Nobody talked about Myka.
Claudia figured she could track down their rogue agent in sixty seconds, maybe ninety if Myka were really trying to cover her tracks. She didn't know if Myka were trying to cover her tracks or not. She didn't know if Myka had gone back to her parents' place or her old job or anything.
She knew that Pete and Artie knew that she could find Myka, and that neither of them had asked her to. That would have meant talking about her, and the closest thing they got to that was when Pete accidentally ordered an extra chicken sandwich, no fries, at the diner two days after Myka left.
"Pete, pack your bags, you're going to Wyoming," Artie barked, interrupting breakfast at Leena's.
"Awesome, I love cheese."
"That's Wisconsin," Claudia pointed out.
Pete shrugged. "Eh, same difference."
Artie ignored their chatter. "An entire town disappears overnight. No bodies, no signs of struggle, just a lot of empty houses and a lot of confused FBI agents."
Pete groaned. "Artie, I hate working with those guys. They always look at me funny. Can't we just leave it to them?"
"Dude, a whole town gets Pied Pipered and you don't think that sounds artifacty?" Claudia asked.
"If you love it so much, you investigate it," Pete shot back.
"She will be investigating," Artie announced. "I can't send you out into the field alone, and – well, I can't send you alone. Both of you, pack your things and meet back down here in half an hour."
Claudia stuck her tongue out at Pete and dashed away before he could catch her.
In retrospect, it might not have been the smartest idea to goad Pete into a squabble right before leaving on a 6-hour road trip.
"This is why I need my own badge," Claudia hissed.
"So send in some box tops," Pete hissed back. "You want one for Justice League, or SHIELD?"
"I'm serious!" Claudia paused. "Also, SHIELD, totally."
"Okay, if you want to be a not-very-super hero." He made a face before changing back into serious Pete. "Look, it's fine. Stick with me, and I can get you in anywhere as a consultant."
"And what about when you're not – "
Claudia's question was interrupted by the FBI agent they'd checked in with, who returned with his grumpy superior in tow. They both looked like they'd stepped right out of Men In Black. "Can I help you?" Agent Douchebag said.
Pete's expression suddenly turned icy as he flashed his badge. "You could let us into town to investigate."
"I'm not aware the Secret Service had an interest in this case."
"I'm sure they don't want to trouble your pretty little head with things you don't need to know."
Claudia was almost looking forward to whatever insult the FBI agent had in response to that, but she never got to hear it. Agent Gloomy – god, did they buy those suits and sunglasses in bulk or something? – ran up and pulled Agent Douchebag aside, speaking softly. Agent Douchebag looked like someone had told him his car had gotten a ticket and then spontaneously combusted.
"Agent Lattimer, I've been informed that you have clearance to enter the town limits."
"Thank you," Pete nodded, then added in a stage whisper, "Now, was that really so bad?"
Claudia was less comfortable with disrespecting strange officers of the law to their faces. She considered it one more benefit to having a badge, though it might have had more to do with Pete's not having a criminal record.
All thoughts of badges and respect vanished from her mind as they drove further into town.
"Spooky," Pete said, after a minute of driving in silence.
Claudia agreed. The place was a total ghost town. She'd seen stranger things, but the subtle wrongness of empty street after empty street and whole rows of dead buildings was giving her the creeps.
"Any chance there was just a really good sale at the mall the next town over?" she asked finally.
"But then just the women-folk would be missin'," Pete said in an outrageously gruff voice.
Glad for something to laugh about, Claudia only smacked his shoulder lightly. Pete whined about how it hurt, anyway. Baby.
The FBI agent who met them in town was Ms. FBI Agent, so there went half of Pete's concentration. Claudia made sure to pay extra close attention to everything she said to compensate, and also made a mental note to tease Pete later.
To her credit, Agent Kelly didn't seem to mind them being there, and actually brought them up to speed on the case without seeming resentful. Still, there wasn't much to tell them.
"Whatever happened, it happened quickly," she said, walking them through Town Hall, where the FBI had set up headquarters. "No one in town made any outgoing calls to emergency services. It doesn't look like anyone packed for the trip or drove their cars out of here either, though we're still doing house inspections. We have aerial surveillance searching the surrounding areas; they can't have gotten too far on foot."
"How was the situation discovered?" Claudia asked.
"Couple driving through town on a road trip late last night," the agent explained. "They stopped to fill up at a gas station; it was open, but there wasn't anyone working there. They started looking around town and found the whole place deserted. That's when they got spooked and called us."
"Any chance they're involved with what happened?"
"Seems unlikely, but we're checking for connections they might have had with anyone in town."
"What do you think?" Claudia muttered, pulling Pete back a step or two behind Agent Kelly.
"Get some dogs out sniffing for fudge?" Pete suggested.
"See, I hate that about this job. You can't tell whether people are joking or being serious."
"That was a joke."
"But if any artifact was behind this - "
"I'd say that's a big yes."
"Then it had to start somewhere. We should look for – I don't know, an epicenter."
"I don't follow."
"Think about it. Most artifacts are small scale. They could make a person disappear, not a whole town."
Claudia could think of at least one artifact that was not small scale. She didn't mention it. "You think someone went around vanishing people one at a time?"
"I don't know what to think," Pete said. "Except that Agent Kelly is fine."
Claudia rolled her eyes. "I thought you hated FBI agents."
"No. When did I ever say a thing like that?"
"This morning," she hissed, but Pete was already catching back up to Agent Kelly.
In the end, their plan of attack was to search the town looking for anything weird and hope that something jumped out at them. Jumped out, and didn't bite them.
Of all the reasons Claudia thought the plan half-assed, the sheer time required to cover that much ground thoroughly was high on the list.
"Haven't the feds been over this, anyway?" Claudia shouted to Pete across the playground. They'd made it as far as a park a few blocks away from Town Hall, so, not far at all.
"Yeah, but they don't know what they're looking for," he said. "And they don't have our diligence." His face lit up. "Hey, come over here and get on the other end of the seesaw."
"Creepy as the painted faces on that seesaw are, I don't think they had anything to do with this." All the same, Claudia wandered over to Pete and poked the seesaw with her toe.
"Duh. Would I ride it if I thought it were an artifact?" He sat on one side, tipping the other up into the air.
"No, I'm not getting on. I don't weigh enough to balance you out, anyway."
"Man, you used to be fun," Pete whined, climbing off the seesaw.
"Well, one of us has to be the serious one." Claudia looked away. "And I seriously think it is going to take us a year to search this town. It's not like we know what we're looking for, either."
"There should be an artifact that tells you where other artifacts are," Pete grumbled. "Since there isn't, at least to our knowledge – there isn't, right? I mean, Artie would have told us?"
"Since there isn't, we'll just get by somehow. We have so far."
"We could at least split up," Claudia suggested. "Cover the area twice as fast."
Pete got a funny look on his face. "No."
"Because you don't have a Tesla. What if something happened?"
"Come on. What could happen to me in a ghost town? Besides, you're a big strong manly man, and you have a real gun. You can give me the Tesla."
"No can do, kiddo."
"Oh come on, I won't break it or anything. Cross my heart, yada yada."
"No, I – " Pete looked at the ground. "I promised Artie I'd keep an eye on you."
Claudia felt her face flushing red with frustration and embarrassment. "Artie thinks I'm twelve!" she snapped, not caring that that made her sound like she was, in fact, twelve. "I can look after myself."
"I know that," Pete protested.
"I think you guys tend to forget that I looked after myself for years – " A thought occurred to Claudia. "Oh my God, that's it, isn't it?"
"Rheticus's compass. That's what could make a whole town disappear."
"It's not the compass," Pete sighed. "Artie checked, it's still in the warehouse."
"It sounds like you and Artie talked about a lot of things behind my back." Claudia crossed her arms. "Anything else you want to tell me?"
"Claudia, calm down. You're being ridiculous."
The only reply she could think of was, 'no, you're being ridiculous,' which had never won anyone an argument in the history of the universe. Rather than resorting to saying it, Claudia stormed off wordlessly through the park.
Of course, Pete being her partner/bodyguard/supervisor, he followed along about ten feet behind her, but at least he didn't try to talk to her.
It didn't take long for Claudia to feel foolish about the whole thing. It did take her a while to admit it. "Pete, I'm sorry about – "
"Shh." Claudia turned around and found herself looking at Agent Lattimer, not Pete. "Did you hear that?" he whispered.
"Hear – "
She didn't get to finish her question. Pete stepped toward a clump of bushes, reaching to his side for the Tesla, and a figure jumped out and tackled him.
Claudia yelped; her first, useless instinct was to stand frozen in place. She shook it off quickly and jumped forward to pull the attacker off Pete. She succeeded, but he turned that around on her, grabbing her and yanking her away with him.
"Let me go!" she demanded, trying to remember any of the kicks or punches or throws that Myka had taught her, the ones that she'd never really gotten the hang of in the first place.
Pete scrambled back up to his feet, pulling his Tesla out, but the guy now had Claudia as a human shield between them.
"Easy, buddy," Pete said.
Claudia decided to forget about fancy technique and went for ramming her elbow backwards into her captor's stomach as hard as she could. He let out a satisfying "oomph," and she was able to wriggle free, but before she could turn around and face him, he pushed her forward, hard, and sent her tumbling straight at Pete, knocking them both to the ground.
Pete got back to his feet before she did, jumping back to position like he was in an action movie. With the unknown attacker running away and Claudia wincing in pain, though, he didn't seem to know what to do.
"Are you okay?" he asked Claudia, his eyes on the suspect.
"Think I twisted my ankle," she said. "I'll be fine."
"Yes, go! He probably has the artifact!"
Pete hesitated for another second, than bent down and handed Claudia the Tesla. "Catch up when you can," he told her, and dashed off in pursuit of the suspect.
Claudia rose to her feet much more slowly, a process that was only possible with the support of a nearby tree. Her left ankle didn't hurt too much as long as she didn't put any weight on that foot; the moment she tried to walk, though, she collapsed back down to the ground.
"Okay," she panted, gritting her teeth. "Let's try that again."
She tucked the Tesla into her jacket pocket for safekeeping before pushing herself back up onto her right foot. She took a few hopping steps, hands clinging to the nearby plants to steady herself.
"Great, so, it should only take me a year to get out of the park," she muttered.
Her eyes fell on a branch, hanging just above her head. She reached up and tugged on it experimentally, shaking it. She tugged a little harder and heard a crack. "Sorry, Giving Tree," she said, and yanked on it hard enough to snap off the branch entirely.
"The lowest of low tech," she sighed, stripping the branch of twigs and leaves and snapping it in half. Before long, she had what could, given the benefit of some serious doubt, be a walking stick.
A few wobbly steps proved that it did, at least, increase her speed, though by the time she reached the edge of the park, Pete was nowhere to be seen. She took a right down the street, thinking that was where the suspect looked like he'd been headed.
"I feel like Artie on a bad day, but at least I'm getting somewhere," she said to encourage herself.
Her Farnsworth rang. She dug it out of her pocket, hoping Pete had caught the guy and they could go home now, where she could sit around sipping hot chocolate and resting her foot on a pillow.
No such luck. The face on the screen was Artie's. "Speak of the devil," she said, remembering that she was annoyed with him.
"Any progress yet?" he demanded.
"We might have a suspect."
"Suspect? I thought the town was empty. And what do you mean, might have?"
"We thought the town was empty too. And then we found someone. Or rather, he found us. And I say might because Pete's in pursuit now. I can tell you more when we've caught him."
"Pete is in pursuit? And where are you? I told you to stay together!"
"Hm, funny, I don't remember getting that memo." Artie looked like he was going to growl at her, so she ditched the attitude. "Chill, old man, we got this covered."
"Yes, why on earth do I worry when you're handling everything so perfectly," Artie said.
"If you just called to be sarcastic, I have things to do." Claudia started to close the Farnsworth.
"Not so fast. I've found something that might help – there's some reports of a town in France in the 1940's where the entire population vanished."
Claudia made a face. "You sure that's an artifact, and not, you know, the war?"
"Well, that's what everyone assumed at the time," Artie said. "But none of the missing every showed up again, and there's no records of them. Disappearing people takes work – disappearing that many people takes a lot of work."
"Okay, so the artifact is French." Claudia gave Artie a thumbs-up. "Lay out some croissants and play pretentious art films and we'll have it in no time."
"Claudia," Artie scolded, doing his part for the fun police. "Find Pete. Stay together."
"Yes, sir." Claudia snapped the Farnsworth shut.
She took another look around her, at the street that was utterly devoid of life. "Easier said than done."
She decided that, whatever Pete and Artie had to say, catching up on foot was not a practical option at this point. She started off for Town Hall, determined to commandeer a vehicle if Pete hadn't beaten her back there.
Pete hadn't beaten her back there.
She tried calling his Farnsworth but just got static. "And Artie's afraid I'm going to break things," she muttered, and tried his cell phone.
"Your call cannot be completed as dialed," a recorded voice told her. "Please check the number and dial again."
Claudia dialed again and got the same message.
"Okay, Donovan, don't panic," she told herself. "Small town, middle of nowhere, calls are bound to have a little trouble going through. Happens all the time." She tried pacing, with nearly disastrous results as she's forgotten about her twisted left ankle. "Don't panic."
"Ms. Donovan," someone called out behind her. Claudia turned around to see Pete's favorite, Agent Kelly, striding toward her. "Had a bit of trouble in town?" she asked, glancing at Claudia's makeshift cane.
"Yeah, I twisted my ankle." She felt the need to defend herself by adding, "In pursuit of a suspect."
"Suspect?" Agent Kelly's eyebrows shot up. "Our sweeps haven't turned up anyone."
"Oh. Yeah. Well, Pe – Agent Lattimer and I found one." Her words sounded all jumbled even to herself. Why hadn't she told anyone yet? That would have been the first thing a real agent would have done.
Agent Kelly gave Claudia a look like she knew exactly what was going through Claudia's mind and agreed with it. "Where?"
"At the park, three blocks that way. They were heading north on Sunset, last I saw them."
Agent Kelly lost no time in rounding up the feds and sending them out to search for Pete and the suspect. Claudia had to hobble faster than she'd thought possible just to catch up to the woman.
"I'll ride along with you," she offered.
Kelly looked down at her. "I don't think that will be necessary. You should stay here. We'll get someone to look at your ankle."
"Really, I'm fine – " Claudia's protests went unheard. In the blink of an eye, Kelly had grabbed another agent and told him to wrap Claudia's ankle, in what Claudia was pretty sure was FBI code that also meant, "make sure she doesn't wander off anywhere and mess up our investigation again."
"Don't worry, Ms. Donovan," the agent said as he fished out a first aid kit. "They'll find him in no time."
"Of course," Claudia smiled. She decided that she hated all of them.
Claudia tried Pete's cell five more times, and his Farnsworth three, and got a whole lot of nothing for her trouble.
Kelly and half the search party rolled back into town two hours later. They'd had as much luck as Claudia'd had with her calls. Several agents were still looking, but Claudia knew what they were thinking: they would have heard from Pete by now unless Pete couldn't contact them.
Kelly made Claudia go over the whole incident at the park over and over, until Claudia lost her patience. "Stop asking me!" she yelled, acutely aware of the surrounding agents that were looking at her. "I don't know anything. I didn't see the guy. I don't know where he went. Quit wasting time asking me and go look for Pete!" Storming off was her usual MO, but the best she could manage at the moment was an undignified shuffle. At least the feds had had a crutch in their first aid supplies.
She slunk into an empty office in Town Hall and pulled out her Farnsworth. Much as she dreaded the thought, it was time to call Artie.
"Claudia," he greeted her. He sounded like she'd interrupted him at something. "Did you catch up with your suspect?"
"No, I didn't. And I don't know if Pete did, either."
Immediately, she had Artie's full attention. "Tell me that you don't mean what I think you mean."
"He's gone, Artie. I don't know if he – I don't know what happened, but he went chasing off after that suspect and I haven't seen him since."
"Thanks, because I didn't think of that," Claudia snapped. "His phone isn't working. Neither is his Farnsworth."
"This is why I told you not to split up!"
"Hey – busted ankle. Fleeing suspect. We did what we thought was best."
"I see. And with your vast wisdom and experience, what do you think is the best course of action now?"
Claudia didn't realize she had an answer until she'd opened her mouth and heard herself saying it. "I just have to find the artifact, okay? That guy either has it, or knows something about it, or else he wouldn't have run off. So I just need to find him. And apparently he hangs around the park, so, that's a starting place right there."
Artie scrutinized her through the Farnsworth's screen. It was somehow more unsettling than being scrutinized in person, possible because of the slight distortion of the screen. "Can you handle this?"
Claudia gulped. "Absolutely," she answered, with more confidence than she felt.
"All right." Apparently she'd said the magic word to make Artie not yell at her anymore. Claudia wished she could remember what, exactly, that had been. "I expect to hear from you every half-hour," he told her.
"Like clockwork," she promised, and rang off.
"Of course, I've always been a digital girl," she added to herself.
When she emerged from her hiding spot, Agent Kelly was nowhere to be seen, though Agent Douchebag from the barricade had taken her place.
Claudia hung back to avoid a run in, and nearly collided with the guy who'd wrapped her ankle.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, reaching out to steady him.
"No, I should have looked where I was going," he said. "My bad." He sounded genuinely apologetic.
Claudia looked at him a little closer and realized he wasn't a whole hell of a lot older than she was. He was probably on whatever bottom-rung the FBI had – which was probably why he got stuck playing nurse to civilians instead of going out on search parties.
"No worries," Claudia said. "Hey, I'm really bad with names, I don't think I caught yours earlier."
"You can call me Eddie," he said with a grin.
So the guy was a bit of an operator, too. She could work with that. At this point, it was probably the only way she'd get anything out of the FBI.
"Eddie," she smiled at him. "Do you think you could give me a ride somewhere?"
"I never really heard," Eddie told her as they pulled up to the park. "What exactly do you guys do?"
"We...look for things," Claudia said, trying to play off the vagueness of that answer as though she were just distracted by getting out of the car, and not as though she weren't going to answer.
"So, what are you looking for here?"
They strolled into the park while Claudia thought it over. "I'm not entirely sure yet," she admitted. "I thought that guy we were chasing had it, but I'm not sure."
"If he doesn't have it, who does?"
"No, I mean." She grimaced. "He has to have it. It's the only thing that makes sense. But if he had it, why didn't he use it on us right away? Why'd he tackle us? I'm just thinking out loud," she added.
"Think away. It's not really my thing, but don't let that stop you."
Claudia laughed at that politely. She was more preoccupied with the germ of an idea that was growing in her mind. "He didn't have it with him. And the only reason not to carry something that important around when the town is crawling with feds is if...he couldn't. It's too big."
"Okay, bigger than a breadbox." Eddie nodded. "Dangerous?"
"Totally," Claudia said.
"Probably not in the conventional sense."
"And it's have to be small enough he could hide it somewhere," Eddie pointed out.
"Right. Because of the aforementioned feds crawling all over the place."
"We are pests like that."
"Aw, don't be so hard on yourself. My people are, too." She hobbled back over to the bushes the man had hidden in before, but didn't find anything. Aside from them, there was nowhere in the park a desperate man could hide an artifact. "His hiding place must be really good," she said. "Either that, or..."
Eddie looked at her. "Or what?"
"Or," Claudia said, following two trains of thought: the one leading her to the location, and the one telling her that it had been over half an hour and Artie was going to call her pretty soon and she didn't want to have to explain a Farnsworth to Eddie, let alone an artifact. "Or it's really safe. The bank."
"He hid something in the bank?" Eddie didn't seem to be buying it.
"What's more secure than a bank?" she asked. "He might even be hiding in there himself."
"We checked the bank already," Eddie said.
"But he's been out and around town," Claudia reminded him. "He might not have been there when you went by."
Eddie seemed convinced; at least, he seemed willing to check it out. "It's not far from here. Couldn't hurt to go take a look."
"Great!" Claudia smiled and walked toward the car, exaggerating her reliance on the crutch and making a quiet pained noise or two. "I'll come with you."
Eddie, bless his heart, had some notions of chivalry. "It could be dangerous," he said. "The guy did attack you. And it's probably not good for your ankle to travel anymore than you need to."
"I'll be fine," Claudia insisted, hoping she wasn't overdoing the whimper as she took another step.
"No. Wait here. I'll be back in no time at all, I promise."
"Thanks, Eddie." She smiled at him, and kept smiling until he pulled away in the car. "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make someone disappear without using an artifact."
Her Farnsworth buzzed.
"Dude, Artie, your timing is getting scary good," Claudia said.
"Hello to you, too," Artie grouched at her. "Status?"
"I am at Pete's epicenter. Not the epicenter of Pete, the epicenter that Pete – never mind. I'm on the right track."
"Reassuring," Artie said. "We know this because?"
"Because if the guy had to leave his artifact behind, say, when he was snooping around to see if the feds were onto him, he wouldn't leave it too far behind. He'd want to keep an eye on it. So the park has to be close to where the artifact is." Claudia turned around in a circle slowly. "And the artifact is at least seventy years old, so I'm thinking, you stash it somewhere old so it blends in."
"You're doing logic problems when you get back to the warehouse," Artie told her.
"Shut up. You don't know I'm wrong."
"So many, many logic problems."
"Look, this is downtown, or at least as close to downtown as this little town has. There's a bunch of old buildings here. I can see – " she finished her circle. "Three likely candidates from here. Library, museum, theater. Got anything that could help me narrow it down?"
"Start with the theater," Artie advised.
"Awesome, you know what artifact we're looking for?"
"No, but the library and the museum will take forever." He signed off.
"Great," Claudia sighed, but having no better course of action, she hobbled off toward the theater.
The building had an ornate façade, with several steps up to the entrance that were miserable for Claudia in her current condition. "Clearly no one ever told the owners about ramps," she complained.
The lobby was fancy, too, though musty. The faded red carpets and the chipped marble candy counter had definitely seen better days. Claudia poked around, but nothing looked like an artifact.
The theater was one of the old style buildings that just had one screen. She considered the horror of navigating the narrow rows of seats with her crutch, and decided to leave that for last, after she'd poked through the employees only sections.
The business office kept her busy for a while, the box office less so. Nether of them turned up anything interesting. She checked out the bathrooms, half convinced that the universe would pull a joke on her and she'd find the suspect mid-leak, but no such thing happened. She checked the storeroom and found nothing more interesting than boxes of off-brand popcorn.
She was nearly out of places to look when she thought about the projection booth.
"If I walk up those stairs for nothing, I will be so pissed." Of course, she had no choice but to check now.
She made it about halfway up the stairs before she thought she heard something. She paused, and proceeded more carefully, her free hand pulling out the Tesla Pete had given her.
By the time she made it to the top of the staircase, she was sure of it: there was someone in the projection booth.
The door was open a crack. She held her breath and looked through it, watching the man that had put her on her damn crutch walk in and out of view. He was pacing and ranting. She waited long enough to be sure that he was talking to himself, not that there was someone else in there with him, before she pushed open the door.
"Freeze!" she said, hoping it sounded authoritative. Of course, the gun-like object in her hand probably did the important talking for her.
The guy froze for about a second, visible weighing the odds – unarmed, tall dude with two good legs versus tiny girl on crutch with a gun-like thing. Apparently, by his math, the odds were in his favor, as he started to charge forward.
Claudia used a different system of calculations than he did. One that worked.
"Seriously," she said in awe as he collapsed to the ground, unconscious. "I have got to get Artie to give me one of these things." Then she looked down at the guy she'd Tesla'd. "Now that I've caught you, what am I supposed to do with you?"
She didn't have any electrified handcuffs with her this time, but she'd make do.
Her captive was waking up.
"Rise and shine, honey," Claudia sang, right into his ear. Loudly. He jumped, as much as someone duct taped to a chair can jump.
"Who are you?" he asked, pulling at his hands and feet and finding them thoroughly pinned down.
"I'm your worst nightmare," she whispered, snapping her gloves on. "A government employee who really needs to impress her boss."
The look on his face went from scared to confused to scared again.
Awesome as that was, Claudia figured it was time to cut the drama. "Where's the artifact?" she asked.
"The thing that you are using to make people disappear." She searched every inch of the projection room and decided that the only noteworthy object in it was the projector itself, but she wanted to hear it from him to be sure.
"I didn't make anyone disappear," he protested weakly. She gave him the best "oh, really" face she could manage, a hybrid of "Myka, after Pete lies about eating all the cookies" and "Artie, when Claudia claims she didn't use Warehouse inventory without permission".
It worked, so Claudia was either getting really good at that, or the guy was a total lightweight. "I didn't mean to make them disappear," he said. "I didn't know it would happen. You have to believe me."
"Skip the why, I'm really just interested in the how."
He nodded toward the front of the room.
"The projector?" she guessed.
Claudia sighed in relief. "Oh, that's easy enough." She hadn't known how she'd have fit the projector in her little neutralizer bag, and she didn't want to hobble all the way down to Town Hall for the canister of goo. "Just pop and lock it." She had to poke around at the machine for a minute before she could get the film reel free.
"Careful!" the guy squeaked.
"Chill," Claudia assured him. "I'm a pro."
She dropped the film into the bag and shut it. While this did produce a crackle of electricity that impressed the hell out of the guy in the chair, it utterly failed to produce Pete or any of the missing townsfolk.
Claudia wished there was a window in the room from which she could see the street, and not just the empty theater. Rather than walking outside, she tried getting Pete on the Farnsworth. All she got was a blank screen.
"Okay, that didn't quite do the trick." Pacing was out of the option, so she settled for tapping her crutch against the projector. Her captive grimaced satisfyingly with every thunk. "Artifact was neutralized, but no returnees. What good does that do?"
"Was that supposed to bring them back?" the guy asked, skeptically.
Claudia glared at him.
"At least neither of us disappeared," he offered.
"Shut up," she told him, then reconsidered. "No, don't. Talk. Tell me everything about this thing. Now I want to know the why, and also the what and the who. I'm assuming the where is here."
"Could you just let me go first?" he pleaded. "I won't try anything."
"You don't have trust privileges yet. You need to earn those, my friend, and you earn them by talking."
"Can you at least loosen this a little bit?" he squirmed. "The tape is cutting off my circulation."
"You should have thought of that before your little home movie went all 'seven days' on us. Spill. What happened here last night?"
He hung his head in defeat. "It actually started before then. Three nights ago. I had gotten special permission from Saul – the theater owner – to play some old silent short films here. They're new to the collection, I wanted to see if they'd play all right."
"The collection?" Claudia asked.
"I work for the Historical Society."
"Oh, so we're like in the same line of work, except, yours is more boring." The guy just looked puzzled, so she waved the comment away. "Not important, ignore that. Continue."
"My wife was helping me go through them, and we got through the first few with no problem. Then we got to this one." He was getting kind of choked up, and Claudia struggled to maintain her tough-cop persona. "I wasn't really watching it, I was making notes about the last one we'd seen and trying to run the projector at the same time. I just heard – after about a minute – my wife sort of gasped, and I looked up, and she just – disappeared in front of my eyes."
Claudia was suddenly grateful that, whatever had happened to Pete, she hadn't had to see it herself.
"What then?" she asked.
"I stopped the film and ran around everywhere looking for her," he answered. "But she wasn't anywhere."
"What made you so sure it was the movie?"
"I wasn't, at first. I was just panicking. I ran down to the sheriff's office before I realized that I couldn't tell anyone. They'd think I was crazy, or that I'd done something to her. So I went home and checked if she was there and I'd imagined it all. I called her a million times. And then I started doing anything I thought would bring her back. I prayed, I chanted, I took the dog out looking for her, I went to all her favorite spots – I didn't really have a lot of ideas. What do you do when your wife disappears?"
"Take up a hobby," Claudia suggested flippantly. "Something useful, like computers."
"Finally I figured I had to go back to where it happened. I'd been avoiding it. I wasn't sure I wasn't going to disappear. But I figured that if I were going to bring her back, I'd have to recreate the situation she vanished in. But I played the whole movie through and nothing happened." He laughed, unpleasantly. "Not that I noticed. When I went outside, that's when I saw my plan had backfired."
"Wait," Claudia held up a hand. "Back this up and try again. You play part of the movie, one person disappears, and you decide playing the whole thing will make everything better?"
"A movie made my wife disappear," the guy defended himself. "I wasn't about to start dismissing ideas as impossible."
"No, you're right. The impossible happens every day. But that's no reason to ignore logic. Or caution." She bit her lip at that; her captive probably didn't need to know that he was the proverbial black kettle in this situation. "Or to go vanishing people that know what they're doing and just want to help you."
"Pete." That just earned her a blank look. "The Secret Service Agent you tackled in the park, the one who chased you? I know you vanished him. The impossible happens, but two unconnected disappearing artifacts in one town goes beyond impossible, that just flat out isn't real."
The guy at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "I thought he was going to shoot me."
"Please," Claudia scoffed. "Pete is like the nicest person alive. I, on the other hand, would gladly shoot you if I had a real gun. Fortunately for you, no one will give me a gun. Possibly because of my professed willingness to shoot morons. I should ask my boss about that, actually, it seems like the sort of thing he'd be in favor of."
The guy was looked so worried by the end of her rant that Claudia had to ease up on him. "Look, I'm not going to shoot you, or hurt you. Again. Just – tell me how it works."
"I play the movie, and they disappear. What's not to get?"
"Are you trying to annoy me," Claudia groaned. "Okay, how about this. Give me the SparkNotes on this movie."
"What actually happens on screen when the movie's playing?"
He shrugged. "I wasn't watching that closely. I was a little distracted."
Claudia held the filmstrip up to the light and squinted. "It looks like a guy in a hat, with..." she squinted harder. "I'm going blind here. Feel free to chip in at anytime. Is that a bird?"
"I can't see it from over in this chair. In case you didn't notice, I've been tied down." Hey, so the idiot had some backbone, after all. "It's just a bunch of magic tricks or something."
"Magic tricks." Claudia lowered the film. "Like, sawing a woman in half, pulling rabbits out of a hat, or, I don't know, maybe making people disappear?"
"Why does it matter?"
Claudia found herself speechless for a moment. When she recovered her words, she turned away from the man in the chair and grabbed the reel. "Ignoring that. Ignoring you." She started unrolling the film.
"What are you doing?" The guy's voice became unnaturally shrill. "Do you have any idea how old that is?"
"Don't really care," Claudia said. She kept pulling the film off the reel, checking every arms-length to see what was happening in the images. Guy in a room; guy in a room with some birds; guy in a room moving furniture; guy in a room with lots of people; guy alone in a room again –
"Whoa." Claudia held up the tail end of the film. The end was jagged, as though it had been ripped rather than cut. "This one did not win an Academy Award for editing."
"It must have broken somehow," the guy said. "I might have mentioned it's really old. And fragile. Old fragile things break when they're handled carelessly."
"Where did you get this?" Claudia asked.
"It was part of an estate. People leave things to the Historical Society in their wills. That's all there is, though."
"I'm sure. I noticed the damage before I played it, and I asked around, but as far as anyone knew, that's all there ever had been. The rest of the film could be anywhere, if it even still exists. The woman that left it to us had had it since before she came to America."
"Just by some crazy happenstance, was she French?"
"How did you know that?"
"Damn, Artie's good." Claudia's humor evaporated quickly. "But for the love of God, Elvis, and Oprah Winfrey, don't let this be another bifurcated artifact. I may actually have to kill someone if that happens."
Being the most likely candidate for victim if Claudia were to take her frustrations out in homicidal form, the man in the chair was suddenly eager to find an alternative solution. The fact that he didn't really know anything about the artifact business wasn't going to stop him. "You said you neutralized it, right?"
"Right, but it didn't work."
"Well, neutralizing something isn't the same as undoing it. I mean, you just stopped it from doing what it does, you didn't actually change what it had already done."
"Shoot. You have a point. Of course, that brings us to a very good question."
"How do you make the film undo something it did?" The guy sighed. "Trust me, if I could figure that one out, I wouldn't be talking to you. I'd get my wife back."
"Get your wife back," Claudia repeated slowly, before shouting: "Oh my God, it's a joke."
The guy looked offended. "It's pretty serious to me."
"Yeah, sure. Look, stupid person that ruined everything."
"Yeah, I like mine better," Claudia was talking too quickly; her words were tripping into each other, but she couldn't slow down. "No, that's horrible. God, I sound like Artie. And you're only half stupid. Okay, Jack. How does this projector thing work?"
"If you untied my hands – "
"Not happening. Use your words like a big boy."
Jack conceded. Not that he had much of a choice. "You load the film in there," he tried gesturing. "No, lower – there."
"Like this?" Claudia tried jamming the film into the machine.
Jack actually yelped. "Stop! It has to be spooled properly. It could break. Or catch fire."
Claudia finally paused and breathed, giving herself a moment to think about what would happen to Pete and everyone in town if the film burned while they were gone. "Point taken. Back on the reel?"
"No need to get snippy," she said, rolling the film back up, her speech speeding back up. "You sound like me answering my boss's thirtieth identical question about flash drives – but computers are useful things that people actually know about. Don't act like everyone knows how to run antique movie projectors."
"I shouldn't have gotten rid of the other guy," Jack complained. "At least he wasn't annoying."
"Well, live and learn," Claudia said, holding the reel up to the projector. "Okay, how do I make it go?"
Jack gave her a funny look. "You've got it backwards."
"Trust me on this. Now how do I make it work?"
It took a little coaching, but eventually Jack got her to load the film properly and turn the projector on.
"Roll camera," he said, after what felt like an eternity.
Claudia was actually bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet at this point, but with Jack's warning on her mind, she made sure to turn the handle on the projector slowly.
"You can go faster than that," he said. "You probably should if you don't want it to burn."
"Okay," Claudia said happily. She cranked it faster, watching as the magician on the screen wandered around an empty room. He waved his hands around a lot. He also kicked over chairs, but viewed backwards, it looked as though he were magically setting them back on their feet.
She turned the handle a little faster, so fast the magician was blurry. Before she could worry if that was a problem, a figure popped up on the screen next to him, and in the best kind of life imitating art, Pete popped into existence in the doorway, gun drawn and face surprised.
"It's working!" Claudia squealed, but kept rolling the film. More and more people were popping into the room next to the magician. Claudia could only assume that more people were popping up all over town.
Finally, a woman appeared in the room that Claudia guessed was Jack's wife from the way she fell all over him asking if he was okay. Claudia kept rolling through to the very beginning of the film, just in case.
As soon as she hit it, Jack told her to take the film out, and went off again about how fragile these old films were. She figured he was a little loopy at the moment but did as he said. Her shaking hands slowed her down a little though.
Claudia was dimly aware of Jack's wife tearing him free of the duct tape. She was also aware of Pete behind her, asking her if she was okay, what happened, where'd these people come from, is that the artifact? She couldn't think how to answer him. She couldn't think of any words to say until the film was safely in the neutralizer bag once more – for good, this time.
She turned to Jack with a huge smile on her face. "Jack," she said, startling him and his wife. "What do you get when you play a country song backwards?"
He blinked. "I really just listen to classical music."
"And the moral of the story is, Pete always makes a comeback."
They were sitting around Artie's office. Claudia had just finished giving a full report, with Pete chiming in with mostly unhelpful comments – either completely irrelevant facts, or total fabrications of things he hadn't been there to see in the first place.
"No," Claudia corrected him. "More like, moral of the story is, never doubt Claudia."
"The moral of the story is, never split up and always do exactly what Artie tells you to do," Artie growled.
"Yeah, that doesn't really work when you're hundreds of miles away," Pete pointed out.
"That barely works when you're in the next room," Claudia added.
"Burn." Pete and Claudia fist-bumped.
"I'm surrounded by children," Artie confided in the ceiling. "Children that never grow up."
"Artie, it's not that bad," Claudia said in a more serious tone. "I won't deny, it got a little hairy-scary there for a minute, but we pulled it out of the bag anyway."
"That's not the point," Artie snapped. "You pulled it off this time. But that does not make you a full field agent."
"Hate to break it to you, Artie, but that's basically the job I'm doing these days," Claudia snapped back. "So maybe it's time you treated me like one and trusted me not to screw everything up."
"Oh, in your dreams. You are not ready for that responsibility, and if you can't follow directions, than maybe you're not ready to be out in the field at all."
"You are unbelievable, old man. Is 'good work' just not in your vocabulary?"
"Whoa, okay there," Pete said, raising his hands up like he could block their glares. "There's some hurt feelings here, I get that, maybe we should all just take a little breather, you know, think things over."
"Fine," Claudia said, grabbing the reel of film. "I'll just go find somewhere to store this. You know. Since inventory's all I'm good for."
"Claude," Pete called after her, but she kept walking, down the stairs and through row after row of artifacts.
With her bad ankle, it didn't take her long to get tired, and she soon stopped to lean up against a post and wonder where the hell she was going to put the artifact if she didn't even know what it was.
"Hey," Leena said from down the row.
"Hey," Claudia shot back.
Leena walked over gracefully. Claudia bet Leena had never looked awkward in her life. She could probably pull off the one-crutch thing no problem.
"Looking for something?" Leena offered.
"Looking for nothing," Claudia answered. "Looking for a big open vacancy for this troublemaker."
"Our newest artifact," Leena said, looking it over. "Very nice. And nice work bagging it."
Claudia laughed. "Oh, shucks, this? It was nothing."
"I've got just the spot for it," Leena told her. "It's not too far."
They set off at a fairly slow pace, all the same.
"Artie did some research, you know." Leena told her after a moment's silence. "While you and Pete were driving home. He thinks your movie magician might be Georges Méliès."
"I'm really more familiar with the David Blaine and Harry Potter schools of magic," Claudia said.
"He made a lot of movies around the turn of the century. He was really successful, too, for a while. Then he went bankrupt, and a lot of his films were lost or destroyed."
That might explain how an old French woman ended up with one, but Claudia had to wonder why she was getting Story Time With Leena. "Is this going somewhere in particular?"
Leena just smiled. "I thought you'd be interested."
Claudia shook her head. "No. Silent movies are boring."
"They're not all that bad," Leena said. "But maybe magic isn't what you're looking for right now. I bet you'd like Buster Keaton."
"It's against my policy, but I'm intrigued by the name Buster," Claudia said. "Does he beat people up?"
"Himself, mostly. And he gets chased around by a bunch of incompetent cops, sometimes."
"That sounds more like it," Claudia said. "We should pull Pete in on this, too, he might learn something."
"Movie night at the B&B tomorrow, then," Leena said. "I'll bring the Twizzlers."