Seneca Avenue Bridge was the fourth oldest bridge in Meadow View. It was a hulking rusted-metal thing that looked as if it might crumble at any moment. The city council had it painted twice in the past decade, but neither coat could weather the harsh New England storms.
Talia hopped out of Detective Tanner's sedan and walked over to the rail. The river below was murky, nearly as opaque as the forest had been. "Is there another secret hiding place here?" Tanner asked, joining her by the water.
She shook her head and turned around to face the bridge supports. Patches of rust could be seen through the mismatched shades of blue and green paint. "No, but if Noah left something, it'll be up there." She nodded toward the top.
"Alright, I guess I'll climb up." He started toward the supports, but Talia grabbed his arm. "What?"
"The bridge code was one of the first languages we made up," Talia explained. "We used to sit over there and decide how the rust patches and paint peelings could be letters. Over the years the storms took off more paint and we'd adjust accordingly. Sometimes we'd even scratch parts off ourselves." She paused and side-eyed the detective. "But, uh, don't arrest me for vandalism."
He smirked. "So, did Noah leave a message?"
Talia nodded and sat down on the curb. "Yeah, I think so. But it's going to take me a minute to figure it out. It's been a while so…"
"You're a little rusty?" James asked. "Pun intended."
She rolled her eyes and laughed. "Wow, good one."
"Hey, where's that sandwich shop you mentioned? I don't know about you, but I skipped breakfast. I'll go grab us something."
"Oh, that place closed years ago," she told him. "Actually, Mr. Cruz jumped off this bridge. No one really knows why, his shop was doing good, he had a great family. One day he just got up in the middle of the night, walked across the street, and jumped."
Tanner stared at her for a moment. "What's really creepy is that you're not the first person in this town to talk about death so nonchalantly."
She shrugged. "When you live in a haunted town, you get used to it."
"You really believe Meadow View is haunted? I thought that was just some corny crap for the tourists."
"Corny, yes. Crap, not so much. Supposedly we have the highest rate of unexplained deaths in America. I don't know if that part is true, but there have been a lot of strange accidents around here. And those are just the ones we know about."
Talia pulled the pen from her pocket and started translating Noah's code on the back of her hand. Tanner took a seat next to her. "You and Noah used to spend a lot of time together, didn't you?"
She snorted. "Yeah, you could say that. My parents got divorced when I was in fourth grade, coincidentally that's the year Noah's mom stopped homeschooling him. My dad moved to Seattle and my mom threw herself into her work, and I spent more time with Noah's family than I did with my own."
Talia wrote down a few of the words and started giggling. Tanner gave her a funny look and moved closer to read what she'd written. "Cheesesteak, club, French dip, pastrami. Is this a code or a menu?"
"It's a throwback," she explained. "Mr. Cruz made the best Cubans. He made his own bread and had the mojo marinade shipped in from Havana." Talia scrawled down a few more sandwich names before finding the right support beam. "Okay, hold my jacket, I'm going up."
James started to call out a protest, but he was too late. Talia shimmied up the side of the bridge, using the oversized screws like a rock-climbing wall. At the top she tossed one arm over and held on while she felt around for another clue. "Got it!" She called, before stuffing the plastic bag into her pocket and sliding back down.
At the bottom she opened the bag and pulled out another old photograph. This one was a portrait of a balding man. On the back Noah had drawn a pentagram and written 1940 in the middle. "So, we have a demon summoning from the gangster era," Tanner muttered, looking it over. "Or something. What's it mean?"
Talia shrugged. "No idea. I don't recognize this guy." She looked at it for a few minutes. "Okay, well, maybe I know something that'll help. When we hit dead ends we'd put them in a box, we thought that maybe if we linked them all together they'd point to what happened before 1942. Noah was always more optimistic than I was, he thought we'd crack it and find some hidden records book from the 1880s or something. I thought we'd be lucky to get back to 1940."
"You think Noah figured something out in that box?"
"If anyone could do it, it'd been him." She tucked the photo into the back pocket of her jeans. James gave her a look, but didn't say anything. "You can log it into evidence when I figure it out. Plus, Noah left it for me, you can't take it without a warrant." She crossed her arms. "Anyway, I know where he kept the box, but it's at his house."
"I was going to drop by tomorrow anyway," Tanner told her. "The Reeds have been really cooperative, I'm sure they'd let me take it. Tell me where it is and I'll pick it up."
Talia sighed. "No offense, detective, but I'm not going to do that. What's to stop you from grabbing it, and leaving me in the dust? I'll get it. I should probably go over anyway, what with everything..." As much as she didn't want to face Noah's parents, she knew should. It had been a long time since they had talked. "Unless you want to dig through his stuff yourself. He has a lot of boxes, could take days, weeks even."
"You realize I could arrest you for obstruction of justice, right?" They stared at each other for a moment. Tanner was the first one to look away. "But whether Noah ran away, or something worse, the quicker we find him the better. Against my better judgment, I'm letting you do this your way. But we've got to have a little trust here, Talia."
"You're talking to a – What did you call me earlier? Crazy conspiracy theorist? Yeah, we don't really do trust. I appreciate that you want to help, but I'm going to need more than that." Talia didn't really lump herself in with all those 9/11 truthers and JFK assassination nutjobs, but it was easier than diving into the truth with someone she hardly knew.
Tanner shook his head. "Fine, how about I drive you over there now?"
"Whoa, I'm not trying to give Clarice Reed a heart attack here," Talia said, taking a step back. "If I show up asking for Noah's research with a cop, she's gonna freak. She's never been on board with this whole puzzle thing. I'm pretty sure she'd burn all that crap if Noah would let her." She pulled the photo out of her pocket and held it out. "Here, I'll trade you. Go do what you need to do, talk to the Reeds, but don't say anything about those boxes. Please. This is going to take finesse, and you, Mr. Suit-and-Tie, do not have that."
"This is my job, I know what I'm doing."
"Maybe you knew what you were doing in Boston, but this is Meadow View and you just got here. You don't know anything about this town or anyone in it." Talia tilted her head. "And you know, I'm inclined to believe you didn't really know what you were doing in the city either, considering you got your ass exiled to this nowhere town."
The way the detective's shoulders slumped was almost imperceptible, but Talia was watching for it. Just like a charm, it worked. Maybe she hadn't learned his secret yet, but she'd already learned how to use it like a knife. "Keep the photo, and yeah, fine, you get the box."
"I'll go over tomorrow after school." Talia nodded once. "But if you want to help, I get out of class early on Wednesday. You could pick me up." She gave him a small smile, a silent apology for her words. "Who knows, I might even convince you I'm not totally insane."
"If I can get out of the station, that sounds like a good plan. Two sets of eyes are better than one, right?"
"Yeah, even if you don't know what the hell you're doing." Her tone was teasing this time.
James shook his head and laughed quietly. "Okay, let me drive you back to your car."
When they pulled up outside Aleister Academy, Talia dug her keys out of her pocket and reached for the door. "Hey, Talia." She stopped and turned back toward the detective. "For the record, I don't think you're totally insane."
She smirked. "Well, that's a start."
Talia put off visiting the Reeds' cabin as long as she possibly could. She could have gone over immediately, or on the way to school the next day. Her lunch break was even long enough for a quick trip through the woods, but she didn't go then either. Instead she sat in the window seat of Aleister Academy's cafeteria with Nora and Ellie.
"Hey, Earth to Talia," Nora called. She waved her fork in front of Talia's face until Talia finally jumped. "Damn, we've been talking to you for fifteen minutes. Where is your head?"
"With Noah probably," Ellie mumbled, casting an apologetic look in Talia's direction. Ellie was always quick to soften Nora's in-your-face attitude. "Are you okay, Tal?"
Talia forced a weak smile. "Yeah, sorry. You're right, Ellie, I can't stop thinking about Noah. It's not like him to just disappear."
"It's been like two years since you even talked to him," Nora reminded her. She twirled her spaghetti around her fork absently. "Who knows what he like these days?" Talia just shrugged. "Oh, hey, Ellie saw you leave Detective Tanner yesterday." Nora wiggled her eyebrows and Ellie just looked embarrassed.
Talia made a face. "I just had a thought about Noah, but it didn't pan out." It was only a semi-lie. It hadn't panned out yet. "Tanner's interesting though."
Nora leaned forward on her elbows, pasta completely forgotten. "Interesting? Do tell."
"I don't know. He's nice I guess, but he's definitely hiding something." She shrugged again and reached for her Coke while the other two waited for her to continue. "I asked about his transfer and he got defensive, there must be some truth to that rumor. Actually, he didn't really talk about himself at all."
"If I'd been the one there, neither of us would've done a lot of talking," Nora quipped, taking a sip from her own glass.
Ellie rolled her eyes. "You are going to be a mess next year, you know that right?"
"Yes, a hot mess." Nora winked and the three of them dissolved into giggles. "But seriously, Talia. Tanner is hot. If you don't make a move, I will."
Talia raised an eyebrow. "Okay, good luck with that."
"Any more helping planned for the future?" Nora asked, putting air-quotes around "helping."
"I don't know, maybe. If I think of anything else," she said, choosing to ignore her friend's implications. "Actually, I was thinking about stopping by the cabin after school. Noah used to keep all sorts of weird notes, maybe he still has them."
"You think one of Noah's old puzzles could be a clue?" Ellie asked, looking intrigued. Nora leaned back in her seat with an eye roll. "Hey, maybe I could go with you. I used to work at Mr. Reed's café, remember?"
"Yeah, um, I think I need to do this on my own. It's been a long time since I saw them, they deserve an explanation. Or at least an excuse." Talia wasn't exactly keen on explaining the conspiracy they'd gotten caught up in to anyone else. It was bad enough that she'd let Detective Tanner in on it.
"I don't think you ever told us why you dropped fish stick so fast," Nora said. "Not that I blame you, the kid was weird as hell."
"Is," Ellie said forcefully. "Noah's not dead."
"That we know of," Nora finished. Talia stood up and grabbed her tray. "Hey, Tal, I didn't mean-"
"No, it's not you. It's fine. I just remembered my chem project is due tomorrow."
"I thought you were working on that yesterday?" Ellie pointed out.
"I, uh, got distracted. Plus I forgot my book," she explained quickly. "I'll see you guys tomorrow, okay?"
"Yeah, um, text me after you go to the Reeds," Ellie said. Nora gave her sister a curious look. "I mean, if you want to."
"Sure, definitely." Talia turned on her heels and got out of the cafeteria as quick as she could. She made a dash up for her locker to grab everything she needed for her project. The old photograph from the bridge was on top. Talia let out a sharp sigh. "I'll figure this out, Noah. I promise." She paused, remembering Detective Tanner who actually seemed like he wanted to help. "We'll figure it out."
The Reeds' cabin looked exactly how she remembered it. It looked really old, though Talia knew Noah's grandfather had built it back in the 80s. With big wood beams and one of those grass-covered roofs, it almost seemed like an organic part of the forest.
Talia didn't even need to knock on the door; it flew open in front of her. "Oh, Talia, it's been so long," Mrs. Reed said beaming. "Come in, come in. I'll make a pot of tea. Or do you like coffee better, I forget."
"Tea's perfect, Mrs. Reed." Talia let herself be dragged into the house and deposited on the couch, while her hostess hurried into the kitchen. Talia glanced around the living room; it too was exactly the way it had always been. It was homey, with hand knitted blankets on the chairs, and old photographs on the walls. There were even a few of Talia with Noah when they were kids. It felt familiar and warm, being here made Talia feel safe but also a little sad at the same time.
Clarice Reed shuffled back in with a tea tray and poured each of them a cup. "It's a new rooibos, Danny is thinking about stocking it at the café. Let me know what you think." She laughed nervously. "I guess it seems a little silly to be worrying about the café with everything that's happened but, I just can't imagine Noah really being gone. I'm sure he'll be back soon, I know it."
Mrs. Reed seemed fine, but there was red around her eyes that gave her away. Talia took a sip of her tea and smiled. "It's really nice. Very fruity, yet also earthy at the same time. I think it'd do well, especially with the adventure tourist set."
"That's exactly what I told him," Clarice said happily. "I'll make sure he hears your endorsement. Maybe he can put out one of those little signs with the reviews. You and Noah used to always love putting out those signs."
Talia smiled sadly, remembering how many teas they'd tried before coming up with the perfect one. They'd always put out signs on the counter advertising the new blends as "Perfect for a post-ghost hunting breakfast," or "An energizing boost for your day on the river."
"Have you met that detective yet, the one from the city?" Clarice asked. Talia nodded. "He seems a little off to me, but I think he genuinely cares about finding Noah. Yesterday he mentioned something about his partner having a lead. But his partner hasn't been by yet. I bet it's that Kevin Adams, that boy has been trouble ever since he was a child."
Talia laughed quietly. "I still don't know how Kevin made the force, he spent more time in the holding cell than he did in a classroom." Clarice made a noise of agreement. "I'm really sorry about Noah, I bet he's okay." Talia reached out to give Mrs. Reed's hand a squeeze. "He's probably on some crazy adventure and when he comes back he'll be mad we were even worried."
"You're probably right. My Noah is a smart boy, but sometimes I'm afraid he gets a little too lost in that mind of his." Clarice forced a half-smile. "It's good to see you, Talia. It's been too long."
"I know, I'm sorry."
"If you don't mind my prying, I know whatever happened between you two isn't my business." She paused and took another sip of tea. "But what happened to you two?"
"We just grew apart," Talia said. She'd been rehearsing this in her head all day. "You know how he could get sometimes. He'd be so focused on one of his puzzles that nothing else would matter. His mysteries were almost another person I had to compete with, and you know, three's a crowd."
Mrs. Reed nodded thoughtfully. "That really is a shame. You and Noah were so close when you were kids. I know you were dealing with a lot back then, and I'm glad we were all here to help you through that."
"You were really like a second family to me," Talia admitted. "Hell, more like a first family most of the time."
"How is your mother?" Clarice asked, momentarily distracted. "She used to stop by the café from time to time, but Danny says he hasn't seen her in months."
"Oh, she's alright. She's renting an apartment in Boston right now. It was hard being out here when her practice is in the city. I think she's just ready for me to graduate so she can sell the house and be done with Meadow View for good."
"Sonya was so happy when she moved back, I really though this place would be a good fit for her and for you. Your grandparents loved this town so much." Clarice shook her head sadly. "You know, we were in the same class at Aleister. She really thrived there. But I suppose Meadow View is just tainted by too many memories."
The Sonya Green that Mrs. Reed spoke of was a woman that Talia had never known. As long as she could remember, her mother had hated Meadow View. She hadn't been happy here, and she certainly hadn't thrived. Sonya Green was meant for the city, and she was happy there. Or at least as happy as someone with that much bitterness inside them could be.
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry to bring all this up. I know you and your mother aren't close. I hope you two can work on that when you move to the city." She paused. "You do still plan on going to school in the city, don't you?"
"Yeah, of course. I have a couple offers, I'm still deciding." Nearly ever student at Aleister went to college in Boston. There were more colleges that you could possibly count, and it meant in-state tuition. It just made sense.
"Oh good, Noah is going to Northeastern." Clarice stared at the wall for a moment; Talia could tell she was holding back a sudden wave of tears.
"Mrs. Reed, I was actually wondering if I could go up to Noah's room for a minute?" Talia asked hesitantly. "I know it's been a few years since we were close, but with everything that's going on I just…I really miss him."
"Honey, of course, I'm sure he'd be okay with that." Mrs. Reed sat down her cup and led Talia upstairs. "He hasn't said anything to me, but I know he misses you too."
Talia remembered his note, and suddenly she was fighting back her own tears. "Thanks, um you think I could have a minute."
"Sure, take as much time as you need. I'll get you a refill on your tea."
As soon as Clarice was gone, Talia wiped at her eyes and went straight for Noah's closet. Not a lot had changed up here either. A few new posters for indie bands that Talia had started listening to this year as well. It made her smile to know that even apart, they were still on the same wavelength.
The box she was looking for was on top, under a worn leather jacket Talia had found at a thrift store freshman year. Talia's messy handwriting was scrawled on the side of the box, labeling it "The Rabbit Hole."
"Didn't you give Noah that jacket for Christmas a few years back," Mrs. Reed asked, popping up in the doorway. She offered Talia a second cup of tea, which Talia accepted eagerly.
"Yeah, it was worn back then, but it's way past that now."
"He did wear it a lot," Clarice said with a sad smile. "I think that was his way of keeping you close."
Talia held the jacket tightly in her arms. She'd never seen Noah wear it to school, but then again maybe she hadn't been paying attention. Or maybe he didn't want her to know that he missed her.
"You should take it, he'd want you to have it."
"Oh, no. I couldn't." Talia held the jacket out to Mrs. Reed, only to have it pushed back toward her.
"You can give it back to him when he comes home," Clarice reminded her. "I insist."
Talia sat down her cup long enough to slide the jacket on over her t-shirt. "Thanks," she murmured. "Do you think I could take this box too? It was one of our stupid puzzles. I never solved this one, and I've been thinking about it a lot these past few days."
"You know Noah would be thrilled to have someone try to crack it," Mrs. Reed said with a disapproving shake of her head. "It's yours, Talia."
"Thank you so much, Mrs. Reed. You don't know how much this means to me." Clarice came over to give Talia a hug. Then Talia quickly finished off her tea, scooped up the box and headed for the door. "I'll be back, I promise you won't have to wait so long to see me again. And Noah will be back too, I'm sure of it."