The house was big. Not so grotesquely large that you could get lost inside it, with the kind of living room that went on for days, with ceilings so high you could barely see if the fan—there was always a fan—was spinning way up there in the stratosphere.
Even though this house was none of that, it was still far too large for two people, even people who couldn't stand each other and needed to go days without seeing their partner's face.
Not that the current occupants had that problem.
The previous owners might have, though. This particular house had gone through at least three sets of owners in the last ten years, all of whom either couldn't keep up with the gargantuan mortgage payments, or with the ballooning repair costs. Or the problem might have been the way people kept disappearing in the middle of the night.
Cassie felt like she should have bought a needlepoint to put on the wall: home sweet Division home.
She pushed the back door open with one foot while she tried to keep from dropping the heavy box she carried. What the hell had she been thinking, letting Nick pack anything, anyway? If all his boxes weren't full of holey henleys and empty beer bottles, she'd... Well, she'd probably claim whatever it was for herself. All she had with her was a bland new suburban wardrobe and matching hairstyle.
"Oh, shit! Is this a home theater?"
Cassie dropped the box to follow Nick's voice out of the kitchen and down a short hall. She found him standing in the middle of a room off the garage. He fit right in with the house, with his dark pants and a tidy button-down shirt that looked like it had been sewn for his body alone. His beard was heavier than she'd ever seen it before, dark and thick but neatly trimmed, and his hair was dyed to match, eliminating all traces of his usual sun-bleached color. He'd been dressed like this all day, but she still felt the shock of the sight in her stomach every time he came in view again.
She shook her head. Not the point, Cass.
Nick crossed his arms—pulling the sleeves dangerously tight around them—and nodded up to where a flashlight bobbed in mid-air. Its beam was weak in the afternoon light, but it picked out the shape of a small depression in the otherwise smooth ceiling directly overhead.
"That's the shittiest plastering I've seen in here yet. Could have been projector mount, maybe?"
After a beat, the flashlight dropped into Nick's outstretched hand. "I thought Phan swept."
"If he did, he would have cleaned up after himself. Maybe he's as good at home repair as he is with car shopping."
Nick clapped the flashlight to his chest and threw back his head. "Too soon!"
He'd argued for a good day and a half with Phan about what kind of vehicles their cover required. Phan wanted used European sedans, the better to blend with. Nick insisted on something flashier for both of them. Instead, they'd shown up at the rendezvous last night to find a minivan that somehow managed to look exactly like a shoebox had mated with a roller skate.
"Well, whatever it was," Cassie told him, ignoring his increasingly animated groans of mock pain, "it's your home theater now. Help me finish unloading the van and then you can call and yell at him until somebody delivers a nice new sound system."
It took the better part of the waning afternoon to get everything inside, but once it was unpacked it barely made a dent in the sheer overwhelming volume of the house. Some bedding, towels, toiletries, three suitcases of clothes, a huge box of groceries, and—now—three and a half beers. Everywhere the signs of their occupation were dwarfed by the acres of engineered wood floors and plain white walls.
Nick sprawled on the floor a few feet away from where Cassie sat, where the couch would be if the movers ever arrived. He had one arm draped over his face and his untucked shirt bunched up to expose a few inches of his hairy stomach. He was a lot softer around the edges than she remembered.
"I hope no one calls in the welcome wagon," he said, his voice muffled slightly by his elbow. "We're fucked if anyone sees how little we brought with us. I think you used to carry more crap between flops."
"Threadbare tights and too many bottles of vodka, yeah, those take up a lot of space."
Sniping back at him was more a force of habit than any real desire to argue. Cassie didn't even look up from the notebook she was flipping through, trying to find the number of the moving company. If the truck didn't show up by dark, they'd be bunking down on the floor, and she'd already had enough of that for six lifetimes, thanks.
Of course, if the truck didn't show up by dark, they'd have to find something else to occupy the hours... She shook off the thought. One never-acknowledged lapse of judgment did not an ongoing thing make. Obviously. Right?
Nick rolled over and pushed himself up off the ground. He stretched his arms over his head, seeming to loom almost as tall as the ceiling from her new vantage point. "So what's the plan, anyway? Tomorrow, I mean. Phan said the school's the likeliest place to look, but..."
"How do we get in?" she finished for him.
She abandoned the notebook and her phone to lean back on her elbows. Nick's gaze dropped down the front of her shirt and stayed there just long enough to send her heart thumping into her throat.
"Right," he said, looking as distracted as he sounded. "Been a long time since you passed as a kid."
As compliments went, it kind of blew, but her heart sped up and sweat popped under her arms all the same. Cassie had spent a lot of years chasing those kinds of words from Nick Gant.
The house was ridiculous, the town revolting, and their plan so underdeveloped it didn't even qualify as half-cocked, but, okay, maybe there could be some perks.
"It's been a long time since Division reared its head, too. I know Delroy told you they're targeting the kids here, but... I don't know. Something doesn't feel right."
"Uh-huh," Nick said.
"Even if it is what she says it is, maybe it's got nothing to do with the school. It could be their doctors that connect them, or the day they went grocery shopping every week." A little bit of that speculation was lost in the sweater she pulled over her head. Static electricity sent her hair floating around her, the ends—boring, blonde, blunt—clinging to her cheeks.
Nick didn't stare so much as he just ... stopped looking anywhere else. "Sure, yeah."
Cassie pretended not to notice and flapped the front of her tank top to get the air circulating a little. The house was stuffy and she definitely needed to stop remembering so much.
"I mean, we don't even know who it is taking people. All we have is Delroy's word. They might not even be taken."
"Yeah, absolutely," Nick agreed.
She rolled her eyes. Nick was the whole reason they were even here in this house, let alone the town. He'd gotten the story directly from Tanith Delroy. Once upon a time, before Division fell, she had worked in the old facility here. Back when it was the only building in the middle of a wooded lot surrounded by high sturdy fences and nobody bothered to ask any questions.
There was no one else who remembered whatever had been there before the subdivision that went up seemingly overnight. Only Delroy, who watched and waited and worried that the work hadn't stopped—that it had been disguised instead.
When the weight of her suspicion finally got to be too much, Delroy found Nick in his trailer by the sea. And the two of them came looking for Cassie, who had first swept an ink-stained finger along the contours of the woman's face in her notebook almost a decade earlier.
There wasn't much of a network left, not after so many years. But together, Nick and Cassie had gathered up the handful of people they needed. It seemed like a longshot that Delroy could be right about Division surviving here, of all places, this innocuous town where the wrong color mailbox could throw an entire street into upheaval, but if they were... Who else could stop them?
Now Cassie held up a hand. Nick looked blankly at it for a minute, then shook his head and pulled her to her feet in one quick and easy motion.
"All of that can wait," she said, trying to be reasonable. "We can, uh, get acquainted with the neighbors, or—"
She trailed off. It was hard to remember where she was going with that when his hand brushed up the entire length of her arm. She took a deep breath that caught in her throat when he rubbed a thumb against her cheek.
"Dust," he said. "Dirty work. Gotta keep you presentable. Wouldn't want to blow our cover."
Grinning, he popped the collar of his shirt and walked into the kitchen. Cassie heard the fridge open, the clank of bottles, a cap twisting off. His footsteps receded in the direction of his new project.
"Yeah," Cassie sighed. "Sure wouldn't want that."
Of all the things that could keep Cassie awake long into the darkest parts of the night, reliving the feel of Nick's fingers was pretty pleasant. It seemed all day like he went out of his way to touch her, as they shifted boxes and unpacked a semblance of a shared life. Or maybe that was her greedy imagination. When she looked at him, she remembered everything—the weight of him against her; all the sweaty-limbed visions that had never come to pass and the one that did; the look of his sleeping face when she snuck out of his trailer that gloomy winter morning years ago.
Deeply and horribly frustrating, all of it, but miles better than a lot of the other memories that crowded her head. Past and future.
She wanted a drink. She wanted a drink so badly it was almost as if she'd already had it. The oily floral scent of gin tickling her nose. The burn of the first shot of whiskey on an empty stomach. That sweet tilting oblivion waited for her; just one drop was all she needed, and there it would be again. It filled the room around her—the wanting, the craving—so hot and immediate enough it crowded out everything else.
Well, almost everything. Through the wall behind her head she could hear Nick's rumbling snore as clearly as if he were in the same room.
Once, in Iloilo, while Cassie counted, Nick went almost ten seconds between breaths—a lifetime. She liked to tell herself she was getting up to check on him, one of her feet already on the dirty floor when his snore returned, a long rattling snort that a cat in the alley answered with a yowl.
Now she lay stiff as a board in the wide soft bed. She tucked the sheet carefully around herself, tight as a pregnant woman's belly, and counted how long he took between each breath. If his breathing fell out of a steady rhythm... If the space between inhale and exhale took longer than a few seconds, she promised herself, she could have one drink. Maybe one drink for each second, that seemed fair. Nobody had to know. It didn't even have to be a real drink. Just a swallow of that last beer Nick left in the fridge, a domestic lager that would probably be a skunky as anything she'd ever traded for in a dirty market.
Karis would answer if she called. Marisol would, too, or Bertz, or Will. She had friends, now: sponsors and support and casual acquaintances. All she had to do was dial a number—any number—and ask for help. Not even in so many words. They all knew what it meant to hear from her in the middle of the night.
Nick snored, loud enough to wake himself up. She heard springs creak as he turned over.
Cassie pushed away her covers. The floor was cold under her bare feet when she went into the bathroom, her phone still on the nightstand behind her.
By the time Cassie made it downstairs, the sun was just coming up over the trees behind the house. The kitchen was still dark, though some kind of nightlight under the wall-mounted microwave spilled soft yellow light like melted butter over the counter. A cluster of cereal boxes lined up in order next to the fridge, which creaked when she opened it.
The last beer sat alone on the top shelf, like it was waiting for her. The glass was so cold her fingers started to ache as soon as she touched it.
"I thought you quit."
Cassie turned to find Nick sitting at the kitchen table. A shiny lighter tumbled lazily in front of him and the dry, sweet stink of old tobacco rode on the air.
"Thought you did, too."
He shrugged. "Couple of times now. I'm better at it some days than others."
Cassie couldn't help but smile at that. "See? You and me, we make a real team."
"Better than a dumbass."
The wanting never went far, but it receded a little more every time she smiled. She left the beer where it was and grabbed the milk out of the door instead. A bowl of raisin bran for her and double the amount of sugary, fruity cereal for Nick. Maybe his tastes had changed since the last time they shared a breakfast, but she doubted it.
They ate in relative silence, only the sound of chewing and the occasional splash of milk to keep their thoughts company. Though she hadn't slept well, or long, Cassie felt refreshed. Energized. She hadn't worked on anything—with anyone—in almost a year, preferring to keep close to home where she could keep an eye on her mother. But when Nick said to jump, she was already waiting for him on the other side.
"So what's up first?" Nick asked, after he washed and put away their breakfast dishes. "Any good visions going?"
She'd seen nothing since the house first loomed up in her head, but she didn't want to tell him that. He always seemed to expect that she'd be a step or two ahead of him. Even when he knew better.
"Grocery store? This time of day it'll probably be a bunch of older shoppers. Someone might get gossipy," she said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt.
"You probably want to get your ring, then."
Cassie made a face and wiggled her finger at him to show she was already ahead of him.
Her hand felt like it weighed twenty pounds with the ring on. It was bad enough she had to walk around like some kind of Stepford doll, with the stupid soccer-mom haircut and jewel-toned yoga gear. Lying was second-nature to her, but putting the big flashy diamond on her finger to match Nick's gold band felt like a betrayal.
Of what, was another thing she didn't let herself think about.
Smirking, he held up both hands. "Hey, I'm not the one who came up with this cover, okay?"
No, that was Cassie's bright idea. Maybe there were better ideas, but she'd thought of this one first. And then hadn't been able to get it out of her head, especially once Nick agreed.
It made a kind of sense: putting them in the same house gave them the opportunity to keep an eye on each other, to share information without too many prying eyes, without delays. Newlyweds were expected to keep to themselves for the most part, a convenient excuse to get them out of any awkward situation. And being a new, young couple would open doors to them that neither would be able to get through on their own as a single person. Young married couples got invited to birthday parties and picnics. They got courted as potential playdate friends in the not too distant future. No one waved from across the street; they came right over and got friendly.
At least, that was what Cassie had always assumed. There hadn't been a whole lot of chances for her to see any of that from the inside, either as a kid or an adult. But she watched the things she was excluded from, and she'd daydreamed about what it might take to be on the other side.
How many of those daydreams included Nick, with or without the beard, were something best kept between Cassie and the diary she'd never kept.
"Hey," Nick said sharply, collecting her wandering attention. He dropped a hand over hers where she drummed her fingers on the table. "I'm kidding. It's a much better cover than I would have come up with. We can do this, Cass. Easy-peasy."
She nodded and flashed him a quick but genuine grin. The pep talk, brief as it was, she definitely welcomed. But, despite her misgivings, she had no doubts about what they were capable of. Whether it was Division, or something else, she knew that no one would be better at dealing with it than they were.
Nick waited until they were climbing up into the hideous, boxy van to add, "If it turns out to be clowns in the sewer, though, you are all on your own."
"I never worked directly with the kids," Tanith Delroy had told them. "I did reporting, mostly. Analytics. I crunched numbers, but none of those numbers were ever connected to real people. You know? It was just a job. A job that paid really well. So I took my paycheck and kept my mouth shut. I thought when they shut down that was the end of it. But it wasn't. They're still doing it."
That day they'd come to find Cassie, Nick stayed turned toward Delroy with an open and friendly expression on his face the whole time she talked. Whenever the story started to lag, he'd ask a question, nudge her in a new direction. They'd already heard about the medical staff—as much as she remembered anyway—and the general layout of the facility, the condition of the patients she did see. Cassie wouldn't have gotten half as much out of the woman. It was hard to remember to look like she didn't want to rip her throat out.
Nick was so good at it, the smoothing people over thing. He was charming and adept at flattery, acting like every word was the most interesting thing he'd ever heard. But Cassie saw how his hands curled into fists under the table, how his leg jittered with frustration.
He was doing it again now, in their living room of their absurd house. They'd been working their way into the neighbors' good graces for weeks. So far, all they had to show for it were a handful of acquaintances who waved and said hello when they passed in the grocery store. Cassie finagled her way into a part-time job doing paperwork and inspections for the home owner's association. They told everyone that Nick was working on a Great American Novel, to give him cover for being the nosiest bastard in suburbia.
Between the two of them, they had talked to virtually everyone between Main and Walnut Streets. And not a single person had anything to say about people moving out unexpectedly. No missing kids. No strange lights, no dark vans, no mysterious men lurking in dark corners. There wasn't even the hint of a rumor about weird goings-on, unless you counted the whispers that Janelle Morris hadn't exactly given up on Harold Finebaum's sister, even after she married Tom.
"Maybe we need to rethink this," Nick said, finally. "If we could get in the school, I don't know, maybe they've got some paperwork or something. There has to be something!"
Cassie had tried often enough to express her own doubts about Delroy's story, with nothing to show for it. Nick was convinced it was all true. End of story. He clung to it, as if he could will the answers they sought out of thin air with nothing but the force of his own belief.
"You really think they'd keep that kind of information in the school?" Cassie peeled herself off the couch and switched the air conditioning on. She had never liked having it on and tried to go as long as she could without it, but the heat in the valley was unbearable.
Nick threw his hands up. "If they're really watching for talents, they'd have to, wouldn't they? They've got total access. They see the kids in every kind of situation. If their abilities started to present, the teachers would see it first."
"Well, sure, but..." She trailed off as the air kicked on, sending a blessedly cold blast of air out of the vent overhead.
Nick started to say something else, but she shushed him.
"Do you hear that?"
"Hear what? All I hear are our wheels spinning."
"No, it's like a ... a kind of tapping, rustling noise. You remember that place in Manila? With the rats in the wall?"
"And the toilet, the shower, my bed...." With a shudder, Nick got up and pressed an ear to the wall where Cassie stood. "It doesn't sound like rats. Whatever it is, it's not moving. I don't think it is, anyway."
Cassie dragged one of the chairs from the dining room and hopped up on the seat. She fished out her pocketknife and jimmied the vent cover off the wall. Nick took it from her.
"I'm tall enough to reach that without a chair, you know."
She ignored him. Icy air poured out of the duct as she felt around inside, patting the smooth metal that dropped down through the wall. What she expected to find, she wasn't sure, but a piece of rough twine secured with a thumbtack wasn't it. At the end of the string was a small metal mint box, wrapped tightly with twine and black electrical tape.
Nick let out a heavy breath that she felt on her bare arm.
Still standing on the chair, Cassie peeled off the tape and popped open the lid. Inside, there was a key with JC-8 painted on it with what looked like red nail polish. Under the key was a folded wad of papers. Freed from the pressure of the box, they popped out and fluttered away. Nick caught them and unfolded them. He scanned the pages, covered from margin to margin with writing so small he had to squint to read it.
"What is it?"
Nick rubbed his jaw with his free hand. He cleared his throat. "It's, uh. It looks like it's a diary. No name, but there's at least six, seven months in here. Christmas, a birthday, first day of school..."
He was quiet for a minute, while Cassie climbed down from the chair and folded her knife. Once she'd slipped it back into her pocket, Nick handed the top page to her.
Her stomach dropped. I don't like the doctors, she read. More unsettling phrases jumped off the page. A painful twist of dread coiled tighter with each one: I had that dream again; they said it's important that I help; just like I saw it in my head; Mom says don't make things up; they took Taryn. On the back, near the bottom: I'm scared; my head hurts so much; they told me I don't have to anymore but.
"I think this is what we've been looking for, Cass," Nick said quietly. His hand shook as he folded his papers and tucked them back into the box she'd left on the chair.
"This could be anything," she argued.
"Do you really think that?"
God, no, she didn't. She was nauseated, wanted to run and hide. It felt like she was staring her own worst nightmares right in the eye. Cassie had heard stories like this from her mom, feared having the same things done to her. She had grown up on the run, struggling to stay a step ahead of the kind of monsters who did the things that these papers hinted at.
It was hard to breathe. It felt like the big house was laying on top of her, pushing her down into the floor with its full weight. She wanted to run outside, into the bright hot day, go find the nearest bottle and crawl inside it.
Nick grabbed her into a big hug, squeezing like he could press the panic right out of her. Cassie let her arms hang loose instead of wrapping herself around him. Maybe instead of a bottle, she would crawl right inside of him and stay there forever, let him fight all the battles for her. She'd stay safe and quiet, out of the way, out of danger, down where the world couldn't find her.
But she wouldn't. Nick couldn't do this by himself. Even if it wasn't Division, even if it was too late for whoever had written these pages, they had to try to stop it. There wasn't anyone else who would in this whole godforsaken town. It was up to them to save the day. Again.