Title: Semi-Charmed Life
Author: E.A. Week
E-mail: e. at gmail dot com
Summary: Six years after her adventures in the Labyrinth, Sarah is now a senior in college. When two local children disappear under mysterious circumstances, she immediately suspects Jareth's hand. But as ever, nothing is what it seems.
Distribution: Feel free to rec or link to this story, but please drop me at least a brief e-mail and let me know you've done this.
Feedback: Letters of comment are always welcome! Loved it? Hated it? Leave a review, send me a PM or an email and let me know why!
Disclaimer: Copyrights to all characters in this story belong to their respective creators, production companies, and studios. I'm just borrowing them, honest!
Credit where credit is due: The story title is stolen from Third Eye Blind. Prologue title stolen from Alanis Morissette. Chapter one title stolen from the Gin Blossoms.
Story rating: This story is rated M (mature/ explicit) for language, sexuality, and adult themes.
From her window on the top floor of the high tower, Sarah gazed down at the goblins cavorting in the grassy courtyard below. Small, tall, reed-thin, round, some with horns, others with leathery wings. Very faintly, she could hear their shrieks and cackles and laughter. Goblins. Always goblins. She studied their faces: lewd, lascivious, merry, grotesque, fearsome.
A warm breeze gusted past the open windows, ruffling the ivy leaves: green, mostly, but autumn's cold fingers had begun to lace the verdant foliage with threads of gold and orange and crimson. Sarah shivered; despite the warmth of the day, winter's approach could not be denied.
As she watched, a tall, slim male figure appeared, a long black cloak swirling about his black boots. Pale hair fell around his shoulders. At a gesture from the man, the goblins ceased their unruly activity and settled down—as much as goblins ever can. The man turned, sweeping with his cloak, and the goblins followed him out of the courtyard as if he were the Pied Piper. The emerald grass looked sad and bare, the sunny day empty and bereft.
Near Sarah's ear, a bird hooted softly.
Found Out About You
Blinking, Sarah Williams turned away from the window of her dormitory room. From the eves of the building came the hoots and coos of mourning doves. In the doorway—she'd left her door open, absentmindedly—stood Raelin Bourke, another senior, and Sarah's best friend.
Raelin laughed. "You looked a thousand miles away."
"I was watching the kids… they looked like they were having a blast."
"The kids in that theater group Leon Lazerow is running?" asked Raelin. Leon Lazerow was one of Riley Hall's artists-in-residence for the year.
"Yeah, they were all parading over to the amphitheater." Sarah came away from the window, stepping around a couple of cardboard boxes. The semester was well underway, and she'd yet to finish unpacking. "What's up?"
"Can you give me a hand with something? There's this secondhand shop downtown, and they have a cool mirror, but I can't get it back here by myself."
"Sure," said Sarah, glad to avoid the things she ought to be doing—homework, unpacking, meeting with her advisor. "Let me get my bag."
Outside the dorm, they crossed the small lawn and trooped across the road, up a hill into the student parking lot. Riley Hall sat atop a gentle swell of land overlooking one of Oneida University's famous gorges. The Tudor-Gothic red-brick dormitory, a haven for arts students, had been whimsically designed to resemble a castle, and thanks to staggeringly good luck in the room-choosing lottery, Sarah had scored the prize of prizes: a single room at the top of the building's central turret. Raelin had a room on the fourth floor.
"I always wanted to live in a castle," Sarah laughed as they climbed into her Volkswagen Rabbit.
"Doesn't every girl?" Raelin buckled herself in. "I think it goes with the whole princess and pony phase. I outgrew it around the same time I outgrew the Barbies."
"I never really had a Barbie phase—dolls were just models to put costumes on." Sarah steered the VW through campus and onto the main road. While she waited for a traffic light to turn green, she recalled those days: the amateur theatrics, the role-playing games, the endless daydreams and fantasies. While other girls had been giggling over pictures of Duran Duran in Tiger Beat, Sarah had been reading Tolkien and CS Lewis. Other girls had learned instruments and played sports; Sarah had taught herself embroidery and weaving. She thought of her closet full of costumes, Gunne Sax dresses, and Betsey Johnson prairie skirts. Those days were over now, utterly gone, a world and a life to which she could never return. Even poor Merlin was gone, too, off to the Happy Hunting Grounds.
The honking horn of another car brought Sarah back to the present, and she tapped the accelerator, scolding herself. Daydreaming was still her worst tendency, even years after she'd channeled her childhood dreams into a credible academic career. Great literature had replaced the books she now regarded as pulp fantasy; her paintings and textiles had won her acclaim in art courses; her love of knights and castles had morphed into a mature interest in the art history of medieval Europe. Resolutely she had put aside childish things: she'd made friends, learned to drive, won acceptance to a prestigious, competitive university. Still, she couldn't help feeling she'd lost something precious, and the urge to return to that dream-world tempted her more often than not.
"Here." Raelin pointed a long brown arm to a storefront on the right. Sarah squeezed the VW into an empty space—parallel parking was an adult skill in which she took great pride—and cut the engine.
The secondhand shop was a new business, and a sign in the window advertised a grand opening sale. Inside, Sarah stood still for a moment, enchanted by the must, the dust, the dry, papery smell of oldness—old books, old clothes, old furniture.
"Awesome, huh?" Raelin laughed.
"Kick me if I pull out my Visa," Sarah responded.
The two girls strolled about the shop. The last thing Sarah needed was more books, but she couldn't help perusing a bin of used paperbacks, the pages yellowed, the bindings creased. In another bin was a collection of vinyl records, popular entertainment from decades past, now rendered all but obsolete by the advent of the compact disk. On portable clothes racks hung an eclectic variety of garments. Sarah pushed the hangers along the rails, smiling and shaking her head at the absurd and outdated fashions.
"Here's the mirror." Raelin gestured to a gilt-edged thing, almost full-length. Sarah's heart compressed; the mirror reminded her too much of one she'd had back in her old room…
"How much is it?" asked Sarah, trying to distract herself.
"Twenty bucks. Isn't it awesome?"
"Yeah, what a relic!"
Sarah waited while Raelin paid for the new acquisition. On the counter near the cash register sat a box of hardcover books.
The shop's owner, a middle-aged woman with sparkling eyes, noticed the direction of Sarah's gaze. "I just got those in today," she stated. "If you want one of them, name your price."
"Are you sure? They might be valuable," Sarah protested.
"If anything in there is worth more than a buck, I'll eat it."
Sarah rummaged through the box, reading the titles. There was nothing really remarkable here, either books she already owned or which held no interest for her. Cyrillic lettering proclaimed several volumes of Russian literature. She'd reached the bottom, pushing aside a collection of Shakespeare's tragedies, when her hand closed over a small, slim volume. Poetry? Sarah prized free the book, and when she saw the title on the cover, she reeled with shock. The binding of the book was red, the pages yellowed, and embossed in the leather were the words
Stunned, she just stood rooted to one spot, staring down at the thing. It can't be. Her copy of this book had burned, burned with the rest of her childhood home. How could it be here? Trembling, she opened the volume to its title page.
A play in five acts.
Bewlay Brothers Ltd., London, 1905.
Sarah still remembered the day she had discovered the book among her mother's childhood possessions. "Keep it, darling," Linda had laughed. The book had belonged to Linda's mother, another actress, who'd apparently referred to the author as "a poor man's JM Barrie." The story—the Goblin King and the beautiful princess and the kidnapped child—was a play meant to be performed by children. Sarah's grandmother had starred in a London production before the First World War.
"What's that?" asked Raelin.
Sarah showed her the book, holding it up so Raelin could see the cover.
"It's an old kids' play," Sarah told her. "I used to have a copy that belonged to my grandmother. I lost it when our house burned down."
Raelin made a sympathetic clucking noise. "So, buy it already. Unless…" she trailed off, but Sarah could finish the sentence. Unless it's too painful a reminder.
Sarah wavered. She didn't need this, a troubling memento of an incident so bizarre that she'd never be able to convince any rational person that it had even happened. On the other hand, if she didn't buy the book, she knew she wouldn't be able to keep her mind off it, and if she came back later, the play might be gone.
"I'll give you a dollar for it," she told the shopkeeper.
"Sold," the woman agreed.
Raelin held the book while Sarah rummaged for her wallet. She turned back to the book's flyleaf and said, "Hey, Victoria Hammersmith. Isn't that your advisor?"
"What?" Sarah peered over Raelin's shoulder. On the flyleaf, in a beautiful if childish script, someone had written the words, Property of Victoria Pendleton Hammersmith.
"This must be hers." Sarah glanced up at the shopkeeper. "Did she bring it here?"
"Tweedy, gray pageboy, kind of an accent?" the woman asked.
"That's her. This is her handwriting, too." Sarah studied the writing on the flyleaf, an immature version of the hand she knew well.
"She brought the books in this morning," the woman said.
"Fair game, then," said Raelin, "if she was getting rid of it anyway."
Sarah slipped the book into her shoulder bag. The play no longer seemed so sinister, now that she knew Professor Hammersmith had also owned a copy. I knew there was a reason I liked her, Sarah thought wryly. The Labyrinth was only a story, after all, and this volume wasn't even Sarah's, just another copy, which had been once owned by someone else. Never mind that in the hands of an imaginative fifteen-year-old, the play had possessed the power to summon beings from another realm…
"Come on," said Raelin, and Sarah took one end of the mirror. Carefully they maneuvered it out to the Volkswagen, where they propped it in the backseat, cushioned with sweatshirts. Sarah drove back to campus with excessive caution, taking each corner slowly, so that the mirror wouldn't bump around and break. The last thing she needed was seven years' bad luck.
The corridors of DiCiccio Hall rang with voices as students came and went, changing classes. The Department of Art History occupied most of the fourth floor, and the department chair, Professor Victoria Hammersmith, had a suite of offices under the eaves in one corner.
In the outer office, two children sat studiously doing homework at a big, wooden table. As one, they looked up when Sarah entered. She tried to ignore the unsettling scrutiny of their piercing gray eyes.
"Hi, guys," she said, aiming for friendliness, but she could hear the strain in her voice. She hadn't seen the twins since her sophomore year, but she resisted the urge to remark on how they'd grown. They must be eleven or twelve by now, probably in the fifth or sixth grade. "Is your mom here?"
Sarah hated the way their eyes met, as if in some silent communication, before responding.
"She's in a meeting." Sacha, the boy, spoke.
"Oh." Sarah made no further efforts to engage the two in conversation, pretending to absorb herself in some books on the well-stocked shelves.
The children returned to their homework; they must be here waiting for their mother. Sarah stole surreptitious glances at them. Opposite-sex twins were of course always fraternal, but Sacha and his sister Ivanka were like clones of each other: the small, slim bodies, the dark blonde hair, the gray eyes that seemed to see too much. Sarah had never liked them.
A few moments later, the door to Professor Hammersmith's office opened, and a male student lurched over the threshold, nearly colliding with Sarah. He mumbled an apology and departed, glaring back over his shoulder at the two kids. Almost imperceptibly, Sacha smirked.
Sarah stumbled into Victoria's office, feeling numb in her extremities, as if her hands and feet had fallen asleep. She steadied herself on Professor Hammersmith's table and lowered herself carefully into a chair.
Sarah's first thought was that her advisor looked old, worn, exhausted. Still, Victoria mustered a smile. "Welcome back," she said, a tepid greeting considering they hadn't seen each other in nearly sixteen months; Sarah had spent her junior year in France.
"Hi," Sarah answered, glad when Professor Hammersmith closed the office door, cutting off the twins' view; her hands and feet began to feel normal again. "How's it going?"
"All right." Victoria's small office was cluttered—a normal thing for most academics, but odd for her. "How are your classes?" she asked. Her voice held the faintest traces of a British accent; she'd come to the States as an adolescent.
"Going well, thanks," Sarah responded. "I just needed to talk about my independent study." She avoided saying "thesis;" the word was too big, too scary. Then she had to smile at herself. She'd spent a year navigating a foreign country—different language, different currency, different customs—and had not only managed, but thrived. And even younger than that, she'd navigated a baffling maze populated by strange creatures, dealt with shifting topography and perilous traps, finally defeating an adversary who could seemingly bend reality to his will. Why, then, did the thought of writing a long research paper and defending it to a small faculty committee rattle her?
"What?" Victoria said. "That's an enigmatic smile, if ever I saw one."
Sarah laughed. "It's nothing." She fished into her shoulder bag. "I was in the new secondhand shop downtown, and I found this." She pulled out the play and showed it to her advisor. "I bought it, but I wanted to make sure it hadn't been jumbled in with the other books by mistake."
Victoria's expression grew pained. She looked at the book, but didn't touch it.
"My mother gave that to me," she said. "I outgrew it a long time ago. My kids outgrew it by the time they were six… too boring, they think now. I was getting rid of some of Yasha's things…" A tremor seemed to pass through her. At Sarah's blank expression, she said, "You didn't hear? I'm getting a divorce."
Breath whistling out, Sarah said, "Oh, God, I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
"It's all right. We're legally separated. I have custody of the twins; he has visitation rights." She paused to gulp from a tea mug that sat on her desk. "He's moved in with his girlfriend."
"Wow, I'm really sorry." Sarah didn't know what else to say. Her contact with Yakov Vasiliev had been limited. She'd last seen him at the department holiday party her sophomore year. They'd talked; she'd found him charming, but his gaze had dropped once too often to the front of her sweater. He was on the faculty of Slavic Languages and Literature. Sarah could only imagine how awkward it would be for Victoria to continue working at the same university as her soon-to-be ex-husband.
"Yes. Well." Victoria's shoulders rose and fell. "He traded in for a younger model. A grad student working in his department."
"What a sleaze! I'm sorry." Casting about for a less painful topic, Sarah asked, "So, you don't want this anymore?" She waved the small, red book.
"No, I really don't want it." Victoria sounded very firm. Maybe, like Sarah herself, she didn't need the reminder of more innocent days.
"Okay." Sarah confided, "I used to have a copy, but our house burned down when I was still in high school."
Victoria winced. "That's terrible."
"Yeah." Sarah tried not to relive that night, but even now, it haunted her dreams: Merlin's frantic barks (good dog; he'd alerted them to danger even before the fire alarm had gone off), the choking smoke, the frantic scramble down the stairs, hand over her mouth, Toby in her father's arms, wailing. There had been the deep blares of fire truck horns, and the thundering streams of water, impotent, unable to stop the ferocious blaze. Sarah and her family had stood back at a safe distance, watching as their beautiful home was reduced to a blackened-out shell. Irene's sobs had been heartrending. The days following the fire were the only time Sarah had enjoyed any kind of closeness with her stepmother.
"By all means, keep it," Victoria said. She picked up a manila folder containing Sarah's academic records.
Both women set aside their private tragedies to focus on Sarah's independent study, and Sarah showed Victoria photos from her junior year in France, images of the work she'd done assisting with the excavation of a crumbling medieval cathedral. She intended to write her paper on the iconography of calendar images on church façades. The hour flew past, and as the chapel tower clock struck five, Victoria said, "This is excellent work, Sarah. I don't see why you couldn't present this for thesis honors next spring."
"Yeah," Sarah agreed, unable to quell the butterflies in her stomach.
"It'll be a valuable thing to have on your resume, especially if we can find a way to have it published. That would be an impressive accomplishment for an undergraduate."
"Whoa, heady stuff," laughed Sarah.
"Have you thought about grad school?"
"A little." In reality, Sarah had been obsessing over it for several weeks.
"You should. If I may be so immodest, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has an excellent art history program. You have the right mindset for an academic." Victoria's eyes crinkled when she smiled. "Just don't marry one. They have egos the size of Jupiter."
Sarah laughed again, standing. "I'll get that review of literature to you by next week."
"Good. Enjoy the weekend, Sarah."
Back out in the anteroom, Sarah regarded Victoria's children with new eyes. Having their parents divorce couldn't be an easy thing. Still, she couldn't help a vague sense of—what? Dislike? Distrust? Just a feeling that something about the two kids was off-kilter in some nebulous way? Part of it might be cultural, Sarah reasoned. Victoria and Yakov had raised the twins in St. Petersburg for two years, and Russian was their first language. Maybe Sarah's uneasiness stemmed from the kids not gesturing and expressing quite like American youngsters. Sarah also knew from her psychology courses—she'd taken a lot of them, perhaps trying to understand things that couldn't be understood—that twins sometimes shared an odd bond—they communicated with each other in unique ways, often giving off a sense almost of supernatural collusion.
Sarah told herself to stop being silly, but when Ivanka smiled in response to Sarah's nod of farewell, Sarah experienced something akin to physical pain, and a burning wave of gooseflesh erupted over her skin. Sarah wrenched away her gaze and hurried from the office. She couldn't hear anything as she retreated, but she felt certain Sacha and Ivanka were laughing at her.
The next afternoon, Sarah sequestered herself in the library stacks, determined to make a start on her review of literature. Thankfully, Oneida University's entire catalog was computerized—a far cry from the card-catalog days of Sarah's youth—making her initial search easier. The long list of books led her up to the sixth floor, where she perused volume after volume of history, art, and architecture. Some of the works were in French, fluency in which Sarah had spent years acquiring.
After two hours, Sarah had compiled a long, though far from exhaustive, list of works. She grimaced, standing up to stretch, then returned most of the books to a nearby cart. The prospect of actually reading so much verbiage tired and depressed her: thick, heavy volumes, languishing on the shelves, accumulating dust. Sarah took six of the more interesting selections down to the main circulation desk, where she used her student ID card to check them out. Not one of the volumes had been signed out of the library in less than ten years.
Not many kids here interested in medieval calendar art, Sarah thought, trudging across campus to the parking lot. At least I'm doing something original. She thought of the student theses she'd pored over yesterday, thick black-bound volumes on the Art History department's office shelves, the meticulous footnotes in ten-point font, the endless pages of references. She imagined, in nine or ten months' time, another volume added to the collection: "'The Labors of the Months and the Signs of the Zodiac on French Romanesque Façades,' by Sarah Elisabeth Williams, submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts in Art History, with honors, May 1993." Instead of filling her with excitement and pride, the thought filled her with ennui and despair.
She dumped her books into the backseat of the VW and started the engine, turning up the heat. Autumn was settling over central New York. In another month or six weeks, snow would fly. Sarah drove back to the residential campus, brooding over her future. Was this what she really wanted, a life full of books nobody ever read, cups of tea, conferences, dry academia? Sarah Williams, Ph.D., a professor at some staid, red-brick, ivy-covered university?
If not that, what did she really want? Sarah winced: all through childhood, she'd wanted to be like her mother, an actress in stage plays, facing the adulation of the masses, night after night. As an adult, she realized how vanishingly few young hopefuls achieved success in theater. Sarah's lack of thespian ability had been too obvious from an early age, no matter how many drama classes she took, no matter how many theater camps she attended. By fifteen, she'd been reduced to performing children's plays for Merlin in the town park.
Anyway, Sarah had harbored no genuine love of dramatic literature or the grand history of theater. She preferred fantasies, supernatural tales of fairies and princesses and castles. Her interest in acting had never matured beyond the purely juvenile: the pretty costumes and sets, the opportunity to live a vicarious, fictional life, to be someone else: more powerful, more glamorous, less awkward, less weird. As Sarah drove along the winding roads, she recalled that what she'd wanted was not so much to act in plays but to live in them. To be pampered and spoiled forever. To never endure the myriad drudgeries of adulthood.
Sara grinned a little. Not that adulthood didn't have its moments—freedom, travel, the satisfaction of setting her own course, being her own master—to say nothing of more carnal pleasures—alcohol and sex. Still, Sarah often thought adulthood wasn't all it was cracked up to be. It seemed like so much work for so little joy.
She circled around the crowded Riley parking lot, finding an empty spot at the outer perimeter. The lights didn't provide much illumination, leaving the lot in near-darkness. Sarah swung her bag around her shoulders and grabbed the armload of books, slamming shut the door to the VW.
She heard the noise almost right away, a kind of high-pitched chittering, somewhere between insect and bird. Sarah's ears pricked, recognizing almost by instinct the unnaturalness of the sound, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. She wove her way among the cars, glancing up and around. There—by those trees—had she glimpsed stealthy movement, high up? The red-gold leaves took on a sepia tone in the fitful glare of the sodium arc lights. Cast against the leaves, for the barest fraction of an instant, Sarah saw the shadow of a wing. A moment later, it was gone. Her blood ran cold: the shadow was too big. Nothing in nature had wings like that: long, narrow, almost dragonfly-like in its silhouette. She quickened her footsteps. Not again.
Then Sarah saw the man. He stood over near the trees, almost invisible in the shadows. He stepped back, but not before Sarah had a good look at him: middle-aged, balding, seedy. She fairly flew down the steps and across the road to the safety of Riley, stumbling into the dorm in a breathless whirl.
"Call security." She burst in on the student working the main desk in the foyer.
"Whassup?" he asked.
"There's a creepy guy in the parking lot," Sarah said.
His eyebrows went up, but he placed the call, spoke briefly, then handed the receiver to Sarah.
When questioned, she recounted everything she'd observed. The security guard promised to check it out, but Sarah knew the man would be long gone. Still, she asked the student at the desk to post a sign warning Riley's residents to exercise caution in the campus parking lots.
Telling herself she'd done everything she could, Sarah went upstairs, stopping first at Raelin's room before proceeding up to the tower.
She stood for a full five minutes at the open window, listening, but she heard no more of the odd noise, only the faint sounds of cars, music, and student voices. Sarah closed the windows and drew the curtains, although that did little to ease her sense of anxiety. All through dinner in the great hall—modeled on the refectory at Christ Church, Oxford, another feature Sarah loved—she kept jolting, staring over her shoulder, imagining she saw things in the corners of her eyes. After the meal ended, she sequestered herself in her room, forcing herself to do homework until her neck ached and her vision blurred. She showered, then curled up in bed with The Labyrinth, re-reading and remembering passages that had dimmed in memory but never faded entirely.
Sunlight the next morning provided some reassurance—at least until a female security guard came into the dining hall and flagged her down.
"You called us last night about a man loitering in the Riley parking lot?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Can you come with me please?"
"Sure." Sarah grabbed her bag. "I hope I'm not in trouble?"
"No," the woman said, but Sarah could feel an ominous weight behind the word.
The guard drove her a short distance, to the other side of the residential campus. A scrubby wooded patch had been cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. There were campus security vehicles and city police cruisers, as well as a sturdy white vehicle marked "medical examiner's office." The very sight of it made Sarah sick with apprehension. Somehow she knew what she would see before the female guard led her around the truck and underneath the security tape.
A cop who'd been standing around came over to them. "Miss Williams?"
"Yes?" she gulped, staring past him at the thing on the ground.
More gently than she'd expected, he said, "I know this is difficult, but can you take a look at the body? You'll only see his face. We need to confirm whether he was the guy you saw last night."
She took a deep breath, bracing herself. "Okay."
The cop nodded to a man swathed in a protective white paper suit. The technician drew back the sheet away from the dead man's face, down to the shoulders.
The female security guard kept a steadying hand on Sarah's shoulder. "Is that him?"
The body was simultaneously not as bad as and worse than Sarah had anticipated. He looked small, shrunken, like a wax dummy. Sarah had feared the body would smell, but the cool, fresh breeze dispelled whatever odor there might have been. His skin had turned the color of jaundiced clay. The horrible thing was his mouth. It looked like someone had stuffed his mouth full of rose petals. They'd fluttered out, onto his shirt, the grass, the ME's clinical sheet.
"What—what?" she gasped. "Who did that? Is it some kind of joke?"
The male cop shrugged.
"It's him," she said. She recognized the face, the bald head framed by wispy gray curls, the dingy-looking baseball jacket. The body looked damp, and Sarah realized the grass was wet, the ground muddy.
"All right," the cop said, nodding in a way that indicated Sarah was dismissed. The technician re-covered the dead man's face.
On the drive back to Riley, Sarah ventured, "Who was he? Does anyone know?"
The security guard shrugged. "It's possible he's a guy who's been exposing himself to female students at schools and colleges in northern Pennsylvania. This is the first time he's been spotted anywhere in New York."
"Did someone… you know, murder him?"
The guard said, "I think for now they're treating it as a homicide."
"Jesus," Sarah muttered. "Do I need to do anything else?"
"Just provide a written statement," the woman answered. Then, "Is there anyone who can confirm where you were last night?"
"Sure, almost everyone in the dorm," Sarah responded. "I didn't go anywhere after I got inside, trust me. I didn't feel like roaming around campus with Mr. Creepoid at large."
"Okay." When they got back to Riley, Sarah gave the woman a complete description of what had happened the night before, and the names of the students she'd dined with. That seemed to satisfy any legal obligations Sarah might have to the case. She doubted it would ever get to court. Under other circumstances, she might have wondered who had murdered the man. Was it a case of self-defense gone horribly wrong? Did the rose petals represent some kind of mockery? A bold if twisted feminist statement against sexual harassment? But given Sarah's past experiences, she didn't seriously consider any of those possibilities. Instead she wondered if her old nemesis were stirring again. But was he protecting her? Or warning her? Or threatening her? Sarah shuddered: she had a dreadful feeling that it wouldn't be long before she learned the answer.
"Sarah… hey, Sarah!"
She turned around to see another student loping up alongside her. She'd just gotten off the campus shuttle; the incident with the dead man had prompted her to avoid parking lots. The other student—Sarah couldn't remember his name—must have been riding the same bus. He was weedy and gangly, two or three inches taller than Sarah. Dark hair fell into his eyes, and he brushed it aside as he came to a skidding halt.
"Hi," she said, vainly searching her memory for his name. Dan? Doug? Dave?
"Hey," he said, shifting his backpack, a self-conscious gesture. "They said you got called in to ID a body?"
"Yeah," she said.
"You okay?" he asked.
His concern appeared genuine enough, but Sarah's experience with men had taught her to expect ulterior motives. Sometimes she could get a date out of it. she made a quick bet with herself: five minutes before he started hitting on her.
"Yeah, I'm all right," she said. "Still a little wigged out over it—you know?"
"Was it awful?" he said. "You know—gross, or anything?"
"No. That kind of surprised me," Sarah responded. "With the ground so wet, I figured it'd be gross, but it didn't smell, thank God."
"The ground was wet?" the boy asked. Doug? Sarah was pretty sure his name was Doug. Like Sarah, he had lived in Riley since sophomore year, but they'd moved in different circles socially, the difference being that Doug actually had a social circle. Sarah tried to remember his major. Theater? Studio art?
"Yeah, the ground was soaked," Sarah told him. "It must've rained last night." They walked up Riley's front steps, and Doug held the door for Sarah.
"It didn't," he said. "There've been brushfire warnings in the state parks."
"Seriously?" asked Sarah, remembering the wet grass and trees. There had been a lot of rain in early September, but none since.
"The ground was soaked," Sarah said. "Like someone took a hose to it."
"It didn't rain," Doug insisted. "There's a drain spout right outside my window—trust me, I hear it when it rains." Eyes bright, he said, "Maybe you should tell the police." He poked her side with his elbow. "A clue!"
Sarah gave him a patient smile. "I'm pretty sure they noticed," she said. "They're kind of trained to pick up stuff like that."
"Oh. Yeah. Right." Doug's shoulders slumped. They passed by a prominent flyer for Riley's annual Halloween party. Jerking his head in the poster's direction, he said, "You going to that?"
Less than five minutes. If Sarah had been a gambler, she'd be a millionaire by now. On the other hand, she gave Doug a lot of credit for keeping his gaze fixed firmly on her face.
"Sure I'm going." She smiled. "Isn't everyone?"
Relief swept over his features. "So, wanno go? Um, with me?"
Sarah's grin widened. "What are you wearing?"
"Not sure yet," he said. "Maybe I'll raid the bio lab for a skull and go as Hamlet." He held out one hand in a dramatic pantomime. "'Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.'" Maybe he was in theater. "What about you?"
"No clue," Sarah responded. "I might hit the secondhand shop and get something tacky and seventies—go as a reject from Welcome Back, Kotter."
He laughed. "Okay!" They went into the great hall together for lunch. Sarah kept hoping someone would turn up and greet the poor kid by his name.
"Did I see you having lunch with Danny Foster?" asked Raelin.
Sarah set down her textbook, exhaling. "That's his name! Thank God I wormed my way out of actually addressing him—I kept thinking it was Doug."
Raelin flopped down on Sarah's bed. "He's pretty cute. Do you like him?"
"He's okay," Sarah responded. "He gets props for not looking at my chest once during lunch. I don't really know him, though."
"He's in studio art, focusing in sculpture," Raelin provided. "Didn't you see the clay under his nails?"
"He's kind of hot," said Raelin. "He was a dweeb freshman year, but he grew out of it. I think he used to play soccer."
"His skin is good, even if he's missing his eyebrows," Sarah laughed. "I wanted to say he'd make a good Frankenstein's monster, but it seemed too mean. Besides, I'm sure he's heard that one before—his face is like a perfect rectangle. He's not bad."
"Just 'not bad?'" Raelin teased.
"That might be upgraded to 'nice' after Halloween."
"He asked you out?"
"Yeah," Sarah responded.
Cocking her head, Raelin asked, "Do I detect a certain lack of enthusiasm?"
"Why should I be enthusiastic?" Sarah retorted. "He asked me out. He's not overtly lecherous. I don't give out cookies for checking a couple of basic boxes."
"Jesus, Sarah." Raelin shook her head. "It's a good thing we're not all so cold-blooded." Genuinely curious, she asked, "So, what do you like in a guy?"
Sarah stared out the window. "Tall, blond, mysterious," she admitted.
Raelin laughed. "You know, a lot of guys ask if you're seeing anyone. I tell them the line forms to the left."
Sarah managed a tired smile. She envied Raelin, who was pretty but unspectacular. Her attractiveness came from inside, from that effervescent personality of hers.
With a cluck, Raelin asked, "Did someone jilt you?"
"Not exactly," Sarah answered. "There was a guy when I was fifteen. He was older than me, and sort of messed with my head. Bad news. Nothing happened, but you know what it's like when you crush really badly on someone at that age. It stays with you forever." That was more than she'd ever revealed to anyone.
Raelin nodded, perhaps sensing there was a deeper story behind Sarah's sketchy outline. "Yeah. You just keep going, though. Keep dating, and you'll find the right one."
"Yeah." That was the conventional wisdom, wasn't it? Just keep looking. Lots of good fish in the sea. The summer before she'd started Oneida, Sarah had had her first love affair, with a guy she'd met in a Latin class at Syracuse. He'd been a virgin, too, and they'd reveled in the mutual newness, the mutual exploration and discovery. The fling had ended when they'd both left for college—he was heading for the west coast and USC. There had been a lot of casual dating her first two years at Oneida, but she'd only had her second affair in France. Every woman should have at least one French lover, Sarah thought, but she knew her choice of partners had been deliberate: guys she'd been pretty sure she'd never see again. The experiences had both been memorable, but finite.
She winced, wondering if she'd accepted Danny's offer of a date for similar reasons: she knew the following spring would see them going in different directions.
"So, what are you gonna wear?" asked Raelin, eyes asparkle. "We'll have to find you something spectacular."
"No clue," Sarah answered. She couldn't possibly top Raelin for creativity. Sophomore year, Raelin had draped herself in a blue sheet to which she'd pinned two dozen Tampax soaked in blue paint. When asked, she'd said she was "Picasso's blue period." Sarah would never be able to think of anything half so clever.
"Let me know if you need any help," Raelin invited. "With your looks, you could do pretty much anything. We could truss you up in eighteenth-century gear, splatter a little blood on your neck, and pretend you're Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine."
"Oh, super!" Sarah laughed. "Ew! Besides, Marie Antoinette means corsets. No thanks."
"Well, look around," said Raelin. "But start thinking—if you wait too long, everything'll be gone." She wasn't kidding. Halloween at Oneida—especially in Riley Hall—was a big, big deal, and it wasn't unusual for students to arrive on campus in August with their costumes already chosen. If Sarah wanted to rent or create something, she needed to start soon. Another thing to worry about.
"Yeah," she responded. "I'll let you know if inspiration strikes. And if you have any good ideas, you know where I live."
Raelin grinned. "For sure."
Sarah woke up in the dim pre-dawn light, aware of a heavy, muzzy feeling. God, I am not getting sick, she groaned to herself. It was mid-October; she had two short papers due and a midterm exam within the next week.
When she sat upright, something slid off her blanket and hit the floor with a solid thunk. A book? She'd been rereading The Labyrinth (again!) before bed, but the slim volume sat next to her alarm clock, atop the small refrigerator that doubled as Sarah's nightstand.
Sarah switched on a lamp and leaned down. Her hand closed over a smooth, cool, small object. Baffled, she looked at it in the lamplight. She'd never seen anything like it: no bigger than a deck of cards—perhaps three inches wide and about four inches tall, and maybe half an inch thick. Its surface was some kind of hard white plastic, silver on the back.
The front panel fascinated her. There was a tiny gray square, and beneath it a horizontal row of four buttons, and beneath the buttons, a circle. Each tiny button bore a symbol, similar to the controls on a CD player. One of the buttons said "menu." Curious and uncertain, Sarah touched it with a fingertip.
The gray square lit up.
Sarah nearly shrieked, dropping the thing onto her blanket. She grabbed it, staring at the square, which now glowed a faint, pale blue, like a computer monitor. A list of six items had appeared: playlists, artists, albums, songs, genres, and composers. Sarah had no idea what any of those things meant, and she sat staring at the glowing square before finally venturing a finger to touch the menu button again. A different list appeared. Sarah frowned for a moment. She tried the buttons with the backwards and forwards arrows, but nothing happened. The button to the right of "menu" looked like a play button, but touching it didn't produce any results, either.
Curious about the circle beneath the row of buttons, Sarah touched the center of it with her finger. The initial list came up again, the word "albums" highlighted by a black bar. Sarah touched the center of the circle again, and yet a third list appeared: all, a-Ha, Aaron Carter, ABBA, ABC, and AC/DC. An alphabetical list. Sarah wondered if there was anything after AC/DC. She tried randomly touching all the buttons on the odd little device, but only succeeded in being bounced around the various lists.
Almost by accident, she brushed her fingertip along the outer edge of the circle, and when she did, the black bar began to move, highlighting different items. In a flash of intuition, Sarah realized that the odd thing in her hand was like a tiny computer, and its various menus could be navigated by lightly tracing her finger clockwise or counterclockwise around the circle. The button in the center of the ring functioned like the "enter" key on a computer keyboard. Every time she touched the wheel and the buttons, the device emitted a funny, soft clicking noise. Navigating her way back to the artist menu, Sarah selected ABBA, which brought up the names of three greatest hits collections.
She scrolled down the list of artists' names—there were some she recognized, but many she didn't—looking for something familiar. Spotting Pearl Jam, Sarah touched the enter button and sat blinking at the list of album names. The only one she recognized was Ten, to the best of her knowledge, the band's only album. What were all those others—Vs, Vitalogy, No Code, Yield? Sarah selected Vitalogy and scrolled down a list of song titles.
So what was the point of storing so much album information on this tiny pocket-sized computer? Sarah looked over the thing carefully, noting a narrow, grooved indentation along the bottom. On the top she found a small horizontal button that could be slid back and forth. It said "hold." And next to it was a small hole with an icon of a pair of headphones.
Can you seriously listen to music on this thing? Sarah wondered. Only one way to find out. She fetched her Sony Discman and removed the headphones from the jack. Feeling a little foolish, she plugged the phones into the top of the tiny device and slipped the black earpieces over her ears. She navigated the menus until she found Ten, then scrolled down and selected "Alive."
A moment later, music filled her ears: rich, melodious, crisp, astonishing Sarah with its tone and clarity. The single was so over-played, and yet Sarah felt like she were hearing it for the first time: the guitars, the drums, Eddie Vedder's snarling, moaning vocals.
She listened to the song all the way through, then began scrolling through other menus. "Playlists" yielded a host of interesting selections. Some were organized by artist—ABBA, Alan Parsons Project, the Beatles—as well as by genre: rock, country, classical, disco, world. Sarah perused the songs listed under each playlist. Much of the music was things she liked. Randomly she selected "Danse Macabre" from the classical list, delighting in the sound quality; it seemed she could detect every single instrument in the orchestra. Not even her Discman produced sound like this.
Some of the playlists puzzled her, though. Eighties, sure. Nineties—okay, even if the decade was less than three years old. But one list was titled "2000 and Beyond," and Sarah recognized nothing on it. Was it a joke? Under the playlist for U2, Sarah recognized the album titles up through Achtung Baby, but there were four she'd never heard of, and she'd been following U2 since grade school.
"Danse Macabre" ended, and "Carmina Burana" began playing. Sarah turned over the odd device and noticed for the first time the Apple logo. Beneath that was the word "iPod" and lower down, near the bottom, "20 GB."
Twenty gigabytes? Could that be right? On such a tiny thing? Most of the computers on campus, even the good ones, had maybe one gig of memory in their hard drives. How could something so small have so much memory on it?
Squinting, Sarah read the microscopic lettering etched into the metal at the bottom of the panel. Copyright 2003 Apple Computers, Inc.
No way! No way! 2003? Then Sarah asked herself a question that should have occurred to her a lot sooner: where had this thing come from?
Sarah yanked back her curtains and drew up the blinds. She pushed open the windows and thrust her head outside, looking around the roof and the eaves. No sign of an owl. She leaned back inside and closed the windows.
She could think of no other explanation for the mysterious presence of the miniature computer: it must have come from the future. But how? Then she wondered: did she even need to ask? Didn't she already know? Did she really want to know?
Sarah touched the play button and watched the tiny screen grow dark. Then she hid the device in a bureau drawer, beneath a pile of T-shirts. All through that day, as she went about her normal activities, she could feel its weight in her mind, glowing like a radioactive substance.
Going through the line at breakfast the next morning, Sarah bumped into another girl and exclaimed, "Nora?"
The girl laughed, reaching out an arm in an awkward sideways hug. "It's been forever—
you were in France last year, right?"
"Oui," Sarah joked. "Where've you been? I haven't seen you since I got back on campus."
"Student teaching," said Nora, shifting to let another kid get past. "Five days a week from seven-thirty 'till three, then I have classes."
"What a grind," Sarah laughed.
"Only this semester," Nora responded. Sarah remembered that Nora was an art education major. They'd lived on the same floor sophomore year, and they'd spent a lot of time engrossed in deep, philosophical conversations in the girls' bathroom. They'd never been close friends, but Sarah had found Nora quite likable.
"So, what're you doing here now?" asked Sarah. "Do you have the day off?"
"No, the school's closed," Nora said. They took their trays and went out to find seats at one of the long tables.
"Holiday?" asked Sarah.
"A teacher died. The circumstances were pretty weird. Maybe not murder, but weird."
Nora dropped this so casually as she opened a box of Lucky Charms that Sarah almost put an elbow in her stack of French toast.
"Shit," Sarah breathed. "What happened?"
"We got phone calls last night not to come in today. My professor said they found her body on the school grounds—her husband called the cops when she didn't come home."
"Oh, my God! Do you know her?"
"Not really. She teaches in the upper school—sixth grade," said Nora. "I'm in the first and second grade classrooms."
"What—does anyone know what happened to her?"
"That's the weird thing," said Nora. "I guess she drowned."
"In a pool?"
"No, she was just lying on the ground, but her lungs were full of water. Everything around her was soaked."
"But it didn't rain yesterday," Sarah countered, remembering her conversation with Danny. "The sun was out."
"Yeah, like I said, weird." Nora shrugged off the whole thing as one of those inexplicable tragedies that happen to other people.
Sarah took a few bites of French toast without really tasting it. Then a couple of disparate pieces clicked together in her mind. Nora had said upper school—not the terminology of public schools.
"Where are you teaching?" she asked.
"The Hilda Marshall School," Nora responded. "It's an independent K-8."
Sarah knew that the Marshall was a fairly exclusive private elementary and middle school; about three-quarters of its student body consisted of Oneida faculty children. Victoria Hammersmith's two kids went there, the twins, who must be in the sixth grade by now. Sarah suddenly knew, she just knew, that the dead woman had been Ivanka and Sacha's teacher.
Later that day, Sarah's guess was confirmed when Victoria sent a mass e-mail to her student advisees, canceling appointments. My kids' school is closed for the day, she'd written. There was an accident involving their teacher. If you need to reschedule, please drop me a line or call me.
"Accident, my ass," Sarah scoffed under her breath. She finished sorting through her messages, then composed a quick, distracted note to her father. Say hi to Irene, she finished. Hug Toby for me.
With that task finished, she sat back in the chair, staring at the screen of the Macintosh LC. Making sure nobody else was around—she liked this particular computer cluster in an out-of-the-way corner of DeCiccio Hall's basement—she slipped the tiny music player out of her book bag and compared it to the larger computer. Within the next decade, some brainy geek at Apple Computers would create this extraordinary little device. Sarah felt the guilty weight of her knowledge. Somewhere around the year 2000, she joked, she ought to start buying stock in Apple. It didn't take an oracle to predict that this nifty gadget would sell by the millions once it hit the market. It made Sarah's Discman seem like an eight-track tape player by comparison. The very feel of its cool, smooth surfaces was a sensual delight.
Even more uneasy-making, though, was the sense she had of how popular music would evolve over the next ten years. At night, in the privacy of her room, Sarah had been making her way through the playlists, thrilled to see how the work of various artists would progress. Many of these songs had yet to be written, the recordings themselves wouldn't see the light of day for years, and yet Sarah held all this purloined creative output in the literal palm of her hand. To possess so much foreknowledge was nothing short of mind-blowing, but Sarah dared not share any of it with anyone. There was nobody, she realized, in whom she could confide. She just didn't trust anyone enough—not Raelin, not her father, nobody. If Toby had been older, she might have been able to share this with him, but he was barely seven.
More than anything, Sarah feared what might happen to the progress of history—even pop culture history—if this glimpse of the future became widely known. With a sigh, she tucked the music player into her book bag, popped her floppy disk out of the Macintosh, and hurried out of the computer cluster. She still was reluctant to use her car, especially when she knew she'd be driving back to Riley after dark. She took a quick glance at her watch, breaking into a sprint: if she really hustled, she could make the next shuttle bus to the residential campus.
Even from a distance, Sarah could see Raelin jumping up and down, see the ecstatic smile on her face. On this beautiful, sunny October day, Sarah had opted to walk back to Riley rather than wait for the bus, and as she rounded the front of the dorm, she spotted her friend in the Riley parking lot, standing with another student.
"Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!" Raelin shrieked. She raced down the steps from the parking lot, across the road, and over the dorm's green front lawn. "Ohmigod! I found it! I found it!"
Sarah couldn't stop laughing. The gorgeous day had put her in a good mood, despite all her recent fears and misgivings, and Raelin's comical display added to that sense of blessed normalcy.
"Hey!" she said, greeting her friend on the front step. "Wanna blow off classes after lunch and go hike the gorges? The trees are incredible."
"Works for me!" Raelin was swinging an enormous brown shopping bag. "First, I have to show you this—come on upstairs so no one else will see it."
"See what?" asked Sarah as they trooped inside.
"Your Halloween costume! You know Jill, right? Well, she was going downtown, so I hitched a lift with her, and while she was getting her hair cut, I poked into that secondhand shop. The woman had some new stuff in, and ohmigod Sarah, this thing had your name on it—literally had your name on it—I think it'll fit, too, but the woman said to just bring it back if it doesn't." Raelin was gabbing at ninety miles a minute as they climbed the stairs to the third floor. "Ten bucks—can you believe it? I would've paid more, but I didn't know how much you'd wanna spring, and she said ten bucks was fine."
"For God's sake, are you going to show me the thing or not?" Sarah laughed.
"Inside, inside!" Raelin unlocked the door to her room and ushered Sarah inside. Once the door was locked, she flipped on the overhead light and said, "Close your eyes." Sarah complied. She heard a quiet rustle of fabric, smelled a musty scent, and then Raelin said "Okay, you can look now."
Sarah opened her eyes and had all she could do not to scream.
Completely misreading her expression, Raelin said, "Awesome, or what? Isn't this just gorgeous?" She smoothed the fabric with one hand. "It might need to be dry-cleaned, but I bet you can get the wrinkles out just hanging it in the shower… Sarah? You okay?"
"Uh… wow," Sarah managed.
"Don't you like it?" asked Raelin anxiously.
"It's… it's… unreal," Sarah wheezed.
"Is it too eighties?" Raelin asked.
"It's… uh, kind of timeless, actually. Did the woman say where she got it?"
"Someone dropped it off. She found it in the bag on her doorstep this morning. Here, look… isn't this a hoot?"
Raelin held up a fistful of the silky fabric. Pinned to the inner shoulder of the dress was a scrap of paper that resembled old parchment. And written on the paper, in a flowing archaic script, was one word.
"Too funny, huh?" Raelin laughed.
"Yeah… I guess it's meant to be." Sarah forced a smile. Funny to think that she'd never seen his handwriting before (he knew how to write?), but even so, she recognized it. Like his voice, she thought—even if she heard it in a crowd of millions, she'd recognize that mannered, seductive tenor.
The dress was exactly as Sarah remembered: the fitted bodice, woven with gold threads; the sleeves long and fitted, but puffed extravagantly from shoulder to elbow; the skirt floor-length and very full. Trim of braided gold emphasized the V of the waist. Wasn't this every girl's fantasy ball gown, an unbearably romantic concoction, in which all her dreams would come true? Sarah didn't need to try it on to know that it would fit like an eighteen button glove.
"So?" asked Raelin, eyes shining. "Won't Danny flip?"
He probably would. But Sarah wasn't thinking of Danny now. She had another face in her mind: beautiful, otherworldly, cruel. Irresistible.
"Yeah," she said, thinking ahead to the Halloween dance. That was when he'd appear—on that night of mystery and magic. Sarah knew she could refuse, knew she could bring the dress back to the shop, stay locked in her tower the night of the party. Or she could confront destiny, seize it in her hands. Was it even worth fighting anymore? she wondered. Wouldn't she be better off just keeping her dignity?
"So, you like…?" Raelin asked, worried by Sarah's response.
"Yeah… it's gorgeous. Thanks."
"Try it on," Raelin demanded, nipping out into the hallway.
Resigned, Sarah disrobed and slipped into the gown, calling Raelin into the room to hook up the back.
"Wow." Raelin stared at the full effect. "Wow—Sarah—you're a heartbreaker. Look."
Sarah turned reluctantly toward Raelin's newly acquired full-length mirror. The fabric of the dress rustled as she moved. She barely recognized this vision of fairy-tale loveliness: tall, willowy, skin as pale as the dress itself. The fabric seemed to have been spun from the milk of crushed pearls, shimmering even beneath the fluorescent lights overhead. Sarah stepped closer to the mirror, eyeing the woman who stared back at her. Her hair—dark brown, almost black—fell in waves about her shoulders, framing a face exquisite in its symmetry. Her lips were full and red, even without lipstick. Beneath the thick eyebrows, her green eyes glittered like emeralds, fringed with long, extravagant lashes.
"Every guy in the dorm is gonna be proposing," Raelin joked. "Send the rejects my way, would you?" She touched the bodice lightly. "You have a goddess bra you can wear under this baby? You're stacked anyway, and the neckline'll give you killer cleavage."
"Yeah," Sarah responded. She had some nice lingerie she'd picked up in Paris, on her way home, that she had yet to wear. Waiting, she suspected, for the right occasion.
"I misplaced my glass slippers," Sarah laughed, half to herself.
"No, I meant the shoes are in here." Raelin fished into the bag and held up a pair of elegant white pumps. They'd been crafted from the same fabric as the dress: silk, glittering with tiny crystals. Sarah looked them over. No size, no manufacturer's name or label, and the soles showed only the tiniest hint of wear. Sarah slipped her feet into them: they might have been hand-crafted especially for her.
While Sarah tried the shoes, Raelin rummaged around the bottom of the bag. "There's some accessories, too," she said. "Necklace, earrings, and some weird doohickey… a headpiece, maybe?" She waved a pair of hair combs that trailed streamers of white silk.
"Yeah," Sarah told her, not needing to look. "It goes in your hair."
"Wow," Raelin said, looking pleased with herself. "Is this destiny, or what? Sarah—if you don't wear this rig, I'll never forgive you."
"Can't have that, can we?" Sarah responded. "Thanks, Raelin—you're a peach." Hopefully not the poisoned, hallucinogenic variety.
"Awesome!" Raelin looked as excited as the fairy godmother dressing Cinderella. "Now, c'mon, get changed, and we can take that walk you were talking about."
The police cruiser went whipping past, lights flashing. No sirens. Standing with a group of students from her German lit class, Sarah wondered out loud, "What the hell's going on?"
"There's another one," a boy said, and a second cruiser followed the first. "They're heading for Garrett Hall, I think."
The students drifted across the quadrangle toward Garrett Hall. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, standing about, staring up at the tall, gray building. Sarah had often admired Garrett's architecture, classic Second Empire; it was one of Oneida's surviving original buildings, now home to the university's graduate programs in the humanities. Daylight reflected in the tall, elegant windows.
"No smoke," Sarah remarked. Fire was always her first worry. "I don't hear any alarms, either."
"I don't think it's a fire." A young woman standing nearby spoke. Her arms were folded across her chest, her face creased in a dark frown. She appeared too old to be an undergraduate—a grad student, maybe? Sarah put her age at about twenty-five.
"What's going on?" Sarah kept her voice low, conspiratorial.
The young woman glanced about, eyes flicking from side to side. "Don't say anything," she muttered. "Officially, I'm not supposed to know anything about this, but I have a feeling it'll be all over campus by tonight."
The young woman lifted her chin, eyes narrow and hard with angry satisfaction. "Serves him right, the arrogant dickwad. Look."
Two cops had emerged from Garrett Hall, escorting between them a tall, pale, good-looking man of about forty-five. His hands were cuffed in front of him.
Sarah recognized him at once. It was Yakov Vasiliev, Victoria Hammersmith's estranged husband.
"Yasha!" she breathed.
Behind the trio came a young blonde woman, crying and upset. She looked like a Playboy model, an unlikely combination of bony, voluptuous, and suntanned.
"Homewrecker," Sarah's companion growled.
"Oh, my God," Sarah whispered. "Why are they arresting him?" So the blonde must be Yakov's graduate student, the one he was having an affair with.
The gossipy young woman waited until Yakov was in the cruiser before she said, "The twins vanished last night."
Sarah felt a cold chill in the pit of her stomach. "And they think Yakov's behind it?"
"Apparently—and please don't tell anyone this—Victoria Hammersmith thinks he kidnapped the twins and sent them back to his parents in St. Petersburg."
"Jesus," Sarah responded. She didn't feel especially sorry for Yakov, but she recognized that he was in a horrible situation. He might be just as worried as Victoria about the kids, and if Sarah's suspicions were correct, the charges against him were unfounded—but that could never be proved.
Feigning morbid interest in the case, Sarah asked, "Were they with him when they vanished? You know, on a visitation or something?"
"No, that's one thing in his favor. It'll depend on what kind of alibi he has—if the only person who saw him last night was Chesty Le Tits over there, he's out of luck. The kids were with Victoria."
"How d'you know all this?" asked Sarah, keeping her voice down and hoping the grad student wouldn't recognize her as one of Victoria's advisees.
"Department secretary," the young woman responded. Sarah could believe that; in her experience, department secretaries knew everything.
"Are you in Slavic Languages?" asked Sarah. She kept her tone sympathetic, hoping to glean some more information.
"ABD," the woman responded. All but dissertation. So she was a Ph.D. student. "I passed my quals this summer." She scowled. "No thanks to that goddamned crapweasel, either—I had to switch advisors after Chesty came on the scene. She's the very definition of 'dumb blonde'—sorry for the sexist stereotype, but in her case, it's God's honest truth. I saw her application—thin as a shred of carbon paper, and she never would've made the cut, except that Yasha interviewed her, and once she'd wagged her boobs in his face, she was in."
Sarah could believe that, too: admission to a lot of graduate programs depended on the sponsorship or vetting of a faculty member, and Yasha was a full professor with a lot of clout. That kind of favoritism must rankle the students who'd won their admissions more honestly.
Now that the grad student had vented her frustration, Sarah gently steered the conversation back to the events that interested her. "So, the kids were at Victoria's house? Were they out in the driveway or the yard or something, where he could've grabbed them?"
"No, they were in the den, doing homework, according to Victoria. She was cleaning up after supper and went in to see how they were doing, and the sliding doors to the patio were open. No sign of the kids. No sign of footprints or tire tracks, either, even though the ground was wet. Anyway, the open doors might've been a red herring."
"Really?" asked Sarah. She didn't mention that there had been no rain the night before.
"Have you ever met the kids?"
"No," Sarah lied.
"They're kind of obnoxious, and I guess Victoria's been having a hard time with them lately. She thinks they might've asked Yasha to stage a kidnapping, so they could go back and live in Russia with his parents."
"So, they might've slipped out of the house but left the patio doors open to throw off the police, make it look like a random kidnapping?" Sarah guessed.
"Something like that," the grad student nodded.
"In that case, Yasha would've been stupid not to establish some kind of alibi," Sarah reasoned out loud.
"Yeah, well, what guy's gonna think straight when he's boinking a hot babe?" the grad student snarked.
Sarah kept her skepticism to herself. Hot girlfriend or no hot girlfriend, she didn't think Yakov would be so careless.
The crowd was dispersing, so Sarah murmured, "Well, I hope the kids are okay."
"Yeah, for Victoria's sake, I hope so, too."
Sarah nodded and murmured something noncommittal before slipping away. She was late for her next class, and she hurried across the quadrangle, glaring up at the cloudy sky.
Night had fallen. Sarah couldn't sleep or concentrate on homework. Before returning to the dorm, she'd checked her email, finding a message from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Effective immediately, Professor Victoria Hammersmith was on "family leave." Other instructors would be taking over her courses, and other arts faculty would take charge of her advisees. Sarah had received a separate email from another art history professor about setting up meeting times.
The Oneida gossip mill had kicked into full gear, and over dinner, students had been buzzing with excitement and speculation about what might have happened to the twins. Until now, Sarah had not appreciated the extent to which Yakov was considered a campus philanderer, and the students found it easy to believe he would kidnap his own children and spirit them out of the country. Maybe it was a less distressing thing to believe than the twins' disappearance being the work of some random pedophile.
Sarah had ignored as much of the gossip as she could, retreating to her room after dinner, pacing. Sacha and Ivanka were hardly her two favorite people, but she didn't want to see anything horrible befall them, either. She pondered her moral responsibilities: did knowing about that other world oblige her to defend people from the mischief caused by its denizens? What am I now, some kind of fairy-land cop?
She also couldn't ignore the possibility that the abduction of the twins was only part of an elaborate trap designed to ensnare Sarah herself.
Could she turn her back on all this? And if other children disappeared? What then? How many more had to vanish before Sarah would act?
Near midnight, her conscience finally got the better of her. Sarah changed into her comfortable hiking shoes, buttoned a flannel shirt over her t-shirt, and donned a warm coat, hat, and gloves. Before leaving the dorm, she used the bathroom and made sure her room was locked. God only knew how long she'd be gone.
Overhead, the full moon floated, wispy clouds drifting across its face. Sarah hiked out to the gorge, climbing down over the rocks; she wanted the rushing water to cover the sound of her voice.
Clutching the scrap of parchment with her name on it, she called out, "Goblin King, Goblin King, wherever you may be, I demand that you appear at once before me!" Maybe not the most inspired invocation, but she was hardly in the mood for rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter.
Nothing happened. Sarah ground her teeth, trying to remember exactly what she had said the last time. The words had been so simple…
I wish the goblins would come and take you away… right now.
"I wish the Goblin King would appear before me… right now."
After a moment of nothingness, a shadow detached itself from the trees and circled down toward Sarah. The owl. Her stomach clenched with anticipation.
The bird swooped around, gliding on its outstretched wings, then hovered dramatically in mid-air. Sarah felt the breeze it stirred on her face. She didn't blink, but still she missed the exact moment of transformation. One instant, there was an owl; the next, the bird was gone and a man stood not four feet from Sarah, balanced on the rocky outcropping, backlit by the yellow moonlight. The Goblin King, in all his magnificence, long cloak and long, pale hair fluttering out behind him in the night wind.
"Sarah." Jareth's voice and expression were unexpectedly aggrieved. "You took your bloody time."
To be continued…