The Forbidden Game book 2: The Chase (Chapter 4)

"What message?" Dee said, frowning.

The psychic was still staring at Jenny intently. "You've got the look," she said. "You've seen them -the faery folk."

Audrey said sharply, "The faery folk?" In the paper house Audrey's worst nightmare had been a fairy tale. A story about the Erlking, a spirit who haunted the Black Forest and stole children. The Elf-king. Julian had played the part to perfection, had even claimed to be the real Erlking.

The Shadow Men. The faery folk. Different names for different ages. Oh, God, Jenny thought, she knows the truth. I should be happy, she thought wildly. But there was a knot in her stomach.

The woman was answering Audrey. "The Elder Race. Some people have the gift of seeing them where everyone else only sees a wind in the grass, or a shadow, or a reflection of light."

Something about the woman's tone brought Jenny up short. The psychic sounded too-pleased- about the subject. Not scared enough. "What do they look like?"

The woman gave her a laughing glance. As if you didn't know. "They're the most beautiful things imaginable," she said. "Creatures of light and happiness. I frequently see them dancing at Malibu Creek." She held up one of her chains, and Jenny saw the charm, a beautiful young girl with gauzy wings and floating draperies.

"Pixies in bluebells," Dee said, absolutely straight-faced. Jenny's muscles went slack. This woman didn't know anything about the Shadow Men. Just another kook.

The psychic was still smiling. "The message is: Vanished. They told me to tell you that."

"Vanished? Oh," Jenny said. "Well, thank you." She supposed it was as good a message as any, considering Summer's situation.

"Vanished," the woman repeated. "At least-I think that was it. Sometimes I only get the vowel sounds. It might have been-" She hesitated, then shook her head and went back to her Mercedes.

"For a moment there I thought she had something," Audrey murmured.

Jenny grabbed a handful of flyers and a map. "Let's go."

Outside, they made their plans. "P.C.'s house is at thirteen-twenty-two Ramona Street," Jenny said. She knew this by heart. It was the first place they had checked, along with Slug's house. Of course, they hadn't been able to search directly, but one of the kinder detectives had let them know that there was no paper house in either of the boys' homes.

"Dee, you and Michael can start there and cover everything west over to, say, Anchor Street. Audrey and I can cover everything east over to where Landana turns into Sycamore. Remember, it's the girl we want now."

"In other words we're canvassing the entire south side of town," Michael said with a groan. "Door to door."

"Obviously we won't cover it all today," Jenny said. "But we'll keep at it until we do." She looked at Dee, who nodded slightly. Dee would keep Michael at it.

Audrey didn't look particularly happy, either "We've been to a lot of those houses before. What are we supposed to say when they tell us they already have flyers?"

Dee grinned. "Tell them you're selling encyclopedias." She hustled Michael into the Bug.

Audrey shook her head as she and Jenny got back into the Spider and drove away. The top was down, and the wind blew stray wisps of copper-colored hail out of her chignon. Jenny shut her eyes, feeling the rushing air on her face.

She didn't want to think about anything, not about the psychic, not about Zach, not about Tom. Especially not about Tom. Underneath she'd had some faint hope he might show up at the Center after school. He was avoiding her, that was it.

Her nose and eyes stung. She wanted him with her. If she thought any more about him, about his hazel eyes with their flecks of green, about his warmth and his strength and his easy devil-may-care smile, she was going to cry.

"Let's go over by Eastman and Montevideo," she heard herself saying. The words just came out of her mouth, from nowhere.

Audrey cast her a spiky-lashed glance but turned south.

Eastman Avenue, the scene of so many recent riots, was almost deserted. Jenny hadn't been there since the day of Tom's birthday, the day she'd walked there to buy a party game. As they approached Montevideo Street, everything Jenny had experienced the last time she'd been here-the blue twilight, the footsteps behind her, the fear-came back to her. She almost expected to see P.C. in his black vest and Slug in his flannels walking down the sidewalk.

Audrey turned the corner on Montevideo and stopped.

The mural on the blank wall still showed a street scene. In the middle of the mural was a realistic-looking store with a sign reading: More Games. But it was just paint and concrete. Flat. There was no handle sticking out of the door.

Behind that blank wall she'd met Julian, in a place that wasn't a real place after all.

Scraps of paper lay in the street. One was the bright yellow of Summer's flyer.

Jenny felt suddenly very hollow. She didn't know what she'd expected to find here, or even what had made her come.

Audrey shivered. "I don't like this place."

"No. It was a bad idea."

They drove north, backtracking. They were actually near Summer's house now, in the kind of neighborhood where cars tended to be slightly dented, on blocks, or in pieces in the side yard. The afternoon seemed brighter here, and on the sidewalks the usual kids with sun-bleached hair and freckled limbs or night-black hair and brown limbs were running around.

They parked the car by George Washington Elementary School and put the top up.

At every house the spiel was the same.

"Hi, we're from the Summer Parker-Pearson Citizen's Search Committee. Can we give you a flyer … ?"

If the people in the house looked nice, they tried to get invited in. Then came the transition from "We're looking for Summer" to "We're looking for an important clue in her disappearance"-meaning the paper house. And today, "We're looking for somebody who might know something about her"-meaning the Crying Girl with the long dark hair and haunted eyes.

Most of all, though, they tried to talk to kids.

Kids knew things. Kids saw things. Usually the adults in the houses only listened politely, but the kids were always eager to help. They followed along on their bicycles, suggesting places to look, remembering that they thought they might have seen someone who could possibly have been Summer yesterday, or maybe it was the day before.

"The paper house is really important, but it could be dangerous. Anybody could have picked it up, thinking it was a toy," Jenny told one nine-year-old while Audrey kept his mother occupied. The nine-year-old nodded, his eyes bright and alert. Behind him, on a cracked leather sofa, a girl of four or five was sitting with a dog-eared book on her lap.

"That's Nori. She can't really read yet."

"I can, too." Tilting her face toward the book, although her eyes still remained on her brother, Nori said, "Then Little Red Riding Hood says, 'Grandma, what big eyes you have.' Then the wolf says, 'The better to see you with, my dear.'"

Jenny smiled at her, then turned back to the boy. "So if you see it or the white box, don't touch it, but call the number on the flyer and leave a message for me."

"… Grandma, what big ears you have… ."

"I'll know what you mean if you say, 'I've found it.'"

The boy nodded again. He understood about things like clues and secret messages.

"… The better to hear you with, my dear. …"

"Or if one of your friends knows about a girl with dark hair that was good friends with P.C. Serrani-"

"… Grandma, what big teeth you have…."

Audrey was finished with the mother. Jenny gave the boy a quick touch on the shoulder and turned to the door.

"… The better to EAT you with, my dear!" Nori shrieked suddenly, bolting up on the couch. Jenny whirled-and dropped her flyers. Nori was standing, eyes wide, mouth pulled into a grimace. For an instant Jenny saw, not a child, but a small, misshapen goblin.

Then the mother cried, "Nori!" and Jenny was jerked back to reality. She felt herself turn red as she gathered the flyers.

Nori began to giggle. Jenny apologized. The mother scolded. Finally they got out of the house.

"I am never going to have children," Audrey said, outside.

They kept going. Some people were friendly, others were rude. A shirtless man laughed unkindly when they started the spiel about Summer and rasped, "Did you check the mall?" Almost all of them already had heard about the missing girl.

Dinnertime came and went. They called their parents to say they'd be out for a little longer, while it was still light.

Jenny glanced sideways at Audrey, a little surprised. Audrey wasn't the suffering-in-silence type. Jenny had expected to have to cajole her to stay out this long.

There was a lot more to Audrey than her glamour-magazine exterior let on.

They came to a street where a lot of kids were playing. Jenny recognized the white-blond head of the one covering his eyes against a tree. It was Summer's ten-year-old brother.

"Cam!" she said, startled. He didn't hear her. He went on counting, leaning on his folded arms. Other kids were scattering, hiding in open garages, behind bushes, in ivy. Jenny recognized two more of them. One was Dee's little sister, Kiah, the other was her own younger brother, Joey.

They came to play with Cam after dinner, she realized. It was a long way for Kiah, even on a bike.

"What are they playing?" Audrey asked.

"It looks like cops and robbers." At Audrey's blank expression Jenny remembered. Audrey had grown up in every place but America; her father was with the diplomatic corps. If he hadn't retired early, she wouldn't be in California now.

"It's a chase game. You capture the robbers and take them back to your home base as prisoners. Hey,

watch out!" Jenny caught a small figure that had erupted out of the nearby ivy, tripped, and gone flying. It was Kiah, and Cam was close on her heels.

Kiah looked up. She was never going to be tall like Dee, but she had Dee's fine bones and wild, leaping beauty. Cam had hair like dandelion fluff, even lighter than Summer's. It made him look oddly defenseless, although Jenny knew he was a tough kid.

Unlike Summer, who hadn't had a tough sinew in her, Jenny thought. Summer had been as fragile as spun glass.

Ever since the night of the Game, Jenny's emotions had been like boats bumping at a thick canvas barrier-cut off from her but still nudging. But suddenly, at the sight of Cam, they burst through. Grief for Summer. Guilt. Tears filled her eyes.

What on earth could she say to him? "I'm sorry" was so inadequate it was pathetic.

Other kids were coming out of hiding at the sight of Audrey and Jenny, gathering around curiously. Jenny still couldn't speak. Audrey came to the rescue, improvising.

"So what are you playing?"

"Lambs and monsters," Cam said. "I'm the monster."

"Oh. So how do you play it?"

Kiah spoke up. "If you're a lamb you hide, and then the monster comes looking for you. And if he tags you, then you're captured and you have to go back to the monster lair. And you have to stay there until another lamb comes and lets you out-"

"Or until the monster eats you," Cam put in harshly.

Kiah's eyes flashed. "But he can't eat you until he's got all the lambs there. Ev-er-y sin-gle one."

Cops and robbers, Jenny thought. With only one cop and lots of robbers. The new name seemed a little savage, though, and so did the look in Cam-the-monster's eyes. God, I wonder what it must be like for him at home, she thought.

"Cam," she said. His hard blue eyes fixed on her. "Cam, did your parents tell you what we said happened to Summer?"

He nodded tightly.

"Well-" Jenny had a feeling that Aba might not approve of what she was going to do next. But all these kids knew Cam, they cared. Jenny felt more of a connection here than she had anywhere else.

"Well-I know it sounds crazy. I know your mom and dad don't believe it. But, Cam, it was the truth. We didn't hurt Summer, and we didn't mean to let anybody else hurt her. You just don't know how sorry-" The tears spilled suddenly, embarrassingly. Cam looked away and Jenny tried to get a grip on herself.

"And what we're doing now is trying to stop the person who hurt her from hurting anybody else," she whispered, feeling stupidly like somebody on TV- "America's Most Wanted."

Joey had joined the group and was flushed to his yellow hair roots with the humiliation of having a teenage sister bawling on the sidewalk. But Cam's tight look eased slightly.

"You mean all that stuff kids are saying about you guys looking for a cardboard house is true?"

"Are they saying that? Good." It's working, Jenny thought. The junior grapevine. There was something heartening in these kids' expressions. They weren't closed off like adults, but open, interested, speculative. "Listen," she said. "We're still looking for that house, and now we're looking for something else. A girl who was friends with P.C. Serrani." For the hundredth time that day she described the Crying Girl.

The kids listened.

"We really, really want to talk to her," Jenny said.

Then she explained why. Why they needed the girl and why they needed the house. She explained, more or less, about Julian. A watered-down version, but the truth.

When she finished, she let out a long breath-and saw something like determination coalescing in the steady young gazes. They'd weighed her claims, and they were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Even Joey, who'd been running away from her for the last two weeks, looked halfway convinced.

"We'll look for the girl tomorrow," he said briefly. "We'll talk to kids who've got, like, brothers or sisters in junior high. Because they might know her."

"Exactly!" Jenny said, pleased. She spared him the humiliation of being kissed by his sister in public. "Just be careful. If you see the paper house, do not touch it."

The last traces of doubt were wiped from the young faces, and there were grim nods. Her urgency had gotten through. She felt as if she'd recruited a team of small private detectives.

"Thanks," she said, and, feeling it was time for a judicious retreat, she gestured Audrey toward the next house.

"One more game," somebody behind her said, and somebody else said, "But who's going to be It?"

"Cam, unless he can guess who puts the eye in," Kiah's sweet voice fluted. On the doorstep Jenny glanced toward the street.

Cam was turned around, undergoing some elaborate ritual for picking the next It. "I draw a snake upon your back," Kiah chanted, tracing a wiggly shape. "Who will put in the eye?"

Somebody lunged forward and poked Cam between the shoulder blades. "Courtney!" Cam shouted.

"Wrong! You're the monster again!"

The door opened to Audrey's knocking. "Yes?"

Jenny tried to tear her attention from the game. Something about it… and about that snake thing … were all children's games that gruesome? And their stories? The better to eat you with, my dear….

Maybe kids know something adults don't know, Jenny thought, chilled, as a lady asked them into the house.

When they came out, the sky was periwinkle blue and losing its color to the east. The light was fading. The street was empty.

Good, Jenny thought, glad that Joey was on his way home-maybe even home by now.

"Want to finish this block?" Audrey said, surprising her.

"I-sure. Why not?"

They worked their way down one side of the street and up the other. Jenny could feel herself getting more and more perfunctory at each house. The sky was now midnight blue and the light had gone. She didn't know why, but she was starting to feel anxious.

"Let's stop here," she said when there were still three more houses to go. "I think we should be getting back now."

The midnight blue slowly turned to black. The streetlights seemed far apart, and Jenny was reminded suddenly of the little islands of light in Zach's nightmare. A nightmare where a hunter had chased them through endless darkness.

"Hey, wait up!" Audrey protested.

Jenny grabbed her arm. "No, you hurry up. Come on, Audrey, we have to get back to the car."

"What do you mean? What's wrong with you?

"I don't know. We just have to get back!" A primitive warning was going off in Jenny's brain. A warning from the time when girls took skin bags to get water, she thought wildly, remembering something she'd sensed with Julian. A time when panthers walked in the darkness outside mud huts. When darkness was the greatest danger of all.

"Jenny, this is just so totally unlike you! If there was anything to be scared about, I'd be scared of it," Audrey said, resisting as Jenny dragged her along. "You're the one who always used to go off into the bad parts of town-"

"Yes, and look where it got me!" Jenny said. Her heart was pounding, her breath coming fast. "Come on!"

"-and I hate to tell you, but I can't run in these shoes. They've been killing me for hours now."

The flickering streetlight showed Audrey's tight Italian pumps. "Oh, Audrey, why didn't you say something?" Jenny said in dismay. Something made her jerk her head around, looking behind her. Something rustled in the oleanders.

Where everyone else only sees a wind in the grass, or a shadow…

"Audrey, take your shoes off. Now!"

"I can't run barefoot-"

"Audrey, there is something behind us. We have to get out of here, fast. Now, come on!" She was pulling Audrey again almost before Audrey had gotten the pumps off. Walking as fast as she could without running. If you run, they chase you, she thought wildly. But she wanted to run.

Because there was something back there. She could hear the tiny sounds. It was tracking them, behind the hedge of overgrown bushes on her right. She could feel it watching them.

Maybe it's Cam or one of the other kids, she thought, but she knew it wasn't. Whatever it was, she knew in her heart that it wanted to hurt them.

It was moving quickly, lightly, keeping pace with them, maybe twenty feet back. "Audrey, hurry___"

Instead, Audrey stopped dead. Jenny could just make out her look of fear as she stood, listening.

"Oh, God, there is something!"

The rustling was closer.

We should have run for a house, Jenny realized. Her one thought had been to get to the car. But now they had passed the last houses before the school grounds, and Audrey's car was too far ahead. They weren't going to make it.

"Come on!" Don't run don't run don't run, the hammering inside Jenny said. But her feet, clammy in their summery mesh loafers, wanted to pound down the sidewalk.

It was gaining on them.

It can't be a persona person would show above those hedges, Jenny thought, casting a look behind her. Suddenly Jenny's brain showed her a terrible picture: little Nori scurrying along spiderlike behind the bushes, her face contorted in a grimace.

Don't run don't run don't run …

The car was ahead, looking black instead of red in the darkness beyond a streetlight. Jenny seemed to hear eerily rapid breath behind her.

Dontrundontrundontrundontrun …

"Get the keys," she gasped. "Get the keys, Audrey-"

Here was the car. But the rustling was right beside Jenny now, just on the other side of the hedge. It was going to come through the hedge, she thought. Right through the hedge and grab her… .

Audrey was fumbling in her purse. She'd dropped her shoes. Jenny grabbed the car door handle.

"Audrey!" she cried, rattling it.

Audrey flung the contents of her purse on the sidewalk. She scattered the pile with a desperate hand, seized the keys.

"Audrey! Get it open!" Jenny watched in agony as Audrey ran to the driver's side of the car, leaving the contents of her purse scattered.

But it was too late. There was a crashing in the hedge directly behind Jenny.

At the same moment a dark shape reared up from the shadows on the sidewalk in front of her.