Rebecca grabbed Adrienne by the shoulders, gazed intensely into her eyes. “Calm. Down.” Then, she glared at Darren. “What the fuck did you bring us into?”
Darren raised his head from inspecting the bloody portions of the man who once was, presumably, Mr. Muzzio. “I don’t know!” he whispered. “This was just about–”
“—about a book! Exactly! About a fucking—”
Adrienne was shaking, her eyes darting, trying to find at least one thing that wasn’t slick with blood. The room didn’t have an answer for her. Even a drop, it was all over. Speckled against the curtain, pooling on one corner of the bedsheets, hardening against the fabric of Muzzio’s houndstooth blazer.
Darren drew a slip of paper from the blazer’s inside pocket, squinted at it, and held it up silently for Rebecca. When she wouldn’t take it, he turned to Kevin, who had his arms folded anxiously, pacing along one side of the room. “Will anyone take this fucking thing and look at it?”
Rebecca sighed, reaching across to grab it, unfolding it slowly into a long typewritten sheet. Dozens of lines of text starting from the top had been crossed out in neat black ruler-drawn lines of black and blue pen. Near the bottom of the list, between other blacked-out lines, were four untouched ones, made up of what looked like jumbles of numbers and letters separated by pilcrows in a way Rebecca imagined wasn’t random.
“What is it?” Adrienne’s voice choked. “What does it say?”
“Fuck if I know,” Rebecca replied, tossing it away. “Are you gonna be good?”
“No?!” She shook her head. “We’re in a crime scene in the middle of the night! Why would I be okay?”
When Kevin finally added something, it was the same thing he said moments before Darren had closed the hotel room door behind them. “Why are we even still here?”
Darren was the first to answer. “Because we—and he—came all the way here so we could get this damn book, and I will be damned if we’re going to leave before we can. I mean, think about it. The way I see it, he literally died for it.”
Kevin began to breathe heavily. “Or he crossed his human trafficking contacts, or had a falling out with a rival gang warlord, or—”
“The book, guys.” Darren checked the pockets of the man’s trousers, the insides of his shoes and socks, even trying to feel for something taped to his body in the usual hiding places. Nothing—save for the two black pocket notebooks he had already tucked away while the rest of them were too tense to notice. He’d look over those later, see what stood out to him.
“Why is the book on your mind right now?!” Adrienne half-whispered. “We should be calling the fucking police and leaving.”
“But if we call the cops,” Kevin said, “then we have to tell them how we know the guy, and what we were meeting him for. Guess which of those questions has no simple answer.”
Rebecca sighed. “Both.”
“Exactly. And Heaven forbid someone already called the cops before we got here, that means they can still see us now.”
Rebecca turned back to Adrienne, shoulders trembling in her hands. “You’re right. Let’s just go. There is no book. There probably never was. We don’t know what was gonna happen here, but it doesn’t have anything to do with us any more.”
Darren rose from beside the body. “Hold on a minute, we should just make su—”
“We’re going. Or you’re finding your own way home out of here.”
Darren snorted. “… alright, whatever. But if we just lost out on the opportunity of a lifetime…”
“You did,” Kevin muttered. “The opportunity to be gutted in a top-class hotel room. Now, will you please shut the hell up?”
It had been nights, nearly a week since Rebecca ever bothered to open the chatroom again. She had sworn off of it. She didn’t believe in The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul any more; all she believed in was buckets of blood on expensive bedsheets. And even if the book did exist, she wasn’t sure that was the kind of business she wanted to get wrapped up in just to see it. It was a book. She’d read others—the classics of Earth sci-fi that she had already grown up on with her mother, or whatever was trying to be postmodern coming from her town right now. She heard that Paul Forrest had come out with something new, had apparently gotten better at genuine magical realism. Maybe she’d read that. Maybe it’d do.
The other three folks she had met all went back to their places—Darren to Castiron City, Kevin to Soriana, Adrienne a little further east to Persephone. They had traveled so far just to get their hands on a book. The longer she thought about it, the less total sense it made. But then again, the thought of the book, of what it could have been, still pulled at her.
Walking back into the unlit kitchen late that night, she hadn’t even noticed that she left her tablet on the counter until she had heard a ping. Earlier, she figured she may as well stop by in the MerriFans chatroom, see what came up. Not much had changed. It was still a war between the believers and the doubtful, and doubt still won. ‘counterfeitrudeboy’ never gave up proselytising, swearing up and down that he and ‘three guys I met right here in chat’ were inches away from cracking the spine of Merriman’s latest creation.
‘Lay off the weed, pal,’ was his first reply.
This ping was also him, but privately, in a direct message to Rebecca: ‘what, you stop talking to us or something?’
She had no intention of answering. She wanted to be unseen, to forget the trip ever took place. She wished that would erase the image of an old man in a houndstooth jacket with ribbons of dark-red torn into his flesh. But it didn’t. It stirred her awake every morning, in a dream where the blood never stopped pouring, filling up the room, and she would turn to Darren and insist that they leave but he is already over the body, picking it clean of anything he thinks will give him this book, and the blood is already just below his eyes but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by drowning in it, Adrienne is still shaking in her hands but she is too afraid to move, Kevin is pacing through the current of red as if he can’t even notice it, and she is begging, begging to leave but it is as if no one can hear her at all—
“You saw the door, didn’t you?”
Rebecca’s train of thought is broken by the sound of someone’s voice. Unfamiliar, stern, even a little cruel, with an accent she couldn’t immediately place.
“You saw it, didn’t you?” the voice said, more angrily.
“What?” Rebecca turned, squinting in the dark of her surroundings, wishing she had put the light on when she came in for a snack. “Who are you?”
“Answer my fucking question.”
“You’re in my house, so you—” As she pivoted to the left, to the drawing room windows, she caught a glimpse of a short silhouette only weakly cast by outside light. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my house?”
“I came to get the book.”
“Wha—” She stepped back from the shadow, her back against the doors of her refrigerator. “You’re another one o’ those kooks, then? There is no book.”
The silhouette flinched before raising its voice. “Wrong answer. Wanna try again?”
Rebecca reached back on the counter beside her for her knife block, hoping to find anything at all to defend herself with. But her hand found it empty, fingers tracing the hollow spaces within it.
The silhouette advanced, just enough that another shaft of light from through the windows cast upon its face, revealing a short white girl in a white t-shirt and cargo pants, holding a knife in each hand. “Looking for one of these?” the girl whispered. “Because I can give you one back.”
Rebecca retreated once more. “What do you want?”
The girl scoffed. “A little girl comes into your house, takes all your knives, starts asking you questions? What do you think this is?”
“… an interrogation?”
“I’m telling you, whatever crazy shit you’re on, I thought there was a book too, but—”
“—don’t. You have it, I know. He was sent to give it to you. Which means if it already belongs to you, you have to die anyway. So don’t be a hero. Because I can kill you and start looking anyway.”
Rebecca’s idle hands kept searching blindly on the counter for something, anything that would give her a moment to flee. Finally, she found something.
“You came to kill me for a book?”
“The book’s that important. Making sure nothing changes is that important.”
“Then go ahead. Look for it. I promise you, there’s nothing here.”
“I will. But what will I do about—”
Rebecca gripped the small sack of flour and threw it, and it burst against the girl’s face in a cloud of white. The girl groaned and threw a blade forward, narrowly missing Rebecca’s head as she ran out of the kitchen and toward the stairs. She threw another one, jamming in the wall before the staircase just soon enough for Rebecca to grab it on her way up.
The girl followed. Agile, eager, reaching on her belt for her own sharpened blade to use instead. When she got to the top of the staircase, on the other end of the landing Rebecca was already waiting. Knife held firmly in her right hand, anxious but still prepared.
“So you can fight?” the girl asked.
“Isn’t this a school night?” Rebecca countered.
The girl chuckled. “Of course the lying swan would choose a girl like you. Brave, stupid, willing to resist. And witty?” She twirled her army knife between her fingers. “Oh, I am going to have a lot of fun getting rid of you.”
“I really have no idea what kinda drugs you’re taking, but I won’t ask again—you better get the fuck out of my house.”
“I will. After I gut you.”
Before Rebecca could even reply, the girl had already lunged. Adrenaline made her counter with the only thing that came first to her body—blade out, charging forward, ready to fight it out.