Project: Hinterland

Case 2: Threshold

Item 1: Things in the Trees

"I want another s'more!"

"No, honey. You already brushed your teeth. It's time for bed."

The campfire had died down to a pile of red embers. Jack Evans took a bucket to the nearby brook to get water to douse it while his wife wrangled their two children into their tent.

He didn't know how late it was. The sun had set as they ate supper, and now it was solidly night. It was partly cloudy, and the clouds around the gibbous moon were glowing iridescently. The Georgia night was silent. Too early in the year for cicadas, too late at night for birds other than owls. There wasn't even a breeze.

The night was deathly silent.

He put the fire out and climbed into the tent. Frazier and their seven-year-old son Billee were already in their sleeping bags, but their three-year-old daughter Ives was sitting up, staring out the mesh window.

"What are you looking at?" he asked.

She put her finger to her lips. "Shhh." Then she pointed up at the dark trees outside and whispered, "What's those?"

He looked, but didn't see anything. "It's just an animal. You're safe in here. Time to go to sleep."

The doorbell rang. Jade looked through the peephole, seeing Kir's sharp face and gray eyes. She opened the door. "Come in."

He stepped inside. She closed the door and locked it behind him.

Kir looked around. Jade had rearranged her furniture since last he'd been here. She'd moved couches and the refrigerator, and he saw a small round mirror mounted on the wall to show the hallway. Nightlights had been plugged in in each room. It was as if she was trying to eliminate any place someone might hide.

Someone or something.

"How are you?" he asked her.

"Fine. I get so bored without work to do, but Norgren says he's keeping me on medical leave for at least a month."

"Where's Benjamin?"

"He's at an art fair in Montreal."

"I'm sorry. It seems mean for him to take off at such a time."

"It's fine. At least he told me where he's going this time."

As they talked, she'd drifted into the kitchen and started some coffee brewing. Kir took another look around. It was the nightlights that concerned him the most. She'd never been afraid of the dark before.

"Have you talked to Benjamin about what happened?" he asked.

"No, and he knows he's not supposed to ask about it." She pulled out two mugs and poured the coffee, which she took to the table. "So are you just here to check on me, or is it about the case?"

"The case is out of our hands. The CIA has taken all the evidence. It's all classified. I'm just here because I'm your friend. Have you been having nightmares? Inspector Coffey mentioned that would be expected."

The truth was, Declan hadn't mentioned nightmares. But Kir knew about nightmares from the weeks, months, and years after his imprisonment by the forces of the Russian Purge, and he was willing to bet the things Jade had endured were even more horrible. He'd attributed the comment on nightmares to Declan in case she took offense to it.

Jade held her coffee in her hands and looked out the window. "I can't close my eyes without seeing nightmares," she admitted.

"If you think it will help to talk about it, tell me."

She considered, and shook her head. "I walked through the fog, and I was somewhere else. I kept walking, the fog cleared, and I was in a place that looked like Earth, but dead. No grass, no moss. There were some dead trees, but it was mostly rock. Just rock and dirt. It was cold and cloudy. When the sun did shine, it was wrong. The color of the light was wrong. It was always cold." She drew her coffee closer to her, as if fighting the cold in her memory.

"You're looking better," Kir said, trying to cheer her. "You look older."

"That's funny. I feel like a child. Like a little, scared child who just learned about death."

He didn't know what else to say. For some people, talking about a trauma helped. For other people, it harmed, dragging up bad memories that they would be better served by dealing with later, softened by time. He knew Jade well enough to know she didn't like talking about horrible things unless she could joke about them.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked.

"Don't…don't tell anyone about this." She waved her hand to indicate her redecorated apartment. "I don't want to have to pass a psych eval to go back to work."

He nodded. "Of course I won't." He looked at a mirror positioned on the counter to show the narrow space behind the refrigerator. "You know, after I fled Russia, I couldn't sleep for weeks. Even the buzz of a fly made my heartbeat speed up, because it reminded me of the sound of the zappers they used to electrocute me. It was in Tehran, many months later, I was staying with a woman named Yasmin, the cousin of some people I had helped smuggle out before I was caught… She took me skiing in a resort near Tabriz. The shining snow and mountain air, and sunshine, that was when I began to feel better, to feel like the prison had not destroyed me. Jade, I think you should take a vacation."

"I don't need a vacation."

"You're off work anyway, and it would really look good to the department if you go on vacation instead of just stay in your house."

She realized he was right. She'd been worried Norgren would decide she needed to talk to a psychiatrist. Going on vacation would give the appearance that she was healthy, normal, physically and psychologically recovering.

How many years had it been since she'd had a real vacation? And a change of scenery might help her get the other world out of her head, help her stop seeing the things she saw whenever she closed her eyes. Help her forget to look for demons in the shadows.

"You're right," she said. "Vacation it is."

Declan entered the isolation suite at the Central Investigation Authority regional headquarters in Albany where Dr. Pryce was being kept.

"I need to talk to her privately," he said to the CIA agent on guard duty.

He nodded toward the back room.

She was sitting at a table, writing in a notebook. She looked so innocuous, a short, grandmotherly figure with short brown hair and plump cheeks.

"What do you want?" she asked Declan without looking up.

He didn't answer right away. He took a deep breath, closed the door behind him, and stepped closer to the table.

"Doctor Pryce Bennett," he said. "We figured you wouldn't have told your test subjects your real name. Having them call you by your first name, that was a nice touch. Kind of quaint."

"What's your point?"

"It says something about you. You were born in Omaha, Nebraska, Fourteen January, 2004. You grew up there with two younger brothers, your mother, a high school French teacher, and your father, a software engineer. You were a child prodigy in math and science, winning your school science fair three years in a row, graduating early, going to UC Berkeley on scholarship. After getting your PhD in theoretical physics at Harvard, you moved to Germany, where you worked at the Meitner Institute and Higgs Particle Accelerator, where you met your husband, Doctor Julius Ochoa. You moved back to California to be closer to your family. Your husband, parents, and brothers died in the HEI pandemic. You've been off the grid for the past three years."

"So you know all about me," Pryce remarked. "I've handed over all my emails. I've told the CIA everything I know about the machines and the person who contacted me. What else do you want me to do?"

"You're not the only rogue scientist in the world, and the other dimension, the universe your gate opened to, isn't the only unexplained phenomenon the CIA is secretly investigating. Much as I hate to say it, we could use your expertise. I'm authorized to offer you a deal: plead no contest to five counts of involuntary manslaughter, and serve your probation working for the CIA. You would need to be fitted with a subdermal tracking device, and all your computer activity and communications would be monitored."

"How long would I be on probation?"

"The rest of your life."

She thought for a moment. "If I refuse, will I be found dead of a heart attack? Or maybe suicided?"

"The CIA doesn't really do things like that. It's more likely you would be found psychologically unfit for trial by a psychiatrist with seemingly no ties to the CIA, and you'd be committed to a hospital, have your health reevaluated once a year, and never see trial."

"Is that the kind of thing the CIA does nowadays?"

"Maybe. If that's what it takes."

"It looks like I don't have much of a choice," she said.

He leaned forward, his countenance clouding. "Doctor Bennett, whatever your intentions were, people are dead because of you. People are lost because of you. Detective Marquez and I suffered things you can't imagine. Those were consequences of choices you made. I wish we could lock you up for the rest of your life in solitary confinement, but I'll settle for not giving you much of a choice."

His words struck her silent. "Okay," she finally said, quietly. "I'll take the deal."

He nodded, and sat down at the table. He took out his phone and showed her a picture. It was the cat-eye symbol from Hektor Khan's access card. "We found this in the possession of a man who seemed to be tracking the thing you unleashed, the grendel. Do you know what it means?"

"No. I've never seen it before."

"Does 'KKS 666' mean anything to you?"

"No. The numbers I think are religious, some kind of mark of evil."

"What about this woman?" He showed her a photo of the woman who'd snuck into the hospital disguised as a nurse, the woman Kir thought had stolen Jade's sketches.

"No, I've never seen her. I guess I'm not doing well my first day."

"No. But you're not fired just yet." He stood to leave. "You'll be contacted by CIA lawyers later today to work out your deal."

Later that Evening, Declan returned to the townhouse he was renting in Buffalo. It was a narrow, sparsely furnished space with linoleum floors and tile walls, small but not remotely cozy. He didn't mind. He didn't know how long he would stay in the city; he'd always been nomadic, by circumstance and by temperament. Home simply didn't mean the same thing to him that it did to most people.

He'd requested to stay in Buffalo because he didn't feel satisfied that the Grendel case was resolved. There were too many unanswered questions: who the fifth victim Hektor Khan had been working for, who the woman who stole Detective Marquez's sketchbook from the hospital was, and if the creature Detective Marquez killed was the only one that had escaped into their world. He thought it was a good idea to stick around for a while longer and see if he could find any of those answers.

He had just opened the fridge to try to find something for supper when his phone buzzed. He answered quickly.

"Good evening, Director, what's up?" He knew she wouldn't be calling him unless something had happened.

"You're needed in Georgia," she said. "A seven-year-old boy on a camping trip disappeared night before last. Park rangers and helicopters searched the area for him yesterday. There's no sign of him. A storm's coming in on Wednesday. We need to find him fast."

"Lost in the woods?"

"Without a trace as far as the local search-and-rescue can find. I told them no one disappears without a trace you can't find."

"Almost no one." Declan glanced at the time on the corner of his phone. "Get me the details. I'll be on the first train to Atlanta in the morning."

"There's one more train tonight, leaving at 22:15."

"I'll try to make it, but I have have something to take care of first."