Chapter 20: Crime Scene

I stared at the scene of the crime through new eyes.  Once, when I was first at Barnard Hall, I had broken into the building in search of treasure.  At this moment I couldn’t recall whether or not my quest had been successful. 

Today, every rickety piece of furniture, each film-encrusted window, and cobweb-lined doorway in the carriage house could provide the solution I was searching for, a treasure in and of itself.  A week had passed and Nick and I had yet to formulate a plan, a way to stop the fire.  I had given up on solving the mystery behind the culprit; that was now Nick’s job.  Although he was personally involved, we both thought it would be easier for him to make a list of potential suspects than for me to continue grasping at straws and speculating.   He was responsible for catching the criminal and, if that failed, the contingency plan was up to me. 

I was the final line of defense.

“Now tell me again, what is it you are supposed to do?”

Nick knew I hated it when he treated me like I was five years old.  Still, he continued to do it because he said my anger was cute.  “Check out the carriage house, master.”

His grin had pulled to the right.  “And why are you doing that?”

“To figure out how you and your parents are going to get out of there when you’re surrounded by fire.”

“If, Callista.  If we are surrounded by fire.  You have to remember that I am using every resource available to me in order to ensure that your escape plan is superfluous.”

Just as Nick had said last night, I needed to figure out a means of escape as a last resort in the event that we did not solve the mystery in time.  My job was to stop the blaze from taking three lives. 

There was a silent fear that stunted my search for an escape route.  Nick and I had not spoken about it, but I was sure he had thought of the same scenario.  What if the Daltons were already dead when they were thrown into the building?  Then all of this would be useless.  No contingency plan would be able to bring them back to life.  No magic mirror would be around to give us a third go-around.

But I couldn’t think of that now.  I had to focus on plan B—a need for a quick, effortless getaway—and pray that my job was an unnecessary precaution.

Today I had brought a ladder around the back of the carriage house to check if it could be seen from other angles.  From the main house a person would never know a ladder was hidden around the back beneath the largest window.  However, a simple walk around the building would reveal the only means of escape. In one of our nightly brainstorming sessions I had suggested stashing a ladder inside the upstairs of the carriage house. 

But Nick had pointed out that the fire could have started upstairs.  Then I had countered his statement by reminding him that the fire could have started anywhere, therefore we needed numerous escape routes; the more the merrier. 

I stood in the doorway of the smaller version of Barnard Hall and waited.  Wind whipped around me and kicked up the dust that had accumulated in the entryway.  For some superstitious reason I had expected an eerie feeling or at least a bit of unease to fill the room where three quarters of the Dalton family had died. 

But there was nothing. 

The building itself had been rebuilt afterward, 110 years ago, so there was no smoky smell or scorched remains paying tribute to the original structure. Still, there should have been something.  The only explanation I could come up with was that the crime hadn’t happened yet, so there was no reason for the place to feel haunted… yet.

Instead of ghosts, the room was occupied by eclectic furniture and dust that devoured the exposed surfaces.  Solid shapes of the antique graveyard were barely visible in the murky evening glow.  Regretfully, I had forgotten a flashlight. 

Three-legged chairs, moth-ridden upholstered couches, drawerless chests, and bowed tabletops littered the cramped first floor.  Despite the uselessness of most of the discarded junk, each piece still held the charm of hand-carved scrollwork, clawed feet, or original finish.  If the 1900’s version of the carriage house was as full with such convenient kindling, the fire would spread more quickly than Nick and I had previously determined.

What Nick needed was an extinguisher or two.  Those would help stop the fire.  But red, foam-filled cans would cause quite a stir in 1900.  Even now I was beginning to dismiss those consequences. 

Much like my ladder scenario, Nick had found fault in every idea I’d had this past week.  With each objection I had spiraled further into misery.  He had been right in his criticism.  All of our ideas had been mediocre at best: ladders, buckets of water, a wood ax, wool blankets, and trap doors.  Each of them had been exasperatingly inadequate.  In the pit of my silent despair I had thought of my best idea, the only one Nick and I could not find fault in.

“I think you’re just saying no for fun now,” I had said in irritation.

“Callista, be serious.”

“I thought you said I was too serious.”

“That was before,” Nick had murmured.

“And I specifically remember you saying that I should give up thinking as well.  Maybe I should take your advice.”

“Might I point out that you’ve chosen a horrible time to consider giving up thinking?” he said.

“Well, if there’s nothing in this world that’s going to work then maybe we need some magic,” I had suggested sarcastically.

“That’s it, Callista!”

“What?”

“Magic,” Nick had said.

“Oh, so now you know a wizard or witch who would be willing to help us?”

“No, but I do know of six magical mirrors.”

We had no clue if they would work, but we could not think of anything else.  I had planned on moving a mirror into my carriage house, and Nick was going to do the same.  At some point between today and the twenty fourth we would need to experiment.  Although they were not the same structure, the new carriage house was an exact replica of its predecessor.  If we lined the mirrors in precisely the same spots in both 1902 and 2012 then the magical portal might work. 

Now I just needed to locate a spare mirror—there was no way I was going to move mine and risk losing my connection to Nick.  Then I would need someone to help me move the heavy glass to the carriage house, someone who would not ask questions.  Rosa was the only person I could trust with the task.  Even if I had to explain everything to her—which was highly likely—there was no other choice.

The stairs to the second floor loft creaked and rocked as I climbed.  The area at the top was tight, but it should accommodate one mirror.  Random mismatched chairs, a mahogany headboard, and empty steamer trunks were scattered across the floor. Luckily, the west wall was mostly bare.  I cleared a pathway to allow room for us to maneuver the enormous addition.

A noise below made me pause.  I looked down in time to see the door swing open and bang against the wall.  In my haste to complete the task at hand, I must have forgotten to shut it completely.  The gale-force wind could have loosened the metal handle.  All I knew for certain was that the noise roaring through the carriage house was deafening.  I ran down the steps and fought Mother Nature to slam the door shut.  After a brief struggle, the door was properly latched and the wind was left outside where it belonged.

A creak behind me froze my body mid-step.  The building settled and whined as it was pummeled from outside but this noise had been different.  The fine hairs along my hairline stood on end; it felt like a mess of poisonous spiders were crawling down my spine.  I swiped at the invisible insects but the feeling did not subside. 

That’s when I saw him. 

I caught his reflection in a discarded vanity mirror atop a roll-top desk with three and a half legs.  His face was unfamiliar; since coming to England I hadn’t spent enough time in town to notice many of the locals—assuming he was local. 

The man had mousy brown hair in desperate need of a trim, and his face was badly in need of a shave.  In profile the stranger was average, forgettable.  But he was built like a bull; his thick neck was short, making his head look as though it was directly attached to his shoulders; his muscles were straining, barely contained inside his filthy denim jacket. There was something sinister in his stance, a blatant menace. 

My eyes were glued to the milky reflection in the piece of dirty glass.  He twisted to face the mirror head on, and I stiffened.  Instinctively, my body tensed for flight.  Our eyes connected; mine widened, and his smiled.

Before I had time to move, the stranger sprung on me.  For such a bulky man, he was deceptively fast.  Any effort to fight him off would be futile; he was too strong.  His brute force overwhelmed me, and his thick fingers gripped my throat. 

I twisted to get a better look at my murderer.  If by some miracle I survived this, I would need to be able to identify the criminal.  Mentally I chuckled.  Even on the brink of death I was being so… logical.  Nick would get a kick out of that.  Nick…

He wouldn’t be very happy that I had gotten myself killed over trying to save him.

The man in front of me had a puckered scar over his right eye.  The angry skin around the twisted mark stitched the lid grotesquely shut.  His irises were a nearly colorless blue.  And he was enjoying this. 

One-eye and I fought for what felt like years when black spots began clouding my vision.  I kicked at him in one last desperate attempt to escape.  My foot connected with his taunt thigh and he grunted; my toes throbbed. 

The more I struggled, the wider his grin became.  He soon grew tired of the game and hit me.  His meaty fist grazed my forehead, just above my eyebrow.  Blood dripped into my eye, and I felt faint.  I twisted once more and thought I saw a shadow in the dusty glass.

A bright light flashed then my world went black.

I heard harsh breathing but it wasn’t mine—I wasn’t breathing.

I heard a deafening crash but it wasn’t me—I wasn’t moving.

Then I heard a soft voice calling my name.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

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