Hematite Badger (hematitebadger) wrote,
Hematite Badger
hematitebadger

Ex Libris, pt. 1: Into the Woods (1/2)


The stack of forms on Nathan’s desk was thick and disorganized, battered citizen complaints mixed in with the only slightly less battered incident reports from Animal Control. Someone’s dog going after someone else’s chickens. Raccoons in garbage cans. An unconfirmed sighting of a jaguar out by the farms. Nathan set that last one aside, just in case, but without much hope that it would pan out. He gave the papers a flick with his thumb, listening to the irregular rippling sound as the different sizes and weights of paper snapped back against each other. As far as he could tell, there was nothing in these reports that hinted at animals acting with near-human intelligence. Except maybe the raccoons, but that was always the case with raccoons. He hoped Audrey was having better luck at the Herald.

A familiar voice coming down the hallway broke his train of thought. “I just need to talk to Nathan for a minute; nobody has to know we were here. I was here,” Duke sounded like he was correcting himself. His voice dropped. “This is... unofficial official business, you get me?”

“I understand,” came a second voice. Oh, great. Duke was harassing Stan. “But this is a government building. You can’t bring that in here! There are very strict policies I have to follow!”

Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose. It was impossible for him to have a headache, but he could feel one coming on anyway. He went to the door and opened it reluctantly. “What now?”

“I told him not to come back here,” Stan said. He was still half blocking the hall, although he’d turned to face Nathan.
Duke shouldered past him, no longer paying him any attention now that Nathan was there. He was clutching something to his chest. “Hey,” he said, ignoring Stan’s protests. “You got a minute?”

It was his serious voice, the one he only broke out when they had an actual problem. Nathan gave him a questioning look, and Duke directed his eyes down towards the lump of grey-brown fur he was carrying, which was beginning to squirm. Nathan was starting to guess where this was going. “It’s okay, Stan,” he said. “Let him in; I’ll handle it.”

“Okay, Boss.” Stan still sounded doubtful. “But you’re really not supposed to bring loose animals in here.”

Nathan practically shoved Duke into his office, closing the door after them. “Well?”

“Audrey’s not here?” Duke asked with forced casualness.

“She’s working,” Nathan said shortly. “Why do you need her? And what the hell are you carrying?”

“It’s a squirrel.” Duke said it quickly, as if he could stop Nathan from questioning it if he could just get the words out. He held up his free hand. “Nathan, listen to me. I swear I am completely sober. But this squirrel...” His hand went to his head, and he gave Nathan a look that clearly and eloquently said, I know exactly what I sound like right now. “This squirrel is talking.”

“This squirrel is suffocating, is what he’s doing!” A furry paw emerged from behind Duke’s arm, followed by an angry-looking head. The squirrel wormed his way out of Duke’s grip and clambered up to his shoulder, where he began smoothing his fur. “You practically crushed me!”

“If you’d just held still I wouldn’t have had to,” Duke retorted. “I could have gotten you back here without anyone noticing.”

“Why can’t anyone notice me? You told me the people here could help me.”

“I meant him,” Duke said, tilting his head in Nathan’s direction. “Not the rest of them. Nathan’s different. This is Nathan, by the way,” he added as an afterthought, making introductory gestures between them. “Nathan, this is Snowfall.”

The squirrel gave him a little wave. “Hi.”

For the first time that Nathan could remember, Duke calling him ‘different’ sounded like a compliment. It was almost as unexpected as the talking squirrel. Almost. “Morning.” He turned his attention back to Duke. “You want to tell me what’s going on here?”

“I don’t know,” Snowfall lamented. “He said you would.”

“I said you might be able to figure it out,” Duke corrected. “Well, you and Audrey. And I figured she’d be less likely to lock me up the second I said I was talking to a squirrel.”

“Under most circumstances she probably would be,” Nathan agreed. He’d been moving in as they spoke, and now he was practically nose-to-nose with the squirrel. There was, as far as he could tell, nothing unusual about Snowfall, save that he was studying Nathan with the same intensity that Nathan was studying him. “But he’s not the first animal someone’s heard talking recently. Where did you find him?”

“I was about two jumps morningward from the hard black river.”

“The stand of trees out by the Gull’s deck, by the highway,” Duke clarified in Nathan’s ear. His voice was low, possibly out of a desire not to interrupt but more likely because he, unlike Nathan, was aware of how close the two of them currently were. For a moment Nathan had forgotten that Snowfall was on Duke’s shoulder, and being as close as he was to one meant that he was also well inside the other’s personal space. Duke, however, seemed unfazed by this. “I also had a little conversation with a hawk, if that matters.”

Nathan straightened and took a step back. If Duke wasn’t going to react, then neither was he. “Not anywhere near the other incident, then.” He sat down at his desk, gesturing Duke to follow him. “Have a seat,” he told Snowfall, tapping the desk’s surface as he flipped to a blank page in his notepad.

Snowfall took a little hop down Duke’s arm to the desk and sat down on his haunches among the Animal Control documents, folding his forepaws and looking up at Nathan expectantly. Freed of his duties as transportation, Duke flopped onto the office couch. “Snowfall, is it?” Nathan asked.

“Close enough,” the squirrel said with a sigh. Nathan shot Duke a questioning look. Duke shook his head, a don’t ask expression on his face.

“Okay,” Nathan said, not asking. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

“Lots of things happened to me. It’s been a very busy day.”

Nathan couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, or if he was just simpleminded. “Start at the beginning, then,” he said evenly.

“The beginning,” Snowfall repeated, tilting his head up and tapping his paws together thoughtfully. “Things started to go strange this morning, I guess. Or maybe last night, but last night was so long ago. You can’t expect me to remember everything going back that far, right?”

“Starting with this morning will be fine,” Nathan said. ‘Simpleminded’ was beginning to look more likely. “Is that when you started talking?” He paused. This was Haven, after all. There was always a chance... “That is the strange part, right? You don’t normally talk, do you?”

“Of course I talk,” Snowfall said, sounding exasperated. Duke smothered a laugh. “Just not this way. Not in human words. I wasn’t even sure if humans had words. I mean, I used to listen sometimes when you were out in the woods, but all you do is chatter to each other. It never meant anything before.”

“Fair enough. Is this morning when it started meaning something?”

“I guess.”

“Okay. Then tell me about this morning.”

“I woke up in a hollow in the beech tree by the three round stones. I put my fur in order and I climbed up the tree to see where I was. There were some seeds that someone forgot in another hollow further up the tree, and I ate those.”

Nathan raised an eyebrow and made a note on his pad. “Anything unusual about that?”

Duke snorted. “You think he ate some magic beans?”

“Ignore him,” Nathan said automatically.

“They were seeds,” Snowfall corrected sharply. “I know the difference. And there’s nothing strange about finding seeds that someone forgot. Folks lose food all the time, or they turn into food and don’t need it anymore. Your cache only belongs to you if someone else doesn’t find it first. That’s the rule.”

“Wasn’t trying to accuse you of anything. You ate the seeds, and then what did you do?”

“Same thing everybody does when they’re not hungry or tired. I climbed a tree, and then I got out on a branch and jumped to the next one. Then I climbed that one until I got bored, and then I jumped down and ran on the ground for a while. There were some other squirrels running, too.” Snowfall took a look back at Duke and furrowed his brow. “You’d say... Notch In His Ear and She Sees The Farthest, I guess. We chased each other up and down some trees for a while. We were having a good time, but then the thing in the tree grabbed me.”

Nathan stopped writing. “‘The thing in the tree’?” he repeated.

“The tangly thing on the branch. It caught my foot and I tripped and fell off the branch, but the thing held me so I was stuck hanging in the air.”

At a loss, Nathan turned his attention to Duke. “Care to translate?”

“He got tangled up in some string.”

String,” Snowfall hissed, teeth bared. “I do not like string.” Nathan tried not to smile. “I probably could have gotten free,” Snowfall continued. “Eventually, anyway. But there was a hawk. I guess she saw that I couldn’t move, so she tried to dive for me. Notch and Sees-Far ran off and left me,” he added, folding his forelegs indignantly. “I mean, I guess I can’t blame them, but I don’t like that they did that. It wasn’t nice. And that’s another human thought,” he said over his shoulder to Duke. “I never cared about nice before.”

“To be fair, neither do about half the humans I meet,” Duke said.

“Can we stay on topic?” Nathan cut in. “So you were caught up in the string and a hawk was after you. What happened next?”

“I screamed. And I guess it was a human scream, because Duke came to save me. He chased the hawk away and freed me from the tree. Then he took me to an inside and took the string away.”

Nathan couldn’t hide his amusement as he raised an eyebrow at Duke. “Seriously?”

“I heard screaming and I investigated,” Duke said, sounding defensive. “That’s all. And I didn’t ‘chase’ anyone. I just… talked her into leaving.”

“I’m sure you were very persuasive.”

“Okay, you’re taking a witness statement from a squirrel,” Duke retorted. “Which, by the way, may be the funniest thing I have ever seen. I just want that on the record. You have no room to make fun of me for anything right now.”
Nathan had to admit that that was fair. Well, he had to admit it to himself, but he wasn’t going to give Duke the satisfaction of saying it out loud. Instead, he said, “I’m just trying to get the whole story. Snowfall, can you think of anything else that might have happened? Anything odd or unusual, no matter how small it seemed at the time?”

No. There was nothing else, I keep saying. I don’t know what happened, I just know that I’m different now.” He put his paw on Nathan’s hand and looked up at him with wide, sad eyes. “I just want everything back the way it was. Duke said you could help. Will you fix me? Please?”

This display of helplessness was the most adorable and pathetic thing Nathan had ever seen. He raised his free hand to his forehead. “Okay, I can see why you had to help him,” he said to Duke.

“It’s like being attacked by a Disney character,” Duke agreed with a wry look.

Snowfall clasped his paws. “Does that mean you’ll help me?”

Nathan sighed. “I was already helping. I just didn’t know who.”

“So what’s our next step?” Duke asked.

Nathan raised an eyebrow at that ‘our’; he was still not thrilled at how quick Duke was to declare himself part of the team lately. “Depends on what Audrey finds out at the Herald.”

“Is Audrey another different person?” Snowfall flicked his tail in what looked like nervousness under the questioning looks from both men. “You said I could talk to Nathan because he’s different,” he continued at Duke. “Is Audrey different, too?”

“To put it mildly,” Duke said. “Yes, you can talk to Audrey.”

“Who can talk to Audrey?”

Her voice came into the room moments before she did. The room brightened, or so it seemed to Nathan, as if the warmth from her could reach him from several feet away. Duke sat up a little straighter. “Duke may have found us a lead,” Nathan said, gesturing to Snowfall.

Audrey took a step back in surprise. “Okay, then,” she said. A chuckle at Duke. “And Stan let you back here with a wild animal?”

“Eventually,” Duke said, waving the question away.

“Apparently the wolf wasn’t an isolated incident,” Nathan explained. “Snowfall was affected by the same thing. He hasn’t been able to tell us much, but it’s a start.”

“I told you everything I can,” Snowfall said, insulted. “I’m trying.”

“Didn’t say you weren’t.”

Even Audrey couldn’t remain entirely unflappable when confronted with a talking squirrel. She shook her head, blinking sharply, and her breath came out in a surprised little laugh. Seriously? she mouthed at Nathan over the squirrel’s head. He spread his hands helplessly. Audrey took a deep breath and dove into the weirdness, as she always did. “Hi there,” she said gently, bending down until she was level with Snowfall. “What’s your name?”

Snowfall didn’t react to her. Thinking that he was scared, given Duke’s earlier admonition about not attracting attention, Nathan gave him a little nudge. “It’s okay,” he said. “This is Audrey. You can talk to her.”

“Talk to who?” Snowfall cast a wild eye around the room. “You and Duke are the only humans in here.”

Oh boy. Nathan gave Duke a questioning look, but the other man shrugged, just as confused as he was. Audrey furrowed her brow. “I’m right here,” she said, louder this time, waving her hand.

Nathan put a hand to his forehead. “You don’t see a woman standing on the other side of the desk?”

From the way Snowfall turned in a full circle, searching for something but not finding it, it seemed clear that he didn’t. “Is this some kind of human joke?”

“Right here,” Duke said. He’d risen off the couch and was standing next to Audrey, one hand on her shoulder. “You don’t see the woman standing next to me? Blonde? Cute? About this tall?”

“There’s nobody there, I swear. Just you.”

Nathan raised a questioning eyebrow at Audrey. “But you can see the squirrel, right? And hear him?”

“As weird as it feels to say it, yes.” She paused. “You two can both hear me, right? There’s nothing unusual about me?”

“No more so than normal,” Duke said. “I’m just trying to be clear,” he added in response to Nathan’s glare.

“You’re not whatever’s strange about this,” Nathan assured her. He studied Snowfall, who was looking increasingly scared and confused. “You can see him, you can hear him...” He made a thoughtful sound. “Can you touch him?”

“I don’t think I want your imaginary friend to touch me,” Snowfall said.

“Can you just trust me?” When Snowfall made a grudging grumble, Nathan looked back up at Audrey. “We need to know exactly what we’re dealing with.”

The concern on Audrey’s face was deepening, but she reached out and gave Snowfall a quick pat on the head. His ears flattened under the weight of her touch, his head dipping and then rising when she took her hand away. “Did you feel that?” Nathan asked.

“Feel what?” Snowfall asked, at the same time that Audrey said, “Just fur. Like petting a really small dog.”

Duke and Nathan exchanged glances. “This is gonna be a fun one,” Duke said.

“Okay,” Nathan said. “So whatever this is, it only works one way. You can interact with him, but he can’t interact with you.” This had to mean something for the nature of the Trouble they were trying to find, but what he couldn’t imagine.

“Guess you’re stuck translating for me until we figure this out,” Audrey said. “Can you ask him when this started?”

Nathan started to recap everything that he and Duke had already gone over with Snowfall, but the squirrel interrupted him. “I don’t like this,” he said quietly. He was crouched low on the desk now, making himself as small as possible. “Talking to humans is already strange enough. I don’t want to talk to humans who aren’t there. I told you everything I can; if you can’t fix me can I just go back to the forest?”

Another look passed between Duke and Nathan. Duke shrugged. “I have to go back to the Gull anyway. I can take him with me.”

“We might need more information from him.”

“I won’t go far,” Snowfall insisted. “I still owe Duke something, I think. I can find you again if you need me. But I don’t want to be inside anymore.”

“You’re probably not going to get anything more out of him,” Duke said. “Especially if he’s freaked out.”

If nothing else, Nathan had to admit that Duke was probably an expert on recognizing when someone had reached their limit on how much they would or could cooperate with the police. “Okay,” he conceded. “Just keep in touch if anything else happens.”

Duke held his palm out to Snowfall, letting the squirrel clamber up his hand and rest in the crook of his arm. “You think you can hold still this time?”

“You think you can not crush me this time?”

“I swear to God,” Duke muttered. He quirked an eyebrow at Nathan and let out a laugh. “Guess it’s a good thing I ran into you first, after all. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the talking animal thinks you’re the crazy one.”

*

Audrey took a long drink. She was already on her third coffee of the morning, and it was looking like she’d end up going through several more before lunch. “So did Duke and his little friend offer any insight?”

“Not a lot.”

Audrey could feel her eyes widening with every sentence as Nathan filled her in on what Duke and the squirrel had said before she got there. “So at least we know the wolf wasn’t an isolated incident,” she said when he was finished.

“That’s about all we know. There’s nothing promising from Animal Control. Did Vince and Dave have anything useful to add?”

Audrey shook her head. “They don’t have any official records of people turning into animals or affecting animal behavior.”

“‘Official’ records,” Nathan repeated. His voice had the same skepticism Audrey’s had had when Vince had said that to her.

“All they can find is rumors and folklore,” she said. “Nothing with names and dates that might actually be something we can trace. It’s all ‘somebody heard that somebody saw their neighbor turn into a black cat, and now she’s on trial for witchcraft.’ I mean, it’s possible that one of those stories is actually true, but...”

“Well, we can at least rule out the ‘people turning into animals,’ option,” Nathan said. “Or if we can’t, we’ve narrowed the pool of suspects down to really good actors. That was a squirrel trying to think like a human and not being very good at it, not the other way around.”

“So it’s someone or something making animals talk,” Audrey said.

“And they can’t see or hear you,” Nathan added. “Which doesn’t make any sense.”

“Really?” Audrey said dryly. “That’s the only thing that doesn’t make sense here?”

Nathan didn’t rise to her sarcasm. “It’s got to be something to do with your immunity to the Troubles,” he continued. “It’s like the opposite of the ghosts, where you were the only person in town who couldn’t interact with them. You’re a ghost to these animals.”

It was an interesting and apt comparison. “We still can’t work out why, though,” she ruminated.

“No,” Nathan agreed. “And that might be the key to this whole thing.” He pursed his lips. “You couldn’t see the ghosts because a Trouble created them,” he said. “And it’s got to be a Trouble making the animals talk.”

“So why do you think I can hear them?,” Audrey said. “If I can’t interact with this Trouble you’d think I’d only see the animal behind it.”

Nathan nodded his agreement. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It still feels connected, but I don’t know how.”

The silence stretched between them, full of thought but empty of solutions. “Where do we go from here?” Audrey finally asked.

“Aside from bringing in all the local wildlife we can find for questioning?” Nathan offered.

“Yes, aside from that,” Audrey said with a laugh.

“I don’t know,” Nathan admitted. “I can ask Jordan to put out the word, see if anyone knows of someone with a Trouble that might be related.”

Audrey covered a wince at Jordan’s name. “You think you can trust her information?”

Nathan eyed her doubtfully. “At least as much as you can trust Vince and Dave’s,” he pointed out.

It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but Audrey couldn’t argue with it. “And aside from that?”

Nathan sighed. “As much as I hate to say it, I think this is the part where we have to wait for the clues to come to us.”

*

“Nothing?” Nathan asked.

“Nothing,” Jordan echoed. She leaned back against the railing of the café’s porch. They were tucked in the corner behind the kitchen, far enough from any of the tables that they were unlikely to be overheard. “The Guard doesn’t have any knowledge of a person – or a family – with a Trouble that makes animals talk. This is something new.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Which is kind of strange, when you think about it.”

Nathan furrowed his brow. “Strange how?”

“Well, you said that when you were dealing with that golem, Vince was talking about the possibility that a lot of folklore was based on the Troubles. You’d think that, with how common stories about animals talking to people are, it would have come up at some point.” A dry laugh. “Of course, talking to animals would be useful, wouldn’t it? And God forbid there be a Trouble that helps someone more than it harms them.”

Recognizing the hurt in her voice, Nathan leaned on the railing beside her and rested a hand on her arm, just above where her glove ended. She gave him an appreciative smile. “I don’t know,” Nathan said. He indicated a pair of birds squabbling in a nearby tree. “Can you imagine the kind of language they’d be using if they spoke English? Nobody wants to hear that.”

“Good point,” Jordan said with a grin. She watched the birds for a moment. “So why aren’t they speaking English?” she finally asked.

Nathan shrugged. “We don’t have enough information to know why the animals that are being affected were targeted. Both reports came from out in the woods, though, one of them by a pretty remote cabin and the other out behind the Grey Gull. Nothing from anywhere more urban. It could be something that’s affecting the areas outside of town first.”

She gave him a sideways look. “You sound like you’ve been doing your own research.”

“I may have attempted to start a conversation with a neighbor’s dog on my way here,” Nathan confessed sheepishly. “She wasn’t very forthcoming.”

That got him a bright laugh. “And nobody found that suspicious?”

Nathan made a noncommittal sound. No need to admit that everyone in his neighborhood had long ago gotten accustomed to his habit of talking to any friendly dog he came across.

“Okay, so you’re not going to give up your day job and become a dog whisperer any time soon,” Jordan said, still grinning at him. “What are you going to do next?”

“Actually...” Nathan trailed off, lost in thought as something that had been brewing in the back of his mind bubbled up. “I told Audrey we should start bringing in other wild animals for questioning. I was joking at the time, but it’s actually not a bad idea.”

“That just makes me wonder what you would consider a bad idea,” Jordan said. “What, are you going to put signs up on trees? ‘If you can read this and are a bear, please contact the Haven Police Department’?”

“More like a hunting party,” Nathan said. “Or maybe bird-watching would be a better description. Find some people who’re willing to just go out into the woods and listen, see if they hear anything. And if they can start a conversation, they might find someone who knows something. Just because the squirrel didn’t see anything doesn’t mean that nobody else did.”

Jordan nodded slowly, looking off into the distance. “I can do that,” she said after a moment. “And I know some other people who’d be good for it. Let me ask around, see who I can pull together.”

“That’s great, thanks,” Nathan said. “I’ve got a couple officers who fit the bill and know about the Troubles; I can send one of them along with you.”

Jordan shifted her weight away from him, just enough for him to notice. “Nathan...” she said slowly, sounding almost disappointed that she had to explain this. “My people... they barely tolerate you. They’re not going to stand for having another cop butting in on Troubled business.”

“Troubled business is the entire town’s business,” Nathan pointed out. “If there are other people willing to help, what’s the logic in refusing to let them?”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Jordan snapped. She sighed, gave Nathan a patient and gentle look. “It’s not how most of the Guard thinks,” she explained patiently. “There’s the town and there’s us, and that’s how it’s always been.”

“And how’s that been working out for you?”

“A hell of a lot better than it’s worked out for those of us who tried to trust the people in this town,” she shot back. She let out an impatient hiss, trying to settle herself. “As long as the Troubles exist, you can’t change the way things work. I can talk people into working with you – temporarily – when you’re actually working on ending them, but for just putting out fires in the meantime? I have to be loyal to my people first.” She brushed a hand against his jaw. “You understand, right?”

“Yeah.” Nathan wasn’t sure how much he really meant it. “Okay,” he conceded. “This part, sending people out into the woods? I’ll leave you to it. Just keep me informed.”

“Of course I will,” Jordan said. She looked at her watch. “I’ve got to get back to work.” A little grin. “Think you can stay long enough to order coffee?”

“Wish I could,” Nathan said, which he did mean. “We’re a man short; Tommy called in sick.” He brushed her hair back from her face and kissed her lightly. “Keep me posted.”

*

“Lynn, I need you to clean the grill.”

Lynn gave her shift leader a startled look. “What, now?” she asked, indicating the stack of dirty dishes she’d just started washing.

“It’s not like we’ll have time to do it later, once the real crowds start coming in,” Kate told her. “The dishes can wait for now.”

Lynn was beginning to understand why Casey had been so eager to give up his shift despite the weekend pay incentive. Saturdays at the Grey Gull were a nightmare; everything needed to be done now and there wasn’t enough ‘now’ to go around. “I’ll be right out,” she said, drying her hands and taking a moment to redo the knot she’d put her hair up in.

The grill’s racks were crusted so thickly that Lynn was just taking it on faith that there was metal underneath all the carbon. She knew it must get cleaned occasionally – why else would there be a grill brush in with the cleaning supplies? – but it obviously wasn’t a frequent occurrence. She couldn’t imagine why it suddenly had to be cleaned right this moment. Did I do something to piss Kate off or something?

Ten minutes later, her hair was falling loose again, there were black streaks all along her arms – and probably her face, she was guessing – and the only reason she could see any progress was because she knew what the grill had looked like before she started scrubbing at it. She was starting to sweat despite the mild weather, and her arms were already warning her that they were going to ache before she was done.

“It’s just not right, making a sweet little thing like you do all this hard work,” a voice behind her said.

Lynn turned and flashed a customer-service smile at the speaker, a round-faced old woman who was the only customer out on the deck. Being short and baby-faced, Lynn was used to comments like this, from customers and from random people on the street. “I don’t mind it,” she said cheerfully. It wasn’t a total lie; this was one of the worst assignments she’d gotten in a while but there was a certain sense of satisfaction that came with watching the chunks of carbon flake off.

“Of course you don’t; you’re such a nice girl,” the old woman continued, her tone the auditory equivalent of a pat on the head. “But just because you don’t mind it doesn’t mean that it’s all right. At your age you should be out enjoying your life, not toiling away like this.”

It wasn’t the first time Lynn had heard that, either. If you were hanging out with your friends on your day off you got scolded by old people who assumed that everyone under forty was lazy and selfish, and if you were working you got scolded by old people who acted like it was a crime against nature for a teenager to have a job. “I’m fine, really,” she insisted, attacking the grill again. She was starting to worry that this woman was the kind of customer who might demand to speak to management about how hard they were working their employees, which would make it look like Lynn had been the one complaining. “I volunteered for this,” she added, which was true in the sense that she’d agreed to take Casey’s shift.

“Such a nice girl,” the old woman repeated. “But you should be out with your friends on a Saturday! Isn’t there some kind of party at the high school this weekend?”

“Something like that, I guess,” Lynn said vaguely. The fall carnival was the reason nobody had wanted to work today. It wasn’t a big event, really, but there was food and a band and everybody was going to be there, and usually there was some kind of after-party. Lynn hadn’t wanted to miss it, but between her car and her cell phone bill she could use the money that an extra shift would bring in.

“You should be there, dear,” the woman said.

Lynn gritted her teeth. She was busy enough without having someone leaning over her shoulder. “The grill’s not going to clean itself,” she said. It came out more sharply than she had intended, but less sharply than she would have liked.

“Won’t it?” The woman gave Lynn a wink. “Well, perhaps not by itself, but near enough to it. I’m going to tell you a secret trick, dear. Just lay each of the racks out in the sunshine. Draw a bucket of good clean water, and pour it over them while asking the saints to wash away the dust of the earth. Do that three times, and they’ll be far cleaner than you could ever get them on your own.”

Lynn stopped herself from rolling her eyes, but only just. “I think I’ll stick to the old-fashioned way, thanks.”

“Suit yourself. But opportunity is not a lengthy visitor, dear,” the woman admonished. “When a chance arises, you’d do well to take it.” She rose from the table, tucking a couple bills underneath the empty glass she left behind. “I hope you choose to take this one.”

Lynn waited until the old woman was well out of sight before sighing loudly and shaking her head. The friendly weird ones were almost as bad as the angry ones sometimes.

The grill continued to resist her efforts. Another fifteen minutes or so of fruitless effort, and Lynn was starting to wish she believed the old woman. And... well, was there really a reason not to, aside from the complete ridiculousness of it? People were always whispering about weird things happening in this town, right? And if it didn’t work, there was nobody out here to see her making a fool of herself.

Really, there was no point in not at least trying it...

*

Duke allowed himself to be led outside by the nervous girl, who was covered in soot and dust. “I didn’t know who to tell,” she was saying. “I mean, it’s not exactly a problem, but it probably shouldn’t be happening. And someone should know, you know?”

“I don’t,” Duke said patiently. Lynn hadn’t actually explained exactly what she needed him to see, or why she’d come to him first instead of one of her supervisors. Most of his younger employees seemed terrified of the thought of asking “the boss” for anything. “You still haven’t told me what the trouble is.” A wince. He hadn’t meant to say ‘trouble,’ as appropriate a word as it was likely to be.

Lynn didn’t seem to notice. “I’m going to show you,” she said. She led him to the corner of the deck, where the racks from the grill were leaning against the railing. One of them gleamed, so clean that it practically sparkled. “I only did one to start with,” she continued. “The top rack is so much harder to get out that I didn’t want to bother if it didn’t work on the other one.”

“I’m guessing it worked,” Duke said. “And you did that yourself? Today?”

“Sort of,” Lynn said. Her eyes flickered back and forth, making sure nobody else was in earshot. It was a gesture Duke knew well, and he leaned in. “Some of the waitresses...” Lynn started. She bit her lip, then took a deep breath and seemed to try to spit it all out at once. “Some of the waitresses say that whenever the cops show up somewhere because something weird happened, you’re not far behind them. So I figured if anyone here was going to believe me, it would be you.”

Duke put a hand to his forehead. Of course the waitresses had been talking about him. Of course he’d managed to hire the only people in town who didn’t pretend that nothing weird ever happened here. “It’s okay,” he said when he realized that Lynn was shrinking away from him. He forced a smile. “Yeah, I’m probably your best bet. So tell me what’s going on. Or show me, whatever.”

The girl’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thank you,” she said. “Now watch this.” She picked up a bucket that was lying nearby and took it to the tap a few feet away. She struggled to pick it up again once it was filled, but waved away his offer of help. “Oh, saints, wash away the dust of the earth,” she muttered hurriedly, sounding deeply embarrassed, and poured the water over the still-filthy grill rack.

Flakes of carbon fell away from the metal. A lot of them. Duke made a small sound of surprise. “Keep watching,” Lynn said with a little smile, apparently emboldened by his reaction. She repeated the process, this time saying the incantation more clearly. More exposed metal flashed in the sunlight

A third bucket, a third invocation of the saints, and the second rack was as impossibly clean as the first. They looked as if they’d never been used. “I’m impressed,” Duke said mildly. “Think you could do it with the rest of the restaurant?”

Lynn, who had been grinning at the small miracle, looked nervous again, twisting her hands. “I don’t know if it’s actually me doing it,” she said. She told Duke about the strange customer she’d had earlier, the old woman who’d told her she was working too hard and given her the secret to cleaning as if by magic.

“Yeah, probably a good thing you told me,” Duke said when she’d finished. “Do you have any idea who she was?”

Lynn shook her head. “Never seen her before.”

Duke had expected that. “Would you be okay with talking to a sketch artist?”

Lynn’s eyes went wide. “Like, with the police? Do you think she was dangerous?”

“No,” Duke lied. He was long past assuming anyone in this town wasn’t dangerous, no matter how innocuous their Trouble seemed. “There’s just some people who’ll probably want to know who she is.”

The girl bit her lip. “Yeah,” she said after a moment. “I guess I could probably do that.”

“Good.” Duke patted her on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t be nervous, okay? You’re not in trouble.”

“Hey, Lynn, was this your table?” The girl who’d been clearing tables – Duke would remember her name in a minute – held up a slip of paper. “Someone left you a note.”

Well, she wasn’t in trouble with Duke. Whether whatever weirdness had taken over the town this time still had something in store for her was another question entirely. He gestured for her to read it.

Lynn’s hands were shaking as she unfolded the paper. “‘Strike the hazel tree three times,’” she read. She looked up at Duke quizzically. “What hazel tree?”

“I’m gonna guess that one,” Duke said, inclining his head towards the forest beyond the deck. There was one tree that didn’t quite match all the others, and while Duke wasn’t totally sure what a hazel tree looked like, he was sure that all the trees had been identical to each other every other time he’d looked at them.

Lynn hesitated. “Do you really think I should?”

“In my experience, trying to get off this ride in the middle is never a good idea.” When Lynn gave him a blank look, Duke suppressed a sigh. “Yes, you should check it out.” She didn’t move, and her eyes turned pleading. “You want me to come with you, don’t you?” A nod.
Another sigh, one he didn’t try to cover this time. “All right. Come on.”

Except for the fact that the hazel tree – assuming it was a hazel tree – hadn’t been there yesterday, there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary about it. It looked about eight feet tall, and just as bare and weather-worn as the trees around it. The soil around it was undisturbed, the roots secure in the ground and the grass growing over them as if it had been there for years. There was a little rise of earth between two of the roots that looked as if someone had buried something there long ago, but even that was solid and overgrown. Lynn stepped towards the tree and raised her hand, then looked back to Duke for approval or reassurance. What she expected to happen – and what she thought he could do about it – he couldn’t imagine, but he gave her a nod. She brought her knuckles down on the bark three times, producing a series of soft, hollow knocks.

With a loud creaking and groaning, the sounds of timber under stress, the tree opened. The branches turned in a circle, pulling the trunk apart from itself like the plies of a rope untwisting when it was turned in the wrong direction. Acting on instinct, Duke caught Lynn by her shirt and pulled her backwards, out of reach of the creaking branches. He shot a furtive glance at the Gull, but nobody came out to investigate the noise.

The groaning and twisting carried on for what felt like several minutes. When it finally stopped, the tree was an egg-shaped cage of gracefully twisted wood surrounding a small pedestal. On the pedestal was a piece of folded green cloth and... no. Those couldn’t be shoes. This was starting to make a kind of sense that Duke wasn’t prepared to deal with.

“What is this,” Lynn breathed beside him, eyes wide.

She was hesitating again. Duke took a step forward to try and encourage her, and the tree growled at him. The branches shook with a warning rattle, the cage threatening to snap shut on him. “It’s yours, whatever it is,” he told Lynn, backing off. He gave her a nudge. “Go on, take it.”

The tree relaxed again when he stepped back and Lynn came forward. She reached between the slats of the cage and drew out the shoes and the cloth, making a quick grab for them and pulling her hands back before anything could grab her back. When she had removed the items and stepped clear, the tree made a sighing sound and twisted itself back into its original form with much less drama than the original transformation. She shook out the fabric, which – as Duke had suspected – turned out to be a short, simple dress that looked like it had been made to fit her.

Duke took one of the shoes from Lynn and ran a finger across the edge of it. He sighed with resignation when it sang like a wineglass. “Was there somewhere else you wanted to be today?” he asked her.

Lynn looked sheepish. “It’s the fall carnival,” she told him. “And some of the kids are throwing a kind of party afterwards.”

“Okay,” Duke said, half to himself. He stared off into the distance for a moment, mentally picturing the rest of the day’s schedule, working out who he could ask to come in a little early and who would probably be willing to pick up a couple hours on their day off. “Think you can still make it if I keep you here another half-hour or so, just so I can get someone to cover you?”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that!” Lynn said quickly. “I don’t mind missing it, really. I could use the extra money, anyway.”

“I’ll make sure there’s a couple extra hours on your schedule next week,” Duke told her.

“I don’t understand,” Lynn said. “Why is it such a big deal to you that I get to go?”

“Because the last thing I need in this life is to piss off someone’s fairy godmother.” Duke handed the shoe back to Lynn. “Just try to be home before midnight.”
Tags: ex libris, fic, haven
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