words, tossing and turning herself through the last seconds of lucidity, till her mind broke through the surface and her body ceased involuntary movement.
Then her eyes fluttered open as she turned over and stretched her arms and legs, arching her back and yawning. She then slung her legs over the edge of the beside and sat up, then rested her eyes on the shadow of the floor with the spell still dancing on the tip of her tongue.
She then reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out her pocket watch and read the time: 8:17 a.m. It was time for breakfast, though Amelia’s appetite for it had all but disappeared.
Amelia pocketed the watch and reached into the inner pocket of her jacket and pulled out the book that Auna had given her through the mirror at Chess Cathedral. She turned it over in her hands, feeling the stiff cloth texture of its binding and the gilded impressions of its title against her fingers. She then read on the cover,
Entering the Secret Room
by Linda Kouri, and flipped through the blank pages, remembering the title of the first story, “Alice and the Mad Tryst,” and the way it made her feel after reading it in Lima’s bedroom by her lamplit nightstand.
“What should I do?” Amelia said to herself, even when she knew without a doubt what she had to do next.
So without thinking, because thinking would only clue Rancaster into her own thoughts, Amelia got off of her bed and descended the stairs leading into the kitchenette and the dining area, then descend another set of stair leading into her shop and exited the front door, whose bell tinkled when she closed and locked it with the key before placing it back in her jacket pocket.
She went straight to the stationary clerk next door and bought a stack of loose leaf pages, then opened the shop door and closed it again, locking it with her key and checking the CLOSED sign to make sure no unwanted customers would disturb her.
After making her way back to her loft, she seated herself by the vanity table and placed the stack of papers at a corner of the table and turned on the lamp. She then pulled out a drawer and took out a fountain pen and an ink bottle. She opened the lid of the ink bottle and undid the lid of the fountain pen and filled its empty ink reservoir, then closed the lids of the fountain pen and the bottle, so that neither would spill out ink.
She then took out a sheet of paper and began writing, starting with the title and her by-line at the top of the page:
‘“Alice and the Mad Tryst”
‘By Linda Kouri’
Then she paused for a moment, wondering what she was going to write. She only had a vague recollection of the story after reading it once in Lima’s bedroom, and the text of the story now escaped her, till she realized something about what Rancaster had said to her upon the deck boards in her dream realm last night.
She thought back to the question he had asked her: ‘Do you believe in fate, darling?’
From all the research she had done in this antiquated year of 1913, Amelia knew that Rancaster had a hand in everything leading up to her own birth from her distant ancestor Countess Karnstein to her own mother Auna Hearn. And from everything she had witnessed of the future, she knew that Rancaster would have a hand in her death through the unwitting agency of her own daughter Lima. Yet despite all of that, Rancaster had no control over what she was about to do.
“No,” she said, her pen poised upon the threshold of proving Rancaster wrong. “Fate is what you make of it.”
And she wrote the first lines of her story:
‘Yes, we’ve all heard of that famous Alice who fell down the rabbit hole and entered the looking-glass and the real Alice Liddell who inspired the books and crossed the Atlantic to visit America and lived to a ripe old age. And some of us have heard of the American Alice Lee who entered a hidden door between the washstand and the table or the doomed Alice Pyncheon who entered a haunted house of seven gables or the impoverished Alice Fell who received a new cloak on her way to Durham or the magician Alice Margatroid who lived in a magical forest. And a select few of us have known other women named Alice, unknown to the world at large save for family and close friends and chance acquaintances within our private circles at home and abroad. . .’
Meanwhile, Nico had been dozing off behind her for the past half hour, while Shiromi stretched her legs against the stirrups, slowing the horse to a gait along the undulations of the yellow-brick road and surveyed her surroundings. She found herself in a denser part of the woods, crowded with tall trees that seemed to reach for the sky with arm-like branches and tall thistle stalks and clumps of tall grass that grew near the tree roots. The sparse vegetation grew taller here and, combined with the sheer height of the trees, threw darker shades along the road the further she traveled along. Yet, despite the sparse vegetation, she thought she smelled the scent of citrus and vanilla in the air.
Along the way, she heard the caw of crows, the cackle of macaws, the chirp of crickets around her, followed by a breeze wafting through the trees and carrying the scent of citrus and vanilla along with it.
Then a high shrill echoed through the woods, spooking the horse into a gallop. With the dozing Nico teetering over the saddle, Shiromi clenched her hands on the reins and stretched her legs against the stirrups, slowing the horse into a canter. Before Nico fell over, Shiromi turned and caught Nico’s hand and hoisted her back over the cantle, whereon she slumped over Shiromi’s back.
She looked past her shoulder at Nico, who should’ve woken up by now, but the girl still slept.
“Nico, wake up,” she said, but the girl slept on.
So Shiromi grabbed the horn of the saddle and dismounted, careful not to nudge Nico off of the cantle, and let the sleeping girl lie forward in the saddle onto the horse’s shoulders. Still keeping her foot on the stirrup and gripping on the horn of the saddle, Shiromi swung herself back over the cantle and slid in behind Nico, wedging herself against Nico’s butt.
“Nico, wake up,” she said, stroking the girl’s butt, then slapped it hard. “Wake up, or I’ll pinch you!” When she didn’t, Shiromi began pinching the girl’s butt cheeks over and over again, but got the same result, so she said, “I should’ve brought a dildo with me. Maybe that’ll wake you up! Did you hear that, Nico? If you don’t wake up, I’ll fulfill your desires in the worst possible way,” and she slapped her ass again and giggled to herself.
But deep in her heart of hearts, even when Shiromi got in a few kicks at Nico’s expense, the fact that she stayed asleep ate at her nerves. Something was amiss, but Shiromi didn’t know what else to do about it.
Then another high shrill blasted through the trees, closer this time, spooking the horse into another gallop, so Shiromi stretched her legs against the stirrups and slowed down the horse back into a jittery canter along the path. All the while, she felt Nico’s butt bumping against her lap, so she fantasized about doing it with Nico, if only to keep whatever was making those shrill noises from eating at her own nerves.
“Nico,” Shiromi said, looking down at Nico’s back as she slept, “I’m taking advantage of you right now, and I’ll keep taking advantage of you, till you wake up. So wake the fuck up already, damn you!”
And she slapped Nico’s ass again as hard as she could, but when the girl failed to rouse and stayed limp over the saddle, merely rubbing the inside of her thighs with her ass to the cantering motions of the horse.
“Over here,” someone said.
She turned to her left and saw Akami waving at her under the branches of an old willow tree. She stretched her legs against the stirrups, halting the horse right in the middle of the woods, and said, “How long have you been there?”
“Long enough,” Akami said, walking over with a scowl on her face. “Are you done abusing her yet?”
“Maybe,” Shiromi said and grabbed the horn of the saddle and swung herself over the cantle and dismounted, but then she stroked Nico’s butt and gave it another hard slap. “But just between you and me, I’ll keep messing with her, till she wakes up.”
“You’re sick, you know that?” Akami said, approaching the horse and caressing the side of its neck and mane.
Shiromi stuck her tongue out, then scanned the surroundings for Auna’s presence and said, “Where’s Auna?”
“At Chess Cathedral,” Akami said, “with Alice and Rancaster.”
“We have to get back there!” Shiromi said and stepped onto the stirrup, about to swing herself back over the cantle behind a sleeping Nico, till she turned around. “Aren’t you coming?”
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “but as long as Auna’s with Alice, Rancaster wouldn’t dare harm either of them.”
“Are you sure about that?” Shiromi said and leveled a steely gaze on her red counterpart. “That fucker’s a real bastard, you know.”
“Have faith in them,” Akami said and took out a key ring with the key attached and showed it to her. “Auna would not have left this with Monsieur Dolan without a reason, and I have every reason to believe she knew something was up.”
“Why would she do that?” Shiromi said.
“I don’t know,” Akami said and waved her back over. “All we can do now is pray for them both and hope Auna’s made the right decision.”
Shiromi came back over, saying, “Are you sure about this?”
“I know what you mean, believe me,” she said. “I’m just as worried as you are, but you and I still exist in this astral plane. As long as we exist, as long as this whole place exists, we know they’re safe.”
“For now, anyway,” Shiromi said.
“Oh, ye of little faith,” Akami said and grabbed Shiromi’s hand and pressed it to her bosom, where she felt her heart beating, while Akami pressed her own hand over Shiromi’s hand. “Feel that?” she added. “They’re alive as you and I are alive,” and she winked at her and smiled. “And I thought I was the worrywart.”
Shiromi pulled her hand away and grabbed Nico by the armpits and eased her body off the saddle, saying, “Help me carry her.”
So Akami grabbed Nico’s legs, and both girls hauled her astral body back towards the willow tree, where Shiromi found a blue musketeer lying near the base of the tree, and laid the girl on a soft patch of grass next to the musketeer.
“Is that Monsieur Dolan?” Shiromi said.
Akami nodded her head, saying, “He’s asleep.”
Shiromi then looked at the patch of grass on which Nico lay, then spotted a few stalks of red bulbs yet to bloom, and said, “Are those poppies? I was wondering what kind of flowers I smelled, but I don’t see any more around here,” and she scanned her surroundings again but saw no others.
“That’s because they’re totems,” Akami said.
“Totems?” Shiromi said.
Akami shook her head and grabbed Shiromi’s hand, and both girls crouched and as Akami placed her palm flat over the poppies in the grass between Nico and Monsieur Dolan.
All at once, a vision flashed through Shiromi’s mind of Nico sleeping on a small twin bed inside a vaulted room. And along with Nico were two other girls that resembled the two older Hearn sisters, both kneeling by her bedside with several incense bowls burning tendrils of strawberry incense smoke and fluttering particulates of crushed poppy seeds through the air.
“Where is this?” Shiromi asked.
“Beats me,” Akami said, then crouched by Monsieur Dolan’s side and placed the key ring in a side pocket of his trousers.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I know I’m taking a major risk, but this gentleman got Auna and I out of a major pinch. I’m sure he’ll figure it out when he wakes up,” Akami said, then lowered herself and kissed his lips. “With this kiss upon your lips shall you know where this key goes.”
Shiromi grinned, wondering where she got those words from, and said, “Very Shakespearian choice of words.”
“Don’t be disgusting!” Akami said and plucked some of the poppies from the patch of grass and placed one in Nico’s mouth and one in Monsieur Dolan’s mouth, then gave one to Shiromi, while she placed her own bud in her mouth. “You know how to complete the spell, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do,” Shiromi said and placed hers in her mouth, then laid down beside Akami by Nico’s side as the spell took effect upon her senses, lulling her onto the cusp of oblivion as words from John McCrae’s war poem filtered through her mind:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
As their breakfast continued, the topic of conversation turned from Madison’s use of her powers for cooking weird recipes to Celia’s use of teleportation seals for messing with her older sisters, which Celia took offense to. So throughout this current topic, Celia interspersed wry comments about her sisters, fueling the subtle jabs and backbiting amongst them at the table, till Leslie changed the topic to Colbie’s current literary efforts—
“Mom, cut it out!” Colbie said.
—to quench the growing tensions between the feuding Hearn sisters. As such, for the next several minutes, Colbie was on the spot talking about a fragment of a story she had started a few days ago about a janitor working the graveyard shift at a local high school, who would bring out his guitar and play it to occupy the lonesome hours of his shift. Then, she continued, as he was playing his guitar, he received a visit from the Devil himself, who had his own guitar and played a duet with him for the rest of the night.
“That’s where I got stuck,” Colbie said.
“That’s an awesome story,” Celia said. “I’d love to read it when you finish it.”
“Will do,” Colbie said, “but finishing it is the hard part.” Then she paused for a time, connecting her own storytelling efforts with that of Amelia Hearn, and added, “Hey, Kathy, do you have a copy of your Grandma’s book, Into the Secret Room, or what’s it called?”
“It’s called Entering the Secret Room,” Katherine said, “and yeah. I can lend it to you, but it disappeared on me, so it’s kind of not available right now. Unless,” and she glared at Celia right beside her, “you had something to do with it.”
“I did not!” Celia said. “I was actually looking for the Story of the Eye, and I thought you might—”
Katherine covered Celia’s mouth with her hand, saying, “Please don’t bring up sexy stuff in front of the guests, okay?” When Celia nodded, Katherine let go and added, “Besides the one hiding somewhere in this house, I think there’s another edition of it at Dad’s bookshop.”
Colbie paused for a bit—
(while Connie tapped Leslie’s shoulder and whispered something into her ear, at which Leslie nodded her head as if they were two conspirators talking about a clandestine operation)
—and said, “The Arcana Bookstore?”
“That’s the one. . . . Oh,” Katherine said, looking at Madison squirming in her chair and looking down at the table and then at Connie and Leslie talking in low whispers between them and then at Colbie looking at her mother’s exchange with Connie. “Um, Colbie, that place might need a little refurbishing. Are you sure you want to go there?”
“Yeah,” Colbie said, “unless you don’t want me there.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you to go there,” Katherine said, looking at Connie and Leslie’s private exchange at the table, “but going there might be a little . . . inconvenient at this time. I mean, I’m not gonna stop you from going there, but—”
“It’s fine,” Colbie said. “I can go to the library, and hopefully they—”
“Wait a minute, Colbie,” Leslie said, “I wanna go there, too.”
“To the library?” she said.
“No,” Leslie said. “To the Arcana Bookstore.”
“And I’ll be going, too,” Connie added.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Katherine said as Madison blanched a whiter shade of pale beside her, “why the sudden interest?”
“Connie just brought something up that might be connected to the case,” Leslie said and got up from the table, “but we won’t know for sure, till we check it out. Connie and I will go there.”
“If that’s the case,” Randal said, getting up from his place at the table, “then I’m going, too.”
“No, you’re not,” Leslie said.
“And why not?” he said.
“You’re better off staying here,” Leslie said.
“And why so?” he said.
“Because you’re our connection to Stephen’s part in this case,” Leslie added, “and if anything were to happen to you while we’re there, your brother would kill us.”
And before Randal said anything about that, Roy grabbed his arm and said, “She’s right, man. Not only do you have an L in your name, but you also share the first three letters of your name with Rancaster’s.”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m—”
“Hey, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Roy said. “Trust me on this. Your brother will understand.”
Randal paused for a moment, then sat back down and said, “All right, I’ll stay,” but then he took out his smartphone and opened it and added, “but call me when you get there and don’t hang up while you’re there. Keep me updated.”
“Will do,” Leslie said, then tapped Colbie’s shoulder. “Come on, we’re going.”
“I wanna go, too,” Celia said, getting up from the table.
“No, you stay here with your sisters,” Leslie said.
“But why is Colbie going?”
That’s when Katherine and Madison pulled Celia back down onto the chair, saying, “Don’t embarrass us!”
“What?” Celia said. “I’m just asking, geez!”
“You want to know why I’m taking Colbie with me?” Leslie said, placing her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “It’s because I know she’ll do the right thing when things get tough. Oh, and you three should thank her later. Not only did she get me out of a big pickle, she also got you, Kathy, out of a bigger one. And if it wasn’t for her efforts,” she added, looking at Roy, “I’m not sure Kendra would be here, either,” and then she turned her attention back to the Hearn sisters, saying, “I’ll be honest, girls. I’m disappointed in you, especially in you, Kathy. My Colbie’s done more for you in one night than you can imagine, and that’s on top of everything your mother’s been doing for months away from this house. I know it’s been difficult for you, especially last night, but if your mother were here, she’d say the same thing.”
“I swear we’ll do better,” Katherine said.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Leslie said. “Look, I’m not asking for perfection, and I know that last night was way beyond your control. All I’m asking is for some progress over the things you can control. Got it?”
Katherine nodded that she did.
With that, Leslie and Colbie and Connie exited the family room, but the three Hearn sisters got up and followed them down the entrance hall and waited at the front entrance, as Leslie and Colbie entered one car and Connie entered her own car. After waving them off, Katherine and Madison put their hands on Celia’s shoulders and glared down at her.
Celia gulped and said, “What is it?”
“You should’ve thanked Colbie during breakfast,” Katherine said.
“But you didn’t even tell me,” Celia.
“Are you serious?” she said. “Didn’t I show you everything Colbie did in my mirror this morning?”
Celia winced and grimaced, then looked down at her feet and said, “I’m sorry, okay?”
“Sorry won’t cut it,” Madison added.
“Geez, you don’t have to rub it in!” Celia said.
“Celia,” Madison said, “I’m not trying to make it worse for you. I’m just asking you to take responsibility for your actions. We’ll call Dad later today and explain what happened to his shop. I’ll take the blame, because I lost control and messed up the place, but I need you there with me. Will you do that for me?”
Celia nodded that she would.
“We’re gonna call Mom, too,” Katherine added. “And when we do, will you do something for us?”
“Like what?” Celia said.
“Tell her that we love her,” she said, “and that we miss her. Will you do that for us?”
Celia nodded again as tears began trailing her cheeks, and so her older sisters hugged her, telling her that it was going to be okay, that their Mom would come back to them even when she might not be back for a while.
Meanwhile, Auna found herself falling for a time down through the rabbit hole of unconscious sleep, down through the slow-wave madness of repressed memories flooding up her soul with sensations of horror dancing on the edges of her thoughts over what Alice had done to her. Through Alice’s actions, Auna relived those awful memories of the aftermath of that godless night on her father’s bed, feeling the results of her father’s atrocity between her legs before passing out. Since then, her traumatized mind had blocked out her father’s face and voice, blocking out the name her mother had given her, because her father used her name when he did it to her, making the ten-year-old Auna an anonymous husk of herself. From then onward, whenever Auna allowed herself to cave in, her mind kept returning to those moments of pain and tears, still processing what had been done to her and what she had done to her father afterward.
In the interval, Akami and Shiromi came in and rolled Auna’s father off of Auna on the bed, then took the bloodstained knife from her hand and placed it on top of the side drawer. Then they carried Auna into her own bedroom and waited for her to wake up.
When she awoke, she awoke as a child again and found Akami and Shiromi lying with her in her own bed, their legs entwined with hers over the bedsheets as they kissed away the tears from her eyes and planted kisses on her lips to cleanse the sour taste that her father had left. And when she began to move, she found them sitting up in bed and peering into her eyes and shaking her by her shoulders, calling her by her name and saying, “————, can you hear me? ————!”
Yet Auna’s mind omitted the last remnant of her mother’s presence for another name in her ear.
“‘I'm sure I'm not Ada,’” she said, quoting a line from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “‘for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn't go in ringlets at all’”
Akami and Shiromi traded quizzical looks.
Then Akami said, “What are you talking about?”
“You’re ————, not Ada,” Shiromi said. “Why are you—”
“‘And I’m sure I can't be Mabel,’” Auna said, quoting another line from Carroll’s book, “‘for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she's she, and I'm I, and—oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I'll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see . . .’”
“It’s ————,” Akami said. “Your name is ————.”
Yet even as she tried to puzzle it all out by the movement of Akami’s lips, she only managed to understand that she was addressing her with a two-syllable name, a name that was on the tip of Auna’s tongue to pronounce.
“————,” Akami said again, “can you understand what I’m saying?”
Auna nodded her head.
“Then we need you to get up, ————,” Shiromi said, shaking her by her shoulders again.
So she heard herself quoting yet another line from Carroll’s book in her zombie-like state, saying, “‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else.’”
Both girls traded another glance with each other. Shiromi then leaned in and whispered in Akami’s ear, which made the girl turn to her white counterpart and say, “Are you sure?”
“She won’t respond to her own name,” Shiromi said, “so we should at least give it a try.”
Akami paused for a moment, then looked back on Auna over the bed and said, “You need to get up, ‘Alice,’” and she shook Auna by her shoulders again. “We can’t stay here.”
“Is that my name?” Auna said, looking from Akami to Shiromi and back to Akami, wondering if they were playing pretend or something else. “Are we playing make believe?”
Both girls traded glances.
“No, we’re not,” Shiromi said.
“‘Alice,’” Akami said, “do you remember who you were yesterday?”
Auna shook her head, saying, “I’m not sure if I can remember,” and quoted yet another line from Carroll’s book, saying, “‘but it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’”
Shiromi then shook her head and said to Akami, “It’s not working. Go back to what you were saying before.”
Akami paused for another moment, then looked back on Auna over the bed and said, “You need to get up, ‘Alice,’” and she shook Auna by her shoulders once again. “We can’t stay here.”
“Is that my name?” Auna said, looking from Akami to Shiromi and back to Akami, wondering if they were playing pretend or something else. “Are we playing make believe?”
Both girls traded glances.
When Shiromi nodded that it was okay, Akami said, “Yes, we are. Wanna play with us, ‘Alice?’”
Auna nodded and said, “Do I have a last name?”
Again Akami and Shiromi traded glances, and Shiromi said to Akami, “She doesn’t have one.”
So Akami said, “We don’t know, ‘Alice.’”
“But we can find out together,” Shiromi added.
Auna perked up. “Really?”
Akami and Shiromi nodded and offered to help her off the bed, and Akami added, “We know a place where you can find out who you are, ‘Alice.’”
So Auna (now ‘Alice’) grabbed their hands, and they pulled her off the bed and onto her feet and held her steady on either side of her, so she wouldn’t stumble. Yet pain shot up between her legs, and Auna fell to her knees, grimacing and squinting against an upsurge she had never felt before in that part of her body, while holding tight onto their hands.
Both girls crouched down with Auna and wrapped their hands around her shoulders, with Akami saying, “————, are you . . .”
Shiromi shook her head and said, “It’s ‘Alice,’ remember?”
Akami nodded and said, “What’s wrong, ‘Alice?’”
“Why does it hurt?” Auna said.
Again Akami and Shiromi traded glances, and both girls gulped and squirmed at her question.
“Why does it hurt there?” Auna said, tears now falling from her eyes as the physical pain subsided with her lack of motion, yet she felt like her inner world had been split in two, though the source of that discomfort and unease was beyond her ability to fathom. All she knew was that this feeling was eating away at her, making her cry for something she felt was her fault, but couldn’t find the reason why it was. “Am I going to die?”
Akami and Shiromi hugged her close to their bosoms, saying that she won’t die, saying that everything was going to be all right in a short time.
Yet Auna thought otherwise, saying through her tears, “Then why does it hurt so much?”
Even as Akami and Shiromi couldn’t answer her question, only saying again and again that it was going to be okay, Auna knew otherwise but chose not to contradict them. Her body already knew what had been done to it, even though she couldn’t say it in her own words, yet she hadn’t a clue what had been done to her mind. After the pain subsided enough for Auna to get back to her feet with the help of Akami and Shiromi, both girls guided Auna out of her room and through the upper hallway and down the staircase towards the front door. And as that door grew larger the closer she approached it, she imagined the door opening into Carroll’s storied Wonderland, full of bright colors and sunny skies and quaint inhabitants of all shapes and sizes.
She reached out for the knob, just as Akami and Shiromi put their own hands over hers on it, preventing her from turning it just yet.
“This is the door to Wonderland, ‘Alice,’” Akami said. “Do you know where that is?”
She nodded and said, “I’ve read about it.”
“Well, there’s someone there who can help you,” Shiromi said.
“His name is Mr. Foster,” Akami added, “and he wants to help you. Do you want to see him?”
For the first time that night, the newly dubbed ‘Alice’ smiled and nodded again. Thus, all three girls turned the knob and opened the door and stepped across the threshold—
Back into the slow-wave madness of continuous falling, falling down and down and down a rabbit hole of her own making, where she manifested into her current teenage form wearing her Shad-Row Academy uniform without the hand-me-down jacket over her shoulders. And here she stayed in this state for a time amidst her continuous descent, completely dumb to everything happening to her and around her as the voices of Akami and Shiromi reached her ears with syllables she couldn’t quite make out. So she mumbled something in her delirium, trying to say that she was sorry for failing them, yet the words came out in strings of gibberish even to herself as if the words had lost their meaning just as her own name had lost its meaning.
My name, she thought amidst her fall, trying to recall the name of ———— into her thoughts, but to no avail. All she knew was that it was a four-letter name that starts with a capital ‘A’ and ends in a lower-case ‘a’ like the Alpha and Omega in one pseudonym that was no longer hers to keep, for there was another name that was just on the tip of her tongue to say, lilting out an L-sound with her tongue on the roof of her palette.
“L . . . Li . . .” she stammered, till it was too much for her to figure out with syllables alone. “Argh, I can’t seem to say it! Am I mad? Am I crazy? I don’t even know my own name!”
“‘Oh, you can't help that,’” a voice said in Chinese somewhere outside of her, though the accent of those spoken words gave her a hint of who it was.
“Chuang Chou, is that you?” she said.
“The one and only,” he said and chuckled to himself somewhere, “though ‘only’ may be a loaded word, for I remembered getting up and walking around in a Chinese garden before looking back and seeing myself still asleep by the water’s edge. And I thought to myself, ‘Am I the real one who is walking around, or is he the real one who is fast asleep.’ It’s enough to drive me mad, and so I’m here with you.”
“Does that mean that I’m mad, too?” she said.
“‘[W]e’re all mad here,’” he said somewhere in the nebulous region of nowhere and everywhere like the whispers of a memory through a broken web of memories. “‘I’m mad. You're mad.’”
“‘How do you know I'm mad?’” she said.
“‘You must be,’” the voice said and chuckled to himself again, “‘or you wouldn't have come here.’”
“And where is ‘here?’”
“You already know in your heart, ‘Alice,’” he said, “though your mind still refuses to acknowledge it.”
“How do you know my name?” she said.
“Because I met you before,” he said.
“Is that even my real name?”
“Your name is a reflection of who you are,” Chuang Chou said. “Your mothers have given you many names, for you have lived many lives, and all the mothers you’ve had and all the names they’ve given you and all the lives you’ve lived form all the tears you’ve shed into the Pool of Tears that is you.”
At his words, she paused for a time, mulling the wisdom of his teaching through her mind like the roll of a pair of dice across the roulette table, and said, “Who am I now then?”
“Whoever you want to be,” he said.
She shook her head and said, “That’s not what I meant. I mean what’s my name, my real name?”
“It’s in your name, ‘Alice,’” he said. “If you quiet your mind and listen to your mother’s voice in silence, you’ll know.”
“Can’t you just tell me?” she said.
“But why?” she said.
“Because I don’t know, ‘Alice,’” he said. “It’s a name unknown to all except you and your mother. By the way, do you know your mother’s name?”
“Yeah, I do,” she said. “It’s Bridget Barton Wenger.”
“No, dear,” he said. “That’s not her real name.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“I mean,” he said, “she’s not the mother you think she is.”
“Wait,” she said, “are you telling me I’m adopted?”
“No,” he said. “Do you know her real name?”
“I . . . don’t know,” she said. “Can you tell me?”
“Her name is Lilith,” he said and paused for a time.
“How do you know this?” Alice said, and there came a sigh fluttering through the darkness of her mind.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “I’m sorry for failing you, ‘Alice,’”
“For failing to take you away from Rancaster when I had the chance,” he said, “and I’ve paid for that failure with my life and my soul. I used to think that he and I were the best of friends once, and he and I shared many secrets and worked together for a few years. He and I discovered many of the things in Heaven and some of the things in Hell, though I was clueless of his real intentions, till it was too late. By God, I wish I could have done more for you before he had me executed, but I swear to you that I’ll do everything in my power to help you however I can.”
His words left her silent for a spell.
“Who are you?” she said.
“I’m a friend, ‘Alice,’” he said, “and your loyal knight.”
“Why do you keep calling me ‘Alice?’”
“She’s your favorite heroine from your favorite book,” he said. “I’m sure you know the title, don’t you?”
That’s when it finally clicked in her head, and she gasped and said, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!”
“That’s it, dear,” he said. “You’re getting it.”
Then ‘Alice’ fell silent for a moment, till she said, “Who is she? Lilith, I mean. Who is she?”
“She was the first wife of Adam before Eve,” he said, “created from the very clay that formed Adam’s flesh, and you are their child. Indeed, before there was Cain and Abel and Seth, there was you, but Lilith was full of pride and refused to be subservient to Adam and left him carrying his seed in her womb, which would later become the first incarnation of you.”
Alice fell silent for another moment, rolling the question she had always wanted to ask, and said, “Did she love me?”
“Of course, she did, dear,” he said as his voice began to fade. “Lilith loved you so much that after she left Adam in the garden of Eden and bore you in the wilderness, she asked God to grant her the power to look after you for all time, and He did, and she has and continues to do so even now. Even though Lilith had been reviled throughout history as the mother of demons and vampires and other innumerable monstrosities, through it all, she has borne you into this world time and time again, because she loves you. All the mothers who bore you into their world of suffering and pain are but reflections of Lilith, and they all loved you, because Lilith loves you. You were the light of hope in their worlds of darkness, and they’re all waiting for you. Lilith is waiting for you. . . .”
And before she knew it, before she could ask Chuang Chou if he knew where her mother was, his voice faded away—
Just as another Alice, a different Alice, opened her eyes to the night sky with the afterimage of herself staked through the chest still fresh in her mind, yet when she felt for the wound beneath her Sunday dress, she saw no blood and felt no pain. Even so, she still had tears in her eyes with tracks of them trailing down the sides of her face, so she sat up and wiped them away. That’s when she found herself in a small boat by the riverbank, where she heard the hubbub of excited voices in the air. And atop her lap in that boat was a clean cloak and a shiny mask of the color of blood with a pair of ties at the corners, so she picked them up and put them on.
After that, Alice stepped out of the boat and ascended the riverbank, listening to the hubbub grow louder, till she reached the top of the bank and viewed a teeming procession of masqueraders making their way along the flagstoned causeway to a Victorian Gothic mansion. So she scurried down the lawn towards the causeway and joined the talkative procession, avoiding their masked gazes and staying quiet as she ascended the steps towards the veranda beneath the flickering glare of looming eye-like windows. Then, as she entered the massive double doors beneath the Gothic archway, she noticed the hubbub of voices fall silent when they passed the threshold into a spacious vestibule.
Then arose a flurry of whispers amongst the masquerading guests, and the hum of voices echoed throughout the space about the Red Death abiding amongst them. At first, Alice wanted to know more about this Red Death person and approached a few masqueraders about it, then stopped and stared.
All of the masqueraders kept their distance from her, and their sidelong glances her way made one thing clear.
She was an uninvited guest.
Alice looked around her at the guests keeping their distance from her as if she was the plague, glancing at her as if she was a ghost, and talking amongst themselves about her as if she was a rumor come to life.
She said, “I’m sorry,” and turned around to go.
And then stopped.
The double doors through which she had entered were no longer there, and when she turned the other way, she found three pairs of double doors on the opposite wall. These very door were not there when she first entered with the other guests, and everywhere she looked, she found all the guests looking at her—
Waiting for her to say or do something.
Yet she didn’t know what.
She looked at them and said, “What should I do?”
Then, as one and all, her audience pointed towards the three pairs of double doors.
Alice approached the central pair of double doors and grabbed the handles and pulled, then pushed them in. The doors wouldn’t budge, so she looked at the masqueraders round her, all of them waiting for her to do something. As such, there was only one thing she could do.
She knocked three times.
And the doors opened just enough for a draft to flood through the opening, just enough for goosebumps to form on her forearms and her legs, just enough to beckon her forward. So she placed her hands on the door and pushed them open. And on either side of her, both pairs of double doors got pushed open of their own accord, and all three doors opened into a massive ballroom.
She then looked back at the masqueraders and showed them in with a sweep of her hand towards the ballroom. And all at once, the masqueraders followed her lead and entered the three double doors, going past her without thanking her, and rekindled the animated talk of before from outside.
Alice then looked back towards the other side of the vestibule, where the double door entrance used to be, and smiled and said, “La vie est drôle.” (Life is funny.)
And she stepped across the threshold into the pages of Amelia Hearn’s story.
- Las Vegas
- Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber!
From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!
Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.
Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!