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2:42 p.m.


The house didnt look like much. It squatted in darkness, out of repair and covered with twisting vines, shaded from the afternoon sun by the mushroom cloud of willow tree that dominated the front yard.

Dess looked at Geostationary again. This was the place. In fact, the equations that had led her here should have been obvious all along. Once shed realized it was a base-sixty thing, the math had been easy.

Back in advanced algebra the year before, Mr. Sanchez had taught them how to convert into base two (turning regular numbers into ones and zeros), all the while claiming that this knowledge was going to get them computer jobs one day. Yeah, right. A few more machines in the Bixby High computer lab mightve helped more.

But Dess always humored Sanchez, and practicing new bases was a pleasant distraction. It had kept her brain busy back in the days before Jessica Day had come along to keep everyone busy all the time.

After mastering binary (which had taken about 256 seconds), Dess had tackled base sixty because there were sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour. So Dess had it down cold that, for example, 2:31 A.M. was 9,060 seconds after midnight.

Of course, what would you do with that bit of trivia?

The answer had come when shed started playing with her fathers oil-drilling maps two Fridays ago. All of the secret hour lay within a single degree of longitude and latitude, the twelve-riddled 36 north by 96 west. But degrees, it turned out, were sort of like hours. They were divided into sixty minutes, and each of those minutes was divided into sixty seconds. That had been the big revelation: if coordinates used the same math as time, then the place where the secret hour happened could be sliced up into minutes and seconds, just like the hour itself.

Looking back, Dess knew she should have realized this before now.

From the mountains beyond Rustles Bottom, she had often watched midnight roll in. Like dawn, it swept from east to west, carried by the rotation of the earth. And like dawn, it didnt hit in a perfectly straight line. There were bumps and ripples in midnights arrival.

But the shadows that convoluted the secret hour werent cast by mountain peaks or water towers. They were actually cast by numbers. All you had to do was start seeing the minutes and seconds that lay in a grid across the streets of Bixby, and it was obvious where the turbulence would arise.

Dess put Geostationary in the pocket of her coat, got off her bike, and pulled off her sunglasses. She was breathing hard. The moment her brain had finished the calculations, shed practically run out of the school building, skipping last period and riding her bike here at about fifty miles an hour.

Now, though, Dess found herself in no hurry to approach the house. What sort of person would live in a spot like this? Just some random Bixbyite who couldnt afford anything better? Or something worse, like a coven of darkling groupies?

But then she noticed the thirteen-pointed star mounted next to the door and felt a lot better. Realtors always told new arrivals in Bixby that in the old days, the plaques showed which houses had fire insurance. This was only a half lie. The tridecagrams were insurance, all right, but not against infernos.

The star was a good sign. She couldnt imagine darkling groupies leaving a tridecagram stuck onto their house. Her eyes hunted for more reassurances and easily found them: the walkway was thirty-nine flagstones long, the chimney 169 bricks high. Perhaps this run-down shack had once been the headquarters of that Ladies Anti-Tenebrosity League that Rex was always talking about.

Dess started to lean her bike against the old willow. But then she saw the marks and froze.

A foot long and at least an inch deep, three parallel gouges had been cut into the thick bark. Giant claws had swept through the old willow, like carpet knives lacerating flesh. The yellow-green sap had welled up like blood and congealed. Judging from the size of the claws, the Wound had come from a very old darkling of the saber-toothed variety.

She touched the marks; still sticky. She didnt need Rex to tell her this had happened recently probably within the last two weeks.

Dess swallowed, the thought flooding through her again that she really shouldnt have come here alone. This place could be hiding anything.

A few moments after Jonathan had handed her the captured coordinates of Darkling Manor, the pattern of minutes and seconds had coalesced in Desss mind. She understood now why Melissa had never spotted the unspeakable transactions taking place out in Las Colonias. There were dead zones in Bixby, places where midnights arrival threw up imperfections, like bubbles trapped in Lucite. There Melissas ability was useless, the shape of frozen time itself too tangled for her mind to penetrate. When Dess had done the math, the numbers on her new toy had led her here.

Right in the middle of the suburbs, not that far from where Jessica lived, this house squatted on the deadest of the dead zones.

Dess stood there for a while, trying to get her teeth to grip the worn-down nubs of her fingernails. Finally, though, she grimaced and let her bike fall against the tree It was broad daylight; no darklings lay in wait. And the thirteen-pointed star showed that one of the good guys had made this his home back in olden times. Dess had worked for days trying to understand how coordinates bent the rippled surface of midnight, and this discovery was hers to make. Alone.

She walked up the path.

The house was standing open behind a closed screen door. Dess pressed a button hanging from the door frame by a single screw, but nothing happened. Lowering her sunglasses to squint through the crumpled and pitted screen, she made a fist to knock.

Out of the darkness, a pale face peered back at her.

They stared at each other for a moment. The old woman was wrapped in a dark red nightgown, worn so thin that it shifted in the barely perceptible breeze that pushed past Dess and through the door. The womans eyes were wide open, the whites glowing in the darkness, but her expression showed more curiosity than fear.

Come in, she said. Its taken you long enough.

14 12:00 a.m. ACARICIANDOTE | Touching Darkness | 16 2:54 p.m. AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIAL