(17) The Anport Murder House

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My hand lands on my knife handle. Maplegrove is, unironically, the name of the run-down house in the woods occupied by a serial killer in a recent film flop; a cheesy Horror thing whose setting is creepier through sheer audience expectation than its actual storyline. Or so I've been told. I don't watch Horror movies. I'm not the only one to notice the name, though. Patrick retreats like a snail in its shell, and Calico J takes a step back. Ditzy's hand tightens on the handle of the flail that she is, of course, carrying.

Rather than jump us with a knife, Ember's expression turns wry. "It was supposed to be a joke. Shoes and Triptych took one look at the house and the rest is history. Now we can't get rid of the name."

My brain processes that sideways and latches onto the first part. "Is it still a joke?" I ask stupidly.

But Ember pauses for way too long. Oreo has tensed up, but says nothing as his co-leader finally runs a hand down her face. "We don't murder people. We've just had a... Sleeper incident recently. You know how those end."

When the Sleeper either dies or runs out of batteries and needs to rejoin the Redding network to recharge. Something prickles at the back of my mind, but I can't pin down what it is. So I say the next thing that comes to mind. "Are we safe here?"

"As safe as we can keep you," says Ember. It's exactly the kind of answer someone would give if they were actually from a murder house and I gave them such an easy opening to reassure me. I look around at my companions, but none of them are stepping up to help me here. Ditzy's been silent ever since we found Vix's body, and I would be more surprised if Patrick did speak than if he suddenly sprouted wings. I think Calico J took the Maplegrove not-a-joke harder than I did. He looks spooked.

I shouldn't be the one making this decision, on whether or not to trust this group now that we're actually here. We could still back out. I could turn around right now and tell my friends to get back in the car, that we were leaving and going back to Chesnet, but that irrational compulsion raises several rational ones in its stead. The first is that I shouldn't have that kind of authority. The second is that leaving now would be letting the whole group down, and especially Calico J. The third is that we still don't know what's wrong with Chesnet. Maybe it's familiar, but going back there without whatever knowledge this group holds might be the stupider decision in the end.

I can only just barely cling to the second of those thoughts. The longer I spend here, the louder the alarm bells in my head become, despite my feeble barricades. Nothing's happened to us yet. But standing there with a big black van on my left, my friends behind me, and the murder house with both its leaders in front, I make a decision. I discard Calico J's original motivation for meeting this group.

At least for myself. I'm not here to socialize. I never was, but acknowledging it feels different. I'm here to get information about Chesnet, and Calico J can do whatever he wants. I'm not going to pretend I'm letting that convince me to stay when the only things that are are the first and last reasons that just paraded across my mind.

Something about that resolution opens up new channels in my thoughts, like it's freed me to make other plans than the ones we're formally going along with. Patrick is still in the back of the car, within reach of the journal and phone still hidden there. I contemplate how to get a message to him to bring those with us, then realize we've all got precisely the skill for that. I never anticipated using Morse code to talk to my friends in secret in the driveway of another survivor group's murder house, but I'm flexible.

Calico J has opened up a little and is chatting with Ember now, both of them warming to the other as they do. I surreptitiously catch Patrick's attention. When I think I've got it, I tap a message on the side of the car. Bring phone and book. Keep hidden.

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