Queen of Spades
By Wyll Andersen
Copyright © 2016 by Wyll Andersen & Crimson Kingdom Publishing
“Today, the year is 1956. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Zebulon Corporation, the United States has entered a technological and economic boom. Thanks to Zebulon, the industries of steam, clockwork, and plasma technology have become the cultural norm. Steam is the primary energy source in homes across the nation; powering devices such as ironing machines, stoves, and even refrigerators. Clockwork mechanisms can be wound up and used for simple everyday tasks such as mowing the lawn or picking up trash, but are most common now-a-days in toys for children. The wonders of plasma energy allow for weaponry once only believed to exist in fiction to become a reality: rayguns and energy cannons keep our military strong and one step ahead of our enemies. For everyday uses, plasma energy can be harnessed and kept within tubes for lighting our homes and streets as well as power television and other monitor devices.
“Las Vegas, Nevada is home to the Zebulon Corporation’s World Headquarters. Founded in 1917 by Yliaster Zebulon before the United States’ involvement in the first World War, the Zebulon Corporation was tasked with developing weapons for the nation’s military, giving the United States and its allies a strong upper hand.
“The Zebulon Corporation chose to locate in the then barren deserts of Nevada for isolation and testing purposes. However, this paved way for an industrial and technological explosion, creating hundreds of jobs and causing thousands to flock to the newly founded city of Las Vegas. By 1940, the United States had entered the Golden Era of Technology and Prosperity all thanks to the Zebulon Corporation.
“Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the Allied Forces once again to take on the villainous Axis Powers in the Second World War. As the war was reaching its conclusion, the Zebulon Corporation stepped in once again with a new weapon. Replacing that of the Manhattan Project, Zebulon started research and development of the Ouranos Program which would lead to the development of the deadliest war machine of all time: The Sky Ziggurat – Bahamut.
“At the end of the war, the United Nations agreed that the Sky Ziggurat was much too dangerous and called for its immediate termination and a ban on any Ziggurat-Class war machine.
“To this day, the Zebulon Corporation remains one of the most powerful and influential companies in the United States. In 1946, following the aftermath of the war, Zebulon founded the Fortuna Preparatory Academy for future brilliant minds such as yourself. We hope that when your time here at Fortuna Prep is concluded you’ll find a home at Zebulon as so many have before you.
“From everyone at Zebulon, we hope you all have a wonderful school year!”
That was the video they showed at the start of the year at Fortuna Prep. The video that would spark the mind of every student that year. Every student at Fortuna Prep was basically guaranteed a job at the most famous and powerful technological company in the nation, if not the world: The Zebulon Corporation.
Amongst these students was Atticus Whaelord, a brilliantly minded third year student studying criminal justice in hopes of becoming one of Zebulon’s personal private investigators. The joke on campus was that Atticus was the school’s very own Sherlock Holmes. Whenever there was a mystery, Atticus was the guy to solve all your problems.
It was October 17th when everything was set into motion. The gears of fate began to turn, and Atticus’ life would never be the same. It all started normally enough: Wake up and go through the daily cleaning ritual. Brush teeth, wash face, check for blemishes, wash face again just to be sure; and lastly, scan for anything that didn’t look quite right. Scruffy blond hair? Check. Blue eyes? Check. Dorky crooked smile? Check. Everything seemed to be in place.
After that, head to the cafeteria for breakfast. Atticus was never hungry in the morning, but if he didn’t shovel down something, he knew he’d regret it later. After breakfast, head to class: Geometrics, Criminal Science, Gym, English Literature, and Chemistry.
Then, each and every day ended with U.S. History with Professor Henry Varnum, the new history professor on Campus. The professor came to Fortuna Prep after the previous history teacher, Mrs. Alice Schaufelberger retired after her forty-year teaching career. He pranced around like he was the best teacher that ever existed, claiming to have dozens of teaching awards and some highly prestigious former teaching jobs, but it was hard to believe. The man was a stingy, cold, and all around grouchy man. At times, it seemed like he didn’t even like his job, nor if he even knew what he was doing. But, Fortuna Prep needed its history professors, and if he fit the bill then there was nothing to be done.
Professor Varnum was finishing up his daily lecture; Atticus, as well as many other students, were having a hard time keeping their eyes open. Every single history class dragged on like an eternity. Finally, the school bell rang throughout the campus, alerting teachers and students alike that the day was over. In Varnum’s class, the final bell was the most wonderful sound. No longer would the students be forced to listen to a dry old man spew out mundane history lessons.
As the students were packing up and getting ready to leave, the professor raised his hands for one last announcement:
“Do not forget,” he said, “that your history exam is tomorrow. Everything we’ve learned up to this point will be on the exam. It’ll be worth thirty-five percent of your final grade, so missing it is not an option. Understand?”
The students all mumbled with understanding as they quickly made their way out of the classroom. As Atticus made his way out, he was caught by his best friend and roommate: Brock Mackenzie, a fellow third year and a psychology student.
Atticus had always gotten along well with Brock. The two met their freshman year when their original roommates got transferred to a different program. The two became one fo the most interesting pair of friends on campus: Brock loved to crack jokes and socialize, but Atticus was always fonder of just staying in his dorm by himself. They were scientific proof that opposites attract.
As Atticus reached the doorway, Brock called out, “Hey Atticus, do you want to do some studying tonight?”
“For the exam,” Atticus asked. “I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. No amount of extra cramming will do me any good.”
“Well, what about me? I need all the help I can get.”
Atticus laughed. “You’re telling me.”
The two exchanged laughs and made their way down the hall, laughing and joking until reaching the campus courtyard.
“Hey, I don’t know if you noticed,” Brock chimed in, “but your buddy Mike wasn’t in class today.”
Apart from Brock, Mike Nelson was Atticus’ only real friend at Fortuna Prep. He was another introverted antisocial kind of guy. He and Atticus first became friends when the two had a battle of wits, trying to stump one another with riddles and puzzles to see who’d be the first to flub up. The two went at it for hours and eventually their riddles were just whatever made up babble they could think of. The progression went something like:
“What has a head, a tail, is brown, and has no legs?”
“A penny! What gets harder to see the more of it you have?”
“Darkness! What’s black when you buy it, red when you use it, and white when you’re done with it?”
“Charcoal! If a green marble bounces up and down, who stops it from going side to side?”
“An elephant! If an airship crashes into the ocean and everybody on board dies before hand, who makes the pancakes?”
And so the battle went on, neither one ever admitting defeat.
Atticus hadn’t noticed that Mike wasn’t in class. He assumed he was sick or perhaps he’d just decided to skip class for the day, but that kind of behavior wasn’t like him. Atticus agreed to study with Brock later, but first he’d need to check in with Mike.
As Atticus made his way across the school courtyard, he could overhear the mumblings and gossip of his fellow students. None of it really interested him; it was just business that most teenagers dealt with: boyfriends, girlfriends, dances, and so on. None of which applied to Atticus. He wasn’t exactly what one would call a ladies’ man. That was more Brock’s thing. Atticus was far too bumbling and bashful; he wouldn’t know what to do if a girl he liked said something to him. God forbid she like him back.
When Atticus arrived at Mike’s dorm, he knocked to the rhythm of “Shave and a Haircut.” Usually, Mike would always respond with the appropriate “Two Bits,” but something was off today. Mike didn’t respond at all. He just opened the door all slow and glum.
“Hey pal,” Atticus said. “What’s up? You weren’t in class today.”
Mike looked dreadfully sick. His green eyes were dark and sunken in behind his glasses, almost as if he hadn’t slept well in days. Not only that, but his slick and normally well-groomed black hair was mangled and greasy.
“Mike, you look awful. Are you okay?”
Mike shook his head. “I’ve just been really under the weather recently.”
“Do you need to see the nurse?”
“No, I don’t feel sick, just down.”
“You just need a good laugh,” Atticus said. “When set loose I fly away. Never so cursed as when I go astray. What am I?”
Mike sighed for a brief moment and then found himself lost in thought for a moment. A smile cracked across his face when he thought of the answer.
“Really,” he said. “A fart?”
Atticus gave him a thumbs up and said, “Even when you’re under the weather, you always have an answer.”
Mike smiled. “Thanks, Atticus. That did help a bit.”
“Brock and I are gonna be having a study session for the history exam tomorrow. Would you like to join us?”
Mike shook his head and his smile disappeared. “Sorry, but I just can’t.”
Atticus knew not to pry any further. Despite wanting to help, Atticus always wanted to respect his friends’ desires, even if he felt they were wrong.
Just as he was getting ready to head out, Mike had to stop him for just one moment.
“Hey, Atticus,” he said, “do you believe in ghosts?”
“Ghosts?” Atticus looked at him confused.
“I know it sounds silly, but I feel like I’m being ‘haunted’ for lack of a better term.”
Atticus shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never met a ghost before. But, if one is haunting you, tell it to come haunt me. I’d love to meet him.”
Mike smiled and said a final goodbye to Atticus before closing the door.
Atticus returned back to his dorm where Brock was patiently waiting. The night went on with the two exchanging questions about what they thought would be on the history exam. Atticus knew every single question Brock threw at him, yet Brock could only manage to get about seventy percent of his questions right. Atticus tried to convince him that seventy percent was still a passing grade, but Brock knew he’d be in for major trouble during the exam.
As the hours passed, snacks devoured, and questions thrown at one another; Atticus finally cashed in for the night while Brock did some late night studying by his lonesome. Atticus tried to convince him that cramming only made things worse, but Brock threw some psychological mumbo-jumbo that eventually lulled Atticus right to sleep.
The next morning, Atticus woke up to the seven o’clock chime of the campus clock tower. It wasn’t the loudest sound in the world, but it was loud enough to wake Atticus. He didn’t think of himself as a light sleeper, but apparently any slight sound woke him.
He went about with his typical morning ritual and started by rolling out of bed. In doing so, he saw Brock was still sitting at his desk in the corner, passed out from studying. He wasn’t sure exactly how late Brock stayed up, but Atticus assumed it wasn’t too late.
Atticus shuffled his way over and nudged his roommate awake. “Studying a bit too hard, I see?”
Brock grumbled and sleepily pushed him aside. Atticus laughed and continued his way to the bathroom. He started up the latter half of his morning ritual: washing up. He brushed his hair, his teeth, took a quick shower, and changed into his Fortuna Prep uniform: A white button shirt, an indigo sweater with golden trim and the Fortuna Prep logo over the left breast, and a pair of black slacks.
As he was finishing up his business in the bathroom, Atticus heard Brock finally wake up in the other room. In a hectic rush, Brock stubbed his toe on the desk and let out a high pitched yelp.
“Why didn’t you wake me up,”
“I tried,” Atticus said. He tried his best to hold back his laughter, but it was no use.
When he made his way out of the bathroom, Brock quickly shoved past as he tried to frantically put on his uniform and brush his hair.
“How long did you stay up last night?”
“Way to late!”
Atticus laughed and picked up a comb off his desk, slicking back his hair into just the way he liked it.
“How can you be so calm,” Brock shouted from the bathroom. “I know you’re smart, but isn’t this at least a little bit stressful? It’s worth forty percent of your grade!”
Atticus shrugged. “It’s all just memorization,” he said. “And it’s not forty percent, it’s thirty-five.”
Brock scoffed off the remark as he made his way out of the bathroom. He looked good for getting ready in such a short amount of time. His black mangled mess of hair was brushed into a less chaotic fashion, his face was clean, and his small rectangular glasses rested perfectly on his nose. You’d never believe that he’d woken up less than five minutes ago. Together, the two grabbed their schoolbags and headed off to class.
The day went by like normal. Classes went by as usual with no unwanted interruptions. Brock spaced out most of the day trying to cram as much information about the upcoming history test as he could, but deep down he knew he’d do fine. Students socialized. Everything was perfectly normal.
Finally, the day had reached its final class: U.S. History. Professor Varnum sat at his desk, taking roll as all the class bell rang and the students got to their seats.
“Michael Nelson?” Nothing. Professor Varnum looked up from his desk and scoured the room. “Michael Nelson, are you here?” Still nothing. The professor grumbled under his breath. “It seems that someone is trying to skip out on their exam. If anyone sees Mr. Nelson later today, tell him that there is no point returning to my class!”
Atticus was filled with a feeling of dread. Yesterday, Mike had looked so down. All sorts of terrible thoughts began to run through Atticus’ head and a queasy sensation formed in his stomach.
Brock sank in his seat. “Poor Mike,” he whispered. “I wonder what happened. Do you think the stress got to him?”
Professor Varnum began passing out the exam, and once each student had theirs, he went through the rules: “Don’t forget that this test is worth a large portion of your grade, so take your time. When you complete the exam, you may come place it on my desk and you may be excused. If I catch cheating of any kind, you will be granted an automatic failure for, not just this, but the entire course. Now, you may begin.”
Instantly, pencils went to work on the paper. The test was just over five pages thick and contained over one hundred and twenty questions all covering topics from early American history: From the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 all the way to the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783. Professor Varnum expected the test to take nearly the entire class period for most students.
Much to his surprise, Atticus was not an ordinary student. Right from the get-go, Atticus thought the test would be a breeze. Like he told Brock, basic memorization was the only skill he needed to ace Varnum’s test, but mesh that with his desire to know what happened to Mike, he worked even faster. In less than fifteen minutes, Atticus had completed the entire exam.
As he made his way down the lecture hall, Professor Varnum looked up from his paper and sighed. “Mr. Whaelord, you know you’re not allowed to ask questions on exams of this caliber.”
“I don’t have any questions sir,” he said. “I’m finished. May I be excused?”
The professor stared at Atticus through his dark black tinted glasses. You could never really see the professor’s eyes, but you could always feel his glare. It was like he had heat vision, but it couldn’t melt steel, just warm you up to uncomfortable levels.
“Do you mean this as some kind of joke, Mr. Whaelord? This kind of disruption won’t be taken lightly.”
“I-I’m not joking sir. I’m actually done.” Atticus set the exam down on the professor’s desk. “It really wasn’t that hard of a test to begin with.”
“Do you honestly expect me to believe that you could complete this entire exam in such a short time? I have half a mind to send you to Principal Shepard’s office this instant!”
Atticus was never good with confrontation. He wasn’t the bravest student at the school, that was for sure. All sorts of things scared him: spiders, big dogs, the dark, and getting yelled at by old cranky history professors were some of his biggest phobias. Luckily enough, Brock wasn’t afraid of such things.
From his seat, Brock shushed him. “Professor Varnum, you need to keep your voice down. There’s an exam going on.”
The professor’s face beamed a bright red. “Mr. Mackenzie, that is not funny!”
“S-Sir,” Atticus chimed in, “you can grade it right now. I promise it’s all done.”
“And I bet it’s perfect,” Brock said from his seat.
“One more outburst from you, Mr. Mackenzie,” Varnum shouted, “and I’ll send you both to the principal!”
Varnum glared back at Atticus and down to the exam. He sat down with a hard plop, picked up the test as well has his favorite red pen used to point out errors, and went straight to grading.
Atticus watched as the professor darted across the page, his pen always at the ready, but whenever he wanted to mark something, he couldn’t. Varnum couldn’t bring himself to believe it, but Brock was right: Atticus’ test was perfect. He wanted to mark something wrong for whatever reason he could think of, but he knew, as a teacher, he couldn’t do such a thing.
It only took the professor a couple of minutes to examine each answer, and since every answer was correct it required even less time. He placed the exam down on the table, his hands twitching with frustration.
“Mr. Whaelord,” he mumbled, “you’re excused.”
And with that, Atticus thanked him and bolted out of the classroom.
Normally, as he’d done his past years, Atticus would head to the courtyard fountain and take a nap after his exams. He’d listen to the hum of airships and zeppelins that fly overhead, and the purring of the different science labs on the far side of campus. But today, he couldn’t do that. Atticus needed to find Mike and see what was up with him.
As long as they’d known each other, Mike was never one to skip class for any reason. His parents were higher ups in the mechatronics industry, owning all sorts of machinariums and laboratories across the west coast. If they heard news that their son was skipping class for any reason, they would be furious.
Atticus made his way across campus to Mike’s dorm room. He did, their usual “Shave and a Haircut” knock, but just like the other day, there was no response. Instead, he was greeted by Mike’s roommate, Justin Drasken.
Justin was the president of the school’s tennis club with a still undetermined career path. When Atticus asked where Mike would be, he just responded with an unsure shrug. As far as Justin was aware, Mike left for class in the morning like he usually did.
Atticus wracked his brain for any place Mike might’ve gone too. He tried his best to use his makeshift detective’s intuition and tried to think of all of Mike’s favorite places on campus. The bookstore and western park areas were the places they hung out most often. If Mike wasn’t at either place, then Atticus would have to assume Mike was taking care of business elsewhere that he had no idea about. Perhaps he was making up class time that he missed the other day, or perhaps he was speaking with Principal Shepard.
He scoured the campus hotspots for Mike and sadly found nothing. Atticus didn’t want to admit it, but he was a bit afraid. He naturally feared the worst whenever he didn’t know the answer. He knew worrying wouldn’t solve anything. Mike would turn up eventually; he just had to be patient.
Atticus made his way to the campus fountain and laid down. As he stared up at the sky, he closed his eyes and began to think of his parents: William and Isabel.
His father was a Nevada native with no proper schooling, but a natural gift in clockwork science. He was brash, confident and a bit of a gambler, but he was also a klutz on his feet. His mother was an immigrant from Mexico who attended college to earn her degree in Plasma Engineering. She was calm and gentle, but she could explode if need be. The two complimented each other wonderfully. Atticus was nothing like either of them, but he was happy. They were a perfect family.
But, six years ago, when Atticus was just ten years old, his parents left for a business trip and never returned. They were both former employees of the Zebulon Corporation but left to try and start their own business. They’d said they were only going to be away a short while to meet with some new colleagues. They didn’t mention the potential risk in never coming back. They just disappeared, and no one had any idea where they’d disappeared to.
After they vanished, Atticus was sent to live with his grandparents in Boulder City. They refused to talk about the disappearance; Atticus assumed it was just as hard on them as it was for him. The only thing he had to remember his parents was a small locket his father gave to him before they left. It was small, brass, and had a design on the face of two gears entwined with one another. On the inside was a picture of the three of them from when Atticus was just a baby. His father always told him to keep it close to his heart; if he had the locket, they’d always be together. And he did just that. Atticus always kept it snug in his pants pocket, the chain coiled up around a belt loop.
He pulled the locket out and held it up to his heart. The comfort it brought him plus the warm autumn sun quickly lulled him to sleep.
It felt as if Atticus had only closed his eyes for a second before he was quickly shaken awake. His eyes flared open and he saw Brock standing above him.
“Atticus, I’ve got some really bad news.”
“W-What? What’s happened?”
“It’s Mike,” he said. “He’s dead.”
Brock lead Atticus to the far corner of the west park area. Normally, it was tranquil and one of the best places to relax, but that day it was lined with officers causing all sorts of commotion. In the distance, Atticus looked past them and saw a body hanging from a tree: Mike.
Atticus wanted to vomit. There was Mike, dangling from the tree. How could this happen? Why did it happen? Atticus felt light headed and dizzy; his mind was racing with too many questions. He stared at the body, blankly.
He tried to make his way forward but was stopped by a man working on the scene.
“Sorry lad, no students past this point.” The man had a faint Scottish accent and wore a dark brown fedora, long trench coat, a pair of black leather gloves, and a very strange pair of goggles.
“S-Sir, that’s my friend,” Atticus said. His voice was stilted.
“I’m sorry, but rules are rules and I’m not allowed to disclose any information.”
The man began to turn back to the scene, taking off his goggles. As he did, Atticus caught a glimpse of the man’s face, and more importantly, his piercing green eyes.
The man smiled and turned back around. Atticus was at a total loss for words. Detective McCloud was his idol. An extremely successful detective that worked for not just the Las Vegas police department, but as a personal private investigator for the Zebulon Corporation. Atticus had sent him numerous letters asking about becoming an intern at the police station over the summer, but he’d never gotten a response.
“That’s right,” he said. “And you?”
“S-Sir, I don’t know if you remember, but my name is Atticus Whaelord, and I’d been-”
“Whaelord?” McCloud’s eyes beamed with a strange sort of enthusiasm. “You’re the boy who’d sent me all those intern letters, right?”
Atticus felt his body tremble. He was in so much shock that his body didn’t know how to react. It was such a strange mix of signals.
“Y-Yes, sir, that was me.”
McCloud smile but then his expression turned solemn. “I’m sorry about your friend, son. I really am.”
“Detective,” Brock spotted Atticus’ discomfort and sprang into action, “what happened?”
McCloud looked around for any officers in earshot. He wasn’t supposed to reveal any information with civilians until he was given the clear. The last thing the police wanted were rumors spreading around and mass hysteria because one officer couldn’t keep from gossiping.
However, Detective McCloud wasn’t just part of the police department; he was Zebulon’s head private eye, and since the death took place on Zebulon property, he ordered to Zebulon first.
“Well, we don’t know much yet,” he said. “Big chief thinks this was a suicide caused by stress. Too much pressure for a kid so young, ya know?”
“And you don’t think that,” Atticus asked.
McCloud shook his head and said, “Not one bit. This seems oddly suspicious to be just a suicide. I think there is something greater at work here.” He looked around again, keeping an eye out for anyone eavesdropping. “I don’t want to startle ya, but to me this looks like a murder.”
Atticus’ eyes flared up. “Why do you think that, detective?”
“From what I’ve gathered, the boy was a quiet one,” he said. “He didn’t stand out a whole lot, so why would he go out and hang himself for all to see?”
A wave of terror washed over Atticus. The thought alone was too much for him. So many questions began to pop into his head: Why would someone go after Mike? Did his family have some connections with the mob? And then Atticus thought about what Mike had asked him about the other night: if he believed in ghosts?
Atticus paused for just a moment as the thought lingered in his head. Mike was not the kind of guy to believe in the supernatural. He believed in science, not magic; so why would he suddenly fear a ghost?
Perhaps, Atticus thought, Mike was trying to warn him. Perhaps this was just another one of their puzzles that he needed to solve.
“Detective,” Atticus said, “I think you might be right.”
Brock snapped a look at him. “You really think so, Atticus?”
McCloud smiled and pulled a fist full of shredded paper from his pocket. “Another thing lad; it seems your friend left behind a note, but as you can see it’s been torn to bits. If this really was a suicide, why would he tear it up?”
“Detective,” Brock said, “I don’t want to be rude, but this sounds just like a lot of assumptions. Is there any concrete evidence?”
McCloud turned to Brock, his expression a strange mixture between sour and flattery. “This is still a very early investigation, my boy. As of now, assumption is all we have to go on. But, once I get some fats under my belt, ya bet I’ll be on it.”
Brock still didn’t seem so sure.
As the two bickered, Atticus peered past and stared at Mike. He wasn’t sure if his mind recognized that Mike was gone or if this was all just a bad dream. He was so out of it that he didn’t notice when an officer confronted him and asked him to leave. McCloud tried to vouch for them, but it didn’t matter. Students and staff were to evacuate the area as they cleaned up.
Atticus just continued to stare. As Brock yanked him back, he caught a glimpse of something dangling from Mike’s belt loop. It was small, hanging from a tiny metal chain. It was a brass pendant. As he stared, what he saw nearly made his heart stop. Engraved on the pendant were two entwined gears, just like Atticus’ locket.
His heart began to beat violently and his breath began to stagger. That symbol was his parents’. One gear his father, the other his mother, and where they entwined was Atticus. When his parents gave him the locket, they said he’d never be alone. It couldn’t just be a coincidence that Mike would have the same locket as him. But, if Atticus wanted to be a detective, he had to abolish the idea of coincidence.
Atticus snapped himself out of his trance. “Pardon me detective, but could I see that note?”
Everyone looked at Atticus.
McCloud shrugged and looked at the tattered pieces of paper in his hand. “It seems a bit torn beyond repair, but I think we could still use it in some way.” Atticus felt his heart sink, but McCloud gave him a confident smile. “However, I trust ya lad. If you think you can get somethin’ from this, I believe ya.”
McCloud carefully held out the note. Atticus anxiously grabbed it, making sure not to drop a single shred.
“T-Thank you very much, detective.”
Atticus shook McCloud’s hand and gestured at Brock to follow. He didn’t say anything, but Brock recognized the look. It was a look that said “I need to show you something important.” It was also the same look Atticus gave before he went into his detective mode. Whenever Brock saw it, he knew Atticus meant business.
As the two burst into their dorm room, Atticus scattered the confetti onto the ground. Brock gently closed the door behind them before turning to his roommate.
“Alright, Atticus, what’s going on,” he asked.
“I can help McCloud solve this case.”
“Case? What case? This isn’t a murder.”
“How can you say that,” Atticus shouted. “Detective McCloud is right, and I can help prove it!” Atticus lowered his head and began to assemble the shredded note into a neat little pile. “Brock, I’m gonna show you something I’ve never showed anyone before and I want you to promise that you won’t freak out.”
“Of course.” Brock knelt down in front of the note. “What’s up?”
Atticus closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He placed his right hand on top of the pile of shredded paper. Nothing happened at first, but that changed rather quickly. A fain chill came into the room and sent a shiver down Brock’s spine. As Atticus opened his eyes, an image began to appear on the back of his hand. At first it looked like a blue and gold mess, but as the image came more and more into focus, Brock realized it was the Queen of Spades out of a traditional deck of playing cards.
Before Brock even had a chance to ask any questions, the note slowly began to piece itself together. Each of the shredded pieces lined up perfectly like a puzzle. In seconds, the note had completely reassembled itself.
Brock was completely in awe. “Whoa! What was that?”
Atticus shrugged. “I’m not honestly sure. I don’t know where it came from or why I have it, but as long as I can remember, the Queen of Spades has always allowed me to fix broken things.”
Brock was silent. He stared at the newly reconstructed note in awe, and Atticus was afraid he’d made a terrible mistake. He’d just shown his best friend this strange supernatural power that not even he understood. He was afraid he’d just scared away the only other person he had.
But he was wrong. A wide smile brimmed across Brock’s face as he let out a hearty laugh. “That’s amazing! You have a super power!”
Atticus felt so relieved. He was afraid Brock might think he was some sort of crazy mutant or wizard, but instead he was just his regular old self about it.
“So,” Brock said, “what’s the note say?”
Atticus picked up the note and began to read:
“I’ve begun to fear this ghost might be real. I normally wouldn’t believe in this, but I just can’t shake the feeling that someone is always watching me. I’ve been hearing its voice calling me and I think my mother might have been right about the locket. I can’t leave my room or else it’ll get me, but I have to risk it. I need to give Atticus my locket.”
Atticus couldn’t believe what he’d read. He reached into his pocket and gripped his locket tightly. The cool metal helped calm him down. It gave him strength and reminded him to be brave.
“What locket,” Brock asked.
Atticus pulled his from his pocket and held it in front of him.
“This locket,” he said. “Mike needed to give me his.”
Brock looked confused, so Atticus tried to explain as best he could. He tried to tell him about his parents and the symbol of the entwined gears, but Brock just continued to look confused.
“I need to get Mike’s locket. I don’t know why, but he needed me to have both of them.”
Atticus shrugged. He didn’t have an idea, but that’s what he needed to find out.
He looked down at the Queen of Spades as it slowly began to fade from his hand. He didn’t know what was going on, but he had to do something. Anything would be better than just sitting around. His emotions were getting the better of him and his thoughts were running a million miles an hour, but he had to focus.
Atticus felt a fire burn deep down inside of him. He was determined to do whatever he could to find this ghost, and nothing was going to stand in his way.
The next morning, Brock woke up to the seven o’clock bell. He groggily rolled out of bed and tried to slap the sleepiness out of his system. He jumped to his feet and began to slowly trudge his way to the bathroom. As he walked, he noticed Atticus had already up and left for the day. Brock could never understand how Atticus, or anybody else for that matter, could wake up and get moving so early. Bed was such a cozy and warm sanctuary. Why would anyone ever want to leave that, he thought.
After he’d finished his daily cleaning regimen, Brock got himself dressed in his Fortuna Prep uniform, picked up his school bag and started to make way for class. But, he felt like something was all wrong. He made one last check around the room and saw that Atticus’ school bag was still sitting on his bed. It wasn’t like him to forget that.
Brock wasn’t the best student in the psychology department, but he recognized abnormal behavior. It didn’t take a genius to see how badly Atticus was hurting. Brock decided the best thing to do would be to get Atticus to talk. Even if it was just something small, anything would help him.
He picked up the bag and made his way out. Brock knew Atticus well enough to know he didn’t forget his bag on accident.
Atticus sat silently on a bench at the campus’ western park staring at Mike’s tree. As other students walked by, he overheard them talking about the supposed suicide. News spread like wildfire that it was all self-inflicted and that there were no outside forces at work. They said he most likely had too much stress piled on his shoulders.
Students decided to call it “Hangman’s Tree” almost as if it was some sightseeing attraction; it was like they saw Mike’s death as just some urban legend or ghost story to tell around Halloween.
Riddles littered Atticus’ head. He still had so many that he wanted to share, but he knew the rules: he had to solve Mike’s first before it was his turn, and Mike left him with a doozy this time around. Not that it mattered much anyway. Atticus would never get a chance to tell him any that he’d thought up or kept on backlog:
“What word becomes shorter when you add letters to it? Short!”
“What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment, but not once in a thousand years? The letter M!”
“A man leaves his house and turns left three times only to come back home greeted by two men wearing masks. Why are these men? A catcher and an umpire!”
Despite being taken away; Atticus could still see Mike’s body dangling from the tree. The image wouldn’t go away. His stomach churned and a lump formed in his throat, but Atticus wasn’t going to chicken out. Now, more than ever, he had to be focused. If he really wanted to be a detective, he knew he’d have to face even worse situations. He couldn’t let his emotions and fears get the better of him. He had to stay strong.
Brock’s voice broke the silence.
“Hey, you forgot something.”
Atticus jumped before turning around and seeing his friend standing behind him, Atticus’ school bag in his hand.
He smiled and took it, placing it gently by his side on the bench. “Thanks.”
Brock could feel that Atticus wanted to be alone. He knew that he wanted to skip class, but Brock wasn’t going to sit idly by and watch his friend beat himself up.
Brock sat down next to him. “Atticus, why do you want to be a detective?”
Atticus shook his head. “I want to help people. I want to help when it seems like there aren’t any answers.”
“Like with Mike,” Brock said. “Or your parents?”
“I believe in you,” Brock said. “Together, we can solve this mystery.”
Brock smiled and said, “Of course! I’ll help you any way I can.”
Atticus smiled back. It felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He looked up at the tree and it finally seemed that he could see it without Mike’s body.
Rock got up and prepared to leave for class, but before he could get anywhere, Atticus stopped him.
“You asked me, so now I get to ask you,” he said, “why do you study psychology?”
“Brock was silent for a moment.
“I guess; the same reason you want to be a detective.” He smiled, but Atticus could see, for just a second, a tinge of sorrow in Brock’s eyes.
“My mom,” he said. “She went off the deep end a few years ago. No one could help. But, I’d like to help others like her before it’s too late.”
Atticus smiled. Brock smiled back and continued his way to class.
Atticus sat, staring at the tree for a while longer before hearing the eight o’clock bell. Class was starting, but he wouldn’t be attending today. He needed to clear his head and listening to teachers’ lecture wouldn’t help him at all. However, sitting around wouldn’t either. Atticus picked up his school bag and decided to go on a little walk around campus.
By the time the nine o’clock bell rang, Atticus had made his way from the west park to the east side of campus where all the tech labs were located. Walking in their shadow, Atticus felt envious of the students who understood all of the technical mumbo jumbo they were taught. He had no idea how to design perpetual clockwork mechanisms nor did he have any clue on who the laws of plasma conductivity worked. To him, it was all Greek. His parents were brilliant minds in their fields, but sadly he didn’t inherit any of their brains.
The ten o’clock bell rang and Atticus had travelled from the tech labs down to the fine arts and language buildings. He wasn’t a very artsy guy, but Atticus was always impressed listening the music students. He figured he might be good in the arts, but he didn’t want to go embarrass himself. Plus, he didn’t want to commit himself to any extracurriculars if it turned out he wasn’t good.
By eleven o’clock, Atticus made his way to the physical education building on the southeast side of campus. The Fortuna Prep sports program was very limited. The Zebulon Corporation insisted on keeping it small, only allowing intermural and club sports. They didn’t want students to be too distracted from their studies, but they knew the importance of casual competition.
Back when Atticus was a freshman, there was a petition going around to grant the school a competitive football team: The Fortuna Prep Starmen. Atticus didn’t think to sign it at the time. He didn’t think it was really such a big deal, but apparently it was to a lot of other students.
By noon, the students were excused for lunch. Atticus felt his stomach rumble and he figured getting some lunch wouldn’t be a bad idea. Besides, he figured he could meet up with Brock and get some things off his chest. So much was building inside of him that he felt like was going to explode.
As he made his way to the cafeteria, Atticus could hear his classmates talking about him. He wasn’t sure what they were saying, but he really didn’t care. It was usually something about him being so quiet, or how good he was at exams, or about him being a wannabe detective. Maybe they did bug him deep down, but he tried his best to shake it off. Perhaps they were talking about him ditching class: “Straight A Student Plays Hooky.” That sounded like something that would pass as gossip on campus.
He continued to walk through the crowd of students, not really paying attention to where he was going. He was just going with the flow, but in doing so, he crashed into a girl, knocking both of them to the ground.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” she shouted. She had a bit of a Spanish accent.
Instantly, she bolted to her feet, but Atticus was a bit dazed. He staggered around for a moment before finally standing back up.
“I-I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t paying-”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she cut off, “but you’re Atticus Whaelord, aren’t you?”
Atticus wasn’t sure what to say. He thought he was the one to apologize, but now this girl looked at him like he was a celebrity. Not that he didn’t mind. The girl was extremely cute. She had long wavy chocolate brown hair tied into a pony tail and big brown eyes behind big oval glasses. She wore her Fortuna Prep uniform, an indigo vest with golden trim, a white short sleeved shirt, and a long purple and black plaid skirt. Her look alone made Atticus blush.
“Y-Yes,” he said, “I’m the Atticus Whaelord.”
The girl smiled and held out her hand.
“I’m Camila Valencia,” she said. “We’re in Professor Varnum’s history class together.”
“Really? I can’t believe I’ve never noticed you before.”
Atticus didn’t realize how rude that sounded in his head and instantly tensed up. Luckily enough, Camila just laughed it off. She was flattered by his bumbling nature.
“You know,” she said, “that was really amazing what you did yesterday. Turning your exam in so early and rubbing Varnum’s nose in it.”
“I-I didn’t actually,” Atticus smiled awkwardly. “It really wasn’t that hard of a test.”
“But you aced it,” she said laughing. “I wish I had that kind of confidence to do what you did.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m confident.”
“You’re too humble.” Camila smiled. It was incredibly contagious and Atticus felt forced to smile right back.
“So, I was wondering,” she said, “are you busy today after class?”
Atticus felt like he got smacked in the gut. “N-No, I don’t think so.”
His heart was beating violently. He’d never been so baffled around a girl before. It wasn’t like this was his first time talking to one, but for some reason Camila was different.
Camila smiled and said, “I was wondering if you’d like to get together and study sometime?”
“Y-Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’d love to. Tonight?”
Camila’s face beamed with delight. “Yes, that’d be wonderful. Say five o’clock?”
“That’d be perfect!” Atticus gave a weak smile. He couldn’t let his mind rush too far ahead. He had to stay focused. Now wasn’t the time to go brain dead. But, when a pretty and popular girl actually wanted his help, it was hard to keep it together.
“Hey, why don’t we-” He froze up.
“Why don’t we what?”
“W-We could,” Atticus stuttered, “we could, y’know, perhaps grab something to eat beforehand? Maybe?”
Camila blushed. Atticus was sure he’d stepped over the line. This wasn’t a “date” date, just a study date. He wasn’t sure why he thought it’d be okay to ask. He lowered his head in shame.
“That sounds wonderful,” Camila said.
Atticus wasn’t sure if he’d heard her or just imagined it. He looked up and saw her smiling and giggling as if he’d said something charming.
“How about we meet at the Turtle Dragon,” she asked. Atticus nodded. Atticus nodded. “Alright, so I’ll see you at the Turtle Dragon at five o’clock.” He nodded again.
Camila smiled and said goodbye to Atticus, who was still trying to recover from what just happened. As she walked off, he looked down to make sure his zipper wasn’t down or something horribly embarrassing. Much to his delight, it wasn’t.
Atticus decided against going to history class Instead, he decided to do the smart thing and return to his dorm for a nap. There was nothing grouchy old Varnum could teach him that he couldn’t just read out of the textbook. Atticus figured if he couldn’t take the book’s word, how could he take his professor’s? Besides, Professor Varnum just took his lessons straight from the book itself anyway. He didn’t paraphrase or try to make it interesting; he just quoted it verbatim.
As his head hit the pillow, Atticus found his mind already drifting to lala land. His heart was slowing down and he was beginning to relax. Atticus closed his eyes and instantly he passed out.
And instantly, he wished he hadn’t. In his dream, Atticus found himself trapped within a dark empty void. Atticus was not fond of the dark. It terrified him more than anything else. It was one thing to not know the answer, but it was another thing to not know anything without ever hoping to know the answer.
There was nothingness as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t cold nor was it hot. It was like there was no temperature. Atticus began to fear if this is what death was like. Absolutely nothing, not even hot or cold.
He wasn’t standing on anything, but he wasn’t floating either. There was no light, but if he looked down he could see his hands. There was no air to breath, but he wasn’t suffocating. Atticus was literally in an abyss of nothing.
That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad except for the squeak. The squeak a bicycle chain made after not having been oiled for a few years. It was faint and not very frequent, but every time he heard it, Atticus squirmed.
He looked all around in a desperate attempt to find the source of the squeaking, but only darkness surrounded him. It was then, at the peak of his panic, he heard the terrible laugh. A laugh of sadistic delight. It was more of a scream than a laugh. It was so much worse than any squeak or any darkness; the laugh rang in his ears, sent shivers down his spine, and caused his knees to buckle. It overwhelmed him like a powerful wave and Atticus felt himself getting tugged deeper and deeper into the darkness all around.
Everything in his body screamed at him to wake up, but Atticus wasn’t in control.
Then, a flash of light blinded him and his dream changed. No longer was he drowning in an ocean of nothing, thank goodness, but instead he was standing in the lobby of the Las Vegas Police Department. At the far end of the room, Atticus saw Detective McCloud speaking with a man and a woman.
The two were an older couple, maybe in their mid to late forties. They were obviously a married couple. Well, maybe obvious wasn’t the right word, but that’s what Atticus figured when he saw their matching wedding rings.
The man wore a dark green suit and a bright orange tie. His hair was an untamed mess of dirty blond mess and he wore a pair of large brass goggles. The woman wore a long elegant golden dress patterned with little silver diamonds around the frills and long silk black hair.
The couple was obviously not happy. The woman’s eyes were red and puffy from sobbing. The man’s jaw was tightly clenched. Atticus didn’t know these people, but they seemed awfully familiar. But then, before he got time to think about it, his dream shifted again and he heard the terrible laughter. For just a second, Atticus caught a glimpse of his locket dangling in the nothing before his eyes shot open to Brock shaking him awake.
“Atticus,” he shouted, “what’s wrong? You were wiggin’ out in your sleep. I thought you were having a seizure or something.”
Atticus rubbed his eyes and looked over at the clock on his nightstand: 3:07.
“What? No way, I was only asleep for a minute!”
“Are you okay?”
He shook his head. Atticus felt his heart racing all over again. His hope that a nap would relax him was sadly all for naught. But, if there was one thing he got from his nap, Atticus knew what he had to do to help Mike’s case.
“Hey Brock, how would you like to help me run some errands?”
“What do you mean?”
Atticus smiled and said, “I need to grab myself another locket.”
Atticus and Brock quickly changed out of their school uniforms and into more casual wear. With the cool weather, Atticus put on his favorite jacket: a red plaid cotton windbreaker his grandmother had given him on his twelfth birthday. Brock slipped on a green and black sweater with a large singe mark around the neck.
During their sophomore year, the two were working on an extra-credit science project in the steam labs. They didn’t know what they were thinking, tinkering with steam, but they thought the concept would be simple enough. They were very wrong. Instead of creating a small steam engine like they’d planned, they created a small weapon of steamy destruction. It doesn’t sound threatening, but when it blasts a highly concentrated beam of super-heated water vapor at your neck it becomes very threatening. Luckily, the only one to get hurt was Brock’s sweater.
They swiftly packed up their things and without a moment’s hesitation, they bolted out the door. Atticus wanted to tell Brock about his dream. He figured Brock would know something about psychoanalysis, being a psychology student and all, but whenever he tried to say something, he got shivers.
As the two walked across the courtyard, they heard the loud purr of the plasma labs all the way across campus. The clinks and clanks from the clockwork labs were just as loud, as were the revving engines and the whistles of steam. The school was just as bustling and busy as ever.
Fortuna Prep’s science department was definitely its pride and joy. It was the most highly publicized department as well as the most sought after. Students from across the country with any desire to go into the sciences at all were sent to Fortuna Prep for even the slightest chance to work for the Zebulon Corporation. At Zebulon, everybody could be a somebody. They were always in need of workers.
When Atticus and Brock reached the main gate, they unfortunately bumped into their favorite history professor: Varnum. He was wearing is standard tan suit and his dark tinted glasses.
“Well hello, Mr. Whaelord,” he said. “Your insults just don’t stop: first you cheat on my exam and now I find you skipping class? I should report you to Principal Shepard and have you expelled!”
“H-Hey, I didn’t cheat,” Atticus mumbled. “You just need to make tougher exams.”
Atticus instantly reared back. He didn’t mean to snap, but people assuming he was a cheat was a huge peeve.
He couldn’t see it, but Atticus felt the professor’s hateful gaze. “You think my exams are easy, do you?”
Atticus felt his heart pound against his chest. He wanted to butt in and argue, but he couldn’t find the words. Luckily, Brock was there to bail him out once again.
“Well, he’s not wrong professor. Not even I broke a sweat. Maybe you should raise the difficulty on your tests after all. This is a private academy after all.”
“I wouldn’t sound so high and mighty, Mr. Mackenzie,” said the professor. “You might change your mind once you see your grade.” Varnum turned back to Atticus. “So, where were you today, Mr. Whaelord? Any reason you didn’t send your friend here with a note explaining your absence?”
Atticus didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t have to tell the whole truth. He bit his lip and said, “I’m sorry sir, but I wasn’t feeling very good today. I’m still kinda torn up about Mike.”
“Mike?” Varnum asked, “Who are you talking about?”
“Mike Nelson. He was in-”
“Oh, the boy who hung himself? Right, very sad.”
The two students knew the professor didn’t care. He was probably more upset that Mike skipped class rather than his death.
“Yeah, him,” Atticus said glumly. “I felt sick this morning so I didn’t go to class all day.”
“And now you’re up and about feeling just fine? All howdy-doody-doo? I see where your priorities lie, Mr. Whaelord.”
“Actually,” Brock chimed in, “it was my idea that Atticus get some air. I thought it would help clear his head.”
Slowly, the weight was lifting from Atticus’ shoulders. He wasn’t a good liar under pressure and in the presence of the professor he was even worse. If not for Brock, he didn’t know what he’d do.
Varnum shifted his gaze from one boy to the other. “Where are you two off then?”
“The police station,” Atticus blurted.
Both Varnum and Brock looked at Atticus with shock.
“I-I need to speak with detective McCloud,” Atticus said. “It’s for a summer internship.”
At the mention of McCloud, Atticus noticed a slight twitch on Varnum’s face.
“Really? McCloud you say?” The professor looked all around him as if saying something would get him in trouble. “Well, then go ahead. I won’t stop you. I need to get back to business anyway.”
Varnum shouted one final threat of expulsion at Atticus, but it didn’t matter. Both students knew it was just a hollow threat. As far as they cared, Varnum was just a snooty professor with a severe case of bighead syndrome.
As he walked into the distance, Brock turned to Atticus and said, “I don’t trust him. He left class not to long before Mike’s body was found.”
Gears began to turn in Atticus’ head. “He just left?”
Brock nodded. “He looked up at the clock, I remember, and then declared he had to go ‘take care of something.’ Then he came back about fifteen minutes later. Class was totally confused.”
“If that’s the case,” he said, “then we have a suspect. You saw how he acted when I brought up McCloud. Maybe he’s the killer?”
Brock shrugged. “I don’t know. We don’t’ have anything solid to go on.”
“But it’s a start,” Atticus said. “Maybe he’s not the killer, but he’s involvedin some way. I can feel it.”
Brock didn’t like assumptions, but if that’s all they had then he couldn’t argue. What mattered to Atticus, though, was that he finally something to go on.
The city of Las Vegas was breathtaking. When you live there you used to its majesty, but to new eyes it was the greatest. It wasn’t a concrete jungle like New York City or Chicago, but a beautiful landscape filled to the brim with bright and flashing lights. Now, there were a few colossal casinos, hotels, and skyscrapers; but the one that stood out above the rest was the Zebulon World Headquarters. It was a mighty building, standing over eight stories tall at the heart of the city.
The Las Vegas night life was nothing short of breathtaking either. Casinos lined the streets, filling the city with lights and music. Students from Fortuna Prep, and several other high schools, would always try and sneak out at night to see the famous Las Vegas Strip. They were almost never successful and most students didn’t want to risk getting caught so late after curfew, but there were still the daredevils amongst the schools.
To help get across the city in a timely fashion, a company called the Las Vegas Skyway created the skyrail network. To explain the skyrail one would imagine a large subway system, but instead moving above the city’s skyline. The skyrail covered the whole city and had dozens of shuttles moving around at all times of the day. Far more effective than busses.
The Police Station was a beautiful work of Las Vegas architecture. It towered nearly three stories tall, was made of smooth orange and gray concrete bricks, and was riddled with windows placed in elegantly carved grooves. A large staircase lead up to the station’s front entrance, and a bronze plaque was posted next to the door that read:
Atticus and Brock made their way into the station and into the main reception area. At the back wall, there was a small window with a young receptionist woman sitting behind, filling out mounds of paperwork. To the left of the window was a doorway leading to the heart of the station. The floor was a glossy hardwood floor that gleamed in the light. Above them, lighting the room, were patented Zebulon Corp Plasma Tubes. Said to be cleaner and longer lasting than the traditional light bulb. Atticus made his way up to the wooden counter and signaled the receptionist for assistance.
“How may I help you, young man,” the woman asked.
“Hello ma’am, I was curious if anybody had turned in a brass locket recently? I lost mine yesterday.”
The woman took out a small notepad and pen and began to jot down notes. “Where do you think you might have lost it?”
“Fortuna Prep, near the west park.” The woman looked up from her notepad. “I-I lost it during the investigation around Mike Nelson. I think someone might have picked it up on accident thinking it was evidence.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry young man, bit if it does happen to be in evidence I can’t give it back at this moment.”
“Well, could you check that it’s there at least? It was a gift, and if I know where it is I’ll at least feel a little better.”
The woman sighed and looked back down to her notepad. “Can you describe it to me?”
“It’s a small round brass locket with two gears entwined around one another.”
When Atticus brought up the gears, the woman stopped writing. Her eyes widened up and she looked at the boy. Atticus was afraid he may have done something wrong, but the woman just shook her head and went back to writing down the description.
“E-Everything alright,” he asked. The woman didn’t say anything. She just went on writing.
She tore the note out of her little booklet, pinned it into a small tube, and then sent it through a small chute in the wall.
“It’ll be just a moment,” she said. Atticus smiled, thanked the woman and went back to join Brock who was still standing near the door. The two then sat down a small bench and awaited the news.
“Nice fib,” Brock said. “How’d you think of that?”
Atticus shrugged and said, “I just thought to myself, ‘what would Brock do.’”
Brock laughed. “Wow, what an honor.”
It was quiet. The only sound was the hum of the plasma tubes above, and the tapping of the receptionist’s pen as she filled out more paperwork. Atticus began to feel nervous. He couldn’t stop thinking about how the receptionist acted when he described the locket. Why? What was so alarming?
He leaned over to Brock and whispered, “Do you think we’ll get in too much trouble if we get caught?”
“What would they do,” Brock teased.
“I don’t know,” Atticus said frantically. “We’re tampering with evidence. Do you know the punishment for that?”
Brock shrugged. “Death, I assume.”
Atticus rolled his eyes. He wasn’t in a joking mood. He was starting to think his idea wasn’t a very good one. He should’ve just stayed on campus instead of wanting to get involved with professional affairs. He could really mess something up.
Suddenly, the door next to the reception window opened and out walked an officer followed by the couple from Atticus’ dream: The man in the green suit, orange tie, and goggles; and the woman with the golden dress. Atticus couldn’t believe it.
Brock gestured over to them. “Who do you think those schmucks are?”
“I-I’m not sure.”
“Why do you think they’re here?”
Atticus shrugged and said, “They probably want to sue someone for being poor.”
The officer began talking to the couple, and the two students tried to listen in. “We’re very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Nelson. We really are.”
Atticus shot a glance a Brock. “The Nelsons!”
Brock clasped his hand over Atticus’ gaping maw and shushed him. They then resumed their eavesdropping.
“It’s quite alright,” she said. Her face began to swell as tears formed in her eyes. “I just wish we could have done something to help him.”
Mr. Nelson scoffed and turned to the officer. “Where are my tax dollars going? Las Vegas’ finest? I beg to differ.”
“I’m sorry sir, but there is nothing we can-”
“Nothing? You idiots aren’t even trying!”
“Now, Clayton,” Mrs. Nelson said, “you heard the detective. He said he’s looking into it.”
The man scoffed. “I don’t trust that McCloud for a minute, Pearl! I trust the police, not some Zebulon lap dog!”
Atticus jumped to his feet, startling Brock, and made his way to the Nelsons. “Excuse me, you’re the Nelsons, correct?”
The two looked down at the young man. They had no idea who this boy was, nor did the really care. But, Mrs. Nelson’s lady-like behavior shown through.
“Yes, we are.”
Atticus nodded, and in his head he wore a smile of delight. If these really were Mike’s parents, he knew he could get some information out of them.
Mike didn’t talk about his parents much. He said they were all business and no play. They owned a private machinarium in Las Angeles. According to Mike, their business was going through some tough times. This was not a good time for the family.
“I would just like to say that I’m very sorry about what happened to Mike. He was my friend.” Atticus extended his hand. “My name’s Atticus.”
The man sneered. “Thank you very much for your concerns young man, but we don’t need a reminder of what happened to our son.”
“Clayton, please!” Mrs. Nelson gave Atticus a weak smile and shook his hand. “Please excuse my husband, he’s just very upset. We all are. My name is Pearl.”
“It’s an honor, ma’am.”
Atticus then felt his stomach leap into his throat. He wanted to ask them all sorts of questions about the locket and if they happened to know his parents, but he couldn’t. It was as if his mouth went dry in just a second. Atticus swallowed hard and then looked up at Mike’s father, extending his hand once more.
Clayton had such a presence about him. He was intimidating and Atticus knew that this man meant business. He felt like this man was what Professor Varnum wanted to be, but instead he was just a weasel-y old history professor.
“Atticus, huh?” Through his goggles, Atticus could feel the man’s glare. “My name is Dr. Clayton Nelson.” He reached out and shook Atticus’ hand.
“P-Pleased to meet you, sir.” Atticus and Dr. Nelson lowered their arms, and before Atticus could regain his composure, the two began to leave. He knew that this could be the last time he’d get to ask them any questions. He had to make it count. Quickly, Atticus ran up to them and cut them off. “Please, really quick, can I ask you some questions?”
Mrs. Nelson gave Atticus a somber look. “Please, not now. We would really like some time alone.”
“It’ll only take a moment.”
Dr. Nelson turned back and ripped his goggles off; allowing him to look Atticus dead in the eyes. “Didn’t you hear the lady? She said not now you dreadful little ankle-biter!”
The man’s eyes were a powerful green. The same color as his suit. Atticus felt his heart beat violently in his chest. His hand trembled and he felt sweat trickle down his neck. He had such a hard time imagining this loud and boisterous man as quiet and introverted Mike’s father.
“I-I’m sorry,” Atticus said quietly.
Dr. Nelson scoffed and quickly turned away. “They say all publicity is good publicity, but all my son’s death has gotten me is this harassment.”
“Clayton, please! Let’s go.” Dr. Nelson stormed out of the station, his wife not far behind.
Atticus was frozen. He’d never frozen up like that. The feeling in his chest when he talked to the Nelsons wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed. However, one thing rand in the back of his head. “All my son’s death has gotten me?”
Brock leapt up off the bench and ran to Atticus. “Are you okay? You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”
Atticus nodded and said, “I’m fine, but a little confused.”
Just then, the receptionist tapped on the glass. “Young man, I just got the message on your locket.”
That snapped him out of it. Atticus quickly darted back to the receptionist’s window. “Did you find it?”
The receptionist shook her head. “We’re sorry, but they couldn’t find it in evidence and as far as the records show, no one has turned one in.”
Atticus’ face fell and he said, “That’s okay. I’m sure I’ll find it somewhere on campus.” He thanked the woman for her time and then turned back to Brock.
He had a look of defeat plastered on his face. He couldn’t find Mike’s locket and he botched his attempts to get any information out of the Nelsons. The only thing he got was some exercise.
However, Atticus couldn’t shake the feeling Dr. Nelson gave him. The way he talked about his son’s death didn’t seem like the way a grieving father would behave. Relating to publicity and acting as if he was supposed to get something in return; How he treated the police staff and what he said about Detective McCloud. It didn’t sit well with him.
Brock smiled and patted Atticus on the back. “Hey now, don’t go beating yourself up.”
Atticus sighed. He knew Brock was right, but he just felt so miserable. He wanted to put on his big boy detective pants, but he was just too cowardly.
He got a glimpse of the clock at the far end of the room: 4:42. He had eighteen minutes before he was to meet Camila at the Turtle Dragon.
“Say, would you like to grab some food,” he asked.
Brock was a bit taken back by Atticus’ sudden shift, but he nodded. “Sure. Why not.”
The Turtle Dragon was one of Las Vegas’ most popular casinos and that’s because it was one of the few places that allowed students and minors to come in and relax. It doubled as a soda shoppe and because it was so close to so many schools, it was easy for students to stop by after class.
Now, that’s not to say that was the only reason for its success. It was a marvelous work of architecture. The Turtle Dragon was owned by an older Chinese couple with a desire to spread a positive image of their culture across the U.S. Sadly, the Las Vegas chamber of commerce feared that it would be a bit too bland, so they asked them to up the décor. As a result: it became a bit stereotypical, but people loved it none the less.
The entrance resembled the head of a giant golden dragon and all around the exterior were decorative red and black turtles. Flashing plasma lights decorated the building to make it stand out from the other casinos and restaurants nearby, but it’s big attention getter was that the dragon head would shoot fire straight into the air from its nostrils every so often.
But that was just the outside. Inside, the casino was split into its two halves: the gambler’s hall and the soda shoppe. The gambler’s hall was littered with slot machines of all shapes and sizes. Card tables with Chinese characters painted onto the trim in gold paint littered the area. Chugging along the walls was a small steam train designed to look like a small dragon that would occasionally bellow steam, and patrolling the floor were small clockwork horses that would pick up any loose trash left behind by patrons.
The soda shoppe was just as highly decorated as the rest of the casino, however it was geared to a much younger audience. The music of Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra filled the dining area; the walls were ornamented with photographs and portraits of famous actors and celebrities: Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin, and Audrey Hepburn as opposed to the traditional Chinese decorations.
However, the pièce de résistance was a colossal cylindrical drink fountain in the center of the room. But, what made this fountain so special was that it was fully automated and you got to watch the machine make your drink before your very eyes. Normally, a clerk would have to make your drink for you, but for just a quarter, the machine would construct your drink and you’d get to watch all the gears and arms make it with pinpoint accuracy. Was it a bit unnecessary? Most likely, but was it a delight to watch? Most definitely.
As the two made their way into the shoppe, Atticus spotted Camila sitting at a table by herself, her nose crammed in a book. He made his way to join her, but Brock abruptly stopped him.
“Whoa, you said you were meeting a friend to help study.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Camila Valencia? She’s our valedictorian!” Atticus shrugged. Brock smirked and said, “Y’know, I could leave if you don’t want me around.”
“Why would you think that,” Atticus asked. “Do you not like her?” Brock laughed and slapped Atticus on the shoulder. Atticus stared at him confused but decided to laugh alongside of him.
The two made way to the table. About halfway, Camila looked up and her face beamed with delight. She jumped up and waved to Atticus who awkwardly smiled and waved back.
“Sorry we’re a little late,” he said.
“We?” Atticus gestured to Brock who did his best imitation of Atticus’ silly wave. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought it would just be the two of us.”
Brock laughed again and said, “I told you so! I’ll leave you two be.”
“N-No, it’s okay,” Atticus stammered. He had to think quickly. What would Brock say if he was in his position right now? “I-I’m helping tutor Brock in history as well.”
Brock glared at him wickedly. He snorted and turned back to Camila, a wide smile plastered across his face.
“Yeah, sorry, my history grade is in the toilet and I asked Atticus if he could help.”
“Oh, okay.” Camila looked down at the table disheartened.
“It’ll be okay,” Atticus assured. “Why don’t we get some food and then we can get down to studying.”
Brock rested his face in his hands and shook his head. “You’re so clueless.”
The tree sat down and ordered their food from a little device that looked a bit like a typewriter at the end of the table. It was a wonderful little thing: you punched in your order exactly the way you wanted it, and a little receipt would print out. Then, a waiter would come by, snag it, take it to the kitchen, and then once the cooks were all done preparing it, the waiters would bring it right to the table. No hassle. No mix-ups.
“So, Camila,” Brock said, “what’s your deal? You’re our class valedictorian right? So why do you need help in history? Don’t you already get A’s?”
“Getting A’s isn’t the point. I’m actually not all that smart,” she said. “In our history class, I was the last one to finish the exam. That’s how I’ve always been.” She sighed and said, “my papa used to call me ‘Señorita Tortuga’ when I was little.”
“Mrs. Turtle,” Atticus said.
Camila nodded. “I’m surprised you knew that, Atticus.”
“I learned a bit of Spanish from my mom,” he said.
“Hold on a minute,” Brock chimed in, “you just want to be faster at being smarter?”
She shrugged and said, “I guess.”
“Talk about a try hard,” Brock scoffed.
“Hey, no need to be rude,” Atticus said. “People think in all sorts of ways. Some faster than others.”
“Easy for you to say,” Brock said. “Mister detective over here thinking at the speed of light.”
Camila looked at Atticus. “What’s do you mean, detective?”
“You know, like an investigator,” he said. “That’s what I’m studying for. I want to join the police force as a detective.”
“Oh, that’s great,” Camila said smiling. “So does that mean you’re like Sherlock Holmes? Are you really good at riddles?”
Brock smiled and smacked Atticus on the back. “This boy here is brilliant with puzzles,” he said. “No hints or help required.”
Atticus blushed. “I’m not that good.”
“Stop being so humble,” Brock teased. “It’s okay to take pride and show off every now and again, you wuss.”
“I don’t think so,” Camila said. “I think it’s far more satisfying when someone humble beats a braggart.”
Brock nodded and said, “I guess you’re right. Nose rubbing is way more satisfying.”
Camila shook her head and turned to Atticus. “So, if you really are good, answer this: What’s red and smells like blue paint?”
“Red paint,” Atticus said with a smirk. “Was that it?”
“No, that was a test.” Camila gave Atticus a sinister smile. “How about this: Thirty white horses on a red hill. First they chatter, then they stamp, they shiver, then they stand still. These horses, what are they?”
Atticus pursed his lips and steepled his fingers. Dozens of answers flew through his head. He took every word into consideration: white, horse, thirty, red, hill, chatter, stamp, shiver. A proper riddle has every word matter. For a moment, Atticus thought he was stumped, but that thought didn’t last long.
“White on a red hill,” he said. “Chattering and shivering? They’re teeth.”
Camila’s mouth fell agape. “I don’t believe it. You got that so quickly.”
“I told you so,” Brock said. “He’s the best.”
Atticus felt the blood rush to his cheeks. “Enough about me,” he said. “What about you Camila? What do you want to do after graduating?”
She blushed and sank into her seat. “To be honest, I’m still not sure yet.”
“Geez, so picky,” Brock teased.
Camila sighed. “My parents want me to go into the sciences: plasma or steam. But, I don’t know if that’s what I want to do.”
“Well, what do you like doing,” Atticus asked.
Camila shrugged. “I like to read.”
Brock nodded and asked, “What are some of your skills?”
“Memorization,” she said instantly. Camila pulled out her book, , and passed it to Atticus. “I have a photographic memory. Not metaphorically, but literally. I remember everything in that book.”
Atticus looked a bit bewildered.
“Let me prove it,” she said. “Give me a page and paragraph. I can recite it perfectly. I promise.”
He opened the book: page 64. Then he picked a paragraph: third from the bottom. Atticus gave Camila the info just like she asked.
She shut her eyes. It was silent for a while, maybe twenty seconds or even a minute, but then Camila said, “I could hear their feet rattling up our old stairs, so that the house must have shook with it. Promptly afterwards, fresh sounds of astonishment arose.”
Camila opened her eyes. “Want me to do it again?”
Atticus looked down at the book and read the passage. Sure enough, she had recited it word for word. That’s not possible, he thought. Nobody is that good are they?
Brock snagged the book from his friend’s hands and read the paragraph.
“How did you do that,” he asked. “You couldn’t have studied that one line in hopes that someone would pick it, would you?”
Camila giggled and said, “I told you. I remember everything.”
“That’s intimidating,” said Atticus.
“Well, everything I see,” Camila said. She pulled out a notepad from her bag. “I can’t remember everything I hear, so I’ll jot down whatever I need into this notebook. Then I have something visual to help me.”
“Well there you have it,” Brock said. “An incredible memory. You can apply that into a lot of jobs!”
Brock and Atticus looked at one another and started throwing out careers that they thought Camila would like:
Camila laughed at all the suggestions. It was sweet of them trying to help her. “Thank you boys, I think I get the idea.”
“Oh, a librarian!” Atticus shouted. “You like books and reading, and librarians need good memorization skills. You need to know which books are in and which ones are checked out. You need to know where they are located, and for students, you need to know what books could help them with their school work.”
Camila smiled. “That’s not a bad idea. Thank you, Atticus. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Atticus smiled back.
“Now,” Camila said turning to Brock, “what about you?”
“Me? That’s easy,” he said. “I’m going to be a psychologist. I want to help people whose injuries are in their mind, not on their body.”
“That’s very noble,” Camila said. “Not what I expected at all.”
“Really? What did you expect?”
“Circus clown,” Atticus chimed in. “Maybe an attractive table leg.”
Camila began giggling uncontrollably and nearly spit out her drink. Atticus couldn’t help but feel a little proud of himself. He usually didn’t say things that made people laugh. That was always Brock’s thing.
Brock glanced at Atticus and smiled. “Y’know, I was really thinking about that that table leg position, but I don’t get along with my coworkers. They’re a bit too stiff for me.”
Camila continued to laugh. Her eyes were tearing up and her face was turning a bright red.
“But, I’m boring,” Brock said. “Atticus is the really exciting one. He’s helping Detective McCloud solve the murder of Mike Nelson.”
Atticus glared at him and whacked his arm. Brock was laughing, but Atticus was not amused.
Camila’s giggling fit came to a stop when she heard that. She wiped her eyes and all of her attention turned to Atticus. “Really? But the police say Mike just committed suicide.”
Atticus shook his head and said, “The police are wrong. Both I and the detective know it.”
“And you’re actually working with him,” she asked.
Atticus nodded. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Atticus smiled and felt blood rush to his cheeks. However, talking about Mike suddenly got Atticus’ head racing a million miles an hour. Thoughts and clues began rushing to his head. He got to thinking about Mike’s last words: the ghost haunting him. He thought about Professor Varnum vanishing from class and the Nelson’s reaction to their son’s death. Somethings would piece together, while others were still looming overhead. He had to think of everything and how it all tied together. Like a good puzzle, everything mattered. He just had to get the whole story and to do that he had to start from the beginning.
Atticus shot up to his feet and said, “Have them cancel my order. I need to go.”
He picked up his school bag and began to head out, but Brock jumped up and cut him off. “Hey, what’s going on.”
“I’m looking at this all wrong,” Atticus whispered.
Brock sighed and pulled him aside. “What are you talking about?”
“The puzzle pieces are aligning in my head,” he said. “I’ve been too on edge. Now that I’m more relaxed, it’s like all the fog in my head is gone.”
“That’s great,” Brock said, “but why not just do all this later?”
Atticus shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t lose this vibe. Detective’s instinct, y’know.”
Atticus ran back to Camila. “I’m so sorry, but I’m gonna have to-”
Camila raised her hand and shushed him. She gave him a gentle smile and said, “It’s okay. You go do what you need to.”
“Thank you so much.” Atticus smiled. “Why don’t we reschedule?”
“That’d be wonderful. Why don’t we talk about it after class tomorrow?”
Atticus nodded, a smile pasted to his face, and then bolted out of the soda shoppe. He needed to head back to Fortuna Prep as soon as possible. He knew it was rude, but he didn’t think much of it. Besides, Brock understood the issue, and Camila seemed okay. He had important questions that needed answering, like how Varnum is connected to the Nelsons and why they wanted their son murdered.
It was a pretty radical thought Atticus had: The Nelsons hiring someone to murder their son and pin it up as a suicide. It seemed crazy and horribly inhumane, but Atticus couldn’t shake the feeling. Mike’s parents were going through some tough times and maybe some tragic publicity was all the needed to get themselves back on the map. But, then there was Professor Varnum. How was he involved? Did he know the Nelsons? Was he their inside source of information? He was new to the school, so maybe the Nelsons snuck him in to keep an eye on their son. It wasn’t a coincidence that he left class mere moments before Mike’s body was found.
But he needed details. If Atticus really wanted to be a detective, he would need to get evidence, and that would mean doing some heavy duty investigating. Step one to investigation: gathering information. How did one get information on a school campus? Talking to other students. Sadly, talking with other students was not a skill Atticus was particularly good at.
Atticus urgently trudged his way to the dorms. The first person he needed to talk with was Mike’s roommate: Justin. Justin was a nice guy, but he was a bit too nice for Atticus’ taste. He was the captain of the tennis club and a member of the student council. He was preppy, popular, athletic, and smart. All in all, he was a perfect student. However, all of that being said, his and Atticus’ personalities clashed in all the wrong ways. Atticus liked his alone time; Justin needed to be around others and up in their business. Atticus liked to be quiet; Justin loved to be loud and boisterous. But, the one thing the two had in common was their love of gossip: Atticus loved listening and Justin loved spreading.
It was around 6:30 when Atticus made it to the dorms. Justin would’ve just finished up at tennis for the day and he’d soon be going out with friends for the remainder of the evening. Atticus had to catch him in that small window or else he wouldn’t get a chance the rest of the night.
Atticus knocked on the door and it took all of his will power not to do it to the tune of “Shave and a Haircut.”
It took a minute, but Justin eventually opened the door. “Whoa, Atticus. What’s up?”
Justin had slick and well-groomed light brown hair and a strong slender face. He was handsome; exactly what you’d expect from a popular preppy kid.
“Hey Justin, I need to ask you a few questions about Mike.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, “Mike.”
Justin and Mike weren’t close like Atticus and Brock. The two just happened to get paired together, but they were still friends. Mike was like Atticus when it came to Justin: he was just too loud. But, the two still enjoyed the other’s company every now and again.
“Did you notice him acting strange these past few days,” Atticus asked.
Mike shrugged. “I didn’t see him outside the room too much, but it didn’t really seem out of the ordinary.”
“How about the day he died?”
“I mean; he was skipping class but he just said he wasn’t feeling well.” Justin shrugged again and said, “I stopped by for lunch to pick up my books for the afternoon and he was gone. I assumed he made his way to class after all. He did have that big history exam. I thought he went to that.”
Atticus nodded. “Alright, one last thing: Mike left behind what we assume to be a suicide note, but it was ripped up when it was found. Do you have any ideas what was up with that?”
Justin shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea.”
Atticus sighed. “Okay, thank you for your time.”
Atticus began to make his way down the hall when Justin hollered, “Hey, I know it’s hard, but I think Mike was just tired of everything. He couldn’t take the pressure anymore.”
That wasn’t true. Atticus knew Mike too well to think that this was self-inflicted. There had to have been an outside force at work.
Atticus went through the rest of the building, knocking on doors and asking more and more about Mike. Sadly, most of the other students gave him answers similar to Justin’s. Some of them claimed to know more, but their words were just gossip and rumors that didn’t contribute much.
Okay, so he was a little closer, but he still had to try and piece in Professor Varnum and Mike’s parents. The police were already on the scene finishing up when he arrived. He wasn’t sure how long the police had been at work, but he guessed around twenty minutes. It would take the police around ten minutes to respond to the call, so Atticus estimated the body was found nearly half an hour or so before he stumbled across it.
If that was the case, Atticus concluded that the body was found mere minutes after he finished his exam. If what Brock said was correct and the professor left class a few minutes after Atticus was excused, he might not have been the one to kill Mike, but he could’ve planted the body and alerted the police.
Too many variables, Atticus thought. Too many complications.
Atticus needed more pieces to the puzzle, but he needed to find the right people who could give him those pieces. Justin was an okay start, but he needed people who could scrape up dirt on Varnum. He felt bad suspecting his professor so much, but he couldn’t shake the feeling the man gave him. He was shady, reclusive, and it always felt like he was hiding something. He was the number one suspect.
Atticus made his way to the courtyard and lied down on the campus fountain like he did after class. He stared at the setting sun; its orange glow brightened the sky and filled him with a sense of warmth. Now that it was starting to get cold at night, the last little bit of sunlight was much appreciated. It wasn’t extremely cold, but a nice chill. Sunrise and sunset were Atticus’ favorite times of day. You didn’t need a coat and you wouldn’t sweat. It was perfect.
As he stared at the glowing sky, Atticus thought of all the good times he’d had at Fortuna Prep. He remembered orientation, his first day of class, his first summer break. He remembered the first time he’d met Brock. It was the day after orientation and all of the students were being assigned their dorms and roommates. You could request roommates if you wanted, but Atticus didn’t know anybody, so his was picked at random. Luckily, Brock was a good random.
Initially, Brock was very intimidated by Atticus and how quiet he was. His nose was always stuck in a book and very rarely did he speak. But, one night, Atticus got terrible food poisoning. Brock was supposed to go out with some friends, but he couldn’t leave Atticus alone. So he cancelled his plans and stayed with him all night telling jokes, helping him get to the bathroom when needed, and just talking. Ever since then, the two were best friends. Atticus knew he could count on Brock.
A wide smile spread across his face and he sat up. The warm feeling didn’t last long though. Suddenly, Atticus felt a sharp tingle run down his spine. He was completely petrified. It felt as if a thousand eyes were on him. It required all of his willpower, but Atticus turned around.
He saw a figure standing at least thirty feet away in the shadow of the English and History building wearing a long dark brown cloak. No part of the person was visible except for its eyes, but from a distance, they were impossible to see.
Atticus felt his heart race and his hands shake. He reached into his pocket and felt his locket. It gave him strength. It reminded him why he was doing all of this. The cloaked figure wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
As he thought that, the cloaked figure began to leave. Atticus felt its gaze leave him and he could finally move again. He wasn’t sure what happened. Why was he frozen? He’d been scared to the point of freezing up before, but never like that.
Atticus watched the figure disappear into the shadows and a wave of adrenaline washed over him. He wasn’t sure what, but a conclusion popped into his head: “A ghost!”
Nothing could shake the feeling that the cloaked figure was the ghost Mike asked him about. It wasn’t anything supernatural, just someone hiding in the shadows waiting to strike. And Atticus hated that. The dark was the worst. You never knew what lurked within. You couldn’t plan anything in the darkness, and worst of all you could never be prepared. The dark was the ultimate unsolvable puzzle.
But despite all that, Atticus couldn’t let the Ghost get away. He had to confront him, or at least find where it was hiding.
Atticus snuck behind the figure, always trying to keep it at a close enough distance so he could easily tail it, but far enough so he wouldn’t feel suspicious. Atticus wasn’t the stealthiest kid, but he figured if he kept his distance and was silent, he’d be fine. After all, that’s all there was to being stealthy, right? If so, he figured he was doing a dang good job.
Atticus continued to follow the Ghost for several minutes without it ever catching him. At least, he hoped it hadn’t caught onto him. Every once in a while it would stop and look around and Atticus would be forced to jump behind a bush or tree or bench.
The Ghost lead him through all sorts of dark places between buildings and Atticus started to fear that it was leading him into a trap.
Finally, at one intersection between two halls, the Ghost came to a stop. Atticus was about twenty feet behind, waiting and watching. The cloaked figure looked left, then right, then left again. Atticus wished his Queen of Spades allowed him to read minds because it was killing him not knowing what the Ghost was up to.
If he could read minds, he felt this whole debacle would be solved already, but then what would be the fun in solving puzzles.
After a few seconds, the Ghost turned back and faced Atticus. In a panic, he tried to jump back and hide in the shadows, out of the figure’s line of sight. The sun was at his back, so he thought that maybe he’d be well enough hidden. But, he was wrong. The Ghost stared straight at him, right in the eyes, and once again Atticus was paralyzed with fear. It gestured for him to follow, but Atticus couldn’t move. His legs felt like they were made of concrete.
Eventually, the Ghost left without him, sprinting away and Atticus losing sight of it.
His breathing was heavy and his heart pounded violently, but he couldn’t let the Ghost get away. No more stalking and sneaking. Atticus had to make a move no matter how much it terrified him.
He sprinted as fast as he could in an attempt to tail the mystery figure, but he wasn’t paying the closest attention. In his hurry, he crashed into something old and grouchy, knocking both himself and his professor to the ground.
“Mr. Whaelord, what is the meaning of this?” Varnum shouted.
Atticus leapt up to his feet and looked all around for the Ghost. Sadly, it seemed that the figure had just vanished. There was nowhere for it to hide unless it jumped the fence or climbed a building or tree, but there was no way it was that fast.
“I-I’m sorry professor.” Atticus offered his teacher a hand, but Varnum swatted it away.
“I have had it with your shenanigans, Mr. Whaelord,” Varnum said. He brushed himself off, but he never let his glare wander from Atticus.
“I know professor. I just thought I saw-”
“What? A rodent? A nuisance? Were you chasing a mirror, Mr. Whaelord?”
Atticus didn’t say a word.
“Goodness gracious! I’m covered in dirt and grass stains now because of you,” shouted the professor. “What will the Nelsons think of me now?”
Varnum let out a frustrated sigh and said, “Principal Shepard and I are meeting with the Nelsons to discuss a memorial dinner for their son. I thought it would be a good way to show how much Fortuna Prep cares for its students.”
“But, you don’t care,” Atticus said. Varnum was silent. “This is just a big publicity stunt, isn’t it professor? A way to make yourself look good to the public eye and get the Nelsons some free advertising, am I correct?”
Varnum’s face turned bright red. If it was possible for smoke and fire to shoot from one’s nostrils, Varnum would’ve done it just then. “How dare you accuse me of such a thing! I don’t have time for such foolishness! I’m already late and now thanks to you, Mr. Whaelord, I’m highly unpresentable! You will make this up to me!”
“How about I stay late after class tomorrow,” Atticus asked. “And at lunch, why don’t I stop by and help you grade exams?”
Varnum’s face was starting to return to its normal color. “That will not be necessary. We’ll discuss it tomorrow. Now, if you don’t mind.”
Before Atticus could respond, Varnum shoved past him and made a straight line toward the faculty office building.
That man is hiding something, Atticus thought. He is involved in some way.
Atticus made one last glance around campus, hoping that maybe he could find a hint as to where the Ghost disappeared to. Sadly, he had no such luck.
Frustrated and defeated, Atticus plopped down onto the grass, his face in his hands. He was furious. He found the Ghost; the one Mike was so afraid of, and the killer. He didn’t have any evidence, but he just knew it. He knew the cloaked figure was the killer and he had him in sight. But Professor Varnum had to come up and ruin it.
He got to his feet, brushed himself off and suddenly the gears in his head clanged viciously. Varnum had appeared right as the Ghost had disappeared. Varnum vanished when the body was found. Atticus wondered: perhaps the Ghost and the professor were the same.
A glimmer caught Atticus’ eye. What looked like bright white and black gravel lay in a pile where Varnum had fell. Atticus kneeled down and shuffled the debris into a small mound and realized that it wasn’t gravel at all, but instead a broken piece of jewelry.
“Was this the professor’s,” he whispered to himself.
Atticus looked all around, making sure no one was in sight and cupped his hands over the debris. Atticus shut his eyes tightly and focused. He felt a tingle on the back of his hand and slowly the Queen of Spades began to appear. His hand began to heat up and he curled his fingers into a fist around the broken trinket. Soon his hand began to burn. He felt the item take form in his hands. He opened his eyes, and released his grip. What used to be a pile of white and black rubble was now a ring embedded with a design that looked like a “Z” overlapping a “Y”: The symbol of the Zebulon Corporation.
He picked up the ring and held it in his palm. Of all things, why a Zebulon ring? What did it mean and why’d the professor have a destroyed one?
Atticus planned to leave his professor alone for the rest of the evening, but now he had a special something to return, and it wasn’t something that could wait until tomorrow.
Atticus didn’t intend to eavesdrop, but it happened anyway.
He snuck past the receptionist by saying he was going to visit with his chemistry teacher, Professor Banner. He didn’t lie. Atticus actually did have plans to visit his professor so he could apologize for missing class. He was one of Atticus’ favorite teachers and he figured he’d understand.
Banner was a young professor, only in his late thirties, but he was a brilliant man. He was exceptionally tall, standing roughly 6”5, but he was a quite slender. He was also a much more laid back teacher, preferring to wear just a nice dress shirt and black slacks as opposed to suits or formal attire.
Atticus confronted him at his desk. “Good evening, Professor Banner.”
“Good evening, Mr. Whaelord.” The professor was hard at work grading exams and reading thesis essays. He was always doing something to keep his mind working.
“I-I just wanted to apologize for missing class today. You see, I wasn’t feeling the best”
“After Mr. Nelson’s passing? I understand.”
“Y-Yes,” Atticus said. “You do?”
Banner nodded, his eyes still glued to his papers. “I know you two were friends. After a loss like that, I almost wouldn’t want you to attend class. Bad for the brain, you know? I assumed that’s why you missed.”
Atticus was at a loss for words. “T-Thank you?”
The professor dropped his pen and looked up at Atticus, his eyes peering over his tiny oval reading glasses. He said, “Mr. Whaelord, Atticus, just make sure you have a note delivered to me next time. Assumptions can only take one so far.”
Assumptions can only take one so far, Atticus thought. That phrase struck his as a rather odd thing for the professor to say, but perhaps it was just some sagely advice he wanted to give to his student.
Atticus nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”
Banner smiled and went back to his work. “I know it’s hard to lose someone like that. Just promise me that you won’t blame yourself, alright?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mr. Nelson’s passing,” he said. “This is a very tough time in most students’ lives. We adults put so much on your plate and sometimes the weight becomes unbearable. Tragedies like this occur, and sometimes we don’t’ see how much someone is struggling until it’s too late.” The professor took off his glasses and lowered his head. “I know all about that kind of pressure.”
It dawned on Atticus that Professor Banner thought Mike killed himself. Why would he think otherwise? Atticus wanted to jump in and tell him that wasn’t the case, but he stopped himself.
“Alright, Professor,” he said. “Thank you.”
Atticus said his farewells, picked up his missing assignment and then went on his way. Now that he had an alibi, it was time for him to find Varnum.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Zebulon Ring. Atticus still couldn’t figure out why the professor would have one. At first, he figured that since Zebulon owned Fortuna Prep maybe that’s why; but as far as he knew, no other teachers had rings. Then Atticus thought that perhaps it wasn’t the professor’s ring at all. Maybe it was lost on the ground and when the two bumped into each other, Varnum landed on it, shattering it into ruble. But that wasn’t possible. Despite the professor’s boney butt, it couldn’t have destroyed a ring.
Atticus snuck his way up to the second floor to Principal Shepard’s office. The door was a standard wood fame with a glass window pane marked with the principal’s name: Principal Dorothy Shepard.
Having the principal to one of the nation’s most well-known schools be a woman was a pretty hot topic. Most school headmasters, especially for private prep schools like Fortuna Prep, were men; but Dorothy Shepard showed the whole world what she was capable of. Since she’d taken over, the school hadn’t burned to the ground like some had said, but instead flourished. She was an exceptional leader and speaker. Because of her, students were more inclined to work harder. She listened to the students as well as the staff. She also had connections to very fit and abled professors like Professor Banner whom she’d met when she was a university professor. Of course, that didn’t make her perfect. She did still hire Professor Varnum after all.
She was also an advocate for smaller class sizes and more professors overall. Shepard could easily negotiate with the Zebulon higher ups in charge of the school’s budget in order to get that done.
“If these students are to be working for Zebulon,” she would say, “then should they not be taught to their fullest abilities? These students will be Zebulon’s future, and as such we should spare no expense.”
Atticus peaked into the principal’s office and saw her speaking with Varnum and the Nelsons. Quickly, he crouched down and pressed his ear to the door, trying to listen in.
It all sounded okay except for when Varnum would butt in. Principal Shepard and the Nelsons would be calmly discussing plans for this “Memorial Dinner” as they were calling it, but Varnum would then jump in and push his own agenda: guests to invite, newspaper headlines, proper location, etcetera. Worst of all, whenever he would say something, no matter how stupid or selfish, Mrs. Nelson would agree wholeheartedly. Then, after his wife agreed, so would Dr. Nelson.
It made Atticus’ blood boil to hear how they treated Mike’s death like it was just the theme of the evening, almost like they’d been planning the dinner long before his death. Maybe they had? If is theory was correct and the Nelsons were working with Varnum, they could have been planning this since before the year started. Maybe the Nelsons were the ones who got Varnum a job at Fortuna Prep: So he could keep an eye on their son.
Atticus pressed his ear to the door even harder.
He heard Principal Shepard say, “Let’s not forget the reason behind this event. We are to mourn the loss of a student, your son, and try to prevent things like this from happening again.
“Yes, of course,” said Mrs. Nelson.
“Did you think we were trying to suggest something else,” Varnum asked.
“Not at all. It’s just that we can’t get to distracted from our goal.”
Varnum sighed and said, “Yes, yes. Our goal to prevent future tragedies. I just feel thatwe can use this to help so many other foundations.”
How could he say that, Atticus thought?
Varnum wanted to make this about him as much as he could. He didn’t even care that a student was dead. Here was this grumpy old man who claimed to be a professor, but was terrible at his job, and instantly jumped onto the biggest campus tragedy in recent history simply to get some notoriety as a philanthropist. Atticus saw through his guise. He was nothing more than a selfish, greedy fraud.
Atticus couldn’t sit by any longer. He didn’t care how much trouble he got into, he needed to find a way to reveal the professor’s true colors.
He threw open the door and barged his way in, marching straight up to Professor Varnum.
“S-Sorry to disrupt,” he said, “but I think you dropped this earlier professor.” Atticus pulled the ring from his pocket and offered it to Varnum.
A disturbing silence lingered through the office. Everyone’s gaze shifted from Atticus to Varnum, like a pack of hungry wolves who’d just found some fresh prey.
“Th-that,” Varnum stuttered, “that’s not mine.”
“Well, when we bumped into each other I found it where you fell,” Atticus said. “I-I assumed it was yours.”
“Well, I can tell you that your assumption is undoubtedly wrong, Mr.-” Varnum turned and looked at the Nelsons. Dr. Nelson’s eyes were hidden behind his goggles, but Mrs. Nelson was definitely giving Varnum a stink eye. Varnum turned back to Atticus and said, “I’ve had just about enough of you and your harassment, do you hear?”
“Now please, Henry,” Principal Shepard chimed in. “There’s no need to be rude to the boy.”
“You don’t understand, principal,” Varnum said turning way. “This boy here has been making numerous scenes-”
“None of which I’ve seen, nor have you reported on prior. All I see is a student trying to return something to his professor.” Varnum stayed silent. “And honestly professor, do you expect me to believe that Atticus here is a trouble maker?”
“Wait a minute,” Dr. Nelson said. “You’re that boy from the earlier today! I thought I was just being delusional, but you are most definitely the same one.”
Atticus nodded. “Yes sir, that was me.”
“Yes, what did you say your name was? Atticus something?”
“Clayton, please,” Mrs. Nelson said. “We really shouldn’t bother him. He probably wants to get back to his friends.”
Suddenly, Atticus felt a strange tugging feeling in his gut. He’d never really felt anything like it before. He didn’t know why, but he became incredibly intimidated by this woman. He felt like he wanted to do exactly what she said without question.
Luckily, Dr. Nelson chimed in, snapping Atticus out of it. “No, Pearl, this young man seems familiar. Almost like I’ve seen him before today. Now what’s your name young man?”
“A-Atticus,” he said. “My name is Atticus-”
“Pardon me!” Suddenly, barging in through the door was Detective McCloud, wearing his brown trench coat, his fedora held in his right hand. Atticus saw on his finger was one a Zebulon Ring, just like the one he found. “Sorry for showing up unannounced.”
“What on God’s green Earth are you doing here,” Dr. Nelson shouted. “I was not aware you’d be joining us, McCloud.”
McCloud looked at Atticus with his piercing green eyes. He gave him a reassuring wink, but Atticus didn’t know what was so reassuring about it.
Atticus wasn’t sure what Dr. Nelson had against McCloud, but it was clearly deep seated. But, not only was Dr. Nelson upset, so was Principal Shepard and Professor Varnum. Shepard’s eyes were tightly squinted at the detective, almost like she was plotting something.
Then there was Varnum who looked extremely pale in McCloud’s presence. His breathing faltered, sweat trickled down his cheek, and Atticus saw that his hands were trembling. If those weren’t signs of someone in the wrong, then Atticus didn’t know what were.
McCloud looked at the principal with a snarky grin. “G’day to you, m’lady principal.”
“Explain what you’re doing here, detective,” Shepard demanded.
The detective chuckled, which was a bit unsettling, and said, “Yes, yes, so down to business we are.” He turned to Dr. Nelson. “I just stopped by to say that I think I have a lead on the murder of your son. You see-”
“Shut your trap,” Dr. Nelson shouted. He bolted to his feet and got face-to-face with McCloud. “I’m tired of your lies about my son, McCloud! You’re just a dog of Zebulon, trying to cover up the truth! You’re the biggest monster of them all!”
The doctor’s face beamed a bright and bloody red and his breathing hastened, but McCloud stayed calm.
“Clayton, that’s enough!” Mrs. Nelson stood up and placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder.
Slowly, Dr. Nelson’s face began to return to its regular color and his breathing slowed down. Without a word, Dr. Nelson pushed past the detective and left the office.
“I’m very sorry, detective,” said Mrs. Nelson.
“Tis quite alright, m’lady.” McCloud smiled and moved aside. “You best not keep your husband waiting.”
Mrs. Nelson curtsied and left to join her husband.
There was a long uncomforting silence that filled the room after the Nelsons were gone. Atticus stood in the corner, watching the three adults in the room. Varnum still looked ghastly, hands still trembling and his knees shaking. Principal Shepard continued to eyeball McCloud who stood silently, his hat still in his hands.
Principal Shepard broke the silence. “I’m sorry about all of that, Atticus.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Yelling adults: I’m used to it.”
“Well, Mr. Whaelord,” said Varnum, “because of your intrusion, we’ll have to delay our meeting to another time.”
“Tell me professor, what was the meeting about,” McCloud asked.
Varnum’s face tensed. He stuttered trying to answer, but he was fumbling over all of his words. McCloud gave a smirk and changed the subject.
“I do believe it was my intrusion that caused the commotion, not the lad’s. Anyway, I do apologize about that. I simply thought they’d be interested to hear what I had to say, but nay. Farewell everyone.”
As the detective left, Atticus saw that Varnum was still petrified and Principal Shepard was still on edge. Something was up with them. Why would they all act strangely when McCloud was round? Was the principal in on this scheme too?
“W-Well, I should get going,” Attics said. “Y’know, I-I have a lot of studying to catch up on.”
“You’re excused, Atticus,” said Principal Shepard. Her face was finally starting to relax. “Say, why don’t you leave that ring with me? I can ask some of the other faculty members about it, okay?”
Atticus nodded. He placed the ring on the principal’s desk, and as he did he caught a small bead of sweat trickle down Varnum’s cheek. The man was almost completely drenched in bile. Ever since Atticus revealed the ring, he acted as though it was something terrible.
The professor started to act a bit jittery, almost as if someone poured a bucket of hot sand down his trousers.
“Well,” he said, “I should also get back to work. Busy, busy. What do you think would be a good time to meet again, principal? I was thinking-”
“Not quite, professor.” Principal Shepard knocked her hand on her desk. Varnum tensed up again. “We need to discuss your recent behavior.”
A tingle rushed up Atticus’ spine when she said “behavior.”
He quickly said his farewell to the principal and gave his sincerest condolences to Professor Varnum, who did not look the least bit thrilled.
Atticus quickly exited the faculty building, chasing after Detective McCloud. He wanted to talk to him about so much: Professor Varnum, the Nelsons, the ring. If he could just get a minute, Atticus was sure they could get some answers.
Detective McCloud was just making his way past the Fortuna Prep fountain when Atticus caught up to him.
“Detective,” he hollered, “just a minute please!”
McCloud stopped and turned about to face Atticus. He still had a devilish grin on his face.
“Well, good ‘ay, lad,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
Atticus was panting. The entire day he’d been stressed out, running around, his mind moving a million thoughts a minute, and now it was starting to take its toll on him.
He steadied his breath and said, “I would like…to talk to you…about the murder.”
McCloud nodded. “Yes, yes. You saw how well that went for me with the parents.”
“Why doesn’t Dr. Nelson-”
“Please, now.” McCloud raised his hands. “Let’s sit down first. The, we’ll talk business. You look exhausted, lad.”
The two parked themselves on a bench outside the gates. For a moment, Atticus’ mind was lost as he stared out across the horizon. The sun was just barely peeking over the skyline and the city lights were just starting to flicker on. City of Lights was definitely the best name for Las Vegas.
“So lad, what was it you were saying?”
Atticus lowered his head and shuffled his feet. “Dr. Nelson calls you a dog of Zebulon.”
“Ah, yes,” McCloud said laughing. “Not my biggest fan, is he?”
“But why? What’ve you done wrong? Doesn’t he understand that you’re trying to help?”
McCloud shrugged. “Can’t say I know. The man is obviously very distressed.”
“How can he be so-”
“Foolish? Arrogant? Rude?
Atticus looked over at the detective. His smile was still stuck to his face and his piercing emerald eyes stared right at him. He was so intimidating; his eyes so haunting. It was almost as if they gleamed in the dark. How terrifying, Atticus thought, to see McCloud staring you down in the darkness.
“Yeah, arrogant,” he said.
“Ha! I knew it would be one of those! You see, you learn to predict people’s words when you do this job as long as I, lad.”
Atticus smiled. “Detective, I think I may have something on this case.”
He’d hoped that McCloud would be ecstatic to hear what he had to say, but he was wrong. Instead, McCloud shook his head and said, “Now lad, I understand you’re excited to help, but let’s just relax for a moment.”
No butts! I know you want to help. I understand your frustration, but you’ve had a long day. We both have, and now we just need to kick back, relax, and put our minds at ease.”
“But, what if we miss something,” Atticus asked. “What if we’re too slow?”
“Never worry lad. I don’t overlook things,” McCloud said confidently. “If I did, I wouldn’t be the head investigator for the world’s biggest mechatronics corporation. I’ll see right through any tricks.”
There was a moment of silence. Detective McCloud was right. Atticus was too anxious to find Mike’s killer. He was so quick to point his finger at Varnum; he didn’t look in any other direction. Mike’s parents? That could just be Atticus’ jumping to conclusions. But, all that considered, there was still one question that bugged him.
“If Dr. Nelson is so against Zebulon,” he said, “why would they send their son here?”
The detective looked up to the sky and shrugged. “It was probably the boy’s idea. It seems that his father thinks Zebulon is just some money gobbling monopoly. Which, I guess, to an outsider is what we look like. Without a doubt, Zebulon is the most influential and renowned mechatronics and science corporation in the world, but it certainly isn’t a monopoly. Nor is it a money gobbler. Zebulon does all it can to take care of the world around it. Its employees are well taken care of and it funds dozens of charitable services.”
McCloud smiled and patted Atticus on the back. “Now, I’m a bit biased in my views, though. You see lad, I owe everything to Zebulon.”
“What do you mean?”
McCloud smiled and said, “Eighteen years ago, back around the dawn of the second world war, my family moved from our home in Scotland to America in hopes of a better future away from all the terror.
“I was already a member of the police force back home, so when we arrived in the ports of New York City, I set my eyes on becoming a member of the American police. But, I didn’t have much luck. Here was some Scot going around with no history, no connection, and no promise. All seemed hopeless until I met a man named Peter Pipes over a pint of Guinness. Little did I know at the time, but Pipes was Zebulon’s chief of security.”
“Why was the head of Zebulon security in New York,” Atticus asked.
McCloud was silent for a bit before answering. “To be honest, even to this day I’m not sure. I guess it was Fate. She is such a lovely lady after all.
“Anyway, Peter saw promise in me, something no one else did, so he put in a good word for me, and then low and behold I got a job as an investigator for Zebulon’s New England division. I made sure to work harder than I’d ever done before. After only a year, I was promoted and moved here to Zebulon World Headquarters. Not long after that, Peter resigned and I became the new head investigator and chief of security.
“You see lad, Zebulon gifted me with a better life than I could ever hope for. Without ‘em, I’d still be a nobody wandering the streets of New York, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
“That’s amazing detective.”
McCloud smiled. “Thank you, lad.”
The detective pulled a small pocket watch from his coat and clicked it open. His smile turned into a frown as he stared at the clock face. He slipped it into his pocket and got up from the bench.
“It’s been wonderful talkin’ to ya lad, but sadly, I need to get back and run some errands.”
“I understand.” Atticus yawned. “I should probably hit the hay myself.”
McCloud laughed. “Lad, if you ever want to talk, business or otherwise, don’t fret to stop by the police station. Simply ask for me and I’ll let you right in.”
Atticus’ eyes shot open. “A-Are you serious?”
“But of course!” McCloud smacked Atticus’ shoulder and said, “you, my boy, got promise. I see a little bit of me in you, and I think with the right push, your skills could one day surpass even my own.”
Atticus was dumbfounded. He felt so honored he almost fainted, but that could’ve just been because of how tired he was.
Detective McCloud gave Atticus one last smile, a hand shake, and then left. As he faded into the distance, Atticus felt his eyes get heavy. He’d had a long day and it was time he clocked in for the night.
Back in his room, Brock was sitting at his desk studying; probably for algebra. He wasn’t the best with numbers. He hadn’t even noticed Atticus walk into the room.
As Atticus made his way to his bed, he slipped off his red plaid jacket and plopped it on the floor. He collapsed on the bed with a thump and closed his eyes. He began to slowly drift off to dream land when he heard Brock mutter something. He assumed it was just a, “How did your investigation go?” or something of the like. Honestly, Atticus wasn’t listening.
He gave his best attempt at a thumbs up to say, “Everything is fine,” but he got the feeling it came off as, “Eh, it’s okay.”
Atticus’ body felt heavy and everything went numb. He felt his mind drift to sleep.
And then the nightmare happened.
Atticus was back in the darkness. The same darkness he dreamt of earlier that day. It was still just as earie: no temperature, no light, no floor, no anything. Nothing, except for the squeaking. That same terrible bicycle squeak he’d heard before still sent shivers running down his spine. But this time it was so much worse. It was closer. It wasn’t just an echo in the distance. Whatever was causing the squeak was closer to him now. It wasn’t just a sound with no source. Atticus felt the sound from behind him getting louder and louder, little by little. Every squeak made his hairs stand on end and his heart race.
Then, just as the squeak sounded like it was right next to him, it stopped. Atticus couldn’t move. He was too afraid. The now lingering silence was driving him to a new level of terror that he’d never imagined. Atticus knew this was all just a dream, but that didn’t make it any less frightening.
Atticus began to turn his head to the source. What he saw was something that left him completely frozen with fear. An old man with dark gray skin and greasy jet black hair stood before him. He wore a tattered old black suit, a destroyed top hat, and oddly enough rode a rusty and ruined bicentennial bicycle. The man’s eyes were completely white; no iris, no pupil. It wasn’t possible for him to see anything, but he seemed to be staring right at Atticus. But, worst of all, the man had a wide blinding white Cheshire cat smile.
The man didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything. He just sat on his bicycle, perfectly balanced, and stared at Atticus.
Atticus thought to himself over and over again that it was just a dream and that everything would be all right, but it didn’t feel that way. The Gray Man felt deadly and unpredictable.
“W-Who are you,” Atticus asked.
The Gray Man gave an awful chuckle under his breath. Without saying a word, the man began peddling his bicycle, his body barely moving as he circled Atticus.
Atticus felt his stomach in his throat and it was getting harder to breathe. Atticus wanted to run, but his legs wouldn’t listen. It was as if the Gray Man had him under a spell.
The man made several circles around Atticus before stopping directly in front of him and whispered, “NamEs AreN’T ImpOrTaNT.”
His voice was hollow and breathy; nothing like Atticus had ever heard. It almost sounded like someone scraping a knife against stone.
“I doN’T mUCh care FoR naMEs.” The Gray Man spoke through his blinding white teeth, his lips barely moving. His movements were jagged and lacked flow, almost like he was a puppet.
Atticus tried to take a step back, but his legs felt like jelly. His legs gave way and he toppled to the ground; the Gray Man staring down at him. Atticus tried to crawl away, but he felt dizzy. His body didn’t want to listen and no matter how much he struggled he couldn’t get away.
The Gray Man began peddling around Atticus once again. “WhY dO yoU Run fROm Me, AtTicUs WHaeLOrD?”
Just then, Atticus’ Queen of Spades appeared on his right hand, glowing a violent blue and gold like he’d never seen before. The Gray Man’s smile widened even further, which seemed unbelievable. He let out a terrible high pitched cackle that shredded the silence like hundreds of needles raking across a chalk board, deafening Atticus.
Instantly, Atticus clenched his ears. It seemed that no matter how tightly he held them, the laughter only got louder. He looked up at the Gray Man and saw a glow of dark purple and black emitting from the man’s hand. He’d stopped laughing, but the sound remained. He reached out towards Atticus, gripping his hand around his neck.
Atticus slammed his eyes shut. He wanted nothing more than to wake up and escape the Gray Man, but he seemed powerless.
But, after a second, everything went quiet. He didn’t dare open his eyes, fearing that he would see the Gray Man right on his nose, but he had too. He had to remember that in the end it was all just a dream.
As Atticus slowly opened his eyes, he was relieved to see that he was no longer in the abyss, but instead floating in the air above one of the history lecture halls. He stared across the room and saw Professor Varnum standing face to face with the Ghost.
“P-Please, you have to trust me,” Varnum begged. “Nothing will go wrong, I’m sure of it!”
The Ghost reached out and throttled Varnum’s neck. The professor’s dark glasses fell as he struggled to get free, and, for the first time, Atticus saw the professor’s eyes. They were puffy, red, and full of terror.
“You defy The Master’s orders,” the Ghost said. His voice sent a shiver through Atticus’ body. It was harsh and strong, but very cold. Oddly enough, it sounded vaguely familiar.
“No!” Varnum screamed. “I’m not doing anything! You see-”
“More and more lies!” The Ghost pinned Varnum to the wall with his left hand and tightened his grip around the professor’s neck. “A single flea can drive a dog to madness! Are you going to be that flea, Varnum?” The professor struggled against the Ghost’s grip, but it was no use. He tried sputtering arguments, but only a garbled mess came out.
Then, for a brief moment, the Ghost stood in silence. It looked around, eventually looking straight at Atticus. Again, he was petrified. He didn’t know what was going on but he had an idea of what would happen. Could the Ghost see him? Was this actually a dream or some sort of out of body experience? He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He just wanted to wake up.
The Ghost turned back to Varnum and lifted him up off the ground. He cocked his free arm pack, pointing his fingers so that his hand resembled a spear. “You’re a worthless wretch, Varnum. A mistake, but I will not question The Master’s judgment. But, if you defy His orders again, you will face something far worse than me.”
A bright green and orange aura began to glow around the Ghost’s hand. Atticus saw something that appeared to be similar to his own Queen of Spades: The Jack of Clubs.
Varnum began to panic even more.
The Ghost thrust his arm forward, stabbing the professor in the chest with just his bare hand. Varnum let out a horrific scream of pain and Atticus’ eyes instantly shot open.
As he sat up, Atticus swore that he could still hear the professor’s scream off in the distance. He looked all around and was relieved when he saw that he was still in his dorm room, but drenched in a cold sweat and the Queen of Spades blazing on his hand. He rubbed his eyes, desperately trying to get the images and sounds out of his head, but it was no use.
He got out of bed and checked the time: Four o’clock. He then looked out his window. Atticus feared that in doing so he’d see the Ghost out in the courtyard, looking at him. It was just him being paranoid, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying; especially after the nightmare.
Atticus walked into the bathroom and washed his face. He felt disgusting. Worthless. His gut was churning, his brain was screaming, and his eyes were bloodshot. He felt as if he’d really seen Professor Varnum get stabbed by the Ghost. The Gray Man’s smile and laugh were still fresh in his brain. He splashed his face with cold water try and snap sense into himself, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t shake those horrible images.
As he turned off the faucet and cleaned up the bathroom, Atticus saw that the Queen of Spades on his hand was slowly starting to fade. Why was it active? In his dream, the Ghost had a mark very similar, but was that true in reality? In reality was the Ghost actually somebody? Perhaps that person he’d seen was a custodian or groundskeeper for the school. Atticus was just jumping to conclusions.
After a while, Atticus calmed himself down and returned to bed. And just like that, the night was over. It didn’t even feel like he fell asleep. One moment it was night, blink, then it was morning. But that was fine. The light was reassuring, and never before had the seven o’clock bell sounded so melodious.
He jumped out of bed and started getting dressed for the day. He made his way back to the bathroom to go through his standard morning ritual and it was just as he left it. Atticus half expected the mirror to have a note written in blood that read YOU’RE NEXT!
He felt foolish for letting himself get so worked up over a nightmare. Scary dreams were something that everybody had and once you realize that it was all just a dream, the fear is supposed to go away, but Atticus couldn’t shake it. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see the Gray Man smiling at him with his blank white eyes and hear his laugh. Just the mere thought terrified him and made him contemplate skipping class again. But, he couldn’t be alone. He was much too afraid to be left alone for the whole day.
Atticus sat on the toilet, his hands pressed to his face as he tried to think about happy things and not sobbing uncontrollably. He did okay with the first park, thinking about his parents and all the wonderful things they did together, but sadly he sobbed loud and obnoxiously. He was so frazzled; he didn’t realize he’d woken Brock up from his sleep coma.
“Hey pal,” he mumbled, “what’s the matter? What happened?”
Atticus tried to rub the tears from his eyes and regain his composure, but more just came streaming out. His eyes were red and puffy, and his nose was a fountain of dribbling snot. He wanted to tell Brock about his dream, but just the thought of reliving his nightmare made the tears flow faster.
“I-I had a bad dream,” Atticus said.
“A bad dream,” Brock asked.
Atticus was sure that Brock was going to make a joke and try to cheer him up that way, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Brock walked into the bathroom and sat on the side of the bathtub next to him.
“Tell me about it. Dreams and psychology tend to go hand in hand.”
“I-I can’t.” Atticus pressed his eyes shut. “It shouldn’t be this bad, but I just-”
“But nothing,” Brock interrupted. “It’s only as bad as you let it be. You can tell me. No worries. Nothing is gonna hurt you.”
Atticus shook his head, but decided that telling Brock was the best thing he could do. He told him everything from the Gray Man to Varnum and the Ghost. Just thinking about the screams of the professor and the laugh of the Gray Man made Atticus sick to his stomach.
Brock sat in silence and listened closely. He wasn’t the best at puzzles, but he was confident in his psychoanalytical skills to piece this one together. He was still just a student, but he loved delving into the minds of others, and dream analysis was his favorite. No one was as good with dreams and nightmares as Brock.
“Like any dream, there is no right or wrong answer,” he said. “So, I believe that this Gray Man represents your obsession with finding Mike’s killer. You said that when he was around, you were frozen and couldn’t move, and I think that could mean you don’t feel confident in your ability to help. You feel like you’re trapped and not doing anything about the situation.”
Atticus shrugged. “But what about Varnum and the Ghost?”
“The Ghost killed Varnum in your dream. That could be your subconscious telling you that Varnum’s not the killer.”
“And the Jack of Clubs?”
Brock shrugged. “I don’t have a clue. Do you even have any idea what that this is,” he asked?
Atticus shook his head. “It’s so strange. One day, it was just there. I woke up and knew how to use it, like instinct. You know how spiders have the innate ability to know how to spin a web? Well, that’s how it felt with me and the Queen of Spades.”
“And there are others?”
“I guess there’d have to be,” Atticus said. “There are fifty-four cards in a traditional poker deck: forty basic cards, sixteen faces, and the two jokers. Perhaps there’s one for each?”
Brock snickered and said, “You’re asking the wrong guy.”
Atticus was starting to feel a bit better. It was easier to think about his nightmare now that he could think of them like how Brock explained, but that didn’t take away the images and sounds.
“I think I’ll just need to get some air,” Atticus said.
Brock didn’t argue. The two got already for the school day, Atticus taking a bit longer than normal. When they were all dressed, groomed, and ready to go, Brock told him that the only way to truly get over his fear is to face it. By finding out what exactly it was that scared him, he’d have no issue getting over his fear. Atticus wasn’t so sure about that.
The two split their separate ways, Brock heading for his first class of the day, But Atticus didn’t want to head to class just then. He felt his stomach rumble and he knew there was no way he’d be able to conquer his fears on an empty stomach.
Atticus made his way to the cafeteria for breakfast. Normally, he wasn’t that hungry in the morning. He just knew he had to shovel something down or else he would regret it later. However, his nightmare gave him a fear born appetite. He figured that maybe if he ate something it’d help calm him down.
The walk to the cafeteria was a miserable one. He couldn’t take a step without thinking he heard the Ghost sneaking up on him. Every crunch of leaves underfoot sounded like someone was following him. He didn’t feel safe, and Atticus figured this was how Mike felt when he was being hunted down. There was no solace. There was no safe haven. Every person who as much as looked at him made Atticus feel ill. But, if he was in a heavily populated area, like the cafeteria, he figured he’d be safe. Nobody would stab him in the back in public would they?
The cafeteria was full, that was for sure, but it didn’t feel safe. Despite all the people around him, Atticus couldn’t be sure if any of them were people he could trust: student, staff, or anything in between. He hated being so paranoid, but he couldn’t shake it. Normally, he would never feel so in danger at Fortuna Prep, but now a single nightmare had ruined him.
He hobbled his way into the breakfast line and slowly but surely he felt himself calming down. He tried to talk some sense into himself, saying he was being completely irrational and reminding himself what Brock had said. It helped, but barely. The only thing giving him comfort was the smell of freshly baked pastries at the end of the line.
When he got to the front of the line, he picked up a plain glazed doughnut and a glass of milk and made his way to an empty table. Any other day he would’ve just headed off for class, but he needed to sit.
Atticus calmly ate his doughnut and stared blankly down at the table. Whenever somebody walked past him, he’d tense up like a cornered animal, but as he ate, the thoughts of the nightmare slowly began to drift away. The Gray Man’s smile and Varnum’s scream were almost distant memories. Almost.
Slowly but surely, he was calming down. He plopped the last bit of doughnut into his mouth and decided that he’d just need to take a break for the day. Perhaps after class he’d meet up with Brock and do something fun and mindless. Something to take his mind off Mike.
As he got up to leave, Atticus saw Camila and some of her friends just walking in. Suddenly, all of his fears about the Ghost and the Gray Man were transferred into not making himself look like an idiot in front of her. He wanted to wave, say hello, or something. But he couldn’t. Just seeing her made his legs feel wobbly.
He lowered his head as he walked past, but it was no good. Instantly, she spotted him and gave a giddy wave. He decided to return the favor. She abandoned her friends and quickly made her way to Atticus, the blood rushing to his cheeks.
“H-Hi, Camila,” he said. “Good morning.”
“Good morning to you too.” She had a big smile on her face that made Atticus even more nervous. “So, how did your detective work go yesterday?”
“My detective work? It was, uh, how should I put it?” Atticus wasn’t sure what to say. Should he have told her about his accusations? About the Ghost? “It went well.”
“That’s good. What did you learn?”
“Not much,” he said. “Hey, I’m really sorry about just up and leaving yesterday. It’s just, I really-”
“Don’t be sorry,” she said smiling. “I can see how important this is to you.”
Camila nodded. “I wish you the best of luck, Mr. Inspector.”
“I’m not a detective yet,” he said bashfully.
“Exactly! Not yet. But, you will be.”
“Well,” he said, “thank you very much.”
Atticus was pleased to know how confident Camila was in his abilities. He was always so afraid and would get so embarrassed when he told people about what he wanted to do. He wasn’t going into the sciences or mathematics, the things most Fortuna Prep students were going into. He always felt like an oddball. But around Camila, he didn’t feel so different. Here was this girl who took him just as serious, if not more so, as he took himself and she barely knew him.
“Say, I was wondering,” she said, “if you were busy tonight?”
Atticus shook his head nervously.
“So, since we didn’t get to study yesterday, would you like to tonight?”
He nodded and said, “Certainly. That would be perfect.”
“Wonderful!” Camila’s face beamed with delight. But, then she got quiet. “Would it be alright if it was just the two of us this time?”
Atticus blushed. “O-Of course.”
“It’s nothing against your friend,” she said. “It’s just that, I would really like to, you know, get some studying done.”
“Y-Yeah, don’t worry.” Atticus felt his heart racing.
“Also, since it’s Friday, if you’d like, we could go see a movie together.”
Atticus wanted to say yes in a heartbeat, but he had to play it cool. What would Brock say, he asked himself.
“Y’know, a movie sounds like a blast.”
Nailed it, he thought.
For the first time, Atticus saw Camila blus. Behind heroval glasses, her cheeks began to turn a bright red that Atticus figured matched his own.
The two agreed to meet after class, and Camila went off to join her other friends who were giggling all the way to the breakfast line.
Atticus decided to make his way to the faculty office before class started. Now that he’d calmed down, he had to confront Varnum about the ring, the Nelsons, and even the Ghost.
He made his way through the building to the English and History department. When he arrived at the Professor’s desk, he was shocked to find the professor wasn’t there. Now, Professor Varnum wasn’t one of Atticus’ favorite teachers obviously, even before this whole series of events, but he’d known that Varnum was always at his desk before classes started. Every time previous when he’d stop by to drop off an assignment or deliver something, Atticus always knew that Varnum would be at his desk preparing for the day.
Atticus waited for a minute, thinking maybe he just went to the washroom. However, he waited for quite a while, and unless the professor had some sort of horrible digestion problem, he would’ve been back already.
An unsettling feeling began to overtake him. Atticus felt like perhaps the professor really was attacked last night. Perhaps, he was killed by the Ghost.
He hobbled up to Varnum’s desk and looked all around for something that could maybe give him an answer. It was a stretch, but he was a detective-in-training. An empty desk wasn’t enough to get worked up over. Atticus mentally smacked himself upside the head and told himself to get to work.
After making a quick peek for any prying eyes, Atticus snuck behind the professor’s desk and snooped around for clues. He discovered numerous small notes that reminded the professor to grade papers, piles upon piles of history notes, and dozens of unmarked exams. This man certainly wasn’t teacher of the year. But, sadly nothing that pointed him in the direction Atticus wanted. He couldn’t find anything to help him.
Atticus made sure to keep a keen ear open to make sure nobody would see him rummaging ar0und the professor’s belongings. He had dozens of excuses running through his head in case anybody caught him, but actually remembering to use them was another thing. Plus, he wasn’t sure if somebody would believe him if he said he was just trying to help keep the professor organized or just looking for the cheat sheet on the next exam.
Just as he was getting ready to give up, Atticus took a deep breath and went looking through the desk one more time. Again, he found all the same books, notes, and ungraded exams. It seemed that there was nothing for him. But, as Atticus was putting everything back in its original place, he saw a small side drawer he’d completely overlooked. He tried to pull it open, but it’s lock was broken, effectively permanently sealing it. The only way to open the drawer would be to tear down the desk or fix the lock, and Atticus knew he had the ability to do one of those.
He smiled a mischievous smile placed his hands over the lock. The Queen of Spades appeared on his right hand and he felt the lock slowly get warmer. Under his hands, Atticus could feel the lock restoring itself. With a sudden click, Atticus knew that everything was done, and the drawer was ready to be opened. He took a long deep breath and slowly pulled the drawer out. Much to his surprise, the only thing inside was a small manila folder.
A hidden folder, Atticus thought. Hidden within a broken compartment that he most likely had no need to fix. Atticus carefully picked up the folder, making sure not to so much as scuff the corners.
He laid it down and on the cover it said “10/1/3/11: I & E.” Atticus had no idea what it meant, but it had to be code for something. 10/1/3/11: I & E.
Atticus opened the folder and inside it was filled with what he could only describe as the most cryptic and professional looking document he could ever imagine. Dozens of pages outlining something that read like gibberish. The document was filled with so much jargon and terms that Atticus had never heard before; he had no way to decipher it. He caught a few names here and there: Gregor Wolfhowzer, Samael Velepsy, Franklin T. Forrester, and Annette Laveau. Atticus recognized them as Zebulon Scientists and Artificers.
However, most striking of all, was the mention of the Nelsons, specifically Pearl Eliza Nelson. Hers was the only of her family to be prominently repeated throughout the document.
As he flipped through the pages, Atticus saw the symbol of Zebulon up in the corner, the Z overlapping a Y.
Atticus wanted to keep reading, trying to figure out what it all meant, but he knew he wouldn’t get anywhere at the rate he was going. He needed to look it over on his own time. Against his better judgment, Atticus slipped the document into his school bag and made his way out of the office.
But, as he was leaving, another grouchy old teacher, Mrs. Crowe saw him leaving. “Young man,” she hollered, “what were you doing in that office?”
All of Atticus’ excuses ran through his head, but they meshed together as one. He faced the professor with as calm a complexion as he could muster.
“I-I was just looking for Professor Varnum,” he said.
Professor Crowe didn’t look to convinced. “And you couldn’t tell he was gone without going into his office?”
What would Brock say, Atticus thought.
“I thought maybe he would have left a note for me on his desk.”
The professor gave him a stink eye, but allowed him on his way, warning him that next time he’d need to get permission from a fellow professor before entering an office. Atticus nodded and agreed before going off on his merry way. He looked up at the clock and saw that it was just about to turn eight.
He was going to be late to class, but he didn’t’ care. He had his first piece of evidence. Real and tangible evidence that he could observe and use, and he wasn’t going to let this opportunity go to waste.
The rest of the day, Atticus constantly had his nose pressed in the document. Slowly, he was able to decode it, bit by bit. There was so much to it that it was daunting to fully comprehend. Graphs, charts, symbols and several things Atticus didn’t understand were littered throughout the document. It was like reading an essay on a subject you knew little to nothing about. More than anything, Atticus wanted to know why the Zebulon Corporation was so prominent throughout it all. So many names of scientists and pivotal locations were scattered throughout the whole thing.
As the day went on, Atticus went to his classes like normal. During lectures, he was lost in the document’s pages. He’d completely space off when teachers were talking or when he was supposed to be taking notes. He only knew when class was over when he caught glimpses of other students getting up out of their seats. Class to class would pass and eventually it came time for chemistry.
Professor Banner was going on and on about molecules and compounds, things that were just oh-so interesting, while Atticus scanned through the pages for the fourth or fifth time. As the professor was lecturing about the periodic table, a student aide from the office from the office walked in holding a note. Banner stopped talking for just a moment as he snagged the note and quickly skimmed through it.
Atticus didn’t realize what was going on, but he did notice the professor calling out his name.
“Atticus Whaelord,” he hollered, “Principal Shepard needs to have a word with you after class.”
He looked up at the professor and then around to all of his classmates who were giving him all a confused look. Why would Whaelord need to go to the office, they all probably thought? What did he do? Atticus was in the same boat. He didn’t know what he’d done.
Then a terrible thought popped into his head. What if Varnum realized his folder was missing and Professor Crowe told him about Atticus dropping by unannounced. Atticus’ heart sank deep into his stomach.
He knew his face was a blushing red mess, and he probably looked as guilty as could be. No doubt rumors would be all around campus by the end of the day. Atticus told himself that he wouldn’t let it get to him.
Class ended rather abruptly. Professor Banner was lost in a mindless speech about the differences of chemical and physical reactions and how useful it can be to know the difference in a life setting, but he was cut off by the bell. He quickly wrapped up his lesson for the day and excused the class, but not before reminding Atticus to stop by the principal’s office.
When Atticus arrived, all sorts of worrying thoughts raced through his head. What could he say? What kind of trouble would he get into? Would he get expelled? Atticus decided to just roll with it. He’d think of a way out of it. Perhaps this wasn’t even about the folder. Maybe the principal just wanted to congratulate him on something. As long as he held his tongue and didn’t say anything, everything would be fine.
Atticus knocked on the principal’s door, peering through the window. She’d gestured for him to come in. As he made his way into the office, a cool chill fileld the room. It was eerie. Normally, Principal Shepard had a warm happy glow about her, but today she seemed stern and serious. It was rather frightening.
“Y-You wanted to see me, ma’am?”
She nodded. “Atticus, you were friends with Michael Nelson, correct?”
“Y-Yes,” he said. He was not expecting that question to come up.
“And, you don’t think his death was a suicide, correct?”
“Ma’am,” he said, “I-I’m sorry, but what’s this all about?”
“Please, Mr. Whaelord,” she said sternly, “answer my question.”
Atticus felt his hands tremble. “Y-Yes, ma’am. I think that Mike was killed and it was all set up to look like a suicide.” Atticus closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and regained his composure. “Detective McCloud things so as well.”
“Yes,” the principal said, “the detective.”
Atticus didn’t know what was going on, but he bit his tongue. His inner detective told him to ask questions, but he didn’t want to risk it. This was not the time nor the place. Principal Shepard called him in for a reason. He didn’t need to be asking any suspicious questions.
“Atticus, I understand you plan on studying criminal justice after your time here at Fortuna Prep, but I must say that you need to stay out of criminal affairs.”
“I know you want to help, but at times like this it’s best to stay focused on your studies.” Principal Shepard steepled her fingers and rested her chin on the point. “You have all the time in the world to become the detective you want to be, but for now I want you to stay out of this.”
Behind her glasses, Shepard closed her eyes and sighed. “Atticus, please don’t argue. Promise me that you will no longer tamper with this.”
Atticus bit his tongue. He couldn’t just stop, not after finding Varnum’s folder. He didn’t want to do it, and he knew that there was only one thing he could do: he lied.
“I promise, Principal Shepard. I will not get involved with this case any further.”
Just like that, the tension lifted from the room. Principal Shepard seemed to relax in her chair, almost like Atticus had just answered the million-dollar question correctly.
“Thank you, Atticus,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t risk losing another student.”
“W-What do you mean, principal?”
Shepard shook her head and said, “Nothing, Mr. Whaelord. Don’t worry about it. Now go resume with classes for the day. I’ll have a note sent to your next class explaining why you were tardy.”
Atticus thanked her, but deep down he felt awful. He wasn’t going to lvie up to his promise. He couldn’t. He couldn’t back out, but the look of relief on the principal’s face looked almost as if she’d been in a similar position before. He made his way out of the office, his school bag with the stolen document held firmly under his arm.
When Atticus arrived at Professor Varnum’s class, he was mortified to see that class had been canceled for the day. A note was posted on the door, reading:
His stomach began to churn and Atticus feared that what he saw in his dream wasn’t a dream at all, but some sort of premonition. He looked down at his hand where the Queen of Spades would normally appear and pondered the idea that perhaps it granted him abilities in his sleep.
Perhaps, Atticus thought, he had the ability to project himself in his dreams and spy on others. That could explain why it was visible when he woke up.
He quickly shook that thought out of his head. He’d been reading too many fantasy books and it was starting to mess with his thinking. Still thought, it couldn’t be a coincidence that Atticus would dream about the professor getting injured, only for it to come true and force him to miss class.
But Atticus wasn’t foolish. He wasn’t going to be upset over a two-day break from Varnum’s class. He began to make his way down the hall when he remembered he was supposed to meet Camila after class. But, if there was no class, where would he find her?
He began to pace around the English and History building, looking high and low for Camila. It seemed impossible, but the school wasn’t that big. He’d find her eventually.
As he was wandering around, Atticus felt a strange feeling in his gut. It felt like he was being yanked down a specific path. He didn’t notice it at first, but it became very prominent. Atticus felt like a rat moving through a maze looking for its cheese. He just knew where to go, but he didn’t know why or how.
Atticus spotted Camila and some of her friends outside near the campus fountain. He couldn’t help but notice that she always had a group around, but she herself never really talked. At breakfast, the girls were all giggling and talking, but she was content sitting idly by and listening.
As he walked over to them, some of the girls pointed and laughed at him. Instantly, Atticus feared that his zipper was down or that there was something on his face. Blood began to rush to his cheeks and Camila ran up to meet him.
“D-Do I have something funny on me,” he asked.
Camila smiled and said, “No, you’re fine. They just think we’re a bit silly together.”
Camila blushed. She guided Atticus away from her friends and quickly changed the subject. “So, what do you think happened to Professor Varnum?”
An image of Varnum getting attacked by the Ghost flashed into Atticus’ head. It made him queasy, and he heard the scream, but he did his best to shake it off.
“Maybe he ate some bad fish?”
Camila laughed. “Or maybe his wicked old heart finally gave out?”
Atticus wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t. Everybody loved to joke about Varnum’s heart being as black as coal, but at the time it felt so wrong.
Camila saw that something was worrying Atticus and said, “Hey, I’m sure he’s okay. Like you said, he probably just ate something.”
“Yeah, yeah I’m sure that’s all.” Atticus realized he was acting very strange. He took a deep breath and said, “So, since we don’t have class, you ready for the movie?”
“Oh heavens no,” Camila said. “I’m still in school clothes. How about we meet back here in thirty minutes?”
“Thirty minutes? Sounds good to me!”
Back in his dorm, Atticus was hectically trying to pick out something nice to wear. Brock watched him, refusing to give any sort of advice except to wear what he was comfortable. That didn’t make Atticus feel any better.
“Just calm down for a minute,” Brock said. “What’s something comfy that you like to wear?”
“Pajamas,” Atticus said. “Are you saying I should wear pajamas?”
Brock shrugged. “Why not?”
Atticus ignored the comment and went back to scouring through his dressers. He picked a plain black dress shirt, khaki slacks, and his red plaid jacket.
“That’s it?” Brock asked. “You spent all that time just to pick out the most boring of the bland?”
“Shut up! You said to pick something comfy, so I did!”
Brock laughed as Atticus began to weasel himself into his clothes. Just to be safe, Atticus brushed his teeth and hair again, and slipped on a clean pair of socks. He was not going to risk any part of him stinking up the night.
Atticus went to grab his school bag, but Brock stopped him.
“Hey now,” he said, “you’re not gonna be needing this for the movie.”
“B-But, we’re gonna be studying afterwards.”
Brock gave him a sly smirk and Atticus’ face turned blush.
“Trust me,” Brock said, and then he shoved Atticus out of the dorm.
Atticus arrived back at the fountain where he saw Camila sitting down already to go. He was left speechless. She wore a cream colored blouse with a black collar and skirt. Her long chocolate hair was hanging down with the ends styled into a soft roll, pageboy styled. How she got ready so fast blew his mind.
“Y-You look wonderful,” Atticus said.
Camila blushed and said, “You don’t look too bad yourself, Mr. Detective.”
The two smiled at one another and made their way to the theater.
The Magister Theater was the grand king of all movie theaters in the city. Unlike most others which had only one or two auditoriums, the Magister sported eight large auditoriums, each showing a different movie at all hours of the day.
The exterior was everything you’d expect from a Las Vegas movie theater, with enough bright lights to completely illuminate the sky. Posters for all the shows were garnished with plasma tubes to make them really stick out and draw attention. A gold and blue arch covered the entrance and ticket booth, and a long red carpet lead all the way into the theater.
After buying their tickets, Atticus and Camila made their way inside to the lobby. Eight different halls lead to the eight different auditoriums, and in the very center of the room was a giant circular concessions booth. The smell of popcorn littered the air; buttered, burn, and everything in between. On the ceiling was a mural of airships sailing across the starry sky.
The two made their way to their auditorium and Camila found them some seats that were close enough to the front where you wouldn’t miss any action, but far enough back so you wouldn’t hurt your neck. They say down and after a few minutes the lights began to dim for the pre-show.
Everything was perfect, Atticus thought. Nothing was going wrong. But, that wore off when Atticus felt a sharp tinge run down his spine. The Ghost was near.
Immediately, Atticus tensed up. Did he put himself and Camila in danger? His body froze and his heart began to pound violently against his chest. Despite the darkness of the theater, Camila recognized something was wrong.
“Atticus, what’s the matter?”
“N-Nothing,” he lied. “I just need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”
As he was about to stand up, Camila pressed her hand on his. For just a moment, Atticus felt his fear melt away.
“Please, are you sure?” Atticus could see she was worried about him. He wanted to tell her something, but he didn’t know what. The truth? Would she believe him?
Maybe it was all just date anxiety.
Atticus shook his head and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.”
He got up and shuffled his way to the bathroom. He splashed his face with cold water and tried to make sense of why he was feeling so afraid. He told himself that there was nothing to be afraid of, that in a public place filled with so many people he didn’t need to be afraid of the Ghost attacking.
Atticus stared down at the sink; the water dripped from his face. He reached for a towel, but again he felt the sharp tingle and froze up. He looked up and in the reflection of the mirror, behind him, he saw the same cloaked figure staring at him, its piercing green eyes unwavering. It was almost as if it’d just appeared from nowhere.
Atticus turned around so fast he nearly slipped and fell to the ground.
“W-Who are you,” he asked. The Ghost was silent. Atticus wanted to scream, but no sound came out. He felt so powerless. There was no bravery he could possibly muster up.
“What d-do you want?” Still, the Ghost didn’t respond. It made a step towards him.
Atticus jumped back. “What did you do to the professor?”
The Ghost stopped in its tracks, its eyes still glued on Atticus. Clearly, it didn’t expect him to bring that up. The Ghost looked down for just a moment, which snapped Atticus out of his paralysis. He used every last bit of willpower he had to bolt out of the restroom and out of the theater.
He turned around and looked inside. Nobody seemed to be phased by anything. It was strange, but Atticus didn’t dare run back in. But, what about Camila? He had to tell her what was going on. But, the Ghost was after him. It didn’t care about her. Atticus figured the best thing he could do to keep her safe would be to get as far away as possible as he could.
There was only one place Atticus thought he’d be safe: the police station. He needed to speak with Detective McCloud now more than ever.
When Atticus arrived at the station, he was drenched in sweat and beyond exhausted. He’d just ran in a desperate attempt to hopefully save his own skin, but Camila’s as well. He darted through the doors and up to the receptionist who probably thought he was being chased by a monster. The receptionist was an older woman, probably in her mid to late forties. As Atticus approached, she looked at him with wide eyes.
“I need…detective…McCloud,” he wheezed. His face was red and his heart felt like it was going to explode any minute.
“Son, what’s the matter? What’s happened,” the receptionist bolted around her desk and tried to help, but Atticus just battered her away.
“Detective…need help!” The receptionist wasn’t helping. Her heart was in the right place, and she’d probably been instructed on what to do in similar situations, but it wasn’t what Atticus needed. He just needed to speak with Detective McCloud.
“Please, I’m…fine,” he said. “I just need…talk with the detective.”
“You man, I can’t let you speak to anybody unless you tell me your emergency.”
How was Atticus supposed to tell this woman about his encounter with the Ghost? She’d probably think he was crazy or pulling some prank, but then again, she probably did already. He had to think of what Brock would say in a similar position.
“I-I’m working with McCloud,” he said. “I’m his unofficial intern.”
“Y-Yeah, I’m helping with the Nelson case.”
The receptionist looked at him like he’d just said something in another language. “What case?”
“M-Mike Nelson,” he said, “the Fortuna Prep murder from a few days ago.”
“Young man, do you think this is some kind of joke,” she asked. “Lying about something like this is extremely disrespectful.”
Atticus was at a loss for words. “W-What? No, I’m not-”
“Young man, that’s enough,” said the receptionist. “There is no Nelson murder case.”
Atticus’ heart sank. Detective McCloud wouldn’t let this drop. He knew there was something deeper going on.
Just then, a familiar Scottish voice filled the room. “What seems to be the problem.”
Atticus and the receptionist both jumped. As if out of nowhere, McCloud stood behind them wearing his fedora and black trench coat.
“Hello, Mr. Whaelord,” he said. “What seems to be the matter?”
“Mr. McCloud this boy says he wants to speak with you about the Fortuna Prep suicide,” the receptionist said. “He said something about it being a murder.”
“Oh, did you find anything, lad?” The woman couldn’t believe what she’d heard. “You see, Mr. Whaelord here is my unofficial intern. He’s helping me solve the Nelson murder.”
“But Detective McCloud, there is no Nelson murder. What’s going on?”
The detective glared at her. For just a moment, the woman looked as if she went into a trance. She blinked and when she opened her eyes, they looked blank and lifeless. But a second later, she was back to normal and she excused herself.
“Now, lad,” McCloud said, “let’s get down to business.”
McCloud lead Atticus back to his office deep within the police station. Inside, he had dozens of books and files, a standard wooden desk decorated with small brass trinkets and knick-knacks as well as a name plate reading: Det. Connor McCloud. Dangling from the ceiling were several model airships that looked like children would play with.
“Detective, shy didn’t the receptionist know about the case?”
McCloud’s eyes shifted. “Well, the sad thing is: It’s not an official case. I’ve no proof apart from my speculations. As such, the station can’t treat it as official.”
Atticus looked disheartened.
“But,” McCloud chimed in, “there is nothing stopping me from investigating on my own time.”
“So, do you have any leads,” Atticus asked.
“Sadly, not right now. Working as both Zebulon’s investigator as well as the city’s has me a bit tied up.” McCloud smiled at Atticus. “That’s why I need you, lad. You’re my eyes and ears around the campus. So what’ve you got for me? You wouldn’t have come here for nothing.”
Atticus explained everything he knew to the detective. He told him about Professor Varnum and the Nelsons, as well as his theory on the Ghost and how he appeared to him at the Magister Theater. The only details he left out were about the lockets and his nightmare.
McCloud listened intently. He took every word Atticus said seriously. “So you’re sure this Ghost is the real deal?”
Atticus nodded. “I saw it with my own eyes. It just appears and disappears.”
Detective McCloud leaned back in his chair, carefully contemplating everything he’d heard. Atticus wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but he did notice the cogs in the detective’s brain working hard and fast.
“And, you think your professor is involved in all of this?”
Atticus nodded. “I know I shouldn’t have, but I did some snooping around his office this morning and I found a file hidden in his desk.”
McCloud’s eyes flared up and he lurched forward. Atticus was afraid he may have said something bad, but the expression on the detective’s face was that of an excited puppy. “A file yeh say? What was in it?”
“It, uh, had a really important looking document in it,” Atticus said. “I had a hard time reading it, but on the cover it said 10/1/3/11: I & E. Do you have any ideas what that means, detective?”
The detective’s look shifted from excited to somber. He took a deep breath and reclined back in his chair slowly and asked: “Lad, have you ever heard of Mekanile?”
Atticus shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Mekanile is a rogue group of criminals out to destroy the Zebulon Corporation.” McCloud closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “This Ghost of yours, as well as your professor, most likely work for them.”
“How do you figure,” Atticus asked.
“Lad, that document you found is most likely an ‘Invade & Execute’ order: I & E. It’s an espionage code to infiltrate a location and terminate a target. Numerous high powered organizations, even the Police and Zebulon, use that code.”
Atticus shook his head in confusion. “But, why kill Mike?”
McCloud shrugged. “The Nelson family may have been working with Mekanile. Perhaps they didn’t uphold their end of a bargain, and as punishments, a Mekanile agent, this Ghost, was sent to kill their son. Mekanile is not above killing children.”
Atticus thought about his dream with the Ghost and Professor Varnum. The Ghost had said that Varnum, “Defied The Master’s orders.” Atticus wasn’t sure who they were referring too. He wanted to ask the detective, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk about the nightmare.
As he thought, Atticus spotted something on the corner of McCloud’s desk mixed in with a jumble of papers and files. It was small and brass. Mike’s locket!
Atticus pointed to it and asked, “Detective, where’d you get that?”
McCloud looked at the corner of his desk and saw the locket. He picked it up, dangling it by the chain, and said, “This here? I found it on the Nelson boy. This has been my only evidence to solidify my theory that Mekanile is involved.”
“W-Why?” Atticus reached into his pocket and felt his own locket.
“You see, lad,” McCloud said, “this symbol here, the entwined gears, is the symbol of Mekanile. The bandits use it as an identifier so they know who to trust.”
Atticus felt his heart stop. It wasn’t possible. His mind instantly drifted back to when he got his locket: his parents had given it to him. His father had told him it was extremely important.
“D-Detective, are you sure that’s what the symbol means?”
“Most definitely,” he said. “Where ever Mekanile causes trouble, these gears always follow. What confuses me, however, is that this locket is a rare one. Only three exist, and Mekanile wouldn’t just vive one of them to some mere acquaintance. Only a higher up would own such a thing.”
The locket in Atticus’ pocket seemed to be heating up. If what McCloud was saying was true, then would that make Atticus’ parents higher ups? That couldn’t have been true.
Atticus thought about his mother, Isabel; a plasma engineer who’d worked for Zebulon for years. She was sweet and docile. And then there was his father, William; a clumsy clockwork artificer who just wanted to make goofy little toys. They weren’t criminals, they couldn’t have been. Atticus couldn’t imagine them that way.
But, was that why they vanished all those years ago, Atticus thought? Were they just putting up a fake demeanor to hide themselves? Despite everything McCloud had said, and everything Atticus was thinking, none of it sounded right.
“Detective,” Atticus said, “you’ve worked at Zebulon for a while, correct?”
McCloud nodded. “Aye son, I’ve been working for them nearly fifteen years.”
“Did you ever know my parents, William and Isabel?”
McCloud went silent and looked down at the papers on his desk. “Yes, I knew your parents,” he said. “They worked at Zebulon well before I got there. Brilliant minds they were. Your mother was a leading member of the plasma committee, if I remember correctly. She was a truly gifted scientist.”
“And my father?”
A wide smile spread across McCloud’s face. He began to chuckle and then looked up at Atticus, his eyes almost red as if he was going to start crying.
“Your dad and I didn’t quite see eye-to-eye,” he said. “But, he was a brilliant toy maker, that’s for sure.”
Atticus was happy to hear such good things about his parents. He never heard much about them and their time at Zebulon. His grandparents never wanted to talk, and no one seemed to know anything special. But, hearing McCloud made his heart feel warm.
Just then, a light above the office door lit up and a buzz rang through the room.
“A message for me?” McCloud stood up from his seat. “Come in!”
The receptionist from earlier slid the door open and hesitantly walked into the office. “I’m sorry to bother you detective, but Sergeant Beauregard would like a word with you about the robbery down on Oakey Boulevard.”
The detective’s face calmed down back to its regular serious demeanor. “Sorry lad, but we’ll have to end our meeting for the day. Duty calls.”
“Now don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of time to talk more another day.” The detective’s smile was so genuine it was hard for Atticus to get upset. But, maybe it was for the best. All this about Mekanile and the lockets was causing him to doubt everything he’d known and was working for.
McCloud escorted Atticus outside and shook his hand. “It was a pleasure to talk with you, Mr. Whaelord. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you.”
Atticus blushed and said, “Please, you did all the thinking.”
“Nonsense! You found all the evidence. You helped put all the pieces together. We shared our knowledge and got one step closer. Neither of us could’ve done it without the other, lad.”
McCloud smiled and said a quick farewell, but Atticus wasn’t ready to be done just yet.
“Detective, could I ask a request?”
The detective looked out to a squad of officers waiting for him. “Alright, but make it snappy. I’ve got to get down to Oakey Boulevard quickly.”
Atticus nodded. “I was just curious if, perhaps, you could give me a tour of the Zebulon Headquarters sometime. I’d like to see how things work there.”
It seemed rather sporadic, but Atticus felt that he could learn something from the Zebulon Corporation. If this Mekanile was out to sabotage them, then maybe he had to learn why.
The request definitely took McCloud by surprise, but he shrugged and said, “I don’t see why not. Tomorrow is Saturday, correct? Why don’t you head there around noon and ask for me? I’d be delighted to give you a little tour.”
Atticus nodded and smiled back. “Alright, that sounds like a plan.”
He said goodbye, and as he watched the detective and the officers drive off, he had an awful feeling in his gut. His parents left him a locket that was apparently linked to some band of criminals working against Zebulon. But, his parents worked for Zebulon. Were they secretly planning on taking the corporation down from the inside? Or was it all just coincidence?
Or, perhaps there was something the detective didn’t know. Atticus tried to feel ecstatic about this realization. As much as he liked the detective’s theory, there was something about it that didn’t seem right. He had loads of new puzzle pieces to help solve the mystery.
All he had to do was to assemble the last few bits and everything would fall into place.
Another day, another night Atticus spent thinking about the case. He’d returned back to his dorm, but not before stopping back by the Magister Theater to see if he could catch the rest of the movie and apologize to Camila. She’d long left the theater, and he’d felt terrible for it. He thought maybe she’d understand, but what could he possibly say to her? He never knew what to say. He was always so afraid of saying something that would make the situation even worse.
But, Camila seemed like a pretty down-to-Earth girl. As long as Atticus told her the truth, she’d understand. But, could he tell her the truth? Would she believe him? If she did, would her opinions on him change? Would she feel in danger? Atticus couldn’t shake the feeling that he was in deep water no matter what he did.
Atticus picket up the 10/1/3/11 document and rested on his bed. He tried to read through it again. He tried to use his new found information to see if he could debunk it any easier, but it seemed like nothing. I & E was code for “Invade & Execute” according to McCloud, but that didn’t quite seem right. Why so many names and locations? If it really was about invading Fortuna Prep and killing Mike, why would it need to be so long?
Perhaps, Atticus thought, that was what the 10/1/3/11 meant. It was clearly a code, but for what? A birthday? Maybe an old address? Regardless, Atticus hadn’t the slightest clue.
As he stared at the folder, the door flung open and Brock waltzed in.
“Hey, how was the date,” he asked.
Atticus sat up and shrugged. “It was okay.”
“Just okay? What happened?”
“Not much.” Atticus felt his stomach sink. “It got kind of interrupted.”
“Well, do you think there’ll be another date,” Brock asked. He tried to sound optimistic, but Atticus shook his head.
“If she’s as smart as I know she is, probably not.”
Brock was his best friend, and Atticus wanted to tell him the truth, but how could he word it so he didn’t sound like a complete jerk. He couldn’t just say he up and ditched Camila because he was afraid. What kind of guy does that? Besides, he knew how badly he messed up.
A change of subject was needed. Atticus hadn’t told Brock about the folder at all since he found it, and he figured that then would be as good a time as any. Plus, he needed a second opinion.
He closed the folder and tossed it to Brock. “I found that earlier today in Varnum’s office.”
“But, Varnum wasn’t in today?”
“I know,” Atticus said. “I did a bit of snooping.”
A mischievous grin spread across Brock’s face. “I see I’m starting to wear off on you, eh?”
“A little bit.”
Brock opened the folder and began to skim through it. “So what is this? Answer keys to the next exam?”
Atticus shook his head. “I’m not completely sure. I did some research on it, and apparently it’s called an Invade and Execute order or something.”
“So what do you think it means,” Brock asked.
Atticus leapt off his bed and pulled out his locket. He held in his hand, the symbol of the entwined gears facing outward
“In my research, I discovered something a little scary. My locket is connected to a criminal group called Mekanile.”
Brock shot him a scared look. He closed the folder and set it behind him on the desk. “What do you mean a criminal group?”
Atticus took a deep breath. He tried his best to explain as much as he knew without revealing that he’d gone to see Detective McCloud.
“So,” Brock said gloomily, “you think your parents may have been working with this Mekanile?”
“I don’t know.”
Brock looked up at Atticus. His face showed his worry. “Hey, I don’t know if it’s smart to get involved with all of this.”
“But, I’ve come too far. If I give up now-”
He could see the fear in Brock’s eyes. If he really was getting involved with criminal affairs, then there was no telling what would happen. Perhaps that’s what Principal Shepard had meant when she told him to stay out of it.
“Atticus, are you okay?”
He wasn’t sure what to say. “I-I’ll be fine.”
Atticus couldn’t lie to Brock. He wasn’t a naturally gifted liar anyway, but having to do it to his best friend who could read him better than anyone around made it nearly impossible.
“I know this is a big deal,” Brock said, “but why don’t we just catch some sleep. Maybe that’ll help clear your head?”
Atticus decided not to argue. Brock was probably right. Sleep tended to be the best thing to do when one was stressed out, but after the last night, Atticus wasn’t so sure. But, there was nothing else he could do. No matter how much he didn’t want to do it, Atticus knew sleep was the best choice.
He hadn’t realized how tired he was until his head hit the pillow. Quickly, his vision faded. He’d heard brock say something that sounded vaguely like “Good night,” but it was all gibberish. Atticus had already drifted away to dreamland.
Atticus’ dream that night wasn’t a nightmare like the night before. But, it was something that made him feel just as awful. He dreamt of his tenth birthday; the last day he ever saw his parents.
In his dreams, he was just waking up to the sounds of crashing fireworks outside his window. He was in his little ten-year-old body, wearing his old pajamas. He rolled out of bed and felt the soft carpet against his feet and decided to make his way to the kitchen.
The house wasn’t exactly his old home, but instead his grandparent’s home in Boulder City that he lived in after his parents left. Two bedrooms, a small kitchenette, a dining room, a bathroom, and the world’s smallest living room. He wasn’t sure why he was back in his grandparent’s home, but it was a dream so it didn’t need to make sense.
But, one thing from his old home remained. In the dining room there was a doorway that lead down into his parent’s basement workshop. It was always his parents’ dream to open up a local toy shop, and the basement was where it all started. Both his mother and father would spend countless hours tinkering and experimenting with new toy ideas. Atticus was never allowed down there by himself; there were too many dangerous and breakable things. But, he never wanted to explore it anyways. It was too dark and scary for him. Even at a young age, Atticus was a scaredy cat.
He walked into the kitchen and saw his mother, Isabel, doing some last minute preparations for his birthday. The sight of her was so real. She was exactly how he remembered her: olive skin, jet black pixie cut hair, and bright red lips. She was so much different from other moms. She was always working, but that never stopped her from making family time.
She turned and looked at him with her warm brown eyes and gave him a smile that no one else could match. “Good morning, birthday boy.”
Atticus wanted to rush up and hug her until his arms fell off, but his body wasn’t listening. Instead, he just stood and stared at her like an idiot.
“I-Is breakfast ready?”
She laughed. “Quite the demanding little booger now that you’re ten, aren’t you? Not even a ‘Good morning, mom?’”
Atticus blushed and mumbled back a good morning.
“Gracias,” she said. “And to answer your question: no, breakfast is not ready yet.”
“But, mom,” Atticus playfully complained.
“Oh hush. You weren’t supposed to be up this early.” The two laughed and it was wonderful. For a moment, Atticus forgot he was in a dream. He was just so excited to be back with his mother. He’d forgotten how much he loved her voice, her random Spanish expressions, and her laugh.
As their laughter died down, Atticus looked all around. “Where’s dad?”
“He’s in the workshop,” Isabel said. “He might have a special birthday present for you if you want o get it a little early.”
Atticus’ eyes beamed. Isabel urged him along to go down into the basement, and he gleefully did so. He sprinted to the basement door, but froze up before he could open it. Despite being in a dream, Atticus still couldn’t open the door. But, feeling his mother’s hand on his back and her reassuring voice gave him the confidence.
The workshop was, for lack of a better word, chaotic. Tubes of condensed plasma ran across the ceiling and the walls, illuminating the room. Dozens of boxes, crates, containers, and cabinets contained a wide variety of springs, gears, wire, tools, and other contraptions. Buzzing electric conductors held what could only be described as bottled up plasma. It was the glorious laboratory of a mad scientist, and at the center of it was, passed out at the workbench, Atticus’ father: William.
Atticus quickly ran up and shook his father awake. “Dad, wake up!”
His father, still in a sleep induced daze, jumped to his feet and quickly turned to his son, nearly falling in the process. Atticus inherited both his scraggly mess of blonde hair as well as his bright blue eyes.
“Why good morning! You’re sure up awfully early, scamp.”
“Dad, it’s not that early.”
William looked like he’d barely slept that night. He rubbed his face and pulled out a little silver pocket watch. After flipping the cover, he saw that it was just barely turning nine o’clock.
“Oh dear,” he mumbled as he shoved the watch back into his pocket. “I overslept!”
He turned back to the workbench and hectically boxed up whatever he was working on. Atticus assumed it was the special present his mother had mentioned, but he couldn’t get a good peak.
“Darling, did you really not finish it in time,” Isabel asked.
William gave her an unassured smile. “I want to make sure it’s perfect.”
“And sleeping will make it perfect?”
“More so than working on it half asleep!”
Isabel gave him a disappointed sneer, but William fought back with a mischievous smile.
“C-Could I get a peak,” Atticus asked.
Both William and Isabel averted all their attention to their son.
William said, “I’m sorry son, but we want it to be a surprise!”
“Yes, and it’ll be well worth the wait,” Isabel said. “We promise.”
“Well, I can’t really promise.” Atticus knew that making promises was not something his father was keen on. He didn’t like making them out of fear he’d break them.
Atticus’ head fell. He wasn’t that sad, but he thought that maybe if he looked sad enough, especially on his birthday, it would convince them to give him at least a little peak. However, both his parents stood their ground.
William reached out and patted him on the head. “I’m sorry, Atticus. I really am. But, I’ll have you know that it will be done very, very, very soon!”
Atticus didn’t look to convinced.
William looked up at Isabel with a concerned look. She returned it with one that said: “This is your fault. You fix it.”
He figured he couldn’t just give his son nothing on his birthday, so he improvised. He turned back to his workbench and began to rustle through some of the drawers, eventually finding a very familiar brass locket.
Everything was silent for a minute. Atticus remembered it very clearly.
“Darling, no,” Isabel said. “You can’t give him that.”
But, William smiled and said, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
Suddenly, Atticus was back in his regular body. The workshop had faded into nothing but a black abyss, and both his parents stood across from him.
“Son, I want you to have this,” his father said. “It’s not much, but it’s very special.”
“William, please, we can’t do that,” his mother said. The fear in her voice was real. Atticus never knew why she was so afraid of it. At the time, he thought it was just motherly concern that he would break or lose something so delicate, but now that didn’t seem to be the case.
“I know it’s not much,” William continued, “but as long as you have this, we will always be with you.”
“Mom, dad,” Atticus shouted, “what’s going on? What is all of this?”
It was foolish, Atticus thought, trying to talk with his dream, but it only felt natural.
Almost as if they were really with him, his parents looked at one another with concerned looks. They looked like they knew what was going to happen to them, but there was nothing they could do.
His mother reached out and gripped his right hand, causing the Queen of Spades to glow a bright blue in the darkness. When Atticus looked at her, something was different. She wasn’t quite the same, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. She looked him in the eyes, completely ignoring the glowing tattoo on his hand.
“The Jack lies to you.”
Atticus bolted up in his bead. He looked down and saw the Queen of Spades still glowing. He then turned and looked out the window to see the sun just barely peaking up over the horizon. The seven o’clock bell would chime any minute.
He rolled out of bed and hobbled his way to his desk where he left his locket. Atticus sat down and stared at it, thinking about what his mother had said.
“The Jack lies,” Atticus mumbled. He put the locket back down on the desk and stared at the Queen of Spades that was slowly fading away. He remembered his dream where the Ghost attacked Varnum. It had a mark just like his: The Jack of Clubs. The Ghost was The Jack.
Atticus decided to head out for an early breakfast. He couldn’t stop thinking about his dream. Apparently, this was becoming a thing with him.
The one thing that shook Atticus more than anything was his mother’s last moments. It wasn’t her who told him about The Jack, but an imposter. Just someone who looked like her. His dream was playing with him, just like how he was in his grandparents’ house instead of his own. Still, he couldn’t get that woman out of his head. She was his mother, but wasn’t at the same time.
He wandered in silence to the cafeteria, and when he arrived he saw Camila’s usual group of friends already at their usual table, but Camila herself wasn’t with them. Atticus began to fear the worst and that the Ghost may have gotten to her.
Atticus made his way up to the group of girls, despite feeling horribly awkward. As he got closer, slowly they all looked at him, their giggling coming to an abrupt halt.
“H-Hi,” he said. No response. “I was, uh, wondering if y-you’d seen Camila?”
A girl wearing a bright red bow in her hair stood up, arms crossed, and glaring at him. “I don’t think she wants to see you right now.”
“Or ever, for that matter,” another girl chimed in.
“But, you did see her last night?”
They all gave him a wicked stare. The girl with the boy chimed in again. “She came back in tears last night, you jerk!”
Atticus felt his heart sink. He was glad she was safe, but he never wanted to make her cry.
“P-Please, I just want to apologize,” he said.
The girls gave him the cold shoulder and turned away. That was when he knew he’d really messed up. Nothing he could’ve said would make them see that he didn’t mean to upset her.
Atticus had completely lost his appetite. As he began to leave, he asked the girls if they could tell Camila he wanted to talk. One of the girls replied with a snarky, “Tell her yourself,” which he assumed was just another way to brush him off, but he was wrong. When Atticus turned around, he was greeted face to face with Camila, her face and eyes a bright red.
The girl reached out and grabbed Atticus by the arm and dragged him out of the cafeteria. After they were hidden from the others, Camila let go of him.
“What happened to you,” she shouted.
Atticus’ mouth went dry. Now that he was actually confronted with the situation, he had no idea what to say.
“Look, Camila, I’m really sorry about-”
“Sorry? Is that all you have to say?” Camila’s face was beaming. He’d never expected she could get so angry, but he guessed that what he did would make any girl angry.
“N-No, I j-just-”
“You know, I expected better from you, Atticus Whaelord!”
Atticus lowered his head in shame. He couldn’t look her in the eyes. Atticus wanted to tell her the truth, but if he did, would she even believe him? Would she get even angrier? He looked up to say something, and he saw just how devastated she was. She looked like she would start crying any minute.
“Please, Camila, I’m very sorry,” he said solemnly. “It’s just that,” he took a deep breath, “I was afraid.”
Camila didn’t look pleased with that answer. “What do you mean afraid?”
“J-Just that,” he stammered, “I was afraid of something bad happening. A-And I didn’t want anything bad happening to you.”
Camila was silent. He could tell she wasn’t sure to believe him or not.
“What are you so afraid of?”
“I-I just don’t want what happened to Mike to happen to you,” he said. “I think someone is following me around, and-”
Camila shouted, “Do you expect me to believe that?”
Atticus was speechless. “C-Camila, I’m not lying. I swear!”
She didn’t say anything, and for a long while, neither did he.
“Look, if you don’t like me that’s fine, but don’t make up such ridiculous stories.”
That was the end of the conversation. Atticus tried to say something, but his voice wouldn’t cooperate and even if it did, it wouldn’t help. Camila wasn’t going to believe him. Why would she? If he hadn’t seen The Jack with his own eyes, he wouldn’t have believed it himself.
He left without a word.
Noon quickly approached, and Atticus made his way to Zebulon Headquarters at the heart of the city. When he arrived, he was greeted by a sharply dressed receptionist man. Atticus told him that he was meeting Detective McCloud, and the receptionist asked for his name. Atticus did as the man told, and was then told to take a seat and wait for the detective to arrive.
After a couple of minutes, McCloud arrived wearing his own snazzy outfit as opposed to his trench coat and fedora. He wore a black pinstriped sports jacket and his hair was carefully slicked back.
McCloud greeted him and the two made their way into the heart of the headquarters; something he would never forget. The building was a perfect, well-oiled machine. Machines of all shapes and sizes kept the building running smoothly. As opposed to the traditional plasma tubes that lined most walls, Zebulon Headquarters was experimenting with plasma panels that lined the ceiling. Steam and spring powered hydraulic pumps transported documents and objects throughout the building, and engines of all kinds kept the building powered.
Atticus was struck with awe as he and McCloud made their way through the building. All different kinds of engineers, designers, scientists, and artificers made their way from room to room. Atticus could only imagine what each of them had planned. Anyone of them could’ve introduce the next big device that would keep the country running. It was everything he’d imagined from the world headquarters and more.
As they walked, McCloud made sure to introduce Atticus to all sorts of different workers: steam engineers, spring design directors, and plasma technicians amongst others. Atticus was honored to meet so many Zebulon employees, but he felt someone was looking at him from a distance. At first he thought it was The Jack, but it wasn’t the same feeling.
He looked around and standing between two large bodyguards was a man with bright blonde hair and pale hazel eyes, wearing a gray suit with a red tie. Atticus tried not to stare at the man, but something about him was magnetizing.
The man and the two bodyguards then made their way towards their visitor. As they got closer, Atticus could see that the man had a long scar running from left eyebrow all the way down to his chin. He had a very rugged yet handsome face.
McCloud shifted his attention and smiled at the man. “Good day, sir.”
“Good afternoon, Connor.” The man’s voice was powerful. It had a demanding boom to it. “Is this the boy you were talking to me about?”
“Aye, sir. He be the one.” McCloud turned to Atticus, a smirk stuck to his face. “Atticus, my lad, I’d like to introduce you to Peter Pipes, the president of the Zebulon Corporation.”
Atticus tensed up in fear. Before him stood one of the most powerful men on the planet: the president of Zebulon. It was like he was dreaming.
“W-Wait a minute, Peter Pipes,” Atticus said. He looked over to McCloud and said, “I thought you said he resigned.”
Pipes sneered. “I did resign from my post as head of security. But, that’s because I was selected by the last president to take his place.” The president then shifted his attention to McCloud. “I’ve got a gift for you, Connor.”
It wasn’t until then that Atticus got a good look at Pipes’ two bodyguards. From a distance, they just looked like large burly dark skinned men, but up close he could see that their skin was indeed dark, but not a natural color. It was more like bronze. They both had a tattoo on their forehead that read “OTO.” Atticus wasn’t sure what that meant, but then he saw that their eyes. They were completely a dark red. It was then that Atticus realized he wasn’t looking at two men, but two robots.
The president held out his right hand and snapped his fingers. Then, the robot body guard on that side’s eyes glowed a brighter red. It began to move its arms awkwardly; the way you’d expect a robot to. It reached behind its back and Atticus heard a loud clank. Then, when it pulled its arms back around, it was holding a long wooden box. The robot then aggressively placed the box in Pipes’ hand.
Atticus was busy staring at the robot, his eyes wide and his face pale. “W-What is that?”
McCloud laughed and said, “That is a Zebulon Service Automaton, lad.”
Atticus couldn’t believe what he’d seen. Automatons were something his father used to talk about all the time. They were one of his dream creations: robots that functioned similarly to humans. He used to always say that the core of every good automaton was a heart of clockwork springs.
“Yes, yes,” Pipes said. “They are very impressive. Now Connor, I think you’ll be rather happy to have this back.”
President Pipes opened the box and inside was a long curved saber. McCloud’s eyes beamed instantly when he saw it.
“You fixed it! You sure did!” He took the saber from the box and held it in his hands the same way a father holds his newborn child for the first time. There was a sense of wonder in the detective’s eyes. He pulled the blade from the box and carefully unsheathed it.
Atticus didn’t know much about swords, but he could see why the Detective was so pleased to have his back. It was beautiful. The blade wasn’t silver or chrome, but a milky white. Along the blunt edge were elegant black swirls, and the hilt was a wonderful black and gold.
“I can’t thank you enough, Mr. President,” McCloud said. “Now that my sword is back in my hands, I feel complete again!” McCloud looked at Atticus and brandished his newly fixed blade. “Now this, my lad, is a sword. Absolute perfection. Nothing finer in the world.”
In the flash of an eye, McCloud swung his blade and sliced right through one of President Pipes’ automatons. The robot crumbled to the ground. The poor thing didn’t even stand a chance.
McCloud let out a delightful sigh and said, “Just like I remember.”
Atticus was in shock. One, because of how fast the detective cut through the automaton. Two, because the blade was actually able to slice right through metal. And three, because the sword didn’t have a scratch on it.
“What’s that made of,” Atticus asked.
“Prime Exitium, boy,” said President Pipes. “It’s the Zebulon Corporation’s custom alloy. We’ve been developing it for years. Lighter than steel; stronger than diamond. We use it on all of our armed weapons.”
“But on a sword?”
“Aye, that was my request.” McCloud sheathed his blade and began tying it to his belt as he spoke: “I asked the president here if he could fix my sword and make it stronger than any other. Said he’d do his best, and he most definitely delivered.”
Atticus marveled at the blade for a minute. It was hypnotizing just how beautiful it was. Never had a weapon tranced him so.
“Anyways, I best be going,” Pipes said. “Business to attend to as usual.” He snapped his fingers and the working automaton began picking up the halves of its destroyed companion. Pipes and his bodyguards then vanished into the heart of the building.
McCloud continued to give Atticus his private tour of the building. He showed him all of the engineering stations, the plasma department, and the spring and steam workshops. He showed him around the department of theoretics where scientists and mechanics would spend the day planning and theorizing new projects and experiments. He showed him all of the laboratories where mechanics and artificers were tinkering and experimenting. And then he showed him the boring stuff where all the paper work was done, as well as his own office.
As the tour went on, Atticus continuously saw a portrait of a man. He had pale blonde hair and dark violet eyes. He wore a dark charcoal suit with a purple undershirt and a black vest and tie. He had a very powerful aura about him. The portrait was labeled: “Yliaster Zebulon, Founder of the Zebulon Corporation.” Atticus had seen his pictures before in newspapers and in his school history text books. He could only imagine what it was like to stand within his presence; the man who changed the whole world. It must’ve been very intimidating, Atticus thought to himself.
Everything was great, Atticus thought. Whenever he had a question, McCloud was quick to answer.
“Detective, could you show me where my parents used to work?”
McCloud stopped in his tracks. “Your parents’ offices you say? Well, we’ve done a bit of redecorating since they worked here, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”
The detective lead Atticus down to the building’s basement and down a long corridor. At first, Atticus though the was being tricked. But, McCloud assured him that his parents used to work together down a bit further.
The two arrived at a large metal door. McCloud pressed a button, and after several loud gear clinks and clanks, the door opened to the biggest room Atticus had ever laid eyes on.
“Welcome lad, to the Zebulon Automaton Machinarium,” McCloud said. “Your parents used to call this place the Big Z.A.M. for short.”
“M-My parents used to work on automatons down here? But, my father used to say that his automatons were just a pipe dream.”
McCloud shook his head. “No lad, your father’s ideas about automatons are what propelled this industry forward. Those automatons we saw upstairs wouldn’t have been possible without your father’s work down here.”
“R-Really?” Atticus felt so proud.
“Of course! Now, why don’t I show you around.”
McCloud lead Atticus deep into the machinarium, walking him past broken down prototypes of automatons as well as ones that looked perfectly fine. He explained as much as he could about the machines and how they worked, but he admitted to being a bit slow on the mechanical department.
Different automatons had different labels on them: ACA, OTO, DES, BES, EMI, and so on. According to McCloud, those were ways to identify what job the automaton was designed to do and how it was designed. But, he couldn’t go into much detail about what the letters meant or what the different designs were. Most of the techno mumbo jumbo was lost to him. But that didn’t matter. Atticus was so happy to be in a place where his parents had influenced so much.
The detective tended to be a few steps ahead of him, and at one point, Atticus fell a bit behind after getting distracted by an EMI unit. It seemed a bit out of place. Most of the other EMIs looked beaten up and ruined, but the one Atticus looked at was just a bit too clean. Atticus didn’t really care, he just thought it was odd.
He called to ask the detective why, but that’s when he realized he’d gotten completely separated from McCloud.
“Detective?” He hollered. No response.
Then, he began to hear the clicking of gears and twine of spring. He wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from, but Atticus got a terrible feeling in his gut. He thought maybe he was in another nightmare, like he’d never actually woken up, but he knew that couldn’t be true.
The clanging got louder, and as Atticus looked around he realized it was coming from the EMI unit he was staring at. The robot was coming to life. The EMI stared at him with its bright red eyes, and Atticus felt like The Jack was staring at him. He was petrified.
The automaton began to step forward, slowly and clumsily. Twenty feet. Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Then, the robot buckled its legs and lunged at him.
Atticus felt is heart stop. He thought he was going to die; crushed by hundreds of pounds of metal, but he felt his locket and the Queen of Spades blaze on his hand.
In just the nick of time, Atticus dove out of the way, the metal automaton crashing into the ground with a loud thunk.
Atticus quickly bolted to his feet and began to make a mad dash through the machinarium, calling out for detective McCloud. He looked over his shoulder to see that the automaton had regained its balance and started chasing him down again. He’d no idea how it knew to chase him or why, but Atticus got the terrible feeling that it wasn’t going to stop until it got him or was dismantled. But who would’ve programmed the machine to do that?
The Jack, Atticus thought. It’d followed him and knew he’d come down to his parents’ old workplace. It would be the perfect time to attack.
Atticus tried to shake the fear out of himself and keep running. He had to think of some way to get the robot off of him and find McCloud. But, what if The Jack found McCloud already? It wasn’t possible, Atticus thought. McCloud wouldn’t let that happen.
The EMI unit was fast for a hundred-pound chunk of spring and gears. No matter how fast Atticus ran, the automaton was constantly gaining on him. Atticus thought about all of his options. He wasn’t the best at coming up with plans on the spot, but now that his life was on the line, he had to try something. Then, he remembered his Queen of Spades.
Atticus ran up to one of the broken automatons labeled OTO and placed his hands on the machine. He wasn’t sure if his plan would work, but it was worth a shot. He willed the Queen to repair the broken machine as the EMI quickly gained on him.
He felt his hands begin to burn, but that meant it was working. The automaton was coming to life. Its arms wiggled and it began to stagger up to its feet. Just as it stood up straight, Atticus collapsed to the ground, exhausted. He’d never used his Queen of Spades to repair something so big before.
The OTO unit took a few steps forward and Atticus tried his best to crawl behind it. OTO was what Pipes’ bodyguards were labeled as. He’d hoped that meant it was programed to fight off hostile attackers. Luckily, his hunch was correct. The OTO unit clashed with the attacking EMI, protecting Atticus. However, it was very obvious that the EMI unit was designed to tear things down. Despite the OTO’s best efforts, it was slowly getting torn apart.
Atticus tried his best to get to his feet and stagger away, hoping that his friendly robot friend would be able to slow down his attacker. As he trudged away, he could hear the hard crushing blows of metal against metal. He took a peak over his shoulder and saw that the OTO was completely dismantled, and the EMI still in peak condition.
The rogue robot continued its pursuit, and Atticus was completely out of energy. He tried to pick up the pace, but in doing so, he collapsed to the ground. He was too exhausted. He could barely move. The automaton approached him and Atticus closed his eyes.
It’s all a bad dream, he thought.
Then, a piercing sound rang throughout the machinarium. Metal scraping against metal. When he opened his eyes, Atticus saw the EMI unit cleaved perfectly down the middle. Detective McCloud stood in front of him, his sword at his side.
“Lad, what happened? Are you alright?”
Atticus tried to nod his head, but it was obvious that the use of his power had overexerted him. The detective helped him up to his feet and held him up. Atticus was afraid that the detective would see his Queen of Spades, but it had already vanished.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?”
Atticus shook his head. “I’m okay, just a bit worn out.”
McCloud didn’t look so sure, but he didn’t argue. He helped carry Atticus out of the machinarium, out of Zebulon headquarters, and assisted him in getting all the way back to Fortuna Prep. He’d pulled some strings and got some of the Zebulon workers to give them a ride.
The ride back wasn’t too long, but it was very quiet. No one said a word except for when they finally arrived back at the school. McCloud told the driver that he would head back on foot after he knew Atticus was okay.
The two made their way to the school fountain, where McCloud wanted to talk. “So tell me the truth, what happened back in there?”
“I don’t know,” Atticus said shrugging. “The automaton just started up and attacked me.”
McCloud shook his head. “That can’t be. None of those machines were active.”
“Well, that one sure was.” Atticus stuck a hand in the fountain water and splashed his face. “I think the Ghost may have been there, waiting for me.”
“No, lad, that isn’t possible,” McCloud said. “Zebulon security is top notch. No one gets in or out without me knowing.”
“But, what if he was hiding for a while,” Atticus asked. “What if he knew I would be there?”
McCloud wasn’t having any of it. “I’m sorry, but like I said lad: It’s just not possible. Now, another question: How did you get that other automaton to work?”
Atticus looked at his hands. He didn’t want to say anything about his Queen of Spades to McCloud. “Maybe I have a natural talent. Y’know, because of my parents?”
It was obvious that McCloud didn’t believe that, but he didn’t pry, which Atticus appreciated. He knew that with the detective’s skill, he’d have no problem weaseling the truth out of him.
McCloud helped Atticus back to his feet and the two made their way to the dorm. Atticus thanked the detective for the tour, and McCloud apologized for such a rough ending, and then the two exchanged farewells.
Atticus opened the door to his dorm, preparing himself for a long night’s sleep. He didn’t expect to find Brock sitting on his bed waiting for him.
While Atticus was with McCloud at Zebulon HQ, Brock decided to do a little investigation of his own. He wanted to figure out what happened between Atticus and Camila. He’d said he screwed up, but he didn’t want to say what he did. Brock decided that he’d get to the bottom of it and ask Camila herself.
He found her studying alone in the school library, her nose crammed in a book like usual. It didn’t surprise him that the class valedictorian would be studying on a Saturday. She looked so gentle. Before he left, Atticus had said she got pretty upset with him. He didn’t put it past her; the sweet ones were always the deadliest.
As he approached her table, Camila’s expression shifted. She went from calm and collected to stern and frustrated without ever looking up from her book.
Can she smell me, Brock thought?
“Hey,” he said, “how’s it going?”
“Did Atticus ask you to talk to me?”
Brock shook his head. “I came here on my own. I want to know what happened.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Talking about it always helps.” Brock tried to cheer her up, but she wasn’t having any of it. She was incredibly hurt. It wasn’t just rage, but something much deeper. “If you’d like,” he said, “I promise that nothing will leave this table.”
Camila slammed the book shut, but her eyes remained averted. “I said I don’t want to talk about it!”
“If that’s the case, why’d you slam your book,” he said. “Why not just ignore me?”
She closed her eyes and said, “Because guys like you just don’t get the hint.” Brock could hear a feint whimper in her voice. He was afraid at any moment she’d start crying, and he was not ready to handle that in school’s library.
Brock decided that he’d have to ease his way into the situation. He had to let her know that he really did care. As he thought about it, he noticed she had a bandage wrapped around her right hand.
“Hey, what happened?”
He pointed at the bandage and Camila instantly hid her hand under the table. “I-I burnt it last night after I got back. I was being careless.”
“Is it okay?”
“Of course it’s okay,” she snapped. “It’s not like it melted off or anything. It’s just a dumb little burn!”
She wasn’t making it easy for him, but Brock couldn’t give up. “Was it because of Atticus,” he asked. “The reason why you were so careless? Were you angry or sad?”
“Why are you so persistent about this?”
“Because I know Atticus,” he said, “and he would never want to see you hurt like this.”
Camila didn’t say a word.
“Y’know, I don’t think Atticus meant to upset you so badly. He was so anxious to be with you that he couldn’t decide what to wear. Whatever happened, it had to have been an accident.”
For a minute, Camila didn’t want to answer.
Finally, she took a deep breath and said, “He just left me.”
“What do you mean he just left?”
Camila averted her eyes. “Just what I said. He went to the bathroom and didn’t come back,” she said. “He started acting a bit skittish, and I assumed it was just nerves. But, when he didn’t come back, I got scared that something bad happened to him. When I went out go check on him, he was gone. And then this morning, I see him up and about perfectly fine!” She tightly shut her eyes. “He said he was afraid of something, and that’s why he left.”
Afraid of something, Brock thought?
“Afraid of what? Did he say?”
Camila shrugged. “I don’t know, something about being followed.”
Brock thought about all of the things he’d gone through with Atticus lately. He thought about the criminal group, Mekanile, and if there was something going on with them. Atticus was afraid his parents may have been involved with them in some way. Maybe they didn’t like the fact that he was getting involved with their affairs and were now trying to scare him out of it. Brock didn’t know, but he knew well enough that Atticus wouldn’t lie about that, especially if involved him missing his date with Camila.
“Hey, I don’t think he was lying to you,” he said. “This whole week, Atticus has just been really caught up and-”
“I know,” Camila interrupted, “his detective junk.” Camila’s face shifted again, back to an angry expression. “You tell him that when I’m ready to talk, I’ll find him.”
She packed up her things and abruptly left the library, leaving Brock alone at the table. He figured from an outsider’s perspective, he looked like a huge jerk.
He sat at the table alone for a long while in silence. Brock knew that Camila still liked Atticus. It was thicker than peanut butter, but he knew there was nothing more he could do. He did what he set out to do, figure out what happened between them, and while Atticus chickening out and running home sounded like him, he didn’t buy that with Camila. He liked her just as much as she liked him. He wouldn’t have just left her because he got date anxiety. Something wasn’t right.
When Atticus arrived back at the dorm, he was surprised to see Brock waiting for him so patiently. It was a bit unsettling.
“H-Hey, Brock. What’s going on?”
Brock’s stare was unwavering. “We need to talk.”
Brock sat Atticus down and told him about his talk Camila. He demanded that Atticus tell him the whole truth about the evening. Atticus knew not hold anything back, so he spilled the beans. He told him about bumping into the Ghost at the theater, about his meeting with McCloud, the dream with his parents, and then he told him about the Zebulon tour and how he’d almost become automaton chow.
“Y’know,” Brock said, “this whole debacle with you and this Jack character seems awfully familiar.”
“What do you mean,” Atticus asked.
“What Mike said in his note,” he said. “Being followed. Never feeling safe when you leave.”
“And trying to make the murders look self-inflicted or accidental!”
The two wanted to go on talking more and more about what they’d learn, bouncing ideas off one another, but Atticus was far too exhausted. He told Brock that he needed sleep, but that he felt more confident than ever. He promised that together they’d solve the case, and now he was even closer to solving the puzzle.
When Atticus got to his bed, he collapsed. His body felt sore, and his mind numb. He looked at his right hand and wondered even more about the Queen of Spades and where it’d came from. For years, he could just control it naturally, but he couldn’t remember when it first appeared or why. He just accepted it.
As he closed his eyes, the words of his mother rang in his ears: “The Jack lies to you.”
And then, he fell asleep.
The next week passed by quickly. The days passed one by one with Atticus and Brock going to class like always, trying to dig up ideas about the identity of The Jack. They picked up newspaper articles and books from the school library, trying to find any information about the Mekanile group. Sadly, they couldn’t find much. They found a few articles from the paper about the group taking down a Zebulon Carrier Airship or robbing thousands of dollars from Zebulon affiliates across the country, but no names of members were listed.
When Monday came around, Professor Varnum returned to class. He claimed that he was just having some digestive problems that came with old age, but Atticus knew better. The professor wasn’t the same after that day. He was quieter and more restrained. During class, he was even more reclusive in his text books, almost as if he didn’t want to meet eyes with his students. Every so often, he would cease to speak and grip his chest in pain. It only ever lasted a second or two, but it did concern most of the students. Nobody liked Varnum, but it wasn’t enjoyable to see an old man in pain like that.
One day after class, Varnum announced to the class that a memorial service would be held for their recently passed classmate, Michael Nelson, that upcoming Saturday. He’d said that any students willing to help with the event would be granted extra credit in addition to it being very much appreciated. Not many students seemed eager to jump to the task, but several did for the extra points.
As Atticus was leaving class, Varnum yanked him aside and told him that since he skipped his class, hewould be forced to attend in order to make up for the missed time. Atticus didn’t argue. He planned on attending anyways, so getting some extra points wasn’t a bad bonus. Brock also jumped on the free points wagon. Camila, on the other hand, did not.
Camila was another obstacle Atticus was trying to overcome that week. She didn’t seem angry at him anymore, but she ignored him at every chance she was given. Atticus was heartbroken. He wished she would give him a chance and let say something, but whenever he got close, she just shut him down and left.
Brock assured him that she’d be fine.
“She’ll talk to you when she’s ready,” he said.
Atticus didn’t like that, but if that was the case, he’d be patient. Still, he thought, hearing her voice at least might help take the pain away.
Friday, after class, was Mike’s funeral service. All sorts of people attended: Friends and family, as well as some of the students and faculty. His parents, Dr. and Mrs. Nelson, were there obviously, as was Detective McCloud. Oddly enough, Professor Varnum attended. That was a mystery to everyone.
Atticus went by himself. He told Brock that he wanted to go alone. He didn’t know why, he just felt better going by himself. Maybe it was because he and Mike never really hung out with anybody else. Occasionally Brock would join them, but not often, and the same went with some of Mike’s friends. Normally, it was just the two of them, and that’s how Atticus felt it should be. Just him and no one else.
He shed no tears. He wasn’t sad. At the time, more than ever, he was angry. Angry that he wasn’t able to help his friend before it was too late. He hated The Jack and he hated Mekanile for everything they’d done. He’d never thought anything like it before, but he was angry at his parents for being associated with them. He hated his locket. He wanted answers, but he felt he could never get them. No matter where he looked, he was always blind, and he hated that most of all.
Then, it was Saturday. Varnum had instructed all volunteers to meet in the school gymnasium at noon. The event took place at seven o’clock sharp, but there were so many preparations to be done. Students, faculty, and volunteers alike were all rushing around trying to get everything set up, but under Varnum’s leadership, it was a rough ride.
The professor had a very weak grasp on what he was doing. Constantly, he would just change what someone else was working on and claim it was wrong, despite that being exactly what he said to do. Jobs included, but were not limited to: Rearranging the tables and chairs so that the hall was symmetrical and professional looking, preparing silverware by folding them into overtly extravagant napkin shapes, placing dishware at each and every seat at every single table, and making sure that all of the ridiculous looking center pieces were placed to perfection. The centerpieces alone took hours to prepare.
Some students were even forced to help out in the kitchen: Washing dishes and silverware if they sat out too long and got dusty, running errands to the store to make sure they had enough food, and some were even in charge of taking record of how much food they had and would use.
It was so unorganized and one could chalk that up to the fact that Varnum was not a prepared man. He’d had less than two weeks to prepare everything, and despite Principal Shepard’s request to delay it until the end of the month, the professor insisted that it needed to take place as soon as possible. But, it seemed like Varnum was just trying to sabotage himself. It seemed like just when everything was going according to plan and working out just fine, he would throw it all in the trash and start again.
Atticus and Brock were stuck helping the dining room prepare the centerpieces for the tables. It wasn’t the hardest job, but like all things, Varnum continued to shift it all around. At first, he wanted the centerpieces to be in small glass vases filled with red and white roses, but later he said that it would clash with the other decorations, so he made someone run to a nearby florist and get blue and yellow daisies instead.
All of that being said, Varnum never actually did any work himself. All he did was walk around the cafeteria and yell at the students and faculty, pointing out everything they were doing wrong but never telling them exactly what to fix. Whenever someone asked, he would scamper away and say that he was too busy. Principal Shepard gave him the title “Event Director” but most just called him the “Event Dictator.”
As they worked, Atticus noticed the director’s chest pains flaring up every now and again. He tried to bring it up, asking the professor if he needed anything, but the he would either refuse to say anything or just say it was stress from, “All the idiots,” he had to deal with. Atticus didn’t believe that for a minute.
The day had flown by. It was quickly approaching go time, and several people noticed that Varnum had just up and vanished. Atticus overheard a few of his classmates laughing about how he probably had to go powder his nose and then go kill a baby kitten.
Brock overheard the commotion as well and decided to jump on the bandwagon. He turned to Atticus and asked, “What do you think Varnum’s up to?”
“Nothing good.” Atticus lowered his head and pulled Brock to the side. “This whole event has got to be a big ploy to cover up something.”
“He knows something,” Atticus whispered. “I need to know what he’s hiding.”
“The Jack and Mekanile,” Brock asked.
Atticus looked around at the cafeteria that they’d spent the whole day preparing. “Don’t you suppose it’s a bit strange that a man as grumpy and selfish as him decides to throw this huge charity event, but then goes and basically tries to ruin the whole thing?”
Brock agreed. Everything seemed a bit out of place. “Do you suppose he left? Like maybe he just needed everybody gathered here and now something bad is going to happen?”
“No, that can’t be,” Atticus said. “He needs to be here.”
Then without warning, Atticus felt a tug in his gut. It was the same familiar sensation he got when he was searching for Camila. He couldn’t explain it, but it felt instinctual. He just had to follow it. He turned around and through all the hectic workers and decorators, he stared down a hallway that lead to a custodial closet. It was just a regular old closet with brooms, mops, and other cleaning supplies Atticus assumed, but the feeling in his gut said that there was something more.
He began to make his way down the hall, Brock following close behind. He tried to ask questions, but Atticus was silent. It was almost like the tugging was literal, pulling him to the small room.
Before Atticus could open the closet door, Brock stopped him.
“Atticus, enough! What are you doing?”
“This room,” he said. “Something is in it.”
He pushed past Brock and opened the door. Much to his surprise, it was just a regular custodial closet, exactly like he’d assumed. But still, something didn’t feel right. The tugging in his gut was still pulling him inward. He took a step inside and began searching all around for something amiss. Brock tried to convince him that he was going crazy, but Atticus wasn’t listening. He fell to his knees and began to crawl around, scouring the floor for something. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he knew that something was there.
Finally, Atticus found a small knob on the floor, easily overlooked. He twisted it and felt the floor in front of him give way, revealing a small trap door. He peaked down and saw a ladder leading about thirty feet down into darkness.
He looked back at Brock who was just as awestruck.
“I-Is this a secret door,” Atticus said.
“At this point, I’m willing to believe anything.” Brock took a step into the closet, but Atticus cut him off.
“No, you stay out there,” he said. “I’m going in, and if anybody asks where I went, tell them I’m in the bathroom.”
“Atticus, you’re crazy if you think I’m gonna let you go into this creepy hole by yourself.”
“You have too!” Atticus didn’t want to go alone, but he didn’t want to risk Brock getting hurt. Plus, if there came a moment where he had to run, Atticus didn’t want to hold anyone back. He didn’t even let Brock respond before he started climbing down the ladder.
The hole was definitely dark, that was to be expected, but it was far deeper than Atticus thought. From above, it looked just about thirty feet, but it felt like he descended for an eternity. When he reached the bottom, Atticus looked up and couldn’t even see the top. It had to be a trick of the light, he thought. But, he couldn’t get distracted. The tug in his gut had resided and now he had to find whatever it was that compelled him down into the abyss.
Atticus followed a long hallway leading down into the depths of the school. It wasn’t pitch black, but it was close enough. Dim, barely working plasma tubes hummed throughout the long corridor and made the whole place feel like an abandoned prison cell. It was easily the most terrifying moment of his life.
As he made his way down the maze-like corridors, Atticus began to hear what sounded like mumbling. It was faint, and against his better judgment, he followed it. The lights got dimmer and dimmer the deeper into the tunnel he went, but eventually Atticus came across a large metal door. He heard the mumbling on the other side, and he gently creaked the door open and peaked inside to see Professor Varnum, hunched over a small wooden table littered with papers; his back to the door.
Atticus couldn’t quite hear what the professor was saying. He pressed his ear to the door and listened closely.
“I was wrong, I was wrong,” the professor muttered. “I’ll never escape. He sees me! He sees right through me!”
Atticus’ curiosity glued him to his spot. He couldn’t move. Whatever the professor was rambling on about, he needed to know.
“The Master’s plan, I have my part. I was wrong to go against The Master, and now I’ve paid the price. I’m sorry, Master! I was wrong, Master!”
Atticus took a step back from the door, accidentally nudging it. A faint squeak echoed through the corridor. Varnum tensed up, and suddenly everything went silent. Atticus didn’t dare move. He didn’t even want to breath. He continued to peek inside and watch the professor, hoping that maybe the madman would just shrug it off.
“I-Is that you, sir,” Varnum called out. Atticus didn’t respond. “I-I didn’t expect you to be here already. I swear that n-nothing will go wrong. I’ve done everything you’ve asked.” Still, Atticus said nothing.
Then, Varnum snapped. “Would you give me something? Anything? I swear I’m not going against The Master’s will!” Varnum lashed out, smacking the table and sending the papers sprawling across the floor. A long bloody gash appeared across the professor’s knuckles, but he didn’t seem phased by it. “What must I do to regain your trust, you dog? If you’re too cowardly to kill him, I’ll do it myself! You don’t overlook anything, huh? You see right through things? Well good! Then you’ll see just how loyal I am to The Master!”
Varnum hurled the table across the room, smashing it on the floor. He went into a berserk state, howling and pounding his fists on the walls. Atticus backed away, hiding in the shadows, but still trying to keep an eye on his lunatic professor.
“Do you hear me, Jack,” he shouted. “It was me! I’m the one who found the lockets here! And, I found their son as well! You’re too busy hiding in the shadows while I do all the dirty work! Well, if you’re too scared to kill Whaelord, then I’ll do it myself!”
Atticus leapt back, his heart beating violently, and his legs started moving without thought. He had to get out of there as soon as possible. He heard Varnum continue his screaming in the distance. The professor had completely gone off the deep end.
But, worst of all, thanks to Varnum’s insane ranting, Atticus knew exactly who The Jack was. He knew exactly what his mother meant when she said The Jack lies. He’d been wrong all along and his heart felt broken.
He sprinted down the corridor and vigorously climbed up the ladder back into the closet. He slammed the trapdoor shut and ran off to find Brock.
Atticus found Brock near the entrance to the cafeteria. He and a few other students were getting prepped by Principal Shepard who said that some guests would be arriving soon. She went on to name a few before getting pulled aside by another faculty member.
Brock saw Atticus looked terrified. “Hey, what happened?”
“That hole I found,” he said, “it leads to a maze-like basement. But that’s not important; what is important is that I found Varnum down there mumbling some crazy stuff to himself. H-He kept saying that he was wrong and kept calling out to some ‘Master,’ talking about a plan that he played part in, and how he’s in trouble and paid the price, but there is-”
“Atticus, calm down,” Brock said. “You’re speaking a mile a minute. Just tell me what the professor said.”
Atticus was completely flustered. There was so much ne needed to say, but his brain wasn’t cooperating. He took a few deep breaths and tried to regain his composure. Atticus pulled Brock to a corner and huddled up. In a feint whisper he did his best to explain everything he’d heard the professor say.
“Atticus, that crazy old coot says he wants to kill you,” Brock said. “If he’s serious, you can’t just stick around.”
“He said The Jack would be here.” Atticus pulled his locket out of his pocket. He stared at it for a moment. “I know who it is.”
Atticus nodded, but before he could say anything, a crotchety old shadow loomed above them.
“So, what gossip is going on over here, pray tell?” The two students looked up and saw Professor Varnum giving them both a cold stare through his dark tinted glasses. The two nearly jumped out of their skin at the sight of him.
Atticus caught a glimpse of the professor’s hand. He’d expected it to be all bloody, but it was completely healed.
Varnum stared at him, confused. “Yes, what about it?”
Atticus wanted to snap and call out the professor, but his words were lost in his throat.
Luckily, like usual, Brock had his back. “Sorry professor, we were just talking about how wonderful of a job you’ve done today.”
Varnum scoffed. “Your flattery will get you nowhere with me, Mr. Mackenzie.”
“Oh, but it’s not flattery,” Brock said. “You’ve done so much for the Nelsons, professor, but don’t you feel just a tad bit guilty?”
“What are you trying to say?” The professor pursed his lips.
“Trying to use the death of a student to further your plans. Maybe to make yourself look better in the eyes of your superiors?” Brock looked at Atticus with a devilish smirk. “What if someone was to see through your actions, professor? What if this didn’t work?”
Beads of sweat formed on the professor’s forehead. “I don’t know what it is you’re getting at Mr. Mackenzie, but I warn you that it is not funny.” The professor’s face began turning a bright red. “Now, how about you assist the kitchen instead of lounging about.”
Brock tried to argue, but Varnum kept his foot planted. He let out a sigh and began to make his way to the kitchen. When Atticus tried to follow, Varnum stopped him.
“Not you, Mr. Whaelord,” he said. Atticus could see the look of fear on the professor’s face. Even through his glasses, Atticus could see that the professor was slowly losing it. “I-I need you to stay here and usher the guests when they arrive.”
Finally, Atticus couldn’t take being silent any longer. He looked down at the professor’s hand and said, “Did it hurt when you smashed the table, professor? How did it heal so quickly?”
“What did you say?”
“Stop hiding it, Varnum.” Atticus glared at the professor. “What are you so afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything!”
“Really? Nothing?” Atticus asked. “You’re saying you’re not afraid of something going wrong? You’re not afraid of making The Master angry?”
Varnum tensed up. He shoved Atticus up to the wall and got up to him, face-to-face and whispered, “You keep silent, Mr. Whaelord. Now get back to work.”
About a half hour passed and Atticus was forced to stand at the entrance to the cafeteria and wait for guests to arrive. It was his job to show them where they’d be sitting for the evening. Of course, high end snobs wouldn’t listen to a student; they’d just walk by and sit where they pleased.
Guests after guests passed. Some fancy looking higher-ups and some students. Camila decided to come. She wore a pink dress and her hair was hanging down over her shoulder. Atticus wasn’t sure why she’d came. She wasn’t really friends with Mike, and she wouldn’t get anything for attending. Perhaps she just thought it was the right thing to do.
As she walked past, Atticus tried to speak with her, but she continued to give him the cold shoulder.
After about ten more minutes of greeting guests, the guests of honor arrived: The Nelsons. Dr. Clayton Nelson was wearing a dark green suit with a black tie. His hair was neatly groomed and he was still wearing his goggles. Mrs. Pearl Nelson had on a dark emerald dress with golden trim, a pair of long black silk gloves and a decorative pearl necklace.
Atticus couldn’t help but feel they were hiding something. Dr. Nelson looked particularly disgusted by the whole event, almost as if he never wanted the whole event to take place. He’d said that the only thing his son’s death had given him was harassment. Was this what he meant? A constant reminder that his son was gone? Atticus knew what it was like to lose his parents, but he couldn’t imagine what it must be like for parents to lose their children.
“Welcome,” Atticus said with a fake smile. “May I lead you to your seats?”
Mrs. Nelson gazed right past Atticus as if she hadn’t heard him, but Dr. Nelson looked down with a much concerned look. “You look familiar. Where do I know you from?”
“Not too good with faces I see,” Atticus mumbled. “I’m Atticus Whaelord. We’ve met before at the-”
“Whaelord,” he shouted. “As in, William and Isabel Whaelord?”
Atticus was a bit taken back. He didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded.
“I can’t believe it,” the doctor said jubilantly. “All this time you were right here!” He took off his goggles and looked Atticus in the eyes. “I was foolish not to see it before. You’ve got your father’s eyes.”
“Y-You knew my parents?”
“Knew them? We were partners!” Dr. Nelson’s face shifted. His joyous glimmer changed to a look of sadness. “However, that was a long time ago.”
“What happened to them,” Atticus asked. “What’s Mekanile? What’s going on in all of this?”
Atticus didn’t care that he was bombarding the man with so many questions. He needed answers, and now he was dedicated to get some.
Dr. Nelson shook his head. He was about to say something, but he lost his breath. His wife had vanished. “Pearl? Where did she dawdle off to?”
Atticus hadn’t noticed, but the doctor was right. It seemed that Mrs. Nelson was just there not more than a couple of seconds ago, but then she’d just completely up and disappeared.
That’s when a lump formed in Atticus’ stomach and chaos broke out in the midst of the cafeteria. Students, faculty, and guests alike began to let out screams of terror and scattered about as if someone released a swarm of bees. What was really there, was much worse.
Barreling through the crowd was a dark cloaked figure, leaping bounds over attendees, onto tables, a knife held firmly in its hand: The Jack. Its speed was remarkable. It slashed at anyone in its path.
Atticus didn’t even get a chance to run before the assassin was only a few yards in front of him. He was certain the figure was going to attack, but he was wrong. The Jack leapt over him and tackled Dr. Nelson, his knife sinking into the doctor’s chest. A terrible scream of pain filled the room, and Atticus was forced to watch in horror. He wanted to do something, like grab a nearby chair and smash it over the assassin, but he was too afraid to move.
The Jack ripped the knife out of the doctor and turned to face Atticus. Its green eyes focused on him. Atticus was certain he was going to die, but just as the thought crossed his mind, he heard Professor Varnum.
“No! You’re not supposed to be here!”
The assassin quickly changed focus to the professor. He pushed past Atticus, knocking him to the ground, and made a mad dash to the professor, leaping over any obstacle in his path.
The professor’s face trembled with fear as The Jack closed in. He tried to turn and run, but between his chest pains and the assassin’s speed, he stood no chance. It was like a tortoise racing a cheetah. The Jack bashed the professor over the head, and lifted him up onto his shoulders; bounding down the hallway.
Through all the chaos, Atticus didn’t know exactly what to do. Everything had happened so fast. He quickly turned back to Dr. Nelson, who was barely gripping onto life.
“D-Dr. Nelson,” he said quivering. The doctor’s face was pale and his eyes were staring off into the distance.
He turned to Atticus and said, “I’m sorry.” That was it. The life had completely drained form his face.
It felt like Atticus’ heart had been replaced with a burning coal. He wasn’t going to let The Jack get away. He bolted up to his feet and made a mad dash to the custodial closet at the end of the hallway. He knew that’s where it was going to hide.
As he ran, Atticus saw Brock in the distance. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt. The two locked eyes and Brock was relieved to see that Atticus was still safe.
Brock ran up to his friend and said, “That was him wasn’t it? The Jack?”
Atticus nodded. “It killed Dr. Nelson, and now he’s taken Varnum. We have to find them before they escape!”
“Atticus, that’s for the police, not us.”
“We can’t wait for them,” Atticus shouted. “We can’t just sit by and do nothing!”
Brock shook his head. He wanted to argue, but he knew nothing would change Atticus’ mind. “Then what do you propose we do?”
Atticus looked down the hall towards the closet. “Make sure everyone is okay, and when the officers arrive, gather as many as you can and met me down the trap door.”
“That’s where they went,” Atticus said. “I know it, and I’m not letting them get away again.”
“Atticus, no, you’re not going alone!”
“Just trust me,” Atticus begged.
Brock didn’t want to let his best friend just rush head first into a dark basement where a serial killer was waiting for him, but he couldn’t stop him. Nothing could.
He gave a thumbs up and said, “Be careful,” and then went off to go help calm the storm.
Atticus realized it looked pretty strange running away from the chaos and down a dark hallway but that didn’t cross his mind until later. Dozens of people surrounded him, trying to stop him, but he just pushed past. He was the only one who knew where The Jack had taken Varnum.
He darted to the closet and found the trapdoor still open. He distinctly remembered slamming it, so he knew for a fact that someone was hiding down there. He climbed down the ladder and descended back into the maze. And that’s when his adrenaline wore off and the fear really hit him. He realized that he was in way over his head, and he was in serious danger. He stared up the ladder and thought the smartest thing to do would be to climb back up and hide, but he had to be brave.
He thought about what Dr. Nelson had said: “All this time you were right here!” Atticus wanted to know what he meant. How did he know his parents? Was Dr. Nelson looking for him? He’d never know if he ran and hid.
The hallways were just as dark as before; the faint glow of plasma tubes barely lit anything. Atticus felt horribly uneasy as he traveled through the long labyrinthine halls. Before, he wasn’t looking for anything in particular; he was just exploring, but now he knew The Jack could be anywhere, stalking him the darkness, and that scared him even more.
After a few minutes of stumbling through the darkness, Atticus heard muffled crashes and yells echoing through the halls. He followed the sounds, it guiding him through the maze until he eventually came across the same metal door as before. It was tightly shut, and he didn’t dare try and sneak a peek. On the other end, he could hear three different voices: two men and a woman.
Atticus recognized the professor’s whimpering terrified pleas right away. The woman’s was elegant and graceful, yet harsh: Pearl Nelson. He didn’t know why she was with Varnum, but he feared the worst. The entire time he was suspecting her husband, but it seemed that she was the one who wanted her son dead. But why?
The last voice, Atticus could only assume, was The Jack. It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
He knelt down and placed his eye up to the crack under the door, desperately trying to catch a peak. He was right about all of the participants: Varnum, Pearl, and The Jack. As best he could see, Professor Varnum was whimpering on the ground, his glasses broken, and several cuts and bruises covered his body. Pearl looked completely unharmed and unafraid. The Jack, meanwhile, had his back to both of them. Atticus couldn’t see his face.
“Please, sir,” Varnum begged, “I did my best. There’s no way the boy knows the truth!”
“You went against The Master’s orders,” the assassin shouted. His voice was cold and vicious. “You were to retrieve Whaelord’s locket and because of your carelessness, he almost got away.”
Atticus felt a knot forming in his stomach. His entire body told him to run, get help, and let the police handle everything, but he knew better.
“The Master hired you, gave you power, because he thought you’d be the right man for the job,” he yelled, “but, you’re just a coward who is afraid of a schoolboy!”
“I swear, sir,” Varnum said quivering, “it’s not the boy I’m afraid of. He’s a smart one. Much smarter than we-”
“He’s a boy,” Pearl butted in. “He’s no smarter than the other brat. Why not just kill him too?”
Atticus couldn’t believe what he’d heard. Pearl was completely okay with Mike’s death. He felt his heart pumping faster and faster, and started breathing harder. He had to hold his mouth shut out of fear that the three would hear him.
“The Master commanded me with keeping him alive,” the Ghost said. “The plan was to have the infiltrator steal the locket and bring it to me, then we’d get the boy to follow us.”
Pearl looked at Varnum and sneered. “It looks like The Master was wrong about your abilities.”
Varnum got up off the ground and said, “The Master is never wrong. I kept the boy off both your tails, didn’t I?” He then turned his attention towards The Jack. “Besides, you almost killed the boy with that automaton of yours.”
The Ghost lashed out at Varnum, striking him across the face and sending him sprawling across the floor. “Do not dare accuse me of failure, you little dobber! I’ve always had the boy under my thumb!”
Atticus’ heart beat faster and faster.
The Jack turned his back to his cohorts and laughed under his breath. “Zebulon will not tolerate your failures, Varnum. But, I do commend you on leading the boy right to me.”
“W-What do you mean,” Varnum asked.
“We have ourselves a little eavesdropper.” He turned to the door and his piercing green gaze shot right where Atticus was peaking.
Instantly, Atticus bolted up to his feet and made a mad dash back into the darkness. His heart was beating a mile a minute and now it seemed even harder for him to see. From behind, he heard the door fling open and the Ghost quickly barreled towards him. Atticus ran as fast as his legs would carry him, but it wasn’t enough. The Jack bounded down the hall and caught up to him in almost instantly.
Atticus knew he couldn’t outrun the assassin, at least, not naturally. He’d have to debilitate him in some way. The speed at which the assassin ran couldn’t be easy to control, Atticus thought, and as a result it should be pretty easy to trip him up. It was a stretch, but he had to go with it.
As they ran, he felt The Jack graze his collar and Atticus collapsed to the ground like a little ball. Luckily enough, Atticus’ plan worked out, and The Jack tripped over him, sending him toppling to the ground. Atticus felt a sharp pain in his back, but he was much too afraid to let it stop him. The assassin, on the other hand, fell head first into the wall.
Swiftly, Atticus jumped back up and dashed down a different hallway. He tried to remember which way lead up and out of the basement, but he was so completely lost in the darkness. He made a quick look over his shoulder and heard the Ghost in the distance bellow in rage. Atticus used his little bit of time to try and find a hiding spot as best he could, but there wasn’t much to work with. The halls felt like they literally trailed on forever.
Finally, he found a room deep in the halls. Atticus looked behind him and The Jack was nowhere in sight. He slipped into the room and closed the door behind him as fast as he could. The room looked to be a storage room of some kind. Boxes and crates were stacked on top of one another into giant mounds, containing what looked like tools and mechanical supplies, and tables were littered with other smaller cardboard boxes, which Atticus could only assume contained more tools and such. And it was dark. Never in Atticus’ life had he been more excited to hide in the dark.
He huddled himself into a corner behind a mountain of crates and waited. He didn’t know what he waiting for, or for how long; he just waited. It felt like an eternity. His heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest, and he didn’t think he’d be able to get enough air into his lungs. Never in his life had Atticus felt more hopeless and more afraid.
He waited in the darkness for only about five minutes before he heard the door creak open. Slow footsteps echoed through the room.
Atticus wasn’t going to let the assassin get him without a fight. Maybe, just maybe, he could catch him off guard, knock him out, and get away; or maybe that would get him killed. Either way, he wasn’t going to just sit around. But, he had to be patient. He needed to wait until the Ghost wasn’t expecting it.
The footsteps continued, but eventually they stopped and Atticus heard the door click shut. The Ghost was still in the room. He knew it, but Atticus had to be sure. He peaked through a small crack in the crates and saw that the room was empty. He feared that maybe The Jack was also hiding, trying to lure him into a false sense of security.
He waited a few minutes. Still nothing.
Atticus slowly peaked his head over the crates and looked around in full view. His eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, and while it was still tough to see details, it was much easier to see the big picture. There was no one. Atticus was completely alone. He stood up and climbed over the crates, but then he felt something around his neck.
Something began strangling him, and Atticus instantly started panicking. He reached out and felt something holding him, but there was nothing there. Then, Atticus felt himself getting lifted up and hurled across the room, sending boxes, crates, and their innards flying everywhere.
He gripped his neck, gasping for breath as he tried to clamber to his feet. Atticus looked all around, but there was no one in the room.
But from the darkness, Atticus saw a bright green light coming from the darkness. It was almost blinding from being in the darkness for so long, but he recognized it. It was the same light from his dream: The Jack of Clubs.
As the light filled the room, Atticus saw the assassin begin to materialize out of thin air. He looked at the man’s hand, and then up to his piercing green eyes, his face still masked by his hood.
“There’s no need to hide your face anymore,” Atticus said. “I know it’s you, Detective McCloud.”
The assassin let out a sinister laugh. He removed his hood and just as Atticus had said, standing before him draped in his ghastly cloak, was the detective he’d so looked up to.
“Well done, lad,” McCloud said with his crooked grin. “You’re smarter than I thought.”
Atticus was at a loss for words. “I don’t understand. What’s going on?”
“So many questions that don’t matter anymore,” he said. “The only thing that you need to do now is to give me that locket.”
Atticus reached into his pocket and gripped his locket tightly. It was what started it all, and for just a moment, he wished he’d never gotten involved at all. He pulled it from his pocket and dangled it by the chain.
“This locket,” he said, “was a gift from my parents. Why does it have the mark of Mekanile as you said?
McCloud scoffed under his breath. “Why? Why do you think? Because your parents were the leaders of the Mekanile!”
“If that’s true,” Atticus said, “then what happened to them?”
“Simple, lad,” McCloud said. “I killed them.”
Atticus felt his heart sink. He couldn’t believe what he’d heard. He wanted to believe it was all a dream and that he’d wake up any minute. McCloud couldn’t have been telling the truth, but there was no denying it. He was awake, and he’d finally found the answer he’d been looking for.
“I hate to be the bad guy here,” McCloud taunted, “but the lockets are the rightful property of Zebulon. I was just doing my job.”
“So you killed my parents? And Mike?”
“One at a time,” McCloud smiled and said. “Pearl tried to convince him to throw it away. She said it was cursed, possessed by a ghost or some nonsense. But, the boy wasn’t a believer; so I had to make him one. Do you think it worked?”
Atticus couldn’t believe how little McCloud cared about killing someone. He thought the man had some morality, but there were a lot of things Atticus apparently didn’t know about the detective. He felt so betrayed. All this time, he’d looked up to the man as a hero, and now he’d come face to face with the man who’d taken his parents.
He’d never felt more enraged in his entire life. The entire time, he’d believed his parents had gone missing. His whole life he’d planned to attend university, become a detective, and find where his parents had vanished. But now he had his answer.
McCloud held out his hand. “Now, give me the locket so I don’t have to kill you too, lad.”
“You can’t kill me,” Atticus said. “You said it yourself: you have orders to keep me alive.”
McCloud shrugged and said, “I may not be able to kill you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t leave you on Death’s doorstep.” McCloud took a step forward. “Now give me the locket, Whaelord.”
Atticus was silent. He looked down at the locket in his hand and told himself: No matter what happened, he would never give it up. He slipped it back into his pocket.
“If you want it McCloud, you’ll need to take it from me.”
McCloud shook his head in disgust. “Don’t try and act so brave, lad. I know how much of a scared little brat you are.” Atticus didn’t say a word. “I saw how quickly you fled from me when I found you in the theater. You froze in terror every time my gaze met yours!”
“It’s always scarier when you don’t know the answer,” Atticus said. “Just like the dark. Once you know what’s inside, it’s not as scary.”
McCloud sneered and said, “You think you know what lurks in the dark, lad? You have no idea.” He held up his right hand and the Jack of Clubs glowed a bright green. “So say I, the Jack of Clubs!”
Just then, before Atticus’ eyes, McCloud began to slowly disappear, almost as if the darkness was bending around him, starting from his hands and feet until he was completely invisible.
A cold hand gripped Atticus’ collar and pinned him back to the wall. McCloud began to savagely beat him into a bloody pulp, and Atticus was completely powerless to stop him. He wasn’t a fighter to begin with, but when he couldn’t even see his opponent, he was in even worse shape. Whenever he tried to raise his arms to defend himself, or struggle away, McCloud was able to strike where he least expected. Atticus tasted blood in his mouth; and with every blow, he felt the air rushing out of his lungs.
McCloud let go, and Atticus collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. Everything around him was spinning.
“Save yourself the struggle, lad,” the detective said. But, Atticus didn’t listen. He slowly began staggering to his feet, but McCloud kicked him right back down. “You’re pathetic. At least your parents put up a fight.”
Atticus felt a knot form in his stomach. Normally, he would have felt afraid and perhaps even ashamed, but this time was different. Atticus was enraged, and he was ready to burst. He climbed up to his feet and grabbed hold of a long jagged slab of wood from one of the broken crates. McCloud kicked him back down, but that was exactly what Atticus wanted.
As soon as McCloud connected with him, Atticus hurled the slab as hard as he could where he knew the detective stood. A loud and satisfying “thunk,” rang through the room, and Atticus heard McCloud topple over and fall to the ground, reappearing for just a flash.
Grabbing another plank, Atticus bolted up to his feet, his new weapon at the ready. McCloud reappeared again, and Atticus saw a long bloody gash on the side of his head. He was dazed, and Atticus took that as a perfect opportunity to go on the offensive.
He channeled all of his rage and anger, lunging forward and striking the detective. After the first blow, he let out a second. Then a third. The rush of adrenaline kept him going. At first, it was a bit scary. Atticus felt he was losing all control, and he thought that he might actually kill McCloud. But then his rage grabbed hold and reminded him: “This man killed Mike! This man killed your parents! This man has caused you so much pain, and he deserves to die!”
Atticus didn’t let up. He was so overwhelmed with rage, nothing would’ve stopped him. However, McCloud was much tougher than Atticus gave him credit for. Despite his beating, McCloud was able to reach out and grab hold of Atticus’ weapon mid swing. It was then when Atticus saw the eyes of a true killer.
McCloud’s bright green eyes flared with more hate and more anger than Atticus ever thought possible. They were ruthless and looking at them, Atticus couldn’t believe that he ever believed the man to be kind or moral at all. His eyes were that of a caged beast, ready to lash out at its captors and devour them alive and screaming.
The assassin ripped the plank from Atticus’ hand, leaving him completely defenseless, and then lunged forward, landing a vicious punch to Atticus’ nose. The pain was so intense that it almost caused Atticus to pass out. He held on, but barely. His vision was fuzzy, and now he’d only made the beast inside McCloud angrier.
McCloud then throttled Atticus with his left hand, making it nearly impossible for him to breath. He then let loose punch after punch to the boy’s face, leaving it bloodied and horribly bruised. Atticus felt his nose break and his left eye almost completely swell shut. Despite being in complete darkness, he saw flashes after every blow.
When McCloud was finally done pulverizing him, he dragged Atticus’ near unconscious body to the table at the center of the room, pinning him to it. Atticus could barely see anything, but he saw the fire burning in McCloud’s eyes and he knew that McCloud could see the terror and hopelessness in his own. The detective cocked back his right arm and the Jack of Clubs began to glow bright green.
McCloud sneered, blood trickling down his face. “You will beg for death!”
Just as he was about to strike, a laugh filled the room. Atticus thought he was going crazy, but he recognized the maniacal cackle of the Gray Man from his dream. But apparently, McCloud could hear the laugh as well, and it looked like it scared him far more than it did Atticus.
The detective’s hands began to tremble; his eyes lost their rage fueled flame. “M-Master?”
As the laugh subsided, Atticus’ Queen of Spades began to glow a bright and violent blue. Atticus wasn’t sure what was going on or why it was acting up on him again, but whatever the reason, it saved his life.
“Y-You’re a Gambler,” McCloud stammered.
Atticus didn’t know what he meant, but before McCloud could regain his senses, a dark body tackled into him and brought the assassin toppling to the ground. Atticus rolled off the table, gasping for air. He couldn’t believe he was still alive. His face was bloody and his whole body ached, but that didn’t matter.
Then, another shadow appeared in front of him; a girl wearing a pink dress: Camila.
“A-Atticus,” she said. She looked on the verge of tears.
He didn’t know what to say to her. He wanted to say he was alright, but that was obviously a lie. He wanted to reassure her that, yes, it was him, but his mind didn’t have time for jokes.
“H-How’d you two find me,” he asked.
“We’ll share stories later,” Brock shouted. He weaseled his way out of McCloud’s grasp and ran up to help Camila bring Atticus to his feet. Together, the three fled the room, but Atticus could hear McCloud let out another wail of anger. A wave of adrenaline rushed through him, and despite all of his injuries, he was able to pull his own wait in the escape, not having to rely on Camila and Brock carrying him.
Camila lead the way, thanks to her incredible memory. She was able to guide them perfectly through the basement. They didn’t make any attempts to try and shake McCloud; they simply made a mad dash to the exit. Every now and again, Atticus would peak over his shoulder and make sure McCloud wasn’t on their tail, but in doing so, he accidentally ran past his friends and bumped head first into a strange man standing within the darkness.
At first, Atticus feared that it was McCloud who’d somehow gotten in front of them, but thankfully that was not the case. Instead, standing before them was a man with jet black hair wearing a long black and white leather trench coat, black gloves, and a pair of dark sunglasses. Despite getting bumped into, the man didn’t seem to notice the three kids, almost as if he was specifically waiting for Detective McCloud.
“W-Who are you,” Atticus asked.
The man looked down at Atticus and smiled, but before he could say anything, McCloud arrived and froze in terror.
“I-It can’t be,” McCloud said. “You’re dead! I killed you!”
“Long time, McCloud,” the man said. The card shark pushed past the three, putting himself between them and the detective. “Perhaps Zebulon needs a new assassin.”
McCloud gave a sly smile and the Jack of Clubs began to glow. “Well, alive or dead, it doesn’t matter. It looks like I’ll just have to bury you personally this time.”
His body began to disappear just like before, and Camila let out a loud gasp.
Brock looked at Atticus and said, “H-He has a mark just like you!”
“Yeah, I’m aware,” he said.
Camila looked at the two. “J-Just like you?”
“Be quiet,” the card shark shouted. His gaze was unwavering. “McCloud is just a one trick pony. Once you know his trick, he isn’t so scary.”
The card shark took a step back and made a quick jab forward. To Atticus and the others, it looked like a shot in the dark, but a thud was heard along with a squeal of pain from McCloud. He began to reappear, blood streaming down his nose as he backed away.
Then, the card shark reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked to be a metallic playing card. “I wonder McCloud,” he said, “are you a fan of card tricks?”
With a flick of his wrist, the man shot the card straight at McCloud. With perfect precision, the card spun through the air and slashed the detective’s left eye. McCloud let out a blood curdling scream and staggered back, glaring viciously glaring at the card shark with his one good eye. His hands were plastered to his injury.
The card shark snapped his fingers and the bloodied card behind McCloud began to wobble before soaring through the air back into the card shark’s hand.
“I’ll take that as a no.” The card shark flicked his wrist again and fanned out four new cards behind the first. “I’ve been practicing for this very moment, McCloud. Do you like it?”
“You’re just lucky,” McCloud growled. Blood continued to drip down his face as he backed into the darkness. “Next time, I’ll kill you and make sure you stay dead.” The Jack of Clubs shined brightly on his hand as he disappeared into the darkness. Though he was invisible, the blood dripping from his eye left a feint trail through the hall.
The three students stood in awe of the strange man who’d just saved them from the two-faced assailant.
The card shark slipped the cards into his pocket and turned to face the three. He smiled and asked, “Are you kids alright?”
“I guess,” Atticus said. He looked to his friends who looked just as confused as he was.
“Who are you,” Camila asked.
The man adjusted his sunglasses. He then reached into his coat and pulled out a necklace with a pendant that revealed two overlapping gears.
“Mekanile,” Atticus said.
“That’s correct. I am the captain of The Mekanile,” the man said. “My name is Ace.”
“W-What do you mean ‘Captain’ of the Mekanile,” Atticus asked.
Ace smirked and slid the necklace back into his coat. “The Mekanile, Atticus,” he said, “is a ship.”
“Hold on, what’s going on,” Camila shouted. “What’s with all the cards? Why did McCloud want to kill Atticus? And what’s with the mark on his hand?” She turned to Atticus and said, “Why did Brock say ‘Just like you?’”
Ace held up his hand and said, “Hush now, young lady. Too many questions can fluster someone.” He turned to Atticus “Why don’t you answer her question first.”
Atticus didn’t feel comfortable showing Camila his Queen of Spades, but he figured that she deserved to know. He held out his hand and the mark appeared, glowing a bright blue.
Camila was in shock. She held her own hands to her chest and she looked like she looked like she’d just seen a ghost.
Brock chimed in and said, “Hey Atticus, do you think your Queen can heal your face a bit?”
Atticus smiled. “It’s worth a shot.”
He placed his hand to his nose and the Queen of Spades began glowing. At first, he didn’t feel anything, but then Atticus felt a sensation like none he’d ever imagined. The cartilage in his nose began to pop and crackle back into place, his eye swelling began to dwindle down, and the color began to return to his face. But, it’d exhausted him almost as much as restoring the automaton did.
Atticus nearly collapsed, but Ace caught him. “Careful there, son. Using your power too much without understanding it can really take it out of ya.”
Atticus looked up and suddenly he realized that he still knew nothing about the man and shook himself out of his grip. “Enough beating around the bush,” he shouted. “What is this mark, and why do I have it?”
“That, kid,” Ace said, “is a Gambler’s Crest: a magical mark that grants its user phenomenal power depending on the face it represents.”
“Magic?” Atticus normally didn’t believe in the supernatural, but looking down at his Queen of Spades, knowing that it could magically repair broken objects, as well as thinking about McCloud’s Jack of Clubs turning him invisible, magic didn’t seem quite so farfetched.
“Yeah, magic,” Brock said. “That makes sense. Now, why don’t you explain to us why McCloud wanted to Kill Atticus.”
“That is not something we should discuss here,” Ace said. “Besides, Atticus can explain it to you just as well as I could.”
“What? No, you have to answer my questions,” Atticus ordered. “If you’re really with Mekanile-”
“Don’t worry, Atticus,” the man said. “We will meet again. Of that, I know for certain. But for now, I need you three to get out of here.” And then, with the snap of his fingers, a flash of light blinded the three. Then, when they came too, the man was gone and they were huddled together within the custodial closet.
The three arrived back at the cafeteria just as the chaos was beginning to disperse. Police officers and paramedics had arrived on the scene, helping those who were injured as well as questioning those in good condition. Atticus half expected to see Detective McCloud on the scene.
A group of officers asked the three to take a seat and wait for permission to leave, and they figured it would be best not to argue. None of them said anything for a long while. They just waited in silence for the storm to blow over.
Despite getting the tar beaten out of him, Atticus saw that Camila looked the worst of the bunch. She kept looking at Atticus’ hands and then back at her own. His mark had long vanished, but she kept staring.
“Hey, are you gonna be okay,” Atticus asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she said weakly.
He reached out and held her hand in his. He didn’t know why he did it, but it felt like the right thing to do. Hers was so much colder than his own.
“I need you to promise me that you won’t tell anyone about it, okay?”
She nodded, blood rushing to her cheeks. “Of course.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Y’know, I still owe you a movie.”
Camila laughed and gave him a smile. “That sounds wonderful.”
A week passed since the charity event, and for the most part, everything went back to normal. Classes went on as scheduled and students went on with their normal lives. Atticus had explained to Brock and Camila what happened with McCloud and how Zebulon wanted his locket. He tried to explain everything as best he could, but he still didn’t have all the information, so there were plenty of questions they all shared.
Professor Varnum had long since disappeared from the school. According to police reports, the professor confessed to being Mike Nelson’s killer and then staging the whole event in a desperate attempt to further his career. He refused to give the names of any accomplices. An interview with the Las Vegas police said that Detective McCloud saw the professor fleeing from the scene during the charity event and quickly apprehended him. Unfortunately, in the scrap, the detective suffered a terrible injury to his eye.
The paper also mentioned Atticus by name. Apparently, McCloud had cited him as a critical factor in discovering Varnum’s identity. “Without Whaelord,” McCloud was quoted, “the murder would’ve, without a doubt, gone unsolved.”
A rather back handed comment, Atticus thought. The murder wasn’t solved. McCloud was the real killer, and he got to walk away scot-free; Varnum simply took his place. But all that being said, Atticus had never been more popular at school. His peers praised him as a real detective. Even popular students like Justin Drasken heralded him as a hero. No matter where he went on campus, students would always stop and talk to him like he was some sort of school celebrity.
Everybody thought everything was wonderful, except for Atticus. He’d solved the mystery, but he couldn’t expose the truth. The only who actually knew the truth were he, Brock, and Camila and none of them had the authority to claim McCloud was the real killer.
However, somethings did get brighter. Atticus and Camila finally got to see their movie together. In fact, the two had seen a lot of each other since the incident. The two had study sessions nearly every day after class. Of course, they didn’t need to study, but it made a good excuse to see one another.
One night, as Atticus lay asleep, he had a familiar dream. He was back in the nothingness. It was completely silent, and he was alone. He began to fear what he might see. He feared that he’d get another vision and see one of his friends getting attacked by McCloud, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, it was much worse.
Again, he heard the rustic squeak of the bike chain. He looked all around, but there was no sign of the Gray Man anywhere. He wanted to run, but he held himself back. He wasn’t going to be afraid of a dream ever again, he told himself. He’d fought, and almost got killed by, Detective McCloud; there was nothing his mind could do to scare him anymore.
He was wrong.
From the shadows of the abyss, the Gray Man appeared riding his old broken down bicycle. His appearance frightened Atticus more than it ever had before. Nothing about the man was different. He still had leathery gray skin and wore his ragged old tuxedo; but his cheshire grin and pure white eyes were even more awful. In the blackness, the man’s teeth and eyes were blinding.
“You’VE dONe well, mR. WhaELOrd.”
Atticus was frozen. His mouth went dry and he couldn’t even muster up a scream.
The man laughed his horrible cackle of a laugh. “HOw fuNNy! DEspITe EveRYthiNg you’VE bEeN ThrOuGH, facing mY favorite AsSAssiN, YOU sTIll cower BeFORe little oL’ ME.”
Hearing the man’s voice smacked some sense back into Atticus. “W-What do you mean your assassin? You mean McCloud?”
The Gray Man stared with his blank eyes; a gaze far worse than anything he’d experienced with McCloud. “ThaT iS ExACtlY WhAt i said, bOY. mCclOud woRKs fOR Me. I control hIm. i Give hIM every oRDer AND He foLLows without fAil.”
“Y-You’re The Master,” Atticus said. “The one he and the others all talked about.”
“It lOOks LiKE wE hAvE a wINNer,” the Gray Man said. “yeS, I aM the MAsTer oF ZeBUlon, aND SoOn, thE conQUeRoR oF tHIs mEASly WorLD.”
Atticus tried to force himself awake, but to no avail.
The Gray Man found that quite amusing. “WhAT’s tHe mATteR, BoY? You hAvE The GranD ArchITect of AlL Your PaIN BEforE yOU, aNd yoU doN’t Even wANT tO QUEstIon me? WhaT KINd of dETectiVe aRe yoU?” The man laughed, and then resumed. “ThiS IS yOuR head, AtTICus. You cALl thE Shots.”
“Shut up,” Atticus snapped. “You want questions? Fine! Tell me who you really are!”
The Gray Man hushed up and his smile faded. He hobbled off of his rusty old bicycle and stood, hunched over, on his own two feet. Then, dark purple light began to glow from the back of his hand. A Gambler’s Crest, Atticus remembered Ace had said, but he couldn’t make out the shape.
Then, the dark purple light changed into a familiar blue, and the shape on his hand became much more visible: The Queen of Spades. The darkness began to swirl around the man like smoke, and his wicked smile returned. His skin began to change from gray to a more human-like tan, and his greasy black groomed itself and changed to a pale blond. The tattered old tuxedo he wore transformed into a charcoal suit jacket with a black tie and vest. He also became much, much younger. Whereas before, he was ancient, afterwards he looked like he was in his early thirties. However, his blank white eyes and pearly grin remained exactly the same.
It was hard to believe the man standing before Atticus was the same Gray Man from before. He stood straight up, his posture was perfect. He had an aura about him that demanded the spot light. Atticus thought that if the man was in the circus, he’d have no trouble being the ringleader. But, there was something horribly familiar about him. Atticus recognized him from somewhere.
And then it dawned on him: he had seen the man before. He’d seen pictures of him in his history books and in the papers, and a large portrait of him hung in the Zebulon Headquarters.
“My name,” he said, “is Yliaster Zebulon.”
The man let out one final squeal of laughter and the dark smoke around him shot out and grabbed hold of Atticus. He tried to fight it off, but it dragged him deep into the abyss. For a moment, Atticus thought he might be trapped in his own dream and that waking up would be impossible. As the smoke dragged him deeper in deeper into the darkness, Atticus looked up and saw Yliaster staring down at him. He heard the words, “So Say I,” ring through the darkness and then everything went black.
Atticus thought he was dead, but luckily, he realized he’d just woke up face first in his pillow. He rolled over, his face covered in sweat, and looked over at Brock who was passed out on his bed. He continued to roll over onto his back and stare up at the ceiling. Yliaster Zebulon, the Gray Man called himself. It couldn’t have been the same Yliaster who founded the Zebulon Corporation, Atticus thought.
Regardless, Atticus couldn’t go back to sleep. His heart was racing too fast and his head was pushing out thousands of thoughts a second.
He snuck out of his dorm, making sure not to wake up Brock, and made his way back to Mike’s tree. He’d found his murder, like he’d promised, and he even got a little bit of insight about the lockets; but now another mystery was on his hands.
Finally, for the first time since Mike’s death, Atticus cried. He didn’t want to, he hated crying, but he just couldn’t help it. He’d lost one of his best friends to the man who he always thought was a great man. Not only that, but the same man was responsible for the disappearances of his parents. This entire time, he’d hoped that they just went missing and that one day he’d find them. He would be their hero.
Atticus sat down at the base of the tree and tried to dry his eyes. He tried to think of those who made him happy: Brock and Camila, Principal Shepard and Professor Banner; but then his mind began drifting off to Ace, the strange man who saved him and called himself the “Captain of the Mekanile.”
As he sat thinking, Atticus felt an all too familiar tug in his stomach. The sensation came from behind the tree.
Atticus bolted up to his feet. “Who’s there?”
“No need to be afraid, Atticus,” a voice said. “It’s just me.”
Atticus recognized the Voice. From the shadows emerged a man with a white trench coat and a pair of black sunglasses: Ace.
“W-What are you doing here?”
Ace smiled and said, “It’s been a while since our last meeting. I think now would be a good time to talk.”
Atticus nodded. “Good, because I have a lot of questions.”
“As one would imagine. Ask away.”
“First things first;” Atticus reached into his pocket and pulled out the locket. “Why does McCloud want this so badly?”
“Yes, the locket,” Ace said. His gaze shifted up to the sky. “Zebulon has plans, Atticus, to destroy everything we hold dear, and they need the lockets to do so.”
“And that’s why my parents founded Mekanile,” he said. “To stop them.”
Ace nodded and said, “Your parents gave up much, but they did it because they loved you. If Zebulon goes unopposed, then everyone will be at risk.”
Atticus thought that sounded too ridiculous to be true. Why would the Zebulon Corporation want to “destroy everything” like Ace said? And why would they need his locket?
“W-What’s Zebulon’s plan?”
“A little over ten years ago,” Ace said, “Zebulon developed the most powerful weapon to ever touch the Earth. It was the weapon that singlehandedly ended the Second World War: Bahamut, the Sky Ziggurat. They want to conquer the world, and using Bahamut, Zebulon will crush anyone who opposes them.”
“T-That can’t be true,” Atticus argued. “I can believe Zebulon wanting to create a monopoly over the entire world and rule that way, but you’re saying something right out of an adventure book.”
Ace raised his eyebrows. “I guess it does seem rather ridiculous. But, you’ve seen that Zebulon is not afraid of shedding blood.” He looked up at the tree. “They killed your friend, a child, all for a small trinket. Don’t underestimate the lengths they’ll go through to get what they want.” He turned back to Atticus. “They’ve been a political power for a long time, and now they’re ready to take everything by force.”
“Politicians do shady things all the time though,” Atticus argued. He lowered his head and felt tears begin to well up in his eyes. “You’re crazy; my parents were crazy. How could anybody believe such nonsense.”
Atticus felt Ace put his hand on his shoulder. “I understand, son. It does sound crazy. I didn’t want to believe it at first either, but when I-” His breath staggered for just a moment. “When I saw all the terrible things happen before my very eyes: My loved ones taken, innocent people slaughtered in cold blood, their attempts at playing God; I couldn’t stand by anymore.”
Atticus didn’t say anything.
Ace let out a sigh and said, “Give it sometime, Atticus. A good detective needs to learn it for himself.” He began to back away. “Despite me not making a sound, you knew I was behind you. How is that, Atticus?”
He shrugged. “I just felt it in my gut.
Ace removed his glove and held up his hand. “That’s because of your Gambler’s Crest. When you’re looking for another, they call out to each other.” As he spoke, the man’s had began to glow blue, just like Atticus’. On his appeared the Ace of Spades. Atticus felt his own hand tingle and he looked down to see his Queen glowing the same color. “Our crests are destined to come together in the end and, as such, they’ll attract us to other Gamblers nearby.”
Atticus stared down at the Queen of Spades. He’d had it for years and always wondered where it came from and why he figured was the best time to ask.
“Where did these come from?”
Ace looked down at his own mark, disgusted. “They were created by the mad man behind all of this,” he said. “Yliaster Zebulon.”
Atticus heard the laugh of the Gray Man in his head. “B-But, how is that possible?”
“That, Atticus,” Ace said, “is a story for another time.”
Atticus opened his mouth to argue, but he was shut down before he could start.
“Always remember, kid,” Ace said, “you’re a blood member of The Mekanile. We will look out for you. We’ll do our best to keep you safe.” He turned around and began to walk away. “You will always have allies in the sky.”
Atticus started to chase after the man, calling out to him and demanding more answers, but before he could catch him, a ladder fell from the sky directly in front of Ace. Atticus looked up and saw a small airship silently hovering overhead, the win gears of the Mekanile designed on the sides. Ace grabbed hold of the ladder and the ship began to soar away into the night.
As it ascended, Atticus saw a woman standing on the ship, looking down at him. She had short black hair and wore a pair of her own sunglasses as well as what looked like a red leather jacket. In the darkness it was hard to tell. When he looked at her though, he thought she looked incredibly familiar.
Just as the ship flew out of sight, Atticus realized that the woman on the ship was the same as the woman in his dream. She was the one who took the place of his mother and warned him about The Jack.
Atticus stood in awe at the base of Mike’s tree. He didn’t know how much was real and what was a dream. Everything sounded too ridiculous. Sooner or later, he was going to wake up in his bed and realized that all the bad things were just a dream. He was going to head to class and find Professor Varnum, grumpy and grouchy as always. Mike was still going to be alive, and McCloud wasn’t going to be looking to kill him, and his parents weren’t going to be the founding members of a pirate organization.
He put his hand on the tree, the Queen of Spades still glowing its bright blue. “It looks like I’ve got the biggest puzzle of my life ahead of me, Mike,” he said. “I wish you could be here to help me solve it.”
Atticus turned and made way back to his dorm and the Queen of Spades began to disappear.
When he got back to the dorm, he found Brock awake and waiting for him.
“Where’d you disappear to,” he asked. “It’s the middle of the night?”
Atticus smiled. “Who are you, my mother?”
The two laughed for a moment, and Atticus felt the weight lift off his shoulders. He made way to his bed and laid down.
“I met that Ace guy again,” he said.
“You mean that guy who scared off McCloud?”
Atticus nodded. “I think things are gonna get a lot more dangerous around here.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when it comes.” Brock laughed. “I got your back no matter what.”
Atticus blushed. Or the first time in what felt like an eternity, Atticus felt happy. He was ready for anything. He looked at his hand and summoned the Queen of Spades: his Gambler’s Crest.
“This mystery, pal, is just getting started.”
Atticus Whaelord, a Junior at the prestigious Fortuna Preparatory Academy, dreams of becoming a big name detective. However, one day after class, he gets thrust into a case far bigger than heâ€™d ever expected. With his friends at his side, Atticus needs to solve the murder of his classmate. But, he has a gift that no one knows about; the mysterious Queen of Spades that grants him the power to fix any broken object. Will Atticus bring the killer to justice? Or, will he get wrapped up in a conspiracy beyond his wildest imagination?