VOLUME INDEX



Chapter XXXI: The Shattered Violin
Chapter XXXII: They Just Walk Away
Chapter XXXIII: In the Heat of the Night

 
 
 




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Megan decided to put her best foot forward into the investigation, so she went directly to the corner gas station next to the Chase Manhattan building and bought herself a snack: an apple flavored energy bar, and a grape flavored drink. A combination she quickly disliked after the first few bites and swigs but she didn’t let that stop her.

In her time saving up for college, while living in Tempe, she had worked at almost every store along the strip of Mill Avenue. So she visited those places again now. Z-Gallerie seemed to be on its last legs, with only two minding the store, when she was used to having at least ten wandering around. Inside, Megan inquired about friends of hers who had worked there years before, but none of them were in.

Nonplussed, she headed out. She decided to skip the Harkin’s Centerpointe Theaters—a friend named Stacey worked there, but even from down the street she could tell that the entire complex had shut down for the day. On any other evening crowds would be hustling through the doors—now those doors remained shut, silent, and dark.

“You almost told her about me, didn’t you?” Tiffany asked from a nearby window. “I don’t think that’s a good idea… Not any more.”

“She is a little judgmental,” Megan allowed.

Mental is right,” Tiffany said, keeping pace in the window. Megan reached the end of the glass and stopped to listen to the rest of what the girl had to say. “It’s hard to tell if she likes you or not. I really doubt she’d like me at all.”

“No. She probably wouldn’t.”

Uno’s Pizzeria boasted an equally diminished staff of hostesses and wait-staff; so few, in fact, that hostesses were doing double duty as waitresses—something Megan thought she’d never see. Upon her entrance she received a glare from Jilly, an old adversary, but she was too busy to make anything of it. In fact, Megan felt quite certain that her untimely dismissal from the role as waitress had happened by the hand of—or at least word of—Jilly and her snotty clique of hostesses. It felt strangely vindicating to see her walking past, bearing a tray of dirty dishes. Served her right to do some of the heavy lifting she so often upturned her nose at.

Happily, Megan was greeted at the door by Luisa, a petite Italian girl whom she enjoyed working with. Being another waitress during Jilly’s reign of terror, Luisa had put up with the same condescension and abuse as Megan. It had formed a rare bond between them, and even after being fired, Megan still came by some weekends to visit and chitchat. Today Luisa looked thin, stuffed into her clothing as if they were a size too large. She pushed her small glasses up further onto her nose and smiled.

“You, uh, here to eat?” Before Megan could answer, she grabbed a menu from behind the podium, and half-jokingly, she said, “Or would you like your old job back?” She cocked her head towards the kitchen and shrugged. “So many people called out sick today, or didn’t call in… We, uh, have nobody.”

Megan shook her head. “I just wanted to come see you,” she said. “Do you have a moment?”

“Well…” she paused a glanced around, then pulled Megan to the side. “I guess I have a moment. What do you need?”

“I’m trying to figure out why so many people are going missing…”

“Well, I guess. This entire week, we’ve been getting visits from strange people. Like security guards and other people, tourists, who stare blankly. They, uh, when they come sometimes people leave with them. Like Kevin. He excused himself and left with someone yesterday. He didn’t call in for his shift this morning.”

“That sounds like something un-cool. Can you describe?”

“Get back to work, you.” Jilly appeared from around a corner in full menace. With one hand thrust into her ample hip she shoved Luisa towards the front door with the other. “And you, Megan, if you’re not a customer, get out. You weren’t welcome here before, you aren’t welcome here now.”

Luisa stumbled a few steps, mumbling apologies.

Megan glowered. Jilly needed someone to teach her a lesson, and for once in her left she felt empowered to do just that. With a newly practiced motion, she pulled a servant wisp form the air and sent the coiling thought to do her will with a thought.

“Hey, Miss Smelly Jelly,” she said. “Your ass is hanging out. Might want to fix your trow.”

Jilly rounded angrily on Megan, wagging a finger. “Look here, you twerp—” Riiip! Her slacks tore down the back, shredding evenly through the elastic band, and fell to the floor revealing her dingy white panties. The girl paled in sudden embarrassment and fury. Shaking, she grabbed her pants and backed away towards the kitchen.

Luisa guffawed out loud, but caught herself, covering her mouth while squeezing her eyes shut, still shaking with laughter. Tiffany’s reflection cackled at Jilly’s back as she fled, scandalized into silence. Megan puffed up her chest and grinned hugely, wishing she could high-five the girl in the picture-frame—but the shared prank felt good enough.

As Megan poked down along the red brick sidewalk she kept an eye out for people with empty eyes—she kept an especially keen watch for the regular security guards who patrolled the streets. But she didn’t have much need; they were strangely absent from the dusky avenue.

After her shooing, Jilly did not return, which gave Megan ample time to gather more information on the new visitations. The “hollow people” as Luisa called them, citing some obscure Italian poet who wrote about such monsters. They looked and talked like everyone else, but they seemed to have something missing about them. According to Luisa, especially the security guards that hung around the Avenue seemed afflicted—T.E.A.M. in their white shirts and ProGuard in their purple.

She passed Fatburger—closed—and the Mill Avenue Jewelers, a lone woman hunkered behind the glass displays inside. Megan didn’t know her, so she moved on. The little courtyard beyond seemed so lonesome with its empty gazebo and the fountain gurgling nearby. However, even through the murky night, warm light and inviting voices floated up the stairs from Graffiti.

Gathered around the base of the stairs there sat a small group of street rats, next to a wall that was all mirror—giving Tiffany a place to stand; with a cheerful noise, she perused the various racks of clothing and other interesting items on her side of the looking glass. Among them Megan recognized Mêlée, Nightshade, Wraith, and Lucky. Lawrence, the long haired proprietor of the store, leaned heavily against one of the display cases and watched the TV without comment.

Megan sat with them for a while to trade rumors and drama, as she spoke she slowly turned the conversation towards people gone missing. They seemed reluctant to talk about the subject. Especially Mêlée, who closed into herself and plucked at the threads of her torn jeans, watching with lidded eyes.

Megan asked about “hollow people” and got a few thoughtful replies. They’d seen the same thing going on—people with bleak eyes, who didn’t talk, but just watched. The fear in the conversation felt real, as if talking about it might bring it down on them.

“At this rate I don’t think there’ll be a drum circle on Saturday,” Nightshade mentioned.

“What if there’s something in the water?” asked Lucky. “Mind control drugs. ASU might be in bed with the government. They do that, you know, test things on people without permission.”

“They’d have to spike your beer,” Nightshade jibed. “I’ve never once seen you drink water.”

“Well—yeah—that’s because they put stuff in it.”

“Hey,” Tiffany’s voice said from the mirror.

Megan glanced her way.

For a dizzying moment, she wondered why she couldn’t see herself in the mirror—she had gone totally missing. Then it came back to her: sometimes when Tiffany was visible in the reflective surface, she would replace Megan’s reflection. It wasn’t all the time, only when the other girl pressed herself closer to the living world. It was the opposite of when Tiffany took control of Megan’s own body…

Tiffany had knelt down next to one of the racks of shirts. Her fingers touched a particular tangle of markings on the floor there. Megan had always enjoyed how the Graffiti Shop was filled with just that: graffiti. People were encouraged to draw their own on the walls, floor, even the ceiling. Somewhere amid the sprawl of signatures, and artwork both crude and sublime, was her own work.

“This is interesting,” Tiffany said. “Come look at—oh, wait. You can’t can you?”

Megan shook her head. She wasn’t sure she wanted to reply out loud in the middle of Graffiti with other people listening.

“Look here then,” the ghost said.

Someone had taken a fat magic-marker to the floor and obliterated an underlying signature. Whatever it was, Megan couldn’t make it out. Probably a series of jointed lines connected together in some fashion, to her it looked a lot like an insect.

“It reminds me of when I woke up in that dream-world,” Tiffany said. “Legs and claws, reaching, hungry… I feel cold again.”

“I guess…” Megan said under her breath. She could vaguely recall the darkness closing in, Vex circling around, shouting in bitter anger at Mary Beth. It was a living dark, with thousands of eyes, interlocking teeth, and jointed limbs that skittered a lot like she imagined thousands of scorpions on gravel would sound. “But what is it?”

“There’s a glow,” Tiffany said. “Like radium isotope or glow-in-the-dark paint, I can see it underneath. There’s something under it, watching, but I don’t think it can see us because it’s been covered over. Maybe if I saw another one, I could figure—”

“It’s a warning,” Mêlée said. The metal-whiskered girl was suddenly hovering nearby, gazing at the floor where Megan knelt. “Nice ears.”

Megan touched her headband. “Thanks…” she said, but what the street rat had said moments before peaked her curiosity. “What kind of warning?”

“I’m not sure,” Mêlée said and shrugged. “Gangs spray graffiti on the walls to make their mark, define territory, like animals. This—“ She gestured to the spot on the floor with the now-obliterated symbol. “—is a lot the same. Except I think instead of staking out territory for the now it’s like saying, ‘I’m coming.’”

Megan leaned closer, as did Tiffany’s reflection. “You’ve seen more of these?”

“Yeah. All over.”

“Where?”

“In the alley behind here.” Mêlée pointed towards the back door. “There’s a few. I’ve destroyed most of them, but the people who go missing keep drawing more.”

Megan glanced Tiffany’s reflection. “Okay. Show me. Let’s go.”

“I’m not going out there. It’s safer in here,” the whiskered girl said. Her steely eyes narrowed to a piercing sincerity, an almost-authority. Megan believed her. “I brought protection and I don’t mean rubbers. If you catch my drift.”

“I have to get a look at this,” Megan said. She pushed herself up and glanced around, thinking. “Does anyone have a pocket mirror?”

Tiffany smiled. “Smart move,” she said.

Nightshade had a makeup compact with a mirror. Megan thanked her and promised to return it. Lawrence waved to her as she ascended the back stairs and slipped outside.

She found the marking a short distance away from the back entrance of the Graffiti Shop. Scratched onto the concrete of the parking structure a few hundred feet away.

“I can see it,” Tiffany said. “It glows like the one inside. Move the mirror closer for me. Thanks.”

This scraping appeared just as crude as the one inside. A rough depiction of a centipede: zigzagging lightning bolt central figure with a multitude of crimped legs jutting out from the sides that terminated with a triangular head and antennae. Each of the legs had delicate claws at the ends, and the antennae curled slightly at their tips.

“Yes. I can feel it,” Tiffany said.

Then another, closer voice spoke behind Megan.

“Do not interfere.”

Rough hands grabbed her from behind and twisted her around. She got the impression of someone taller than she, but thin and lanky. He wore a blue blazer and his middle-aged face contorted with anger as he reached for her neck.

Help!” Megan cried as the hands constricted around her throat. She dropped the mirror as the man roughly slammed her into the wall. Failing wildly with one hand, panicked, she attempted to reach out for the places where she could find the servitors—trying to reach one—but she couldn’t feel any.

“Come with us,” the man snarled and he stared into her eyes. As she looked into them, she saw nothing there. Bleak. Hollow.

Hey!” someone shouted nearby. “Get away from her! Now!”

A hand wrapped around the bleak man’s shoulder and he was shoved away. Megan choked and slid down the wall, gasping for breath. A scuffle broke out right in front of her but she couldn’t make out her savior or her attacker. They grabbled together for a moment and then one crashed to the ground with an oomf. She touched her throat carefully, wincing at the bruises.

“Hey.” She noticed someone kneeling next to her, a hand on her shoulder. She flinched away…but then she recognized the voice.

It was Nathan.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m okay,” she said. “Thanks. I think you chased him away.”

“I know what these are,” said Tiffany, from the tiny mirror, dropped on the ground near Megan’s foot, “and you’re not going to like it.”

 
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