Audrey gave him a little smile and a wave as he entered the office, then tilted her head to indicate that Nathan was on the phone. From her expression, Duke got the impression that she had been expecting him this time, not that she’d told him so.
“I understand your position, Mrs. Perrault,” Nathan was saying. “I know I can’t legally press you to release library patron information. I’m not asking you to. I just want to know if you’ve noticed anyone showing an unusual interest in fairy tales recently.” A beat, during which he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, okay, that technically is patron information, but I’m not asking you to release it officially.” He dropped his voice with a sigh. “Gina, you know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.” Another pause. “No. Okay. I understand. Thank you for your time.” The last came out with an ironic bite as he hung up the phone.
“No luck?” Audrey asked.
“There are some lines librarians won’t cross,” Nathan said. He quirked a dry eyebrow. “And they do not like you asking them to cross them.”
“They like it even less when you’re a Fed,” Audrey said with a smile. “I was hoping this might be another perk to being a small-town cop.”
“So was I.” Nathan turned his attention to Duke. “Something I can help you with?”
Duke gave him a grin, the one he knew annoyed him beyond reason. “I can’t just want to enjoy your company?” He wasn’t about to let on how much Nathan’s prediction that he was going to be in life-threatening danger – again – sometime soon had rattled him, especially since he was pretty sure Nathan was right. Nobody rescued an animal in a fairy tale and then didn’t end up needing rescuing themselves.
“Speaking of company,” Audrey said before Nathan could offer a cutting remark, “where’s yours?”
“The squirrel? Haven’t seen him since I let him go this morning.” Privately, Duke was taking that as a good sign. He’d had a vague sense that someone was watching him, and there had been occasional sounds like a small animal on the roof or under the deck, but he was telling himself that as long as Snowfall was keeping his distance there was nothing that Duke needed protection from. Of course, exactly how a squirrel was going to protect him from a threat against his life was a question he was trying not to think too hard about. “I figure he’s out enjoying the new trees.” The lone hazel tree was still standing behind the Gull, looking innocuous in a way that Duke found unsettling. He’d have expected it to disappear once its part in the story was through, and he knew too many versions of Cinderella that stretched out over three days. “Why are you trying to shake down the head librarian for information?”
“We don’t shake people down,” Nathan said. “That’s more your style.”
Duke put a hand to his chest. “I’m hurt, I really am.” Sure, he’d used threats and violence occasionally as a last resort, but charm and bribery were so much more effective.
Nathan let out an irritated breath, apparently deciding it was easier to answer the original question than to keep arguing. “We’re looking for someone with an unusual interest in fairy tales,” he said. “Library’s as good a place to start as any.” He gave Duke an appraising look. “Unless you have a better idea.”
“Grade schools?” Duke suggested. “Not that a schoolteacher is likely to tell you anything more than a librarian.”
Audrey and Nathan exchanged one of those looks that reminded Duke that, his friends or no, they were still cops. “Actually,” Audrey said, “we were wondering if you might personally know of anywhere else we should look. If you can see a pattern that we can’t.”
“You seem pretty familiar with the way fairy tales work,” Nathan put in. “More than either of us, anyway. You might have some insight.”
The denial that bubbled up on Duke’s lips was automatic and instinctive. He’d put more work into crafting his reputation than almost any other part of his business, and it had taken plenty of hits since he’d come back to Haven. And even if he’d allowed word to get out that he had a fondness for reading – even in his business, there was good money to be made by looking just a little bit smarter than your competitors – being consulted by the police because of his knowledge of children’s stories was something that was likely to come back to bite him in a couple different ways. And that wasn’t even getting into the plain old embarrassment of admitting to anyone else that he was a man in his thirties who could still watch a Disney movie and tell you everything they left out of the original story.
Life debt from a squirrel, he reminded himself. And the hazel tree is still outside your window. It was in his bests interests to help, even more so than usual, and he’d only be admitting it to the two people who already had more than enough embarrassing information on him to make his life miserable if they so chose. “All I do is read them,” he said. “It’s not like I keep tabs on other people who do. I’m not running a book club.”
“You might still know who it’s going to hit next, if you know the rules,” Audrey said. “Or at least know how we can keep out of the way of it.”
“Aside from ‘ignore anything strange you come across and don’t talk to strangers’?” Duke asked wryly.
“Yes, aside from that,” Nathan returned.
“Should have known that wasn’t an option.” Duke closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, concentrating. This wasn’t the first time he’d wondered about the rules that fairy tales all seemed to have in common; it wasn’t even the first time he’d wondered about it today. “If we had any princesses lying around town, I’d be telling you to put a guard on them,” he said. “Probably want to keep an eye on some of the old-town families; if any of them have daughters that’s the closest we’re likely to get.” He ticked off a few other possibilities on his fingers. “Step-families. Youngest children, especially in families with three or seven kids. Families with seven kids in general. Really poor people with good hearts. Pretty much anyone else who’s ridiculously nice. Orphans.” He raised his head, fixing Nathan with a steady look. “Especially orphans who could really use some advice from their parents. Watch yourself.”
Nathan studied him, then gave a short nod. He at least seemed to be taking the warning seriously, which was how Duke had meant it. History had already proven that taking parental advice from beyond the grave was a bad idea for both of them, even if Nathan would probably give anything to get lectured by his dad again. “Any other advice?” he asked.
Duke tried not to take the new coolness in his voice personally. “Be nice to animals,” he said automatically, ignoring Audrey’s quiet laugh. “But don’t trust all of them. Wolves... there aren’t a lot of stories where it’s a good idea to listen to wolves. Bears can go either way. Pets and livestock are usually okay, so are birds. And if you rescue something, you can usually trust it.” I hope. “Um... be nice to old women, especially ugly old women. Except for you,” he added, nodding to Audrey. “Probably better if you just avoid old women altogether.”
Duke gave her a grin and a wink. “You’re clearly the fairest of them all,” he said. “No point in taking chances.”
Audrey rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “And for everyone else?”
“Don’t take anything that isn’t yours without getting permission first, and that includes picking flowers or drinking from a stream. Don’t eat anything a stranger gives you. Don’t tell anyone or anything that they’re frightening or ugly, even if they ask you. Don’t agree to do someone a favor until you know what it is. And if you do something nice for someone and then they ask you to do something afterwards, do exactly as they tell you, even if it means breaking one of the other rules.” He lifted his head as he recognized the sound of a scratching pen. “Are you seriously writing this down?”
Nathan didn’t actually roll his eyes but it was a near thing. “We didn’t ask you for a list just because we like the sound of your voice,” he said. “Anything else?”
“What do you want, all thousand and one nights?” Duke asked, throwing up his hands. “I’m just throwing out general guesses here; it’s not like I have any actual insight. Anyway, you’re the one who went to college. Shouldn’t you have a better handle on literary analysis than some guy who just happens to read a lot?”
Nathan put his pen down and folded his hands. “Fine,” he said, calmly. “At this moment, and in this context, you’re smarter than me and I need your help. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
It wasn’t. Duke hadn’t been angling for any kind of response; he was just annoyed because he didn’t know what else to offer and it was growing obvious that Audrey and Nathan didn’t have any better information than he did. Which didn’t mean there wasn’t a certain amount of satisfaction in hearing Nathan ask him for help. “Thank you for that,” he said, giving Nathan a faux-gracious nod. “But I still don’t know what else to tell you. There’s probably something I’m missing, and I know there are exceptions to pretty much every one of the rules, anyway.”
“It’s a start, at least,” Audrey said. “If we can get some of the basic information circulating among the people who’ll listen we might be able to minimize the number incidents. And if it doesn’t stop anything from happening we’ve at least got a better idea of where to look when it does happen.”
“Knowing how to solve them might be more useful than knowing how they started,” Nathan pointed out, raising an eyebrow at Duke.
“Once you’re in the story, you should already know the solution to it,” Duke returned, barely refraining from rolling his eyes. “They’re fairy tales. I may recognize them better than you do, but it’s not like you haven’t heard them a hundred times, too. Slay the monster, solve the riddle, kiss the princess. It’s straightforward except when it’s not, and half the time all you have to do is be the right person in the right place at the right time, anyway.”
Nathan made a conceding gesture. “And if there isn’t a right person?”
“Then it’s not much of a story, is it?” Both men turned to look at Audrey, and she shrugged. “The rules should work both ways, right? If everything we do in response has to fit the story, then there has to be a story to fit into.”
She and Nathan were both looking at Duke now, waiting for confirmation. He couldn’t help shrinking back just a little bit; as much as he liked being needed he didn’t like the pressure of being the resident expert, especially when he was aware that all of his theories were just best guesses. “That’s assuming that whoever’s causing this has to play by the same rules as the rest of us,” he said slowly. “Which is a big assumption. But yeah, in real fairy tales even the fairies have to follow the rules.”
“So we should assume that our Troubled person does, too, at least until something suggests otherwise,” Audrey concluded. “If we have to find the solution, then they have to at least give us a solution to find.”
“But so far those solutions have been shooting the Big Bad Wolf and running away from the witch,” Nathan returned. “Not exactly true to the spirit of either story.”
“Still within the letter of the law, though,” Audrey said. “The woodcutter kills the wolf and Hansel and Gretel escape from the witch. They just figured out how to skip some of the steps in the middle this time.”
“There’s not a lot of magic in either of those stories,” Duke said. The other two gave him questioning looks. “I mean relatively speaking. Talking wolves and gingerbread houses are lower on the scale than poisoned apples and fairy curses. As the stories get more complicated, the solutions will, too.”
“Why do you assume the stories are going to get more complicated?” Nathan asked.
Duke gave him a dry look. “Because it’s Haven?”
Whatever retort Nathan had been about to offer was cut off by the buzz of the intercom. He touched the button. “Go ahead, Laverne.”
“We need someone to go out to the Preston Heights neighborhood, honey,” Laverne told him. “We’ve got multiple reports of missing children, and they all seem to be centered around one of the unoccupied houses up there.”
“We’re on our way,” Nathan said, switching the intercom off. He raised an eyebrow at Duke. “Ready to go test your theory?”
Preston Heights was one of the wealthier neighborhoods, fitting with Duke’s suggestion that the town’s “old money” families might produce the closest thing Haven had to princes and princesses. “The area’s not as high-class as it used to be,” Nathan explained on the drive out. “There’s been a slow exodus going on for a while; people deciding that the location isn’t good enough to justify trying to maintain one of these old houses. Some of them have been standing vacant for years. People have complained that it’s driving down property values, but there’s not much anyone can do about it.”
“Any of those vacant houses built by known crazy people who later disappeared?” Audrey asked.
“There aren’t even any interesting rumors about them,” Nathan said with a faint smile. “They’re just places where nobody lives. We get kids sneaking into them sometimes, but more for the thrill of being somewhere they’re not supposed to be than because they think they might see something creepy.”
“Or because they don’t think anyone will look there for them,” Duke added from the back seat.
Audrey wasn’t sure how to interpret the look that Nathan shot him in the rearview mirror. “The house we’re looking for backs onto a little park,” he continued without acknowledging the interruption. “It looks like that’s where the kids are disappearing from. We’ve only got confirmation that two of the missing kids were actually in the park, but that’s where the rest of them said they were going when they left their homes.”
“And who’s confirming that they saw those two kids in the park before they disappeared?”
“Their younger brother, from the sound of it. He told his mom that his older brother and sister left him alone in the park, and she started calling around and found out that a bunch of the other neighborhood kids weren’t where they were supposed to be, eight of them in total.”
“Any other kids in the family?” Duke asked.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Nathan said. “Why- Family of three,” he said, answering his own question before he could finish asking it.
“Youngest son in a family of three,” Audrey added. “We’ll start by focusing on him.”
There were already a handful of uniforms on the scene when they arrived at the house. “The house is empty,” an officer told them. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been in it for months, at least, not even squatters. Nothing in the back yard, either.”
“Okay, thanks,” Audrey said, giving him a nod. “The kid who saw the others disappear, is he here?”
The officer led them to Shawn Morse and his mother, standing just beyond the police cars. There was another knot of people behind them, presumably parents of the other missing kids. Shawn was about seven years old, looking pale and nervous as his mother gripped his shoulders protectively. “Hi, Shawn,” Nathan said, kindly, giving him a reassuring smile. “Can you answer some questions for us?”
Shawn gave a short, twitchy shrug. “I already told them,” he said, tilting his head towards the uniformed officers in front of the house, “I didn’t see anything. I don’t know anything.”
“Shawn, don’t be rude,” his mother chided.
“It’s all right,” Nathan assured her.
“Shawn,” Audrey interjected. When he looked up at her, she smiled at him. “It’s okay if you don’t have the whole answer. This isn’t a test. Just tell us what you did see, and what you do know, and it’ll help us put together the pieces and figure out what you didn’t see.”
That seemed to do the trick. “We all came out to play ball,” Shawn said. “We do it almost every Saturday. There’s usually a bunch of kids in the park, but there wasn’t anyone else today. We waited around for a while, but nobody showed up, so we decided to just do some batting practice by ourselves for a while. Rob hit the ball too hard, and it went over the fence and into the yard. Rob climbed the wall to get it, even though we’re not supposed to.” This last with a furtive look at his mother. “We waited for him, but he didn’t come back. Annabeth said he was probably playing a joke on us, so she went in after him, and then she didn’t come back either. I waited, and I yelled for her, but she didn’t come back and she didn’t answer. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went home and told Mom that they were missing.”
“Okay,” Audrey said. “Thank you for telling us everything. Can you and your mom stay here for a while, just in case we have more questions?” Shawn nodded, and his mother gave Audrey a look that said she wasn’t going anywhere until her kids were found. Audrey drew Nathan away with a gesture. “Any theories yet?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Nathan said. “I want to take a look at the backyard for myself, though.”
The gate leading into the yard hung stiffly on its hinges; Audrey could see the fresh marks where one of the officers must have broken the rusted lock to get it open. It was open only a crack, and when she attempted to push it further the hinges screamed in protest.
“There’s nothing back here; I already checked.”
Audrey jumped; Duke had taken her completely by surprise. She hadn’t even noticed him slipping away from them. “Just a bunch of dead bushes,” he continued. “I can’t even see any tracks.”
He was right. The yard was an ankle-deep mess of brown and yellow sticks, with hints of green here and there where the grass underneath was still trying to grow. The area by the gate had been trampled recently, presumably by the officers who’d opened it, but the rest of the yard seemed untouched. “You’d think it wouldn’t be hard to find a softball back here,” Audrey said. She brought her foot down on a small pile of twigs, which crunched loudly. “Even if it broke through the ground cover, it’d leave a pretty obvious hole.” She started towards the back wall, the one that was closest to the park. “And if the kids came over the wall here, there should at least be broken branches where they landed.”
“Assuming they landed here,” Nathan said, almost to himself. He was looking at the top of the wall, not the bottom.
Audrey followed his gaze, but couldn’t see anything unusual about the wall. “You think they came in somewhere else?”
He shook his head. “Not came in somewhere else. Came out somewhere else.” He turned back to Duke. “There are stories about that kind of thing, right? Doors that look like they should lead to the same place, but don’t?”
“You think the kids climbed over the wall and ended up in... some kind of other world or something?” Audrey asked.
Nathan was still looking at Duke. “I’m just asking if it’s possible.”
“Somehow, asking what’s ‘possible’ here seems like the wrong question,” Duke quipped. When Nathan didn’t react, he sighed and gave a shrug. “Yeah, it’s possible. Places you can only get to under certain conditions are pretty common.”
“So we’ll go back out and take a look over the wall, and figure out what to do from there,” Audrey said. “You two any good at climbing?”
“I may have spent some of my misspent youth in places where I wasn’t supposed to be,” Duke said innocently. “And not always alone.”
“More information than I needed, thanks,” Audrey said dryly.
“Oh, that, too,” Duke said, sounding a bit surprised, and Audrey realized the comment hadn’t been directed at her. He was grinning at Nathan with a mix of mischief and nostalgia. “You were pretty good at getting over fences, as I recall.”
Nathan grunted. “I had to be, with all the ones you dragged me over. And all the places we had to leave in a hurry when someone noticed us.”
“I never dragged you anywhere,” Duke returned. “All I ever had to say was ‘hey, I know what we should do next’ and you were right behind me every time.”
“It was safer than not following you. If I knew where you were, you couldn’t sneak up on me.”
A light laugh. “Admit it. You liked being in trouble with me.” Duke bumped his shoulder against Nathan’s, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You remember the train yard?”
The sudden curve to Nathan’s lips said he did. Audrey could see him trying to tamp the smile down. “Dad nearly killed me for that one.”
“He would have killed me if I hadn’t gotten away when I did,” Duke reminded him. “And yet you still told me it was the most fun you’d ever had.”
“It was,” Nathan admitted. The smile faded, replaced by something cold and distant. “And then I grew up.” He shouldered past Duke, heading for the gate.
Audrey didn’t think anyone else heard the quiet sigh that followed him. She probably wasn’t supposed to hear it herself. “That’s one way to look at it,” Duke said softly.
From the outside, the wall looked no less ordinary than it had from the inside. Unremarkable stones, crumbling a bit in places, overgrown in others. Audrey had been half expecting some kind of magical haze to be hanging over it. The three of them stared up at it, as if they were all expecting something to happen. Finally, Audrey tapped both men on the arm. “All right, one of you give me a boost. Let’s see what we’re dealing with over there.”
Nathan’s laced hands got her high enough to get a good grip on the wall and pull her upper body over. “Be careful, Parker.”
“I’m not going over yet,” she assured him. “I’m just taking a look.” She swung one leg over the edge of the stones and turned far enough that she could get a good look at the backyard.
It wasn’t the backyard. “Guys?” she called down the wall. “Come take a look at this.”
There was a grunt from either side of her, Duke and Nathan simultaneously clambering up to join her. Nobody said anything for a moment. “We all seeing the same thing?” Nathan finally asked.
“If you’re seeing a tiny suburban jungle,” Duke said, “then yes.”
In contrast to the small, dead yard they’d just left, the view from the top of the wall was a sea of dark green overgrowth, thick moss and creepers carpeting the ground in between overhanging vines and untrimmed bushes. The view seemed to stretch on forever in all directions, fading into a white mist in the distance.
Duke gave a sudden groan and covered his face with one hand, bending his head low and looking nauseous. “Do not look along the wall,” he warned.
Audrey did so before she could stop herself and instantly regretted it. On the side they’d come from, the wall ended normally at the corner, just a few feet from where they were sitting. On the yard’s side, it stretched out for at least a hundred feet before being obscured by the same thick fog that lay over the far reaches of the yard. It was impossible to reconcile the two views, despite the way they abutted each other so abruptly. The resulting vertigo threatened to pull her off the wall. Nathan caught her by the back of her shirt, holding her steady while she looked down and waited for her stomach to realign.
This turned out to be a good place to focus. There was a small depression in the ground cover at the base of the wall, just a couple feet from where they were sitting. She gestured to the other two, drawing their attention to it. “Looks like someone dropped off the wall and landed down there,” she said.
“And there are a couple bushes that look like someone’s been pushing through them recently,” Nathan added.
“Someone kid-sized?” Audrey guessed.
“Most likely.” Nathan leaned out over the yard, peering over it with an intense eye. “Anyone see movement?”
“Nothing,” Duke said. “Like, a disturbing degree of nothing. There’s enough wind that things should at least be rustling a little.”
“There’s wind on this side of the wall,” Audrey pointed out.
Nobody responded to that. They all continued staring out over the impossible yard, none of them sure just what, if anything, they should be looking for. Finally, Duke gave a grunt and swung his leg back over to the outer side of the wall. “Don’t know about you two, but I’d rather figure this all out from the ground.”
Audrey and Nathan couldn’t disagree with that. The two of them followed him down the wall, ignoring the curious looks from the officers on the scene. “So how are we getting the kids back?” Nathan asked.
“I don’t think it’s up to us,” Duke said. “We’ve got a youngest son whose two older siblings have already failed at the quest.” He leveled his chin at Shawn. “If anyone has a chance, it’s him. And it’s probably a bad idea for us to try and interfere with him.”
“You can’t be serious,” Nathan said incredulously. “We don’t even know what’s going on over there. We’re not sending a seven-year-old into it blind.”
“You want my help or not? I didn’t say it was a good option, it just might be the only one we’ve got. I already told you, most fairy tales just need someone to be the right person in the right place at the right time. And I don’t know of any fairy tales that end with ‘and then the cops organized a search party to find the missing kids.’”
“That doesn’t mean we can leave another kid to solve it on his own.”
“And we’re not going to,” Audrey cut in, stepping between the two men. The thought she’d been having was coming to fruition. “I’ll go with him.”
“Right person in the right place at the right time,” Duke reminded her. “Anyone who goes in there and isn’t the one the story says is supposed to solve the problem is probably just going to get tangled up in it along with everyone else.”
“Maybe not. Your squirrel couldn’t see me, remember? Maybe whatever’s going on in there won’t notice me, either. I can go with Shawn and make sure he’s safe, but I won’t try to interfere unless I absolutely have to.” Audrey met their uncertain looks with a solid gaze. It was a good plan, she just had to get them both on board with it. “It’s not like we’ve got a lot of options here,” she reminded them.
“It’s not my squirrel,” Duke grumbled, and Audrey knew she’d won him over. He sighed and spread his hands. “It’s worth a shot, at least. Assuming you can convince the kid to go with you.”
“Not to mention convince his mom,” Nathan added.
“Yeah, well, she might not have a choice, if this is her son’s story,” Audrey said. “Bad things tend to happen to people who tell a hero not to accept his destiny. Especially his parents.” Nathan raised an eyebrow at her. “What? Just because I don’t read good literature doesn’t mean I don’t read.”
“She’s not wrong,” Duke observed.
Nathan nodded. “Probably not the best way to phrase it when you’re talking to his mom, though.”
“Noted,” Audrey said with a wry smile. “Just let me take care of this one, okay?” She turned around. “Mrs. Morse? We need to talk to you and your son for a minute.”
She drew the two of them away from the crowd and the other officers, where they wouldn’t be overheard. “The good news is that we know where the missing kids are,” she told them. “But we can’t get to them without Shawn’s help.”
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Morse said, her grip on her son tightening. “Where are they? Why do you need Shawn?”
“It’s hard to explain,” Audrey admitted. “Mrs. Morse... how much do you know about the Troubles?”
Now her eyes narrowed. “My son didn’t cause any of this,” she said coldly.
“Nobody’s saying he did,” Audrey said gently. “We don’t think any of the missing kids actually caused this; they just stumbled into it. And Shawn may be the only one who can help them stumble back out of it.”
“Why him? What makes you think that whatever happened to the rest of them won’t happen to him?”
“For one thing, it hasn’t yet,” Audrey said. “He’s the only kid in the neighborhood who’s been to this park today and came back. And he’s the only one who came to an adult for help. We’ll be backing him up.” Which was true, even if it wasn’t the real reason that they needed him. In this instance, she didn’t think that trying to explain the fairy tale epidemic would change Mrs. Morse’s mind. Audrey bent down to address Shawn directly, not giving his mother time to respond. “I know I’m asking a lot from you,” she said gently. “But you could be a huge help to us, and to your brother and sister.”
Shawn eyed her somberly. “What would I have to do?”
“Nothing,” his mother said firmly. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“Of course you don’t,” Audrey agreed. “I can’t make you do anything, and I’m not going to try. I just hope you’ll agree to do what I ask you to because you think it’s the right thing to do. I need you to climb over that wall with me, right where your brother and your sister went over it, and help me look for them. We think you might be the only one who can find them.”
Shawn’s eyes widened, and he shook his head sharply. “I can’t do that. Annabeth said I couldn’t come. She said we’d all get in trouble Mom found out she let me—” He cut himself off suddenly, clapping a hand over his mouth and looking up at his mother with apprehension.
His mother gave him a shrewd look. “Let you what?”
“Let me tag along with them sometimes,” Shawn mumbled, barely audible. “Like when she and Rob climb trees and stuff.”
“‘And stuff,’” Mrs. Morse repeated, folding her arms and staring him down. When he didn’t respond, she sighed and shook her head. “We’re going to have a talk about this when all this is over,” she said severely. Shawn hung his head and nodded.
Mrs. Morse turned her attention back to Audrey. “As it seems that my youngest is already getting into trouble on his own, I suppose it would be pointless for me to try and forbid him from getting someone else out of trouble. Assuming,” she added sharply, her eyes boring into Audrey, “that he’s going to be in the company of a responsible adult.”
“I won’t let him out of my sight,” Audrey promised, hoping she could keep it. “How about it?” she asked Shawn. “Your mom says it’s okay if you help us out. Will you do it?”
Slowly, uncertainly, Shawn edged away from his mother and came around to stand in front of Audrey. “Okay.”
“Thank you,” Audrey said, gently and sincerely. “It means a lot to me that you’re willing to help. And it’s going to mean a lot to all the other kids, once we find them.”
Duke nodded at their approach. “Kid’s on board for this?”
“Shawn has very generously agreed to help us,” Audrey said encouragingly, guiding the boy forward. “Isn’t that right, Shawn?”
He hesitated, apparently taken aback by multiple adults looking at him like they expected something. “I just want Rob and Annabeth back,” he said quietly.
“We’re going to get them back,” Audrey promised, crouching down to look him in the eye. “We just need you to trust us and be brave, okay.” She squeezed his shoulder. “It’s going to be all right.”
“Stay in radio contact as long as you can,” Nathan cut in as she stood up. “And here.” He turned her around and caught hold of her back belt loop, attaching a heavy carabiner clip to it.
Audrey eyed the rope that was now trailing behind her. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to hook this up to Shawn?”
“If this is his story, he shouldn’t have any problems finding his way out of it. You might.” Nathan gave her a half smile. “And if there is a problem, I know you won’t leave without him.”
Audrey smiled back, as usual both heartened and humbled by his faith in her. “You ready for this?” she asked Shawn. He nodded firmly. “All right. I’m gonna go over the wall first, and then these two’ll boost you up so I can help you down on the other side, okay?”
“Parker.” Nathan’s voice stopped her as she reached for the wall again. “Be careful.”
She nodded. “I will. Now are you gonna help me up, or just stand there watching me?”
Getting up the wall was no trouble, and neither was pulling her entire body over to the other side. But as she prepared to drop to the ground, Audrey found it difficult to let go of the stones. If the space on the far side of the wall really was some kind of other world, she was hesitant about losing her last connection to the real one. “Nathan?”
“Just checking.” She wasn’t completely cut off, at least not yet. And there would still be the rope. Closing her eyes and forcing herself to breathe calmly, she let go and dropped to the ground.
It wasn’t a long drop; the wall was apparently the same height on this side as it had been on the other side. The ground was soft, covered as it was with moss and low creepers. There was no feeling of being disconnected, no sense that she’d crossed some kind of boundary. Not, she admitted to herself, that she’d know what that felt like.
Nathan’s voice crackled over her radio. “Parker? You okay?”
Well, that was working so far, at least. Audrey pulled the radio off her belt. “No surprises so far,” she told him. “Go ahead and send Shawn over.”
She could hear Duke grunt. “Up you go, kid.” It was quieter than it should be, even taking the muffling effects of the wall into account. A moment later Shawn’s head appeared, followed slowly and with great effort by the rest of his body. He paused at the top of the wall, staring out over the unexpected scene below in the same shock that Audrey had experienced. “No way.”
“I know,” she said. She held out her arms. “Just lower yourself as far as you can and the let go. I’ll catch you. Just like that,” she added, catching him around the middle as he loosed his grip and setting him gently on the ground. “There you go.”
Shawn studied their surroundings with wide eyes. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know,” Audrey admitted. “But it’s where all the other kids ended up, too. And that’s why I need your help to look for them.” She paused. “Well, actually, you’re looking for the softball your brother was chasing. But that’ll lead us to the other kids.”
“I don’t understand,” Shawn said.
Audrey didn’t blame him. “Think of it like a quest,” she said. “Your brother was looking for something and he couldn’t find it, so he’s trapped here. Your sister came in after him and didn’t find it either, so she got trapped. I’m guessing the same thing happened to the other kids who’ve gone missing today. So you have to find what you’re looking for so that they can all come home.”
He gave her a skeptical look. “That sounds like a story.”
Honesty seemed the best response. “That’s exactly what it is,” Audrey said. “All those kids are stuck in a story. And you have to finish the story to help them.”
“And you too, right?” Shawn pressed. “You’re going to help me?”
“I can’t help you look,” Audrey said, making sure not to hesitate. She didn’t want him to know just how unsure she was of how much help she’d be if something actually happened. “It’s your quest; you have to find it. But I’m going to be right here with you, just in case.”
To her relief, he didn’t ask ‘in case what.’ He turned around to face the wall, closing his eyes. She could hear him mumbling to himself, tracking something invisible with his hands. “The park is back there, and Rob was standing...” He turned around and opened his eyes. “We need to go that way,” he said, pointing.
“Great.” Audrey activated her radio. “We’re heading out,” she said. “You still reading me?”
“Loud and clear, Parker,” Nathan answered
“Good. Is Duke there?”
The background sounds suggested that he’d just pulled the radio out of Nathan’s hands. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Got any last-minute advice?”
“Nothing I can think of at the moment.”
“Give me that.” Nathan’s voice was faint as he snatched the radio back. “Everything clear so far?”
“So far,” she told him. “I’ll keep you updated. And have Duke stay on the line; we might need him.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Duke assured her. She could hear the smug look he was giving Nathan.
Ignoring their bickering with the kind of expertise that should have taken years to acquire, Audrey returned her entire attention to Shawn. He was standing still, his feet pointed in the direction he’d chosen and his upper body turned to face her. Waiting for her, she realized. “Go ahead,” she told him. “This is your quest; I’m just along for the ride.”
Shawn gave her a nod, his face set in determination, and turned his full attention to the ground in front of him. He walked slowly, sweeping aside the foliage in wide arcs and studying the ground for any clues. He flinched when the bushes started getting tall enough to block out most of the sunlight, but other than that he seemed totally engrossed in his search, ignoring the rest of his surroundings. In turn, Audrey’s attention was focused solely on Shawn. The statue that suddenly jutted out of the bushes startled them both.
The stone child looked like it was only meant to be a couple years older than Shawn, and Audrey was willing to bet that it hadn’t been here yesterday. “Shawn,” she said carefully, “does this look like anyone you know?”
Shawn, transfixed and pale, nodded. “That’s Brian Crane. He was supposed to meet us in the park. He never showed up.”
Or he was there and gone before you arrived, Audrey thought. “Then that’s one of the missing kids accounted for,” she said aloud, as if this was something she’d expected.
“What happened to him?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Audrey said. “And to fix. If you complete your quest, we can take care of everyone else.”
Shawn shook his head. “I don’t understand. How will that help them?”
“That’s just how it works,” Audrey said gently. “I wish I could give you a better answer, but that’s the only one we have now.”
Shawn gave in, his shoulders slumping in frustrated confusion. Making Audrey stand exactly where she was, he walked around the statue, giving it a wide berth as if the reaching hands might suddenly grab for him. He went around until the statue was directly between him and Audrey, ensuring that they’d still be walking in the same direction they had been before the detour.
As he was doing this, Audrey spoke into the radio in a low, quick voice, recapping the situation so far for Duke. “That is how it works, right?” she asked. “We fix his problem, we fix everyone’s?”
Duke was silent for a long moment. “Well, you can’t rescue the other kids without Shawn doing this first,” he said slowly. “I can’t make any promises about saving everyone else even with him. It might just reverse the curses on his family members, if that.”
“That’s not encouraging,” Audrey said, knowing it wasn’t Duke’s fault.
“It’s the best I can do,” Duke told her. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll figure the rest out as it comes.”
“A lot of your plans include that step, don’t they?”
“And nine times out of ten we figure out the rest.”
Audrey had to admit that that was true. “I’ll keep in touch,” she said, and headed out to follow Shawn past the statue.
He hadn’t gone far from it, and he was frozen in shock again, staring up at an old woman who was certainly not a statue. “And what do you think you’re doing back here?” she was demanding.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Audrey said. She held up her badge. “Haven P.D. We’re on the trail of a group of missing kids. Is this your property?”
She might as well not have existed for all the attention the woman paid to her. “Well?” she demanded of Shawn, her voice cold and sharp.
“I don’t think you heard me correctly,” Audrey said, just as authoritative. Shawn was turned to face her with a helpless look, relying on the grownup to take care of the situation. “Police. Missing kids. Identify yourself.”
The woman continued to ignore her. “Why do you keep looking behind you, boy?” she demanded of Shawn. “Don’t tell me you’ve brought a whole pack with you to trespass on my grounds.”
“No, ma’am,” Shawn managed. “It’s just us. Me,” he corrected, apparently having noticed the way the woman hadn’t acknowledged Audrey’s existence.
Just like Duke’s squirrel, Audrey thought. “You’re on your own for this one,” she told Shawn apologetically. “Just explain why you’re here; she seems to be a part of it. And be polite,” she added, remembering Duke’s rules. Thinking of Duke, she held up the radio, hoping he’d be able to hear the conversation.
Shawn twisted his hands together nervously as he tried to nod to tell Audrey he understood. “My brother lost a softball over your wall,” he stumbled. “He came to get it, but he didn’t come back, and neither did my sister, so I came to look for them.” He hung his head, trying for a contrite look. “We weren’t trying to sneak in. Well, we were,” he amended, “but we didn’t think anyone lived here anymore so we couldn’t ask for permission.”
The old woman seemed to soften. “Well, you know better now, don’t you?” she asked. Shawn nodded emphatically. She gave a sigh. “I should have known you were with the other ones. They’ve been and gone, although I don’t think they found what they were looking for, nor do I know where they went.”
“Oh,” Shawn said softly. “I was hoping you could help me find them.”
“Don’t be absurd,” the woman said archly. She relented quickly, however. “If you wish, you may at least continue your search for your missing item. But take only that which is yours, do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Shawn mumbled. “I’m sorry we trespassed. I’ll try to be quick.”
“See that you do,” the woman said. She turned without a further word, lost within the dense foliage within seconds.
“You get any of that, Duke?” Audrey asked.
“Yeah,” came the response. “Sounds pretty standard. Just... tell the kid to be really careful about that ‘taking only that which is yours’ thing, all right? That’s not something you usually have to be told in a fairy tale unless it’s gonna bite you in the ass later.”
“Parker,” Nathan’s voice cut in, soft and sudden. “Has your rope snagged on anything?”
She felt for the clip on her belt loop, looking behind her and giving the rope an experimental tug. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“We’ve fed out enough rope to reach across the backyard at least twice,” Nathan told her. “I don’t know how much we have left.”
“Just keep it coming as far as you can,” Audrey told him. “We’ll worry about running out when we run out.” Privately, she had every intention of leaving the rope behind if she had to, rather than leaving Shawn to do this alone or making him come back without finishing his quest, but she knew better than to tell Nathan that until it was too late for him to try and argue. “Did you hear Duke?” she asked Shawn.
He nodded. “I’m not supposed to touch anything except my ball,” he said. He was already looking for it again, returning to his sweeping of the ground, but there was a new thoughtful look on his face. “Does that mean that I can’t help anyone else? Even if all the other kids from the neighborhood are back here, and I find what they’re looking for, I can’t bring it to them and fix them if they’re like Brian?”
“I don’t know,” Audrey admitted. “It sounds like it. But even if that’s true, we’ll find some other way to help the rest of them.”
Shawn sank into himself, his shoulders slumping, making himself look even smaller than he was. “Can I tell you something?” he asked.
“Sure you can,” Audrey said.
“I don’t want to tell anyone else.”
Audrey couldn’t quite smother a smile as she caught his meaning. “I’ll be right back, guys,” she said into the radio before switching it off over the start of a protesting squawk. “Nobody’s listening and I won’t tell,” she promised.
“I don’t want to do this,” Shawn confessed in a tiny voice. “It’s weird and creepy back here, and I don’t like it, and I don’t know why I have to be the one to fix everything. And I’m kind of scared,” he added, even more quietly.
Audrey didn’t blame him. “We could go back,” she said, trying not to sound as reluctant as she was to suggest it. She didn’t want to abandon the other missing kids, which she was growing more certain would be the outcome if Shawn left off now, but she also didn’t want to force the boy to continue if he was afraid.
Shawn shook his head. “I don’t want to go back,” he said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself. “There are people who need me, right? And it has to be me? No one else can help them?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“Then I have to do it,” Shawn said. “It’s not fair. I don’t want to. But I don’t want them to not get helped. And if there’s something I can do and I don’t do it, then that would feel even worse than doing something scary and awful.” He looked up at Audrey. “Does that make sense?”
“You have no idea how much,” Audrey said quietly. They were all the same thoughts she’d been having ever since she’d found out about her own deadline. If they couldn’t find another solution before the meteor storm came, if she had to disappear... Could she really refuse to do it, given what she’d be sentencing the rest of the town to? “I wish I had a better answer for you,” she said, trying to let her own worries go for the moment. “It’s not fair. But you’re right, sometimes doing something you don’t want to do is better than not doing it, if it’s something you’re doing for someone else.” She gave him a gentle smile. “I’m not going to force you to keep going. But I think you want to, and if you do, I’m going to be right here with you.”
“I don’t want to keep going,” Shawn corrected her. “But I don’t want to go back more than I don’t want to keep going.”
“I know how you feel. Come here.” Audrey swept the boy up in a quick hug. “You’re pretty brave, you know that?”
He gave her a little grin. “I guess I kinda am.”
She ruffled his hair, laughing lightly. “C’mon, tough guy,” she said. “Let’s find that ball so you can go home.”
However hard he concentrated, Nathan couldn’t hear anything from the other side of the wall. Audrey’s voice had faded out far more quickly than it should have, even taking into account the muffling effect of the foliage she’d have been walking through. Within moments of her disappearing from view the radio had become their only source of communication, and now she’d cut off even that.
Be glad we’ve got that much, Duke had told him in an undertone when he picked up on Nathan’s worry. She’s barely in this world anymore; the fact that we can pick up her radio at all is more than I expected. Nathan had bridled at the fact that Duke hadn’t said anything when they were preparing to send her in, that he’d let her go knowing that they might lose communication and hadn’t said anything. I didn’t have any kind of proof that it wouldn’t work, Duke had pointed out in that sharp voice that meant he thought he was being the rational one. And it’s not like knowing that would have stopped her.
The problem was that lately, when Duke thought he was being the rational one, he was usually right. There was a problem related to the Troubles, and Audrey thought she could solve it. Even before they’d ever heard about the Hunter meteor storm – twenty-seven days, Nathan tried not to remind himself – she’d have thrown herself into the fray without a thought to her own safety, and now... Nathan shook his head. These days he didn’t know what was going through her head, if he ever had in the first place. All he could do now was what he had always done, helping her deal with the Troubled and trying to keep her safe even when she forgot to keep herself safe. If there was anything more he could do, he just hoped she’d tell him before it was too late. For now, he would just have to stand out here with Duke, clinging to the radio and feeding out rope and waiting for her to come back to him.
But waiting was getting increasingly harder to do. Nathan didn’t know how long the silence had lasted when he finally decided it had been too long. “I’m going in,” he said, stepping away from the truck and heading for the wall.
Sudden resistance halted his progress with a jolt he almost felt. “No you’re not,” Duke said calmly, not relinquishing his grip on Nathan’s forearm.
Nathan gritted his teeth and clenched his fist. “She’s in there alone, and now we don’t have any way to contact her,” he said. He tried to pull his arm back, but Duke held firm.
“She’s also better equipped to deal with whatever’s going on in there than either of us,” Duke reminded him. “Think about it. She turned her radio off willingly, and she told us before she did it. Nothing cut her off, and there’s nobody back there who could threaten her into cutting herself off. Whatever she’s doing, she’s got a plan. It might be an insane plan, but we owe it to her to at least give her a minute and see what she does next.”
“And in the meantime we just leave her to the wolves?”
“No wolves in this story,” Duke said, and Nathan wasn’t sure if he was being glib or if the situation had led him to take Nathan literally. He shook his head. “The whole point of her going back there was to take advantage of her immunity. There’s nothing there that can hurt her.”
“As far as we know,” Nathan countered.
Duke didn’t try to argue against that. “Hey, if we don’t hear from her in a minute or two I’m going right over that wall with you. I’m just saying, give her a chance before we take an unnecessary risk.”
Fury rose in Nathan’s chest. “‘Unnecessary risk’?” he repeated. “You give Audrey all that big talk, and suddenly you’re not willing to take a risk for her?”
“I’m not willing to risk you, jackass!” Duke’s teeth were bared as he jerked Nathan’s arm, pulling him in closer and stunning him into silence. “I’m not going to let someone I care about put himself on the line for someone else I care about unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he continued, more softly now. “And even if I was going to, I wouldn’t let you do it alone. So just settle down and trust her for half a minute, and if something goes wrong we’ll both deal with it, okay?”
Nathan couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Duke so serious. Or the last time Duke had called him someone I care about. The words rang loud in his head. Not sure what to say – a voice in the back of his brain was saying he should say something, but offering no suggestions as to what – he gave a short nod.
“Good,” Duke said in a calm tone that was somehow not calm at all, finally letting go of Nathan’s arm. Nathan realized for the first time that Duke’s other hand had never left the rope, his grip on it white-knuckled compared to the loose hold they’d both kept on it as they were feeding it out. However confident he’d been, he wasn’t going to let Audrey get any further away until they had contact with her again. He returned his attention to the silent radio, shooting a sideways look back at Nathan. “I don’t really want to think about what she’d do to me if I’d let you go after her,” he added lightly.
Nathan tried for something like a smile. He didn’t think he was successful. “I still don’t like just waiting for her,” he said.
Duke spread his hands in a clear, ‘what are you gonna do?’ gesture. Nathan had to admit that the sentiment was accurate; it wasn’t like Audrey had given them much of a choice in the matter. “Come on,” he found himself murmuring as he hunched back over the radio with Duke, trying to bring her back by sheer force of will.
Maybe it worked. “Hey, guys, I’m back.”
Audrey’s voice vanished as quickly as it had reappeared, drowned out by Duke and Nathan’s overlapping shouts and admonitions and demands for an explanation. “It’s okay,” she finally managed to get out over the sound. “We’re here, we’re fine. I just had to cut out for a second.”
“Christ, Audrey!” Duke growled, giving voice enough to both their worry. He was practically bent double with relief, belying his earlier apparent unconcern.
“You all right, Parker?” Nathan added, managing to make himself sound at least a little calm now that Duke had summed up what they’d both wanted to say. He still couldn’t stop himself from scolding her a little, though, even after yet another assurance that she was fine and that they had almost completed their objective.
The hand that Duke held over his mouth muffled something that was probably not fit to be heard anyway. “I swear she’s turning my hair grey,” he muttered.
Nathan refrained from making a comment about Duke’s hair, which was currently hanging in his face and giving him a sheepdog look. She’s worth it, he thought. It wasn’t until Duke mumbled an agreement that he realized he’d said it out loud.