The good news: we got Cara on the phone yesterday. She finally called us back from an unknown number. Neal was driving, so Julian picked up his phone, heard two words, and with a smile put it on speaker.
“I hear you went into the ring with Lana over me,” Cara teased.
“Don’t take it personally,” Neal said. “I’d go into the ring with Lana over anything, you’re just convenient.”
Cara laughed. “Listen, I’m okay,” she said. “Protsman’s looking out for me.”
Neal didn’t answer for a moment. “Is he with you right now?”
“Yeah,” Cara said.
“Is it because you’re not allowed to talk to me without supervision?”
Cara was quiet for a long moment. “Neal,” she said. “You have to ease up on Lana.”
Neal laughed absolutely humorlessly. “Jesus christ, is he threatening you?”
Cara laughed. “Please, you think Protsman could take me? No, this is me asking you: please. She’s doing the best she can.” And then when Neal didn’t respond at all, she added, haltingly, “listen, I uh…” She cleared her throat. “I know you’re in my corner, and I love you for that, I really do. But this one was my bad, alright?” And when Neal still didn’t say anything, she added, “They put me in one of the orchard houses.”
“You hate the orchard houses,” Neal grumbled.
“You know I’ve always secretly loved the orchard houses,” she said. “I’m a sucker for a view.” Neal smiled slightly, somewhat against his will, and Cara added, “Jasper’s still here with Clementine. I’m really okay.”
Neal sighed heavily. “Okay.”
“I was getting too hot out there anyways,” Cara said. “Business was going to take a hit either way. This is the perfect place to lie low.”
Both the Hawthornes smiled at that and I thought maybe we were going to be okay, but then Cara said, “have you been in touch with many hunters lately?”
“Not really, no,” Julian said.
“Bev hasn’t talked to you?”
“We’ve been keeping a pretty low profile,” Neal reminded her.
“Right, well,” she hesitated. “You should call her.”
“Seriously, call her, you should get a first hand account. I didn’t know it was getting so dicey, Protsman just spelled it out for me.”
“Spelled what out for you?”
“Just call Beverly, alright? I’m gonna go, there are some artifacts here the Professor wants me to look at.”
“Call Beverly! And I’ll get back to you when I’ve got a more comprehensive escape plan.”
In the background, we could hear Protsman beginning to make some protestations. “And get a really nice hotel! In my honor! It’s Christmas! That’s an order! You’re welcome Shiloh!” and then Cara hung up the phone.
But of course when we called Bev, she didn’t pick up. Four rings and on to voice mail.
“That can’t be good,” Neal sighed.
“I’m sure the Crossroads is busy,” Julian said. “Cases have been out of control lately. I’m sure she’s working triple time.” But he was worried, too I could tell by his tone.
That was yesterday. Since then we’ve stopped in a big city. It’s on a river. I’ve been here a few times in my other life, but never in this much style.
That’s right folks — just like Cara said, we’re in a BIG NICE HOTEL. There’s a sparkly, sparkly Christmas tree in the lobby, and the whole place smells like pine candles.
We had to call and talk to Veronica Scelerat (technically Bass’… aunt? I believe?) to make it work, but according to her, even if we are recognized and someone calls us in there’s not gonna be any record of our cannibalism extravaganza.
Not that scrubbing our record was easy.
“Days, it took to clean up that mess,” Veronica told us, sternly. “We must have worked 60 hours on this case ALONE in the last few weeks. And I still can’t guarantee you’re 100% clean, you’ve got a fucking blood hound after you. We’re like three bad days away from all-out disaster because of this, and you understand what that would mean, right? No more money. No more health insurance. No more aliases. Just you and the cold hard truth.”
This lecture the Hawthornes took with absolute grace. Apologized profusely, flirted a little, the whole nine, which sort of did sooth Veronica, admittedly.
And then we got off the phone and got checked into a 5 star hotel. I love you, Cara Thistle, you insane, irresponsible criminal. We got MASSAGES for fucks sake. SAUNA. HOT TUB. BIG ASS BOOKSTORE I WON’T NAME. PEDICURES. Yes, it was a goddamn delight to watch Juilan burn through the new Akwaeke Emezi book (where Julian finds the time to keep up with the new releases is an absolute mystery to me) while getting his toes done.
We went and got food from a food truck, and it was in the food line that Neal saw her.
She was a totally normal girl. Curly dark hair, fingerless gloves, bundled in lots of clothes with her hood up. She was sitting on the curb with a cup of tea, huddled around the heat. She looked like she’d been on the road a long time.
Neal could not stop staring at her. Like super obviously. He’d literally like… stopped in his tracks and was just gaping at this girl.
“Neal?” Julian asked. Neal waved him off. “Is everything —” The girl looked up and saw us and for a moment she was frozen like a rabbit staring. Then she got up, pushed between the slight crowd, and began hurrying away.
AND NEAL STARTED CHASING HER.
“Wait!” he shouted, shoving people out of the way to catch up with her. Julian and I followed, bewildered. We must have chased her like 3 blocks before she finally whirled on us.
“What do you want?” she cried. She had a low voice and startlingly bright brown eyes, almost gold.
Neal stopped, slightly breathless. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” He scrubbed his forehead with his fingers. “God, I’m a stranger chasing you down in the street, I’m so sorry. I’m don’t mean to — fuck.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Julian said, pushing between them. “We’re so sorry, I don’t know what’s going on with him.” He put a hand on Neal’s shoulder and made to lead him away but Neal shook him off.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “But there’s something about you.”
The girl went pale under freckles. “Leave me alone!” she shouted, and people on the street turned to stare at us. The girl stepped off the curb and wove between traffic to get away from us, and if Julian hadn’t physically restrained Neal, he would have followed her. She got into an ancient forest green slug-bug and as we watched, turned on her car and drove away.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Julian asked, grunting slightly from the effort of turning Neal by the shoulders and shoving him away from the street, with enough force that he thumped into the side of the department store. Neal just leaned there a second, dazed, hand on his forehead.
“Who was that girl?”
“Neal!” Julian said. “You just chased a stranger down the street! A girl! What the fuck?”
Neal looked up at him and there was something super weird and frantic in his expression. “You didn’t see it?”
Neal shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Fuck.” He put his hands on his knees and caught his breath. “Fuck, you’re totally right. I must have scared her.”
“You think?” Julian cried.
“Yeah, no, I know, I’m sorry,” Neal said, waving him off.
And that should have been the end of it, but it WASN’T. Last night in the hotel room, when we should have been enjoying the fucking LUXURIES, Neal was like… listless and weird and pacing around like a total weirdo. And this morning when Julian and I BOTH slept in, we woke up to find Neal already awake, running this poor girls plates through police databases.
Julian was totally blind-sided when he figured out that was what he was doing. “Neal, what in the fuck —”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” Neal said. “But there was something about her.”
“Something about her that’s making you want to stalk her?” Julian asked.
“No,” Neal said with exaggerated patience. “I think she’s a case.”
“A case,” Julian repeated. “On what basis?”
Neal shrugged and scooted away from him, irritably. “I don’t know, just a case!”
Julian just stared at him, totally bewildered.
“You didn’t see it?”
“See what?” Julian asked.
Neal shrugged. “I don’t know. Nothing.” And then, “she was just a normal girl to you?”
Julian and I exchanged a look. “What did you see?” Julian asked.
“Nothing,” Neal said. “I didn’t see anything, it was just…” he stopped. “She was really normal?”
But he’s being super weird, and when Julian suggested it was time for us to move on, Neal flat out refused. He’s being totally belligerent.
So okay it’s been a few hours. Neal has not gotten less weird. In fact he’s gotten MORE weird. He found this poor girl’s NAME. Apparently it’s Eden Nemerebai. She’s 24 years old, and hasn’t had a job since 2012, when she worked in a plant store. She grew up in Oregon. Ran away from home when she was 17, was found and brought home, was an inpatient at a mental health facility shortly after, and then after that she had like… a parking ticket in 2018 and that’s it. No credit score, no name on any leases, no loans.
Yeah, we’re that far into this girl’s life, thanks to an increasingly uncomfortable Bass, who I’m pretty sure is only doing this because he still feels super weird about the fact that at the witch summit a bazillion years ago, they all voted about whether to imprison me in their admittedly very cool hospital.
“Do you think she fell through a rift from somewhere else?” Julian finally asked, hours later, watching Neal continue to check through the differen.
“Maybe,” Neal said.
“Okay,” Julian said, even-keeled and reasonable. “Maybe she did. But if she did, do you think it’s a good idea to approach her with that?”
Neal only shrugged sulkily.
“I’m not sure she’d take very well to that information,” Julian pointed out. “Given that we were just chasing her down the street four days ago. But, it’s possible that knowing where she came from would help her understand herself. Would you like to call Jasper? See if he’d like to take her on as a case?”
“Stop patronizing me,” Neal snapped.
“I’m not,” Julian replied. “I’m trying to help.”
“You’re trying to get me to leave her alone,” Neal snapped.
“Yes,” Julian agreed. “I absolutely am trying to get you to leave her alone.” And when that didn’t have any affect, he said, “Neal —”
“I’m gonna go for a walk,” Neal interrupted.
“Okay, I’ll come with you,” Julian replied, gamely.
“I just a need a second.”
Julian stared at him. “No I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
Neal scoffed. “What, are you scared I’ll do something?”
“No,” Julian replied, and then, “actually, yeah kind of. What is your issue with this girl?”
“I don’t know,” Neal said, scrubbing his face with his hands. “I don’t know, you’re right, I’m being insane.”
“I’m making some calls,” Julian said.
“No,” Neal began but Julian interrupted him.
“Neal, do you trust me?”
“I’m telling you, this —” Julian gestured at him. “It’s super abnormal. I’m gonna make some calls.”
Neal deflated and agreed, which is a good sign because at least he knows he’s got some weird thing happening. Julian tried Beverly again, and again, no one picked up.
In the meantime: bring on the room service and Krampus movies!