They aren’t followed. Eli doesn’t think too hard on why, just hurtles with Zoe as fast as they can down the mountain.
It doesn’t last long. Zoe is good at many things, but running isn’t one of them. Eli pulls her along but eventually she topples to her knees in the dirt, leant forward and gasping. “I— I can’t—” she keeps starting, but she’s breathing too hard to finish. Eli just helps her to sit down on a nearby rock and strains his ears to listen for pursuit. Either there isn’t any, or Brooklyn and Fargo are much stealthier than they look. Eli’s betting it’s the former.
“It’s okay,” he says. “We’re okay. We can stop here.”
It takes Zoe a really long time to start breathing normally again. Eli thinks she might actually be having some sort of attack, her breath is coming so hard and raspy, her skin like dragonfire beneath his hands. He has nothing to help her through it, so instead he just sits, and tries to say soothing things. If anyone comes across them, Eli will just yell at them until they go get medical help. He figures no ones going to be too suspicious of a girl who’s struggling for air.
It takes a long time, but eventually Zoe’s breath returns to something like normal. Which is about when she starts sobbing in huge, big, noisy gulps. Eli lets her cry it out against his chest, his arms around her shoulders while her little feather earring tickles his throat. He feels strangely numb, considering everything that’s just happened. Like he’s accidentally poured all his panic and fear into Zoe, maybe, and now she’s experiencing it for the both of them.
“It’ll be all right,” he tells her again. They haven’t gone far enough that they wouldn’t have been found, were someone truly looking.
“Th-thank you,” Zoe mutters between her sobs. “Thank you f-for . . . for not running.”
“Hate to be ungrateful, Zee, but we did run pretty hard there.”
Zoe shakes her head. “For not . . . running away,” she says, voice almost imperceptibly small. “You could’ve. I can’t . . . I’m not fast. I know that. You could’ve . . . could’ve waited for me to catch up.”
“Naw, I couldn’t’ve,” Eli says, because it’s true. Zoe’s his friend. He would never leave her behind.
“Everyone else does,” Zoe says. “They always . . . they run away and I’m left behind. Slowey Zoe, always playing catch-up.”
“Zee, if I had to I would’ve turned into a dragon and flown you outta there myself.”
Zoe laughs, the sound thick and wet. “My hero.” She sits up straight, sighing and wiping snot and tears from her face with the sleeve of her coat. She makes a kind of huffing, half-scream sort of sound at nothing in particular, shaking her body all over as if trying to dislodge something from her skin.
Eli thinks he knows how she feels.
After a while, she says, “I took the book.”
“I know.” Eli felt it in her coat earlier.
“I stole evidence,” she says. “From a crime scene.”
“You took something from an abandoned bunker in the forest.” Eli tries to think of what his father would say, the careful way he’d phrase it. “Maybe next week some time, after you’ve copied what you need, you’ll realize it might be evidence. Then you can hand it in to the cops.”
“Will that work?”
Eli shrugs. “You’re a minor and your dad’s loaded. You’d be surprised how much that gets you.” For girls like Zoe, anyway. For himself . . . Eli isn’t so sure.
“They weren’t cops, anyway,” he says out loud, maybe to reassure himself as much as Zoe. “They were working for Yvonne Lacroix.”
Zoe nods. “This is . . . this is getting heavy, Ee,” she says. “There were hearts. Human hearts. In jars.”
“Four hearts,” Eli muses. “Lacroix said there’d been six murders, but we’ve only heard about, what? Three? Two?” He remembers the little gotcha-smile Lacroix had had the other day, after he’d reacted to hearing the number six.
“You think she’s lying?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if,” Zoe starts, slowly, as if trialling the idea out loud. “What if she was testing you? If she suspected you had something to do with the murders, maybe she picked an intentionally wrong number. One that didn’t match the actual number of deaths. So she could see how you reacted.”
“If that was the test,” Eli says, “I failed it. But so would anyone.” Either because the number didn’t match their body count or because it didn’t match gossip.
“I’m not saying it was a good test,” Zoe says.
“It does sound like Lacroix, though.”
They sit there in silence for a little while longer, Zoe turning the stolen book over and over in her hands.
When Eli gets home, Aunt Addi is in the den, watching Hostel re-runs with her laptop sitting on her knees.
“How was Ms. Adeline?” she asks.
Eli is prepared for the question but it still feels like something that happened months ago. It’s been a long morning. “I made fifty bucks,” he announces, because it’s true.
It earns him an exasperated scowl. “Eli—”
“She insisted,” Eli says, cutting off any argument about scamming money from little old ladies. “Said it was good for my capitalist spirit.” This is an embellishment, and whether or not Addi believes it, she just sighs and asks about Zoe, instead.
They make small-talk for a little while, Eli carefully skirting around topics like magic, dragons, and sorcerers. Until finally Eli blurts:
“Aunt Addi? Can I ask you a question?” Then, before she can answer: “It’s about the murders.”
Addi’s expression goes from of course you can honey to well I’m not sure about that faster than a pat down on a white dude. “Elias,” she says, “you know I can’t talk about that sort of thing.”
“I know,” Eli says. He enters the den, sitting himself down on the couch next to Addi. “I know, it’s just . . . it’s something Yvonne Lacroix said.”
That gets Addi’s attention, just like Eli knew it would. Narrowed eyes and everything. “Lacroix?”
“Right. She said something to me the other day. She said there’d been six murders.” Addi’s face gives nothing away, because deputy, so Eli ploughs forward: “But we’ve only heard about three. And the way Lacroix said it . . . I felt like, I dunno . . .” He trails off, breaking eye contact and running a hand over his hair.
“You felt like she was testing you,” Addi finishes for him. She’s not slouching anymore. Is instead sitting up straight and regarding Eli with her Cop Stare.
Eli nods, bites his lip. “I kinda . . . I mean, six, right? That’s a lot. So I guess I, kinda, reacted badly?”
“I don’t really remember.” Because he doesn’t; it feels like a lifetime ago. “But she got this look, y’know? Like, ‘A-hah! Gotcha!’”
Addi makes a sound, a barely audible tsch. She thinks for a while, fingernails tap-tapping on her laptop’s case while, in the background, backpackers scream as they’re being dismembered.
Finally, she says, “You don’t talk to Lacroix. If she corners you again, you call me. Right away, you hear me?”
Eli nods. “Yes, Aunt Addi.”
“I’ll call Bill, let him know what’s going on. You don’t talk to anyone—not the Sheriff, not your teachers, and definitely not Yvonne Lacroix—without him present. I mean it.”
Eli’s eyebrows have gotten very high, and he nods mutely. Bill Palmer was Dad’s partner, back in New York. Palmer & Drake LLP. After Dad had . . . after the funeral, Bill had put his hand on Eli’s shoulder and handed him a business card. Son, he’d said. If you ever need me, for anything at all, you know where I am. Eli had nodded, still too shocked to say anything more. He’d never once thought he’d actually have to take Uncle Bill up on his offer.
“Goddamn Lacroix is a menace,” Aunt Addi is saying, not really to Eli. “Her and that whole damn group.”
Eli can practically feel his spines shift, even if he doesn’t have any right now. “The Lyddan Group?” he asks. The question earns him a sharp-eyed stare from Addi, so he adds: “I heard Mr. Chung and Principal Malek talking about them. Who are they?” He’s heard Widow Adeline’s explanation. Now he wants Addi’s. Just who do dragon slayers pretend to be in front of the cops?
Addi sighs, slouching back down against the arm of the sofa. “It was a long time ago,” she starts. “Before you were born, in the 1980s. There were a lot of people at the time who believed there were cults. Devil cults. Hurting children.”
“Satanic Panic,” Eli says. Then, when he gets the Cop Stare again: “I read about it on Gizmodo.”
Addi sighs. “Right. Well. In retrospect it was . . . over-exaggerated. The extent of it. But, at the time, people didn’t want to take the chance. It was kids, you understand?” Eli nods, and Addi continues: “The Lyddans appeared around then. They’d crop up on cases, claiming to be experts on cults and so on. They . . .” Here, Addi stops, chewing her lip for a moment as if unsure how to continue. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” she says, slowly. “The Lyddans . . . they’re not bad people. A lot of people who are bad people are in jail because of them.”
“But . . .?”
“But they’re . . . zealous. The Lyddans would rather see innocent people go to prison than allow a single guilty one to go free.”
“The law doesn’t work like that,” says Elias Drake, lawyer’s son.
“That’s right,” says Aunt Addi, officer of the law. “It doesn’t. But a lot of people think it should. The Lyddans are those sort of people. They have a very . . . fixed view of how they think the world should be. And they’re very unforgiving to anything they think falls outside of that.”
“I didn’t hurt anyone, Aunt Addi,” says Eli. Which isn’t quite the truth, so: “Except Lance Marlowe. But I just bit him. And he started it!”
“Lance is one of Arthur Lacroix’s friends, isn’t he?”
Aunt Addi seems to process this for a moment. Then, “All right.” She nods to herself, as if coming to a decision. “All right, Eli. Everything will be okay, I promise. You just keep your head down, and stay out of Lacroix’s way. You haven’t done anything wrong, and it’ll all blow over soon. Okay?” She gives a thin smile, and Eli tries to return it.
“Okay, Aunt Addi,” he says, and tries not to think of wings that glitter like the stars.