Catacomb, p.8
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       Catacomb, p.8

           Madeleine Roux
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  Dan tore his eyes away from the strange tableau, drawn by sudden movement in the corner. There was the guy from earlier, watching them from behind a tall wooden counter. He flicked his hand, inviting them over, and Dan inched toward him. This didn’t seem like the family establishment Uncle Steve had described, but Dan was determined to settle this.

  They shuffled to the counter and then behind it, where Dan discovered a curtain separating the front of the store from a larger and better-lit stock room. He couldn’t tell if it was part of the store during the day, but it was filled, floor to ceiling. There were bookshelves in the back and glass cabinets toward the front.

  Jewelry; stacks of postcards and photographs; old spectacles; even tiny, delicate animal skulls were all arranged in the glass cases with seemingly no thought given to organization or theme. It was one giant cabinet of curiosities—one Dan admittedly felt tempted to explore.

  “You actually showed up,” the dark-haired guy said, watching them from where the cabinets transitioned to shelves. “That means Sabrina owes me ten bucks.” He came forward and extended a hand to Dan. “Oliver Berkley. Welcome to my humble shop.”

  “You don’t look like a daughter to me,” Jordan rasped, leaning against one of the cabinets.

  Oliver laughed weakly, motioning with one hand for Jordan to get off the cabinet and sticking the other hand into the back pocket of his faded jeans. Tall and thin, he had a classic, almost cherubic look to him, with ruddy cheeks and chestnut brown hair piled carelessly on his head, cropped close at the sides. He’d look like a teenager if it weren’t for the small, shiny scar cut diagonally into the curve of his upper lip. Something about that scar gave away his real age. “There were plenty of daughters when the store opened, but that was a few generations ago.” His tone dropped its levity. “Now there’s only me.”

  A farther door opened to Oliver’s right, and Dan recognized the girl who had been in the car with him earlier.

  “This is Sabrina, my girlfriend,” Oliver said, introducing a petite black girl with a shaved head and bright, round, hazel eyes. Two tiny silver rings pierced her right nostril.

  “They really did show up,” she said, smirking and joining Oliver near the shelves. She wore a slashed-up pink tank top over black denim shorts and purple tights. “This kid explain yet how he knew we were following them?”

  “I’m not this kid,” Dan said testily. “My name is Dan Crawford. These are my friends, Jordan and Abby. Really, I think you owe us an explanation before I say anything else. Why were you following us? And why the hell were you taking pictures?”

  Oliver’s gray eyes widened in surprise, his thick brows tenting and meeting in the middle. “Whoa, there. Y’all are going ninety in a fifty-five. We didn’t take any pictures of you. I was just doing my friend a favor. He said y’all were good with research and the like. Said you could help.”

  “Help with what?” Abby interjected, pushing farther into the room. She paced, speaking quickly and with her hands, flinging her hair out of her face when it had the audacity to come out of its pins. “What friend are you talking about? I’ve never seen you people before in my life. How would we have friends in common?”

  Dan took her by the arm, squeezing gently. He turned back to Oliver and Sabrina. “She has a point.”

  “Just let me start from the start,” Oliver said, drawing over a metal stool and perching on it. He took a cigarette out of his jeans pocket but didn’t light it, instead fiddling with it idly while he spoke, twirling it between his fingers. “Things haven’t been great around here the past few years. My old man passed. I got left with the store, and right away, bam, there were break-ins, thefts, graffiti, what have you. I finally thought things had blown over, right, then a few months ago, my dad’s grave was tossed. Robbed,” he explained, seeing the blank looks on their faces. “My granddaddy’s, too. It felt personal, ya know? Like I was being targeted. I finally thought, hey, maybe it was over some rough stuff I got mixed up in a few years back with my buddy Micah—”

  Dan froze, and Abby and Jordan both gasped. Oliver and Sabrina stared at him, clearly waiting for him to explain what the big deal was.

  “Micah did say he went to juvie for a while,” Dan said meekly.

  “So you do know him. Good. Thought I was going really damn crazy for a minute there.” Oliver blew out a relieved breath, leaning back on the stool. “He said y’all could help, that you dug up some pretty deep dirt back at that school he goes to. Stuff that could help me.”

  A small, sharp finger wiggled into his ribs. Dan looked over to see Abby staring pleadingly at him, and he nodded.

  “Can I, uh, see the messages Micah sent you?” Dan asked, hoping he sounded neutrally curious. “Just to make sure you really do know each other.”

  “Sure thing,” Oliver said, pulling an old iPhone out of his pocket. He maneuvered to the messages and then handed the phone across. “See? ‘Dan and his friends Abby and Jordan.’ You’re all three mentioned right here. We weren’t tryin’ ta scare you or nothing. It’s just, I really have been that desperate for help around here, and Micah . . . Well, I knew he’d be the one who could help me.”

  Dan scanned the messages. Unlike the ones he had been receiving from “Micah,” these all appeared to be made of complete, coherent sentences. And they weren’t sporadic warnings, either. There were messages from yesterday, the day before, the day before that. . . . The heat outside didn’t matter—Dan felt chilled through.

  “Oliver.” He felt Jordan and Abby go still and tense beside him as he cleared his throat, handing the phone back and saying softly, “I wish I didn’t have to be the one to tell you this, but there’s no way Micah really sent those messages. Micah’s gone. We saw him die.”

  For a long moment nobody moved or spoke. Then Oliver shocked them all by laughing, even snorting a little, before rubbing at his nose. He tucked the cigarette behind his ear and stared down at his phone, still laughing. “That’s . . . No, that just ain’t right. It ain’t possible. It’s right here.”

  Dan shifted. “Those are text messages. Whoever has his phone could send them. You don’t . . . you don’t have Facebook, do you?”

  Which seemed almost as weird as the messages, in a certain light, but Dan let it go. This Ouija-tiny-bird-skull shop didn’t exactly scream normal or current.

  “No, I do not,” Oliver said slowly.

  “If you did,” Jordan cut in, “you would have seen Micah’s profile get memorialized. That’s what happens when . . . you know.”

  “But how, and I mean—damn. No way. That’s—that just can’t be true.” Oliver’s hands shook around the phone until he hid them in his pockets again. “Not Micah. Not him, man. He was a fighter.”

  “I’m sorry,” Dan said. “It’s true.”

  “You said you saw it,” Sabrina said, putting an arm around her boyfriend. “How did he die?”

  Dan got the impression Sabrina had never met Micah. The way she asked, in such a callous tone and without a hint of emotion, made him think there was no way.

  “Not well,” Dan mumbled. “I’d really rather not go into details.”

  Oliver’s square chin quivered, but Sabrina’s arm anchored him. He slid down against the shelf, but she held him back up.

  “Look, you’re not crazy,” Dan said. At least not any crazier than I am. “I’ve been getting messages from him, too. Mine are really disjointed and don’t make very much sense. I think—especially now that I’m seeing yours, too—that someone is playing a nasty prank on us.”

  “How’d you know him?” Sabrina asked. Oliver didn’t look fit to speak just then.

  “The three of us met at a summer program at Micah’s college,” Abby explained gently. “Then we went back for a prospective students’ weekend, and that’s when we met him. He was Dan’s host. I think, well—he was in with a bad crowd, let’s leave it at that.”

  Dan gave her a subtle nod. He didn’t think it wise to go into too much detail about the Scarlets. There w
as no guarantee he could trust these two, even if Oliver really did look broken up at the news.

  “He didn’t have much family to speak of, even when I knew him,” Oliver piped up, swallowing audibly. “Poor kid. And here I was, thinking he was doing better for himself, gettin’ somewhere far away from here.” He paused, looking at a point next to Jordan’s shoulder, his eyes glassy and ready to spill tears.

  “You said you and Micah got mixed up in some rough stuff when he was still here,” Jordan said. “What did you mean?”

  Oliver sighed. “No use keeping it a secret now, I guess. Back before the whole juvie thing, before Micah had to move up to his grandmother’s in Shreveport, we used to run jobs for this piece of work who called himself the Artificer. Real covert type—never liked to meet in person. Micah found his ad on craigslist. I ain’t know what the hell that was, but Micah knew his way around the computer. Said we could make some real money.”

  Oliver wiped his nose on his sleeve, and Sabrina took over, rubbing his shoulder as she carried on where he had left off. “What you’ve got to understand is, things got pretty desperate after Katrina. My family was lucky, all told, but this shop was under six feet of water. Ollie’s family was going to go bankrupt.”

  “I robbed graves for this fucker,” Oliver spat out, clenching his jaw. “Micah knew all the lingo in these ads, but I didn’t really get it until we got our marching orders. ‘Lawn cleanup.’ Wasn’t no lawn cleanup.” He gave a dark laugh. “But, yeah, I was desperate. Micah said it would be no big deal—get the valuables, drop them off somewhere, pick up a check the next week. Trust me, it was one fat check, or I wouldn’t have stooped to that level.”

  “For what it’s worth,” Dan said, “it didn’t seem like Micah was proud of his life down here when I met him, either.”

  Oliver waved his sympathy away. “Stealing a few necklaces was bad, yeah, but then we were told to take bones. That’s . . . that’s when I wanted to stop. But Micah, I tell ya, once that boy got an idea in his head, he just didn’t quit. He was good at it. He kept saying we were ‘trading up.’ Fat lot of good all that trading up did him in the end.”

  He paused and shook his head, resting his palms on his knees and leaning into them. “I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t take nobody’s bones. I took the jewelry, but not the other stuff. The Artificer stiffed me on the check, and I never heard from that guy again—until the graves. That’s right. They didn’t just take my dad’s valuables. They took his bones, Dan. My granddaddy’s, too. It’s that Artificer, I’m telling you. People like that are evil, and ain’t no price high enough for me to mess with what’s just plain damn evil.”

  Dan stared at Oliver and Sabrina, stumped on what to say in the face of such a story. It was Abby who finally broke the silence, gesturing back and forth between the boys as if brokering a peace treaty.

  “Maybe the messages will stop now, at least,” she said. “You said the messages told you to find Dan specifically. Well, maybe this meeting was the whole point. Maybe someone just wanted you to know what happened to your friend, and someone wanted Dan to know the full backstory. To understand what made Micah into the person we knew. You two have met now, and it’s all kind of cosmically satisfying, right?”

  Now it’s all settled, case closed, and we can go back to enjoying our trip, please, her tone seemed to imply.

  “You keep sayin’ ‘someone,’” Oliver said. “But from where I’m standin’, it seems pretty clear that the messages are from Micah. He’s the one who needed us to find each other, not ‘someone.’”

  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jordan said. Dan didn’t respond, even though there was a small part of him that was ready to accept what Oliver was saying. All the pieces fit.

  “Okay, don’t believe me,” Oliver finally said. “But I still don’t think we have the full story. Maybe if I got to know you, ya know? Maybe show you around, help you feel welcome in this town.”

  “We’ve got my uncle for that,” Jordan replied shortly.

  “Look,” Dan said, “I feel terrible about your shop, and I agree, it’s really sick that your family’s graves got robbed, but I’m sorry to say, those aren’t exactly our problems. Maybe it’s best to think of it like Abby said. Micah is at peace now. That’s the important thing.”

  He put out his hand, waiting for Oliver to take it. The taller boy shrugged, but accepted the gesture of goodwill. Goodwill and good-bye.

  “I really do hope you can get your . . . stuff . . . back,” Dan added. “But you already have a cool shop here. Things will turn around. Take my number, okay? In case this Micah thing doesn’t, you know, go away.”

  “Yeah,” Sabrina said lightly, dismissing them with a scornful roll of her eyes. “See you around.”

  Dan took that as their cue to leave. He and his friends huddled back into the front room of the shop, where the dark enveloped them along with the scent of candles and the low chant of the séance group. Dan shivered, and Jordan stepped on his heels, almost pushing him over in his rush to get clear of the shop.

  “Roger Berkley, can you hear us? Hear us, Roger, and respond. . . .”

  The trio skirted the table and the summoners sitting there. Dan made the mistake of glancing once more in their direction. An older, ginger-haired woman stared back at him. Her eyes were closed, but in the flicker of candlelight, the pale lids of her eyes seemed to glow white, like vacant holes.

  Then her eyes snapped open, wide and staring.

  “They found me,” she whispered fiercely, her eyes rolling back into her head. “Oh. They’ll find you, too.”

  Dan grabbed Jordan’s shoulder for balance, then turned and stumbled out of the store.

  The bell above the door chimed sweetly, and the cloying scent of the candles vanished, obliterated by the humid Louisiana air.

  Dan tried to peer back into the store, but he was shut out by the curtains. He moistened his lips, following in the wake of his friends, who had already begun to walk briskly down the sidewalk.

  “Holy Creepsville, USA,” Jordan whispered, giving an exaggerated shudder. He glanced back at Dan, his lip stud flashing under a sudden flood of lamplight. “Can you believe those weirdos? And that story?”

  “Did you hear that?” Dan replied.

  “I feel sorry for them.” Abby shook her head and waited for Dan to catch up, carefully taking him by the hand. “Not knowing about Micah, and you having to tell them. Dan, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful.”

  “No, in the store . . .” He stopped, realizing that he was short of breath. His lungs ached. “Did you hear what that woman said to me?”

  “No. Dan, I don’t think she said anything.” Abby let go of his hand, giving Jordan a look that was becoming increasingly familiar and irritating.

  “I’m not hearing things,” Dan said, not giving a damn if he sounded defensive. “She spoke to me. I saw her eyes open and then she said: ‘They found me, they’ll find you, too.’”

  Jordan flinched. “Jesus. All the more reason to get the hell out of there and never go back.” He picked up where Abby left off, going to Dan’s side and hooking an arm around his back, coaxing him back toward Uncle Steve’s. “Look on the bright side—some chick being creepy at a séance is a big improvement over being stabbed, set on fire, or chased. For once, we found the people who were following us and they weren’t trying to kill us! Hope springs eternal.”

  Dan nodded, but the pit in his stomach only worsened. He couldn’t shake that woman’s voice in his head.

  They’ll find you, too.

  He let himself be led back to the house, silent. He didn’t have the heart to point out that Jordan was only half-right: they had found Oliver and Sabrina, yes, but neither of them had been the mysterious photographer. Someone else was still out there, following them. And Dan still had a lead to check.

  “What is it, man? I’m exhausted.” And he was. Dan couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so bone-tired. Sleeping in a real bed had brought to light al
l the bumps and discomforts caused by sleeping in a tent so many nights in a row. Now that he had an honest-to-God mattress under his back, he’d let himself succumb to it, sleeping hard, deep, and dreamlessly.

  But now Jordan was sitting on the end of Dan’s futon, his weight strangely light, hardly making an impression on the duvet.

  “What is it?” Dan repeated, groggy.

  Jordan sat staring at his hands, then twisted slightly, looking at Dan and grinding his lip piercing against his lower teeth, an anxious gesture Dan had noticed getting worse over the last few days. Jordan didn’t say anything; he just watched Dan, unblinking, the little black dot in his lip going around and around.

  “Jordan, you—”

  He fell abruptly silent, pushing back against his pillow as the piercing in Jordan’s lip began to move, then wriggle, then ooze out of his lip, growing into a long, black worm that spilled from Jordan’s mouth like a piece of slime. If Dan pulled the covers over his head, this would stop, but his hands refused to obey. Jordan closed his eyes and yawned, his head rolling back as his tongue dissolved into a hundred black worms that dripped down onto the bed. When he opened his eyes again there was nothing there, just two black voids that glittered, trickling down his cheeks in dark rivers, as if his skull was filled with a thick, living oil.

  Jordan’s pale jaw loosened as if coming unhinged, and that was when Dan regained enough control of his faculties to throw the covers over his head and scream.

  The sound woke him out of the nightmare and into another one. Jordan was still there, sitting on the end of his futon. Dan swallowed, shivering as he slid the duvet down and leaned forward, then poked Jordan in the arm.

  His friend swayed and woke up, murmuring something incoherent before glancing around and finding Dan there, staring at him wide-eyed and shaky.

  “What the hell?” Jordan croaked.

  “My thoughts exactly.” Dan watched him, suspicious that this too would turn into a hallucination. “Are you . . . Why are you sitting there?”

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