While on my way to my next lesson, an “overview of parapsychology,” the clamor of pounding feet startles me. Instinctively, I bolt to the fringes of the cobble path and crouch behind a tree, trying to make my body as small as possible. Leather combat boots kick up dust as three men pass me, their metal belt loops jingling. Yelling into walkie-talkies, they don’t even spare me a glance.
Static and thuds.
“Unknown cause of death . . .”
Whatever else they say is lost to static and distance. My gaze follows them as they sprint past more curious campers and round a bend, heading uphill towards the offices where the scientists and administrators assess data about their psychic charges.
Someone’s died. I yearn to follow and eavesdrop but harden myself against the idea. It’ll soon be out all over camp. Better to bide my time.
When I return to Starjungle from my afternoon of activities (mostly small, group meetings to discuss any paranormal events we’ve experienced), I find my cabinmates chattering and gossiping like old friends. Perched on my bunk near the window, the druid’s note balled in my fist, I’m poignantly aware of my own alienation. So close to so many living, breathing humans. I had forgotten what it was like sharing cramped quarters. Forgot the cloying scent of perfume and sweat.
The girls blather on about cute boys, music, their lives back home. I cannot join them in their reverie and no one makes an effort to speak to me after I’ve declined initial conversation. Instead I recline against the wall and watch distractedly as they dress and preen themselves. It’s the sudden silence, broken only by sporadic bursts of giggling, that startles me out of my brooding. The girls hush one another and crowd around the window.
“I envy her,” one swoons.
“He’s so hot!” Another whispers, “And you know he’s friends with Hamilton?”
Giggles and sighs.
I crawl to the edge of my bunk and peek outside. Hand in hand, Kamiron and Sandra cuddle a few yards from Starjungle. She rests her head on his shoulder, her hair falling across her face in a movie-perfect scene. Kamiron looks surprisingly tender as his eyes smile at her. He laughs at something she says and then glances over at our window. I jolt back. He’s avoided me all afternoon. Not so much as a glower.
The girls sigh again and shuffle off to dinner in a rustle of skirts, jeans and lacy tops.
My stomach growls but I force myself to ignore it. Not yet. I glance out the window again to find Sandra and Kamiron gone. Once I’m certain I’m the last one in the cabin, I tiptoe down the hall to the room Sandra shares with Melissa. Their room is neater than the one I share, and identical to Kamiron’s--at least in layout. Delicate touches--makeup cases, jewelry--lie everywhere. It’s easy to recognize Sandra’s designer style from Melissa’s conservative tastes.
Ensuring that I’m truly alone, I comb through Sandra’s things, hunting for any evidence. I rummage in her drawers, suitcase and chest. I discover nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing I’d imagine the general of a demonic army to have. No weapons, no incriminating evidence, no documents outlining a nefarious plot. Instead I find pictures of her and Kamiron, hastily scrawled notes detailing meetings with Starjungle members or other camp business.
I rifle through Melissa’s things to the same result.
The shoji screen to Starjungle slides open and my heart lurches. Panicking, I look for a place to hide but there’s no convenient closet, no space under the bed, no velvet floor length curtains just elaborate enough to hide the curves of a body. I hold my breath. Please, God, let it be anyone but--
Fluffing her pale crimson hair, Sandra strolls in and halts, stunned.
“What are you doing in my room?”
“I was . . . that is . . .” I squirm and look away from her suspicious blue and green eyes. My gaze lands on a bottle of Jergens basking on Mel’s nightstand. “I needed some lotion and was just going to use a bit of Mel’s.”
If Sandra doesn’t buy my lie, she’s careful not to show it. She strides past me to her dresser and primps in the mirror there. I rub my hands together, letting the lotion settle between the cracks of my rough skin.
“I don’t like for my cabinmates to be in my room when Melissa and I aren’t here.”
“It won’t happen again.”
She smiles at me, a sweet smile without a trace of malice. A contrast to her eyes. “How are you? Getting used to it here?”
I nod, backing towards the door. “I should go now.”
Pink lips mold into a delicate pout. “Why such a hurry?”
“I don’t want to miss dinner.”
Sandra turns and sits on her violet bedspread. She crosses her long, graceful legs and I look away, feeling as insignificant as ever. An ugly brown child in the presence of some Norwegian model-goddess.
“Oh, I’m sure you won’t. Did you recover your memories yet?”
She phrases it off-handedly, almost as if she’s bored, but I sense the subtle pry.
“Not much, just a few things about home, my family,” I answer just as neutrally.
Sandra reaches into her nightstand drawer and pulls out a nail file. “Funny, I hear you remember much more, Shari.”
My heart races. No, Kamiron. Again, I see him and her together, standing just outside Starjungle, their fingers interlaced. Lovers. Of course he would confide in her. I was the fool.
She looks at me, expression mocking. “In fact, I learned you spoke to my boyfriend about me today.”
Her smile this time isn’t sweet.
I want to flee, but where can I go? She can move as fast as she wishes, is stronger than any human. If she wanted to kill me she well could at any time . . . so why hasn’t she?
“What do you want?”
The metal file grates against her French manicure as she shapes her nails. “For one, to stop spreading lies about me.” She blows shavings off her fingertips. “Secondly, who helped you escape?”
“No one. I got out on my own.”
“I find the quickest answer is usually a lie.”
Get out of here, Shari.
“Don’t worry. I won’t harm you as long as you’re useful to Us.”
I suck in a razor sharp breath. So that’s why. They’re waiting, watching.
“Yes, We are.” Sandra buffs her nails and tosses her file back into the drawer. She stalks towards me. Before I can register the danger, she blocks all routes of escape. Her hands dig into my pockets until they retrieve Divine’s note. She scans it.
“Thank you, Shari. I think we’ll have a great relationship.” She tucks the paper in her bra and adjusts her full breasts. “But if I were you, I’d keep my mouth shut. I’d hate to have to hurt any of your new friends.”
Hurt my friends? Then that dead person they just found, could it be that she--?
“And as for Kamiron . . .” This time Sandra’s smile reveals canines as sharp as her signature stilettos. “He’s mine.”
The Steel Fang struts away just as my knees give out.
By the time I find my way there, the cafeteria is packed. Sandra sticks out like a rotting corpse in the desert. She laughs and shakes her bangs out of her eyes. I find Mel, Kamiron, Zakk, Dace and some others I don’t know at her table. I grab my food--a juice box and a hamburger--and head outside, dumping my tray on top of the trashcan on my way out.
I didn’t see Hamilton. Is he alright? Has Sandra killed him because of my big mouth? If she hasn’t, who was person that died?
The burger tastes like ashes, but I force it down anyway. Worry eats at me. Sandra has Divine’s message and she knows someone helped me. It’s only a matter of time before she--and by extension Andhakar--ferret out whom. I still have no idea who this medium is, much less how to contact him or her and convince them to help find Divine’s mysterious “three.”
And all that assumes Sandra doesn’t just kill me first.
Blinking away frustrated tears, I wander the campgrounds until I find a suitable patch of grass to sit. I have no idea where I am, but I discover a giant pagoda overlooking a pool of pristine water. Unlike Andhakar Lake, I feel nothing but peace here. The setting sun skims the tree line, and I watch the reflection of rose, lavender and deep amber glide along the water’s surface. Lightning bugs compete with the burgeoning stars, blinking on and off as they waver around stalks of grass and wildflowers. Waves break methodically against a sandy bank, sloshing in harmony with the melody of an acoustic guitar.
Wait, acoustic guitar?
I rise, searching until I find a lone figure, dark head bent and partially hidden by the stylized pillars of the pagoda. The melody is haunting and vaguely Latin in its cadences. I drift closer, keeping to the lengthening shadows. I recognize the guitarist’s build immediately and relief sweeps over me. Anxious to avoid interrupting, I backpedal.
“Not going to say hi, Georgia?”
I trip over my own heels and almost fall. The music continues, accompanied by Hamilton’s soft chuckle. Timidly I meet him on the pagoda and sit beside him on an ash bench.
“I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You never do.”
I’m more pleased by his response than I ought to be. “What’s this place?”
“Shizuka Lake. Man-made, back when Camp Gen first opened. Bigger than Lake Andy. Much nicer, in my opinion.”
“Do you come here often?”
Hamilton’s song softens as it rides the gentle mountain winds. “A veces. When I need to get away from all the noise.”
“You mean people’s thoughts?”
His head dips in a nod.
“It’s calm here. This place suits you.”
Hamilton blesses me with a smile. “Kam says ‘shizuka’ is Japanese for quiet, for calm.”
I try not to fidget. I don’t really want to think about Kamiron. Instead I broach a topic that has been bothering me all day.
“I was under the impression I scared you--last night.”
Dark fingers continue to skim across the guitar strings. The sky beyond sparkles on the waves and the early evening unfolds around us in delicate breaths. “I wasn’t scared of you, Shari.”
“Then what was it?”
The music changes, becomes harsh and grating, the high notes resounding like the wails of the tortured, the heavy bass echoing the moans of the damned. Hamilton strums angrily, each note clashing against the other in a ferocious battle, in dark desires, in arcane obsession. And death.
Above all, death.
It stops and silence sits between us, a silence made all the louder by the absence of the music. When Hamilton resumes playing, it is once again the haunting melody from before.
“It’s like that,” he whispers, tugging my attention to his Texan drawl. I realize my heart is racing and my fingers are locked around the cold wood of our shared bench. I force myself to exhale. He has touched on the horror. He has seen it. I think of Kamiron and his stinging rebuke. I think of Sandra and her buried menace, one only I can see. I feel so alone and lost and overwhelmed by the responsibility for stopping Andhakar. I’m just an unstable black girl from Atlanta. What am I going to be able to do? Is Kamiron right? Am I living in an alternate reality?
Setting aside his guitar, Hamilton drapes his arm across my shoulders and tucks me against his chest. He doesn’t speak or try to reassure me and I’m grateful.
“My family is originally from Colombia,” he begins after a while, his violet eyes continuing to stare at the tiny cresting waves. “Back during the worst of the violence. During Pablo Escobar. Mis abuelos, my grandparents, they wanted to escape the drug cartels and bombings, so they packed up mi madre y mi tío and came to America, to Texas. Mami met a nice Mexican-American man, married. Had me and my sisters. But mi tío . . . he found his way back to the cartels.”
I listen to Hamilton’s heartbeat and try not to make any sound. I don’t know much about Colombia, but I know that drug trafficking is a big issue. Atlanta is one of the major cities for illegal drugs coming out of South America.
“I worshipped my uncle, you see. To me he was so cool. He had all this money, a big house, girls. No one messed with him. Then one day, he asked if I wanted to sneak off with him. Travel to Colombia--see where I came from. I was eight, and I wanted to please him, so I said yes. We stayed in Colombia for six years. At the time, I didn’t realize what he’d done was kidnap me. I didn’t realize the torment I’d put Mami through. I just knew that around mi tío, I didn’t have to hide my abilities. He liked that I could hear thoughts. He wanted me to help him. He wanted me to use my telepathy to spy and eavesdrop on cartel enemies. And I did.”
My breath hitches. “Your uncle used you?”
The pads of Hamilton’s fingers trace up and down my arm, but he doesn’t look away from the waters of Shizuka Lake. “He did, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed using my abilities. I enjoyed making people fear me.” He hesitates but when I say nothing, he continues. “In Texas, I felt like a freak. My family knew what I could do, but they didn’t understand. My parents would pray, mi abuelita . . . I can’t count how many times she’d be at Mass, begging God to cast the Devil from my head.”
I reach out and squeeze his knee. I know just how that feels.
“I’ve been through counseling, prayer circles, even had an exorcism, once.”
What in the world--an exorcism? I didn’t even think the Catholic Church did those anymore!
The corners of Hamilton’s lips twitch. “Neither did I, chica.”
Telepathy. Right. I’ve got to stop forgetting that.
He shrugs. “It seemed worse at the time, but now I understand. They loved me and were only trying to help, but all I could think was that they were ashamed of me. It made working for my uncle . . . I learned to be a survivor. To be ruthless and uncaring.”
“I watched mi tío get gunned down.”
“Oh, Hamilton, I’m--”
He cuts me off with an abrupt shake of his head. The edges of his hair tickle my cheek as he rests his chin on the top of my head like he did my first night at Camp Gen. “It’s alright, Shari. That kind of life . . . no one lives be old. But it woke me up, you know? I realized what I was becoming so I came back to Texas. It was then that mi madre learned about Gen. She saved up, working three jobs just to send me here.”
For a long moment, we watch the nighttime age around us. I tilt my head at him. “Why did you tell me all that? It seems very personal.” I wince at how unappreciative I sound and hastily add: “Not that I mind.”
His violet gaze drifts to my lips and then back to my eyes. “I don’t know. I’ve never really told anyone that stuff before. I guess it’s because I know you’re struggling and feel lost. Everything seems like it’s working against you, but you’ll find your way, Shari, just like I found mine.”
Oh. We stare at one another, and my heart hiccups. Crickets croon from blades of grass. Birds call out across the lake and somewhere high above I hear the squeak of a pair of squirrels as they patter across the branches. Hamilton’s head nears mine. I can hear the change in his breathing; feel the warmth of his body as he shifts. Our mouths--
“Excuse me, miss, this loser harassing you?”
Jolting out from under Hamilton’s arm, I nearly jump six miles. Dace waltzes up the steps of the pagoda and stares out over Shizuka Lake. The winking glow from the lightning bugs bounce off the lenses of his glasses, momentarily hiding his eyes, but his teasing smirk says it all.
Hamilton mutters something in Spanish and snatches up his guitar.
Dace’s smirk blossoms into a grin. “Didn’t mean to block you, bro.”
“We were just enjoying the sunset.” Hamilton changes the subject. “What’s up?”
“Her Royal Majesty Princess Chameleon sent me to fetch you.” Dace hooks his thumbs in the pockets of his khaki shorts and sniffs. “Knew I’d find you here but I figured Shari would already be with Starjungle at the emergency meeting.”
“Emergency meeting?” Hamilton and I chorus.
“Yeah. About some kid that just died.”
Campers, scientists, researchers and camp personnel gather in the J.B. Rhine Auditorium, a building situated in the north section of Camp Genki near the camp’s entrance and administrative offices. Unlike the more rustic structures of Camp Genki, the administrative buildings are modern in design--behemoths of glass and steel stuffed with the latest technology and most advanced research labs. In the settling twilight, the towering electric lamps make the buildings’ plate-glass windows look like aged butter.
While Dace, Hamilton and I slip into the deserted row in the back, I count roughly forty campers watching Camp Gen’s Director as she stands awkwardly at the helm of a broad stage and clutches a stylish podium. Behind her droops an empty projection screen. On her right stretches a line of chairs occupied by other administrators and programming staff. To her left sit the head scientists, their expressions contemplative as they study the campers mulling before them. Security, outfitted in matte black paramilitary uniforms, fidget near the outskirts of the auditorium, tuning out the Director’s lengthy introductory speech and urge for caution.
Dace props his foot on the back of the seat in front of us. His scuffed Vans tapping out an offbeat rhythm. I’m relieved no one is sitting in the chair to turn around and glare at us. Hamilton balances his acoustic guitar on the empty seat beside us. I scan the rows of chairs, searching for Sandra. There are too many bodies to pick her out of the crowd. From what I notice, the younger kids, age six to ten, occupy the left side of the auditorium. The older campers huddle near the center, and the rest of the camp staff convene along the right.
“When did they find the body?” Hamilton whispers over me to Dace. Dace brushes a lock of hair from his forehead.
“Late morning. I’m guessing it happened last night.”
A man stalks across the stage in measured steps cushioned by ebony combat boots. His stern expression coupled with his paramilitary attire makes him look particularly foreboding. Bulging pockets, polished handcuffs, holsters, and his bulletproof vest only add to the intimidation factor.
I turn to Dace. “They don’t look like typical officers.”
“They’re not.” Dace’s head bobs in the direction of the security personnel. “Parapolice. These guys are all ex-military but now work for a private security firm that’s usually contracted by corporations or the government.”
“Is that necessary? We’re no danger to anyone.”
Dace’s expression turns grave. “The kind of research they do here, Shari, the level of government interest--you’d be amazed how far they’re willing to go to protect their ‘investment.’”
I suddenly feel sick to my stomach. Around us, officers snap to attention as their superior’s gruff voice blares through the loudspeakers dotting the ceiling.
“My name is Lieutenant Butler, chief of security here at Camp Genki.” Lieutenant Butler removes a slim notepad from his vest and flips through the first few pages. He then leans against the podium and proceeds to explain that we are to avoid roaming the campgrounds alone. To use the “buddy system.” He cautions everyone to report anything suspicious to an administrator, officer--there will be an increased presence, especially at night--or to our cabin leaders. I almost snort at the thought of telling Sandra about any suspicious behavior at Camp Genki--especially considering the fact that she’s the cause.
As Lieutenant Butler continues his speech, I sense Hamilton’s discomfort. I touch his thigh. He offers a small nod as he massages his temples.
“Lots of voices,” he whispers, misery weighing heavily in his tone. “Sometimes it’s hard to tune them out.”
“Is that why you keep to yourself so much?”
“I used to be worse--before coming here.” His hand drops to cover mine. Our intermingling skin tones look beautiful beneath the fluorescent lights. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could hear just one or two at a time.”
“What if you concentrate on just one person’s thoughts?”
He frowns. “You mean eavesdrop?”
I have the grace to look ashamed, especially considering Hamilton’s earlier confession. “I just meant to make the other voices recede some by making one primary.”
Hamilton straightens in his chair and his gaze skims the auditorium. “There isn’t anyone’s thoughts I particularly care to know.”
I wish he could read Sandra’s thoughts, see her evil firsthand, but I’ll have to use the next best thing. “How about Lieutenant Butler?”
Dace turns to us, catching on to the last of our whispered conversation. “So you, too, think this is complete bull?”
I fidget in my seat. “I just have a feeling . . .”
Hamilton’s eyes narrow on the Lieutenant as he continues to speak about the importance of proper safety measures, especially in our line of “work.”
“He thinks we’re freaks,” Hamilton relates.
Dace snorts. “Big surprise there.”
A deep crease forms between Hamilton’s brows.
“What is it?”
“He’s afraid of something. This death has unnerved him--and he’s been on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something’s wrong.”
“His thoughts aren’t on that. I can only glimpse what he’s thinking at the moment.”
I exchange a look with Dace who shrugs. Lieutenant Butler steps away from the podium to address any questions. No one raises a hand.
“If someone were to ask a direct question about the circumstances of the death, do you think you could pick something up?”
Hamilton gives a guarded nod.
My hand shoots into the air before I can lose my nerve.
“Of course, young lady in the back.”
I hear the rustle of bodies shifting and feel the heat of eyes on me. Cursing myself for my impulsivity, I stand and clear my throat.
“Exactly how did he die? Was it an accident or . . .” My voice wavers and I catch hold to it, forcing it not to go out on me. Maybe drawing the attention of everyone at Camp Genki isn’t such a good idea, especially when I am not supposed to even be here. “Or something . . . else?”
The officer snaps shut his notepad and his dark eyes regard me thoughtfully. “This is an ongoing investigation. Pending an autopsy, we don’t yet know the cause of death.”
“So it wasn’t an animal attack? Coyotes?” I continue, startling myself with my boldness.
Lieutenant Butler clears his throat. “As I’ve said, pending autopsy, we should know for sure, but it was not an animal attack--though there have been sightings of coyotes lately so be careful.” He glances at the Director and then back out at the gathered campers. “We suspect exposure. Maybe he got lost in an unfamiliar part of the grounds, which is why we ask that everyone observe the buddy system . . .”
I sit as Lieutenant Butler continues to take questions about how to contact him before the Director resumes the podium and discusses funeral arrangements for the victim--we don’t yet know his name, pending notification of his family--and a memorial service to be held in two days.
“Anything, Ham?” Dace leans over to us, his expression gleaming with excitement.
“Knew that was bullshit.” Dace whistles low. “An experiment gone wrong?”
Hamilton sighs. “It’s not some government conspiracy, amigo.”
Dace doesn’t appear deterred. “It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. You know the clause we have to sign before we’re allowed here.”
“Can’t sue incase of accidental death, injury, or any other unforeseeable ‘mishaps.’” Hamilton relates. My eyebrows shoot up into my hairline.
“Does that happen often?”
“Sometimes. We’re not exactly ordinary here, Shari. The . . . tests we undergo can be rigorous and stressful on both body and mind. But if something does happen, our nondisclosure agreement makes sure no one ever finds out about it.” Hamilton quiets as he watches the Director run a hand through her hair. “So from what I saw, the kid just seemed to have killed over without a scratch on him. But they did find a glowing mark over his heart--though it faded away before they could properly document it.”
“What kind of mark?”
“Got a pen?”
Dace digs into his khakis and pulls out a mechanical pencil and a sketchpad with building blueprints filling its pages or detailed renderings of innocuous objects like potted plants and desks, sofas and wall paintings.
“For remote viewing,” he explains, tossing Hamilton the pad and pencil. “I draw the things I see, though I’ve never been in the room, and it’s located across the camp, sometimes all the way in Perchton.”
“You’re a very talented artist.”
To my surprise, a blush creeps up Dace’s cheeks and he mutters a sheepish thanks. We fall silent as Hamilton begins sketching a bizarre symbol on a fresh sheet of paper. A square with the left line missing. Two dots like a colon on the right. A horizontal line beneath the square.
The insignia of Andhakar.