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Chapter One: Two Years LaterA thousand melodies flowed round me as I wove my way down the crowded street: sharp notes of iron and steel, heavy-but-irregular beats of concrete and asphalt, the soft harmonies of air, and the tangled, ever-changing song of the passing people. I tuned them all out, by now so used to them that I didn’t bother to wonder at how, all together, they, together with the normal city noises, so narrowly walked the line between beauty and discord. Another night, maybe, I could sit and enjoy them. But tonight . . . tonight wasn’t an option.
I could’ve been celebrating, I know. Should’ve been celebrating, even. I had reason enough. I’d taken my last final of sophomore year that day, and somehow after two years of college I was still sane and not in crippling debt. Even better, Dad had finally given up asking if I was absolutely sure I didn’t regret switching my major to music midway through freshman year, instead of keeping on in math— though I’d guess the fact that my younger sister had decided for sure that she wanted to major in biology when she started college next fall helped. And to top it all off, I’d managed to land my first official gig, thanks to a local café that wanted to support aspiring musicians.
So, yeah, I had reason to celebrate. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have an opportunity; my roommate and a half-dozen of my other friends had invited me to join them for dinner out and a night spent either partying or goofing off, depending who I said yes to. But I had to say no to all of them. Not because I wanted to catch up on sleep, as I told most of them, not untruthfully. Not because I wanted time to myself, as I told my roommate. No, tonight, I had work to do.
I paused at a crosswalk and glanced up and down the street, getting my bearings. After two years of exploring, two years of spending every spare moment on the hunt for proof of a murder, I knew my way around Foundry City well enough, but sometimes the tangle of streets, all at angles to one another, left me wondering if I’d missed a turn. But no, I hadn’t; there was the Starbucks down to my right, just a few shops away.
I sped up slightly as I headed towards it. I knew I shouldn’t have my hopes so high for this meeting. After all, if two years’ search had produced nothing but circumstantial hints, no more conclusive than a blurry photo of the Loch Ness Monster, why should tonight be any different? But the day was going so well already . . . maybe tonight would be the night.
Starbucks seemed to be even more crowded than the street had been, if that was possible. I joined the long line at the counter, glancing around the shop. I didn’t have much of a description for the person I was supposed to meet, of course. That’s safer for him and me. But he said he’d be wearing a red scarf— plenty noticeable, this time of year; who wears scarves in May?— and Clark Kent glasses, and that he’d try to sit by a window.
Even with that description, I didn’t spot him until only three people separated me from the counter. He’d claimed a small table wedged between the window and the wall, a table which he’d covered with a clutter of laptop, phone, notebooks, and empty coffee cups. A brown jacket seemed about to fall off the back of his chair. Besides the scarf and glasses, he wore a white button-up shirt, jeans, and black suspenders, and his brown hair looked like it had been neat at one point but someone had run their hands through it several times since. I guessed he was only a year or two older than I was— thank God! More than once before, I’d ended up meeting with creepy old guys, conspiracy theorists with no real information and way too much, well, creepy. This guy . . . well, he might be pretentious, judging from the suspenders, but he definitely didn’t look sleazy.
I reached the counter and, glancing quickly at the menu, ordered a caramel-cinnamon mocha with two shots of espresso. Normally I’d just get plain coffee; that has more caffeine. But the mocha and espresso would be enough to get by, and, hey, I might as well do something special for tonight.
A little more than five minutes later, my coffee in hand, I walked over to my contact. He didn’t look up until I’d stood for another five minutes and then cleared my throat. Only then did he look up- first at my face, then at the blue bandana-style headwrap over my hair, then down at my sturdy sneakers, then finally back to my face. “Can I help you?”
For a moment, I wondered if I’d found the wrong guy. He seemed to have no idea who I was— not that I’d given him much more description than he gave me, but I’d mentioned the headwrap and my jean jacket; that should’ve given him a clue. “Maybe. I think we agreed to meet here? If you’re—” I pause, recalling his screenname— “Davies ninety-three?”
His puzzlement lasted another minute before recognition burst forth. “Right. Er, you’re . . . Ava?”
He referred to my own screen name, the one I invented as a cover for my search, the same name on my coffeecup. “Right. That’s me. You said you knew something about what I’m looking for?”
“Right. Sit down- here.” He pushed aside his laptop and grabbed several of his papers and empty cups, clearing a space for me to set my own cup. “I’m Jonathan Davis, by the way. Journalist for the Foundry City Herald.”
Well, you’re free with your information, aren’t you . . . “Pleasure to meet you, Jonathan.” I sat down and sipped my coffee. “So, you said you had information you think I’m looking for?”
“Right, yes.” He clicked once, twice, thrice on his computer. “You’re looking for a man, correct? A businessman? Who happens to be a murderer?”
“That’s right, yes.” I tilted my head slightly, trying to read one of the open notebooks without him noticing, but it was upside down and written in some kind of illegible shorthand.
“Just making sure. I’m investigating along similar lines— for the paper, obviously. You mentioned online you’ve actually seen this man? Is this him?”
Jonathan double-clicked, then turned the laptop so I could see the screen- and there was the murderer. The suit was different, true. But the picture showed him at enough of an angle that the nose and chin looked right. And there on the man’s right hand, there was the ring, big and black and gleaming mockingly.
I could hardly breathe. Two years. Two years I’d searched. Two years I’d half-wondered if I’d imagined that whole night. Two years I’d hungered for evidence that I wasn’t crazy. And in that picture, I’d found the first taste of what I was looking for.
I looked up from the screen. “That’s him. You have proof?”
“A little. It’s circumstantial at the moment. But I know where to get more.” Jonathan reached for a notebook and a minirecorder. “You said you had information on him too?”
“Yes. But I want yours first.” I’d learned already: be careful what I tell people; be careful who I tell it to.
“Right. That’s fair.” Jonathan minimized the picture, revealing a computer desktop as cluttered as the table, filled with folders labeled things like “D. Welsh Research” and “Obit.” and “Police Rep.” and other things more cryptic, with names broken into dots midway through. He clicked a few more files, bringing up documents and news articles too fast for me to get a good look at any of them. “His name is Damian Welsh, CEO of a software and big data company. He stays in the background, but he has ties to some fairly large players. For the most part, he keeps his hands clean, or at least does a good job of hiding the blood . . . except for the fact that he’s most likely a murderer.”
Jonathan clicked to another window, a spreadsheet of names and dates and addresses and notes like “suicide” and “OD” and “unknown.” “These are all the deaths that I suspect he might have been responsible for. In each case, he left the town or city close to the time the person died- two, three, at most four days previously. As a result, most people don’t notice the connection, and the deaths are attributed to more mundane causes.”
I nodded. That was what happened to Lacey. They’d called it suicide, said she’d downed too many sleeping pills, and put her in the ground. A few of those who knew her well quietly wondered if her dad hadn’t driven her to it; several uppity old ones who knew more about Lacey than they had right to suggested that it was just as well; that she’d have come to a bad end anyway, with how she and her boyfriend carried on. Both groups had either ignored me or called me crazy when I suggested otherwise. “You’d think they’d see the pattern. At least they should wonder if it was something other than suicide. It’s not like no one knows there’s people with strange powers out there.”
“Well, for one thing, Welsh, assuming he was the murderer, was smart about who and where he killed. He usually picked out targets who were old, or who were already isolated, or at the very least whose deaths could be explained some other way. And look—” Jonathan gestured with a pen at two side-by-side columns, one full of dates, the other full of town and city names. “He almost never killed twice in the same town, or even in nearby towns. Often he went to an entirely different state. Unless you deliberately searched out this information, you’d never have enough data to form a pattern.
“And there’s another element as well, a theory at the office about supers in general.” By now, excited focus had replaced all the flustered energy Jonathan had displayed when I greeted him. “People think of supers in terms of masked heroes and cloaked and shadowed Big Bads. If they consider supers in disguise, they say, ‘Wouldn’t it be exciting if the girl who handed me my coffee just now was secretly Starlight,’ or ‘How many superheroes passed me on the street without my noticing today?’ They think of the heroes, not the Big Bads.” He shrugged. “You can’t blame them, can you? A superhero behind you in line is exciting. A villain next to you on the bus is terrifying.”
He had a point, I had to admit. I wondered what he’d say if he knew about my ability? If he knew the girl sitting across from him was a super herself, though not a hero? “Fair enough. Curious question: how’d you think to look into all this? Seeing as, like you said, most people wouldn’t think to look for a pattern?”
“I’m a journalist. We investigate things. I investigate this.” Or, in other words: “None of your business. Jonathan turned his computer back towards himself and picked up his minirecorder again. “And now I think it’s your turn to share.”
“I guess it is.” So I told him my story, or at least, all the bits of it that he needed to know. No reason to mention the Death Song, for one thing, when I can just tell him that I heard odd noises and a scream— which was true, if not the whole truth. I told him about the ring, though, even the not-glow. I didn’t always mention that, even when I shared the rest of the story, but in this case I decided it was worth it.
Jonathan listened closely, maybe too closely, but what else could you expect from a reporter? I finished with a warning that, if he put any of this in the paper and identified me as the source before Welsh was caught, I’d deny everything. Not that I didn’t want people to know the truth, but I didn’t like the idea of a supervillain coming after me in my sleep. Better for me to be the one coming after him.
Jonathan laughed a little at my threat, but then he put on a ridiculously solemn face, placed his hand on his heart, and said, in a voice as serious as his expression, “I promise on my honor as a journalist that I will make nothing public that will endanger your safety.”
Teasing, probably. But it seemed like a sincere sort of teasing, and for some reason, I trusted him. So I grinned back and replied, “Momma always said journalists were too nosy to have any honor.”
“This journalist is the exception, however, and his mother taught him to take his promises seriously.” Jonathan turned off the minirecorder. “Anyway, I won’t be able to take this public for a while, not until I build up a stronger case. I have a few other leads that may give me solid testimonies like yours— which is the best anyone’s given me the entire time I’ve been searching, by the way. One question, though— forgot to ask it earlier. Why didn’t you look up the man’s name in the hotel records? If you were working the reception desk, I think you would’ve had access to them.”
“Honestly? I was too scared to think of it that night. And by the time I did—” Which took longer than I’d like to admit— “some kind of bug had gotten into the system and scrambled all our records from that week, just before we would’ve made backups. And, anyway, I think there was some kind of conference or meeting in town that week—” actually, I know there was a conference; Dad had been one of the presenters, and had stayed late at work all week because if it, but no need to share that information— “because we had a couple dozen businessmen and scientists staying with us that night, and without seeing him, I couldn’t know which he was.”
“It would’ve been better than nothing.” Jonathan’s attention drifted back to his computer screen, and I heard him clicking rapidly. “Though I guess nothing is what you had . . . aha!”
I took another sip of coffee, waiting for him to tell me what he’d found. But before he could say anything, a familiar series of discordant notes pierced through the ever-present swirl of song, softened only slightly by their distant source. The Death Song.
The anti-song no longer made me freeze or turn and run like it did years ago, though. Instead, I jerked to my feet. “I need to go.”
Jonathan looked up, brows drawn together in confusion. “What’s happened? I thought you’d want to stay; I have more information and an offer you might be interested in.”
“Maybe later. It’s an emergency.” I couldn’t tell him that someone’s in danger, going to die soon. If I did, he’d want to know how I knew, and it would end up a mess. “We’ll meet again later, ok? You can tell me about your offer then.” I couldn’t wait for his answer. “Sorry, thanks, bye!”