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26

9:54 p.m.

SPONTANEOUSLY MACHIAVELLIAN DECEITFULNESS

Melissa couldnt wait to get to Rexs and taste his calm presence beside her in the car. Friday nights were the best time to drive out toward the desert, leaving behind the collective frenzy of Bixby wondering why it wasnt having fun. At least on school nights most of them would be headed for bed by now, not driving around half drunk looking for distractions that didnt exist.

But when Melissa pulled up outside the run-down house, she couldnt feel Rex inside.

She glanced at her watch and honked the horn.

Come on, Loverboy. Its not that cold. Usually he was Outside waiting, five minutes early or not.

The black, sagging bulk of the house remained motionless.

She honked again. Christ, its dark on this street.

The risen moon glimmered across the shingled roof, but there wasnt a single light on inside, and some redneck had shot out the streetlight overhead. Had Rex fallen asleep?

Loser, she muttered, switching off the engine and opening her door.

Walking up the path, Melissa caught the flicker of a TV inside. Great, the old man was awake. Shed thought Rex was going to ice him, like he usually did for important expeditions. Stalkers, mysterious runways, and the halflingthey had enough on their plate without aging psychos getting in the way.

She reached for the bell but paused. The knob hung slackly from the door, as if the last shred of the houses spirit had finally fled, leaving behind only broken bones. It spun loosely in her hand, the door swinging inward at the slightest pressure.

A chill began to crawl up Melissas spine. The cold metal tasted of nervous excitement, acrid as the smoke of a charcoal fire laced with too much lighter fluid.

Hello?

Her midnighter eyes could see perfectly in the TV flicker. Rexs dad was sprawled grotesquely in his chair, mouth open and drooling. There was an odd smell coming from hima real one, not in her mind. It was sharp and chemical, like paint thinner. She could hear the old man snoring softly.

Melissa walked quickly past, toward Rexs room, keeping her hands in her pockets. The bathroom window was open at the other end of the darkened hall, filling the house with damp cold and the icy glint of moonlight.

Rex? she called hesitantly. If the old man wasnt dosed, she didnt want to wake him. But she wanted an answer, some sort of noise from Rex before she opened his room door. She still couldnt feel him yet, which was wrong. His taste should be on her tongue now that she was this far inside the house. His mind always came through clearest, as if he had his own channel.

Unless he was in a deep, dreamless sleep. Or else was Melissa pushed at his bedroom door with her foot, hands balled into fists in her pockets.

The room was a jumble of black shapes, piled papers, and mounds of clothes, bookshelves pressing in at her from every wall.

But the bed was empty, a tangle of white sheets glowing in the darkness, and Rexs backpack was gone from where it always hung on the back of his desk chair.

Maybe hed already split, some frantic phone call from him just missing her. But what emergency could have dragged him away from the work they had to do tonight? And in whose car?

She stepped into the room, pulling her hands out into the cold air, spreading her fingers to feel the cluttered resonances of the space.

A plaintive whine came from the doorway behind her, a blur of soft, inquisitive thoughts carrying hunger and annoyance.

Come here, Dag. Melissa knelt, her long dress gathering in a velvet pool around her, and reached out her hand. Daguerreotype padded to just within reach and then began licking her fingers. The cats mind tasted uneasy, as if his tiny kingdom had been invaded, and recently enough that his fuzzy little brain hadnt yet smoothed over again.

Melissa rose from her crouch, tasting the air. Something biting and anxious came from the desk. She made her way through the disorder, spotting the source of the taste glimmering in a patch of moonlight.

Spontaneously Machiavellian Deceitfulness waited for her there, splitting the wood of the desk. Shed given it to Rex the week before school starteda letter opener, that silly inter-section between knives and office supplies.

Her hand closed on it, and a shadow cast of his mind rushed into herspanicked and fearful, hunted in his own home, certain of an awful fate if he were caught. They were here, already inside, creeping through the darkness to surround and take him. The emotions boiled off the thin piece of metal quickly, and then it was cold again, but they left no doubt in her mind.

Melissa pulled her hand away and moaned.

The groupies had him, her Rex, and tonight the darklings would turn him into one of them.


25 8:44 p.m. DOMAIN OF SPIDERS | Touching Darkness | 27 10:19 p.m. WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION



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