The hot summer sun poured through thin closed windows, baking each of Madam Marjorie’s students, amplifying every discomfort and pleasing no one. The smell was bad, the glare on their new white plastic desks was somehow worse, and the heat itself came in first place as the top most miserable. Sweat was running on Camilo’s forehead, on his arms, even on the backs of his knees. Camilo was sure that no one was paying attention to the lesson, and Madam Marjorie was either oblivious or just didn’t care.
Camilo watched as the analog clock ticked the seconds away. He wondered idly how old it was– twenty years old? Thirty? It could’ve been installed by Madam Marjorie the day she started working here, and that was a very long time ago…
Mere moments before the bell was set to release Camilo from his sweltering prison, there was a brief vibration in his pocket. It shook five times in a distinct one, two, three… four, five pattern.
Camilo grinned. He raised his hand, and the Madam looked at him. “Pardon me, but the heat is so much, I need to refill my water.” She nodded, and Camilo didn’t bother bringing his school bag, textbooks, or homework out of the room with him.
Every time Nial sent him a message, Camilo knew he would be rolling into school the next day on no sleep, four to six energy drinks, and precious little remaining attention span. There was nothing in his bag that would change or help that.
Luise, having already graduated, did not notice as Nialghas sent her a text. She was elbow-deep in soil, with her phone a forgotten complication left in the glovebox of her car. Another greenhouse was going up, and she was filling the growing beds– only, whoever had built the damn things had left one side unjoined. No screws or nails or even glue on the side that was meant to face the greenhouse’s wall, so a good portion of Luise’s soil had spilled out of the side upon filling. Luise knew whose fault it was, too. They only had two people working the carpentry side of things, and it wasn’t old Linus who had skipped this crucial step. No, it would’ve been the know-it-all son of a bitch teenage dropout who couldn’t pull his head out of his ass for one godforsaken minute-
Luise stopped herself. That was a bad energy to bring into this new project- and her vacation was just about to begin. There was no need to let someone else’s egregious incompetence at basic, simple, child’s play tasks that she could do in her freaking sleep…
Luise took a deep breath.
Two days from now she was catching a flight back home. She was overdue for family, friends, and a Florida Sunrise or six. In those two gap days, maybe she would try and catch a bit of Nial’s spare time, see if she couldn’t convince him to lend his mind to her blueprints for the vertical farm system she’d designed. It looked fine on paper, but sometimes her thoughts would just…jumble up in a fit of passion, and Nialghas had a knack for helping catch the sore-thumb errors she’d leave unchecked.
Those were the things she wanted to consider. Her coworkers…the issue could wait. Maybe she’d just leave a polite note.
Attached to the teenager’s forehead with a stapler.
Eroll was deep in thought. Each wave crashed along the beach with strength and subtlety, and in it, Eroll heard nature itself calling out to him. There were words in the breeze, lyrics to the sand, and a melody in the ocean. He wanted to capture the essence of nature and transcribe it to song, but…it wasn’t going very well today. He had lugged a violin, a guitar, and a kalimba (as a sort of budget piano option) down to the mostly-abandoned beachfront and just sort of willed the magic to happen.
Willpower won’t always get you where you want to go. Often, but not always.
Eroll was about to figuratively wash his hands of the day when he heard the ringing of his cellphone. He pulled it out from under his leg where he’d stashed it during his pseudo-meditation, and saw Nial’s name. He answered hastily.
“I’ve got something I could use your help with, Eroll. Do you have any free time tonight?” His voice was warm, but oddly precise. Almost strict. Like he was anxious.
Eroll mused for half a moment. “Help? I know you often consult with Luise, but for what reason could you use my help? Do you need a lesson in musical theory or disappointing your parents?”
Nial chuckled from across the phone. “Mmm. Just swing by if you want a brain teaser, okay?”
“I imagine I can swipe my dad’s keys as soon as he’s home, which should be…oh, damn, I’ve been out here longer than I thought. I’ll be there in maybe an hour.”
“Ideal. See you then, Eroll.”
Eroll scrunched his face as he ended the call. He and Nial would often go to concerts together, wine tastings, or just wander their humid city in the late hours of the night, often breaching into the earliest hours of the morning, talking. Never before had Nial asked him for help, not for so much as a wingman on a double date or to cover a few hours at his mother’s bookstore.
Eroll returned his instruments to his home, carrying the violin and guitar in one hand each, and the kalimba in his teeth. He was not a believer in making multiple trips.
The bookstore was flooded– not with water, no, the humidity was maintained at exactly fifty percent at all times, with the exception of the one time Nialghas had shaved his head into the sink, causing a clog and a subsequent burst pipe. He endured a very long lesson in ‘consequences’ that day.
The bookstore was, however, flooded with an abundance of books. They lined the shelves fully, and had, for a time, been made into somewhat charming decorative piles on the counterspace, tables, and windows. Now there were more, and the books were beginning to amass on the hardwood floors in unkempt stacks.
“It’s like a blessing.” Nial’s mother had said between labored breaths as she shifted box after box into their upstairs living quarters.
“It’s ridiculous, is what it is. And we’re meant to receive another dozen boxes by the end of the month? Even if we put on a clearout sale, we won’t have room for people to come and buy, and we won’t have room to breathe!”
“It was a great deal, Nialghas. No complaining.”
“Mm. Yes.” He had agreed. As the organization attempt continued, Nial had taken brief glimpses at each book to see if they had potential for resale. Some of them were damaged, missing pages, but mostly it was fine. The collection was rather eclectic, but generally practical. Nothing in the fiction genre at all, though there were some comic books. All Starwars, all of them focused on the stories of the Sith. The rest were biographies or textbooks like ‘Organic Chemistry for Dummies’, or ‘Nutrition Concepts and Controversies’.
Then, just that morning, Nial had come across one that wouldn’t have stood out if he hadn’t been examining them individually. The cover was plain and slightly worn, claiming to be a travel guide for all of central Europe. It was a very thick manual, and Nial barely registered what he saw when he cracked the book’s spine.
Every margin was filled with nonsensical notes. Random words were underlined, definitions were added, and every single actual itinerary was scribbled out and replaced with a custom one. None of this was particularly shocking, until he noticed that the custom itineraries were terrible. They wasted hours and hours of travel time hopping back and forth. France was to be visited, but the main attractions were ignored, including the food! They claimed to only need to go to France to visit Big Ben, which wasn’t where Big Ben was.
Nial, being some combination of confused and indignant, decided he wanted to piece together the thought process of the writer. Were they going there on business? Keeping costs low would explain why they didn’t plan to visit any notable restaurants. The organization still didn’t make sense. Was it a touring group, like a rock band? That would explain the bizarre pattern.
As Nial dug into it, nothing became apparent. Nothing made sense.
Finally, Nial caught on to different pages using the same key location twice- Big Ben. Perhaps this travel guide was being used to write a code? Like teenagers passing notes in school– but what school would offer a course on travel?
None of it made sense, so Nial perched on top of a stack of books with his nose buried for hours. His focus was intense, unyielding. His mother tried for a moment to pry him away, but the look in his eyes was familiar to her. There was nothing to be done but wait until he had satisfied his curiosity. She was out of a helper for at least a few hours.
An hour in, Nial grabbed a few spare sheets of paper and a pencil, and began sketching diagrams. Another hour in, and there was a music score. Nial had grabbed an encyclopedia and left it open on ‘N’.
“N…e…c. Neck. Necktie? Nectarine.” He muttered.
“You sound like a crazy person again.” His mother chastised.
He smiled wryly. “Could see it happening.”
From the diagrams and a particularly wrong hand-written blurb about Ghengis Khan, Nial had managed to find a date, which was set for two days from now. The remainder of the word was lost in the musical score he couldn’t wrap his mind around. Then there were a dozen loose ends centered around the continued reference of cafes. Green tea came up ten times in the first chapter, and then seven times in chapter ten. He was absolutely lost on where to go from there, and the gears of his mind were overheating.
Luise could help. Might even find it fun, even if at the end all that it was was a meaningless prank or means for someone else to distract themselves.
She couldn’t help with the music, though. Eroll was big into music. Was he free, or had his parents stolen him for another excessive cruise to somewhere even warmer than their home? Eroll hated those trips, hated exuberance and luxury.
Giving him a call couldn’t hurt…and he’d shoot a text to Luise as well.
Then there were the vibes to consider. Luise and Eroll could sometimes play off one another in a negative way. Though Camilo was the youngest of them, his energy was infectious and he was exceptionally good at keeping things positive. He was, socially, a leader– or he would be when he grew into the role.
Satisfied, Nial contacted these three of his friends, then stared at the book, stumped, waiting for them to arrive.
Luise drove carefully past the highschool that lay between her and Nial’s shop/home. School was letting out, and she still vividly recalled the day one of her friends had jumped out from in front of a parked bus and slipped under an oncoming car– they suffered a shattered ankle and foot, but escaped with their life. It could very easily have gone the other way, and Luise remained vigilant against this kind of thing ever happening again.
A few blocks past the school, there was a broad-backed teenager who was well ahead of the rest of the pack. Someone who had obviously skipped out just a little early. Luise smiled as she pulled up alongside Camilo. “Camilo! Want a ride?”
Camilo grinned when he saw Luise’s face. Without a word, he slid across the hood of her car and hopped in the passenger’s side.
“Skipping out a little early, hmm?”
“Yeah but don’t tell your mom about it. She’d tell Madam Marjorie, then I’d have to endure another suspension.”
“Ooh, Marjorie is still at the school? I thought she’d have retired by now.”
The pair chatted aimlessly until Luise made the final turn that would lead them to Nialghas’s home.
“Did he tell you what’s going on, exactly?” Camilo asked.
“He said it’d be easier to show than explain. Something about a code.”
“He didn’t say shit to me. Just to come over and help him solve a problem.”
Luise scrunched up her face while she parallel parked in front of Galway’s Used Books. The store would only be open for two or three more hours, so she was sure she was fine to park there.
Luise and Camilo let themselves in, and were greeted by Nial’s mother. She beamed at them from behind a sales counter immediately to their left. “Good afternoon, children!”
“Hello, Miss Galway.” Luise said.
“Hi, Miss G! Where’s our precocious prodigy?”
“In the back, first door on the left. He’s been absorbed in his project for hours.”
“Ah, two of my favorite people!” Nial said, rising from his stool to embrace Camilo and Luise, one after the other. “How was school?”
“Imagine waking up from a nightmare, into another nightmare. And every time you think you’ve escaped, it’s just another level of nightmare.
“No. But keep thinking about that because I don’t wanna talk about school.”
Nial chuckled. “And your greenhouse, Luise?”
“Pretty much done, but I would like to run a schematic by you before I go on vacation.” Luise made her way farther into the room, which had, in another life, been the kitchen of a restaurant that failed before the Galway’s had moved in. The industrial dish washing machine was almost all that remained, that and the distinct flooring.
“Absolutely, do you have it with you? I’ll tuck it under my problem-child of a book.”
“As a problem child, I take exception to that.” Camilo said.
Luise scooped up the defaced travel guide and began to read aloud. Nial occasionally added his notes and findings to what she read, and over the course of an hour, they finished summing up everything that seemed important…just in time for Eroll to find his way in.
“Sorry I’m late, dad was giving me a bit of a ‘talking to’.” Eroll said disdainfully.
Nial stood and greeted Eroll while Luise mostly ignored his presence and continued to study. Camilo waved hello but stayed practically perched on Luise’s shoulder.
“So Luise and Camilo just read over the gist of the problem, but there’s a part that involves musical theory that I’d like you to see. Luise, may I?” Nial asked, taking the book from her hands. Luise had nodded, and reviewed notes while Nial went over the specifics with Eroll.
It sounded like gibberish to Luise. Quartet something something, anti-harmonious staccato symphony, whatever. Luise liked music but knew next to nothing about it. Camilo was looking over a map of Central Europe while this went on for another twenty minutes, then, finally, Eroll arrived at a single letter as the grand solution.
“So that makes it…Necr.”
“There’s only one way this puzzle leads, Nialghas. Necromancy, necromancer, something like that. Everything else here, we could solve it, but there’s no other word it could make.” Luise said.
“And the date attached to it, that’s two days from now.” Camilo reminded everyone.
“Hmm.” Nialghas groaned, unhappily. “I was hoping it would be something more… I don’t know, like a clue for a secret society or something more interesting. This is probably just a Dungeons and Dragons loremaster with too much time on their hands.”
Luise laughed. “Yeah, probably. Sorry the brainteaser wasn’t very climactic.”
“I’m sorry for wasting everyone’s time! Seems the fun part was already over.” Nial smiled wryly.
The group shuffled out of the back of Nial’s house, following the smell of recently-delivered pizza. It was behind the sales counter where Nial’s mother was talking with a regular Nial recognized.
“Oh, yes, I believe I know the one. Nial, could I get a hand?”
Nial passed the pizza boxes over and each of the group thanked Miss Galway before heading to the makeshift back porch to devour their windfall food without distracting the active employees.
Eroll opened the first box and tore off the lid to use as a makeshift plate. “Hawaiian, Camilo?”
“You’d take a half-eaten burger out of a back alley dumpster if it was still warm, wouldn’t you?” Luise snickered.
“Since when are you a pizza purist?” Eroll asked, arcing an eyebrow. “You were fine with Hawaiian…um, before.”
“Some people change, I suppose.” Luise said, looking away.
“But not all of us.” Eroll said with a thin smile.
“Ugh, screw the both of you. Can we get through one day without your Big Old Breakup ruining the night?” Camilo said without any real anger.
“I shouldn’t have brought it up.” Eroll said, looking away while passing the ‘plate’ to Camilo.
“Whatever.” Luise said, scooping up the second box for herself.
Camilo knew if he let the silence hold the event would turn sour. “So I learned something cool the other day, if you mix mustard with warm water and drink it you can make yourself throw up.”
“Camilo I’m eating!” Objected Luise.
“Yeah that’s probably why I thought of it. Anyway it only takes like forty minute, easy way to get out of a meeting or unwanted family gathering or something.”
Eroll inclined his head. “I could use that. God, could I use that.”
“Family planning another trip?” Luise asked, likely trying to show a modicum of civility.
“Ski trip this time. Switzerland. A couple weeks from now.”
“Torture.” Luise said, shaking her head with a grin. “Just torture.”
“Yeah, why do you hate all this stuff your parents do you for anyway?” Camilo asked. He had only been informally inducted into their group after a botched school play earlier that year and wasn’t quite caught up on the lore.
“It’s not– they don’t do any of it for me. And I hate it because my parents take their ill-gotten wealth and use it for the most selfish things. Do you know how my parents started their whole thing? With technicalities, loopholes, and fuckin blackmail. Then they got big, and pushed around all their competitors until they either gave in or went belly-up. Every expensive Hors d’Oeuvres they fed me with as a kid was a meal taken away from an innocent family. Every vacation was rightfully someone else’s college fund.”
Luise looked away. “You still could just pull a Batman. Take their money and use it for good.”
“Batman’s money wasn’t ill-gotten.” Camilo argued.
“Not helping, Cam.”
The back door creaked open, and Nialghas stepped out. “Hey friends, mom’s closing up the shop a bit early. Turns out some of the books we got we weren’t supposed to get. A storage container got cross-contaminated with boxes, sort of. Anyway, sorry for dragging you all out here, but it looks like we’ve got a ton of work to do. Eroll, do you mind giving us a hand?”
“If it’s labor you’re looking for, I’m your guy!” Camilo protested.
“No, that’s alright, Camilo. Thank you for offering. And Luise, have an awesome trip home.”
Luise nodded. “Thanks for the pizza. I’ll give you a ride home, Cam.” She spoke quickly, and was already out of her seat.
Camilo looked around, and caught on just a moment too late that there was some kind of unspoken communication going on. Camilo hated that. Why couldn’t they just be plain about it?
Camilo followed Luise to her car, and she took off.
“What did I miss?”
“Nial wanted us out, and quickly. I could take a guess as to why, but it would be just a guess.”
“He wanted Eroll to stay, and like you said, it wasn’t for labor. What does Eroll have that you don’t?”
“Um. Money, good looks, a car, money, and money?”
“I think it’s the car. But I also have a car. So why Eroll’s car and not mine?”
Camilo thought about it. “Nialghas trusts you. But he and Eroll…sometimes they get up to stuff, don’t they? Things that aren’t quite legal.”
“Yeah. Eroll and I talked about it when we were together. Nothing too crazy, just, like, weed or magic mushrooms. I don’t care for any of it.”
“So he wants Eroll for his more flexible take on what’s right and wrong?”
“No, Eroll has a very, very clear idea of right and wrong. Almost too clear. His ideas almost always disagree with the law, however, and he is comfortable on the wrong side of it.”
“They’re going to go…do crimes?”
“I have sharp ears, Camilo. The man who was speaking to Miss Galway was asking after that book. The puzzle book.”
“I’m sure of it. That’s the only reason Miss Galway would’ve needed Nialghas’s help, was because she wanted to be sure he hadn’t wrecked it.”
“I don’t know, Luise. That seems…why would anyone care? In the end the only thing the book said was “necromancy”.”
“That was the only thing we could figure out. There was a lot more there, Cam. And maybe it is nothing after all, but…well, Nial will want to get to the bottom of it, one way or another.”
“It’s not like magic is real. What is Nial gonna do, chase after the guy and beat an answer out of him?”
“Mmm, no. No, that’d be crazy.”
On Luise’s left, a black Hyundai blew past her at well beyond the speed limit. The man driving looked grim, angry. Impatient.
Following just a few cars behind him, speeding just as badly, came Eroll’s car.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Luise said. “Nialghas!”