Freddie dreamed of the Hangsman again, but this time, he was not alone.
This time, he hunted with a companion. Through woods of darkness and starlight, the Hangsman’s rope of flames flickered—and his partner’s blade shone with fire.
The Headsman was now hunting too.
Heat pulsed against Freddie no matter how far ahead she seemed to run, and worse, she was not alone either. Mrs. Ferris stumbled alongside her, and though Freddie tried to get the old woman to run, Mrs. Ferris would never move faster than a sluggish crawl.
“Please,” Freddie begged, over and over again, towing at the old woman’s bony elbow. “I didn’t mean to leave you behind, Mrs. Ferris. I didn’t know you would get hurt. Please, if you would just move faster, then we can get away.”
But Mrs. Ferris wouldn’t speed up.
Not that it mattered in the end. Neither the Hangsman nor the Headsman caught up until Freddie and Mrs. Ferris were at the lakeshore, and like the night before, when Freddie turned to face them, the shadows peeled back.
And the two figures converged into one: Theo.
He held out his hand, upon which gleamed the heart. “Take it,” he told Freddie. “Only you know what to do with it.”
“But your grandmother knows.” Freddie glanced sideways. “She told me…” Freddie’s voice died.
Mrs. Ferris wasn’t there anymore. The beach was empty. The night sky shone.
“You, Freddie,” Theo said. “It can only be you.”
“Oh.” She angled back to him, frowning, and as she’d done the previous night, she cautiously accepted the heart of stone.
It beat against her fingers.
This time, though, she realized she did indeed know what to do. Still holding the heart, she stretched onto her toes.
And she kissed Theo. Like she had at the picnic tables. So hard, it left Freddie’s dream-heart hammering and her dream-lips raw. And this time, when Freddie awoke drenched in sweat, it was for a completely different reason than the night before.
Her mouth, inexplicably, tasted of honey.
It took Freddie twice as long to get ready that morning. To shower. To pick out clothes (four trial outfits before she finally settled on jeans, a pistachio turtleneck to hide the hickey, and her winter coat because it was getting cold outside). She needed three tries to get her left contact onto its respective eye, and she hadn’t even started to dry her hair when Divya showed up to walk to school together.
“Just go on without me,” Freddie said wearily, and Divya—who had never been tardy in her entire life and was determined to graduate with an untarnished record—complied.
By the time Freddie finally reached school, after pedaling like her life depended on it, homeroom was over. Worse, her hair was a mess from the frantic ride and her stomach was grumbling from skipped cereal.
She sheepishly signed in at the front desk—this wasn’t the first time she’d been late (mornings were hard, okay?)—and slunk into first period right as the bell finished ringing. She joined Divya in their usual spots in the back row, and Divya gazed at Freddie with unmasked horror. Two minutes later, when Mr. Gonzalez started talking about cosigns and tangents, a note landed on Freddie’s desk.
Though it lacked Divya’s usual pencil hearts and sunshines, it was still expertly folded with a little pull-tab on one side. After a quick check that Mr. Gonzalez wasn’t looking (he wasn’t), Freddie tugged. The note unfolded.
You look like death. Is Theo a vampire? Was that actually a hickey or a bite wound?
Freddie hastily scribbled back, Ha ha. Very funny. And NO. There was an incident last night with Mrs. Ferris. She got hurt, and we had to call 911.
OMG. Are you okay?
I’m fine. Mrs. Ferris is in the hospital. In quick, broad details, Freddie relayed what had happened. What she did not relay was the Very Strange things Mrs. Ferris had said right before she’d been attacked.
Nor did Freddie relay the guilt that was eating her alive.
Maybe if she’d stayed—if she’d just tackled Mrs. Ferris and forced her to go back home…Maybe the old woman would be safe right now. But she’d been too craven, too weak.
And though yes, Mrs. Ferris had survived whatever had attacked her, that was entirely thanks to modern medicine. Not Freddie. Even dream-Freddie had been more interested in making out with Theo than searching that creepy beach for a suddenly missing grandmother.
Freddie knew, deep in her rumbling, roiling gut, that what had happened was her fault. Modern medicine could only do so much for an eighty-one-year-old woman, and if Mrs. Ferris died…
No. Freddie would make this right. Somehow. Somehow.
Halfway through class (after neither Freddie nor Divya had taken any notes), Zach Gilroy raised his hand and asked, “Does anyone else smell that?”
At once, everyone’s noses lifted in the air. And yes, Freddie did smell it. Like rotting fish.
With a grimace, she looked at Divya. “Ewww,” Divya said. Then, “I think it’s getting worse.”
“It is definitely getting worse,” Carly Zhang said from the row in front of them.
To make it all the more unbearable, the room was getting hotter and hotter by the second.
“Stay here,” Mr. Gonzalez said with a half-hearted wave for the class. Then he ducked into the hall.
No one stayed. It stank so badly and the room was so hot. After five minutes, everyone had stripped down to their lowest possible clothing items. Then Zack started vomiting into the trash bin, and everyone got up and bolted.
Including Freddie and Divya.
They found the hallway outside already packed—and also just as hot and just as foul. Which was why all the students and teachers were charging for the exits. A vast parade of bodies trying very hard not to retch.
Right as Freddie and Divya toppled outside and frozen, blessedly fresh air poured over them, the intercom crackled to life.
“Attention Berm High,” Principal Tamura intoned. “There has been an issue with the furnace, and…it would seem…” Her voice choked, like she was trying to hold back a gag reflex of her own. “It would seem dead fish have been stuffed into the air ducts. Please note, school is now cancelled for the remainder of the day. Go home.”
“Thank god,” Freddie hissed at the blue sky while Divya wiggled a little dance of elation.
“If this is what RH considers a prank”—she said between wiggles—“then they are terrible at it.”
But also ingenious, Freddie thought as she counted six separate students hurling onto the grass—and four teachers too. Clearly this was why Theo Porter and the other students had needed access to Berm High on Sunday.
And clearly they had succeeded with their wicked plot.
Divya’s phone rang, and while she answered it, Freddie examined her own phone. 9:03, the screen read—which meant she had hours during which to accomplish her rapidly expanding to-do list. Ever since combing her dad’s stash in the basement, she had wanted to go to the library to dig up more newspaper articles.
And also, she really needed to hit up the hospital and check on Mrs. Ferris.
Then there was still the fact that Sheriff Bowman hadn’t returned Buffy as promised—a truly unforgivable travesty.
As Divya finished her call (which had to have been with Laina, given the furious blush overtaking her face) she glanced at Freddie. Then behind Freddie, and in an instant, her blush vanished. She grabbed hold of Freddie’s wrist.
“Dr. Born,” she said, eyes wide and head tipping. “Ten o’clock.”
“My ten o’clock or your ten o’clock?” Freddie flung her gaze around…Until sure enough, there he was with his gray head, gray beard, and keen blue eyes.
And he was looking right at Freddie too, his lips parting as if to call to her.
Nope, nope, nope! No way was she giving up her newfound freedom to that stuffy old counselor.
“Run,” she hissed, and Divya needed no more urging. As one, they sprinted for the back of the school. Once around the corner, they dove for cover behind a dumpster.
A mostly empty dumpster—thank god. Freddie couldn’t take much more rot in one day. “How long should we wait here?” Freddie whispered, pulling out Sabrina once more.
“I don’t think we need to whisper,” Divya said.
“Of course we do,” Freddie argued, still whispering. “This is like Goldeneye 64.”
“Yeah.” Divya made a face. “Which you also never had to whisper for. It’s a freaking video game—”
“Hello,” Kyle said, suddenly appearing beside them.
Freddie flinched; Divya yelped.
And he merely smiled in reply, dropping to a graceful squat. “What are you two doing back here?”
“Uh,” Divya answered while Freddie offered a meek shrug.
“You know,” she began in a whisper. Then, because she realized it did sound foolish, she coughed and said normally, “We’re just, uh, hanging out. Behind a dumpster. As people do.”
“Right.” Kyle nodded as if people did do that, and once more Freddie found herself wondering how he could be so pretty, yet so empty inside.
Then again, She supposed it was really just evolutionary fairness. If he’d gotten all the good looks and the smarts, the Matrix would probably glitch forever leading to the end of all life as they knew it.
“We’re going to the Quick-Bis,” Kyle said, still smiling that winning smile. “Do you wanna come?”
Ah. Part of Freddie did want to go. Of course she did. She liked the prank squad. And she liked Kyle Friedman. (She did, she did!)
“I…can’t.,” she said eventually. “I have some Very Important Things I need to do.”
“Oh.” A flicker of disappointment crossed Kyle’s face. But then he rallied. “Well, do you want company? I could join you.”
Freddie gulped. Kyle did know about the Executioners Three. He might even be useful to her at the library.
She should say yes. He was a Capulet like she was—so she should really say yes. As any normal human would do. As Freddie would have done on Friday in a fumbling, tongue-twisting ramble. After all, who was she to argue when the King of Berm High showed an interest in one of the RPG-playing losers?
Particularly since Justin Timberlake wasn’t around anymore, so it wasn’t even the keychain’s magic making Kyle interested.
Yet for some reason, when Freddie looked at Kyle’s face, she found herself thinking of Theo instead. Of how he’d looked in her dream, with his hands outstretched and a stone heart resting upon his palms. Kyle was beautiful and bad.
But Theo was beautiful and tortured. And for some reason, that was a lot more appealing.
Except no, no, no. Freddie had promised Divya she wouldn’t think about Theo ever again. He was a Montague, and the risk was simply too great.
Freddie had a crush on Kyle; she liked him—she did, she did, and now she was going to tell him yes.
“I’m fine by myself,” she said instead, while inwardly, she karate kicked herself. “I think I’ll get done faster that way.”
“Oh.” There was that disappointment on Kyle’s flawless face again, and Freddie hated herself for it. Why, she was probably breaking some kind of law right now—the fifth law of thermodynamics or the eleventh commandment or something. Thou shalt not hurt the King of Berm High’s feelings or else everything in the metaverse will combust.
“You should go to the Quick-Bis, Div.” Freddie turned to her best friend (who was watching this entire scene with a very disapproving stare).
“Yes,” Kyle agreed, now flashing his winning smile onto Divya. “Laina was going to call you, but I could just give you a ride instead.”
“Um,” Divya hesitated.
“Or you could go with Laina,” Freddie nudged. “Didn’t she already call you?”
“Yeah.” Divya blushed furiously and eased out her own Nokia. “She did. So thanks anyway, Kyle.”
“No problem.” He pushed to his feet. “I’ll see you at the Quick-Bis. And”—his green gaze shot to Freddie—“maybe you’ll join us later?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Freddie nodded her most emphatic, King-worthy nod. “I will most definitely join you.” In seconds, Kyle had vanished back around the dumpster.
Divya crawled in close to Freddie—and now, she was the one whispering.
Actually, it was less a whisper and more of a vicious snarl beneath her breath. “You aren’t going to meet Theo Porter right now, are you?”
Freddie recoiled. “Of course not. I want to go to the library, and then I want to check on Mrs. Ferris. Oh, and I need to get Buffy back from Sheriff Bowman.”
Divya didn’t look like she believed Freddie one bit. Not even when Freddie promised, “I’ll call you in a few hours, okay? And I’ll be able to do so from anywhere in Berm. You know why?” She snapped out Sabrina. “Because I have a cell phone now.”
Divya was not amused. In fact, she looked decidedly skeptical as she too pushed to a standing position. “I’m serious, Fred. If you’re trying to see Theo—”
“Oh my god, I’m not.” Freddie shot to her feet.
“—I will never forgive you.” She chewed her lip. “I really like Laina, you know? So please don’t ruin this for me. Or for us.” She bared a crooked half smile. “I mean, at this rate, we might actually get voted onto the Lumberjack Court this year.”
“You mean that thing we always make fun?” Freddie had never been asked to the Lumberjack Ball, much less voted onto the Court of five popular girls and five popular boys.
“Do we make fun of it?” Divya batted her eyelashes innocently.
“I’m pretty sure we call it ‘antiquated, heteronormative, and against all of our feminist values.’”
“But that”—Divya booped Freddie’s nose—“was before we had a shot of being on it. Call me later?”
“You betcha.” Freddie watched Divya leave, unable to keep from grinning. Because her best friend was right: it would be kind of cool to be on the Lumberjack Court.
Besides, what better way to change the system than from within?
With that thought to warm her blood, Freddie checked that the coast was clear (no Dr. Borns in sight!) before racing toward the bike racks, ready to once again brave Steve’s teetering old bike in the courageous pursuit of the truth.
The police station at the edge of Berm’s tiny downtown was nothing more than a brick cubical with a coffee pot at one end and a long desk at the other. A single door in the back led to a few holding cells for the occasional rowdy drunkard and to a locked cellar where “sensitive” items were kept. (Freddie had gotten to explore it when she’d interned for Bowman; it hadn’t been nearly as exciting as she’d hoped. Just a bunch of shelves with a few items in ziplocks.)
Other than Sheriff Bowman and the two deputies who usually cruised the streets in their patrol cars, Berm didn’t have much need for a proper police force. If there was ever anything too big to handle, they called in backup from the county seat fifteen miles away.
When Freddie arrived at the office, she found Deputy Ibrahim Abadi manning the front desk. She flushed as soon as she saw him through the glass front door. He always had that effect on her. Partly because he was just so gosh darn nice (and always let her call him by his first name). And partly because he was only twenty-five years old and not that much older than she was.
But mostly Freddie flushed because he was Very Beautiful Indeed, with his copper skin and thick, dark lashes.
He smiled at her (swoon) when she shuffled in. “Hey, Fred. Come for Buffy?”
“I did indeed,” she replied, flushing even harder now. He’d remembered her camera’s name. What a dreamboat.
“I’ll be right back,” he called before disappearing through the single door. Freddie occupied herself with Snake while she waited. The game was, she had to admit, ridiculously addictive—and honestly, wasn’t it better to embrace such a reality than to fight it? After all, video games were the future. Freddie would be ready for her Robot Overlords when they arrived.
A few minutes later, Ibrahim returned with Buffy in a ziplock.
“Just sign for it here.” He slid a clipboard across the desk.
As Freddie scribbled down her signature, she asked in her most casual voice, “Did, uh, did Sheriff Bowman end up finding that water bottle?”
Ibrahim shifted his weight, expression apologetic. “Unfortunately, no.”
“No?” It took Freddie a full second to process what that word meant.
Once she did process it, she dropped the signing pen. It clattered off the desk. “What do you mean ‘no?’” she squawked. “I told her exactly where it was.”
“And there was no bottle there.” Ibrahim reclaimed the clipboard and glanced meaningfully at the fallen pen.
Freddie yanked it from the industrial carpet with a scowl.
“Me and Knowles searched with Sheriff Bowman,” Ibrahim elaborated. “But we didn’t turn up anything, Fred.”
“Impossible.” Freddie snatched up Buffy. The plastic rustled. “It was right there, Ibrahim! I saw it with my own eyes.” She tore open the ziplock and tugged Buffy free. “I told Bowman not to wait to look for it. Someone must’ve moved it!”
“Or it fell.”
“Fell and then moved so far away that you couldn’t find it?”
“We’re still searching, Fred. Plus, Sheriff says you took pictures, right?” He waved to Buffy. “We’ll get those developed soon, and then we’ll have a better idea of what we’re looking for.”
“It’s not hard to get a good idea. Red water bottle. About yay high.” Freddie slotted her hands a foot apart. “Says Fontana on the bottom.”
“I am aware, Fred.” Ibrahim’s voice had taken on a familiar weariness that Freddie remembered from last summer. He was a great cop, but he had little patience for Freddie’s pestering.
Then again, no one really did, and he was nicer about it than Knowles, who would just roll her eyes and say, “Can it, kid.”
Bowman, meanwhile, would straight up ignore Freddie entirely.
“Are you really aware, Ibrahim?” Freddie tugged Buffy’s strap over her neck. “You don’t seem very alarmed by it all. There was a water bottle; now there isn’t. That seems like a good cause for general freakout.”
“Freddie,” Ibrahim warned. He leaned over the desk. “I know that look in your eyes. Don’t even think about going to look for it. Do you understand?”
Freddie sniffed. “Why do you think I would do that?”
“Because I know you.” He straightened, head shaking. “But those woods aren’t safe right now, yeah? First Mrs. Ferris got mauled, and now we’ve got another body—” He broke off, eyes widening. “I mean…Forget you heard that.”
Freddie would do no such thing. “Another body?” she pounced. “Where? Who?” She planted both hands on the desk. “Tell me, Ibrahim.”
But Ibrahim only scoffed. “No way. I’m not allowed to talk about it, Fred, and let’s just say it’s bad. Like, really bad, okay? Sheriff has even called in the feds.”
Freddie’s eyebrows leaped high. Feds never came to Berm.
“The entire county park is now off-limits to the public, so promise me you’ll follow the rules. Can you do that?”
“I always follow the rules,” Freddie murmured.
And Ibrahim’s eyes narrowed. “I mean it, Freddie. Danger aside, Bowman is not in a mood you want to cross right now.”
Freddie tensed—because that warning did give her pause. Not because she was afraid of Sheriff Bowman (although she was) but because Mrs. Ferris was Bowman’s mom, and having your mom unconscious in the hospital was a genuinely terrible thing for anyone to go through.
“Follow the rules?” Ibrahim repeated. “Okay, Fred?”
“Your request has been noted.” Freddie offered a sideways grin. “And thanks for Buffy, Ibrahim.” She turned to go.
“Freddie!” He barked after her. “Not cool—seriously, not cool!”
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked as shimmied backward through the front door. “I’m always the coolest!”
“You didn’t agree or promise me anything.”
“Oops,” she replied. Then she flung him her most innocent smile and departed.