A couple of hours later, I sat on a bench in the middle of town, staring at a poster that had been nailed to the wall of a store.
"Have you seen this girl? If you do, please call this number immediately!"
Below it was a picture of Kimberly, and a phone number I assumed was her parents'. Further down the street was a payphone. A relic of a time almost forgotten, but still operational. I was rubbing my fingers together, sweaty despite the freezing temperature.
I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and a moment later somebody sat down next to me on the bench.
"Hey there, Amber."
"Hello, Dex," I replied without turning to look at him. I could already tell he wasn't in his typical joking mood today. That was the only time he ever used my real name.
He pointed at the poster. "You know, if you call them, Stark and your mom are probably going to jail."
I bit my lip. He was right, of course. No matter how much Kimberly insisted that we hadn't kidnapped her or how we'd taken such good care of her, nobody would listen. She'd be diagnosed with Stockholm Syndrome, and Mom and Stark would be convicted as kidnappers. And then, who knew what would happen when the next full moon rolled around?
"I just thought I should try to do some good before I left," I said. "If I could reunite Kimberly with her parents, then maybe my life won't have been a complete waste."
I half expected Dex to rebuke me for saying that, but instead he just shook his head and leaned back on the bench. "There isn't always something good for us to do, Amber. Just varying levels of badness."
I looked down at my knees. "So I'm a waste no matter what, huh?"
"Well, I won't lie. You screwed things up pretty bad back there at the cabin."
"I didn't mean to, Dex." It was getting hard to talk through the lump in my throat again. "I swear, I never wanted to hurt her."
"I believe you. That doesn't fix things, though."
I looked up at him. "Then how can I fix it?"
Dex shrugged. "You can't. That's just how life works. Tough pill to swallow, but you'll feel better once you do."
I shook my head. "I don't think that'll ever make me feel better."
Dex shrugged again and pulled one of his yellow potions out of his coat pocket. With a quick motion he uncorked it, downed its contents, and then grimaced as he swallowed it. "Trust me, Amber, you'll drive yourself insane thinking like that. You have to let go of the past, forget about it if you can."
"That might work for you," I snapped. "I have people I actually care about!"
Dex frowned like I'd offended him. I thought he was about to say something, but then he just sighed, shrugged a third time, and leaned back against the bench again.
"So, what are you going to do now?" he asked, watching the clouds drift past us in the sky.
"I don't know," I admitted. "I just need to get away from here. If I don't freeze to death, I know Majestic's going to be after me. In fact, that's probably why you're here right now, isn't it?"
"Not exactly," he raised a finger, correcting me. "You see, I decided to procrastinate a little before submitting my report today. Vaazkima, Wrogan, and Shavver have no idea what happened yet."
I sat up a little straighter and looked at him. "Why would you do that?" I asked.
"Because you've got nowhere to go."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
Dex hesitated. “I have someone who wants to talk to you.”
I don’t know what it was, but the way he said that made my arms break out in goosebumps. “Who?”
He shook his head. “He wouldn’t want me talking about him in the open like this. Just come with me.”
He stood, looking around like he was afraid somebody was going to jump out and attack him. I was feeling the same way, though, so I guess his paranoia wasn’t unwarranted.
“It’s not one of your bosses, is it?” I asked.
“Because that would make a ton of sense, wouldn’t it?” he quipped. “Setting up a secret rendezvous with them, instead of just, you know, kidnapping you and bringing you back to base.”
I thought for a second, and then got up as well. He was right, that wouldn’t make sense. More importantly, that wasn’t Majestic’s style at all. They really would have just knocked me out and dragged me away.
Dex nodded and led me into an alleyway. There was a door there, probably the back door into one of the nearby stores. He stopped in front of it and pulled out his key ring.
“Which one was it?” he mumbled to himself, lazily flicking through the keys. “Aha, here it is!”
He held up a big, rusty skeleton key for me to see, and then thrust it into the lock. It should have been way too big to fit, but it slid in as easily as if it’d been greased. He turned it, a resounding CLUNK came from inside, and he swung the door open to reveal…
“A cave?” I asked, giving him an incredulous look.
“Hurry up,” Dex hissed, waving me inside.
I looked inside, and then back at him. “No, really. A freaking cave?”
Dex closed his eyes and sighed through his teeth. “Look, it’s one of the only places on Earth where Majestic won’t be able to see you. Now get in there!”
I stepped up to the door and hesitated. Who knew who was waiting for me in there? Did I trust Dex enough to do this? Then again, what choice did I have? Majestic would be looking for me, and even if Dex worked for them he had proven himself trustworthy, hadn’t he? Taking a deep breath, I stepped inside.
Dex immediately slammed the door shut behind me.
“Hey!” I yelled, spinning around. To my surprise, though, Dex was still there.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, blushing. “I thought you’d locked me in here for a second.”
Dex stepped past me and lit up his wand. “You know I wouldn’t do that to you, Amber.”
I nodded and followed him as he led the way further down the dark, stony corridor. “Yeah. Sorry.”
We walked for a few minutes in silence, and I concentrated on not tripping over the uneven floor. In the distance I could hear water falling.
“So, can you tell me who you’re bringing me to see now?” I finally asked.
Dex shook his head. “It’s better if he introduces himself.”
I still didn’t know why, but the way he said that made my skin crawl. A minute later, the tunnel widened into a big, round cavern. The weak light of Dex’s wand didn’t reach all the way up to the ceiling, but I could still see the waterfall that tumbled down into a pool on the other side of the room.
“This way,” Dex said, beckoning me over toward the waterfall. We stopped right in front of it, and Dex’s wand reflected off the water, sending flecks of yellow light all over the cave.
“I’ve brought her,” he said. His voice was strangely solemn, without a hint of his usual lightheartedness.
“Good,” someone replied. I looked around, trying to spot him, and finally realized the voice had come from the other side of the glistening curtain of water.
Dex looked at me, and my heart started to beat faster.
“What?” I asked him.
“Well, say something to him!”
I looked from Dex to the waterfall, and then back to Dex again. “Who are you?” I asked.
“I think we’ll wait a little before I answer that,” the voice said. I blinked. Whoever that was, their voice sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it. “Now, Dexter here tells me you’re in a spot of trouble?”
I swallowed and nodded. “And he tells me you can help.”
“Indeed I can,” the voice replied. “But my protection won’t come without a price.”
I hesitated. "What do you mean?"
“A cost,” it explained in a sarcastic tone, “is when—”
“I know what a cost is!” I snapped, my face turning red. “What kind of cost?”
A dark chuckle came from behind the waterfall. “That is up to negotiation. For now, let’s just say that whatever protection I give you, I’ll expect some form of service in return.”
“Service?” I echoed. “As in…”
“Again, that will be negotiable.”
I shook my head. “Can I be honest? I have no idea what’s going on here right now. Am I about to join some kind of cult, or something like that?”
“No, no, no,” the man behind the water said. “It’s really quite simple. I’ve recently found myself in need of a new, ah, associate. You would do nicely, Miss Pace. In exchange, I will offer you protection against those who are hunting you.”
I looked at Dex. “And where do you come into all this?”
“Dexter has been in my employment for several months now. He has proven himself quite useful.”
Dex shrugged and looked away guiltily. “I think of it as a part time gig.”
I took a step closer to the waterfall and squinted, but I couldn’t see who, or what, was hiding behind it. “Look, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful here. I really do appreciate what you’re offering me, but I just don’t feel comfortable agreeing to anything like this without knowing what I’m getting myself into.” I peered closer to the water. “Or who I’m talking to.”
“Hmm,” the voice mused. “Dexter, what do you think?”
Dex hesitated, and I jumped when he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “Amber, do you trust me?”
I looked at him. There was uncertainty in his eyes, and more than a little fear. I didn’t blame him. I probably looked the same way.
“Majestic is going to see this as their chance,” he whispered. “They’re going to come after you like they never have before. I didn’t bring you here for no reason, you need what he’s offering. Now, do you trust me?”
I bit my lip. Dex had helped me when nobody else would, even putting himself in danger to do it. He’d even let me into his own house to give me a warning his bosses didn’t want me to have.
“Yes,” I finally said, my voice a hoarse whisper, “I trust you.”
Dex took a deep breath through his nose, closed his eyes, and nodded blindly at the waterfall. A moment later, the water parted as if somebody had put an invisible umbrella underneath it. Something moved from within the shadows of the damp, musty cavern, but I couldn’t make out any details about it. It shifted again, and…
And I realized it wasn’t a shadow.
Slowly, I raised my gaze until I found two pitch black orbs staring at me from a parchment-white face. Its lips peeled back in a savage grin, revealing a set of razor sharp teeth. My blood immediately froze in my veins, and I stumbled backwards. I would have fallen over on my butt if Dex hadn’t been there to catch me— and then he wrapped his arms around me so I couldn’t move.
“Hello, Amber,” said Hendricks. “Let’s discuss the terms of your employment.”
TO BE CONTINUED
AUTHOR’S NOTE: To be continued… because I think Amber and I have both earned a break. Don’t worry, though, I’ll be back and so will Amber. But get ready, because in one month I’m going to blow you guys’ minds with the greatest story I’ve ever written. Here comes…