Thursday we got started at dawn, but heard nothing. We combed the hills all morning again but there was no sign of those kids. By noon Julian said aloud what we’d all been thinking: “I think it’s time we admit that sirens aren’t what we’re looking for.”

“Yeah.” Neal was driving and pulled around right there in the highway. “I don’t know what we are looking for, but if it was sirens we’d have heard the song by now.”

“Also, if it was sirens why did just kids hear the song?” I asked.

“Well, that we’ve seen before,” Julian said. “Adults stop being able to hear certain pitches that kids can hear. It’s not unheard of for only children to fall prey to siren song. But even if it was a song only kids could hear, we have Kiddo, and her hearing is far better than any kids on earth. She hasn’t responded to anything at all. So I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.”

“Then what is happening here?” I asked.

The boys exchanged looks. “I don’t know,” Neal finally admitted.

So we were back to the drawing board. We listened back to the recording of that boy’s recount of what happened and while it was mostly exactly what they said it was a few things stood out:

First, he mentioned the sound he heard being a song but not being a voice. His exact words were “like a flute over the hills.” We assumed that meant the VOICE was like a flute over the hills but that’s not actually what he said.

Second, he said they followed HIM. They followed “the mans song, like a flute over the hills.”

Did he see someone? Did they follow a person?

“We’re going to need to pull footage of that night,” Neal said.

“Not with our federal shadow in town we’re not,” Julian replied. “We’ll have to call the Scelerats again.”

Neal shrugged. “We’ll have Shiloh do it,” he said, lounging back in the hotel arm chair.

Julian cast him a dry look.

“I don’t mind!” I piped up, so Julian patiently explained that the Scelerats try not to get too involved in hunting because they try to keep as neutral as possible.

That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is why me calling would make any difference, which is exactly what I said.

Neal gave me a long look of mingled pity and amusement.

“Did you not notice?” he said. “That whole weekend when we were at the Red Rock?”

I OBVIOUSLY just gaped at him.

“Smitten,” Neal said with relish. “Just absolutely bamboozled by you. It was adorable.” And then, in a different tone: “That boy’s a catch, you could do a lot worse.”

FIRST of all Neal Hawthorne, who says BAMBOOZLED? He’s SO annoying I could wring his beautiful stupid neck.

Anyways, that pretty much dissuaded me from calling Bass or any other human for a while, but then we sat in the stupid motel room for like hours, going around and around with our limited evidence and not making progress, so finally I got on the phone and I called Bass.

He answered very formally, which is funny because I can very clearly picture him wearing cargo shorts and like a t-shirt with a fake tux printed on it.

“Hey Bass, it’s Shiloh,” I said and he instantly relaxed.

“Oh hey! What’s up?”

So I explained the case, the kids, the town.

“Oh yeah, we heard about that case out here. That all started months ago from what I heard.”

“Months ago?” I said.

“Yeah, Beverly sent some hunters out that direction because the town was totally overrun by rats. It was a meme for a sec, you should look it up. I think by the time they got there though they couldn’t find anything. But now this business with all those kids? What a mess. The Kellihers are on their way out last I heard. What do you need from me?”

I tried not make any expression because I didn’t want to give Neal the satisfaction. “We just need some footage of what happened that night,” I said. “We’d go get it ourself but the feds are here.”

“Bad luck,” Bass said. It wasn’t bad luck though, it can’t really be considered bad luck if the reason they’re here is they were literally following us. “I can do some recon, it’s been super slow out here.”

“Cool,” I said. “Thanks.” And then it got weirdly awkward. Or maybe I just got weirdly awkward, Bass was totally casual because that’s pretty much Bass’ mode of operation.

“Sure thing,” he said. “I’ll send the Hawthornes anything I find.”

And that was that. I hung up my phone, and looked around the motel room at the rest of the team. Neal and Julian were both sitting at the rickety little motel table, bent over their phones. The poor kid was lying on the bed, surrounded by a dozen uneaten snacks, aimlessly gazing at the tv screen, which she couldn’t even understand.

“Bass is going to help us,” I said. “He’s looking for video.”

Neal smiled, but didn’t look up. “See, I told you she’d do it,” he said, and Julian sighed, “alas, she’s one of us,” and I admit, I loved it.

It was a couple of hours before Bass got back to us. Since the Kelliher siblings were on their way we’d already decided to move on in the morning, since there’s no sign of immediate danger anyways, but the boys can’t sit still when there’s a case.

“I just don’t understand it,” Julian said. “Where did this many rats even come from?” He spun his laptop around to show us a video of rats literally pouring out of a storm drain.

“What I don’t understand is how they managed to get rid of them,” Neal replied. “It goes against everything we know about that kind of infestation. Gone over night? It doesn’t track.”

It was dark at that point, and the kid was watching some old Disney silly symphony cartoon, the lights from the tv flashing across her rapt face, and something slowly hit me.

“Do you know what this sounds like?” I said. “It sounds like the pied piper.”

Neal stopped typing mid google search. Both of them turned to stare at me.

“It does!” I said, slightly defensive with them all staring at me like that. “Rat infestation, rats gone overnight, then a few weeks later the kids are gone, too? Didn’t the kid say there was flute music?”

“Jesus Christ,” Julian said. “She’s right.” He started googling. “Look at this.” He flipped the computer around and a picture of a really old church.

“Are you going to make me read that,” Neal said.

Julian rolled his eyes. “It’s the cathedral in Hamlin, where the pied piper came. There is stained glass here that depicts the piper leading the children away.”

“Okay, so it was a popular story, even back then,” Neal said.

“No,” Julian said. “Look —” he clicked through. “Look at this. It’s in their records. It has been 100 years since our children left.”

We sat with that in silence for a moment, the lights from the tv flashing silently.

“And no one knows what happened?” Neal said.

“No,” Julian replied. “The most popular theory is that they weren’t literal children, that they were people in the town that were tempted away from Hamlin into the mountains to resettle in Eastern Europe, in order to escape stifling inheritance laws. There’s even some evidence of common British names appearing in towns over the mountains, that they think may be those settlers. But what if —”

“What if it were literally a pied piper,” Neal said.

We sat with that for another moment. “I’ve never heard anything about the pied piper being potentially real,” Neal said. “I mean you’d think there’d be some record somewhere of it happening more than once, right?”

“Maybe,” Julian said. “But not necessarily. If this piper is coming from some other world, we’re one of infinite universes out there. I’d say it’s more surprising that it would happen twice.”

I was chilled. Of all the fairy stories to come to life, the Pied Piper is not the one I expected.

“So you think,” Neal said, in his most skeptical tone, “that there is a literal pied piper out there calling the kids away from their homes in the middle of the night?”

Julian buckled a little. “I mean listen, it could be any number of things. But you have to admit this is a lot of coincidences. The rats?”

Neal opened his mouth to argue, but then my phone rang, and we all sort of jumped.

“Hello?” I said.

It was Bass again.

“Hey,” he said. “So I sent you guys some footage. Have you looked at it yet?”

“Not yet,” I said, and mouthed at Julian to check his email. “Why, what’s up?”

“Well… I mean I’m not sure I really know how to explain it. You should just watch.” He laughed, a little nervously. “It’s weird shit. I’m surprised this hasn’t leaked yet.”

“I have it,” Julian said, and I came around the table to watch over his shoulder.

“Are you watching?” Bass asked.

Julian pressed play. It was just an image of a road. Only the occasional flicker of static on the screen told me the footage was even playing.

And then, right at the edge of the frame, shadows began to move. They were coming towards us on a slant, strangely pale and green in the night vision. It was a whole crowd of children, faces rapt, all in their night clothes. And at the head of the crowd —

“What the fuck,” Neal said as it came close enough for us to finally get a good look at it.

It was a clown. No other word for it. Styled like it was the 30s, with diamonds on it’s eyes and big silly shoes. It was playing a little nickel pipe.

It looked right at the camera and distinctly winked, and then the screen exploded with light and went totally static.

I said, “Back in the day pied pipers would have been —”

“Minstrels and comedians,” Julian said.

Neal shuddered. “Alright, that’s enough of this fuckery,” he said. “I didn’t sign up for killer clowns.”

“There’s no evidence that it’ll come back. At least not for a few hundred years,” Bass said on the phone. “So that’s good news.”

“There’s also no evidence that they’re actual killers,” Julian pointed out. “Those kids could be alive out there somewhere.”

We all glanced at the kid, now dozing, our own little foreigner. Are those kids all in some strange different universe? Were they lured away from our world and into another?

“Does that mean that the thing can control where the rifts open?” I said and this time it was Julian that recoiled.

“If it does,” he said. “I only hope we never meet one again. That isn’t the kind of power anyone in this world needs to have.”

We left the next morning. We stopped to get gas on the way out of town, and when I went in with the kid to pee I could feel the eyes of everyone in there — the cashier, the other patrons, the sandwich makers at the adjoined Subway — all of them, trained on us.

“Are we sure it’s okay to leave them?” I asked as we got back on the highway.

“There’s no more kids to lose here,” Julian said. “If this thing strikes again, it won’t be in this town.”

So we put on some music, and rolled down the windows, and went on our way.

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