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“You knew Aunt Grace?” Jay asked, surprised. This time it was his turn to grimace when the stranger gave him a surprised once-over. “She was my great-aunt on my mother’s side.”
The young man’s expression cleared, a fondness crossing it that gentled his features. “I, uh, I knew Miss Grace,” he agreed, hands folded in front of himself, fingers squeezing together. His dismal tone was somewhat at odds with the crisp way he enunciated his words—at least, those he managed to get out between his stammering. “I’d say. Er, well. Everyone… everyone knew Miss Grace. S-she was one of a kind.”
Jay thought back to her gregarious way of including him in the conversation always, when all the other older relatives just wanted to talk about adult things, and nodded. “She was,” he said quietly. “I take it you know about her disappearance?”
Ducking his head, the young man made a face again. “I, uh, think all her neighbors did,” he said. “Everyone here… everyone here’s got someone watching out for them, but, uh, it’s a bit. Uh. Cliquey? Families here go back a long way,” he added. “Lots of old grudges and, uh, disagreements. Miss Grace, she, uh, she floated over that. J-just about everyone kept an eye on her. Shame it, uh. It didn’t help.”
Jay swallowed around the old grief at those words. “I’m glad she had a place in the community here,” he said. “That must have made her happy. She’d have been really delighted to know one of her neighbors came by. I don’t know that I’ll be much of a replacement, but she willed this place to me, so, um, if you can pass the word on to others, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up if they see the lights on, like you.”
“Willed it, huh.” The visitor dwelled on the implications of that for a moment, then shook his head, offering a hand. “I’m Camden Douglas.”
Jay took it, shaking that soft, broad-fingered hand. It was chilly to the touch, and Jay momentarily thought of the cold fall air outside and pondered inviting Camden in, but—well, he’d just met the man, and the place was a mess anyway. “Jay,” he said. “Jay Park.”
“Jay,” Camden repeated. He let his hand drop, then tucked it back into his other one, rubbing them together as if sharing the warmth of Jay’s hand between them. “Sorry I, uh, didn’t bring a proper housewarming gift.”
“Oh, jeez,” Jay blurted. He gave Camden an awkward smile. “There’s no need to, honestly. Aunt Grace was a bit of a hoarder; I don’t know where I’d put something if you did.”
Camden frowned. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’ll, uh, think of something, I’m sure.” Then he smiled, the expression lightening his face again. “I’ll, I. Uh. I’ll try to pass the news on, but, uh. Like I said, lots of people here don’t talk to certain other folks. And even so, it’ll, uh, take time. You’ll probably get, uh, other gawkers. B-but, uh, it won’t last too long, I’m sure.”
“It’s fine,” Jay hastened to assure Camden. “If everyone’s as nice about it as you, it won’t be a problem.”
Camden blinked at him, then flushed, going red from his ears down to his neck. “H-Have a good night, Jay,” he stammered, and turned to leave.
Jay watched him go, gaze shifting from those broad, soft shoulders to the driveway that he was slouching down. Although the house was somewhat set back in a wooded area, Jay could see several of the surrounding houses between the spindly trees. It was a bit of a surprise that someone had been able to see the lights on in the afternoon, but if they’d noticed his car first, it would have been easy enough to see.
And then the pizza delivery truck pulled up and he pushed those uneasy thoughts from his mind.
When he was finished eating, he slid the box into the newly-cleaned refrigerator and pondered what to do next. He’d barely gotten started on the bedroom, he knew, but he couldn’t stop thinking about that office.
Well, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look on his way back to the bedroom, he decided. It’d probably be a good idea to at least assess what was there—if she’d wanted to keep an 8-year-old from messing around in there, some things might be old or valuable, and it’d be worth knowing for when he talked to the antique store tomorrow. Besides, if anywhere in this house was likely to have any paperwork of hers that he should get filed away properly, it was there.
Thus decided, he headed back up and took the door into the office immediately.
It was tidier than he’d expected from the other areas of the house—though that only by comparison. Her shelves were stacked full of books, some on their side and some double-shelved, and while plenty of them were the popular paperbacks and mystery novels Jay remembered her reading, many more were clearly antiques, leather-bound and more. One that caught his eye even appeared to be bound in some sort of novelty gold snakeskin. He brushed fingers over that in bemusement, just to feel the texture.
Pulling away from that, he turned toward her enormous desk that dominated the center of the room. Grace used to be a journalist, he recalled, and the heavy old desktop computer that sat on top of the section containing her old roll-out typewriter attested to that. This too was a mess, covered in scraps of notes in Grace’s handwriting that he couldn’t make heads or tails of, just words and phrases clearly meant to jog her memory that meant nothing to him, beyond the word ‘Dream’ repeating throughout there. Sea dream. Library dream. Sand dream. Perhaps she’d been writing down the stories she used to tell, he thought. The scraps were weighed down by that old sword in the stone paperweight-and-letter-opener he’d remembered, and he indulged himself by drawing it out once before putting it back in.
Whatever documentation she had was likely in the desk instead. He pulled at a drawer, then frowned as it wouldn’t move. Neither did the next one, nor either of the ones beneath them. All locked, he realized, and glared down at them for a moment.
Grace’s drawer keys were nowhere in sight.
He gave them another few hopeful jiggles, then sighed, getting up to do another brief circuit of the room in the hopes he’d spot them. Well, he reassured himself, they had to be somewhere; if not here, perhaps she kept them in her bedroom. If she’d bothered to lock things away, it wouldn’t make sense to keep the keys with the lock.
As Jay made his circuit, he glanced out the window in passing—then froze, doing a double take. Down below, not right by the house or even on the property, but a small ways back among the trees, was a person, visible even in the darkening shadows, their pallid face staring up at the window he was looking out of, unmoving.
For a moment, they stared at each other, and Jay felt his skin crawl at how the person out there didn’t change expression. It was like they were wearing a plain white mask—and once he thought it, Jay began to convince himself that it was the truth. That whoever was out there was wearing a mask.
And then they turned to go, beginning to walk briskly back into the woods, and Jay let himself breathe again, heart pounding.
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