Chapter Five (Part One): The Missing Girl

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Just after midnight, the man known as Darren Cur double-locked the door to his room before checking on the girl lying unconscious on his cot. If he hadn't just checked her pulse, he might've thought she was dead. Her chest lay still and unmoving, her skin was cold and clammy; already, she was losing color in her child-like features. Darren sighed and felt the glass vial hidden in his overcoat's breast pocket. A solution he'd picked up from some backstreet witch in the slums of Orangetown. It was one he hoped he'd never have to use, despite the witch's insistence that "It works perfect, dear. Just a drop and she's all yours."

Suddenly, there came a sharp rapping at his room door. Darren's hand instinctively flew to his revolver, but relaxed when he heard the second rap. Then a pause of twelve seconds. Two raps in quick succession. A pause. A final rap. Darren slipped open the door and Bonnie stormed in, ragged and out of breath. She did a double take when she saw the girl, but visibly calmed when Darren showed her the vial. Then she flared up again.

"Stars, Darren, what were you thinking using that? Who knows what kind of poison went into making that thing?"

"No choice." The man gestured toward the girl. "She almost got away."

Bonnie sighed and rubbed her eyes. They both sat at the foot of his narrow bed and took turns staring at the wall. The wall was there.

"You look gross," said Bonnie, to no one in particular. Darren looked at her and she stuck her tongue out at him.

"Feel grosser."

"Then that makes two of us." She covered his hand with hers. It was warm. Alive.

Darren looked over the woman he loved. Tall, lanky, and pale, Bonnie Blue might have been the perfect personification of a birch tree had she not been born with the bright shock of pink hair that exploded from her head. Dark bags now gathered under her eyes, and her frame drooped with exhaustion. She looked how he felt, Darren realized. And for good reason. It had been a tremendously long day.

They should never have gone to the ball.

The girl had insisted that they go, stars know why. She said she would die if they didn't. She even threatened to scream. Finally, Bonnie relented. "Half an hour," she said. "You can go for half an hour. Any longer and I'll drag you back myself, you hear?" The girl was overjoyed. Darren hadn't seen her so happy in all the time they'd been together. "But remember, no dancing. No one can know you were there."

The girl didn't care. She didn't know how to dance anyhow. Darren picked out a dress for her from his collection, and she twirled and posed in front of her small handheld mirror. It was dark blue and modest, elegant enough to fit in, quiet enough to escape attention. "I don't like this, Bonnie," he said as she painted the girl's face in dull, fleshy tones.

Bonnie finished touching up the girl's eyeliner before turning to Darren and pecking him on the cheek. "It'll be fine. She's a kid. She needs to get out now and then, do kid things. This'll be good for her."

Later, at the ball. The girl didn't know where to look, it was all so fantastic. Ladies and gentlemen dipped and swooned in the starlight of the chandelier, silhouetted between trees and the smoky air. Darren trailed her, keeping to the darkened edges of the room, his eyes darting between the intoxicated dancers. He watched as the girl beelined for the refreshments stand and began the process of piling a plate precariously high with cucumber sandwiches. He smiled. Not wanting to risk the dining hall, the three of them had only nibbled at Darren's supply of crumbly cheese and crusty bread earlier.

Suddenly, a commotion from the crowd. "Monster!", cried an older woman in a dirt-stained pink dress. She pulled away, colliding with the girl in the process and sending her cascading into the table. Punch and cucumbers scattered every which way.

"Watch your mouth, hag!" retorted a man in the crowd.

The crowd grew still, all eyes drawn on the pair. Eyes all too close to the girl. Just Darren's luck. Before he could decide how to extract her from the situation, however, some old buffoon in an outrageous blue suit intervened. Darren couldn't hear the words exchanged, but they couldn't have been worth the immediate escalation by the cowlicked monster. He pounced on the old man like an animal, and everyone stood in shocked silence as the two wrestled to the tempo of the string band.

Seeing his opportunity, Darren moved to grab the girl. But before he could get close, he was interrupted by an iron-cold grip on his shoulder. He spun around, hand on his holster, before coming face to face with a stone-faced Attendant.

"Sir. Could I have you for a moment?"

Something told Darren it wasn't a question. He eyed the Attendant warily, eyes darting from him to the girl and back again. Great timing. "There's a fight," Darren said dully.

"So there is." His grip on Darren's shoulder tightened. "I need to speak with you. Privately. Please, right this way, sir."

As the Attendant steered Darren toward the exit, he stole a last glance at the girl and the fight behind her. A massive woman had inexplicably stepped into the ring, and held the monster off the ground with one hand. And behind her, deep in the crowd, just for a second, Darren thought he saw the hint of a black bowler hat.

And then it happened.

Not many people saw the old woman trip and fall, splitting her head against the gnarled roots of the room's centermost tree. But everyone saw what happened next. The tree, which until that moment, stood dormant and desiccated, began to shake and writhe. Its barren branches trembled, and from them erupted dandelion-like pods. As if choreographed, the pods all exploded at once, their contents saturating the air with dazzling white flakes.

In seconds, every person and square inch of the room became covered in the snow-like substance. The flakes smelled sulphuric, and itched on skin contact like a strong acid.

A bone chilling scream echoed throughout the chamber, it twisted and rasped and scraped against the insides of Darren's guts. He realized with a start that it had come from the girl. She was kneeled over, clawing at her back with both hands, chest heaving erratically. Another awful scream. Darren tried to rush to her but the Attendant tackled him to the ground with greater power than his frame would suggest.

Nobody seemed to notice the girl. The old woman was catching "snow" on her tongue. Everyone else stood frozen, dull faces angled upward, staring at something Darren couldn't see. Almost everyone. There was one who moved through the crowd, flashes of her black bowler hat appearing like a shark fin out of the water as she closed in on her prey.

Finally, the woman stopped to stand in front of the girl, arms outstretched and a smile plastered on her pallid face. Darren could only watch, horrified, as the girl slowly rose from her trance and faced the woman. "Mama!", she cried, and ran to embrace her.

"It's okay, sweetie," the woman cooed, "I've got you. You're safe now." She looked at Darren and smiled. "Come on, let's get out of here. I won't let that bad man won't hurt you anymore.

Darren struggled, but the Attendant had him pinned like a butterfly collection. "No! Don't let her take you! You have to resist!"

"I beg your pardon, sir, but I'd like to talk now, if you're able." With near herculean strength, the Attendant lifted Darren off the ground and slammed him down so hard the marble cracked. For a moment, his vision went black, and dots swam around the periphery. The Attendant reared up, one eye glinting evilly in the snow-distorted light. 

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