A high school student finds a grimoire that shows how to make magical disguises.
|Previously: "The Girl Who Could Be More"
You picked Stephanie as your disguise because you thought you could use her swagger for the next part of the plan. But even with Stephanie's sports-hardened body and her don't-fuck-with-me confidence, you flinch at the thought of approaching any of your suspects.
Steve Patterson would probably be the easiest to tackle. Horn dog that he is, he would certainly love to nail Stephanie to the fuck mattress up in the gym loft, and brag about it afterward. You coldly smile at the thought of the scandal that would ensue—Patterson boasting and Stephanie hotly denying—and the trouble it would cause two people you don't much like. But even Stephanie feels daunted by Patterson's frosty self-regard.
You could probably tempt Lynch into a hook up too, but you quail at the thought. Lynch is a loathsome, giggling psychopath whose touch you don't think you could abide. True, you wouldn't have to actually do anything with him—or with Patterson, for that matter—and there'd be a lot of trouble if Lynch tried to follow up with the real Stephanie. But the less you have to do Lynch, the happier you would be.
As for Gary Chen ... Well, even Stephanie is afraid of him. He is quick with his fists, and he is such a degenerate that she would put nothing past him.
So Patterson would be your first choice if you wanted to play it as safe as you could. But you're not trying to play it safe. You have only one of those mind-copying things left, and though you can use Chelsea's credit card to buy more supplies, you don't want to waste magical items. And that means you want to get this one onto the likeliest suspect.
You're not sure that Chen that's Chen, but after thinking it over, you decide that his brain would be the most useful to copy. If you're going to partner with him, knowing how he thinks—would be invaluable.
You text Chen from Chelsea's phone (quickly erasing the message afterward), telling him to meet a "buyer" at the Acheson Community Center tomorrow (a Saturday) at noon.
* * * * *
Your first clue that things aren't going to go the way you plan comes when you are woken the next morning by a text from Caleb. Your first grumpy thought as you blink at the screen is, Why is that loser texting me, Chelsea Cooper? Your second thought is a slightly panicked Shit! after you read the actual text: What happnd to all the stuff n the basemnt? He must be out there now, looking for the last mask and the last few mind-thingies.
I need them, you text back. To his Y you reply, Lets meet and talk. After some quick thinking, you tell him to meet you up at La Patisserie, a frou-frou pastry shop behind the mall, on the opposite side of town from Acheson, at twelve-fifteen. That will get him as far from the old school as possible at the hour you (as Stephanie) will be meeting with Chen.
* * * * *
The old school looks abandoned when you arrive at around eleven-thirty, and you waste no time diving into the basement to change masks and clothes. Even with the head start, the time on your phone reads nearly noon when—groggy from passing out twice during the changeover—you finally stagger out of the basement in Stephanie Wyatt's face, form and imitation uniform. You shake yourself out all over. Then, with nothing else to do as you wait for Chen, you settle onto the grass in front of the basement to do some stretching and warm-up routines.
You're still in the middle of those when with an insolent roar of the motor, Chen's red Jeep skids up. You get up and shake yourself out again, and wait for Chen to make a move. It's some minutes before he dismounts, though, wearing an expression of anger and skepticism. "Hey!" you call out to him.
"Yeah, hey yourself," he retorts, then glances around without coming any closer. "You live around here?"
"Down by the river, thataways." You point. (Which is true enough, Stephanie doesn't live far from you, though her memories tell you she never comes out to the community center.) "I guess you got Chelsea's text."
Chen shies at your statement. "You're who I'm supposed to meet?" he asks. You nod. "Fuck."
His eyes glitter as he studies you, and he sucks in a cheek. Then—still not relaxing—he says, "Okay, what are we talking about?"
"Ten." You splay your palms, showing ten fingers. "I hear that's, what, eighty dollars?"
"Yeah." Chen squints and glances around. "You have that with you?"
"Yes," you lie. "You have ten joi—?"
"No, but I can tell you where you can maybe pick some up."
"What? From who?"
He holds your eye. Then, without answering, he opens his Jeep door and leans in to take out a back pack, which he swings up onto his shoulder.
"Not who," he says. "Where. Like, where there's a rock where someone might, you know, have lost something. Like, a baggie or something." His eyes continue to dart about, and he even glances behind him, as though afraid someone or something might be creeping up behind.
"Look, I didn't come out here to play hide and seek or—"
"And I don't want anything from you, either," he interrupts, and stops you with a single raised finger as you take two steps toward him. "But if there's, you know, like, four twenties that you saw laying around somewhere that you didn't pick up because—"
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Your fear is giving away to annoyance. "I don't have time to—!"
"You don't have time for me?" he retorts. "'S'fine. I'm not sure I got time for you!"
You make a face. But as you glance around with exasperation, your eye falls on the basement door. It gives you a bright idea.
"Wait here," you tell Chen, and march back and down into the basement. You glance around the dim and dusty space, and open and shut a couple of desk drawers. You did take the precaution of bringing a hundred dollars with you—drawn from Chelsea's savings—and you drop four twenties into one of the drawers.
Outside, Chen face seems to have lost some of its tan, and he eyes you warily as you point to the basement.
"Down there," you tell him. "I think somebody left some money down there."
He approaches like a dog shy of being hit—or one that's thinking of biting first. You draw back to give him room to pass. He gives you one last baleful glance before creeping down the stairs and into the basement.
Your heart is beating hard as you follow him down and inside. Your palm is slick with sweat, and you have to wipe it on your shorts before reaching into your pocket and pulling out the metal band.
But he hunches under his backpack and keeps a shoulder to you as he edges down the inner stairs to the floor below. "The fuck is this place?" he asks.
"Old school basement. Dur."
"And they keep it open?"
"How do you know about it?"
"I sometimes come out here."
Chen grunts. With the stealth—and jumpiness—of a nervous cat, he glides around the basement, touching surfaces but not opening any of the drawers. You grit your teeth, willing him to turn his back on you so you can get up behind him. But no matter which way he turns, he always twists around to put a shoulder to you so he can watch you from the corner of his eye.
So intent are you on looking for an opening that you don't even notice when he stops next to the old conference table that you and Caleb have turned into a makeshift work table. "Someone's been coming down here," he says. "You?"
"No, not me. Must be the custodians."
"I guess they like to do their reading down here."
That's when you notice that he's laid his hand on the red leather cover of the book that's sitting on the table. Your heart goes into your throat with an audible click.
"Yeah, hey, that money I was telling you about," you say in a quavering voice. "I saw it in this desk back here." Please come away from there, you silently plead with him.
"Huh," he says, sounding uninterested. His eyes continue to rove over the basement. "How about you wait outside?"
"What? How come?"
"Because that's the way we do it. Or we don't do it."
"Jesus!" But with an elaborate sigh you turn and stalk back outside.
Then you position yourself above the stairs, so that you can drop on him when he comes out.
It's a long minute before he shows himself, and you waste no time, dropping in front of him like a ninja (you flatter yourself.) You slap the metal band to his forehead. His eyes, wide with surprise and anger, lose their focus, and he crumples in a heap inside the open basement doorway.
You push him inside, then change your mind and—straining all your back muscles—pull him back out and drape him over the stairs. You hunch over him, waiting for the metal band to appear on his forehead. As you wait, you pull the door shut and lock it again, to keep him from getting back inside.
When the band pops out, you pocket it and drive off without waiting for him to wake.
* * * * *
Naturally, Caleb is pissed when you text him to say you want to meet at the elementary school instead of La Patisserie, and at one-thirty instead of now. You're back in Chelsea's mask by then, so you don't care, though you do try to mollify him by promising to pay for replacement supplies.
He sounds unimpressed, though, as he glances around the basement. "Where'd you put the book?" he asks.
That's when you realize that it's gone.
* To tell Caleb that Chen must have walked off with it: "The Book, Mobile"
* To take care of the issue without telling Caleb: "Gone, Book, Gone"