“Did that convince you at all?” Detective West asked his partner.
Portman shook his head, as Matt departed in the beat up old truck. The rain drizzled off the awning above the doors to the station in a curtain. Portman felt perplexed as he shivered in the cold night air. He’d not been sure what to expect from letting Carl talk to his friends, and it hadn’t exactly flagged any real triggers, but it was still bizarre to say the least.
Back inside, he had a high school kid with insane delusions of magic and a fantasy world he’d supposedly traveled to, plus a missing friend that Portman believed he was responsible for disappearing to some degree. He couldn’t make heads or tails of Carl’s demeanor though—not after the confrontation with his friends.
Portman was never one to let a case go easy. His dogged determination to follow threads to their very end, when he could just as easily walk away at the first opportunity to clear a number and bump his statistics, had driven away more than a few partners in his career. West was just the newest in a long line.
“I don’t know about you, but—”
Portman interrupted him. “I’ll take care of Stokelson. Go get the car. We’re following them.”
West grinned. “Just what I was thinkin’.”
Portman smiled as he hurried back into the station. West seemed like a good fit.
They didn’t bother with sirens or lights, not this late at night. The roads were calm. Most people were asleep. West sped them through hazy strings of green lights shining through the rain, then took them into the maze of streets that made up the suburbs.
Just as they pulled up to the Silverdale residence, Portman caught a lucky break. He tapped West, who’d slowed to a crawl, and pointed further down the road. Past the sheets of downpour, they could just barely make out the taillights of the pickup, turning the corner and disappearing from view. A few seconds later, and the detectives would never have seen it.
What followed was the quietest of police chases. There were no cars to be seen anywhere, and barely a sound beyond the pouring rain and the purr of the engine. Surreal, thought Portman. Like they were cruising through a dream, with faint patches of color glowing through the raindrops from the red taillights, the light yellow beams of the headlights, and the dim street lamps above them. The moon was hidden behind the thick cloud layer, and as they drove further and further off the main roads, even the street lights vanished.
West killed the lights, and their car was black, so Portman didn’t expect to get spotted. If Matt was even checking for people following him.
If the kid was innocent, why was he driving out this way at three in the morning? Portman couldn’t figure it out. Was that another silhouette in the cab in the truck? He couldn’t be sure, not at their distance and with so little light.
As they rounded another corner, rising up into the hills, Portman glanced around in surprise. He’d been so busy trying to make out the details of the car, he’d not kept track of their location.
“Where are we?”
“Outside our jurisdiction,” grumbled West. “Wait… Holy shit.”
“I think… Yeah. We’re going to Cyraveil Park.”
An alarm bell rang furiously in Portman’s mind. “Are you sure?”
“Can’t think of anything else this way worth mentionin’.”
Carl’s story pushed his way back into the back Portman’s mind. Was it possible?
No. It was absurd. It couldn’t happen. It was the wishful, escapist thinking of a kid who’d seen something terrible and couldn’t cope. Carl was disturbed and needed serious psychiatric help.
Yet Portman couldn’t explain what he was seeing. They just had to keep following Matt, wherever this was going. Maybe he’d lead them to a body, buried deep in the woods. Portman shivered at the thought. Was he about to catch a murderer?
He placed his hand in his coat pocket and double-checked that his pistol was still there on his hip.
“Careful,” hissed Portman.
“I hate the woods, okay?” West picked himself back up from the dirt and shot him a glare. “Just go ahead without me if you have to.”
They were a few hundred feet back from a bobbing lantern, travelling deep into the forest. The pickup had pulled off the road a short while after the sign for the park, and three people got out—Matt, his sister, and a girl neither of them knew. Portman’s paranoid brain instantly jumped to the conclusion that Matt and his sister were about to murder the girl, but he brushed that away. The body language was all wrong. They were helping her through the woods. Matt’s sister lead the way, just outside the lantern light, while Matt lead their friend by the hand through the more difficult thickets.
West had no such companion, and tripped over every root and bramble in the near-total darkness.
“Just keep that lantern in sight,” Portman whispered, seriously annoyed. He started ahead while West struggled to keep up. The light was fading away, but Portman was determined not to lose them. The chase went on, deeper and deeper into the woods. He was getting thirsty and tired, having spent far too much time awake, but he still refused to let them out of his sight. He’d figure it out and close the case, no matter what it took.
The forest had grown quiet, he noticed. There were no crickets, no frogs, nothing. Only the wind, rustling the leaves around them. He felt anticipation knotting in his chest, and knew something was going to happen—sooner, not later. Just as the feeling struck him, he saw the lantern swing to a halt.
How close did he dare get? Portman crouched low, trying to move as quietly as possible. He could hear murmuring ahead, as the light shifted around and shadows moved all about. From what he could tell, they’d set down the lantern behind a tree, blocking out the light from the clearing they were standing in. Why would they do that? What are they planning?
He needed to get closer. He edged forward, step by step, his feet crinkling the sheets of ivy beneath him. Finally, he could make out a few words.
“...and I stand here?”
“I don’t think it matters. We… to hold hands.”
“You aren’t sure?”
“Vack dou, I’ve never done this before.”
A nervous laugh. What was going on in there? He tried to move closer, but he could see thick patches of ivy and leaves in front of him. They’d make too much sound. The risk was too great. If he revealed himself now, he might not hear everything important. He could only trust that he would hear them if they started moving again, or if anything seemed about to happen.
“Can you ever be ready for something like this?”
“Oh, stop grandstanding. Let’s just do this.”
“You two are gonna be a bundle of fun. Okay, hang on tight.”
More muttering, and this time in what sounded like a foreign language. It was too quiet to hear the word—if they were even words he could understand. Portman spoke a few languages fluently, but this definitely wasn’t one of them. Wasn’t even in the same family.
Abruptly, the voices stopped. Everything stopped. All he could hear was the wind.
He waited. For minutes that dragged on and on, he waited. The lantern light flickered in front of him. He watched carefully for any sign of an escape attempt. Finally, with West creeping up behind him, Portman could wait no longer.
He burst out from the underbrush, rushing into the clearing.
It was empty. Completely empty.
The lantern flickered again from behind the nearest tree. He looked down at the ground, at the tracks scattered in the dirt floor. There was a small depression at one end of the clearing, where a heavy rock might have sat.
“The hell?” asked West, looking around at the surrounding forest. Tall, dark shapes surrounded them, thick trees and indistinct shadows alike.
Portman crouched down and picked at the grass in the clearing. The dirt was already dry, though the rest of the forest was still soaked from the rainfall. He sat down, and looked up at the circle of sky above them. Directly above, through a gap in the clouds, he could just make out the twinkling stars.