Chapter Twelve

It was a welcome relief to enter the ranger station several minutes later, after the hike up the hill in the furious winds. The warm air reached out in greeting, hitting their faces as they stepped inside and set down their luggage.

Zack snickered. "Oh wow, Seph, you look like a snowman," he said.

Sephiroth reached behind himself without a word, brushing the collected snowflakes out of his hair. Just in the few short minutes it had taken to get here, the blizzard had poured its fury on them all.

"It's a snowpeople village," Cloud remarked, glancing to everyone else.

The ranger looked apologetic as he pulled the door shut. In the bright light it was easy to see his rugged features and well-built form. "If you want to crash here for the night, I'm afraid I've only got a couple of cots," he said. "One of them's in another room. But I might have enough bedrolls for the rest of you."

"That's fine!" Zack chirped. "At least we'll be in here and not out there."

"I'll take the cot in the other room," Linda said. "If that's alright."

The older man nodded. "Just fine. My name is Archer, by the way," he said. "I'm still pretty surprised to have found all of you. Quite a party of people to be in the canyons this late at night. You look like a sensible bunch, too. Can't imagine all of you came here because of the legends."

"Legends?" Cloud frowned.

"Sure, about the area around that Diamond Rose Lodge," Archer volunteered. "There's all kinds of crazy talk about spooks." He snorted in derision. "I can hardly believe grown people would say such things."

"You don't believe in ghosts, sir?" Dalton said, his tone smooth.

Sephiroth gave him a warning look. This was not a good time for Gunju to play a prank.

Archer shrugged. "Oh, maybe they exist, but they're nothing to get worked up over," he said. "They're just dead people."

"What exactly are the nature of these rumors?" Sephiroth asked.

"Not much more than people seeing weird whitish figures lurking around the lodge's property," Archer said. "The bystanders come running back screaming and won't go anywhere near the place."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Probably just people covered in snow, like us," he muttered.

"What kind of place is it, anyway?" Zack blinked. "Is it a private lodge?"

"Anyone can try to get a room there," Archer said, "but they don't always get one. The staff claims the lodge is usually booked solid. Whether it's true or not, I don't know."

Linda frowned. "I don't remember hearing any rumors about ghosts," she said. "I come out to the lodge every now and then. So does Dave here."

"When was the last time?" Archer asked.

"Two weeks ago," Dave said.

"Well, that's about when the rumors started," was the reply. "I guess the word didn't make it down to the city."

"The people who saw the 'ghosts' probably didn't want everyone to think they were nuts," Cloud said.

"How far away is the lodge from here?" Sephiroth wanted to know.

"Maybe five miles east," Archer frowned. "Do you have some other reason for going up there?"

"Well, we're sure not going to play Ghostbusters," Zack quipped. Should they should tell the ranger the truth? He was surely trustworthy. But on the other hand, they wanted as few people as possible in on this until they had a chance to look at the lodge. Maybe it would be better to say nothing.

"Hey, is there a working phone up here?" he asked, changing the subject. "I should call back home and let my girlfriend know what's up. Cloud needs to call, too."

Archer nodded. "There's one right over here," he directed, walking over to a desk. "It should be working." He picked up the receiver, listening for only a brief moment. "You're good to go," he said.

"Great!" Zack grinned, hurrying over to it. He dialed rapidly, then waited while it rang, drumming his fingers on the desk. They were almost certainly still awake, waiting to hear the news about the outcome of the drive. Especially if they had heard about the snowstorm. . . .

A click. "Hello?" came Aerith's voice.

Zack grinned, happy to hear his beloved. "Hey!" he greeted. "It's your Zack."

"My Zack?" Aerith returned playfully. "I didn't realize I owned you."

"Sure you do!" Zack returned. "You're the only girl who's ever taken my heart, and you've never given it back! Course, I don't want it back."

He could not see Aerith's smile, but he could hear it as she spoke. "Well good, because I don't want to give it back," she said. "Are you at the lodge?"

"Nope," Zack admitted, getting down to business. "We were gonna turn back, but we ended up taking a wrong road and we got way out by a ranger station. So we're spending the night here. The snow's too bad to try to get back down tonight. In the morning we're heading to the lodge, even if we have to take a helicopter!"

"Well, just be careful," Aerith said.

"Sure!" Zack said. "Is everything okay there?"

"Yes," she told him. "The kids are still asleep. The security guards haven't seen anyone on the property."

"Good deal," Zack said, feeling relieved.

"Is Cloud there?" Aerith asked then. "Tifa would like to talk to him."

"Oh sure," Zack said. "I'll talk to you later, Aerith. Love ya."

Aerith's voice was quieter when she responded. "I love you too, Zack Fair," she said. "And don't you forget it."

Zack could sense the underlying concern, and the remnants of old scars, in her voice. She was worried about what would happen to them-and him-on this trip. She wished she could be there. And she was likely remembering the same thing he was-that fateful call when he was at Nibelheim. . . .

He shook the dark thoughts from his mind. They were coming home this time. Tragedy would not be repeated here! "Of course," he said, sounding cheery. "I never could."

He glanced over his shoulder, only to discover Cloud right there. "Telephone!" he said in a grand tone.

"Thanks," Cloud said, taking it.

Zack walked away from the desk, stretching his arms above his head. "Man," he said, "I could probably fall asleep on a sharp rock."

"I wouldn't recommend it," Sephiroth grunted.

But then he stiffened. Had he just heard the door creak open? He whirled, turning to look. No one was there and the door was shut . . . yet there were snowy footprints on the floor. Snowy footprints that trailed over to a very leafy potted plant.

Zack was looking at them too, his eyes wide and confused. Who else could be here?

"It's obvious that you're here," Sephiroth said in a matter-of-fact tone. "You might as well come out."

With a resigned sigh, a shivering form rose from behind the plant. Zack's mouth dropped open.

"Oliver?!" he cried. "The heck?!"

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed. "Did you come up in the van?" he asked.

The boy sighed, looking down at the floor. "Yeah," he admitted. "After you woke me up and tried to ask me about the lodge, I didn't go back to sleep. I woke up more and thought about it. And . . . I knew I had to come along. So I sneaked out of the house and climbed in the van with all the suitcases. Nobody noticed."

Everyone else in the room was staring now too. Cloud, who was just hanging up with Tifa, frowned.

"Why?" he wanted to know. "You escaped from Del Vinci and you're trying to get back where he might be?" Oliver had wanted to come with them earlier too, when they had investigated that house of Del Vinci's. That was a little more understandable; he could have wanted to point certain things out that he hoped would lead to the creep's arrest. But this development stymied Cloud.

Oliver shrugged, still looking at his shoes.

Sephiroth stepped closer to him. "All of us are aware that you haven't been entirely honest," he said. "Whatever you know is very likely important to our investigation. And it could possibly help you, as well."

". . . I'm just worried about the people they might be holding up there," Oliver said, a defensive tone slipping into his voice as he looked up.

"We're gonna save them," Zack said. "Jessie Thorton and whoever else."

"Do you know if there's anyone else?" Sephiroth asked. "Such as Julieanna?"

"She's not there," Oliver said. "But if Del Vinci's really at the lodge, and he owns it or something, then there's probably lots of other people there. It's out of the way and stuff."

Zack sighed. "Well, we sure can't let you come to the lodge with us," he said. "But we can't get you back down, either. Looks like you'll be staying here tonight." He grabbed for the phone. "I'd better let Aerith know before she or Tifa find out you're not in bed like you're supposed to be!"

"And we'll have to tell the ranger about you," Cloud added.

"We'll say you stowed away in the van, but not mention the whole reason why," Zack said. "Maybe we can say that you weren't supposed to leave home."

Oliver sighed too, but he did not protest.

Sephiroth fixed him with a long look. Then he turned away to set up his bedroll.

xxxx

The night passed in a fairly peaceful manner. While the wind howled outside and snow continued to gather in drifts, inside everyone was snug and warm. In spite of the last burst of excitement before bed, Zack burrowed into the bedroll and did not wake up until the ranger was fixing breakfast in the morning.

"Morning," Cloud greeted when Zack at last rolled over and sat up, blinking at the light.

Zack yawned. "Morning!" he chirped through the intake of oxygen. "What's the scoop?"

"Snow's stopped," Cloud said, crossing his arms as he leaned against the wall, "but the roads aren't cleared. Archer says he isn't sure how long it will take for trucks to get up this far. Sephiroth doesn't plan to wait. He's already sent for a helicopter to come get us after breakfast. We'll have to leave Oliver here at the station while we go up to the lodge."

"I guess he's not happy about that," Zack said.

Cloud shook his head. "He wants to come along. I think he wants to make sure he's there to see Del Vinci get caught."

"Could be," Zack said. "I could understand that.

"Is there even any place for the helicopter to land?" he wondered, running a hand through his hair.

"I think we'll just be going up the rope ladder," Cloud said. "Archer was worried about there not being a good place for it to land, too."

Zack threw back the top of the bedroll, climbing out and stretching as he began to stand. A quick look at the other bedrolls told him everyone else was awake. "What time is it?" he exclaimed.

"It's not that late, considering when we got in," Cloud shrugged. "It's about nine-thirty or ten. Vincent had to call the hospital earlier to say he wouldn't be coming in till later. He was able to trade shifts with another doctor."

"Man, I hope he gets back for that one," Zack said. "Who knows what'll happen when we get to the lodge!"

Cloud nodded. "He doesn't seem too worried," he said. "I think it's the equivalent of a graveyard shift. I don't know what they call it at a hospital."

Zack was half-listening. By now the food was ready and his stomach was very aware of it. He hurried to the kitchenette, peeking in at the scene. Cloud smirked in amusement.

xxxx

The helicopter arrived just as they were finishing breakfast. Archer started at the loud noise, peering out the window just in time to see the rope ladder descend.

"Your ride's here," he announced. "But won't this give you a big entrance at the lodge? You probably don't want anything to make you look conspicuous."

"We'll get out a short distance from the lodge and then walk the rest of the way," Sephiroth replied as he stood. "Thank you for your hospitality."

Zack nodded, leaping to his feet. "The food's great!" he chirped.

Archer nodded as well, pleased by the compliment. "Let me know if you blow the case on the ghost rumors," he said.

"Who knows," Cloud remarked in sarcasm. "Maybe we'll meet them."

"You'll probably meet worse than that," Oliver muttered, crossing his arms at the table.

Zack laid a hand on the kid's shoulder as he walked past. He could sympathize with Oliver wanting to be there when they caught Del Vinci, but of course they could not allow it. He just had to hope Oliver would stay here and not sneak away to follow them to the lodge.

"We'll be back to get Oliver when we're done," he said to Archer, who nodded.

"He'll stay safe and sound," the ranger said. "But I might have to take him on patrol with me."

Now Oliver perked up. "Really?!" he exclaimed.

Zack grinned. "Sounds good," he said. "Maybe Oliver won't feel so bad on missing out on the ghosts after all."

As they headed out the door, a pancake randomly began moving off the stack in the center of the table. Seeing it out of the corner of his eye, Archer turned to look and then stared in disbelief. "Hey . . . !" he exclaimed.

Azazel gave a withering look to the thin air. "Gunju . . ." he said in a warning tone.

The pancake landed in his hand.

"What was that?" Archer frowned. "Telekinesis?"

"No," Azazel said, taking the pancake with him to the door. "A ghost."

xxxx

In the helicopter it did not take long to travel the remaining miles to the lodge's general area. The building that came into view was strikingly similar to the one featured on the postcard of Vivalene's. Even from a distance, the extensive grounds surrounding the resort were quite visible. Zack regarded the sight in awe.

"Man, I bet this place looks amazing at Christmastime!" he exclaimed.

Sephiroth grunted, his mind occupied as he looked for a place to get out. He did not want the helicopter to get so close that those in the lodge would hear it. If they realized that Sephiroth and the others were that determined to get there, they might realize that something was suspicious. Of course, if they recognized the Jenova Corp and Fragmented Triangle crews, they would realize it anyway.

"That doesn't look like a hard path to try," Zack said, leaning forward to peer out the front window. There was more than one hill to go up, but the hills were part of the snowed-over road's path. It should not be anything like going up a jagged, rocky route.

Sephiroth nodded. "We'll get out here," he said to the pilot.

The other man nodded as well. "Alright, sir," he said. "Good luck."

Again the rope ladder was lowered. Everyone climbed out, landing on the frozen road on their feet. On the ground the lodge was not visible, but they knew where it was located. They just had to walk straight ahead for a while.

"What'll we say when we get there?" Zack wondered. "It'll look weird to turn up right after a snowstorm, when the roads aren't even clear."

"We can mention being on our way last night when the blizzard stopped us," Sephiroth said. "And probably about the ranger station. Just use common sense on what not to say."

"Yes, sir!" Zack said with a mock salute.

"Why do you suppose there are these rumors of ghosts?" Dalton mused.

"That suggests to me that the entire lodge staff could be involved," Sephiroth said, "or at least almost certainly some of them. Whoever is making it look like there's a ghost must want to scare people away from the lodge."

"But the only people to scare away would be a few passers-by," Azazel said.

"And certain guests at the lodge," Sephiroth said.

"So they'd scare away their own business?" Cloud said, looking incredulous.

"If they're involved in something underhanded, that is likely worth more to them than a few paying lodge guests," Sephiroth said. "However, it might depend on how greedy they are."

"Couldn't some of the guests be messing around on their own?" Cloud wondered.

"That's always possible," Sephiroth said, "but considering the nature of the operation, it isn't likely. There's the random sweepstakes, not to mention the chance that Jessie Thorton is being held there. And it could be a location where the smugglers are keeping their goods. Those are all angles more likely to be true if at least some of the staff is involved."

"So we might find some of our stuff there?" Zack said, his eyes widening.

Sephiroth nodded. "We might," he said.

"We never even found out if the police found our stuff that was supposed to be at Del Vinci's place," Zack remembered.

"The person who moved it could have taken it away altogether," Sephiroth said in irritation. "We don't know why that guard was killed, either."

"Perhaps the person who concealed your belongings was part of Vivalene's gang and not Del Vinci's?" Dalton suggested. "That would explain the guard's death."

"Except that we decided our crates were taken again to delay us," Sephiroth said, "and we know it was Del Vinci's men who abducted Marlene and Oliver."

By now the grounds of the lodge were coming into view. Cold wrought-iron gates surrounded the property, which was fully covered in numerous drifts of pure white snow. More of the powder was on the gates and on the pine trees that populated the grounds.

"This place is a winter wonderland!" Zack chirped. "Man, it's awful to think of it being used by a bunch of crooks."

"It happens," Sephiroth grunted.

Dalton frowned as they drew closer. "Well, they are determined to be exclusive," he noted. "The gates are locked. And they have an intercom." He gestured to a square box by the gate. The container bore a button and a speaker. He reached over, pressing the red button.

Static crackled over the loudspeaker. "Diamond Rose Lodge," a gruff voice said. "What is your business?"

"Ah, yes," Dalton said. "We have a party here of eight . . ."

"Nine," Gunju purred.

". . . Who wish for lodgings in your establishment," Dalton said, giving Gunju a warning look. Linda and Dave still did not know of his existence, and Dalton would just as soon keep it that way.

There was a short silence. "How did you get here in this storm?"

"We were coming last night," Sephiroth grunted, not willing to let Dalton do all the talking. "The blizzard stopped us."

"The roads still aren't clear," the guard said. It was hard to tell whether he believed them or not, though he did not sound congenial at all.

"We started walking as soon as we could," Sephiroth said. "Do you have available rooms?"

Another pause. "Come in," the guard said. The heavy gates began to creak open, pushing the snow ahead of them as they moved inward.

Zack stretched. "Well, time to go in and see what it's like," he chirped. And hopefully find Jessie, he added to himself. Alive. . . .

Together they trooped through the gates and onto the still-uncleared driveway. The snow was less deep than it had been on the path over the hills, but they had been able to manage going through even the most deep parts due to the snowshoes that the ranger had provided for them. Or they were, as long as they were able to figure out how to walk using the awkward devices.

"My boots would be soaked through without these things!" Zack exclaimed as he stumbled. "But I can't stand 'em. Maybe I'd better start wearing really long boots like Seph!" He fell sideways, instinctively bringing out his hands to balance himself as the snowshoes became entangled with each other.

Sephiroth grunted, reaching to steady Zack. "They're not your style," he said. His feet and legs were dry, thanks to the snowshoes and his thigh-length boots, but the snow had whipped through his hair-much to his annoyance.

"True," Zack agreed as he caught his balance.

As they stepped onto the wrap-around, roofed porch, Zack glanced around in approval. "Nice place," he said. "I could get used to this."

"There shouldn't be time to get used to it," Sephiroth pointed out. "We won't be able to stay long before they'll be on to us. In fact, they might be suspicious of us right now."

Without warning the double doors at the front entrance began to open.

"Automatic doors up here?" Dalton mused, raising an eyebrow.

Azazel looked put-out. "Gunju went ahead of us," he said.

Sephiroth grunted in irritation. Azazel could not seem to do anything to rein in his brother. Hopefully that would not be their downfall.

They stepped into a tiled utility room, where the other guests' snowshoes and boots had been lined up on one side of the door. Rows of coats were on the opposite side. Zack did a quick count of the number.

"Man," he commented, "either they've got coats to spare or there's a lot of people here!"

"There's accommodations for many guests," Linda said.

"Yeah, I guess!" Zack exclaimed. He bent down, fumbling with the straps of the snowshoes until they came loose. Then, kicking them aside, he turned to look out at the lobby through the utility room's inner doorway. With appreciation he stared at the rustic, homey decor and the warm fireplace roaring to the right. Soft couches and chairs were in the same nook, along with an oak end table and several over-sized books.

"Now that's where I want to stretch out!" Zack declared, pulling off his gloves.

"It only looks inviting when other people aren't around," Sephiroth grunted. Sharing the space with strangers would take away the tranquility.

Zack gave him a mournful look. "Aw, Seph," he protested. "Meeting other people is fun!"

Sephiroth gave him a bored look in return. "Even if all of them are suspects in a kidnapping and smuggling case?"

Zack sighed. "Point taken."

Shaking his head, Zack turned to inspect the rest of the lobby. A red-carpeted staircase was to the left, with the front desk right next to it at the bottom. A clerk looked up, meeting Zack's eyes as the brunet finally took note of the desk.

"You're the party that came through the snow, I take it?" he said, giving no indication that he knew who Zack was. Zack did not recognize him, either.

"That's right!" Zack chirped, strolling into the carpeted room. The others followed behind, having removed their snowshoes as well.

"We would like accommodations for at least one night's stay," Dalton said, "and perhaps longer, depending on the weather."

The clerk pulled out a thick register, setting it on the desk. "There are available rooms on both the second and third floors," he said. "Do you have a preference?"

"The second floor," Sephiroth said. If there was any trouble, it would be better to be as close to the ground floor as possible, for an easier escape.

The clerk nodded, writing something in the ledger. Then he turned the heavy book to face Sephiroth and the others.

"You must have wanted to come here very badly, to brave all this snow," the middle-aged man said as Sephiroth took a pen and signed his name.

"We've heard a lot of good things about this place," Zack said. "And we figured we needed a little break from our crazy lives, so what better place to come to?" He gave a wild gesture, nearly knocking the pen out of Seph's hand as Seph tried to hand it to him. With a sheepish grin he took it, scrawling his name before passing the pen to Cloud.

"Some of you may have to share rooms," the clerk said, watching as all of the others signed the ledger. Still he did not behave as though he was suspicious of any of them. "That is, if all of you want to be on the second floor."

"That's cool," Zack said.

Instead of electronic card keys, they were given standard metal keys for six rooms on the second floor. Sephiroth and Zack agreed to share a room, as did Cloud and Angeal, and Dalton and Azazel, while the rest would have rooms to themselves. Bellboys were summoned to carry their luggage up the stairs. The guests followed, glancing around the rustic decor as they went.

"It does have a certain Old West flair," Dalton mused, studying a picture of some of the early settlers in the area. "Just as I imagined."

Azazel shrugged, not caring one way or another. He was too involved in keeping track of his brother, especially as they arrived on the second floor. Gunju was peering into each room they walked by, checking to see who the occupants were and what they were doing. When the bellboys stopped, he stopped too.

"That's weird," one of them frowned. "It feels like a draft."

"Better get that checked out," Cloud said as he walked past, opening the door to his and Angeal's room.

As Sephiroth unlocked the door to his and Zack's room, he cast a observant glance around the space. It was large, with mostly red and brown furnishings. There was a fireplace across from the main couch, a coffee table, and various assorted outdoors magazines scattered on it and other tables in the room. A door led to the separate bedroom, which Zack promptly thrust open as soon as he set down his suitcase.

"Ah! Now this is the life," he declared, going inside and flopping across one of the beds. "Too bad we really can't be here on vacation."

Sephiroth shook his head in amusement. "Maybe if we find out there isn't anything crooked going on, we can come back sometime," he said.

Zack placed his hands behind his head. "What if there is, though?" he frowned. "The place'd have to be shut down. Unless . . ." He gave a mischievous grin. "Some rich people came along and bought it. . . ."

Sephiroth just grunted. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," he said.

"Aww, Seph. . . ." But Zack sighed, growing serious. "Linda and Dave have been poking around up here for weeks and they haven't found anything. At least not those glasses or Del Vinci. Maybe this really is a wild goose chase."

"For once I'm hoping Gunju will prove himself useful," Sephiroth said. "If Del Vinci or any captives are here, he should be able to find them without them noticing."

Zack sat up. "And then there's Vivalene, too," he said. "She skipped off somewhere. If she's Del Vinci's rival, maybe she'll show up here! We could end up right in the middle of a gang war!"

"Aren't we already in the middle of it?" Sephiroth returned. He turned, his hair swishing with the sudden movement. "Let's go. We have a lot of ground to cover."

Zack hopped off the bed, the frame audibly scratching the wall behind it as he did. But he only gave it a cursory glance. "While Gunju pokes through all the rooms, we can check the hallways and everywhere else!" he declared. "Including the rec rooms and the dining rooms! And we could fix it so we hit the dining room at lunchtime."

"When everyone else will be in there?" Sephiroth said, his expression deadpan.

"It'd be a good chance to see if we recognize anyone," Zack said. "Plus, a chance to get some more energy to continue looking!"

"Sometimes you have a one-track mind," Sephiroth said. "We ate breakfast and you're thinking about lunch."

"Breakfast was a long time ago now," Zack protested as they went into the corridor.

Sephiroth did not reply. But for a moment there was the faintest trace of a smirk.

xxxx

It was an exhausted and discouraged group that reconvened in the dining room for lunch. They had split into several groups to cover the entire building, but nothing had been discovered-no secret panels, no Del Vinci, and certainly no Jessie Thorton. Nothing even vaguely resembling diamond rose glasses or their stolen crates had been recovered, either.

Zack slumped into a chair at a corner table. "I am so beat," he said, unable to control a yawn as he grabbed a menu. "This is an amazing place. Vending machines! Table-top tennis and ping-pong! Indoor swimming pools! Skiing! Snowboarding! . . . But nothing that we're trying to find."

"Everything seems on the up-and-up," Sephiroth agreed, idly looking at a menu as well. He peered over the top of it, watching other people file into the room.

Cloud collapsed next to Zack. "This place is nuts," he muttered. "You could get lost in here." He rubbed his eyes. "Too bad Del Vinci wouldn't."

"Then we could get lost with him," Zack said. He stared at the food listings, his mouth beginning to water.

Angeal regarded him in amusement. "Why don't you try a little bit of everything?" he suggested. "You probably have room for it."

"Angeal, that's brilliant!" Zack exclaimed. "Waitress!" He waved, seeing a waitress two tables away.

Angeal shook his head, looking over at Sephiroth. "I didn't think he'd really take it seriously," he said.

"Zack always takes food seriously," Sephiroth said.

"And I should know that by now," Angeal remarked.

They all watched as the waitress approached. Dark red hair, blue eyes. . . . Vincent's eyes narrowed just slightly. She was the same person he had seen at Ambrogio's last night.

Now she gave no indication that she remembered him. "What can I get you?" she asked, looking from Zack to the others at the table. She set her pad on the smooth surface, stiffly holding a pen in her right hand.

"Some of everything!" Zack announced.

She stared at him. "Are you serious?" she asked.

"Believe me, he's serious," Angeal said.

She took down everyone else's orders, scribbling them on her pad as she went around the table. When she came to Vincent, he just looked at her coldly.

"I wasn't expecting to see you again," he said.

She frowned. "Were we supposed to have met?" she replied, sounding genuinely confused.

"You were at Ambrogio's last night," Vincent said.

Now all eyes at the table were focused on the two of them. But the waitress just shook her head.

"I don't know what you're talking about, sir," she said. "You must have me mixed up with someone else." She tapped the pad. "Your order?"

He gave his order in a flat tone, whereupon she took up the pad and crossed to the next table, where Dalton, Azazel, Linda, and Dave were sitting.

Vincent crossed his arms as he watched her. Zack leaned across the table.

"Okay," he said. "Since she's here, we know something's not right."

"Unfortunately, we've only added more questions to the mystery," Vincent said.

"And leaning over the table is bad manners," Angeal said. "Down, puppy." He pulled on the back of Zack's shirt.

Cloud very unwisely had just picked up a glass of ice water and started drinking the contents. Now he nearly spit them out. "'Puppy'?" he repeated.

Zack plopped back on the chair. "It's an old joke," he grinned.

xxxx

Zack gave a contented yet weary sigh as he fell back on his bed after removing his boots at the bedroom door. Lunch had been fantastic. That was the contented part. But the mystery being such a tangled mess . . . that was the weary part.

Maybe they really were off-track with this place. Maybe it did not have anything to do with the Del Vinci stuff. But on the other hand . . . there was that suspicious waitress. And her acting like she did not remember Vincent really was weird. Something was surely going on with that angle.

The headboard scraped against the wall as Zack shifted position. He frowned. That was going to get annoying quick. He had better move the bed out enough that it would not happen any more.

He sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed as he stood. Then he crouched, pushing the bed to the side before hurrying to the other side to do likewise. There, now he had pushed it a few inches away from the wall. He smirked in triumph before plopping on the mattress again. But there was also the matter of the damage that had been caused. . . .

"Oops," he said, staring at the visible mark on the wall. Well, it was not his fault; it was the fault of whoever had put the bed so close. But he might get blamed anyway. He reached out, touching the scrape. Several layers of paint were chipped.

"Not cool," he decided.

How thick was the wall, anyway? He rapped on it out of curiosity. The sound echoed hollowly, prompting him to freeze in disbelief. Was it possible? Was there some kind of secret opening behind there?

He slid closer to the wall, knocking on it from all directions. Cloud and Angeal were in the next room over, and if they were in it they would probably hear and wonder whatever. But no one came in to ask about the noise.

He jumped off the bed, pushing it out further in order to wedge himself in the space between it and the wall. Then he continued banging on the wall until he had reached the floor. But it was still staying firm.

"Nothing," he said in frustration. "Maybe I'm having a pipedream." He stood up, frowning at the stubborn wall.

Wait. . . . That outline of a door had not been there before! Maybe he was on the right track after all. Something had definitely been jarred free.

He hopped back on the bed. "Well, there's just one place left to check," he decided, standing up on the mattress and tapping around the top part of the outline.

It creaked, opening with an abrupt movement that almost sent Zack tumbling over the headboard and onto the hard floor inside the space. Instead he yelped, rocking back just in time as the wall clicked into its new position.

"Ha! Chalk that up for the ol' Zack," he grinned, scrambling off the bed and over to the hole. What was this place? It looked like a big closet. And . . . hey, faint voices were coming from the left side, where there should not be anything else. Zack stepped into the space and over to the left wall, pressing his ear against it.

"But Vifa, Del Vinci is gonna find out you're here," an unfamiliar, accented voice was saying.

"'Vifa'?" Zack muttered. "What the heck kind of a name is that?"

He stiffened at the next voice.

"Maybe he will," Vivalene purred. "It's really of no consequence if he does. In fact, let him find out. I'm looking forward to him discovering that I've infiltrated his precious fortress." She laughed. "Playing a lowly waitress is nothing when you consider what we'll gain."

"Vivalene!" Zack exclaimed under his breath. "She's the waitress, just like Vincent wondered!"

At that moment the floor creaked. He froze, whirling to look. Sephiroth was peering into the space, an eyebrow raised.

"What is this?" he asked. He had lagged behind Zack after lunch, taking another look around the downstairs area. He had even investigated several knick-knack cabinets to see whether the fabled diamond rose glasses had been hidden in plain sight. Not that he particularly cared about the glasses, but if they were here, then maybe it would give some encouragement that coming here had not been in vain.

"Nevermind that, Seph," Zack told him, keeping his voice low. "Come over here! Vivalene's here, alright. She's talking to some guy!"

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed. Immediately he went over to the wall, falling silent as the conversation continued.

"Of course, I'll have some of the best gems out of the shipment go to you," she said. "You've been such a great help."

"Really? Gee, Vifa . . . hearin' you say that is the best reward you could give me."

Zack rolled his eyes. Who the heck was this guy?! And how much of an idiot was he? Even Seph looked disgusted.

Vivalene chuckled. "Nevertheless, darling, you will receive some of the gems too," she said. She sighed. "Now if we could only capture that brat. . . ."

"Well, that's not my department." The male voice sounded nervous.

"Oh, of course not, darling. I'm just berating my henchmen's bad luck," Vivalene said. "She's the key to the whole Thorton fortune. Really, though! She's such a fool. Thinking she could deceive me, or anyone else, with her amateur disguise."

Zack stared. Who was the she? Julieanna? And what disguise?

"You'll catch her, Vifa," the guy said. "Meanwhile, what should I do?"

"Keep watch, like you have been," Vivalene said. "I'll go back out there and wait tables. By the way, have you heard about Latham?"

"Uh, nope, don't think so," was the reply.

"He was poisoned," Vivalene purred.

Silence. "Poisoned?! Are you serious?"

"Naturally. I'm the one who saw to it. Of course, he didn't even think of me. He kept blaming Gackt."

". . . Gackt? The singer?"

"Oh no, just someone calling himself that," Vivalene said. "Though he actually does have an uncanny resemblance to the real Gackt. . . . But anyway! We'll meet back here in an hour."

"Right."

All fell silent in the corridor beyond the secret room. Sephiroth frowned, looking to Zack.

"How did you find this?" he asked.

"Oh, it's a long story," Zack said, rubbing the back of his neck. "It all started because of the wall getting scraped by the bed!"

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Really."

"Yep!" Zack gestured at the room. "And then I ended up in here!" He placed a hand on the left wall. "We should try seeing if there's another panel that'll open up to the place where they were talking!"

Sephiroth nodded, moving his hands over the wall. "And you should call the ranger station to find out if the child is still safe," he said.

Zack blinked. "Sure," he said. "But they wouldn't have already found him there, would they?!"

"It's doubtful," Sephiroth said. "In any case, they won't find 'him' at all."

What? Seph was not making any sense! Zack's hands went to his hips. "Seph, what are you talking about?!" he said in disbelief. "Why won't they find him?!"

Sephiroth sighed. "There have been hints all along the way, but I haven't known whether to believe them," he admitted. "Yet it all fits. And Vivalene just confirmed my suspicions."

Now Zack's mouth dropped open. "Huh?!"

Sephiroth turned to look at the younger man. "Think about it," was all he would say, not wanting to reveal the truth aloud at this point.

Zack frowned. "Seph, what?"

But Sephiroth did not reply. He was focused on the door to the room outside the secret passage. Someone was coming inside.