The apocalypse didn't start right away. At least, that's how Nic put it, when he put a call through to Richard a couple of days after their realisation about the five sound files.
"There's not going to be an apocalypse," Richard said, automatically. "If there is, there's no reason to attribute anything paranormal to it, since we're perfectly capable of destroying ourselves with mundane methods."
"Well, yeah, I get that," said Nic. "But I was wondering, since we're not all off to hell in a handbasket today, if you'd come and talk to Alex. She's dwelling."
"I'm not sure what you expect me to do about that," said Richard. "I'm sure she has a lot to process."
Nic shifted on the other end of the line, obviously uncomfortable. "I thought maybe you could coax her out."
Richard had lectured at many colleges, so he had a good line in appalled silence. He let Nic suffer for an appropriate moment, and then said, "I am not bait."
"I know, I know, I'm sorry," said Nic. "It's just, I need the suite for some other audio stuff."
Richard put his annoyance aside. He forgot sometimes that Nic and Alex ran a business, that they were professionals in their own right. It was a good thing, which heartened him as much as it frustrated him, that there were people turning over the same facts as him, but with different tools and understanding.
"I'll come over and see if she's ready for a break," he said, and reached for his keys.
Alex surrendered the recording suite readily enough when Richard appeared. "I was thinking, maybe it would be useful to make a proper catalogue of those extra black tapes you finally showed me," she said, leaning through the open door. "Something chronological, so we can look for connections."
Richard opened his mouth to say that there were no connections, and she tipped her chin down and fixed him with a stern expression. "You said you didn't know if they were connected or not," she said. "You specifically said it, I have it on tape."
"You're taking advantage of a statement uttered at the end of a very long, very confusing, very emotional couple of days," said Richard.
"Yes," said Alex. "Doesn't make it not true, though."
There wasn't much room for argument there, unfortunately. Well, strictly speaking, Richard could find ideological points to argue on any subject, but in this case it wouldn't be honest, because he couldn't prove there wasn't a connection between all the tapes. If there was, if there was an improbable, tenuous link, Alex was the one best qualified to find it. The best part was that she would enjoy the hunt, and for her, it would be without the emotional baggage that came with the fear that the tapes were connected.
The drive over to his father's house was busy and frustrating: holiday traffic and slick roads. Alex had plenty of time to uncurl her legs and look up at the grey sky.
"You're quiet," said Richard. "This is usually your prime interrogation time: when I'm defending myself against school buses and angry cab drivers."
Alex laughed. "When you're vulnerable, you mean?" She shifted in her seat, moving around to watch him instead of the passing road. "I just found out we might have triggered the apocalypse. That's a lot to take on board; give a girl a chance to catch her breath."
Richard didn't take the bait on that one, and she snorted.
"You didn't say, 'You know there's not going to be an apocalypse.' That… kind of feels like an apocalypse in itself."
"Would it make you feel better if I did?" he said.
Alex hunched into the collar of her bright red coat miserably. "It might," she said. "I feel a childish urge to cling to the familiar, even if it is a stubborn sceptic's words."
"Ah, then," he said, turning down the right street. "I have a whole closet full of the familiar, waiting for you to tear into. It should be perfect."
Inside the study, where he kept the black tapes, Alex pushed the closet completely open and put her hands on her hips with an expression of relish. Richard put the lights on; this was a gloomy house, he found, and even in the middle of the day it needed extra illumination.
"There's so many," said Alex. "I mean, that's great; look at all the information we'll be able to index." She turned to look at him. "What will you do when they stop making VHS boxes? That's bound to happen, eventually."
Richard frowned. "I hadn't really thought about it as a future prospect," he said. "I always imagined the files would be a finite source."
Alex pulled an early box out and flipped it open to browse the contents. "Oh, I think this is a life work."
"Now that is frightening," he said.
"Really?" said Alex. "I've never heard you admit to fear before, not about the tapes."
Richard regarded her. "It's not frightening to consider a lifetime of unsolvable cases ahead of you?"
"Well, honestly, I'd think you'd relish it."
"Not if what you theorise is correct: that the accumulating cases are interconnected. At some point I have to wonder what they're accumulating around. Crystals form at a focus point; we need to investigate what that might be."
"You won't say it, so I will," said Alex. "You. You're the focus point."
Richard bit down on the sharpness of his retort. "That would be a dangerous level of narcissism. Even for an academic." He glanced at the clock in the corner of the room. "Would you like some tea?"
When he returned, Alex had the tapes out, and was sorting them into decades. The ubiquitous recorder sat on a teetering pile he could identify as the nineties. She took her mug and sat cross-legged beside the eighties.
"Are you opening any of those?" he said, pointing at the earliest tapes. "There's actual VHS tapes in some of them." He'd have to go and see if his father still had a VCR somewhere.
Alex sipped her tea and shook her head. "I'm mostly getting dates down on this first pass. Maybe I could take a couple to the studio later? Nic can convert them to digital for you."
Richard leaned against the wall and held his mug between his hands for the warmth. "That would be fine. Wonderful, actually."
Alex was watching him while she drank her tea, and that meant to brace for a personal question. He took a sip himself and let the heat sink into his chest. The comfort, and his need for it was surprising.
"I've built a cage around you," Alex said, pointing at the columns of tapes. "Do you ever want to throw the whole lot in the trash and walk away?"
Richard shook his head. "I could never do that. Could you?"
Alex laughed. "Never. Not in a million years. Not knowing would be… intolerable."
She said the words just as he would have, and Richard laughed too. "Exactly."
"How does it feel, to think you've had a vision? Even if you're convinced you made it up, what did you want to feel?"
Richard looked at her, betrayed that she'd put him at ease before socking him with the personal question. "You planned that one."
Alex smiled her checkmate smile. "Journalist," she said. "I gotta do my thing, too. But at the same time, it's a thing that interests me, about your scepticism. Your teenage friends thought you had a vision that led you to find the body of Bobby Maimes, but you say you constructed the most likely path logically."
"That's how I remember it," said Richard. "There was definitely no vision. Or anything supernatural about it, beyond maybe a subconscious piecing together of information I already had."
"You're talking about the dream your friend described. All the pieces coming together – actually, that does make a kind of sense." Alex leaned on one hand and sipped her tea. "I wonder if a lot of police psychics work similarly? It would be interesting to investigate."
"Interesting but unverifiable." Richard wasn't ready to let his shoulders relax yet.
"Okay, so what were your expectations, those days you were looking for Coralee? What was supposed to happen when you tried to tap into that ability again – what were you hoping would happen? And, more importantly, how did you try to make it happen?"
Richard took a few steps from the wall, and turned in a circle looking for a safe place to sit. The armchair was piled with tapes, so he eased himself down cross-legged on the floor to face her.
"I'm only talking about this on the understanding that you accept the circumstances in which it happened: I was desperate, I thought Coralee was possibly dead, I wasn't rational. And nothing happened."
Alex nodded. "Got it. Tell me what you imagined you were recreating, I guess."
Richard remembered: the dust of the gas station, the fading bustle of police business, the ache of not knowing what had happened. The sensation of remembering was not pleasant, and it gave him that prickle of anxiety, the goose bumps and the internal chill that he liked to ascribe to the caveman part of his brain, the instinctive and interpretive part that saw magic in smoke and paint on walls.
"I suppose you could describe it as a mental exercise," he said, opening his eyes. "I tried to reach out for her with my mind, tried to picture her face and connect that to where she was located."
"A meditation," said Alex. "A visualisation that you hoped would lead to an actual vision."
Richard nodded, swiftly. "Exactly. Similar to the kind of mental practice you do as a child, to increase memory or awareness."
The moment he said it, he knew he'd said something unusual. Alex looked at him, expectant and surprised, waiting for more details, which, of course, immediately made him want to stay silent.
After a full two minutes of waiting him out, Alex relented. "You say that like every child does that kind of mental exercise."
Richard remembered his father teaching him to clear his mind, to practice focus and concentration. "Didn't you?" he said, finally.
"Not really," said Alex. "Not until I went through a vegan phase and got into meditation, but that was kind of self-motivated. I get that your dad was invested in you following in his footsteps, but did you ever wonder if he was part of this Cult of Tiamat thing? Enough to try to encourage you to develop abilities?"
"After the past few days, I'm starting to wonder a lot of things," said Richard. "I taught those exercises to Charlie," he added angrily. "I thought it would be helpful to her, I thought it was good for her mind."
Alex put down her mug and shuffled closer. "You raised Charlie to be a resilient person," she said. "Even if your father was involved in a cult, or people are following your family, I doubt you've done anything that puts her in danger."
"That's not the thing I'm worried about," said Richard. God, he hated doubt, he hated how it made you question everything. "What if, instead of making her stronger, I've made her more vulnerable? What if they're watching her? What if just being part of this family has made her feel unsafe?"
"I'm not a parent, so please don't take this the wrong way," said Alex. "Parents doubt themselves all the time – I have pretty great parents, even though I'll admit they've made mistakes – but the thing is, you guys don't get to see how that stuff affects us. We have to take it on board and process it into a life and a philosophy, and from what I've seen of Charlie, she's very, very good at that."
Richard stared down into his empty mug. "Thank you," he said. "That's reassuring to hear."
"She doesn't know, does she?" said Alex. "That you've seen Coralee – that she's alive."
Richard had picked up the phone, he really had. He'd dialled the number Charlie had given him for emergencies only, then imagined how that conversation would proceed, and hung up. "I need more information," he said. "She'll want details. More than we have at the moment."
Alex grinned, quite ferocious. "She is definitely not the only one," she said.
That uncomfortable conversation about Charlie was very motivating. Alex followed on his heels and he didn't complain, not even dealing with something as personal as his family. Charlie's safety was more important.
"My father gave me a book when I was five," he said, down in the basement. "A child's book, about mental focus and concentration, written for a child's understanding. I remember it had drawings of mythological creatures in it, which I found fascinating at the time, but in retrospect, seem a little odd."
"Mythological creatures. Dragons?" said Alex.
"Dragons," said Richard. "You can't blame me for not reading anything into it – I was a kid. Dragons were cool."
"I wouldn't blame a child for not suspecting he's being inducted into a cult of Tiamat," said Alex. "That would be mean." She heaved a box down from a shelf and opened it: Christmas decorations, and the spiky green plastic branches of a tree. "Do you remember the title? The publisher, any logos or marks on the spine that could help us track it down?"
Richard grimaced. "It was spiral bound – those plastic combs, a green one. I think it was a small press, self-published thing, maybe."
"Oh," said Alex. "That's a bit ominous."
"Yes," said Richard. "The illustrations were water coloured, possibly by hand. There was a texture to the paper from it." He wrenched a box down himself, angrily, and ripped the top open: Tupperware. "Why am I remembering this now? It's useless trying to put a complete picture of anything together, when fundamentally, memory is a patchwork of facts in a flawed chemical set of signals that changes over time."
Alex held up a giant blue stuffed bear, half the size of her. "Here, give it a punch," she said. "Let it out."
Richard put the Tupperware down, and took the bear from her. "This was my sister's," he said. "Her boyfriend won it for her at some fair."
"You were still close then?"
Richard shrugged, and propped the bear on a shelf. "We were never close, as such," he said. "I don't think we were the kind of family that gets close." He wondered what that said about him, as a father. He wanted to be close to Charlie, he wanted that quite desperately now, to know she was safe, and able to protect herself whenever needed.
Alex leaned against the shelf opposite. "Did your father do those mental exercises with Cheryl, too?"
Richard searched for the memory, and found nothing. "I have no idea. We never talked about it. There was a lot we never talked about, I'm starting to realise." He looked around the basement, dark and dusty and shadowed with cobwebs, and felt an urge to flee. "Do you want to get out of here for a while?"
Alex checked her watch. "I could eat," she said. "Let's get some fresh air."
The breeze in the little open arcade they found was brisk, but Richard didn't relish sitting inside a steamy, crowded café in his current mood. "Do you mind if we eat outside?" he said, pointing to the wrought iron tables under a striped awning.
Alex turned up the collar of her coat. "I'm game if you are," she said. "It's quieter out here, anyway." She waved her recorder.
Richard nodded, taking it as a friendly reminder that she was still doing her job. It was bothering him less and less to reveal these aspects of himself to her, the more he found out about his family and whatever the hell Coralee had been involved in. He held a chair for Alex, took a seat himself, then pored over the uninspired menu.
"I was thinking about your first black tape," said Alex. "The one you based on yourself, the video with you and Cheryl."
"What about it?" said Richard. "At least I took a record of that event; memories keep coming back to me in different forms or interpretations makes me want to carry a digital recorder with me everywhere now, too."
"That would be awesome, and I wish you weren't joking," said Alex.
"Half," said Richard. "At this point, I'd have to admit that I'm only half joking about it."
The waiter came, they ordered, and Alex politely refrained from discussing the cult of Tiamat in front of him. Richard sat in his chair and waited for more questions.
"Cheryl said – and I'm sorry again for the intrusion on your privacy but it does seem relevant, understanding more about your father's interest in Tiamat – that he responded badly to your belief as a young boy that the shadow people posed a threat to your family."
"He did. It was a surprise; my father wasn't, as a rule, effusive in his reaction to anything." He trusted that memory: his father shouting, and the bright pain of the beating. Adrenaline. Sears the facts right in.
Alex leaned against her seat. "Cheryl said your father told you to trust in facts – something I'd expect the father of Doctor Richard Strand to say. Your work is scrupulously facts-based. Your whole philosophy is facts-based. But if your father were involved in the cult of Tiamat, or the whole thing with the gifted children, or tried to encourage you to experience visions, doesn't that seem a little antithetical?"
The plates arrived and Richard moved his glass to make room on the little table. "I suppose it depends on which facts my father wanted me to trust in."
Alex poked at her lunch with a wry expression. "Because we totally get to pick and choose the facts we believe."
"I didn't mean it like that," said Richard. "No, actually, I do mean it like that. I can't imagine him being in a situation where you would have to choose what you believe. Facts are faith; they are simply there. Incontrovertible, whether you believe them or not."
"Faith is a pretty big part of peoples' lives, though," said Alex. "Maybe you're disturbed to discover that he was one of them."
Richard pressed his lips together for a moment. "No, I'm disturbed to discover that I might have inadvertently put my own family – Charlie, Coralee – in danger, though a foolish belief to which he subscribed. I want to know went on in the past, and what's happening now. And what's real."
"I feel we've come full circle," said Alex. "The first time we met, you wanted answers and proof. You made it sound simple."
"It's not simple now. The problem with memory, especially with children's memory, is that it's shaped by the events, the interpretation, how personalities and beliefs change over time. It's so unreliable. And that is frustrating me. Intensely." He stabbed his fork into a potato and watched it disintegrate. He looked up at Alex. "What do you do, when this happens on a story? I feel the ground is crumbling away underneath me."
"Avoid the precipice entirely," said Alex. "Return to the thing you are completely certain of, and start moving forward again. And – I'm sorry, you'll hate this phrasing – you feel for the things that are right. However you want to interpret it, your mind has all the information in there. You just have to get it out." She was eating much more enthusiastically, caught up in her own mental review of the facts. "Let's start with the mental exercises you used to do – they're either normal brain development stuff that an academic man used to train his son's mental processes, or they're some kind of cultish path towards paranormal abilities."
Richard felt a familiar and actually quite fond annoyance. "Presenting that as just two possibilities is not good logic," he said. "There are a wealth of explanations between those two points; don't use binary logic to force me to choose between normal and paranormal."
Alex scraped up the last of her beurre blanc sauce triumphantly. "Do all those other options make a great deal of difference to the fundamental argument? I mean really, right now, while you're worried about your family history?"
Richard watched her, silent. She knew the answer already; he didn't have to say it.
"You've studied religious practices all over the world, as well as supernatural beliefs. What kind of meditation can you relate the exercises to?"
Richard thought about it, brought a memory up: an afternoon's practice with his father in the garden. Spring? Green, anyway, and he was about seven or eight. He had to clear his mind. His father had an image pattern for him to follow: the long path, dusty and uphill. Then a visualisation of a rock, rounded, with moss crawling into spiral runnels, which he had to follow with his inner eyes to the very centre. And at the centre, at the centre of the spiral he'd see… something green. Something empty and green.
"Doctor Strand? Richard!" Alex's voice was panicked, and he turned to her to see why. Traffic hooted, and tires screamed in the slick, not-quite rain.
He found he was standing up, off the sidewalk and in the road. A delivery van inched past him. The driver flipped him the bird.
Alex took him by the elbow and pulled him to the sidewalk. "You just walked off! Are you okay?"
Richard shook her hand off. "Yes, I'm fine," he said. He looked around; they were only a few feet away from their table, but the waiter had come running out of the café with a suspicious expression.
Alex looked over her shoulder and grimaced. "Let me go fix that up – you stay here, okay?" She fixed him with a stern gaze. "Don't go anywhere. Don't do anything weird and unpredictable."
"Unpredictable? Have you met me?" said Richard, unhappily. Nonetheless, he stayed put on his square of pavement, while rain fell half-heartedly out of the sky and misted on the wool of his coat.
Alex was back in a few minutes, tucking her recorder into her purse and walking briskly through the drizzle.
Richard pressed his lips together for a moment, considering how to phrase this. He settled for straightforward. "Please don't ask me if I had a vision. I didn't."
Alex made a face. "That would be tacky of me to do that," she said. "First I'd ask if you were feeling all right – then I'd ask if you were experiencing any physical symptoms like disorientation or dizziness. Then it would be all about the visions."
Richard sighed. "I had a momentary childhood flashback," he said. He walked, forward: he didn't care what direction they went, but this area was lined with little stores and boutiques, and there didn't seem to be any immediate danger of him running into the road. Alex kept pace with him.
"Of the childhood mediations?" she said.
"Yes," he said, shortly. "It was a memory of doing the exercises with my father, in a garden."
"It's okay," said Alex. "Let's be real: family makes everyone do weird stuff. You want to head home? It'll get dark soon."
The streetlights were coming on: cutesy little iron lamps, meant to give a sort of kitsch village charm. They'd come to a stop outside a second-hand bookstore.
Alex looked at Richard, and he shook his head. "Neither of us are the kind of people who turn from bookstores."
"It's true," said Alex. "Resistance is futile."
Richard knew enough to recognise a reference soaring over his head, but honestly, he needed the distraction more than he did an explanation. The little store was warm and bright, empty of everyone except staff, and there were plenty of seats where he could sit and browse while he let his head clear.
He wandered narrow aisles, vaguely aware of Alex's footsteps elsewhere in the store, more comforted than he cared to admit by the familiar architecture of every second-hand bookstore he'd ever been in: doglegged corners, teetering piles of books and odd places to rest and think. The smell of old paper was everywhere. He picked up a raggedy edition of The Golden Bough from the seventies, annotated all over with tiny, scribbly print and the occasional sketch, and flicked through it just for the pleasure of remembering the first time he'd found such a thing.
Somewhere deeper in the store, he heard a clatter of falling books, followed by a sharp gasp – Alex's voice, he realised.
"Alex?" he said, then, more urgently, "Are you all right? Alex?" He moved further into the store, until he spotted the bright red of her coat in the children's section. She stood ankle deep in a pile of old colouring books; he saw slashes of crayon-coloured pages, children's drawings scrawled across thick black lined images. In her hand, she held a spiral bound book with a familiar navy blue cover.
She held it up for him, and he saw the image of the dragon crest on the front. It had seemed impossibly heraldic at the time, but now, his educated mind picked out all the discrepancies on the shield. He could see the pages of the book crinkled slightly in Alex's fingers, as if the paper had gotten wet. The title read 'A Child's Path to Clarity', and wrapped around the crest in the centre was a five-headed dragon. He couldn't breath for a moment; his lungs refused to inflate, there was a hand squeezing them still. Adrenaline. Adrenaline made the memories crisp, and he realised he would remember this moment forever, no matter what it meant. No matter what the source. No matter the nature of it.
"It's not mine," he said, suddenly. "It's not mine – mine had a green spine. Didn't I say it had a green spine?" It was all he could say, looking at the thing in her hand with the curled plastic spine in blue. Could he even trust that memory? Could he trust anything inside his head anymore?
"But," said Alex, helplessly, holding it in her hand. "But how could this be a coincidence? How did you not lead us directly to the book we were talking about?"
Richard found he was holding tight to the bookshelf beside him, his fingers curled around a copy of AA Milne poetry. "Coincidences exist," he said, quietly. "They have to, or we would never have built belief structures."
Alex's voice trembled, with intensity and, he thought, a little anger. "That is not an answer."
"I don't have an answer for this," said Richard. He reached out for the book and she pulled it away, as if frightened he would take it and run. He slowed his movements, and gently loosened her fingers so he could hold it. He could feel the cambric texture of the cheap cardboard cover: definitely homemade, definitely water-coloured by hand. All he could think was that this might help Charlie, this could free Coralee. This could throw off whatever those people had been planning for him and his family line.
"You have to talk to me about this," said Alex. "Please don't take this and disappear, please don't use this to deny what happened here."
He nodded. "I will. I promise. Just – let's take it home. We need to work on this. Together." He looked at her. "You understand, I can't say this is supernatural. Not now, not until we've investigated it properly. It probably isn't. It's coincidence, almost certainly."
"Almost certainly," said Alex. "Is most definitely not certain."
"I'll accede that point," said Richard. He flicked to the front of the book and read the price. "If you lend me two dollars."
They both gathered up the fallen books and went to the counter to pay.