The tall gothic spires of Aleister Academy stuck up above the trees. Even this deep in the middle of nowhere, the former sanatorium claimed dominion over the surrounding forest. Talia had been here for six years, yet she still felt a little sick to her stomach if she starred at it too long. The squadron of cop cars outside didn't help matters any.
Talia jogged across the lawn to join her friends by the fountain. "What's with all the cops, did Mr. Carter finally kick the bucket?" Ellie and Nora shared a look. "What? I was kidding. Sort of. He's old."
"You mean you really haven't heard?" Ellie asked finally, giving Nora a prodding glance. Talia shook her head with a frown. "It's kinda creepy actually."
Nora rolled her eyes at her younger sister. "Fish stick went missing three days ago. He's probably dead."
"Nora!" Ellie reprimanded. "I'm sorry, Talia. I know you two used to be friends."
Talia just starred at them for a moment, then her eyes drifted back to the cop cars. For five years Noah Reed had been the only constant in Talia's life. In middle school, his dad started making homemade fish sticks, and Noah was forced to eat them at lunch every day for three months. The name had stuck around, and so had Talia. At least, she'd stuck around for a little while.
"Yeah, we used to be friends," she murmured. "Do they know anything yet?"
"If they do, they're not telling," Ellie said with an apologetic grimace. "All I've heard is that Noah skipped class Friday and never came home. His parents just assumed he was out with a friend-"
"What friends?" Nora mumbled.
Her sister shot her another look before continuing. "But when he didn't come home Saturday, they called the police. It looks like he vanished without a trace. Didn't even pack a bag."
Talia looked at the forest on the outskirts of the school grounds. The sunlight didn't pierce through the trees, and the shadows underneath were black as night. Noah's family lived out there in the middle of the woods. The two of them used to go exploring as kids. It was like a treasure hunt finding old artifacts from when the area belonged to the sanatorium. A chill ran down Talia's spine.
"Anyway," Nora said, drawing out the word. "Classes are canceled today. The cops want to talk to everyone, hence the full force of Meadow View's finest in our traffic circle." The eldest McMahon, linked arms with the other two girls and steered them toward the front door. "They're asking everyone to gather in the student lounge, but we're all free to leave once we've been interviewed. So I'm thinking, let's get there fast and wiggle our way up front so we can go see that new Gosling movie."
"No thanks, I've still got that chem project due Wednesday," Talia told her. She shook her arm free as they weaved through the halls up to the senior lounge. "Besides, I'm broke. Mom was supposed to lend me some cash, but she spaced on it."
Nora kicked open the door to the lounge which was half full of students. "Again? God, your mom's more forgetful than our grandma, and she has dementia." Talia shrugged.
As they found seats in the corner, a handful of cops came in. Nora tugged on Talia's arm, nodding toward the man at the front. He was in a suit, setting him apart from the officers behind him. "I haven't seen him around town before."
Nora looked smug. "He's from the city. I heard a rumor something really terrible happened on his last case. Not bad enough to kick him off the force, but bad enough to get him transferred to the middle of fucking nowhere." The three girls watched as the detective scanned the room. "It's their loss though. How could they part with a man that gorgeous?"
"He looks too young to be a detective," Ellie noted.
"You're right, he has to be in his twenties." Nora squared her shoulders with a smirk. "In fact, I think I'm gonna go introduce myself and welcome him to Meadow View." She took a step forward and then paused. "And give my statement, of course."
Ellie rolled her eyes as her sister walked away. "I can't even imagine what she's going to be like next year when she finally gets out of this town."
"Without you to dig her out of her messes? That is a terrifying thought." They laughed as they watched Nora flirt, unsuccessfully, with the detective.
Eventually Talia stood up and tapped Ellie on the shoulder. "I'm going to take a walk. If we're going to be here for a while, I might as well get my chem book." The younger girl nodded absently, hardly glancing up from her phone.
The halls were abnormally silent for this time of day. Usually there were people running back and forth from classes, or hanging out by their lockers during their free periods. But today it was deadly silent.
Talia made a beeline for the staircase that led to the lockers. The eerie silence reminded her that everyone said this place was haunted. In fact, a lot of places in Meadow View were supposedly haunted. Normally Talia didn't think about it, but today she was already on edge.
Quickly she opened her locker, found her book, and slammed the door shut. When she did, a tall silhouette was cast on the wall. The textbook fell out of her arms and landed on the floor with a bang, and Talia let out a quiet yelp.
"Shit, sorry. I didn't mean to sneak up on you."
Talia turned, finding the source of the eerie shadow. It was the detective from downstairs. "Aren't you supposed to be taking statements or something?" She blurted.
"Well, yeah. But the rest of the guys have it covered," he said. "I thought I'd take a look around. This place is a little creepy, isn't it?"
Talia let out a nervous titter. "Yeah, you could say that."
"I'm Detective Tanner, by the way." He held out a hand for her to shake. "You're a student here?"
"Yeah, for a few more weeks at least. My name's Talia," she said, finally starting to relax again. "Uh, Talia Green. Hey, any chance we could get this interview thing over with? I really need to get home and work on this project." She gestured down at the book by her feet.
Detective Tanner smiled. He had dimples that made him look even younger than he already did. Talia couldn't help but smile back. "Sure, we just have a few questions for all the students. First off, how well did you know Noah Reed?"
"Isn't it a little early for the past tense?" She raised an eyebrow. "Noah's still alive, right?"
"We're investigating every angle," he said, dodging the question. "I meant to say, how well do you know him?"
She shrugged. "We used to be close, but we haven't really talked since sophomore year. And if your next question is did I saw anything unusual Friday, the answer is no. I was holed up in the library most of the day."
The detective nodded. "There could be a chance that he ran away, do you think that's something Mr. Reed might do?"
"Like I said, we haven't been close for years. But, no, that's not like Noah. He loves his family, he always planned on staying in Meadow View and taking over his dad's restaurant." Talia bent down to pick up her book, and hugged it to her chest.
"Last question, were you aware of anyone harassing Mr. Reed?"
Talia made a face. "Harassing? No. He's not really popular, but people tend to just leave him alone. He's always been a loner." She glanced at the window at the end of the hall, her eyes narrowed.
"Is there something else, Ms. Green?"
She shook her head. "No, not really. I just remembered this hiding place he used to stash stuff. If something was wrong, he might have left something there." Tanner perked up at the idea of a lead, and Talia quickly added, "But probably not. It's been years since we went up there together. Noah probably stopped using it. He was always finding places to hide around here. You know this place used to be a sanatorium? There's a ton of crazy shit hidden around here."
"Could you point me in the right direction? I'll check it out."
"It's in the attic," she told him. "But it's better if I just take you up. You'll never find it without me, I don't think anyone else but Noah's ever been up there."
Detective Tanner nodded, and Talia stashed her book back in her locker before heading down the hall. They took the steps up to the sixth floor, and then headed to the big window at the end of the north wing. Talia pulled open the tiny unmarked door, and led him up the old service stairs to the attic.
"Damn, it's dusty up here," he muttered. "This should be a health code violation."
"They used to keep the student records up here, but that was back in the 80s. Everything's digitized now, so no one ever comes up here." Talia headed to a big multi-panel mirror on the back wall. In it, she could see Detective Tanner's bewildered expression as he took in the mess that was Aleister Academy's attic. She laughed quietly, knowing he was about to get another shock.
Her fingers found the lip at the bottom of the mirror, and she pulled it up. The bottom half slid behind the top half, revealing another hallway. She turned around to see Tanner starring. "What, they don't have secret passages in the city?" She motioned for him to follow after her as she headed into the dark. "Flip on the flashlight on your phone. It gets dark fast when I close the door."
Talia waited until Detective Tanner was in the hall with his flashlight on before pushing the mirror back down to cover their tracks. When it was closed, it was clear that the mirror was actually two-way glass. "Shouldn't we leave that open?" He asked, skeptically.
Talia rolled her eyes. "I know what I'm doing." She wiggled her fingers in the now exposed opening that the mirror had just slid out of. "I can never remember which side it's on." Finally she hit the tiny switch and the shutters at the end of the hall flew open, scattering a thin layer of dust. Detective Tanner coughed, but moved toward the light. "The door has to be closed to get the window open."
With the window open at the end of the hall, there was plenty of light for them to see the space without a flashlight. "How did Noah find this place?"
"A lot of exploring and a lot of skipping class." Talia smiled to herself as she remembered the day Noah had led her up here in seventh grade. "You know those puzzle boxes? This building is like one of those. There's a logic to it, but it takes a lot of practice to figure it out. It's a good thing I love puzzles."
Talia joined Tanner by the window. She dropped down to her knees and started pressing on the floor beams. "Please don't tell me there's another secret door in here."
She glanced up and laughed. "No, just secret compartments. We found all kinds of cool stuff up here, little mementos collected by patients or doctors I guess. We never really solved that puzzle. Didn't stop us from taking advantage of the best safe ever."
Finally there was a click and a piece of the window ledge snapped open. Talia flicked down the hidden door and let out a sharp breath. On top of the old notebooks and half empty bottles of whisky they'd stashed was a folded note. She pulled it out, and held it toward Detective Tanner. He read the name. "Lia?"
"That's what Noah used to call me," she whispered.
"Go ahead, open it. It's for you."
Talia starred at it for a moment before flipping it open. "Lia, if you're reading this I must be gone. I should've known this would happen when I started poking around without you. You were always the one who kept me on the right path. All our searching here, all the things we found in the forest, none of it was random. It was the last puzzle. I should have quit when you did. I know how to solve it, but I'm afraid of what will happen if I do. But you know me, I can't resist a challenge. I don't know if you'll ever find this, I'm not even sure I want you to. But this was your puzzle once, and if you're still the girl I used to know, you'll want to see it through. I just hope the darkness doesn't come for you too. Miss you. Noah."
She looked out the window for a long time. The forest seemed to edge closer, drawing her toward it. Tanner took the letter out of her hand and read it over himself. "What does he mean the last puzzle?"
"When I was a kid, I was obsessed with puzzles. We used to make up our own secret codes and play bad mystery games. Eventually we ran out and Noah started making up puzzles for me to solve. He was really good, I used to tell him he should work for the FBI or at least write some books. We'd try and solve real mysteries too, like the one surrounding this old place. Only we just kept hitting dead ends. Months and months of research and it all just led in circles."
He glanced up from the letter. "You mean the history behind Aleister Academy? I have heard some strange stories."
"Not just the school, this whole town. The paper trial on this place dies in 1942. No one actually knows who built the sanatorium, and it seems like the town just sprouted up over night. There are patient records that say treatments started years before, but no information on what any of those treatments were or when they started."
"You realize you sound a little bit like a crazy conspiracy theorist right now, right?"
Talia shot him a look. "Aren't cops supposed to be helpful?" She shook her head and snatched Noah's note back. "I could show you all the research and waste our time. Or you could just agree that there's some weird shit going on in this town. The latter would be most conducive to finding my friend."
"I'll take the letter down to the lab, see if there's anything on it. Maybe some invisible ink or something." Tanner made a grab for the letter, but Talia held it out of arms reach.
"Invisible ink? Who do you think Noah is, the kid from Christmas Story with the decoder pen?" She rolled her eyes and took another look in the compartment. "Oh, this is new. Like, actually brand new. This definitely wasn't here before."
Talia removed a small photo album; it still had the price tag on the front from the store. She flipped it open to look at the photographs. They were old, but from different time periods. "Did Noah have a thing for vintage photography?" Tanner asked, looking over her shoulder.
She didn't even bother to shoot him a look this time. "They aren't in the same place, most of these aren't from around here. But they do all have numbers. See this one is a store window, and that one's a gas sign. Maybe…no that's too many." She chewed on her thumbnail while she thought. "Either this is the code or this is the key and I don't know which is which. Maybe in the letter-" She broke off and held out her hand. "Pen, I need a pen."
To Tanner's credit, he didn't say anything, just handed her his pen. Talia wasted no time in getting to work, circling letters on the note. "So, to recap, Noah probably knows this town better than anyone else, and could potentially be hiding out somewhere. Possibly he's trying to escape some perceived fallout from this puzzle. So far the only-"
Talia glanced up. "Can you stop talking for like five minutes? I'm trying to count." The detective sat quietly while Talia finished. She held it up. "Bridge."
"Bridge?" He repeated.
"It was a book cipher, all the numbers in the photographs were in groups of three. Row, word, letter. It spells out bridge, we have a lead."
Tanner gave her a skeptical look. "We?"
"Please stop repeating everything I say, it makes you look dumb." She tilted her head to the side. "I thought city cops were supposed to be smart. Noah left me a puzzle. Whether you want to believe we're onto something or not, this is based on years of research. You'll be playing catch up, and meanwhile Noah could be dead. So, yes, we have a lead because you can't solve this without me."
"Alright, since you're apparently Talia the All Knowing, tell me what does bridge mean? In case you haven't noticed, there's a river running right through the middle of Meadow View. There are six bridges."
"There are nine bridges in the county," Talia corrected. "God, no wonder they sent you all the way out here."
Tanner starred at her for a minute. "Are you done being a smart ass?"
Talia sighed. "Yeah, whatever, it's the Seneca Avenue bridge. We used to get sandwiches at this place around the corner and take them out to the bridge to watch the boats."
"Come on," he motioned toward the door. "We'll check it out."
"Oh, so there's a we now?"
"I'll admit, this case will move a lot quicker if you help out." He paused before adding, "Also I'm afraid that door is rigged up to some turn-of-the-century booby trap, so I'm not touching it."
Talia cracked a smile. "I was gonna say this isn't Indiana Jones, but honestly, with this place you never know." She headed over to the door and wiggled the switch off. The shutters snapped closed leaving them in the dark. "Listen, I'm not trying to be difficult. I just want to find Noah, and I'm going to keep looking, even if you try to stop me. So I'd suggest not trying to stop me. Also, I'm sorry, I guess."
"I get it, I won't stop you."
"Thanks," she murmured. "Anyway, why did you get transferred?"
Tanner was quiet for a moment. "It's a long story."
"Okay, bad question." She hummed as she looked for lip at the bottom of the glass. "You're a curious one. How'd you get into this whole cop thing? You look too young to be a detective."
"My dad was a cop, and I guess it just stuck. Any more questions, Officer Green?"
Talia pulled the window open, and they stepped back out into the dusty attic. "Yeah, just one. What's your first name?"
He laughed. "It's James."
"Well, nice to meet you, James. I think we're going to make excellent partners." She smiled at him, and he smiled back. Her chest fluttered, but Talia told herself it was just excitement over solving a puzzle.