“Jordan McKee is here to see you, honey,” Laverne’s voice crackled over the intercom. “And she brought company.”
Nathan and Audrey exchanged looks. “Send them on back, Laverne,” Nathan said.
“You’re expecting rabbits, aren’t you?” Audrey said.
“Bluebirds,” Nathan corrected. “Maybe singing mice.”
Audrey laughed lightly as she stood up. “You mind if I sit this one out?”
Nathan furrowed his brow. “Because of Jordan? I know you don’t trust her, but—”
“Because of the conversation you’re about to have with animals who don’t think I exist,” Audrey corrected. She didn’t bother to deny Nathan’s first assumption. “I’m not going to be any help, and it kinda creeps me out.”
“That’s fair,” Nathan conceded. Go on; I’ll take care of this.”
Audrey had only taken a few steps out into the hall when Jordan rounded the corner. There were two little boys holding her hands, one who looked about eight or nine and one that Audrey guessed to be around four years old. The younger one buried his face in Jordan’s arm as he caught sight of Audrey. “Oh, that kind of company.”
“It’s okay,” Jordan said, sweeping her arm around the younger boy. “Audrey’s going to help you find your parents. They were out in the woods,” she added to Audrey. “And Jacob’s a little shy.”
“She’s right,” Audrey said, bending down to smile at the kids. “I’m here to help. Why don’t you two come back and sit down, and you can tell me your story.”
“We’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” the older boy said suddenly. “We only talked to her—” he indicated Jordan “—because we were all alone and there wasn’t anyone else. And she’s cool.”
Jordan apparently didn’t miss the flicker of Audrey’s eyebrow. “I did a lot of babysitting when I was younger,” she said dryly. “I’m used to kids.”
“Well, you’re lucky she found you,” Audrey said. She touched the badge on her belt. “I’m not as cool as she is, but I’m a police officer, and so is my partner. Do you think you can talk to the police?”
The boy considered this for a moment before nodding. “I guess that’s okay. I’m Stephen. Jacob is my little brother.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Stephen. Now, how about you come meet my partner and tell us why you were out in the forest all alone?”
Nathan looked surprised at Audrey’s return, and even more surprised at who she had in tow. “I’m assuming these aren’t the people you took with you,” he said to Jordan.
“These are the people we found,” Jordan said. She gently herded the boys forward so that Nathan could see them. “They’ve got a story to tell.”
Stephen introduced himself more assertively this time, apparently reassured that it was okay to talk to these particular strangers. Nathan shook his hand with adult seriousness and smiled at Jacob, who was still barely peeking around Jordan’s leg. “Take a seat,” he told all three of them, gesturing towards the couch.
The boys still flanked Jordan as they sat down, and when they leaned on her she put an arm around each of them. There was color in her face, and it occurred to Audrey that she must be uncomfortably warm in the leather jacket that covered her from jaw to wrists. She would have taken it off the second it was just the three of them – or just the two of them, had Audrey left – and she didn’t have to worry about hurting anyone, but she seemed to consider keeping the kids close more important. “Now,” Nathan said once they were settled in, “how did you two end up out in the woods on your own?”
“We weren’t on our own,” Stephen said. “Our dad took us. He woke us up this morning and said we were going on a hike, just us boys. We made some sandwiches and we all got in the truck and drove out to the forest. We hiked around for a while, but Jacob got tired, so Dad told us to sit down and eat our sandwiches. He said he was going to walk for a while longer, just to figure out where we should go next, and then he’d come back for us.” The boy’s voice wobbled. “But he didn’t come back. We waited for a long time, and he never came back. So I told Jacob we had to look for him.” Tears were welling up in his eyes now. “I know you’re supposed to stay put when you’re lost in the woods. I know you’re not supposed to wander around if you don’t know where you are. But he didn’t come back! What if something happened to him and he couldn’t find us? There was nobody else to look for us!” He let out a hiccupping sob and buried his face in Jordan’s shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Nathan said gently. He was crouched down beside them now, and he patted Stephen’s head. “You were scared, and you did what you thought was right. Is that when you found Jordan?”
“No,” Stephen sniffled, turning to face them again. “That’s when we found the candy house.”
“What candy house?” Audrey asked, giving voice to the question on everyone else’s faces.
“The scary lady’s candy house,” Jacob said, speaking for the first time. “Like the story.” The attention that followed this declaration was apparently too much for him, as he sank back into the couch and refused to look at anyone.
“I didn’t know it was a candy house at first,” Stephen said. “I thought it was just a regular cabin, like the kind the forest rangers had when we went camping last year. I thought, maybe even if there wasn’t someone in it because it’s not camping season, there might be a phone. But when we got closer it started to look funny, and it smelled like cookies baking. I still didn’t figure it out until we got to the front of the house and I tried the door. There were windows, and Jacob was looking through one and broke a piece off of the windowsill. It was all cake, the whole wall! Big chunks of it like bricks, with frosting holding them all together!” He shivered. “It was just so weird. And I was already knocking on the door when I saw it, so we couldn’t just sneak away. And then the door opened so fast the knocker tore off in my hand. There was...” he shivered again and hunched his shoulders, drawing in on himself. “There was a scary lady behind it,” he said, sounding as young as Jacob.
“Scary how?” Audrey asked. She had a feeling she knew what the answer was going to be, and a glance at Nathan made her guess that he was coming to the same conclusion.
“She was old and wrinkly, with a big nose and a big black dress,” Stephen said. He hesitated. “Like... like a witch.” Nathan nodded, and it was what Audrey had been expecting as well. “She was yelling, and she tried to grab me,” Stephen continued. “So I just grabbed Jacob’s hand and I ran, and I didn’t stop running until we ran into Jordan.”
“Literally,” Jordan said. “Nearly knocked me over.”
Audrey and Nathan exchanged looks. Obviously it was a bad idea to dismiss anything as impossible in Haven, but this was the kind of story that they couldn’t just accept without questioning, especially considering the age of the narrator. “Stephen,” Audrey said gently, “I believe that something – or someone – out in the woods scared you. But sometimes, when something scares people, their brains play tricks on them and make them think they saw something they didn’t. Are you absolutely sure you know what you saw?”
“I know it sounds like a story,” said. “But I didn’t make it up. And I can prove it.” He pushed away from Jordan just enough to reach into the pocket of his coat, coming out with a wrinkled sandwich bag. “I told you it came off in my hand,” he said, holding the bag out to Audrey. “I ran away so fast I didn’t know I was still holding it.”
A burst of ginger and spice scent hit Audrey as she opened the bag, and she could see Nathan wrinkling his nose. Inside the bag was part of a door knocker, made of something hard and glossy. Fragments of gingerbread clung to the ends of it, as if it had been somehow anchored to a piece and the cake had given way first when it was pulled. Wordlessly, she handed it over to Nathan for inspection. He turned the piece over in his hands, studying it and giving it an experimental sniff. “It’s pulled sugar,” he said. “The kind they use for art pieces in dessert competitions.” He pulled off a crumb of the gingerbread and crumbled it between his fingers, releasing another cloud of scent. “Do you know about where you were when you found the house?” he asked Stephen.
The boy shook his head. “That wasn’t where we usually go hiking. I don’t know the woods there. And when I ran away from the house, I didn’t know which way I was going, I just ran.”
“My people are looking for it now,” Jordan said. “And for the boys’ father. I figured you’d consider that higher-priority than the talking-animal hunt,” she added to Nathan.
He nodded. “Good call.”
“Do you know if your dad had a phone with him, or some other way to contact him?” Audrey asked.
“I tried to call him on Jordan’s phone,” Stephen said. “It just rang and rang. It didn’t even go to voicemail. And Charlotte didn’t answer.”
“Our stepmom,” Stephen said. Another concerned look passed between the adults; this story kept getting more familiar. “We got her voicemail, though, and I told her that Dad was missing and Jordan was taking us to the police station.”
“Good,” Nathan said, standing up. He held out his hands to the boys. “I’m going to take you back to the front desk,” he told them. “The officer there is going to keep trying your parents until someone answers, and we’ll find somewhere more comfortable for you to wait until they come for you.”
Stephen looked uncertain. “Is Jordan coming with us?”
“I need to ask her some more questions,” Audrey said quickly. “But we’re going to take good care of you.”
“It’s okay,” Jordan added. “I’ll check in on you when I’m done here. We’re all going to make sure you find your dad and get home safely.”
Stephen agreed to go, although reluctantly, but Jacob took more coaxing. Eventually, though, he latched on to Nathan’s arm as tightly as he had to Jordan’s.
“Thank you,” Jordan said fervently as the door closed behind them. She immediately shed her jacket and gloves; the tank top underneath was dotted with sweat.
“You need me to open a window?” Audrey asked.
“I’m used to it,” Jordan said, only a little bitterly. “I’ll be fine.”
Audrey nodded and sat down behind her desk, putting a professional distance between them. It was true enough that she didn’t trust Jordan, or any of the Guard for that matter, nor did she like what associating with them was doing to Nathan. But if Jordan was willing to be an ally, especially in a case that involved lost children, it would be foolish to turn down her help without a better reason than nebulous suspicion. “You have anything to add that you didn’t want the kids to hear?”
Jordan spread her hands. “I didn’t see anything out there. No gingerbread houses, no witches, and no talking animals. I mean, I believe them,” she said, tilting her head to indicate the door knocker on Nathan’s desk, “but I don’t have any more evidence than that. And none of my people have reported in about finding anything, although you know how cell service can get out there.”
“Which is hopefully the only reason we can’t contact their dad,” Audrey added.
“Hopefully,” Jordan said significantly. She bit her lip, giving Audrey an appraising look. “We’re on the same page here, right? I mean, this whole thing... it’s Hansel and Gretel.”
“Yeah,” Audrey agreed, glad she hadn’t had to be the one to say it.
Jordan looked as relieved as Audrey felt that it was out in the open now, and that they were both thinking it. “You remember how that story started? Hansel and Gretel didn’t just get lost in the woods; their father deliberately left them there. Because their stepmother told him to.”
“You think these kids’ father doesn’t want to be found,” Audrey understood.
“And that trying to call their stepmother might have been a mistake,” Jordan added.
“We can’t know that until we find at least one of the parents,” Audrey said. “If there is something weird going on, we can find a way to protect the kids once we know what it is, but until then we have to treat them like any other lost children.”
“I know.” Jordan leaned back with a worried sigh, then let out a short, sarcastic laugh. “So we’ve got at least two Troubles going on in the woods outside town. This, and your animal incidents.”
“Maybe not.” Something was beginning to fall into place in Audrey’s head. “How much did Nathan tell you about the animal problems?”
Jordan shrugged. “Just that someone got attacked by a talking wolf last night, and Duke rescued a talking squirrel this morning.”
“Not just attacked by a wolf,” Audrey told her. “It broke into a cabin, and the owner found it in her bed like it was waiting for her. And the owner’s granddaughter said the same wolf tried to steer her off the path on her way out to the cabin.”
“Little Red Riding Hood,” Jordan finished the thought for her. “And Duke’s run-in with the squirrel?”
“Nathan said the squirrel keeps saying it owes Duke for saving its life. People getting repaid for their kindness to small animals; that’s one of those themes that pops up all the time in stories.” Audrey rested her forehead on her hand. “It’s all the same Trouble. Someone is turning Haven into a fairytale forest.”
“That’s what you’re thinking, too?” Nathan asked when Audrey filled him in on her new theory about the current Trouble. It was the same theory that he had started piecing together after he’d handed the kids over to Stan at the front desk.
“It ties everything together,” Audrey said. She and Nathan were standing outside the break room, where one of the other officers had taken the boys to get them some water and something to eat. Jordan had joined them once she and Audrey had emerged from the office, and Jacob was still huddled up against her.
Nathan nodded. “Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and one of Aesop’s fables.”
“Aesop,” Audrey repeated. “That was the one I couldn’t figure out. I guess that counts as a fairy tale, if you’re really loose on the definition.”
“They’re all kids’ stories,” Nathan said with a shrug. “There’s a common thread, at least. And it might explain why Duke’s squirrel couldn’t see or hear you. If everyone else is caught up in a story, you could be the audience: you can watch what’s happening, but you can’t affect it.”
“It’s a good theory,” Audrey said thoughtfully.
“Not the first time we’ve seen a story come to life,” Nathan added. “You think it’s T.J. again?”
“First thing I thought of,” Audrey said. She shook her head. “I already called him. He hasn’t been anywhere near where the incidents happened, and he swears he hasn’t been reading any fairy tales.” She smiled gently. “He said he’s mostly reading nonfiction these days. A lot of science books. Apparently, if the stuff he’s reading about is already happening somewhere it doesn’t have the same effect here.”
“So we’ve got a second person who can bring stories to life,” Nathan said. “Anyone else in T.J.’s family have his Trouble?”
“The only family he has in town are his in-laws. He’s not related to anyone local by blood, not that he knows about, anyway.”
“So we’ve got a what,” Nathan said, half to himself. “But not a who or a how. Or a why, if there is one.”
“It’s not a lot more than we had this morning,” Audrey agreed. “But now that we know what we’re looking for we can start figuring out what the connection between everyone involved is.”
“No leads on that yet,” Nathan said. He held up his notebook, where he’d been working through the information they had so far. “Margo spent all day yesterday at home; she didn’t see or speak to anyone other than Erin. Erin’s been out of town, and she drove straight to the cabin without talking to anyone else in town. And our other two witnesses are a squirrel and a pair of kids,” he concluded. “Not the best sources of information.”
“No,” Audrey agreed. “We’re going to have to wait until the boys’ parents show up, see if they can tell us anything more significant. Assuming we can trust them.” When Nathan gave her a questioning look, she repeated the suspicion Jordan had voiced to her. “But we can’t even begin to guess at that until they get here,” she added.
It was hardly a wait at all before Charlotte Smith-Prentiss finally checked her voicemail and arrived to pick up her stepsons, and the way Jacob immediately pulled away from Jordan and leapt into her arms went a long way to allay the concerns of the other adults in the room. Unlikely to be a wicked stepmother, then.
“I don’t know what Rick was thinking,” Charlotte said when they finally managed to pull her away from the children again so they could question her in private. “He and the kids have a boys’ day out every once in a while, but it’s always something he’s planned in advance and he always tells me where they’re going just in case I need to reach them. But they were all gone before I woke up this morning, without even leaving a note. This is so unlike him.”
“Has he done anything else out of the ordinary lately?” Audrey asked. “Or has anything unusual or worrying happened to your family recently?”
Charlotte blew out a breath. “He’s been worried a lot lately,” she said. “His company is making some cutbacks, and there’s a chance he might get laid off. It’s not a sure thing yet, just a risk, but we’ve been talking a lot about what to do if it happens. We might have to move out west with my family if he can’t find anything here.” She shook her head. “Really, we’re just worried about how it’s going to affect the kids.”
Audrey silently pushed her notepad towards Nathan. H+G’s parents couldn’t afford to take care of them, she’d written on it. It was true, and it was also the kind of worry that could be enough to activate someone’s Trouble. The two of them held a wordless conference for a moment before coming to an agreement. “Mrs. Smith-Prentiss,” Nathan said carefully, “are you familiar with the Troubles?”
Her eyes widened. “What do they have to do with my husband losing our kids in the woods?”
“We don’t know if they’re connected,” Nathan said. “But it’s a possibility. Do you know if you, or your husband, or anyone in your families is Troubled?”
“No,” Charlotte said firmly. “My family’s not even from Haven originally. And as for Rick...” she trailed off and shook her head, looking down at her hands. “I made him swear to me that he wasn’t before we got married, and that as far as he knew his first wife wasn’t, either. I don’t hate the Troubled,” she said, so quickly that Nathan wondered if he’d reacted without realizing it. “God knows they can’t help how they’re born. But...” a helpless shrug. “I love those kids, and I think I’m getting the hang of being a mom. But at the time I was barely confident that I could raise two normal kids. I didn’t know if I could handle any surprises down the road.”
“It’s all right,” Audrey told her. Under the table, her leg nudged against Nathan’s; he wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be reassurance or admonition. “Is there anything else you can tell us, anything unusual that you’ve seen or heard in the last couple days that might help us understand what happened here?”
“No, nothing. And Rick tells me about everything, but he hasn’t mentioned anything out of the ordinary.” Charlotte shook her head. “Believe me, if there was anything I could say to explain what happened to my husband, and maybe where you could find him, I would. I just want to know he and the kids are okay.”
“Well, as far as we can tell, your boys are fine,” Nathan assured her. “Just very shaken up, and maybe a little dehydrated.”
Charlotte’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Does that mean I’ll be able to take them home?”
Another look passed between Nathan and Audrey. “Not just yet,” Audrey said gently. She rested her hands on Charlotte’s. “Until we know just what happened to your husband, and whether he might have been acting under the effects of something we can’t yet identify, we’re not ready to release them.”
Charlotte slowly pulled her hands away, eyes narrowing. “What effects are you talking about?”
A knock on the door interrupted before Nathan or Audrey could answer. “Chief?” Stan asked, poking his head into the room. “You got a minute?”
Exchanging a brief glance with Audrey, Nathan got up and followed Stan into the hall. “What’s going on?”
“Rick Prentiss just showed up at the front desk,” Stan told him quietly. “Thought you’d want to know right away.”
Nathan nodded, not sure if he was relieved or not. “Good. Set him up in the other interview room.”
When he returned to the first interview room, Charlotte was still pressing Audrey for information that she wasn’t willing to give. “We can’t say anything more at this time,” Nathan cut in, making his voice as flat and formal as he could. He gave Audrey a nod, inviting her to follow him. “And now you’ll have to excuse us; there’s something we need to take care of.” Another nod, towards Stan this time. “He’ll escort you back to the front desk, and I’d like you to wait there until one of us can get back to you.”
“What was that all about?” Audrey demanded when they were back out in the hall.
“We’ve got a more important interview waiting on us.”
Rick Prentiss had arrived at the station under his own power and in considerable panic, and he’d nearly burst into tears when someone told him that his missing children had been found unharmed. “Please, can I see them?”
“Not right now,” Nathan told him. “We have some questions we need to ask you first. Can you tell us what you were doing out in the woods with your boys this morning?”
“God help me, I don’t know,” Rick said, his voice small and helpless. He buried his face in his hands. “It just seemed like the best thing to do.”
“What seemed like the best thing to do?” Audrey pressed gently.
His voice got even smaller. “Leaving them out there. Oh, God.”
When no further response was forthcoming, Audrey spoke again. “Mr. Prentiss, we need to know exactly what happened. Just start from the beginning and tell us everything.”
It was her “Troubled whisperer” voice, the one that was so soft and gentle while somehow still leaving no room for argument. Like so many before him, Rick was unable to resist it. “Last night,” he started, clearing his throat and trying to keep his voice steady and calm, “my wife and I were talking about our financial situation. We were discussing what our options will be if I lose my job, and what will be best for the kids. And after she fell asleep I realized... I realized that we might not be what’s best for them. I thought, maybe they’d be better off with someone else. But we couldn’t just ask someone else to take them in; everyone we know is in the same boat if the company starts making cuts. But if they were lost...” He was staring straight ahead now, not looking at anything. “So I took them out to the forest. Someone was bound to find them, someone who wouldn’t know where they’d come from and who could take care of them. And if they weren’t found... would that be any worse than having parents who couldn’t provide for them properly?”
Rick’s face was a mask of horror, his voice shaking with the shock of what he was saying. His obvious revulsion at his own actions was the only thing keeping Nathan from wanting to throttle him. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” Rick continued in a near-whisper. “It just made so much sense last night. And even this morning, after I got them out there. I was—” he broke off in a choking noise, tears building in his eyes. “I was in the truck and pulling back onto the main road when I realized what I’d done. I went back to look for them right away, but all I found was a pile of breadcrumbs from their sandwiches.” He was sobbing now, his head in his hands. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened. My poor little boys...”
“They’re all right,” Audrey said, her voice still soft. Nathan could see in her face that she was having the same mixed feelings that he was, trying to remind herself that what he’d done might not be his fault. “We have reason to believe that you weren’t in control of your actions when you took your kids out today. There are other cases that we think might be connected to yours.”
Rick’s eyes were wide when he looked up at her. “There are? Has anyone been hurt?”
“Not so far,” Audrey assured him. “We’re looking into the cause of some of the other strange behavior we’ve been seeing. Will you help us?”
“Of course, I’ll do anything,” Rick said quickly. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s kids.”
“Neither do we,” Audrey said. “Now, to start off, tell us everything that’s happened to you over the past few days.”
Questioning Rick Prentiss brought them no closer to an answer than they’d been before he’d arrived. He confirmed his wife’s declaration that nobody in his family was Troubled, nor had he seen or experienced anything out of the ordinary recently. His social and professional life didn’t seem to overlap with that of anyone else who’d been affected, and he was one of the few people in town who wasn’t a regular patron at the Grey Gull.
“And I still kind of want to punch him,” Nathan confessed when he and Audrey were alone again.
“It’s not his fault,” Audrey reminded him. “Probably. But me too.” She gave him a sympathetic smile. Between the two of them, there wasn’t a lot of room for leniency towards someone who might have abandoned his kids. “And I’m not okay with sending those kids home until we’re sure whatever’s causing this isn’t going to strike the same place twice.”
“Probably a good idea to get Claire’s input on the family, too,” Nathan suggested. “Just to make sure there’s not something else going on.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” Audrey agreed. “I don’t think their dad is going to trust himself with them until he gets a professional all-clear, anyway.”
“And maybe not even after that.”
“Yeah.” Audrey shook her head. “This Trouble is providing the story, but not the happily ever after.”
“Business as usual, then.”
A mirthless chuckle. “Pretty much.” Audrey eyed her phone. “We should probably give Duke a heads-up, let him know that the situation has changed. He needs to know what to look for, and he’d probably appreciate knowing exactly why a small woodland creature is honor-bound to him.”
A slow grin crept over Nathan’s features. “Because he’s turning into a Disney Princess?”
That mental image was enough to stop Audrey in her tracks for a moment. “Probably not how I’ll put it,” she said, highlighting Duke’s name on her contacts list. “As interesting as it would be to see his face.”
The phone rang for a good while, and when Duke finally answered he sounded out of breath. “Tell me you have good news,” he said, the playful tone he usually used with her absent.
“Wish I did,” Audrey said, momentarily taken aback by his brusqueness. “We’ve been looking for the wrong thing. The Trouble we’re dealing with isn’t about talking animals, it’s—”
“Fairy tales?” Duke cut her off. “Yeah, I figured that one out when one of my kitchen staff got poached by her fairy godmother.”
Audrey raised one eyebrow and set her phone on the desk, putting it on speaker and motioning Nathan over so he could hear. “Say that again?”
“I’ve apparently got Cinderella bussing my tables,” Duke said. He gave them a synopsis of what had happened with Lynn. “And now I’m short-handed for the next hour and I’m going to have to pay out some overtime,” he concluded. “And I’m not too thrilled at the thought of being someone’s wicked stepmother.”
Was that better or worse than the thought of him being a Disney Princess? A glance at Nathan told Audrey that he was contemplating the same thing. “Where’s Lynn now?” she asked.
“At the carnival, I’d assume; she left about half an hour ago.”
“You let her go?” Nathan cut in sharply.
There was a definite change in the timbre of the voice on the other end as Duke realized he was talking to both of them. “You know my policy on getting involved where I don’t have to,” he said coolly. “If you want to take your chances with the Fair Folk, be my guest, but I’m not in any hurry to get on a fairy godmother’s bad side. It doesn’t matter how clever you are, nobody wins an argument with a fairy. Not even with a good fairy.”
Nathan rolled his eyes so hard Duke could probably hear it over the phone. “Right, because ‘good fairy’ is so much more plausible than ‘the Troubled person behind all of this.’”
“Don’t give me that look,” Duke said, confirming Audrey’s suspicions. “She’s not a local.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she tipped seven dollars on two iced teas and my staff wasn’t tearing each other apart to claim her. There are things waitresses remember.”
“And Lynn?” Audrey added. “You’re sure it’s not her?”
“She doesn’t think so. Which doesn’t guarantee anything, but this is the first weird thing that’s happened to her. You’d think that if she was the one causing everything it would hit her first, right?”
“He has a point,” Nathan muttered, his voice grudging.
“Now, was that really so hard to say?” Duke asked, voice dripping with saccharine sarcasm.
“But there doesn’t seem to be any geographic progression to what’s happening,” Audrey said, interrupting before the two of them could get any more aggressive at each other. Funny, she’d have assumed they’d be easier to deal with when they weren’t in the same room. “Margo’s cabin is nowhere near where the boys found the gingerbread house – I’ll tell you later,” she added as Duke made a questioning sound, “and the Gull is in between them. Even if it’s someone traveling, they’re taking a pretty strange route.”
“That’s assuming people are getting chosen by their location,” Nathan said, drumming his fingers thoughtfully on the desk. “We’ve got a girl who was already going to visit her grandmother in the woods before anything started, a pair of kids with a stepmother with money problems, and a girl who’s doing her best to do a dirty job but would rather be at the ball. And Duke.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure how he fits in, either,” Audrey agreed.
“How he fits into what?” Duke asked.
She leaned in towards the phone. “This Trouble might be specifically targeting people who already fit the parameters of the original stories,” she said. “It takes an existing situation and... spins it out into a fairy tale.”
“And this translates into me being the Squirrel Whisperer how, exactly?”
“Because you’re important somehow,” Nathan said with a sigh.
There was a thoughtful silence. “Say that again?”
“You heard me.” Nathan’s voice held a warning. “You’ve got someone who owes you his life, and who’s looking to discharge that debt as soon as he can. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s going to be some situation very soon where your own life is going to be in danger and you have to cash in on this to save it, and maybe someone else’s.”
A long silence. “Because I’m not paranoid enough already?” Duke finally said. He let out a puff of air. “I gotta go. If I don’t get back in there soon, that squirrel’s gonna have to save me from an angry waitress armed with a salad fork.”
As she hung up, Audrey shot Nathan a look. “It’s not a bad theory,” she said. “In fact, I’d say it’s probably the right one. But did you have to put it quite like that? He already thinks he’s got one death threat hanging over his head.” She tried not to look at Nathan’s arm, his long sleeve currently concealing the tattoo there.
“I didn’t say anything he wouldn’t have figured out on his own,” Nathan said, unconcerned. Audrey was pretty sure he knew exactly what she wasn’t saying, but he didn’t make any acknowledgement of it. “And he’d be in worse shape if we knew there was a chance something was gunning for him and we didn’t tell him.”
Which was true, and Audrey definitely would have warned him if Nathan had come up with it while they weren’t on the phone. She just might have found a gentler way to phrase it. And she was sure Nathan could have found a better way if he’d wanted to, but his perpetual desire to goad Duke had taken over again. “You’re aware that he’s probably going to decide that we’re the safest place to be until this all gets solved,” she pointed out.
“He’s probably not wrong about that,” Nathan said. “And we’re going to want him around.” Audrey raised a questioning eyebrow. “You heard what he said about the Fair Folk,” Nathan continued.
“I heard it, but I don’t see how it’s relevant. He didn’t want to get involved; that’s pretty much his default state if you don’t push him.” Audrey would like to think she knew that better than most people, having become an expert at knowing how to push him.
“He didn’t want to get involved because even clever people don’t come out on top when they mess with fairies,” Nathan corrected her. “Duke Crocker is admitting that there’s an entire class of... people, for lack of a better word, who can out-weasel him. And he said it like it was so obvious that he shouldn’t have had to explain it to me.”
“Which is how he talks to you pretty much all the time, especially when you’re accusing him of something,” Audrey pointed out. “Still not sure what you’re driving at.”
“Would you have thought of that right away?” Nathan asked. “Even once you believed you were dealing with a fairy godmother, would you have decided that you’d heard enough stories to guess at what would happen if you interfered?”
That gave Audrey pause. “No,” she admitted. “Fairy tales aren’t the way my reading taste usually leans.”
Nathan gave her a slight, ironic smile. He knew full well about her – well, the other Audrey Parker’s – literary weaknesses. “They’re obviously in Duke’s wheelhouse,” he said. “There are rules to dealing with fairies and fairy tales, and he not only knows them, he’s following them. If whoever is causing all this is playing by those same rules, it’s a good idea to have someone on hand who can rattle them off without even having to think about it. He might even be able to help us figure out who’s in the line of fire.”
It was a good argument. Audrey gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Makes sense,” she said. She eyed the clock. “He said he was getting some relief in about an hour, right? Give him until then, and if he doesn’t end up back here on his own I’ll drop in on him.”
“Better you than me,” Nathan muttered.
“Pretty much, yeah.” Audrey drummed on her desk with a pencil for a moment, and then couldn’t resist commenting. “Duke reading fairy tales. Don’t think I’d have called that one.”
“He reads everything,” Nathan said with a shrug. “Or he did when we were younger, anyway. There was a while when he was dropping by the public library every day. Probably went through every book they had before he was twenty.”
“Seriously?” Audrey gave a little laugh. “Mister ‘the only reason I don’t have a rap sheet a mile long is because you can’t prove anything’ was a baby bookworm?” She shook her head. It was, when she really thought about everything she knew about him – and everything she’d seen aboard his boat – not all that surprising, but it was still unexpected. “That’s kinda cute.”
The scratching of Nathan’s pencil as he worked on his case notes suddenly stopped. “I wouldn’t bring the subject up with him if I were you,” he said. The words came out slowly and carefully, as if he had realized too late that he shouldn’t have brought it up.
Audrey’s eyebrows went up. “Something I should know about?” she asked.
“It’s not important right now,” Nathan said, a little shortly. “And it’s not something he’d appreciate me telling you.”
Of all the strange things she’d heard today, the idea that Nathan was deliberately not saying something about Duke in order to spare his feelings was the one that Audrey found hardest to believe. “Okay,” she said, giving Nathan a nod. “Dropping the subject.”
Nathan’s answering nod was grave, but grateful. “The library probably wouldn’t be a bad place to investigate, though,” he said by way of a subject change.
“See if our Troubled person is of the literary persuasion?” Audrey followed his train of thought. “Yeah, not a bad idea. And see if Jordan’s people are willing to go out on the search again. Hansel and Gretel isn’t the only story about kids getting lost in the woods, and Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t have the only Big Bad Wolf.”
“That was only a feasible idea when we thought it was confined to a specific location,” Nathan pointed out to her. “There’s just too much ground to cover. But I can maybe talk to the forestry service, see if they fake some kind of alert that’ll keep people out of the woods.”
“At least the ones who don’t live out there,” Audrey said. “The first victims we know of were attacked in their own cabin, don’t forget.” A wry smile. “Of course, given how that turned out, we might be able to assume that the people who’re in the woods already can take care of themselves.”
Nathan didn’t return the smile. He was looking thoughtful, and even more serious than usual. “This is a big one, Audrey. I don’t think we can keep it from spreading, and I don’t know how we’re going to contain it while we figure out how to solve it.”
“The same way we always do. We put out the fires as they come up, and we get everyone we can find in on the act. We can still spread people out far enough to keep their ears to the ground, and if there are rules to follow we can make sure they know what they are.” She put a hand on Nathan’s shoulder. “We can do this. We just have to figure out where to start.”
The crumbling, overgrown stone wall was about eight feet tall, if Annabeth was gauging it right. An easy climb, and if she was careful the drop on the other side wouldn’t be a problem, either. Rob had made it, anyway, and Annabeth wasn’t about to let her older brother best her at anything. He thought he was so cool and so above her, just because he was in high school now. Annabeth knew he’d hit their last softball over the wall on purpose, just to show off. He’d probably been planning on doing it ever since he found out Becky Crane was planning on bringing her little brother out to the park to play ball with them today. Probably thought he’d get to show off to her twice, first by knocking the ball out of the park – literally – and second by going over the wall into the creepy house’s backyard to get it back.
Not that Becky and Brian had ever shown up. Not that anybody had shown up, which was strange. Usually by this time on a Saturday there’d be at least a dozen kids running around the park. But today it was just the three of them, and Rob had apparently decided that showing up his sibs was good enough because the first pitch Shawn had thrown at him had gone straight over the wall. Rob had gone right over after it, making sure to make it look like the climb was no effort at all and cheerfully shouting back to them about just how creepy the overgrown yard was.
That had been a good ten minutes ago. He should have been back by now. Annabeth gave an annoyed grunt. “I’m going after him.”
“Mom said you weren’t supposed to leave me alone,” Shawn said behind her.
“It’ll just be for a minute.” Annabeth tried not to roll her eyes. Shawn would follow her and Rob anywhere without fear, but leave him on his own for two seconds and he turned into a complete baby.
“That’s what Rob said,” Shawn reminded her. “What if whatever got him gets you, too?”
“Nothing ‘got’ him,” Annabeth scoffed. “He’s just messing with us.” Privately, she wished she felt as confident about that as she sounded. Rob had been talking to them over the wall when he first went over, and she didn’t like the way his voice had just faded out. She didn’t think he had the patience to keep quiet this long for the sake of a prank. She sighed and ruffled Shawn’s hair. “He just wants to scare us, okay? He thinks we’ll go running home for help because he disappeared, and by the time we get back he’ll be standing out here waiting for us and saying that he just went to the bathroom or something and we freaked out over nothing, and Mom will think we’re the ones causing trouble. He probably thinks I’m too chicken to go after him. But I’m not scared of a weird old house, and you’re not scared of a stupid joke, right?”
Shawn perked up. “Right!” he chirped. “I’m coming with you.”
“No, you’re not,” Annabeth said. She and Rob could make it over that wall with no trouble, but she was less sure about Shawn. And if they brought him home with bruised hands and skinned knees, all three of them would be in for it. “Mom’s already suspicious; you want her to find out that Rob’s been letting you run wild? She’ll never let you out of the house without an adult again. You want that?” Shawn shook his head adamantly. “Didn’t think so. I’ll be right back, okay?” Annabeth promised again. “Just wait out here.”
The rough surface of the wall provided plenty of handholds. Annabeth scrambled up it like a lizard, crouching at the top and surveying the yard below. The idea that Rob might have gotten lost somehow suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched. The backyard was a mess, plants that might once have been a nice garden turning it into a wild thicket. Dark green leaves and creepers covered every bit of the ground, thicker and more lush than they should have been this late in the year. How long has it been growing wild like this? Annabeth wondered. She couldn’t remember anyone having ever lived in this house, and she’d lived just down the street her entire life. It was like a haunted house’s yard. Or a secret garden, she thought, remembering the book she’d loved when she was younger. That made her smile, and made the tiny forest below seem less daunting. “Rob?” she called out. No answer. “Rob, stop messing around.”
When there was still no response, she started to lower herself over the wall. She could see a flattened patch in the ground cover, probably where Rob had dropped to the ground. She aimed for the same spot, stretching her arms out to get her feet as close to the ground as she could before letting go. The landing was soft, and she turned around to get a better look at the yard.
It was even more intimidating up close. Some of the bushes were taller than she was, and she couldn’t see the opposite fence. “If you can’t find the ball, just admit it and come back,” she said, still hoping that Rob would answer and she wouldn’t have to go hunting for him. That was starting to look like it might be the answer; she would bet that you could lose a whole stadium’s worth of softballs in this yard.
This might take a while. “Shawn?” Annabeth called, figuring her little brother would feel better if she stayed in contact with him. “Shawn!” she repeated a moment later when there was no answer. For a moment she started to worry that something might have happened to him, but then she relaxed. More likely the thickness of the plants in the yard was muffling her voice, making it hard for Shawn to hear her over the wall. That would explain why Rob’s voice had faded out. Although it still didn’t explain why he wasn’t answering now.
If she looked carefully, Annabeth could see places where the plants had been bent or compressed like someone had recently walked through them. More than one somebody, from the look of it, and going off in several directions. What was going on here? Fighting down the urge to turn around and run right back over the wall, Annabeth picked a trail at random and followed after it. As she walked she poked at the underbrush, looking for the missing ball, but that was no longer the most important thing on her mind.
The trail she was following ended abruptly at a thinned-out spot in the thicket, and as Annabeth stepped out into it she nearly shrieked as a pair of grey hands reached out for her. She tried to jump back, and promptly fell on her butt.
From this angle, the scene became clearer. The hand was part of a stone statue, an abstract figure that dominated the clearing. Annabeth stood up and circled it carefully, trying to get a better look at it. Finally she realized that it was meant to represent a teenage girl, bent over to pick up something off the ground. The hands that had frightened her were reaching out for a real soccer ball just in front of the statue. Now that she knew what she was looking at, it was kind of cool looking. A neat, if weird, piece of yard art that must have been left over from when someone lived here. Annabeth laughed at herself, and how badly this weird yard was getting to her.
She turned around to go back the way she came, and this time she did shriek. The person in front of her now was definitely real, a tall, thin old woman with a severe face. “And what do you think you’re doing back here?” the woman demanded.
Annabeth opened and closed her mouth a few times before she could manage any words. “I’m sorry!” she finally stammered. “I didn’t think anyone still lived here!”
“And that was reason enough to come poking around somewhere you don’t belong?”
“I wasn’t poking around,” Annabeth protested, realizing after it came out of her mouth that it wasn’t true. “I mean, I was, but I wasn’t trying to snoop or anything. My brother hit a ball over your wall, and he came back here looking for it and then he didn’t come back. Have you seen him?”
The old woman seemed to relax a little. “The older boy who was here not long ago? He’s been and gone,” she said. “Although I don’t believe he found what he was looking for, nor do I know where he went.”
Indignation bubbled up in Annabeth’s chest, burning away her fear and worry. She had been right; Rob was just messing with them. He’d probably gone over the fence on the opposite side of the yard, and had been hiding somewhere waiting to see how badly she and Shawn would freak out. Or maybe he’d even run off to meet up with a girl and had left them alone. He was going to get into so much trouble when they got home. “Thank you,” she said to the old woman. “Sorry we bothered you.”
“You meant no harm, I suppose,” she said, sounding much less unfriendly now. “If you wish, you may continue your search for your lost item. But take only what’s yours, do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Annabeth said. She looked back at the statue and its accompanying soccer ball. “I guess something that looks like it just got lost back here might really be part of your art, huh?”
A strange smile. “In a sense,” the woman said.
“It’s a really interesting sculpture,” Annabeth said. She bobbed her head at the woman, feeling almost like she should curtsey or something. “Thank you for not being mad. I’m sorry my brother and I were trespassing; we really thought there was no one here anymore. If we lose something in your yard again, we’ll knock, I promise.”
Another strange smile. “See that you do,” the old woman said. “Don’t linger back here for too long.” She turned and walked away, and within just a few seconds Annabeth couldn’t see her anymore through the brush.
Annabeth caught her breath, exhaling heavily as she recovered from the startling encounter. She was going to kill Rob when she found him.
No longer concerned for her brother’s safety, and having been given permission to keep on searching, she began hunting for the missing softball in earnest. As she poked through the branches, though, she began to wonder if it was really worth the search. It was worse than a needle in a haystack. She did find several more of the strange statues, though, boys and girls of various ages, all posed similarly to the first one, all reaching for or chasing after a ball or other toy on the ground in front of them. It was a neat idea for one statue, Annabeth thought, but this little army was starting to seem just weird.
There was no real point to this, Annabeth finally decided. She was never going to find the softball, and her concern was starting to move back towards where Rob was and what he was doing, and to how long she’d left Shawn alone by this point. She was turning around and trying to remember which direction she’d originally come from when something white in the undergrowth caught her eye. Finally!
Annabeth pushed the ground cover aside and reached for the ball. As her hand was moving, though, she took a closer look and realized that this was a hard plastic kids’ ball, not the real softball she’d been looking for. She attempted to pull her hand back and leave, but her hand refused to move. Her entire body was refusing to move, in fact.
Before darkness closed in over her mind, Annabeth’s last thought was, That first statue looked a lot like Debbie Crane.