It's a hot summer night. Five hundred yards down the street sits the ruined house, silent in the night. We turn off our phones so there's nothing to give us away.
A few years ago, when the digital clock in the dashboard gave up, Mom bought a small, analog replacement. It's a two-inch flat disk, stuck to the dash with a piece of adhesive tape. The slow-moving hands tell me a full hour has passed. The grey sky became night black, a few cars and one late jogger passed by, and a large bird delivered its part of the nightly entertainment on our front window. That's about it.
The clock shows sixty minutes have passed.
The flower on the dash just sits there.
The clock shows sixty-one minutes have passed.
"Nothing's happening," I say out loud, stating the obvious. I've said the same thing on the fifty-nine-minute mark, the fifty-eight-minute mark, the fifty-seven-minute mark, the fifty-six… I might have skipped fifty-five because I thought I saw a ghostly, cat-like shape cross the road.
"Nothing's happening. Nothing has happened for the last sixty-one minutes."
I can be really annoying if I have to. Besides, the first forty-five minutes I've been a good girl, merely brooding in silence. Since then, I've politely called out the time, so Mom wouldn't have to watch the clock. "I need my sleep, and I need to prepare my stuff for tomorrow," I explain.
She sighs. "I was expecting some response. You triggered an alarm when you entered. A second alarm went off when you took the flower, then both faded away."
"You didn't think it might be useful to tell me? What kind of alarm?"
Mom starts the car and checks her mirrors. "Magical. Would it have made a difference? Hold the flower."
I grab the flower before it falls off the dashboard. "It might have. You could have told me one hour and two minutes ago. Make that one hour and three minutes. Do you even know what time it is?"
She nods and pulls away, narrowly missing another late traveler. The van swerves in time so all they'll have to do in the local hospital is treat me for cardiac arrest, no broken bones nor shredded internal organs this time. Mom never lets me drive when we're together, but sometimes I think she should. She either stole or magicked up her driver's license, and mine came from the same source, but at least I spent some time learning how to drive. I guess she was too busy learning magic.
We reach the hotel just before midnight, not hitting anything worth mentioning. Mom's about to park when she stiffens up.
"There's someone up there?" I ask.
She nods. "Is, or was."
I'm not waiting for her to come to a full stop, and get out as soon as I can. There's an emergency stairway on the right side of the hotel. The gate to the stairs is supposed to be one-way, exit only, but the lock is flaky. I know because I examined it when we returned this afternoon. I pull it open and run up the stairs to the second floor. The door to my room is open. I stop to listen, then carefully enter... It's deserted. Next is the bathroom… empty. But someone was in my room.
On the ground lies uncle Charlie's suitcase, empty, the contents spread over the bed. On top of the mess lies my gun case. Whoever was in here didn't manage to open it. Or was interrupted.
Mom arrives a little later, taking the regular stairs. When she walks into my room and sees the mess she raises an eyebrow. "Love what you did to the place."
"You're so funny," I grumble, and check the gun case. It seems to be untouched and I carefully open it. A quick check shows everything's still there.
"Missing anything?" Mom asks. In her hands she holds the red flower, wrapped in a handkerchief. She carefully puts it on the rickety table.
I look at my clothes and other possessions. "If they were looking for some panties or underwear they didn't do a good job. It seems nothing is missing."
Mom shakes her head and closes the door to the hallway. "They wouldn't have gone through all that trouble to take nothing. Check again."
This time I start with the gun case. Mom has taught me to leave little telltales in place, clues that show me if someone touched my gear. I examine the case, the packing, then the weapons themselves. Nothing. As far as I can tell nobody touched my weapons. Satisfied I put the gun case aside, then repack my clothes. In the mess, I encounter the photo that Sweets hid inside the book. Mom's not paying any attention, so I shuffle it in with the rest. And then I realize what's missing.
"The book. It's not here."
Mom frowns. "They took a book? That seems… odd. Who has any use for a romance novel? Must be a burglar with a very poor taste, or an evil aunt who wants to poison her niece's mind, or..."
I throw her the foul look she deserves.
"Well, they didn't take anything from my room. And certainly not a romance novel," she sniffs.
I'm not asking how she knows nothing's missing without even checking. She, well, she just knows. That's just one of those things.
"I want it back," I mumble, swiping the remaining clothes into the big suitcase before slamming it shut.
"I think you'll have your chance." Mom takes a letter out of her back pocket, walks over then hands it to me.
Inside I find a sheet of paper. Elegant handwriting greets me when I unfold it. "Where did you get this?"
She shrugs. "Someone left it at the reception. Read it."
'Dear Miss DeRidder,' the letter says. 'You took something of value from me, I took something of value from you. May I suggest a parlay at the witching hour soonest, where we'll beat the drums and play the pipes until daylight comes. Yours sincerely, the Wicked Witch of the East.'
I flip the page but there's nothing on the backside. Then I read the message again. It still doesn't make any sense. "Is this a joke? How do you know it's for me, and not for you? How do you know it isn't a joke?"
Mom shrugs. "Well, I'm not sure, but seeing as you're the one who took the flower, you're the one whose book got stolen, it's your room they broke into… Also, your room number was on the envelope. Well, what time do you have to be at school tomorrow?"
"Early afternoon. It would be quicker to walk there, straight from the hotel, but we have to gather at Nuttley's first." They have this thing for team building by traveling in groups. At least I can sleep in, I tell myself. After I've got my book back.
"Take a nap," Mom tells me. "Set your alarm. We'll be out at two."
"So, I skip school?" That's pretty good news.
Her smile is outright evil. "Two o'clock in the morning, dear. That's why they call it 'the witching hour'. And come prepared, I think you have nothing to fear, but still... Sleep well." She kisses me on the cheek, then walks out. "See you in two hours."
Of course I can't sleep. Instead, I clean up my guns, put on a pair of black jeans and a matching Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. My shoulder holsters go over the shirt. I'll bring two extra clips, just to be sure. The Five-Seven is big and unwieldy and hard to conceal, but it doesn't take much effort to bring a lot of ammo with you. A pity I won't be able to hide them under a coat.
I check and reassemble my rifle as well, just in case. It seems Mom is planning to go somewhere. If it's the kind of personal encounter in an enclosed area the rifle might be useless, but it's always better to prepare for anything.
Once done I swap a few messages with Sweets. 'Small job on the first night. What happened to sleep?'
She's still awake and texts me back. 'Big job. Swimsuit's a little tight. Drinks are cold and BBQ is on. Meat's sizzzling. Not just on the BBQ. Miss you. Be careful.'
Sizzzling... Must be hot indeed. 'Keep some for me. I'll text you when I'm done,' I send back.
'By then the meat has walked off your plate, but if that makes you happy? Seriously! Be careful. C. Ps. Check your mail. Let me know what you think. Don't show your mom!''
I could walk down to the reception and use the hotel's Wi-Fi, but they might object to my guns, so I switch on mobile data. I'm happy I didn't go downstairs. The image of blonde Sweets in her new, baby-blue swimsuit is so scandalous it makes me blush. I look away, then can't help myself and look again. Damn. I think my ears must be glowing in the dark by now.
'Going out to kill some people?' I text her.
Her reply is a row of smileys and a thumbs up. I shake my head. The things she gets away with… Mom would never let me wear something like that. Hell, I would never let me wear something like that.
And so I wait. Now and again, I peek through the curtains at the world outside. It's past midnight and the bar is still busy. A black SUV has joined the row of motorbikes. When Mom knocks I quickly close Sweets' image. Like all parents, she sends me the odd look whenever I eye a particularly good specimen of the other sex, and a contemplative one when it's the same as my own.
No need to confuse her any further.