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Something Wicked 2.0 - STORY THREAD


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Hank set the book down, took out his phone and snapped a quick picture.   This seemed like a practical joke.  He did a second quick search through the box to make sure the key to the clasp wasn't in there, wanting to be thorough.      Still, he had no idea who could have left it for him, but sent the picture in a group message to Jo, Ben, and Roach.  "This was waiting for me when I got home, nobody knows how it got here.   No key to the lock.   Any ideas on getting it open without damaging it?  Did any of you get a strange surprise too?"

He hit send, and left the book and box there, going back to cooking dinner.   After he finished, he'd have more time to devote to this new mystery.

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Jo tensed at the electric, enticing touch, taut with worry for her dog, concern that she might be lost, and an almost guilty arousal. Those incredible eyes were almost level with her own and she couldn't decide if they belonged to someone who might have been the most handsome or the most beautiful person she'd ever seen. She felt a flush rise to her cheeks and her mouth go dry.

Banner was a big dog. Kangal Shepherds were bred to chase off wolves, and she'd heard they been exported to Africa to fend off cheetahs and lions. But this was a bear, and while Black Bears weren't the biggest, this one had at least twice the mass of Banner. It felt wrong that she was practically quivering, thrumming, at the touch, that voice, when her dog was in danger.

Breaths still coming in short, sharp gasps thanks to the stitch in her side from running after Banner, Jo dragged her eyes back to her dog, trying to stay still as she'd been suggested, while looking for a rock or heavy stick to defend Banner and scare off the bear.

"Banner ain't no bear," Jo said, voice shaky with the effort of staying calm and... other things. "Just big. Can yah help me get him back 'fore he finds out he ain't as big as he thinks he is?" Hands knotting into fists, she called out, trying to sound casual rather than frantic, but there was an edge to her tone. "Banner. Back. Banner. Come."

The big girl glanced back to the uncanny stranger, even as she mentally urged Banner to her side. "Sorry if Ah'm trespassin', Ah reckon Ah got turned about some chasin' after my dog. If yah can help some, Ah'd be mighty grateful. Ah'm Jordan, most call me Jo."

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The person smiled slightly, "Bear, go, dog come to your master."  The bear with a huff, turned and lumbered back into the wood. Banner returned the huff and then cantered back to Jo.

"Do not try to follow the path back whence you came but follow the creek, it will lead you where you need to go. Be careful in the future Jordan, all that you meet in a wild wood may not be so agreeable."

 

Jordan who had crouched to make sure Banner was ok turned to the person and found that she was alone with only Banner for company. Banner was alright and unmarked and was even playful and not tired after the long hike. Jo thought it time to make her way home she turned to go back the way she had come but stopped. that person had given her a warning about the path, at least Jo felt that it had been a warning.

 

The lay before her open and inviting but a chill went down her spine then once again she herd the sound of the water running in the creek. That sound was soothing and she turned to faced it, looking off in the direction it flowed. "Seems to be going the right way," she said to Banner. She attached his leash and set off following the creek.

 

Jo and Banner followed the creek for about twenty minutes when suddenly it vanished into a low rock ridge, which Jo climbed expecting to se the creek on the other side instead  there was no creek but a few yards away was a low very old stone wall that was in terrible disrepair and was at least a hundred years old. a tope the old stone work someone had added a barbed wire fence which was in even worse condition with the rusted wire hanging. One one of the wires was a bent and rusted sign that read  NO TRESPASSING.

 

Jo knew where she was now. That wall and fence must be the eastern boundary of the Clairburn estate, and somewhere through all that tangle would be the Mansion, sitting in its overgrown cradle of unkept gardens. decaying, some say haunted, for almost a hundred years. At least she knew approximately where she was now and she figured she could find or make a trail back to Walsh road now.

 

That was when she heard it. Coming through the wood beyond the wall, a haunting note, carried on the wind. The sound of a violin.

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It was the bowing of a violin, not some trick on the wind. Blue eyes wide, Jo stared as she recalled the last time, the only time, she'd been on the Clairburn estate. It was last year, Halloween, after a party she'd gone to with Dex. It was a thing seniors did, after midnight, they snuck onto the Clairburn estate - there was a place where the wall had collapsed and you had a good view of the Mansion - drink, then dare each other to step inside the dilapidated mansion.

It was the first time she got drunk. She thought she was gotten drunk. The beer was gross, but the rum-and-coke was sweet, and she downed two of them quick. She was the only Freshman among the group of seniors, but she was taller than any of them, rocking her Wonder Woman costume, and with the warm tingle of alcohol in her, she wanted to prove to the older students she wasn't scared. And the way Dexter smiled at her...

Another rum-and-coke at the laughing encouragement of the other seniors, then she was stalking forward, shoulders squared, steps long and sure... but with each step forward, it felt like she was going slower, covering less distance. She made it to the fountain, choked with weeds and stagnant water, the stench almost bringing the alcohol back up. She grunted, swallowed acrid bile, and forced herself to continue, circling the fountain. 

She passed the fountain, there was an ominous creaking moaning, and beyond the blank, black windows, something moved, and before she knew it, she was back among the seniors, sweat cold on gooseflesh. The seniors, even Dexter, were laughing at her, but there was a wildness in their eyes and through the alcoholic haze, Jo noted none them had gone any further than--


Jo's phone chirped with a notification and she gave a start, shaking the memory away. Her brow furrowed as she glanced at the pic and the text.

<No. Maybe. OMW home. Talk later.>

Jo's jaw tightened stubbornly as she glared pass tumbled stone and rusty barbwire at the overgrown, abandoned Clairburn estate. It was just a violin. It wasn't even dark. Probably just a hobo or something. She could go back the way she'd come, though the... - huh, she'd never gotten his, her, their name - said not to follow the path back, or just follow the short wall back to the road, probably.

Or she could just cut across the Clairburn estate, prove there was nothing to be scared of - only a big house that a hundred percent at least one person had been murdered in - and practically be home. And see who was playing that violin. It would be good to find out if there was somebody, some stranger, skulking about, right? Might be a thief.

"Come on, Banner, we're doing some investigatin'," Jo said to her dog, but more to reassure herself.

Big girl and big dog moved down the wall some, finding a spot where it sagged low, tumbled stone sprawling in a fan, sagging posts making the barbwire dip low. Carefully, Jo reached forward, avoiding the barbwire, and wrapped a hand around a wooden post, then began to pull, a foot braced against the remnant of wall. Hard muscle swelled with effort, there was a low creak, then a muffled crack as dry, rotted wood broke free. Barbwire rustled against stone, but it was so rusty it left behind orangish streaks before it crumbled apart.

The way clear, Jo resolutely stepped pass the wall and onto the - probably not really haunted - Clairburn estate, wooden post in hand as an impromptu club, Banner's leash wrapped around her other wrist to keep him close to her side.

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Rochelle slipped into her home like a burglar, opening the door slowly and just enough to admit her slim silhouette through, then easing it shut behind her. She skulked across the living room, listening intently as she went. There was the sound and smell of something cooking, and perhaps a wooden spoon on a dish of some kind. Salad maybe. The TV in the big bedroom was on, she could hear it blathering from the far end of the hallway.

 

Then, "Rochelle?" A woman's voice from the kitchen. "Make sure the front door's closed this time and go wash up for dinner."

 

She grimaced. "It's shut. And I already ate."

 

There was a long-suffering sigh, then her mom said, "Well, go tell your father it's almost ready."

 

"Why? He won't get out of bed for it. You'll just have to take it to him aga..."

 

"...just go tell him. Fuck's sake, Rochelle, it's a simple thing! Just do it!"

 

"UGH! Fine!"

 

Roach stalked down the hall and banged on the door to the master bedroom.

 

"Dinner's almost ready. Mom forced me to tell you or whatever."

 

There was a pause, then she detected, under the televisions babble, the sound of a snore. Her heart shrank away from the sound of it. More and more this man felt like an imposter to her. A stranger with her dad's face. For a second she struggled with a sudden impulsive desire to go in there and shake him and slap him and demand that he come back, or tell her where her real dad was or...something. Anything.

 

But that was fantasy. Kid stuff. This was her dad, and this was her life. At least for a little while longer.

 

Roach looked back down the hall towards the living room and kitchen, then called, "He's asleep!" and quickly darted into her room, closing the door hard enough that her mom would hear the sound of it...with those ungodly superman-hearing ears of hers...so she wouldn't ask Roach for help or to take dinner to her dad or anything like that.

 

In the comforting cocoon of her bedroom, which only earned the title by virtue of the small bed shoved unceremoniously into a corner, as if an afterthought, she set her laptop up on one of the three desks that had been carted in over the years. Two were put next to each other along the long wall, and the third was pushed sort of caddy-corner to them on the short wall with a board covering the open 'corner space' between them. Tools and components littered the collective desk space, along with the gutted shells of two desktop computers. Two monitors were hooked to a third, non-gutted, desktop as well. Several of the drawers were open, showing that each had a collection of sorted screws or similar fastenings. Cables in neat bundles hung on nails, also sorted by size and type, adorned the walls where posters would usually go in a teenage girl's room.

 

She was just booting everything up to see about those weird pictures when the text from Hank came in:

 

"This was waiting for me when I got home, nobody knows how it got here.   No key to the lock.   Any ideas on getting it open without damaging it?  Did any of you get a strange surprise too?"

 

Roach rolled her eyes at that and typed, "Just the magic disappearing email sent from a website on a domain that doesn't exist covered with creepy kid faces, but no one seemed interested in that. But hey, cool box."

 

Then, as a grudging afterthought she added, "I can probably open it if you don't care what the lock looks like after I'm done."

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"Magic Email?  I didn't think anyone could put one over on you on any sort of electronics.   This is pretty crazy.   I can bring the book by tonight or if you want I can come get you and we can try to open it here  I would like to keep it mostly intact if possible."  Hank replied to Roach.

He went back to preparing dinner for everyone and his mother got home just as he finished.  The twins had set the table, and the four of them ate as a family.  Hank smiled, his mom looked beat, but she was thankful for how Hank took charge of things  at home.  Him being responsible let her worry less, about most everything, and was a big part of why she and his father gave him the lattitude they did.

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Jo

 

The girl and the dog pushed their way through a century of bushes, leaves, dead branches and undergrowth. What at one time had been the most glorious of estates, now an overgrown neglected jungle.

 

It was dusk and the light, what little filtered through, was weak and growing weaker. Banner was more subdued than he had been, whether from the encounter with the bear, or their location and destination, Jo couldn't tell.

 

They pushed on for what seemed longer than it should have been, sometime while they struggled the violin had stopped but Jo didn't even notice, she was sweating from the exertion, more now than she had when running, then they were through the wall of foliage and there looming was the back of the mansion.

 

The Clairburn Mansion had been built in 1887, in the Colonial Revival style of the time, it was, without a doubt, the largest most expensive and ostentatious home ever built in Union county and even in its dilapidated state, remains so to this day. The Clairburn's had been a wealthy family that had occupied the region since colonial days and had even in those early days been eccentric, haughty, and some would say degenerate.

 

During the revolution, Clairburn's had fought on both sides, with half the clan fleeing back to England after the war. The same happened during the civil war, with the divided loyalties being acrimonious at best and creating lasting hatreds that eventually led to the abandonment of the estate and the county by the Clairburn's in the early twentieth century amid a lurid scandal and bloody feud with another prominent family, the Walsh family. Tales of murder, suicide, incest, rape, and even witchcraft and devil worship were often associated with the long absent family, and of course the haunting of the mansion. At least a dozen mysterious deaths were associated with the Clairburn estate, two of them occurring in the nineteen fifties, long after the Clairburn's had gone.

 

The land and estate was still owned by the Clairburn family, members of which supposedly lived somewhere up north though no Clairburn had set foot in Union County since the early nineteen thirties. The estate was managed, using that word very loosely, by a law firm based in Savannah, and amounted to paying the taxes and making sure that the estate was undisturbed and left as is.

 

Jo stopped, she looked at the great house a dark shadow in the failing light, she noticed now that the haunting song was gone. This was insane, she knew where a trial was that would take her back to Walsh road and started to go when Banner gave a low bark. The massive dog was straining trying to pull Jo toward the house. Jo fought a moment but then she saw something and let the dog pull her on.

 

The back porch of the house was a shambles and didn't look like it could hold her weight but she didn't need to go up on it what she had seen and Banner obviously had scented was on the wide steps leading up to the porch. A backpack, specifically a back pack she knew on site. Ben Thompson's backpack to be exact.

 

Spoiler

will include the others after this

 

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Hand tight on Banner's leash, Jo let him drag her to steps of the porch. The dense, wild foliage made the air thick, the sweat sticking on her skin instead of evaporating. The big dog snuffled at the backpack, nudged it with his snout, then shuffled quickly back when it rocked and rolled down a step. Banner sneezed, then sat on his haunches. Jo tossed aside her stick, then stooped and picked up the backpack before it rolled down the next step.

She straightened up, hand tightening around one of the straps as she regarded the sinister mansion with unease. She'd defend her friends, no questions asked. But that didn't mean she wanted to go in there, not alone, not with shadows lengthening, deepening. She looked around to see if she were alone, see if there was anything to suggest why Ben's backpack was here, not that she expected anything. She looked down at the backpack, but didn't notice anything obvious, like blood or a threatening note pinned to it.

The Clairburn place was just an old, abandoned estate, but right now, Jo felt like she was in an entirely different county, like the place was a county unto itself.

"Ben?" Jo hissed, trying to make herself heard inside the expansive house without having her voice carry any further. She winced at the sound of her voice. Especially with the violin she'd heard - thought she'd heard - falling silent, sounds of the living felt like an intrusion in this place. "Ben, are yah here?"

Her only answer was silence broken by rustling leaves and bare branches scrabbling against each other and the eaves of the mansion. Dammit! She hiked Ben's backpack up on her shoulder and fished out her phone and started tapping out another text to Hank and Roach, just now noticing responses in the thread.

<Forget thta! Theres 1 kid to worry abuot now. Ben.>
<Found his pack on steps of Clairbrun place but no Ben.>
<Weird stuff. There was a violin but noy anymore.>


Jo stared at the dark mansion, uncomfortably feeling like it was looking back, silently demanding Ben to respond... Her response was a soft whistle of wind and a creaking of old wood. She swallowed against the dryness in her mouth.

<West wall. Theres an old crabapple tree. Makes it easy to climb over. You can see the mantion from there. Im going to look for Bem. Ill wait some first.>

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On my way.  That was all Hank typed out as he finished eating, rushing to grab his camping pack and head out.  "Gotta go meet Roach, I'll be back soon, The twins can help clean up!"   His mother shook her head, but chuckled.   The twins looked at her, then at him.  "He's lucky he's a good cook."  they said quietly.  

Hank was out the door, and took note of the time of night.  He sent Roach a message.  "Hey I'll come meet you at your place and we can go together.   That way there's less chance one of us will go missing too."

Such a thing wasn't really a concern around these parts, but it had been a strange day.

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Hank met up with Roach in front of Jo’s house. They cut around the side closest to the woods on the Clairburn side, and went back behind Hannah’s old house. Hank knew the trail Jo had mentioned so it took them only about twenty minutes to get to the meeting spot where Jo and her massive pooch waited, by then it was full on dark and with the slight wind getting cool.

 

Roach tucked her hands in her jacket pockets and hugged herself, shivering a little. The massive ruined mansion was nothing but a looming shadow past he fence and the trees, she shivered again, even though it wasn’t that cold.

 

“Okay, someone remind me why we are meeting by the haunted mansion in the dark… on a school night?”

 

Jo held up the backpack, “I found this on the back steps of the house, it’s ben’s I checked it before it got too dark.”

 

Hank started to climb the wall, but Roach grabbed his belt, “Whoa, has any one tried calling him again?”

 

Jo grunted “Yeah went right to voicemail.”

 

Roach looked at the shadow beyond the trees, “Look maybe we should call his house, they have a land line remember. I think if Ben were missing, we would have heard about it.”

 

Banner gave a soft bark as if in agreement, Hank pulled out his phone and thumbed the proper number.

 

“Hello?”

 

Hank recognized Ben’s mom’s voice, she sounded tired. “Mrs. Thompson, this Is Hank. Is Ben there?”

 

“Yeah, he’s in his room. still feeling bad, let me go see if he is awake.”

 

Hanke heard her put the phone down and heard her walk away from the phone, he looked at his other two friends but could barely make them out in the dark.

 

“Hank,” Ben’s mom returned to the phone. “He’s up and said to give him a few minutes and he’ll call you back.”

 

“Thank you mrs. Thompson”

 

Hank killed the line and said. “he’s at home.”

 

 

 

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"Okay so...he must have come by the house on his way home and dropped his backpack," Roach says. "Maybe he got spooked and dropped it to run."

 

She shrugged and stuck a hand in her jacket pocket where she'd stashed her little digital audio player. Loaded on it were some spooky sounds, set to play after a brief pause that would, ideally let her stash it somewhere unseen, then get away.

 

But the time wasn't right. Not yet. And if they all left right away, it might not BE right.

 

Then again, that would let her get back home early as well, so maybe worth it?

 

"...or maybe the REAL Ben is in the house, and there's an evil clone of him at home," she finished with a chuckle.

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"Well if he's suddenly got a Goatee, we'll know."  Hank looked at Roach.

"Seriously though This all really strange.   I want to know what made him leave like that, and then just go home."  Hank was abit annoyed, but if Ben was alright, he'd get over it quick enough.   

"Let's take it easy on him at first, okay, make sure he's actually okay, then get back to normal."

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Jo folded her arms, a looming figure in the gathering gloom, the flat look she gave Roach and Hank barely discernible. "Not funny," she growled in retort to Roach's chuckle. "Ain't no reason fer Ben to be comin' through here. Only reason Ah did was Ah went off trail and got turned 'bout ovah yonder." The huge girl gestured vaguely East and North, Ben's backpack swinging in her hand. She turned her blue eyes - almost black under the shadows - towards Hank, a questioning tilt to her head. "Didja know there's a creek out thataway, Hank? Banner and Ah saw a bear and-"

Jo cut herself off, mouth closing with a snap as she shook her head. Ben had gotten them into roleplaying games. They were fun enough. She usually played Fighters or Barbarians, though she'd prefer if they could be playing the games outside outing it all out rather than pretending at the table. That all to say, Jo was starting to think the feller she'd out there had been an elf or druid, or an elf druid, they way they'd talked to the bear and Banner and were all pretty-like. But how was she supposed to tell Hank and Roach that?

"Anyways, comin' back, thought Ah heard me a violin. Reckoned it might be a hobo or some such hidin' 'bout. But Ah ain't found no hobo, nor no violin. Just this." She gave the pack another shake. "And Ben don't play no violin, neither. So why'd here come here? And leave this behind, no matter how scared he'd might be?"

Jo spun the pack around and started unzipping the main pocket to found out what Ben might've been hauling around. "He better call soon," Jo muttered, rooting through the backpack, "or Ah'll march right over to there and show Ben whatfor."

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Hank’s phone, still in his hand, played it’s distinctive ringtone, he looked at it, “It’s Ben.  Hey Ben, you alright?”

 

Hey Hank, I don’t know I just got real sick at lunch. Feeling better now.”

 

“What happened?” Hank held the phone so the others could hear but didn’t put it on speaker. Something about where they were had made him cautious about the noise. Roach and Jo both moved a bit closer so they could hear.

 

“Man, I don’t know, I just got real sick, barely made it to the bathroom, Was all shacky and weak. I went to the office they called mom.,” there was a pause as if Ben on the other side was trying to catch his breath, “Went to the clinic and then home. Sorry if I worried you man”

 

Jo held up the back pack and gave it a shake to get Hank’s attention.

 

“Man I really hope you get to feeling better. Hey where’s your backpack.” The question seemed out of place. “What? My backpack? Um… in my locker I didn’t bring anything home.”

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"POP QUIZ!" erupted Rochelle suddenly. She leaned closer to the phone.

 

"You've got a fifth level paladin who's multiclassed into three levels of celestial warlock, how many feats can you have, how many attacks per round do you have and what Oath is most optimal?!"

 

She grinned at Jo and Hank and wiggled her eyebrows, silently mouthing the words, evil clone.

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Even without being on speaker-phone, they could hear Ben's exasperated huff, the roll of his eyes, and perhaps just a hint of a question in his assured answer.

"One Feat from level four Paladin. Two, if your are a variant human. And you have two attacks when taking the Attack Action due to being a level five Paladin. You can use a Bonus Action to get another attack if attacking with a second weapon or you take a Feat like Crossbow Expert or Polearm Master. And if you are looking for 'optimal', Oath of Vengeance, so you can get Advantage on Attacks and fish for those sweet, sweet Divine Smite/Eldritch Smite Crits. But you know I don't run games that way, Ro. I want you guys to play what feels fun rather mathing all the fun out of it. I give you bennies to keep things level... Um, why are you asking me this right now?"

"'Cause Ah'm lookin' at yer gamin' notes right now, in mah hand," Jo butted in, shaking the notebook in her hand. She squinted at it in the dark, then threw it back in the backpack and pulled out a different one. "No, wait, that was English, Ah think. This is yer gamin' book, Ah can just make it the dragon on the cover." She planted a fist on her hip and glowered at Hank's phone, as though Ben could see her demanding answers through it. "If yah just went home, why did Ah find yer backpack on the back porch of the Clairburn place?"

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“What!” Ben sounded even more weak, “My backpack is in my locker. I have PE before lunch I never bring my stuff and I never went to my locker after getting sick.

 

What is this guy’s where are you. Is this your doing Roach? is this more make fun of Ben shit?”

 

He sounds breathless and his sentences are all running together.

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"Nope. The pop quiz was, a little bit," she answered. "But the backpack is actually here, because we're all here right now. And Jo's the one who found it, not me."

 

"Someone might have busted into your locker and brought it out here. Jo said there was music playing here too, so..." Roach shrugged. "Maybe seniors getting high or something."

 

"I don't think anything's missing from it. We'll bring it on over to your place."

 

She put a hand up to block her mouth off from the phone and whispered, "Evil clone."

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"Yer th'evil clone," Jo countered in a low voice, stepping close so she was practically glaring at the top of the slim imp of a girl's head. She moved Roach's hand away, the concern in her tone unfeigned. Ben sounded very distressed.

"We ain't makin' no fun of yah, Ben, Ah swear. We're at the old Clairburn mansion, yah know the one, run down estate a ways back from the road. Ah found yer bag here and we were worried 'bout yah, feared somethin' untoward might be happenin'. Seems like it might just be some asses from school bein' asses. Asses that'll soon be kicked, if Ah have anything to say 'bout it," Jo promised, " Sure as sunrise, once we found out who's playin' yah wrong. Like Roach said, we'll be by shortly to get yah yer bag back. 'Kay?"

Jo looked around, shrugging her broad shoulders against the chill as full dark was nearly upon them. They'd need to turn the flashlights on their phones on soon, if they didn't was stumble around and trip or bark their shins on somewhat. "it's near full dark here, 'bout time we should be gettin' on anyhow."

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Hank sighed.  "Ben, it's no joke.  I gotta say, i see your backpack every day, and this is definitely yours.   I tell you what man, We'll come bring it to you to show you, just like Roach said."  He said, and nodded.  

He actually pulled a maglight flashlight from his backpack and flicked it on.  "Let's go then."

He looked at Roach and shook his head, then spoke quietly.  "Go easy on him.  He did sound like he was sick."   

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With a wary glance in the direction of the dark mansion the three kids and the dog headed back toward Walsh Road. The short journey took about twenty minutes, twice as long as normal due to the darkness but soon enough they were back on familiar ground and feeling much safer though none of them would admit to the uneasiness they had felt in the presence of the Clairburn House.

 

They arrived at Bens house and were greeted by his mom. “I’m sorry guys Ben’s really not feeling well he’s running a fever and It would be best if you all check back on him tomorrow.” She took his backpack and thanked them for fetching it from school then bid them good night.

 

It was still early, and Roach really wanted to show them what she had found on her computer, and she wanted to see the book Hank had gotten. They all headed over to Jo’s place since she had the biggest room where they could have privacy, Hank had brought the box containing the book in his backpack and Roach had her laptop as usual. Roach set up the computer and found the website and they all stared in fascination and the hundreds of images from modern-day all the way back to before the civil war and even earlier with hand drawings and etched portraits. It was all weird and there was no context. 

 

Like Roach, both Hank and Jo felt that a couple of the people in the most modern images seemed a bit familiar. While Jo and Hank looked through the pictures, Roach began messing with the book. After getting a paperclip from Jo she began to attempt to pick the lock.

 

None of them noticed when Keith, one of Jo’s brothers quietly opened the door and leaned in eating Ice cream, but when banner caught the scent of the frozen treat he alerted the gang to the intruding presence. “Here you go boy,” Keith said as he dropped a big spoonful on the carpet for the dog. “Don’t worry Jo, it’s just vanilla.” He looked around, “How come Quinn never come over anymore?” His gaze took in the laptop screen and he stepped closer, “Wow Modest  Marcy, where’s y’all dig that picture up from?”

 

The screen had reset to the very first single image that Roach had seen earlier in the day.

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"Huh, Marcy Bryant, heh, no. She was junior when when I was a freshman, you turds were still in middle school." Keith plops down on Jo's bed back against the head board booted feet stretched out on her comforter.

 

"I didn't know her, but she went missing during spring break that year. Ran away or who knows. It was a big deal for a few months, picture all over the place. Surprised none of you guys remember . Oh yeah I forgot y'all just a bunch a nerd idiots."

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"I don't learn the names of my victims," Roach said. "It gets awkward if I get attached."

 

She looked back at the screen.

 

"I wonder if all these kids disappeared."

 

The original website was dodgy enough she didn't want to run searches directly from it though. For a second Roach dug around in her pockets until she found where she'd stashed her phone, then held it up to take a snap of the monitor...adjusting the image to reduce the usual glare and get a good shot. Something she could use for, say...an image search online. That process was repeated for a minute or two, with Roach scrolling to different faces...aiming for relatively modern-looking ones...taking their pictures, and then emailing herself the pictures.

 

From there she uploaded the images to her image hosting site, then started doing Google searches on each one.

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"Ah'm not stupid," Jo protested, giving her brother a sisterly glare as she brusquely shoved his booted feet off her hand and sprawled out on the bottom half of the bed so Keith couldn't but them back. Playing D&D didn't make her a nerd or anything. They did streams and podcasts now. "And Ah'm no nerd, neither. Ah was just, busy, Ah reckon. Ah was still doin' gymnastics then. And Quinn's hurtin' since Silas left, has her horses to look after."

Keith chuckled as his boots thumbed on the floor. Banner, laying on his side paused in licking up the ice cream, tongue lolling out, eyes craned back to look at the siblings. When it appeared there was not threat to his cold, melting treat, he went back to his studious licking, tongue rasping against the carpet and lapping up the ice cream.

 

When Aidan had moved out, Jordan had been the first to make a claim to his room, which was the biggest besides the master bedroom, and had its own bathroom, small though it was. She thought the twins were still bitter about it, since they had been sharing a room, and she'd gotten to it before they did. They'd have fought over it anyway. She'd won the room by dint of first claim, and being the only girl sibling, deserving her own bathroom. Keith had Ryland's room now, and her old room was the guest room.

"What are you doin' harassin' yer bigger little sister and her friends anyway? Don'tcha have work or yer own friends to hang out with?" Jo demanded, chin elevated loftily, using every inch of the ten she had on her brother. Since last year, Keith and Craig had had friends coming over more often and they suspected why. Worse, they weren't sure if Jo knew why or had been completely oblivious about it. She'd been sickenly head over heels for Dexter at the time.

As Roach did her computer stuff, Jo pursed her lips, brow furrowed as she thought about the all the pictures of those folks, folks that seemed familiar even if she was sure she hadn't seen any of them before. Probably hadn't seen them before, she'd likely seen Marcy before, if not knowing her by name. It was she'd seen cousins or aunts or uncles of those people, rather than the people themselves.

"Yearbooks!" Jo blurted out. "We can look through the old yearbooks in the library." She rolled off the bed and stepped over to lean loomingly over Roach, finger pointing at the screen, moving from one picture to another. "Some of these look familiar like, and it's been botherin's me. Like, doesn't this one look like a Talbot?" There was Bruno, and Aidan's fiancée, Brianna, Bruno's older sister. "And this one, she kinda looks like, well, Silas, really, if he had a sister - did they put in all the old yearbooks online, Roach? Can we look through 'em there instead of the library?" 

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