Principal The House in the Cerulean Sea
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Andrea K Arnette
How disgusting! These books should come with warning labels
24 December 2020 (10:22)
Andrea, what are you even talking about? Hard to take you seriously when you don't even specify what was so bad.
28 December 2020 (00:46)
Is this book a bad read?
13 January 2021 (19:24)
Absolutely fabulous and charming. Will keep you laughing till the very end and also in tears
20 February 2021 (05:22)
Loved the book! Not many days you'll find such a good book like this!
12 March 2021 (01:43)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page Thank you for buying this Tom Doherty Associates ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce, or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. For those who have been with me since the beginning: look at what we’ve made. Thank you. ONE “Oh dear,” Linus Baker said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is most unusual.” That was an understatement. He watched in rapt wonder as an eleven-year-old girl named Daisy levitated blocks of wood high above her head. The blocks spun in slow, concentric circles. Daisy frowned in concentration, the tip of her tongue stuck out between her teeth. It went on for a good minute before the blocks slowly lowered to the floor. Her level of control was astounding. “I see,” Linus said, furiously scribbling on his pad of paper. They were in the master’s office, a tidy room with government-issued brown carpet and old furniture. The walls were lined with terrible paintings of lemurs in various poses. The master had showed them off proudly, telling Linus painting was her passion, and that if she hadn’t become the master of this specific orphanage, she’d be traveling with a circus as a lemur trainer or even have opened up a gallery to share her artwork w; ith the world. Linus believed the world was better off with the paintings staying in this room, but he kept the thought to himself. He wasn’t there to engage in amateur art criticism. “And how often do you—er, you know? Make things float?” The master of the orphanage, a squat woman with frizzy hair, stepped forward. “Oh, not often at all,” she said quickly. She wrung her hands, eyes darting back and forth. “Perhaps once or twice … a year?” Linus coughed. “A month,” the woman amended. “Silly me. I don’t know why I said a year. Slip of the tongue. Yes, once or twice a month. You know how it is. The older the children get, the more they … do things.” “Is that right?” Linus asked Daisy. “Oh yes,” Daisy said. “Once or twice a month, and no more.” She smiled beatifically at him, and Linus wondered if she’d been coached on her answers before his arrival. It wouldn’t be the first time it’d happened, and he doubted it’d be the last. “Of course,” Linus said. They waited as his pen continued to scratch along the paper. He could feel their gazes on him, but he kept his focus on his words. Accuracy demanded attention. He was nothing but thorough, and his visit to this particular orphanage had been enlightening, to say the least. He needed to jot down as many details as he could to complete his final report once he returned to the office. The master fussed over Daisy, pulling her unruly black hair back, fixing it in place with plastic butterfly clips. Daisy was staring forlornly at her blocks on the floor as if she wished they were levitating once more, her bushy eyebrows twitching. “Do you have control over it?” Linus asked. Before Daisy could open her mouth, the master said, “Of course she does. We’d never allow her to—” Linus held up his hand. “I would appreciate, madam, if I could hear from Daisy herself. While I have no doubt you have her best interests in mind, I find that children such as Daisy here tend to be more … forthright.” The master looked to speak again until Linus arched an eyebrow. She sighed as she nodded, taking a step back from Daisy. After scribbling a final note, Linus capped his pen and set it and the pad of paper back in his briefcase. He stood from his chair and crouched down before Daisy, knees groaning in protest. Daisy gnawed on her bottom lip, eyes wide. “Daisy? Do you have control over it?” She nodded slowly. “I think so? I haven’t hurt anyone since I was brought here.” Her mouth twisted down. “Not until Marcus. I don’t like hurting people.” He could almost believe that. “No one said you did. But sometimes, we can’t always control the … gifts we’re given. And it’s not necessarily the fault of those with said gifts.” That didn’t seem to make her feel better. “Then whose fault is it?” Linus blinked. “Well, I suppose there are all sorts of factors. Modern research suggests extreme emotional states can trigger instances such as yours. Sadness. Anger. Even happiness. Perhaps you were so happy, you accidentally threw a chair at your friend Marcus?” It was the reason he’d been sent here in the first place. Marcus had been seen in hospital in order to have his tail looked after. It’d been bent at an odd angle, and the hospital had reported it directly to the Department in Charge of Magical Youth as they were required to do. The report triggered an investigation, which was why Linus had been assigned to this particular orphanage. “Yes,” Daisy said. “That’s exactly it. Marcus made me so happy when he stole my colored pencils that I accidentally threw a chair at him.” “I see,” Linus said. “Did you apologize?” She looked down at her blocks again, shuffling her feet. “Yes. And he said he wasn’t mad. He even sharpened my pencils for me before he gave them back. He’s better at it than I am.” “What a thoughtful thing to do,” Linus said. He thought about reaching out and patting her on the shoulder, but it wasn’t proper. “And I know you didn’t mean him any harm, not really. Perhaps in the future, we will stop and think before we let our emotions get the better of us. How does that sound?” She nodded furiously. “Oh yes. I promise to stop and think before I throw any more chairs with nothing but the power of my mind.” Linus sighed. “I don’t think that’s quite what I—” A bell rang from somewhere deep in the old house. “Biscuits,” Daisy breathed before running toward the door. “Only one,” the master called after her. “You don’t want to spoil your supper!” “I won’t!” Daisy shouted back before slamming the door behind her. Linus could hear the little pitter-patter of her footsteps as she raced down the hall toward the kitchen. “She will,” the master muttered, slumping down in her chair behind her desk. “She always does.” “I believe she’s earned it,” Linus said. She rubbed a hand over her face before eyeing him warily. “Well, that’s it, then. You’ve interviewed all the children. You’ve inspected the house. You’ve seen that Marcus is doing well. And while there was the … incident with the chair, Daisy obviously means no harm.” He believed she was right. Marcus had seemed more interested in having Linus sign his tail cast rather than getting Daisy into any trouble. Linus had balked, telling him it wasn’t his place. Marcus was disappointed, but bounced back almost immediately. Linus marveled—as he sometimes did—how resilient they all were in the face of everything. “Quite.” “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what you’re going to write in your report—” Linus bristled. “Absolutely not. You will be provided with a copy once I’ve filed it, as you know. The contents will be made clear to you then, and not a moment before.” “Of course,” the master said hastily. “I didn’t mean to suggest that you—” “I’m glad you see it my way,” Linus said. “And I know DICOMY will certainly be appreciative as well.” He busied himself with his briefcase, rearranging the contents until he was satisfied. He closed it and snapped the locks in place. “Now, unless there is anything else, I’ll take my leave and bid you—” “The children like you.” “I like them,” he said. “I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t.” “That’s not always how it is with others like you.” She cleared her throat. “Or, rather, the other caseworkers.” He looked at the door longingly. He’d been so close to making his escape. Clutching his briefcase in front of him like a shield, he turned back around. The master rose from her chair and walked around the desk. He took a step back, mostly out of habit. She didn’t come any closer, instead leaning back against her desk. “We’ve had … others,” she said. “Have you? That’s to be expected, of course, but—” “They don’t see the children,” she said. “Not for who they are, only for what they’re capable of.” “They should be given a chance, as all children should. What hope would they have to be adopted if they’re treated as something to be feared?” The master snorted. “Adopted.” He narrowed his eyes. “Something I said?” She shook her head. “No, forgive me. You’re refreshing, in your own way. Your optimism is contagious.” “I am positively a ray of sunshine,” Linus said flatly. “Now, if there’s nothing else, I can show myself—” “How is it you can do what you do?” she asked. She blanched as if she couldn’t believe what she’d said. “I don’t know what you mean.” “Work for DICOMY.” Sweat trickled down the back of his neck into the collar of his shirt. It was awfully warm in the office. For the first time in a long time, he wished he were outside in the rain. “And what’s wrong with DICOMY?” She hesitated. “I mean no offense.” “I should hope not.” “It’s just that…” She stood from her desk, arms still folded. “Don’t you wonder?” “Never,” Linus said promptly. Then, “About what?” “What happens to a place like this after you file your final report. What becomes of the children.” “Unless I’m called to return, I expect they continue to live as bright and happy children until they become bright and happy adults.” “Who are still regulated by the government because of who they are.” Linus felt backed into a corner. He wasn’t prepared for this. “I don’t work for the Department in Charge of Magical Adults. If you have any concerns in that regard, I suggest you bring it up with DICOMA. I’m focused solely on the well-being of children, nothing more.” The master smiled sadly. “They never stay as children, Mr. Baker. They always grow up eventually.” “And they do so using the tools that one such as yourself provides for them should they find themselves aging out of the orphanage without having been adopted.” He took another backward step toward the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to catch the bus. It’s a rather long trip home, and I don’t want to miss it. Thank you for your hospitality. And again, once the report is filed, you will be sent a copy for your own records. Do let us know if you have any questions.” “Actually, I do have another—” “Submit it in writing,” Linus called, already through the door. “I look forward to it.” He shut it behind him, the latch clicking in place. He took a deep breath before exhaling slowly. “Now you’ve gone and done it, old boy. She’ll send you hundreds of questions.” “I can still hear you,” the master said through the door. Linus startled before hurrying down the hall. * * * He was about to leave through the front door when he paused at a bright burst of laughter coming from the kitchen. Against his better judgment, he tiptoed toward the sound. He passed by posters nailed to the walls, the same messages that hung in all the DICOMY-sanctioned orphanages he’d been to. They showed smiling children below such legends as WE’RE HAPPIEST WHEN WE LISTEN TO THOSE IN CHARGE and A QUIET CHILD IS A HEALTHY CHILD and WHO NEEDS MAGIC WHEN YOU HAVE YOUR IMAGINATION? He stuck his head in the kitchen doorway. There, sitting at a large wooden table, was a group of children. There was a boy with blue feathers growing from his arms. There was a girl who cackled like a witch; it was fitting seeing as how that’s what her file said she was. There was an older girl who could sing so seductively, it brought ships crashing onto the shore. Linus had balked when he’d read that in her report. There was a selkie, a young boy with a fur pelt resting on his shoulders. And Daisy and Marcus, of course. Sitting side by side, Daisy exclaiming over his tail cast through a mouthful of biscuit. Marcus grinned at her, his face a field of rusty freckles, tail resting on the table. Linus watched as he asked her if she would draw him another picture on his cast with one of her colored pencils. She agreed immediately. “A flower,” she said. “Or a bug with sharp teeth and stinger.” “Ooh,” Marcus breathed. “The bug. You have to do the bug.” Linus left them be, satisfied with what he’d seen. He made his way to the door once more. He sighed when he realized he’d forgotten his umbrella once again. “Of all the—” He opened the door and stepped out into the rain to begin the long journey home. TWO “Mr. Baker!” Linus groaned to himself. Today had been going so well. Somewhat. He’d gotten a spot of orange dressing on his white dress shirt from the soggy salad he’d purchased from the commissary, a persistent stain that only smudged when he’d tried to rub it away. And rain was thundering on the roof overhead, with no signs of letting up anytime soon. He’d forgotten his umbrella at home yet again. But other than that, his day had been going well. Mostly. The sounds of clacking computer keys stopped around him as Ms. Jenkins approached. She was a stern woman, hair pulled back so severely that it brought her unibrow up to the middle of her forehead. He wondered every now and then if she had ever smiled in her life. He thought not. Ms. Jenkins was a dour woman with the disposition of an ornery snake. She was also his supervisor, and Linus Baker didn’t dare cross her. He nervously pulled on the collar of his shirt as Ms. Jenkins approached, weaving her way between the desks, her heels snapping against the cold, stone floor. Her assistant, a despicable toad of a man named Gunther, followed close behind her, carrying a clipboard and an obscenely long pencil he used to keep tally of those who appeared to be slacking on the job. The list would be totaled at the end of the day, and demerits would be added to an ongoing weekly tally. At the end of the week, those with five or more demerits would have them added to their personal files. Nobody wanted that. Those whom Ms. Jenkins and Gunther passed by kept their heads down, pretending to work, but Linus knew better; they were listening as best they could to find out what he’d done wrong, and what his punishment would be. Possibly he’d be forced to leave early and have his pay docked. Or perhaps he’d have to stay later than normal and still have his pay docked. At worst, he’d be fired, his professional life would be over, and he wouldn’t have any pay to get docked ever again. He couldn’t believe it was only Wednesday. And it was made worse when he realized it was actually Tuesday. He couldn’t think of a single thing he’d done out of order, unless he’d gotten back a minute late from his allotted fifteen-minute lunch, or his last report had been unsatisfactory. His mind raced. Had he spent too long trying to get the dressing stain off? Or had there been a typo in his report? Surely not. It’d been pristine, unlike his shirt. But Ms. Jenkins had a twisted look on her face, one that didn’t bode well for Linus. For a room he always thought was frigid, it was now uncomfortably warm. Even though it was drafty—the miserable weather only making things worse—it did nothing to stop the sweat from trickling down the back of his neck. The green glow from the screen of his computer felt over-bright, and he struggled to keep his breathing slow and even. His doctor had told him his blood pressure was too high at his last physical, and that he needed to cut the stressors from his life. Ms. Jenkins was a stressor. He kept that thought to himself. His small wooden desk was almost at the center of the room: Row L, Desk Seven in a room comprising twenty-six rows with fourteen desks in each row. There was barely any space between the desks. A skinny person would have no trouble getting by, but one who carried a few extra pounds around the middle (few being the operative word, of course)? If they’d been allowed to have personal knickknacks on their desks, it’d probably end in disaster for someone like Linus. But seeing as how that was against the rules, he mostly ended up bumping into them with his wide hips and apologizing hastily at the glares he received. It was one of the reasons he usually waited until the room was mostly empty before he left for the day. That and the fact he’d recently turned forty, and all he had to show for it was a tiny house, a crusty cat that would probably outlive everyone, and an ever-expanding waistline his doctor had poked and prodded with a strange amount of glee while bloviating about the wonders of dieting. Hence the soggy salad from the commissary. Hung high above them were dreadfully cheery signs proclaiming: YOU ARE DOING GOOD WORK and ACCOUNT FOR EVERY MINUTE OF YOUR DAY BECAUSE A MINUTE LOST IS A MINUTE WASTED. Linus hated them so. He put his hands flat on the desk to keep from digging his fingernails into his palms. Mr. Tremblay, who sat in Row L, Desk Six, smiled darkly at him. He was a much younger man who seemed to relish his work. “In for it now,” he muttered to Linus. Ms. Jenkins reached his desk, her mouth a thin line. As was her wont, she appeared to have applied her makeup rather liberally in the dark without the benefit of a mirror. The heavy rouge on her cheeks was magenta, and her lipstick looked like blood. She wore a black pantsuit, the buttons of which were closed all the way up to just under her chin. She was as thin as a dream, made up of sharp bones covered in skin stretched too tightly. Gunther, on the other hand, was as fresh-faced as Mr. Tremblay. Rumor had it, he was the son of Someone Important, most likely Extremely Upper Management. Though Linus didn’t talk much to his coworkers, he still heard their gossipy whispers. He’d learned early on in life that if he didn’t speak, people often forgot he was there or even existed. His mother had told him once when he was a child that he blended in with the paint on the wall, only memorable when one was reminded it was there at all. “Mr. Baker,” Ms. Jenkins said again, practically snarling his name. Gunther stood next to her, smiling down at him. It wasn’t a very nice smile. His teeth were perfectly white and square, and he had dimples in his chin. He was handsome in a chilling way. The smile should have been lovely, but it didn’t reach his eyes. The only times Linus could say he’d ever believe Gunther’s smile were when he’d perform surprise inspections, long pencil scratching against the clipboard, marking demerit after demerit. Maybe that was it. Maybe Linus was going to get his first demerit, something he’d miraculously been able to avoid since the arrival of Gunther and his point system. He knew they were monitored constantly. There were large cameras hanging from the ceiling recording everything. If someone was caught doing something wrong, the large speaker boxes affixed to the walls would crackle to life, and there would be shouts of demerits for Row K, Desk Two or Row Z, Desk Thirteen. Linus had never been caught mismanaging his time. He was far too smart for that. And too fearful. Perhaps, however, not smart or fearful enough. He was going to get a demerit. Or maybe he was going to get five demerits, and then it would go into his personal file, a mark that would sully his seventeen years of service in the Department. Maybe they’d seen the dressing stain. There was a strict policy regarding professional attire. It was listed in great detail on pages 242–246 of the RULES AND REGULATIONS, the employee handbook for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Perhaps someone had seen the stain and reported him. That wouldn’t surprise Linus in the slightest. And hadn’t people been sacked for smaller things? Linus knew they had. “Ms. Jenkins,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “It’s nice to see you today.” This was a lie. It was never nice to see Ms. Jenkins. “What can I do for you?” Gunther’s smile widened. Possibly ten demerits, then. The dressing was orange, after all. He wouldn’t need a brown box. The only things that belonged to him were the clothes on his back and the mouse pad, a faded picture of a white sandy beach and the bluest ocean in the world. Across the top was the legend DON’T YOU WISH YOU WERE HERE? Yes. Daily. Ms. Jenkins didn’t seem inclined to respond to Linus’s greeting. “What have you done?” she demanded, eyebrows near her hairline, which should have been physically impossible. Linus swallowed thickly. “Pardon me, but I don’t think I know what you’re referring to.” “I find that hard to believe.” “Oh. I’m … sorry?” Gunther scratched something on his clipboard. He was probably giving Linus yet another demerit for the obvious sweat stains under his arms. He couldn’t do anything about those now. Ms. Jenkins didn’t seem as if she accepted his apology. “You must have done something.” She was very insistent. Perhaps he should come clean about the dressing stain. It would be like ripping off a bandage. Better to do it all at once rather than drag it out. “Yes. Well, you see, I’m trying to eat healthier. A diet, of sorts.” Ms. Jenkins frowned. “A diet?” Linus nodded jerkily. “Doctor’s orders.” “Carrying a bit of extra weight, are you?” Gunther asked, sounding far too pleased at the idea. Linus flushed. “I guess so.” Gunther made a sympathetic noise. “I noticed. You poor dear. Better late than never, I suppose.” He tapped his own flat stomach with the edge of the clipboard. Gunther was odious. Linus kept that thought to himself. “How wonderful.” “You have yet to answer my question,” Ms. Jenkins snapped. “What is it you could have possibly done?” Might as well get it over with. “A mistake. Clumsy me. I was trying eat the salad, but apparently kale has a mind of its own, and slipped from my—” “I have no idea what you’re prattling on about,” Ms. Jenkins said, leaning forward and putting her hands on his desk. Her fingernails were painted black, and she tapped them against the wood. It sounded like the rattling of bones. “Stop talking.” “Yes, ma’am.” She stared at him. His stomach twisted sharply. “You’ve been requested,” she said slowly, “to attend a meeting tomorrow morning with Extremely Upper Management.” He hadn’t expected that. Not in the slightest. In fact, of all the things Bedelia Jenkins could have said at this exact moment, that had been the least likely option. He blinked. “Come again?” She stood upright, crossing her arms underneath her breasts, gripping her elbows. “I’ve read your reports. They’re marginally adequate, at best. So imagine my surprise when I received a memo that Linus Baker was being summoned.” Linus felt cold. He’d never been asked to meet with Extremely Upper Management in his entire career. The only time he’d actually seen Extremely Upper Management was during the holidays when the luncheon occurred, and Extremely Upper Management stood in a row at the front of the room, dishing out dried-up ham and lumpy potatoes from foil trays, grinning at each of their underlings, telling them they’d earned this fine meal for all their hard work. Of course, they had to eat it at their desks because their fifteen-minute lunch break had been used up by standing in line, but still. It was September. The holidays were still months away. Now, according to Ms. Jenkins, they wanted him personally. He’d never heard of that happening before. It couldn’t possibly mean anything good. Ms. Jenkins looked as if she were waiting for a response. He didn’t know what to say, so he said, “Maybe there’s been a mistake.” “A mistake,” Ms. Jenkins repeated. “A mistake.” “Ye-es?” “Extremely Upper Management doesn’t make mistakes,” Gunther simpered. There was that, yes. “Then I don’t know.” Ms. Jenkins wasn’t pleased by his answer. It struck Linus then that she didn’t know any more than she was telling him, and for reasons he didn’t want to explore, the very idea gave him a nasty little thrill. Granted, it was tinged with unimaginable terror, but it was there nonetheless. He didn’t know what kind of person that made him. “Oh, Linus,” his mother had told him once. “It’s never polite to revel in the suffering of others. What a terrible thing to do.” He never allowed himself to revel. “You don’t know,” Ms. Jenkins said, sounding as if she were gearing up to strike. “Perhaps you lodged a complaint of some kind? Perhaps you don’t appreciate my supervisory technique and thought you could go above my head? Is that it, Mr. Baker?” “No, ma’am.” “Do you like my supervisory technique?” Absolutely not. “Yes.” Gunther scratched his pencil along his clipboard. “What exactly do you like about my supervisory technique?” Ms. Jenkins asked. Conundrum. Linus didn’t like to lie about anything. Even little white lies caused his head to ache. And once one started lying, it became easier to do it again and again until one had to keep track of hundreds of lies. It was easier to be honest. But then there came times of great need, such as this one. And it wasn’t like he had to lie, not completely. A truth could be twisted and still resemble the truth. “It’s very authoritative.” Her eyebrows rose to her hairline. “It is, isn’t it?” “Quite.” She lifted a hand and snapped her fingers. Gunther shuffled through some of the papers on his clipboard before handing a cream-colored page over to her. She held it between two fingers as if the thought of it touching any other part of her could cause a blistering infection. “Nine o’clock sharp tomorrow, Mr. Baker. God help you if you’re late. You will, of course, make up the time you missed after. On the weekend, if necessary. You aren’t scheduled to be in the field for at least another week.” “Of course,” Linus agreed quickly. She leaned forward again, dropping her voice until it was barely a whisper. “And if I find out you’ve complained about me, I will make your life a living hell. Do you understand me, Mr. Baker?” He did. “Yes, ma’am.” She dropped the paper on his desk. It fluttered to a corner, almost falling to the floor. He didn’t dare reach out and grab it, not while she still stood above him. Then she was spinning on her heels, shouting that everyone had better be working if they knew what was good for them. Immediately, the sound of clacking keyboards resumed. Gunther still stood near his desk, staring at him strangely. Linus fidgeted in his chair. “I don’t know why they would ask for you,” Gunther finally said, that terrible smile returning. “Surely there are more … suitable people. Oh, and Mr. Baker?” “Yes?” “You have a stain on your shirt. That’s unacceptable. One demerit. See that it doesn’t happen again.” Then he turned and followed Ms. Jenkins down the rows. Linus held his breath until they reached Row B before he exhaled explosively. He would need to wash his shirt as soon as he got home if he had any hopes of getting the sweat stains out. He scrubbed a hand over his face, uncertain of how he was feeling. Vexed, to be sure. And most likely frightened. At the desk next to him, Mr. Tremblay wasn’t even trying to hide the fact he was craning his neck to see what was written on the page left by Ms. Jenkins. Linus snatched it away, careful not to crumple the edges. “Had it coming, didn’t you?” Mr. Tremblay asked, sounding far too cheerful at the prospect. “I wonder who my new desk neighbor will be.” Linus ignored him. The green glow from his computer screen backlit the page, making the thick script of the words that much more ominous. It read: DEPARTMENT IN CHARGE OF MAGICAL YOUTH MEMO FROM EXTREMELY UPPER MANGEMENT * * * CC: BEDELIA JENKINS MR. LINUS BAKER IS TO REPORT TO THE OFFICES OF EXTREMELY UPPER MANAGEMENT AT NINE A.M. ON WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 6. ALONE. And that was all. “Oh dear,” Linus whispered. * * * That afternoon, when the clock chimed five, the people around Linus began to shut down their computers and pull on their coats. They chatted as they filed out of the room. Not a single person said good night to Linus. If anything, most stared at him as they left. Those who had been too far away to hear what Ms. Jenkins had said were most likely filled in via speculative whispers around the water cooler. The rumors were probably wild and completely inaccurate, but since Linus didn’t know why he’d been summoned, he couldn’t argue with whatever was being said. He waited until half past five before he, too, began to wrap up for the day. The room was mostly empty by then, though he could still see the light on in Ms. Jenkins’s office at the far end. He was thankful he wouldn’t have to pass by it as he left. He didn’t think he could handle another face-to-face with her today. Once his computer screen was dark, he stood and lifted his coat from the back of his chair. He pulled it on, groaning when he remembered he’d left his umbrella at home. From the sound of it, the rain still hadn’t let up. If he hurried, he’d still be able to make the bus. He only bumped into six desks in four different rows on his way out. But he made sure to put them back into their places. It would have to be another salad for him tonight. No dressing. * * * He missed the bus. He saw its taillights through the rain as it rumbled down the street, the advertisement on the back of a smiling woman saying SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING! REGISTRATION HELPS EVERYONE! still clear even through the rain. “Of course,” he muttered to himself. There would be another one in fifteen minutes. He held his briefcase above his head and waited. * * * He stepped off the bus (which had, of course, been ten minutes late) at the stop a few blocks from his house. “It’s a wet one out there,” the driver told him. “A fine observation,” Linus replied as he stepped onto the sidewalk. “Really. Thank you for—” The doors snapped shut behind him, and the bus pulled away. The back right tire hit a rather large puddle, splashing up and soaking Linus’s slacks up to his knees. Linus sighed and began to trudge his way home. The neighborhood was quiet, the streetlamps lit and inviting, even in the cold rain. The houses were small, but the street was lined with trees covered in leaves that were beginning to change colors, the dull green fading to an even duller red and gold. There were rosebushes at 167 Lakewood that bloomed quietly. There was a dog at 193 Lakewood that yipped excitedly whenever it saw him. And 207 Lakewood had a tire swing hanging from a tree, but the children who lived there apparently thought they were far too old to use it anymore. Linus had never had a tire swing before. He’d always wanted one, but his mother had said it was far too dangerous. He turned right down a smaller street, and there, sitting on the left, was 86 Hermes Way. Home. It wasn’t much. It was tiny, and the back fence needed to be replaced. But it had a lovely porch where one could sit and watch the day pass by if one were so inclined. There were sunflowers in the flowerbed at the front, tall things that swayed in the cool breeze, though they were closed now against the coming evening and dreary rain. It’d been raining for weeks on end, mostly an uncomfortable drizzle interspersed with a tedious downpour. It wasn’t much. But it belonged to Linus and no one else. He stopped at the mailbox out front and grabbed the day’s mail. It looked as if it were all advertisements addressed impersonally to RESIDENT. Linus couldn’t remember the last time he’d received a letter. He climbed up onto the porch and was uselessly shaking the water from his coat when his name was called from the house next door. He sighed, wondering if he could get away with pretending he hadn’t heard. “Don’t you even think about it, Mr. Baker,” she said. “I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Klapper.” Edith Klapper, a woman of an undiscernible age (though he thought she’d gone past old into the fabled land of ancient) sat on her porch in her terry cloth bathrobe, pipe lit in her hand as it usually was, smoke curling up around her bouffant. She hacked a wet cough into a tissue that probably should have been discarded an hour before. “Your cat was in my yard again, chasing the squirrels. You know how I feel about that.” “Calliope does what she wants,” he reminded her. “I have no control over her.” “Perhaps you should try,” Mrs. Klapper snapped at him. “Right. I’ll get on that immediately.” “Are you sassing me, Mr. Baker?” “I wouldn’t even dream of it.” He dreamed of it often. “I thought not. Are you in for the night?” “Yes, Mrs. Klapper.” “No dates again, huh?” His hand tightened around the handle of his briefcase. “No dates.” “No lucky lady friend?” She sucked on her pipe and blew the thick smoke out her nose. “Oh. Forgive me. It must have slipped my mind. Not one for the ladies, are you?” It hadn’t slipped her mind. “No, Mrs. Klapper.” “My grandson is an accountant. Very stable. Mostly. He does have a tendency toward rampant alcoholism, but who am I to judge his vices? Accounting is hard work. All those numbers. I’ll have him call you.” “I’d prefer if you didn’t.” She cackled. “Too good for him, then?” Linus spluttered. “I don’t—I’m not—I don’t have time for such things.” Mrs. Klapper scoffed. “Perhaps you should consider making time, Mr. Baker. Being alone at your age isn’t healthy. I’d hate to think of what would happen if you were to blow your brains out. It’d hurt the resale value of the whole neighborhood.” “I’m not depressed!” She looked him up and down. “You aren’t? Why on earth not?” “Is there anything else, Mrs. Klapper?” Linus asked through gritted teeth. She waved a hand dismissively at him. “Fine, then. Go. Put on your pajamas and that old record player of yours and dance around the living room as you do.” “I asked you to stop watching me through my window!” “Of course you did,” she said. She sat back in her chair and stuck her pipe between her lips. “Of course you did.” “Good night, Mrs. Klapper,” he called as he slid the key into the doorknob. He didn’t wait for a response. He shut the door behind him and locked it tight. * * * Calliope, a thing of evil, sat on the edge of his bed, black tail twitching as she watched him with bright green eyes. She started purring. In most cats, it would be a soothing sound. In Calliope, it indicated devious plotting involving nefarious deeds. “You aren’t supposed to be in the yard next door,” he scolded her as he slid out of his suit coat. She continued purring. He’d found her one day almost ten years back, a tiny kitten under his porch, screeching as if her tail were on fire. Thankfully, it wasn’t, but as soon as he’d crawled underneath the porch, she’d hissed at him, black hair on her back standing on end as she arched. Rather than waiting to get a face filled with kitten scratch fever, he’d backed quickly out and returned to his house, deciding that if he ignored her long enough, she’d move on. She hadn’t. Instead, she spent most of that night yowling. He’d tried to sleep. She was too loud. He pulled the pillow over his head. It didn’t help. Eventually, he grabbed a flashlight and a broom, bent on poking the cat until she left. She was waiting for him on the porch, sitting in front of the door. He was so surprised, he dropped the broom. She walked into his house as if she belonged. And she never left, no matter how many times Linus had threatened her. Six months later, he’d finally given up. By then, the house was filled with toys and a litter box and little dishes with CALLIOPE printed on the sides for her food and water. He couldn’t quite be sure how it’d happened, but there it was. “Mrs. Klapper will get you one day,” he told her as he slid out of his wet clothes. “And I won’t be here to save you. You’ll be feasting on a squirrel, and she’ll … Okay, I don’t know what she’ll do. But it’ll be something. And I won’t feel sad in the slightest.” She blinked slowly. He sighed. “Fine. A little sad.” He put on his pajamas, buttoning up the front. They were monogrammed with an LB on the breast, a gift from the Department after fifteen years of service. He’d selected them out of a catalogue he’d been given on the day of. The catalogue had two pages inside. One page was the pajamas. The second page was a candleholder. He’d selected the pajamas. He’d always wanted to own something monogrammed. He picked up the wet clothes and left the room. The loud thump behind him told him he was being followed. He dropped his soiled work garments in the washing machine and set it to soak while he made dinner. “I don’t need an accountant,” he told Calliope as she wound between his legs. “I have other things to think about. Like tomorrow. Why is it that I must always worry about tomorrows?” He moved instinctively to the old Victrola. He flipped through the records sitting in the drawer underneath before finding the one he wanted. He slid it out of its sleeve and set it on the turntable before bringing down the needle. Soon, the Everly Brothers began to sing that all they had to do was dream. He swayed back and forth as he headed toward the kitchen. Dry food for Calliope. Salad from a bag for Linus. He cheated, but just a little. A splash of dressing never hurt anyone. “Whenever I want you,” he sang quietly. “All I have to do is dream.” * * * If one were to ask if Linus Baker was lonely, he would have scrunched up his face in surprise. The thought would be foreign, almost shocking. And though the smallest of lies hurt his head and made his stomach twist, there was a chance he would still say no, even though he was, and almost desperately so. And maybe part of him would believe it. He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone. It was their lot in life, and Linus had figured out, at the age of twenty-seven, that it seemed to be that way for him. Oh, there was no specific event that brought along this line of thinking. It was just that he felt … dimmer than others. Like he was faded in a crystal-clear world. He wasn’t meant to be seen. He’d accepted it back then, and now he was forty with high blood pressure and a spare tire around his middle. Sure, there were times when he’d stare at himself in the mirror, wondering if he could see what others could not. He was pale. His dark hair was kept short and neat, though it seemed to be thinning on the top. He had lines around his mouth and eyes. His cheeks were full. The spare tire looked as if it’d fit on a scooter, though if he weren’t careful, it’d turn into one that belonged on a lorry. He looked … well. He looked like most everyone else by the time they reached forty. As he ate his salad with a drop or two of dressing in his tiny kitchen in his tiny house while the Everly brothers began to ask for Little Susie to wake up, wake up, Little Susie, worrying about what tomorrow would bring with Extremely Upper Management, the thought of being lonely didn’t even cross Linus Baker’s mind. After all, there were people with far less than what he had. There was a roof over his head and rabbit food in his belly, and his pajamas were monogrammed. Besides, it was neither here nor there. He didn’t have time to sit in silence and think such frivolous thoughts. Sometimes, silence was the loudest thing of all. And that would not do. Instead of allowing his thoughts to wander, he lifted the copy he kept at home of RULES AND REGULATIONS (all 947 pages of it, purchased for nearly two hundred dollars; he had a copy at work, but it seemed right to have one for his house as well), and began to read the tiny print. Whatever tomorrow would bring, it was best to be prepared. THREE The next morning, he was early to the office by nearly two hours. No one else had yet arrived, most likely still tucked away safely in their beds without a care in the world. He went to his desk, sat down, and turned on his computer. The familiar green light did nothing to comfort him. He tried to get as much work done as he could, constantly aware of the clock above ticking by each and every second. The room began to fill at a quarter till eight. Ms. Jenkins arrived at precisely eight o’clock, heels clicking on the floor. Linus slunk down in his seat, but he could feel her eyes on him. He tried to work. He really did. The green words were a blur on the screen in front of him. Even the RULES AND REGULATIONS couldn’t calm him down. At exactly eight forty-five, he stood from his chair. The people in the desks around him turned and stared. He ignored them, swallowing thickly as he picked up his briefcase and walked down the rows. “Sorry,” he muttered with every desk he bumped into. “Apologies. So sorry. Is it just me or are the desks getting closer together? Sorry. So sorry.” Ms. Jenkins stood in the doorway to her office as he left the room, Gunther beside her, scratching his long pencil on the clipboard. * * * The offices of Extremely Upper Management were located on the fifth floor of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’d heard rumors about the fifth floor, most of them downright alarming. He’d never been there himself, but he assumed that at least some of the rumors had to be true. He was alone in the elevator as he pressed a button he never expected to. The bright gold five. The elevator started to rise. The pit of Linus’s stomach seemed to stay in the basement. It was the longest elevator ride of Linus’s life, lasting at least two minutes. It didn’t help that it stopped on the first floor, opened, and began to fill with people. They asked for two and three and four, but nobody ever asked for five. A handful got off on the second floor. Even more at the third. And it was at the fourth that the remaining exited. They glanced back at him curiously. He tried to smile but was sure it came off as more of a grimace. He was alone when the elevator began to rise again. By the time the doors opened on the fifth floor, he was sweating. It certainly didn’t help that the elevator opened to a long, cold hallway, the floor made of stone tile, the gold sconces on the wall casting low light. At one end of the hall was the bank of elevators where he stood. At the other end was a shuttered pane of glass next to a pair of large wooden doors. Above them was a metal sign: EXTREMELY UPPER MANAGEMENT BY APPOINTMENT ONLY “Okay, old boy,” he whispered. “You can do this.” His feet didn’t get the message. They remained firmly stuck to the floor. The elevator doors began to shut. He let them. The elevator didn’t move. At that moment, Linus gave very real thought to going back to the first floor, exiting the DICOMY building, and perhaps walking until he could walk no longer, just to see where he ended up. That sounded good. Instead, he pressed the five again. The doors opened. He coughed. It echoed down the hallway. “No time for cowardice,” he scolded himself quietly. “Chin up. For all you know, maybe it’s a promotion. A big promotion. One with higher pay and you’ll finally be able to go on that vacation you’ve always dreamed about. The sand on the beach. The blue of the ocean. Don’t you wish you were there?” He did. He wished it greatly. Linus began to walk down the hallway slowly. Rain lashed against the windows to his left. The lights in the sconces to his right flickered slightly. His loafers squeaked on the floor. He pulled at his tie. By the time he reached the opposite end of the hallway, four minutes had passed. According to his watch, it was five till nine. He tried the doors. They were locked. The window at the side of the doors had a metal grate pulled down on the inside. There was a metal plate next to it, with a small button on the side. He debated briefly before pressing the button. A loud buzzer sounded on the other side of the metal grate. He waited. He could see his reflection in the window. The person staring back at him looked wide-eyed and shocked. He hastily smoothed down his hair from where it had started sticking up on the side as it always did. It didn’t do much. He straightened his tie, squared his shoulders, sucked in his belly. The metal grate slid up. On the other side was a bored-looking young woman snapping gum behind her bright red lips. She blew a pink bubble, and it popped before she sucked it back into her mouth. She cocked her head, blond curls bouncing on her shoulders. “Help you?” she asked. He tried to speak, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Yes. I have an appointment at nine.” “With whom?” That was an interesting question, one that he didn’t have an answer to. “I … don’t quite know.” Ms. Bubblegum stared at him. “You have an appointment, but you don’t know with whom?” That sounded about right. “Yes?” “Name?” “Linus Baker.” “Cute,” she said, tapping perfectly manicured fingernails against the keyboard. “Linus Baker. Linus Baker. Linus—” Her eyes widened. “Oh. I see. Hold one moment, please.” She slammed the metal grate down again. Linus blinked, unsure of what he was supposed to do. He waited. A minute passed. And then another. And then another. And then— The metal grate slid back up. Ms. Bubblegum looked far more interested in him now. She leaned forward until her face was almost pressed against the glass separating them. Her breath caused the window to fog up slightly. “They’re waiting for you.” Linus took a step back. “Who is?” “All of them,” she said as she looked him up and down. “All of Extremely Upper Management.” “Oh,” Linus said weakly. “How delightful. And we’re sure it’s me they want?” “You are Linus Baker, aren’t you?” He hoped so, because he didn’t know how to be anyone else. “I am.” Another buzzer sounded, and he heard a click from the doors next to him. They swung open on silent hinges. “Then yes, Mr. Baker,” she told him, cheek bulging slightly from her gum. “It’s you they want. And I would hurry, if I were you. Extremely Upper Management doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” “Right,” he said. “How do I look?” He sucked in his stomach a little farther. “Like you have no idea what you’re doing,” she said before she slammed down the metal grate again. Linus glanced back longingly at the elevators at the other end of the hall. Don’t you wish you were here? they asked him. He did. Very much so. He stepped away from the window toward the open doors. Inside was a circular room with a rotunda overhead made of glass. There was a fountain in the center of the room, a stone statue of a man in a cloak, water spilling in a continuous stream from his outstretched hands. He was looking toward the ceiling with cold, gray eyes. Around him, clutching at his legs, were little stone children, water splashing on the tops of their heads. A door opened to Linus’s right. Ms. Bubblegum stepped out from her booth. She smoothed down her dress, snapping her gum loudly. “You’re shorter than you look through glass,” she told him. Linus didn’t know how to respond to that, so he said nothing at all. She sighed. “Follow me, please.” She moved like a bird, her steps tiny and quick. She was halfway across the room before she looked back at him. “That wasn’t a suggestion.” “Right,” Linus said, nearly tripping over his own feet as he hurried to catch up with her. “Apologies. I’ve … I’ve never been here before.” “Obviously.” He thought he was being insulted, but he couldn’t figure out how. “Are they … all of them?” “Odd, isn’t it?” She blew another bubble, which popped daintily. “And for you, of all people. I didn’t know you existed until this moment.” “I get that a lot.” “I can’t imagine why.” Yes, definitely insulted. “What are they like? I’ve only seen them when they serve me lumpy potatoes.” Ms. Bubblegum stopped abruptly and turned to look back at him over her shoulder. Linus thought she could probably spin her head all the way around if she put her mind to it. “Lumpy potatoes.” “For the holiday luncheon?” “I make those potatoes. From scratch.” Linus blanched. “Well, I—it’s a matter of taste—I’m sure you—” Ms. Bubblegum harrumphed and moved forward again. Linus wasn’t off to a good start. They reached another door on the other side of the rotunda. It was black with a gold nameplate fastened near the top. The plate was blank. Ms. Bubblegum reached up and tapped a fingernail against the door three times. There was a beat, and then another, and then— The door swung open slowly. It was dark inside. Pitch-black, even. Ms. Bubblegum stepped to the side as she turned to face him. “After you.” He peered into the darkness. “Hmm, well, perhaps we could reschedule. I’m very busy, as I’m sure you know. I have many reports to complete—” “Enter, Mr. Baker,” a voice boomed through the open doorway. Ms. Bubblegum smiled. Linus reached up and wiped his brow. He almost dropped his briefcase. “I suppose I shall enter, then.” “Looks like,” Ms. Bubblegum said. And he did just that. He should have been expecting the door to slam shut behind him, but he was still startled, nearly jumping out of his skin. He held his briefcase against his chest as if it could protect him. It was disorienting being in the dark, and he was sure this was a trap, and he would spend the rest of his days wandering around sightlessly. It would almost be as bad as getting sacked. But then lights began to shine at his feet, illuminating a pathway before him. They were soft and yellow, like a brick road. He took a tentative step away from the door. When he didn’t trip over anything, he took another. The lights led him much farther than he expected, before forming a circle at his feet. He stopped, unsure of where he was supposed to go. He hoped he wouldn’t need to flee anything terrible. Another light, this one much brighter, flicked on overhead. Linus looked up, squinting against it. It looked like a spotlight, shining down on him. “You may set down your briefcase,” a deep voice said from somewhere above him. “That’s quite all right,” Linus said, clutching it tightly. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, more lights began to glow above him, shining up into the faces of four people that Linus recognized as Extremely Upper Management. They were seated far above Linus at the top of a large stone wall, peering down from their perches with varying expressions of interest. There were three men and one woman, and though Linus had learned their names early on in his career at DICOMY, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember them presently. His mind had come to the decision that it was experiencing technical difficulties and was broadcasting nothing but fuzzy snow. He looked at each of them, beginning left to right, nodding as he did so while trying to keep his expression neutral. The woman’s hair was cut into a petite bob, and she wore a large brooch in the shape of a beetle, the carapace iridescent. One of the men was balding, his jowls hanging off his face. He sniffled into a kerchief, clearing his throat of what sounded like quite a bit of phlegm. The second man was rail thin. Linus thought he would disappear if he turned sideways. He wore spectacles far too large for his face, the lenses shaped like half-moons. The last man was younger than the others, possibly around Linus’s age, though it was hard to tell. His hair was wavy, and he was intimidatingly handsome. Linus recognized him almost immediately as the one who always served the dried-out ham with a smile. He was the one who spoke first. “Thank you for taking this meeting, Mr. Baker.” Linus’s mouth felt dry. He licked his lips. “You’re … welcome?” The woman leaned forward. “Your personnel file says you’ve been employed in the Department for seventeen years.” “Yes, ma’am.” “And in all that time, you’ve maintained your current position.” “Yes, ma’am.” “Why is that?” Because he had no prospects for anything else and no desire for Supervision. “I enjoy the work I do.” “Do you?” she asked, cocking her head. “Yes.” “Why?” “I’m a caseworker,” he said, fingers slipping slightly on his briefcase. “I don’t know that there is a more important position.” His eyes widened. “Other than what you do, of course. I wouldn’t presume to think—” The bespectacled man shuffled through papers in front of him. “I have here your last six reports, Mr. Baker. Do you want to know what I see?” No, Linus didn’t. “Please.” “I see someone who is very thorough. No nonsense. Clinical to a startling degree.” Linus wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not. It certainly didn’t sound like one. “A caseworker must maintain a degree of separation,” he recited dutifully. Jowls sniffled. “Is that so? Where is that from? It sounds familiar.” “It’s from RULES AND REGULATIONS,” Handsome said. “And I should hope you recognize it. You wrote most of it.” Jowls blew his nose into his kerchief. “Indeed. I knew that.” “Why is it important to maintain a degree of separation?” the woman asked, still staring down at him. “Because it wouldn’t do to get attached to the children I work with,” Linus said. “I’m there to make sure the orphanages I inspect are kept in tip-top shape, and nothing more. Their welfare is important, but as a whole. Individual interaction is frowned upon. It could color my perception.” “But you do interview the children,” Handsome said. “Yes,” Linus agreed. “I do. But one can be professional while dealing with magical youth.” “Have you ever recommended the closing of an orphanage in your seventeen years, Mr. Baker?” the bespectacled man asked. They had to already know the answer. “Yes. Five times.” “Why?” “The environments weren’t safe.” “So, you do care.” Linus was getting flustered. “I never said I didn’t. I merely do what is required of me. There’s a difference between forming attachments and being empathetic. These children … They have no one else. It’s the reason they’re in the orphanages to begin with. They shouldn’t have to lay their heads down at night with an empty stomach, or worry about being worked to the bone. Just because these orphans must be kept separate from normal children doesn’t mean they should be treated any differently. All children, no matter their … disposition or what they’re capable of, must be protected regardless of the cost.” Jowls coughed wetly. “Do you really think so?” “Yes.” “And what became of the children in the orphanages you closed?” Linus blinked. “That’s a matter for Supervision. I make my recommendation, and the Supervisor handles what comes next. Most likely they’re placed in the schools that DICOMY runs.” Handsome sat back in his chair. He looked at the others around him. “He’s perfect.” “I agree,” Jowls said. “There’s really no other choice for something so … sensitive.” The bespectacled man stared down at Linus. “Do you understand discretion, Mr. Baker?” Linus felt insulted. “I work with classified youth on a daily basis,” he retorted, more sharply than he intended. “I’m a vault. Nothing gets out.” “And it appears nothing gets in,” the woman said. “He’ll do.” “Forgive me, but might I ask what exactly you’re talking about? I’ll do for what?” Handsome rubbed a hand over his face. “What is said next doesn’t leave this room, Mr. Baker. Do you understand? This is classified level four.” Linus took in a stuttering breath. Classified level four was the highest classification. He’d known it existed in theory, but was unaware that it was actually in use. He’d only had a classified level three case once before, and it been most troubling. There’d been a girl in an orphanage who had turned out to be a banshee, a herald of death. DICOMY had been summoned once she started telling all of the other children they were going to die. The problem turned out to be, of course, that she’d been right. The master of the orphanage had decided to use the children as part of a pagan sacrifice. Linus had barely escaped with the children and his life. He’d been given a two-day vacation after that one, the most time off he’d had in years. “Why me?” he asked, voice barely above a whisper. “Because there’s really no one else we can trust,” the woman said simply. That should have filled Linus with a sense of pride. Instead, he felt nothing but dread curling in his stomach. “Think of this as more of a checkup,” the bespectacled man said. “We haven’t received word of any wrongdoing, but the orphanage you’ll be going to is … It’s special, Mr. Baker. The orphanage is nontraditional, and the six children who live there are different than anything else you’ve seen before, some more than others. They’re … problematic.” “Problematic? What’s that supposed to—” “Your job will be to make sure everything is on the up-and-up,” Handsome said, a small smile on his face. “It’s important, you see. The master of this specific orphanage, one Arthur Parnassus, is certainly qualified, but we have … concerns. The six children are of the more extreme variety, and we must make sure that Mr. Parnassus continues to be capable of managing them. One would be a handful, but six of them?” Linus wracked his brain. He was sure he’d heard of all of the masters in the region, but—“I’ve never heard of Mr. Parnassus.” “No, I don’t suppose you have,” the woman said. “But that’s why it’s classified level four. If you had, it would mean we had a leak. We don’t do well with leaks, Mr. Baker. Is that understood? Leaks need to be plugged. Swiftly.” “Yes, yes,” he said hastily. “Of course. I would never—” “Of course you wouldn’t,” Jowls said. “It’s part of the reason why you were chosen. One month, Mr. Baker. You will spend one month on the island where the orphanage is located. We will expect weekly reports. Anything that raises alarms must be reported immediately.” Linus felt his eyes bulge. “A month? I can’t leave for a month. I have duties!” “Your current caseload will be reassigned,” the bespectacled man said. “In fact, it’s already being done.” He flipped to another paper. “And it says here you are quite alone. No spouse. No children. No one to miss you if you had to leave for any extended length of time.” That stung more than it should have. He was aware of such things, of course, but to have them so blatantly laid bare caused his heart to stutter. But still—“I have a cat!” Handsome snorted. “Cats are solitary creatures, Mr. Baker. I’m sure it won’t even know you’re gone.” “Your reports will be directed to Extremely Upper Management,” the woman said. “They will be overseen by Mr. Werner, though we will all be involved.” She nodded toward Handsome. “And we expect them to be as thorough as the ones you’ve done in the past. In fact, we insist upon it. More so, if you deem necessary.” “Ms. Jenkins—” “Will be informed of your special assignment,” Handsome—Mr. Werner—assured him. “Though the details will be kept at a minimum. Think of this as a promotion, Mr. Baker. One that I believe is a long time in coming.” “Don’t I have a say in this?” “Think of this as a mandatory promotion,” Mr. Werner corrected. “We expect big things from you. And who knows where this could lead for you if it all goes well? Please don’t let us down. Now, feel free to take the rest of the day to get your affairs in order. Your train leaves tomorrow, bright and early. Do you have any questions?” Dozens. He had dozens of questions. “Yes! What about—” “Excellent,” Mr. Werner said, clapping his hands. “I knew we could count on you, Mr. Baker. We look forward to hearing from you about the state of affairs on the island. It should be interesting, to say the least. Now, all this blathering on has left my throat parched. I do think it’s time for tea. Our secretary will show you out. It was lovely to meet you.” Extremely Upper Management stood as one, bowed down at him, and then all the lights went out. Linus squeaked. Before he could begin to fumble in the dark, a light switched back on at the top of the wall. He blinked up at it. Mr. Werner stared down at him, a curious expression on his face. The others were already gone. “Something else?” Linus asked nervously. Mr. Werner said, “Beware, Mr. Baker.” That was certainly ominous. “Beware?” Mr. Werner nodded. “You must prepare yourself. I cannot stress enough how important this assignment is. Leave no detail out, no matter how small or inconsequential it may seem.” Linus bristled. It was one thing to question his readiness, but it was something else entirely to question the thoroughness of his reports. “I always—” “Let’s just say I have a vested interest in what you find,” Mr. Werner said, ignoring Linus’s spluttering indignation. “It goes beyond mere inquisitiveness.” He smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I don’t like being disappointed, Mr. Baker. Please don’t disappoint me.” “Why this place?” he asked rather helplessly. “What brought this orphanage to your attention and requires the oversight of a caseworker? Has the master done something to—” “It’s rather what he hasn’t done,” Mr. Werner said. “His monthly reports are … lacking, especially in the face of who his charges are. We need to know more, Mr. Baker. Order only works if there is complete transparency. If we can’t have that, then we run the risk of chaos. Is there anything else?” “What? Yes. I’ve—” “Good,” Mr. Werner said. “I wish you luck. I think you’ll need it.” And with that, the light went out yet again. “Oh dear,” Linus said. The golden lights on the floor lit up once more. “Are you quite finished?” a voice said near his ear. He absolutely did not scream, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Ms. Bubblegum stood behind him, gum snapping. “This way, Mr. Baker.” She spun around, dress flaring at her knees, and marched toward the exit. Linus followed her quickly, only glancing over his shoulder once into the darkness. * * * She waited for him just outside the chambers, tapping her foot with impatience. Linus was quite out of breath by the time he passed through the open door. He couldn’t be sure what had just happened was anything more than a fever dream. He certainly felt feverish. It was possible Ms. Bubblegum was a hallucination conjured up by a previously undiagnosed illness. A very pushy hallucination, to be sure, as she thrust a thick folder into his hands, causing him to fumble and almost drop his briefcase. “Train ticket is inside,” she said. “In addition, you’ll find a sealed envelope with the files you’ll be needing. I don’t know what it’s about, and I don’t care. I’m paid not to snoop, if you can believe that. You’re not to open the envelope until you’ve stepped off the train at your final destination.” “I think I need to sit down,” Linus said weakly. She squinted at him. “Of course you can sit down. Just make sure you do it far away from here. Your train leaves at seven tomorrow morning. Don’t be late. Extremely Upper Management will be most displeased if you’re late.” “I need to go back down to my desk, and—” “Absolutely not, Mr. Baker. I have been instructed to tell you that you are to exit the premises without delay. Speak to no one. I don’t think that should be a problem for you, but it had to be said.” “I have no idea what’s going on,” he said. “I’m not even sure if I’m here.” “Yes,” Ms. Bubblegum said sympathetically. “Sounds like quite the existential crisis. Perhaps consider having it somewhere else.” They were standing in front of the elevators. He hadn’t even known they were moving. The doors slid open in front of him. Ms. Bubblegum shoved him in, and reached in to hit the button for the first floor. She stepped out of the elevator. “Thank you for visiting the offices of Extremely Upper Management,” she said cheerfully. “Have a fantastical day.” The doors slid shut before he could speak another word. * * * It was still raining. He barely even noticed. One moment, he was standing in front of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and the next, he was on the stone path that led to his porch. He didn’t know how he’d gotten there, but that seemed to be the least of his worries. He was startled out of his daze when Mrs. Klapper called over to him. “You’re home early, Mr. Baker. Did you get sacked? Or perhaps you received terrible medical news and need time to reconcile with your bleak future?” Smoke curled up around her bouffant from her pipe. “I’m so sorry to hear that. You’ll be missed terribly.” “Not dying,” he managed to say. “Oh. More’s the pity, I suppose. So that only leaves getting sacked. You poor dear. How will you go on? Especially in this economy. I suppose you’ll have to sell your house and find a dismal apartment somewhere in the city.” She shook her head. “You’ll probably end up murdered. Crime is on the rise, you know.” “I didn’t get sacked!” She snorted. “I don’t believe you.” Linus sputtered. She sat forward on her rocker. “You know, my grandson is looking for a personal secretary at his accounting firm. This could be your in, Mr. Baker. I do believe I’ve read stories that started exactly like that. Think about it. Your life is at its lowest this very moment, and you need to start fresh, which leads you to finding your true love. It practically writes itself!” “Good day, Mrs. Klapper!” Linus cried as he stumbled up his steps. “Think about it!” she shouted after him. “If all goes well, we could be family—” He slammed the door shut behind him. Calliope sat in her usual spot, tail twitching, seemingly unsurprised at his early return. Linus slumped against the door. His legs gave out, and he slid to the carpet. “You know,” he told her, “I don’t know if I had a very good day. No, I don’t think I had a good day at all.” Calliope, as was her wont, only purred. They stayed that way for a long time. FOUR The train car emptied as it went into the country. People getting on and off stared with open curiosity at the somewhat schlumpy man sitting in seat 6A, a large plastic crate on the empty seat next to him. Inside, a large cat glared balefully out at anyone who bent over to coo at it. One child nearly lost a finger when he tried to stick it in between the slats of the crate. The man, one Linus Baker of 86 Hermes Way, barely noticed. He hadn’t slept well the night before, tossing and turning in his bed before finally giving up and deciding his time was better spent pacing back and forth in the sitting room. His luggage, an old, scuffed bag with a broken wheel, sat near the door, mocking him. He’d packed it before attempting to sleep, sure he wouldn’t have time in the morning. As it turned out, he had all the time in the world, seeing as how sleep remained elusive. By the time he boarded the train at half past six, he was in a daze, the bags under his eyes pronounced, his mouth curled down. He stared straight ahead, one hand resting atop the crate where Calliope fumed. She’d never done well with travel, but he didn’t have a choice in the matter. He’d considered asking Mrs. Klapper to take care of her in his absence, but the squirrel debacle had most likely soured any chance of Calliope making it through the month unharmed. He hoped none of the children were allergic. Rain sluiced down the windows as the train chugged along through empty fields and forests with great, old trees. He’d been on the train for almost eight hours when he realized it was quiet. Too quiet. He looked up from the RULES AND REGULATIONS he’d brought from home. He was the only one left in the train car. He hadn’t noticed when the last person had left. “Huh,” he said to himself. “Wouldn’t that just beat all if I missed my stop? I wonder how far the train goes. Maybe it goes on and on, never reaching the end.” Calliope had no opinion of it one way or another. He was about to start worrying that he had in fact missed his stop (Linus was nothing if not a consummate worrier), when an attendant in a snappy uniform slid open a door at the end of the car. He was humming to himself quietly, but it was cut off when he noticed Linus. “Hello,” he said amiably. “I didn’t expect anyone else to be here! Must be going a long way on this fine Saturday.” “I have my ticket,” Linus said. “If you need to see it.” “If you please. Where are you headed?” For a moment, Linus couldn’t think. He reached into his coat for his ticket, the large tome in his lap almost falling to the floor. The ticket was slightly crumpled, and he attempted to smooth it out before handing it over. The attendant smiled at him before looking down at the ticket. He whistled lowly. “Marsyas. End of the line.” He punched it with his clicker. “Well, good news, then. Two more stops and you’re there. In fact, if you— Ah yes, look.” He gestured toward the window. Linus turned his head, and his breath caught in his throat. It was as if the rain clouds had reached as far as they could. The gray darkness gave way to a bright and wonderful blue like Linus had never seen before. The rain stopped as they passed out of the storm and into the sun. He closed his eyes briefly, feeling the warmth through the glass against his face. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt sunlight. He opened his eyes again, and that’s when he saw it, in the distance. There was green. Bright and beautiful greens of waving grass, and what appeared to be flowers in pinks and purples and golds. They disappeared into white sand. And beyond the white was cerulean. He barely noticed when the RULES AND REGULATIONS fell to the floor of the train with a loud thump. Don’t you wish you were here? “Is that the ocean?” Linus whispered. “It is,” the attendant said. “Quite the sight, isn’t it? Though, you act like you’ve never— Say, have you never seen the ocean before?” Linus shook his head minutely. “Only in pictures. It’s so much bigger than I thought it’d be.” The attendant laughed. “And that’s only a small portion of it. I reckon you’ll see a bit more when you depart the train. There’s an island near the village. Takes a ferry to get to it, if you’re so inclined. Most aren’t.” “I am,” Linus said, still staring at the glimpses of the sea. “And who do we have here?” the attendant asked, bending over Linus toward the crate. Calliope hissed. The attendant stood quickly. “I think I’ll leave her be.” “Probably for the best.” “Two more stops, sir,” the attendant said, heading for the door at the opposite end of the train car. “Enjoy your visit!” Linus barely heard him leave. “It’s really there,” he said quietly. “It’s really, really there. I never thought—” He sighed. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.” * * * It wasn’t bad. It was worse. But Linus didn’t know that right away. The moment he stepped off the train, crate in one hand, luggage in the other, he smelled salt in the air and heard the call of sea birds overhead. A breeze ruffled his hair, and he turned his face toward the sun. He let himself breathe for a moment, basking in the warmth. It wasn’t until the bell on the train rang out and it started chugging away that he looked around. He stood on a raised platform. There were metal benches in front of him under an overhang. The overhang was painted in blue-and-white stripes. Along the edges of the platform and stretching as far as he could see was beach grass growing atop dunes of sand. He heard what sounded like waves crashing in the distance. He’d never seen anything looking so bright. It was as if this place had never seen a rain cloud. The train disappeared around a corner, and Linus Baker realized he was completely alone. There was a small cobbled road that disappeared between the dunes, but Linus couldn’t see where it led to. He hoped he wouldn’t have to walk along it, not while carrying his luggage and an angry cat. “What should we do?” he wondered aloud. No one responded, which was probably for the best. If someone had responded, he probably would have— A loud ringing noise startled him from this thoughts. He jerked his head. There, hanging on the side of the train platform, was a bright orange phone. “Should I answer it?” he asked Calliope, tilting his head toward the front of the crate. Calliope turned around completely, presenting him with her rump. He figured that was the best he was going to get. He left his luggage where it was and walked toward the phone. He set the crate down in the shade. He stared at the ringing phone for a moment before steeling himself and picking it up. “Hello?” “Ah, finally,” a voice said in response. “You’re late.” “I am?” “Yes. I’ve called four times in the last hour. Since I couldn’t be sure you’d actually arrive, I didn’t want to make the trip off the island until I was sure you’d be there.” “You’re calling for Linus Baker, correct?” She snorted. “Who else would I be calling for?” He felt relieved. “I’m Linus Baker.” “Bully for you.” Linus frowned. “Pardon?” “I’ll be there in an hour, Mr. Baker.” He heard a whispering in the background. “I’m told you have an envelope you need to open now that you’ve arrived. It would be best if you did so. Things will make more sense if you do.” “How did you know about—” “Toodle-oo, Mr. Baker. I’ll see you shortly.” The line cut off, and he was left with a dial tone. He stared at the handset before hanging it back where it belonged. He stared at it for a moment more before shaking his head. “Now, then,” he said to Calliope as he sat on the bench with a huff. He pulled his suitcase toward him. “Let’s see what all the secrecy is about, shall we?” Calliope ignored him. He unzipped his bag enough for him to reach inside for the envelope he’d placed on top. It was thick, nearly bursting at the seams. The seal on the back was made of bloodred wax, the word DICOMY stamped into it. He broke the seal, the wax crumbling onto his lap and bouncing to the ground. He pulled out the bundle of papers, held together by a leather strap. On the top was a letter addressed to him, typed neatly and cleanly. DEPARTMENT IN CHARGE OF MAGICAL YOUTH OFFICES OF EXTREMELY UPPER MANAGEMENT * * * Mr. Baker, You have been chosen for the most important of assignments. As a reminder, this is CLASSIFIED LEVEL FOUR. Any parties disseminating information to those who do not meet the required classification level will receive punishment beginning at immediate termination and up to incarceration for ten years. Enclosed, you will find seven files. Six belong to the children at the Marsyas Island Orphanage. The seventh belongs to Master Arthur Parnassus. Under no circumstances should you share any of the contents of these files with the residents of the Marsyas Island Orphanage. They are for your eyes only. This orphanage is different than all the others you’ve been to, Mr. Baker. It is important that you do your best to protect yourself. You will be staying at the guest house on the island, and we suggest locking all the doors and windows at night to avoid any … disturbances. “Oh dear,” Linus breathed. Your work on Marsyas is important. Your reports will provide us with the necessary information to see if this orphanage can remain open, or if it needs to be shut permanently. Arthur Parnassus has been entrusted with a great responsibility, but it remains to be seen if that trust is still warranted. Eyes and ears open, Mr. Baker. Always. We expect the searing honesty you’re known for. If anything appears out of order, you must bring it to our attention. There is nothing more important than ensuring things are on the up-and-up. And also make sure the children are safe, of course. From each other, and themselves. One, in particular. His file is the first you’ll see. We look forward to your extraordinarily thorough reports. Sincerely, CHARLES WERNER EXTREMELY UPPER MANAGEMENT “What on earth have I gotten myself into now?” Linus whispered as another breeze ruffled the letter in his hand. He read through the letter a second time, trying to read between the lines, but he was left with more questions than answers. He folded the letter and put it in his breast pocket before looking at the files in his hand. “No time like the present, I suppose,” he told Calliope. “Let’s see how big of a secret this actually is. I’m sure this is all blown out of proportion. The higher your expectations, the greater the disappointment.” He flipped open the first file. Attached to the top was a photograph of a young boy of perhaps six or seven years of age. He was smiling rather devilishly. He was missing his two front teeth, his hair was a mess, sticking up all over the place, and his eyes were— Well. They looked as if they were suffering from red-eye effect, the flash happening too quickly for the pupils to react. There was a ring of blue around the red. It was certainly chilling, but Linus had seen it many times before. Just a trick of the light. That’s all it was. Underneath the photograph, in blocky letters, was a name. LUCY. “A boy named Lucy,” Linus said. “That’s certainly a first. I wonder why they chose … the name … Lucy…” The last word came out choked. There, written in clear English, was exactly the reason why. The file read: NAME: LUCIFER (NICKNAME LUCY) AGE: SIX YEARS, SIX MONTHS, SIX DAYS (AT TIME OF THIS REPORT) HAIR: BLACK EYE COLOR: BLUE/RED MOTHER: UNKNOWN (BELIEVED DECEASED) FATHER: THE DEVIL SPECIES OF MAGICAL YOUTH: ANTICHRIST Linus Baker fainted dead away. * * * “G’way,” he muttered when he felt a tapping against his cheek. “S’not time for your breakfast, Calliope.” “That’s good to know,” a voice that obviously did not belong to Calliope said. “Seeing as how it’s afternoon. Unless they breakfast late in the city. I wouldn’t know. I tend to avoid such places. Too much noise for my taste.” Linus opened his eyes, blinking slowly. A woman peered down at him, silhouetted by the sun. Linus sat up quickly. “Where am I!” The woman took a step back, a look of cool amusement on her face. “Marsyas Train Station, of course. An odd place for a nap, but I suppose it’s as good a place as any.” Linus pushed himself off the floor of the platform. He felt gritty and out of sorts. There was an ache in his head, and he seemed to have accumulated quite a collection of sand on his backside. He brushed himself off as he looked around wildly. Calliope sat in her crate, tail twitching as she watched him warily. His luggage sat near her. And there, on the bench he’d been sitting on, was a pile of folders. “Is this all you’ve got?” the woman asked, and Linus turned his attention back to her. He was immediately concerned when he couldn’t quite get a grasp on her age. Her hair sat like a white fluffy cloud atop her head. Bright flowers had been woven in. Her skin was dark and lovely, but it was her eyes that confused Linus the most. They were the eyes of someone far older than the rest of her appearance suggested. It must have been a trick of the bright sunlight, but they looked almost violet. He couldn’t place why he thought her familiar. She wore a thin wispy shirt that hung loosely on her frame. Her trousers were tan and ended mid-calf. Her feet were bare. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Ms. Chapelwhite, of course,” she said, as if he should have known. “Caretaker of Marsyas Island.” “Caretaker,” he repeated. “Is that all the luggage you’ve brought?” she asked again. “Yes, but—” “To each his own,” she said. He stood dumbfounded as she pushed by him, lifting his suitcase as if it were filled with nothing but feathers. He’d broken out in a sweat lugging it onto the train, but she seemed to have no such issue. “Gather your papers and your gigantic cat, Mr. Baker. I don’t like to dillydally, and you’re already later than I expected. I do have responsibilities, you know.” “Now see here,” he began, but she ignored him, moving toward the stairs at the edge of the platform. She descended the stairs gracefully, as if she were walking on air. It was only then that he noticed a small car idling on the road. The roof appeared to have been sheared off, leaving the seats exposed. A convertible, though he’d never actually seen one in person. He gave very real thought to grabbing Calliope and fleeing down the train tracks. Instead, he gathered his files and lifted the crate, following after the strange woman. She’d already placed his luggage in the trunk by the time he reached the car. She glanced at him, then down at the crate. “Don’t suppose you’d be fine with putting that thing in the back?” “Absolutely not,” he said, moderately offended. “That’s just cruel.” “Right,” she muttered. “Fine. You’ll have to carry it on your lap, then. Or we can fasten it to the hood, if you think that’d work better.” He was scandalized. “She would be so angry.” Ms. Chapelwhite shrugged. “I’m sure she’d get over it.” “I’m not tying her to the hood of the car!” “Your choice. Get in, Mr. Baker. We’ll need to hurry. I told Merle we wouldn’t be long.” Linus’s head was spinning. “Merle?” “The ferryman,” she said, opening the door and climbing into the car. “He’ll take us to the island.” “I haven’t decided if I even want to go to the island.” She squinted up at him. “Then why are you here?” He sputtered. “It was—I was told—this isn’t—” She reached to the dash of the car toward a pair of oversize white sunglasses. “Either get in or don’t, Mr. Baker. Frankly, I would prefer if you didn’t. The Department in Charge of Magical Youth is a farce, and you seem to be nothing but a clueless lackey. I’d have no problem leaving you here. I’m sure the train will be back at some point. It always is.” That rankled him more than he expected. “What I do is most certainly not a farce!” The car turned over with a rumbling cough before the engine smoothed out. Black smoke curled from the tailpipe. “That,” Ms. Chapelwhite said, “remains to be seen. In or out, Mr. Baker.” He got in. * * * Ms. Chapelwhite seemed to get far too much enjoyment from the way Linus screamed when they took a corner at a high rate of speed. She handled the car deftly, but Linus was convinced he’d entered the vehicle of a madwoman. The wind whipped through their hair, and Linus thought she’d lose the ornamental flowers, but they snapped and swayed and stayed put. He held the folders flat against the top of the crate, not wanting to lose them over the back of the car. They drove on a narrow road through dunes that rose and fell. When the mountains of sand were at their lowest, he caught glimpses of the ocean, now much closer than it’d been from the train. Linus tried not to be distracted by the sight of it, but failed miserably. Even though he was sure he was about to die, it was still a wonder to behold. It wasn’t until he was slammed against the door after yet another corner that he found his voice again. “Would you slow down?” And wonder of all wonders, she did as he asked. “Just having some fun.” “At my expense!” She glanced over at him, hair bouncing around her head. “You’re wound up awfully tight.” He bristled. “Wanting to live is not being wound up.” “Your tie is crooked.” “It is? Thank you. I hate it when I look disheveled—that’s not funny.” He saw a flash of teeth through her smile. “Maybe there’s hope for you, after all. Not much, but a little.” She looked at him again, for longer than Linus felt was safe. “You don’t look like I expected.” He didn’t know what to do with that. He’d never really been seen before. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “That you look unexpected.” “Do you often speak without saying anything at all?” “Quite often. But not this time, Mr. Baker.” She took another corner at a much lower speed. “I thought you would be younger. Your type usually is.” “My type?” “Caseworkers. Been doing it long?” He frowned. “Long enough.” “And do you enjoy your work, Mr. Baker?” “I’m good at it.” “That’s not what I asked.” “It’s the same thing.” She shook her head. “Why were you sleeping on the platform? Couldn’t you have done that on the train?” “I wasn’t sleeping. I was—” It hit him, then, what he’d forgotten since he’d been rudely awoken. “Oh my.” “What?’ “Oh my.” He couldn’t catch his breath. Ms. Chapelwhite looked alarmed. “Are you having a heart attack?” He didn’t know. He’d never had one before, and he couldn’t be sure what they felt like. But given that he was forty years old with extra pounds and high blood pressure, that certainly seemed like a possibility. “Damn,” he heard her mutter as she jerked the car to the side of the road, slamming the brakes. Linus struggled to breathe, putting his forehead on the top of the crate. His vision had narrowed to pinholes, and there was a roaring in his ears. He was sure he was about to pass out again (or possibly die from a heart attack), when he felt a cool hand press against the back of his neck. He managed to suck in a deep breath as his heart rate slowed. “There,” he heard Ms. Chapelwhite say. “That’s better. Another breath, Mr. Baker. That’s it.” “The file,” he managed to say. “I read the file.” She squeezed the back of his neck once before letting go. “About Lucy?” “Yes. I didn’t expect it.” “No, I don’t suppose you did.” “Is it…” “True?” He nodded, face still pressed against the crate. She didn’t respond. He lifted his head, looking over at her. She was staring straight ahead, hands in her lap. “Yes,” she finally said. “It’s true.” “How on earth is this possible?” She shook her head. “It’s not—he’s not what you think. None of them are.” That startled him. “I didn’t even look at the other files.” A terrible thought struck him. “Are the others worse?” She ripped off her sunglasses, looking at him sharply. “It can’t be any worse because there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They’re children.” “Yes, but—” “No buts,” she snapped. “I know you have a job to do, Mr. Baker. And I know you probably do it well. Too well, if you ask me. You would have to in order for DICOMY to send you here. We’re not exactly orthodox.” “I should say not. You have the Antichrist on the island.” “Lucy isn’t—” She shook her head, obviously frustrated. “Why are you here?” “To ensure the safety of the children,” he said as if it were second nature. “To see that they are being provided for. Cared for. And that they aren’t in danger, either from themselves or others.” “And that goes for all children, correct?” “Yes, but—” “No buts. It doesn’t matter where he came from. Or what he is. He is a child, and your job, as much as it is mine or Arthur’s, is to protect him. And all the others.” He gaped at her. She slid her sunglasses back on. “Close your mouth, Mr. Baker. You don’t want to swallow a bug.” She gunned the engine again and pulled back onto the road. * * * “Seven files,” he said a few minutes later after coming out of his daze. “What?” “Seven files. I was given seven files. Six children. The master of the orphanage. That’s seven.” “Rudimentary counting a priority at DICOMY, is it?” He ignored the barb. “There isn’t one for you.” He saw a sign in the distance, approaching on the right at the top of the next hill. “Of course not. I’m not employed by DICOMY. I told you. I’m a caretaker.” “Of the house?” “That. And also the island. Runs in the family. Has for generations.” Linus Baker had been in his job for a long time. And yes, he was good at it. He could think analytically, could notice the little cues that others could not. It was why, he thought, he’d been chosen for this assignment. That being said, he should have recognized it the moment he opened his eyes on the platform. Fainting after receiving the shock of his life shouldn’t have been an excuse. The violet in her eyes should have given it away. It hadn’t been a trick of the light. “You’re a sprite,” he said. “An island sprite.” He’d surprised her. She tried to cover it up, and had he not known what to look for, he would’ve missed it. “What makes you think that?” she asked, voice even. “You’re a caretaker.” “That means nothing.” “Your eyes.” “Unusual, sure, but certainly not unique.” “You carried my luggage—” “Oh, I apologize. Had I known I was destroying your toxic masculinity, I wouldn’t have—” “You’re barefoot.” This caused her to pause. “I live near the ocean,” she said slowly. “Maybe I’m always barefoot.” He shook his head. “The sun is high in the sky. The road must be extremely hot. And yet, you walked along it as if it were nothing. Sprites don’t like shoes. Too confining. And nothing hurts their feet. Not even heated asphalt.” She sighed. “You’re smarter than you look. That can’t possibly be good.” “Are you registered?” he demanded. “Does DICOMY know that you’re—” She bared her teeth. “I was never in the system, Mr. Baker. My line is far older than the rules of men. Just because you have decided that all magical beings need to be tagged in the wild for tracking doesn’t give you the right to question me or my legal status.” He blanched. “That’s— You’re right. I shouldn’t have said that.” “Was that an apology?” “I think so.” “Good. Don’t ask about my status again.” “It’s just— I’ve never met an island sprite before. A water sprite, yes. And even a cave one once. It’s how I was able to recognize you. I didn’t know you existed.” She snorted. “I’m sure there’s much you don’t know about existing, Mr. Baker. Look. There. We’re almost to the ferry.” He followed where she was pointing. Up ahead, the sign he’d seen in the distance was approaching as they crested the hill. Above the picture of a palm tree and the waves of the ocean was the legend: VILLAGE OF MARSYAS. “I’ve never heard of this place before,” he admitted as they drove past. “The village. Is it nice?” “Depends on your definition of nice. To you, probably. To me, no.” They reached the top of the hill. Below them, along the edges of the ocean, was a cluster of brightly colored buildings nestled amongst tall trees that had been bent over time with the winds. He could see houses spread out into the forest, all in pastels and thatched roofs. It looked like he always dreamed a place near the ocean would. It caused his heart to ache. “We won’t stop, so don’t ask,” she warned him. “They don’t like it when we do.” “What do you mean?” “Not everyone is as progressive as you, Mr. Baker,” she said, and he knew he was being mocked. “The people of Marsyas don’t appreciate our kind.” That surprised him. “Sprites?” She laughed again, but the bitterness was heavy. “All magical beings, Mr. Baker.” It didn’t take long to see what she meant. As soon as they pulled onto the main thoroughfare, heading through the village, people on the streets and in the shops turned toward the sound of the car. Linus had been on the receiving end of many looks of disapproval in his life, but never ones filled with so much hostility. People in board shorts and bikinis and rubber flip-flops turned to glare at them openly as they drove through. He tried waving at a few of them, but it didn’t do any good. He even saw a man inside what looked to be a seafood shanty reach up and lock the door as they drove by. “Well, I never,” Linus said with a sniff. “You get used to it,” Ms. Chapelwhite said. “Surprisingly.” “Why are they like this?” “I don’t pretend to know the minds of men,” she said, hands tightening on the steering wheel as a woman on the sidewalk appeared to shield her chubby, squawking children away from the car. “They fear what they don’t understand. And that fear turns to hate for reasons I’m sure even they can’t begin to comprehend. And since they don’t understand the children, since they fear them, they hate them. This can’t be the first time you’ve heard of this. It happens everywhere.” “I don’t hate anything,” Linus said. “You lie.” He shook his head. “No. Hate is a waste of time. I’m far too busy to hate anything. I prefer it that way.” She glanced at him, her expression hidden behind her sunglasses. She opened her mouth—to say what, he didn’t know—but appeared to change her mind. Instead, she said, “We’re here. Stay in the car.” She parked at the edge of a pier. She got out before Linus could say another word. There was a man standing next to a small ferry, tapping his foot impatiently. Behind him, Linus thought he could see the faint outline of an island. “It’s getting late,” the man snapped at Ms. Chapelwhite as she approached, voice drifting over to Linus. “You know I can’t be at the island after dark.” “It’s fine, Merle. I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.” “That’s not as comforting as you seem to think it is.” He spat over the edge of the pier into the water before looking over her shoulder at Linus. “That’s him, then?” She glanced back at him. “That’s him.” “Thought he’d be younger.” “That’s what I said.” “All right. Let’s get on with it. And you tell Parnassus my rates have doubled.” She sighed. “I’ll let him know.” Merle nodded, and with one last withering look at Linus he turned and jumped deftly onto the ferry. Ms. Chapelwhite turned back toward the car. “I think we might have gotten into something bigger than we were led to believe,” Linus whispered to Calliope. She purred in response. “All right?” he asked as the sprite climbed back inside the car. He wasn’t sure it was; Merle seemed to be a troublesome fellow. “All right,” she muttered. The car turned over again, and she pulled forward as Merle lowered the gate onto the ferry. There was a moment when Linus’s stomach dropped as the gate creaked and groaned under their weight, but it was over before he could react. She put the car in park and pressed a button. Linus startled as the sounds of gears rumbled from the rear of the car. He looked back in time to see a vinyl roof rising up and over them. It locked into place with a terrible finality. She shut the car off before turning toward him. “Look, Mr. Baker. I think we got off on the wrong foot.” “You mean you’re not always such a joy to be around? Could have fooled me.” She glared at him. “I’m a sprite, which means I’m very protective of what’s mine.” “The island,” Linus said. She nodded. “And all its inhabitants.” He hesitated. Then, “Are you and this Mr. Parnassus…” She arched an eyebrow. He flushed as he coughed and looked away. “Never mind.” She laughed at him, though not unkindly. “No. Trust me when I say that would never happen.” “Oh. Well. Good to know.” “I know you have a job to do,” she continued. “And you’re finding out it’s like nothing you’ve ever done before, but all I ask is that you give them a chance. They’re more than what’s in their files.” “Are you telling me how to do my job?” he asked stiffly. “I’m asking for an ounce of compassion.” “I know compassion, Ms. Chapelwhite. It’s why I do what I do.” “You really believe that, don’t you?” He looked at her sharply. “What’s that supposed to mean?” She shook her head. “You don’t have a file on me because I’m not supposed to exist. Arthur—Mr. Parnassus—sent me as an act of good faith. To show you how serious he is. He knows the kind of person you can be. He hopes you can be that person here.” Linus felt a trickle of dread at the base of his spine. “How does he know a single thing about me? He can’t know who was assigned. I didn’t even know until yesterday.” She shrugged. “He has his ways. You should use the time you have left before arriving at the island to review the remaining files. It’s best if you know what you’re walking into before you do. It’ll be safer, I think.” “For who?” There was no answer. He turned to find the driver’s seat empty, as if she’d never been there at all. “Bugger,” he muttered. * * * He considered doing what she asked. Forewarned was forearmed and all that, but he couldn’t bring himself to peruse the files after what he’d discovered in Lucy’s, fearing that it would only get exponentially worse. Extremely Upper Management certainly hadn’t made things any easier, given their dire warnings about how the inhabitants of the island were unlike anything he’d ever seen before. Ms. Chapelwhite had only seemed to confirm that. He wondered briefly if he’d said too much to her, or if she’d managed to peek inside the files while he’d been lying on the platform. Both seemed likely, and he reminded himself to be on his guard from here on in. Not trusting himself to maintain consciousness, he sat with the files on his lap, fingers twitching, the urge to know what he was walking into shrinking in the face of the desire to keep his sanity firmly in place. He thought of all manner of things, from terrible monsters with wickedly sharp teeth to fire and brimstone. They were children, he told himself, but even children could bite if provoked. And if they happened to be worse than what he was imagining, he would rather not know about it beforehand in case he found himself unable to leave the ferry. But still … He shuffled through the files, looking for one in particular. He inhaled sharply when he saw Lucy’s and skipped by it as quickly as possible until he found the one he wanted. The master of the house. Arthur Parnassus. The file was thin, consisting of a blurry photograph of a spindly man against a blue background and a single sheet of paper. He certainly seemed … normal, but appearances could be deceiving. The file (as much as it could be called that for something so sparse) didn’t tell him much more, as certain parts were redacted and the rest were bits and pieces without rhyme or reason. Aside from learning his age (forty-five) and the fact that his tenure at Marsyas appeared to be without any significant issue, there wasn’t much more Linus could glean from it. He didn’t know whether he was disappointed or relieved. The sun was beginning to set by the time a bell rang, signaling the arrival at the island. He was lost in thought when the ferry shuddered underneath him, and he looked out the back window to see the ferry gate lowering against a small dock. A shadow stretched over the windshield as he turned around. “This is where you get off!” a voice shouted at him. He peered up through the windshield. Merle stood above him, hands on his hips. “Off,” he repeated. “But—” “Get off my damn boat!” “What an ass,” Linus muttered. The key was still in the ignition, and Linus figured he should at least be thankful for that. He opened the passenger door and almost fell out. He was able to save himself and Calliope at the last second, though she wasn’t appreciative of his acrobatics. He set her on the seat and shut the door against her hissing. He tipped a jaunty salute up to Merle as he rounded the back of the car. Merle didn’t respond. “Certainly off to an auspicious start,” Linus said under his breath. The driver’s door creaked as he shut it behind him. It’d been a while since he’d driven. He’d never actually owned a car of his own. It was too much of a hassle in the city. He’d rented one once, years ago, planning on spending a weekend driving out to the country, but he’d been called into work at the last minute and ended up returning the car only an hour after he’d taken it out. He pushed the seat back before turning the key. The car rumbled to life around him. “Okay, then,” Linus said to Calliope, hands sweating against the steering wheel. “Let’s see what we see, shall we?” FIVE There were no signs pointing in any direction, but since there was only one road, Linus figured he must be heading the right way. It only took a few minutes of driving away from the ferry landing before he found himself in an old forest, the trees massive, their canopies almost completely blocking out the sky streaked in pinks and oranges. Leafy vines hung from tree limbs, loud birds called from unseen perches. “I don’t suppose this is some sort of trap?” Linus said to Calliope as it grew darker the deeper into the forest they went. “Maybe this is where everyone goes after they’ve been sacked. They think they’re getting a top assignment, but instead, they get sacrificed in the middle of nowhere.” It wasn’t a pleasant thought, so he pushed it away. He couldn’t find the lever for the headlamps, so he leaned forward as close to the windshield as he could get. It was dusk. His stomach rumbled, but he hadn’t felt like eating less in his life. He knew Calliope would probably be looking for a litter box soon, but he didn’t want to stop until he had some idea where he was. His luck would have Calliope running off into the woods, forcing Linus to chase after her. “And I probably wouldn’t,” he told her. “I’d leave you out here to fend for yourself.” He wouldn’t, but she didn’t need to know that. The odometer had turned over two additional miles, and he was about to start panicking—after all, the island couldn’t be that big, could it?—when the forest fell away around him, and he saw it. There, ahead of him, set against the falling sun, was a house. Linus had never seen one quite like it before. It was set up a hill on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It looked as if it were at least a hundred years old. It was made of brick and had a large turret, of all things, set right in the middle of the roof. The side of the house facing Linus was covered in green ivy, growing around multiple white window frames. He thought he could see the outline of a gazebo set off next to the house and wondered if there was a garden. He would like that very much. He could walk through it, smelling the salt in the air and— He shook his head. He wasn’t here for such things. There would be no time for frivolities. He had a job to do, and he was going to do it right. He turned the car toward what appeared to be a long driveway that led up to the house. The closer he got, the bigger it grew, and Linus couldn’t be sure how he’d never heard of this place. Oh, not the orphanage, not if Extremely Upper Management didn’t want anyone to know. But surely this island, this house should have been known to him. He wracked his brain, but came up