Audrey switched her radio back on, wincing at the sudden burst of noise as Nathan and Duke tried to out-shout each other. “It’s okay,” she said, trying to talk over them. “We’re here, we’re fine. I just had to cut out for a second.”
“Christ, Audrey!” Duke snapped harshly.
“You all right, Parker?” Nathan was speaking more calmly, but his words were still gruff and clipped.
“Everything’s fine,” she assured them. “We just... needed a minute.”
“You know better than to cut off communication,” Nathan said pointedly.
“I know what I’m doing,” Audrey responded, equally firm now. “Now just let me do my job. I have a feeling we’re not going to be back here much longer.” There was a wordless sound of frustration in response – she wasn’t sure which one of them it came from – but she ignored it and turned her full attention back to Shawn.
It was like someone had been waiting for their cue. Once Shawn started searching again, it was less than two minutes before something white peeked through the moss. “That’s it,” Shawn said quietly, as if they were sneaking up on it. “That’s our ball.”
“You’re sure?” Audrey asked, remembering how adamant both the old woman and Duke had been about picking the right one.
“I’m sure,” Shawn told her. “Pretty sure, anyway.” He hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah. I’m sure.”
He didn’t move for several seconds. “Are you going to pick it up?” Audrey found herself unconsciously speaking as quietly as he had.
“What if something happens?”
Audrey gave him a gentle look, reminding him of their earlier conversation. “What if you don’t pick it up, and nothing happens?”
She saw Shawn nod his understanding. Slowly, nervously, he reached out for the softball.
For a long moment, nothing did happen. Then, with a sound like a sigh, the trees and bushes around them drew back, leaving a wide clearing covered with nothing but soft moss. Audrey estimated that the clearing was about the same size that the entire backyard should have covered, and it was filled with statues of children much like the one they had passed on their way here. In fact, if she looked closer she could see that one of them was the one they’d passed earlier. A quick count told her that there were eight of them in all, the same number as there were missing kids. “Looks like we found them,” she said into her radio. “We’ll be making our way back as soon as we figure out how to bring them with us.” She took a look behind herself, hoping she’d be able to make a guess as to how far they’d gone, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she realized that the wall was now only a few yards away. The rope that was attached to her belt was still hanging over the top of it, and there was no extra slack between the wall and her. Magic, she reminded herself.
Shawn wasn’t looking at their surroundings. He was focused on the softball in his hands, which had developed a faint glow. “Is that it?” he asked.
“It looks like we’re allowed to leave, at least,” Audrey said, indicating the wall.
Now Shawn looked up, brightening when he saw the statues. The happy look didn’t last very long, however, before his brow furrowed. “But what about them?”
Audrey was wondering the same thing, and she didn’t think she liked the answer. She crouched down next to Shawn, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know if there’s anything more we can do for them,” she said. “When that woman told you that you couldn’t take anything that wasn’t yours... I think this might be what she meant.”
Shawn scrunched up his forehead, biting his lip and looking intensely thoughtful. “But... they are mine,” he said slowly. “Rob’s my brother, and Annabeth is my sister. And the rest of them are all my friends. That has to count for something.”
“I don’t know if that’s how it works,” Audrey started to say, but the rising light around her cut her off. The statues were starting to glow, the same soft light that was emanating from the softball. “Or maybe it is.” She patted Shawn on the shoulder again, standing up. “I think that was a riddle. And I think you got the right answer.”
“I did?” Shawn asked. “Then why didn’t that fix them?”
“Maybe there’s something else you have to do,” Audrey said thoughtfully. “Can I see that?” She held her hand out for the ball. The glow coming from it dimmed when Shawn let go of it, but didn’t go out. It and the statues were obviously connected somehow.
The solution came to her suddenly, and she laughed. “We’re trying to get the other kids out of the yard, aren’t we?”
Shawn nodded slowly, not sure where she was going with this.
“Well, how else do you get someone out with a softball?” Audrey asked, tossing it to him with a grin. “Tag ‘em.”
A sudden sound caught Nathan’s ear. He raised his head, holding up a hand to cut off Duke’s question so he could hear it better. It was coming from the other side of the wall, the first sound they’d heard since Audrey went over. Laughter. Children’s laughter, faint but growing louder. “Guys,” Audrey’s voice came over the radio, bright with triumph. “We’ve got the other kids. We’re coming back.”
The grin and quirked eyebrow that Duke shot at Nathan clearly said what did I tell you?, as if he hadn’t been just as worried only a moment ago. “Great,” Nathan said, not bothering to hide his own relief. “Just follow the rope; we’ll guide you in.”
“No need,” Audrey told him. “The wall is right here. It wasn’t a minute ago, but it is now.” He gave Duke a questioning look; Duke just shrugged. “We could use some more hands to help all the kids over, though.”
They had already been making their way to the wall before she said it, Nathan narrowly beating Duke to the radio. “Okay, we’re standing under where you went in,” he told her.
“So am I,” she said, over the wall rather than over the speaker. “You can put the radio down; I can hear you fine now.” She continued to speak more faintly than Nathan could understand, apparently directing the kids.
A dark head appeared over the wall, followed by the rest of a girl in her mid-teens. She gave Duke and Nathan a wave and sat astride the wall. Nathan noticed that she was careful not to look directly at it; Audrey must have warned her. “You’re with Officer Parker?” she asked. When Duke nodded, she looked back at the other side of the wall for confirmation. “Okay. The bigger kids are going to hand up the little ones to me, and I’m going to hand them off to you, all right?”
There was barely time for Nathan to acknowledge this before she bent down over the far side of the wall and came up with a small, squirming child who was trying valiantly to pull himself over the wall on his own. How he had gotten over in the first place, Nathan couldn’t imagine. He reached out for the kid, catching him as carefully as he could and setting him on the ground. “You all right?”
The boy just stared up at him with wide eyes, trying to pull away from his grip without any apparent direction in mind. Nathan looked to Duke for help, but Duke already had his hands full with the second child, a girl of similar size to the first one who was clinging to him like a lifeline. He also seemed to have recognized the problem, that they were about to be outnumbered by lost and confused children. “Hey,” Duke said loudly, drawing the attention of one of the officers keeping the crowds back, “you think a couple of you can corral the squirts until we can get a head count?”
The officer at least looked to Nathan for confirmation before pulling another of his fellows away to help. “But we searched the backyard,” he said as he bent down and took the boy’s hand; the child seemed less nervous in the presence of a uniform. “Where are they coming from?”
“Not your fault you didn’t find them,” Nathan said, but didn’t bother elaborating. He would explain later, or come up with a plausible explanation. Right now, there was another kid who needed help getting to the ground.
Fortunately, the third child was the last of the incredibly young ones. The others only needed a boost and a hand to guide them to the ground, if that. Shawn was the last of these mid-sized children, jumping down with a confidence that made him look like a completely different child than the one they had sent off just a short while ago. Following him was an older boy, probably the same age as the girl who’d been sitting on the wall and looking so like Shawn that he had to be the missing brother. He made a show of pulling himself up alongside the girl, making an effort to make it look effortless and subtly – well, he probably thought it was subtly – checking to see if she was impressed. Whether or not she was Nathan couldn’t tell, nor did he particularly care. He was more focused on the knowledge that there was one more person they were waiting for.
As if in response to his thoughts, the two teens ducked down to the other side of the wall one more time, coming up with Audrey between them. Nathan rushed forward to offer her help that he didn’t think she really needed, catching her by the waist to make sure she landed lightly. “These are the worst possible shoes I could have picked for today,” she complained with a laugh.
“Is that all of them?” Duke asked, extricating himself from the knot of kids.
“All the missing kids, and the hero of the hour,” Audrey said, giving Shawn a proud pat on the head. “This one’s a pretty sharp kid.” He grinned and ducked his head.
She gave him a gentle push towards his siblings, who were acting equally impressed, and filled Duke and Nathan in on what had happened after they found the softball and the statues. “I talked to all the other kids,” she told them. “They all had the same thing happen to them: They went into the backyard after something they’d lost over the wall, mostly one at a time but a couple in groups. They met the same old woman Shawn and I saw, and got frozen in place when they tried to pick up something that wasn’t what they were looking for. Fortunately none of them seem to remember anything between getting turned to stone and Shawn waking them up. They’re all fine, as far as I can tell; there’s no reason not to release them all to their parents.”
“Good thing,” Duke said, eyeing the restless crowd that the officers were still keeping at a distance. “I don’t know how much longer they’re going to wait patiently if you’ve got their kids.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Audrey said. “I want to talk to Shawn’s mom, anyway. Seems like she could use someone telling her that her youngest is tougher than he looks.”
Nathan stepped aside, allowing her to pass. “Hang on, Parker,” he said suddenly as she began to walk away. He caught her by the waistband, unhooking the rope that was still clipped to her belt. He had to admit that some part of him was tempted to leave it on her, to have a way to keep track of her during her daily wanderings into God only knew what kind of dangerous situations.
Duke was already starting to pull in the slack on the rope, looping it into neat coils on the roof of Nathan’s truck. It was more rope than there should have been for how close to the wall Audrey had apparently been. He had the same thoughtful look he’d worn while he was listening to Audrey over the radio. As Nathan approached him he tilted his head, drawing his attention. “You still thinking the library might have some information?” he asked.
Nathan fell into place beside him, helping him with the rope. “Not with the way the head librarian stonewalled me,” he said.
“It’s not like she’s the only employee they’ve got,” Duke pointed out. “And there might be another one who’s more willing to give you a hand.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “What are you getting at?”
Duke sighed, lowering his voice even further. “Look, I don’t know anything for sure. But I do know that Doreen at the circulation desk has been giving me weird looks the last few times I’ve been in there, and I don’t think she’s judging my tastes in reading material.” A pointed look at Nathan’s inner arm. “I’m thinking someone warned her about getting too friendly with a Crocker.”
The irony in his voice was palpable. Nathan gave a short nod, trying to push away the sudden feeling of guilt. “Good to know, thanks,” he said, focusing on the rope coming over the wall to keep from looking at Duke. The last of it finally came over, the curve of it falling to the ground. There was a faint popping sound, like a cork coming loose. Nathan blinked. That wasn’t the sound he’d expected. “Did you hear that?”
Duke’s questioning look said that he hadn’t. Suspicion starting to build in him, Nathan returned to the wall, digging his feet in and pulling himself up to look over. The backyard was visible now, the same tangle of dead plants that they’d wandered through when they opened the gate. It looked like they’d broken the last connection between the wall and whatever had set up shop on the other side. Just to confirm this theory, Nathan hopped all the way over the wall, coming down with a loud crack of crumbling foliage. Yes, there was the gate with its broken lock, and when he went through it he found himself back outside the yard, facing a startled Duke who looked like he’d been seconds away from jumping over the wall after Nathan. “It’s gone,” he said. “Whatever other place this was connected to, it’s not there now.”
Duke relaxed. “Makes sense, I guess,” he said. “The story’s over.” He looked at the quickly-dispersing crowd of families behind them, parents leading their kids away, alternately hugging and scolding them. “And they all lived happily ever after.”
Duke was out of the car the second they pulled up to the station, barely sparing a wave for Audrey as he headed for his own vehicle. “I’ve got a business to run. You know where to find me if you need me.”
“What was that about?” Audrey wondered, swiveling in her seat to watch him walk away.
“Probably doesn’t trust his staff not to offend a fairy disguised as a weary traveler,” Nathan said, sounding only a little sarcastic. He jutted his chin towards the front of the building, where Dwight was standing just outside the door. “And he probably figures we’ve got all the backup we need for right now.” A pause. “Or he’s just avoiding Dwight.”
“Things do seem to get more complicated for him when Dwight shows up,” Audrey had to agree.
“Hey,” Dwight said as they approached him. “They told me you guys were looking into some missing kids? Anything I can do?”
“It’s all taken care of,” Audrey assured him. She gave him a quick rundown of the situation, and of all the other incidents that had happened over the last two days.
Dwight nodded. “Fairy tales, huh?” he repeated, sounding unsurprised. “That explains some things. The guy I just brought in? He says a witch tried to kill him. Only backed off when he told her his wife was pregnant, but then she threatened to come back and take the baby once it’s born.”
“Did you get a description from him?” Audrey asked, thinking of the old woman she and Shawn had encountered and wondering if this witch was another creation of this Trouble.
“Nothing concrete,” Dwight said. “Not from him, and not from any of the witnesses, who tell the story differently.” Audrey raised an eyebrow. “According to the neighborhood watch who reported him, they saw a man and a woman having an argument in their community garden, after which the woman vanished and the man made off with a load of someone else’s vegetables. I asked him about that, and he just said it was all for his wife and wouldn’t say anything more.”
“A pregnant wife, and a witch in a garden,” Audrey said. It sounded like something out of a fairy tale, but she couldn’t make the pieces line up in her head. “Ring a bell?” she asked Nathan.
“That’s how Rapunzel starts,” Dwight said, sounding a little surprised that he had to explain it. “I had a daughter,” he reminded them when Audrey gave him a questioning look.
“Right,” Audrey said quietly, always unsure of how to proceed when that subject came up.
“We need some information you might have,” Nathan cut in, much to Audrey’s relief. “We think someone at the library might know more about what’s going on, and Duke thinks one of the staff members might be a member of the Guard. Doreen Hanscombe. Do you know her?”
“Well enough to know that flashing your ink isn’t going to get you anywhere with her,” Dwight said, giving Nathan a wry eye. “I’m not the only one who’s walked away from the Guard.”
“But you know she’s Troubled?” Audrey asked.
“I don’t know the details; she never said. But yeah, she is.” Dwight looked at Audrey thoughtfully. “She talked about you a lot,” he said. “She liked you, said you did more for the Troubled than anyone else. She’d probably tell you anything, if she thought it would help you help someone else.”
“Okay,” Audrey said. “I’ll get Doreen’s contact information and look her up. Nathan, you deal with our Rapunzel guy.” She wasn’t expecting him to have any information, given the way this investigation was going so far, but it was never a good idea to leave a lead unfollowed. Nathan nodded his agreement.
“You need me for anything?” Dwight asked.
“Not at the moment,” Audrey told him. “Just keep your ears open, let us know if there’s anything else going on. And if you do find something you can step in on...”
“I’ll be right on it,” he assured her. “I know how to do my job.”
The afternoon had already been slipping away when Audrey set off to find Doreen; after an interview and a cup of tea with her evening had officially set in. Audrey returned to her car with the intent of going straight home, but not without contacting Nathan first.
He picked up on the first ring. “What have you got, Parker?”
“Caroline Harper,” she announced. “Director of children’s programming at the Haven Public Library. She’s been hosting a weekly story hour for months, but had to put it on indefinite hold a few weeks ago while she recovers from injuries sustained in a house fire. Three guesses as to what she was reading to the kids.”
“Fairy tales,” Nathan said without surprise. “Does Doreen know if she’s Troubled?”
“Caroline never mentioned it.”
“She might not have known,” Nathan suggested. “If she is, odds are the fire triggered it.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” Audrey said. “And if she’s not our Troubled person, it’s too much of a coincidence for her not to be connected to whoever is.”
“Sounds like it,” Nathan said. “I’ll look her up, see if there’s anything on her.”
“I’ve already got her contact information,” Audrey told him. Dwight hadn’t been kidding about how willing Doreen would be to talk to her. She read off the two phone numbers and the address Doreen had given her. “No answer either at home or on her cell phone so far,” she added.
Nathan exhaled wearily. “I can send someone by her house first thing in the morning, but if it’s gonna turn into a manhunt there’s not much else we can do tonight. You should probably just head home and get some sleep, Parker.”
“I was going to tell you to do the same,” she said with a smile. “Even the Chief of Police needs a couple hours a night.”
“I’ve got some paperwork to finish up here,” he said, and she could hear an answering smile in his voice. “But I’ll be heading out pretty soon. See you in the morning?”
“Of course. Good night, Nathan.”
Audrey hung up the phone and let out a quiet sigh. She’d done it again. The tenderness that tended to seep into her voice when she talked to Nathan was something she couldn’t train herself out of, and she could tell from the way he’d matched it that he could hear it. She shouldn’t be encouraging him, shouldn’t be encouraging herself. It didn’t matter how difficult it was, she had to put more distance between them. The thought of what might happen to him if she didn’t was more than she wanted to think about.
The brightness of the Gull as she pulled up helped lift her out of those distressing thoughts. The usual Saturday night party atmosphere was in full swing, and though she might complain sometimes on nights when she was having a hard time tuning out the noise and getting to sleep, she had grown accustomed to it quickly. It was how she knew she was home, just as much as the sound of her wind chimes or the particular smell of the water outside her windows.
The people had become part of home, too. There were regulars, ones who gave her a nod as she wove through the room and ones who ducked their heads to avoid making eye contact with a cop. The waitresses all had a smile to spare for her – some more genuine than others; she suspected that most of them were just concerned with making a good impression on someone who might have the boss’s ear – and one of them gave a toss of her head to indicate the table that Duke was currently attending to.
“On the house, my good woman,” she heard him saying to the table’s elderly occupant, giving her arm a pleasant pat as he set down a loaded plate. Audrey covered a grin; apparently Nathan’s suspicion as to why he’d been so quick to get back to work had been accurate.
He caught her look. “Not a word,” he said in a low voice as he led her out to a corner of the patio where they could talk in relative privacy.
“I didn’t say anything,” she returned innocently. “I’m just imagining how different this place is going to look if word gets out that you’re charming little old ladies.”
He shot her a ‘very funny’ look, but followed it with a resigned shrug. “I can afford a little charity,” he said. “And there’s not a lot that’ll get you in more trouble in a fairy tale than giving less than you can afford to. I’d rather take a loss for a night or two than get turned into a beast or something. Besides,” he added, leaning in on her with his best grin, “The little old ladies in this town already know I’m charming.”
“As do the women of every other age group,” Audrey teased back. The little warning bell in the back of her head that had started going off when she was talking to Nathan was ringing again. She was getting flirty again, letting herself get too close to someone she cared about and possibly putting him in danger. But this was Duke, who had an easy smile and a flirtatious word for everyone who wasn’t trying to kill or arrest him, and who still sometimes managed it even then. He cared about her, she had no doubts about that, but the way he played with her was the way he played with everyone. He wasn’t looking to fall in love with her, wasn’t looking for her to fall in love with him. He was keeping his distance enough for the both of them.
“You staying for a drink?”
Which didn’t mean she shouldn’t exercise at least a little caution. “Probably shouldn’t,” she said apologetically. “Looks like it’s going to be another long day tomorrow. I just wanted to tell you that it looks like your tip about the librarian was a solid one. She gave us a lead that sounds promising. You know anything about Caroline Harper? She’s another staff member at the library.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” he said. “I mean, I’ve probably seen her around, but she must not have stood out.”
Audrey gave him a speculative look. She didn’t want to pry, especially with the way that Nathan had implied that it was a sore subject, but she couldn’t help wondering. And if the library was connected to all this, and Duke was connected to it somehow, it was probably something they should know about. “You seem awfully familiar with the library,” she said carefully.
“And I don’t seem like the intellectual type?” he asked. There was a touch of irony in the words, but no apparent offense. He adjusted his lean on the wall, turning slightly away from her and looking out into the distance with a little shrug. “I like books,” he said. “I liked ‘em when I was a kid and looking for an escape, and I liked ‘em when I finally got out of this town for the first time and discovered that the best way to travel involved a lot of solitary down time. There’s a whole lot more occupying my time these days,” he added with a wry smile, “but I still like to have something to read on hand.”
“I know what you mean,” Audrey said. “Especially the part about being busy lately.” She shook her head. “But fairy tales? I still can’t quite wrap my head around that.”
“It’s a whole genre where the winners are the people who figure out what the rules are and how to get around them,” he pointed out. “And where the ‘true’ version is going to change a little bit every time depending on who’s telling it and why, but everyone agrees that it’s basically the same story. What part of that wouldn’t I like?”
“Well, when you put it like that,” Audrey said with a laugh. She hesitated, then gave a little sigh and decided there was nothing for it but diving right in. “Look, is there anything else I should know about all this?”
Duke’s look was uncomprehending. “I have a couple bucks in late fees that I keep forgetting to pay, but...” He shook his head. “Not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Something Nathan said,” Audrey told him, and his expression was instantly guarded. “He told me that you used to spend a lot of time there when you were a kid, and then he acted like it was something he shouldn’t have said and told me not to bring it up with you.”
“And so you brought it up with me,” Duke said, not sounding angry or annoyed. He sounded like he was only partially paying attention to her, actually. “He really said that?”
“Yeah,” she said apologetically. “I don’t want to dredge up anything unpleasant, but if you’ve got some kind of connection that might end up being relevant to the situation...”
He waved her concern away. “You’re not dredging anything up. It’s just... so that’s where he draws the line.” He shook his head with a little laugh, sounding pleasantly surprised.
Audrey tilted her head, trying to follow this unexpected turn. “What am I missing?”
“The fact that there’s apparently one thing in my checkered history that Nathan doesn’t consider fair game,” Duke told her. “The part where he knows why I spent so much time there. I was a runaway,” he reminded her, and at the memory of the kid he’d been paying under the table at the Gull a few months ago Audrey suddenly suspected she knew where this story was going. “Spent a good chunk of my teens holed up in whatever hiding place I could find. A heated building where you don’t have to pay anything to get in and they won’t kick you out unless you cause trouble was a paradise.” He shook his head. “I guess Nathan thinks it’s a time I’d rather not be reminded of, and for once it’s something he doesn’t blame me for.”
“I’m sorry,” Audrey said quietly.
“I didn’t say he was right, did I?” Duke returned. “Look, it’s honestly not a big deal. It happened, I survived it, it’s over now. I’m just surprised Nathan even remembers it, let alone still cares.” Another shake of his head, with a faint laugh and half a smile. “I used to see him around sometimes, before I really finally got out of town. I lost track of how many times he asked if there was something he could do to help me. He was actually worried about me back then.”
Audrey gave him a speculative look. “It sounds to me like maybe he still is.”
Nathan’s footsteps echoed off the stone walls of the castle. He was alone in the vast hallways, wandering and searching. There was someone here who needed to be found, who was calling out for him in a silent and unknown voice.
“Why are you here?” This was a different voice than the one that had been calling him, a whisper that sounded like several voices together, rising from the walls and swirling around the columns and tapestries of the endless corridors. It sounded curious, confused.
“I’m looking for someone,” Nathan said.
Nathan hesitated. It wasn’t a question he’d really asked himself. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But someone. Someone who needs me.” He strained, listening for the voice that wasn’t a voice, trying to figure out what it was telling him. “And... I think... someone I might need.” He didn’t understand that, but suddenly it seemed true. He had to find whoever it was for his sake as much as for theirs.
The whispers made a sound like quiet, gentle laughter. “If you don’t know who you’re looking for, how do you know you’re looking at all? How do you know it’s not someone you’ve already found?”
It was a ridiculous question. “I’d know if I’d found someone. Why would I be looking otherwise?”
“Perhaps you’ve been looking in the wrong place, or just the wrong way.”
“I don’t understand,” Nathan said, and a gentle, wispy laugh wound its way around the hallway. He was getting closer to the other voice now, though how he knew that when he couldn’t actually hear it he had no idea. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Seek what you need to seek. Find what you need to find. And know how to recognize it when you do. This is all we can tell you.” The whispers slid away from him, rushing away in a soft wind that carried them in the opposite direction of the silent voice.
“Wait!” Nathan shouted. “I need to know more!” He broke into a run, chasing after the whispers, the other voice growing fainter behind him. If he got too far away, he might lose track of it again. But if he couldn’t get the whispers to tell him more, he didn’t know what he could expect to find. Chase down the answer, or walk into the unknown. He froze, looking back and forth between the two sides of the endless hallway. He didn’t know what to do, only that he had to do something. The whispers were fading away, and the other voice was still reaching out for him, straining, beeping, trilling...
Ringing. The sound of his phone finally broke through the fog of sleep, pulling him to the surface. Nathan groaned as he looked at the clock. He groaned again as he picked his phone up and looked at the caller ID. “It’s almost three AM, Duke. What do you want?”
“—open door, count your blessings to find what you look for! Turn my sorrow into—”
Nathan jerked the phone away from his ear. Whatever bits of sleep he was still clinging to were ripped away by the cacophony of Duke reaching – loudly – for notes his vocal cords were never meant to hit. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Nathan growled. The last thing he needed was some kind of karaoke drunk-dial.
The singing stopped abruptly. “You finally picked up,” Duke said as if nothing strange had happened. His voice was still slightly too loud. “I was starting to think I’d have to come up with a plan B.”
Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t want to ask. He really didn’t. “Plan B for what?”
“Trying to keep my head on straight and block out the noise,” Duke said. “I’ve got a whole pack of sirens outside. I can barely hear myself think.”
Nathan stared at the phone. This had been less ridiculous when he’d thought Duke was drunk. “Just because I’m the chief of police doesn’t mean that I can order my officers not to go after criminals in your neighborhood because it might keep you awake,” he snapped.
A moment of silent confusion, followed by a sigh. “Sirens, Nathan. The Little Mermaid and all her sisters, out in the harbor singing sailors to their deaths.”
It took Nathan a moment to wrap his head around that one. “Literally?” he finally asked, dreading the answer. Already he was rolling out of bed, preparing to head out to the harbor to start in on the damage control.
“Not yet, as far as I can tell,” Duke said. “Pretty sure I’m the only one in earshot who’s awake to hear it, and any other time of day the harbor would be too loud for them to break through. I already texted Beattie; told her to wear earplugs on the drive up and get this place as loud as possible the minute she gets in.”
“Okay,” Nathan said, relieved that Duke had already thought this one through. Beattie would be a valuable ally in this situation; not only would she do anything to help contain the Troubles, a few offhand remarks from both of them had led Nathan to suspect that she’d do anything Duke asked her to. “I can see if I can get a couple squad cars out there to make some noise in the interim,” he added, thinking of his earlier confusion.
“Fight sirens with sirens?” Duke said, sounding skeptical. “You think you can get enough volume to drown out something coming in over the water, and not just wake anyone in the area up and make them susceptible?”
“You don’t seem to be having any problems resisting,” Nathan pointed out.
“Yeah, because I know there’s something I need to resist. Why do you think I called you? You’re helping me block them out.”
“Me and Adele?” Nathan couldn’t resist asking.
“I was already slipping when I figured out what was happening,” Duke snapped defensively. “That song is on every station at least fifteen times a day. It was the first thing to pop into my head.”
“Okay,” Nathan said, holding his hands up, as if Duke could see him. He was pretty sure Duke would know he was doing it anyway, the same way he knew just by the tone in Duke’s voice that he was in his kitchen, leaning against the bar and probably pressing his free hand to his temples. A small voice in the back of his head pointed out that if Duke hadn’t just been trying to wind Audrey up (or trying to wind him up) on the subject of his usual sleeping attire then there was a good chance he was also naked. This was not a thought Nathan chose to dwell on. “What do you want me to do?”
“There’s a loaded question,” Duke muttered, not quite far enough under his breath. At a more normal volume, he said, “just talk to me. Keep me talking. I know I’ve got some earplugs somewhere, and I should be fine if I can find them, but I don’t know how long I can stay focused on looking for them without zoning out. I need someone to drag me back if I do.”
There was an edge to his voice that told Nathan he wasn’t exaggerating. He sounded like he was having difficulty holding himself together, and it was freaking Nathan out a little bit. “You need to get out of there,” he said.
“Already tried leaving,” Duke said grimly. “It’s louder above deck.”
Really starting to worry Nathan now. It wasn’t that he thought Duke was fearless, or unshakeable in his self-confidence, but he was the best bluffer Nathan had ever met. If he actually sounded scared and unsure of himself, something was really wrong. “I have ear protection,” he said. “If you need someone to come get you...?”
The silence on the other end lasted long enough that Nathan was worried he might have lost him. “Duke?”
“That’s...really not necessary.” Duke sounded stunned, suggesting that the prior silence had been because he had been temporarily struck dumb. Nathan hunched his shoulders, feeling like an idiot for having made the offer. Duke coughed sheepishly. “Appreciated, but not necessary,” he added in a quick, awkward mutter.
“No problem,” Nathan said, equally quick and awkward, straightening up. He hadn’t meant to overstep some kind of line, if indeed he had. Maybe it had been an unexpected offer, but for the level of trouble Duke seemed to be in, it didn’t seem like too much. He echoed Duke’s cough, trying to break the uneasy silence that had suddenly descended. “Don’t you have some earplugs to be looking for?”
“See? You’re keeping me focused already.” The usual bravado was back in Duke’s voice as if it had never left.
“I don’t know how much help I’m going to be,” Nathan said, not trying to let his relief at the change in Duke’s attitude show too much. “Seems like our usual pattern is me yelling at you about something and you going out of your way to do the exact opposite of everything I say.”
“Good thing I didn’t ask you to yell at me, then,” Duke said. In the background, Nathan could hear faint rustling and rattling as he dug through a drawer or cupboard. “I was hoping for more of a conversation. You remember how those work, right?”
“I think I can manage.” Nathan finally gave up and got out of bed. He was fully awake now, well beyond the point where he could expect to just hang up the phone and drift back to sleep once they were done talking. He opened the window, listening to the quiet outside and enjoying the smell of the night wind, imagining he could feel it against his face. For a moment he hesitated, remembering that this window faced the harbor, the wind coming in from the same direction. Not that he really expected whatever Duke was hearing to carry this far inland, but then again it was some kind of magic.
No sound, even if he listened closely, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing under the circumstances. But he was curious now. What did a song that could lure you to your death even sound like? Part of him wanted to ask Duke, although he knew it would probably be a bad idea when the goal was keeping Duke’s mind off the literal siren song. Maybe he’d ask later, when the threat had passed. There was one thing he thought he should ask about now, though. “Can I ask you something?”
“Hey, whatever keeps me talking,” Duke said. “I’d say ‘ask me anything,’ but I don’t want to know how much advantage you’d take of that. And I’d like to point out that I’m not under oath and this conversation is strictly off the record.”
“Not gonna try extracting a confession from you without at least two witnesses and a tape recorder,” Nathan said, only half joking. “Do you know any fairy tales that involve dreams?” The endless hallway and the two voices calling for him were still churning in his head, far more vividly than his dreams usually did.
“Tons of ‘em,” Duke said. Nathan thought that might be disdain in his voice. “There are all kinds of stories where someone has a dream and wakes up just knowing what they’re supposed to do next, or that something’s not really what it seems. And of course in a fairy tale everything someone tells you in a dream is true.”
Definitely disdain, and a level of it that made Nathan smile despite his sudden misgivings. ‘Something is not what it seems’ had definitely been what his dream was driving at, but it hadn’t actually given him any answers or really told him how to find them. “You have strong opinions about this.”
“Because it’s stupid,” Duke said. “I mean, yeah, fairy tales, it’s not like I’m expecting high literature and intricate storytelling. But you can’t have people knowing things just because. It’s a copout so you don’t have to come up with a real answer.” A snort. “Not that it wouldn’t come in handy right about now,” he added. “Why, you having fairy tale dreams?”
“No,” Nathan said, telling himself it was only half a lie. Sure, it was even more obvious now that there was something weird going on about that dream, but the spirit of the question had been whether or not he’d had a dream that might actually tell them something about the current situation. By that meaning, the answer was a definite no. And the more he thought about the dream, the more certain he was that he wasn’t comfortable telling Duke about it if he didn’t have to. “I mean, I had some kind of dream,” he said. “One of the ones where you wake up and you feel like someone told you something really important, but now that you’re awake you can’t remember it.” Okay, that was a whole lie.
“Another reason I hate fairy tale dreams,” Duke said. “Real dreams don’t ever tell you anything useful, they just make you think they did.”
Nathan made a noncommittal sound. Now that he knew Duke probably wouldn’t have any answers for him – at least, not with the information Nathan was willing to give him – he wanted to get off the subject as quickly as possible. “What’s the deal with you knowing all this stuff?” he asked, hoping that the deflection would be enough to keep Duke from asking more questions.
A quiet groan. “Not you too,” Duke muttered. “Why do I suddenly have to justify how I spend my free time to everyone? Yes, I read. It’s not a big deal, and it’s not even something you didn’t already know. Or so Audrey tells me,” he added pointedly.
Nathan’s heart sank. He’d told her not to say anything. “You talked to Audrey?”
“Set her straight, is more like it. You had her convinced that there was some dark and terrible secret about me and the library.”
“I didn’t mean to tell her anything,” Nathan said. “And when I did, the details didn’t seem relevant.”
“You sure had her thinking they might be relevant,” Duke told him. “She thought I might be connected to this Trouble somehow.”
Of course she had. Nathan should have known Audrey’s mind would work that way. “I’m sorry,” he stumbled. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
There was a sigh. “And that’s the part I don’t get,” Duke said quietly. The sounds of his rummaging stopped, like he was suspending the search to focus on this conversation. “You’re willing to tell Audrey every sordid detail you can find about me, no matter how old it is or how little it matters. Which, hey, maybe that’s just how cops make friends, I don’t know. It’s just what you do, and I’ve accepted that. What I don’t get is why my being on my own is somehow off-limits. It’s not like it’s even something she didn’t know already.”
Nathan hadn’t realized that Audrey already knew about the situation, although he probably should have. He didn’t think it would have changed his reaction if he had. ‘On my own’ Duke said, so casually, like it was something he’d chosen, like he hadn’t been abandoned. Nathan still had vivid memories of watching his loudmouthed idiot friend slowly get paler, thinner, quieter, turning from a constant and strangely comforting thorn in Nathan’s side to a ghost. “It wasn’t something that needed to be brought up,” he said. “I’m not going to crucify you for something that wasn’t your fault.”
“Like being born a Crocker?” There was a quiet wound in Duke’s voice, the same rawness there had been when he’d been dying of old age and had asked Nathan if he hated him.
Nathan hadn’t known how to answer then, and he didn’t know how to answer now. “You were just a kid,” he said instead. “What happened to you... it shouldn’t have happened. Someone should have done something.”
The slow breath that Duke let out was a sound of sudden comprehension. “You should have done something, you mean.”
“I knew you were in over your head,” Nathan said quietly. He’d managed not to think about this for a long time, to ignore the whispers of guilt that had been so relentless at the time. “I should have helped.”
“By doing what, exactly?”
“I don’t know, but there must have been something I could have done.”
“Jesus, Nathan.” Duke breathed out a gentle, exasperated laugh. Again his voice made him easy to picture, resting against a doorjamb and shaking his head, his hand to his face. “You’re insane. You’re completely insane.”
“I tried, okay?” Nathan snapped. He was trying to apologize, for God’s sake. Not doing a very good job, but he still felt like he deserved more consideration than that. “I tried to help you, but I didn’t know what to do!”
“Because we’re the same damn age!” The laugh was incredulous now, hysterical. “God, you idiot, you were just as much a kid as I was. There was nothing you could have done, and I probably would have been too proud and stupid to let you if there was.”
It was similar to what Nathan had tried to tell himself from time to time. Coming from Duke, it almost sounded true. “I still should have tried,” he mumbled.
“You did. Or have you forgotten all the time I spent telling you to back off and stop worrying about me? You were a complete pain in my ass, and I never even thanked you for it.”
Nathan tried to follow the logic of that sentence. “For what?”
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” When it became obvious that he did, Duke sighed. “For caring,” he said quietly. “Sometimes you were the only person who did.” The words were coming out with difficulty, like he was pulling them from a long way away. Twenty years away, Nathan thought. “Just... knowing that whatever happened to me mattered to someone... that was important. I’m not gonna say you saved my life, but you did make it a little easier to keep going sometimes.”
“Oh,” Nathan said. It was all that would come out.
“Yeah.” There was a barking cough, and Duke sounded like himself again. “So whatever stupid guilt complex you’re dragging around, just let it go, okay? You’re a good person, you did what you could, and it helped. I give you official permission to go back to acting morally superior to me.”
Nathan was still too stunned by the direction this conversation had taken to respond to the jibe. Being reminded of how much he’d once cared about Duke still gave him pause, a little jolt that threw him off balance. He’d thought he would be immune to that by now. Maybe he was. Maybe it was the realization that he’d meant something to Duke, enough that Duke was still holding onto that all this time later, that was getting to him this time. You were my best friend, he wanted to say. What the hell happened to us? But he thought he already knew the answer. Time, and distance, and both of them turning into the people that everyone else had assumed they would. He’d learned to ignore the little pangs of I wish something had turned out differently, but now they struck him in full force.
“You still there?” There was a certain amount of irony in Duke’s voice. “I thought I was the only one in danger of drifting off tonight.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” Nathan said quickly. The same weird cough that had plagued Duke a moment ago had migrated to him. “I’m good,” he repeated.
“Okay,” Duke said, and Nathan could hear him pulling himself out of whatever they’d landed themselves in. “Found ‘em,” he added a couple seconds later, rattling a box near the phone. “Maybe now we can both get some sleep.”
Nathan decided not to question the timing of this. “Good,” he said. “We’re gonna need it.”
“I’m getting that impression, yeah,” Duke said. A hesitation. “And Nathan? This conversation...”
“Never happened,” Nathan finished for him, relieved.
“Good to know we’re on the same page,” Duke said. “See you in the morning.”
Nathan hung up the phone, intending to crawl back into bed and try to get a few more hours of sleep before he had to wake up officially. Instead, he continued to sit by the open window, staring off into the distance and thinking. It was a long time before he finally managed to pry himself away, and longer still before he got back to sleep.