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7

11:24 p.m.

DARKLING MANOR

Rex was pissed. You didnt have to be a mindcaster to know that.

He stared glumly out the window, watching the houses flash by, his mind tasting of stomach acid and day-old Mountain Dew, the flavor of betrayal with a topping of wounded authority.

As for Melissa, she didnt much care that Rex was angry. It was far better than having to feel his pity.

She still felt the tingle in her right hand, as if the flaking plastic of the Fords steering wheel were buzzing under it. The touch hadnt been so bad, really. A little mindless maelstrom never hurt anybody, and just before the end shed felt some kind of release, something shared between them that wasnt just night terrors and cosmic angst. Something she wanted to try for again.

But then Loverboy had to freak out. Like there was any reason to get all upset about the psychodrama that was her existence. Melissa figured that was just the way things were. And she had managed to give him the memory, one little token of communication amidst the crap-storm. That was something, at least.

I still dont get it, he said.

She sighed. He never would.

Why hadnt she told him? The reasons all seemed to splinter as she thought of them, dividing into more and more because she hadnt been really sure shed heard it. Because you couldnt get upset about every stray thought. Because Jessica Day wasnt her problem anyway.

Nevertheless, he knew now. And shed given the knowledge to him in a way that was more interesting than just telling him. Funnyshe hated seeing other people hold hands in school, their thoughts all syrupy and self-involved. But with Rex it hadnt seemed so bad.

Maybe next time he wouldnt freak out.

Melissas mind wandered again, opening itself wide to catch the dreams and nightmares of sleeping Bixby. Hardly anyone awake, even before midnight. (What a loser-magnet this town was.) Most of the conscious minds were locked into TV shows. Hundreds of psyches spread across town were all laughing at the same jokes at the same time like goose-stepping circus clowns. Sometimes on Thursday nights Melissa had to suffer through all of Bixby yucking in tandem to the latest hit sitcom or mindlessly sweating out the million-dollar finale of some so-called reality show. She shuddered. Only four months until the dreaded Super Bowl.

Didnt any of these brainless wonders ever notice that TV shows were called programs? The same word that meant a bunch of numbers stuck into a computer to make it dance for its masters?

Melissa snorted, realizing shed borrowed that last image from Desss brain. The girl was working on some secret project, her little hamster wheels spinning so fast that Melissa could smell the smoke at midnight. Soon she and Rex were going to have to sit Miss Polymath down and ask her exactly what she was up to.

She glanced at Rex. Because keeping secrets was wrong, wasnt it?

A fragment of a thought struck her, and Melissa slowed the car.

Nothing in the content, but something about the flavor made her replay the words in her head

We cant be late.

Probably just someone racing to get home, trying to catch some movie on cable for the dozenth time. But there was something about the mind, as familiar as the smell of last years homeroom.

Catch something? Rex asked.

Maybe.

She took the next left, through a stone gate and into a plantation of McMansions, giant new cookie-cutter houses stamped onto tiny lots just out of the reach of Tulsa property taxes. The thought had come from in here, she was positive.

No one seemed to be awake; half the houses still hadnt been moved into. She could see the curtainless windows and feel the empty rooms behind them. Ugly as they were, Melissa dreamed of living in a house like these one dayunstained by years of human habitation, no sleepless worries seeping out of the walls, no residue of ancient petty arguments.

Most of the people whod already moved into the complex were fast asleep, their dreams as smooth and interchangeable as the manicured front lawns.

Then she felt it again and gripped the wheel hard. Melissa knew it was the one, the same mind that had thought so intensely a week ago, We must have Jessica Day.

Whatre you?

Shush!

It was already slipping away, moving fast across the empty psychic terrain.

Crap! It was in a car. (He was in a cara male, she could tell suddenly.) The tendrils of his mind trailed away like a condensation cloud behind a jet plane. I tasted him, Rex. But hes driving.

Which way?

I dont know. She shook her head; the last traces were fading. She brought the car to a halt. He was around here somewhere.

Same guy?

Melissa nodded. And were only about a mile from where I heard him the first time. But we just missed him, running off to something he was late for. Want to look around some more?

Sure. Rexs glasses were off, and he was staring at the overgrown houses. There are signs here. Focus.

She took her foot off the brake, eased back onto the road.

Really? In this place? Sure, they were close to the desert, but Melissa couldnt imagine darklings taking an interest in this development, full of shiny new fixtures and stainless steel sprinkler systems. But the marks that Rex could see lingered longer than darkling mind traces, so there was no point arguing. She drove the car slowly along the meandering streets, keeping her mind watchful for cops or private security guards. Her old Ford stuck out here like a helping of dog turd on angel food cake.

It was good to feel Rexs mind at work, clear and pure as he looked for signs of Focus. In his excitement he had forgiven her slight against his authority, too intoxicated by his seers powers to hold a grudge. In some ways he was still the kid shed rescued from solitude eight years before, enthralled by the mysteries of midnight, driven by his need to know more. Melissa was sure they would hold hands again soon.

Stop, he whispered. Melissa halted the car, feeling the buzz of his excitement.

The house he was staring at looked like all the others, two-storied and big-windowed, an overpowering double garage presented proudly to the world.

I wish you could see this, Cowgirl. Its so Focused. Theyve been crawling all over it.

She let her mind drift in through its big front door. The place had hardly any human taste at all. No one home. And if anyone lives there, they havent for very long.

Darkling Manor, Rex said quietly. Not a clean brick on the joint.

She looked at her watch. Twenty to midnight. Well, shall we take a look before the witching hour?

What about your friend?

He was headed somewhere in a hurry She tasted the air. Long gone.

Okay. But ten minutes max. We should be back in the car and a couple of miles from here before midnight comes. He shook his head. Dont want to be crashers at a darkling house party.


The door was unlocked.

Thats interesting. Melissa pushed it open, its new hinges utterly silent. The entrance hallway was grand and echoey, no rugs to muffle the sound of their boots across the polished wooden floor. No anything, she realized. The walls were bare of pictures, and no shoes or hanging coats cluttered the foyer. The two large front rooms were empty except for a portable phone. It sat lonely on a windowsill, its cord winding across the blank expanse of carpet, a demonic red eye showing that it was recharging.

And the place tasted completely dead. Not a leftover thought anywhere. Even the dull roar of central Bixby miles away seemed muted by its walls.

Nothing to steal, I guess, she said.

But lots of darkling action. Rex was looking up the stairs, into corners. Just like outside, its all in Focus.

Maybe its some kind of darkling frat house.

Ive never seen them set up shop in a human dwelling before. Maybe a tire yard or a vacant lot, but not a house. Of course, nobody lives here.

No, Melissa said, but the darklings arent paying the phone bill

Rex chewed his lip. Good point.

In the kitchen they found signs of habitation. Or maybe vandalism. The faucet had been yanked out from the sink, the handles of the cupboards torn off, every piece of metal removed. There were no appliances, and the lightbulb hung bare from the ceiling.

A darkling-friendly kitchen. What do they eat, anyway?

Rex just looked at her, sending out a stab of annoyance.

Oh, right. Us. Melissa didnt think about it in those terms much, but that was and always had been the prime source of conflict between the two races: the whole foodchain thing. Funny how that could mess up a relationship.

Lets check upstairs, Rex said, having gone through the drawers and cupboards and found them empty.

She checked her watch. Okay. But five minutes and we leave.

He turned his head slowly from left to right as they climbed the stairs, his eyes wide with the Focus. Absolutely.

Upstairs was divided into three empty bedrooms, the largest with a big balcony that looked out into the dark Oklahoma night. Melissa stared through the sliding door and realized something. She pulled off a glove and put her hand to the cold glass.

You know, Rex, its warm in here. Outside it was almost freezing, but someone had left the heating on, though they hadnt bothered to lock the door

Look at this! he cried, his mind flooding the room with delight.

He had pulled something from a closet, a box of small rectangular tiles that glowed white in the darkness. He squatted on the floor and dumped them out with a clatter. As his hands swept through the tiles to spread them out, she recognized the wooden sound.

Didnt know you liked dominoes so much, she said dryly.

Not dominoes. Rex was flipping them all faceup. He hadnt put on his glasses, so they must have been marked with Focus.

She knelt beside him and squinted at the symbols on the tiles. They were the spindly figures of lore, the secret alphabet used to record midnighter history for ten thousand years.

Oh. The thought that anyone besides Rex would use the ancient signs left her speechless for a moment.

But theyre not quite the same, he muttered. Its like a slightly different alphabet

Melissa didnt respond. She steadied herself with one hand on the floor. The feel of him parsing the symbols was dizzying; his mind battered hers with a frenzy of calculation.

Or maybe some of them are signs I dont know, he said, picking through them, lifting one for closer inspection. Symbols for concepts that dont exist in the lore.

Melissa forced her mind to shut out his mental pyrotechnics. But what are those things for, Rex?

The question brought his brain to a spinning halt. I dont know.

She thought of the stiffs they often found at the snake pit, frozen while staring at the piles of rocks that Bixby legend held would move at midnight. (Of course, sometimes Melissa moved them herself, just for funand to terrify the little trespassing morons.)

Could someone use them to communicate with the darklings? she asked.

That doesnt make any sense. Darklings hate symbols and signs, any written language. Thats one of the new ideas that scared them off ten thousand years ago, along with math and fire and metal.

But Rex, youve got your glasses off.

I what? He put one hand to his face. Melissa realized that Rex had momentarily forgotten he wasnt wearing the thick lenses. The house was so marked with Focus that he could see everything clearly anyway.

So darklings have touched these, he murmured, a few of the dominoes slipping through his fingers. But how?

Rex A familiar taste was penetrating the overwhelming clamor of Rexs excitement. What time is it?

He checked his watch. Youre right. We should go soon. Just let me grab a few of these

Rex! It wasnt impending midnight that had her worried; it was something shed felt before, and it was rushing back toward them. The voice seemed to suddenly crack through the psychic silence of the house.

Were just going to make it, no thanks to you, Angie.

Her head spun, trying to sort Rexs mental turmoil from the approaching thoughts. They came through grim and determined, angry at some inconvenience, and, most of all, anxious.

Its him she whispered.

Who?

Keep it on the road, idiot. Were almost there.

She recognized the exact kind of fear now; it was of a type familiar from a thousand school mornings. There was always at least one mind trailing in after everyone else had settled into their desks, rushing along panicked at the thought of punishment. That was what she tasted: fear of being late.

He was in a hurry when he left, she muttered, but he was in a hurry to get back by midnight?

The guy you heard?

Yes! We have to get out of here now. She stood, still dizzy. For some reason, mindcasting in this house was like walking through syrup.

Rex was scraping at the tiles, trying to return them all to the box.

There isnt time! She tasted the mans bitter curses as he twisted at the steering wheel, felt his body sway on the quick turns, heard the skidding of tires

Rex looked up. Hed heard the tires too.

Headlights crawled across the ceiling, and a screech came from the driveway.

Hes here, she said, too late.

Dont worry about him, Rex said, taking her gloved hand softly as he checked his watch. We only have to stay hidden for four minutes. Its whats coming after midnight that worries me.


They shoved the darkling dominoes back into the closet and crept to one of the smaller bedrooms. Hopefully the man wouldnt poke around the empty house with so little time remaining before midnight. Rex pointed to a wide, shallow wardrobe with sliding doors.

The sound of the front door opening carried up the stairs just as they made it into the darkness of the wardrobe. Melissa felt Rex breathing hard next to her, off balance as he tried to avoid touching her accidentally. She slipped her other glove back on and steadied him with that hand, whispering, Relax. Let me concentrate.

Rexs mind calmed, and she could feel now that there were two of them downstairs, the man and Angie. The woman radiated only calm; no wonder shed been invisible to Melissa before now.

Youre lucky we made it, came the mans muffled voice, his footsteps audible on the stairs.

Melissa controlled her breathing. The way sound echoed through the empty house, one bump against the wardrobe door and theyd be discovered.

I didnt ask to break down. Next time I wont bother to call you. Her voice was low and controlled, not out of breath like his. Her mind held none of his fear of being late. Melissa felt the woman check her watcha burst of satisfaction as she confirmed that everything was on schedule. Now that they were inside the house, Melissa could taste them clearly.

Promises, promises, the guy shouted from the master bathroom. A rush of release filled his brain just as the trickling sound of piss reached Melissas ears. She shuddered at the intimacy.

Like you could handle this on your own, the woman said in a voice so soft that it mostly reached Melissa as thought. She had a lock on Angies mind now: it was saturated with a sickly sweet contempt for the man. Angie didnt need him here in the first placehe could barely interpret lore symbols, couldnt see the big picture, was always lugging around his stupid camera, which of course never captured the spooks anyway. If he wasnt related to the patriarch

The womans mind grew closer, her slow footsteps carrying her through the upstairs hall. She came to a halt just outside the room theyd hidden in.

Did we really need this big a house?

Rexs shoulder muscles tightened under Melissas grip, his mind clouding hers with a wave of fear. Relax, she willed him.

Location, location, location, the man said. Thats all the spooks care about. Anyway, if this field is as big as they say, we should make about a hundred times what this cracker box cost.

The woman took one more step into the room and flicked on a light. A blinding wedge of illumination forced its way through the crack between the wardrobes double doors. Melissa squinted, feeling as if the light was slicing her in half from top to bottom. Rex had stopped breathing.

Melissa closed her eyes, trying to tease from the womans mind what she was thinking, why she was staring at the closet door. But Rexs terror drowned out those smooth, collected thoughts.

Come on, Angie! Thirty seconds.

The woman didnt move. Melissa made a fist with her free hand. One solid punch to the gut would put anyone down for half a minute. Long enough.

Angie!

Finally the footsteps retreated, quick and determined now. Melissa heard the clatter of dominoes being spilled in the other room, felt anticipation growing in the two intruders as relief flooded through Rex.

And then, seconds later, always glorious

Silence.


6 11:02 p.m. TOUCH | Touching Darkness | 8 12:00 a.m. HALFLING



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