You better take your friend with you again, when you go see her...
Rochelia's words repeated in Stella's head. But who to accompany her? Harley was her first choice for obvious reasons, but she also told Zashmar he'd go with her. However, since losing her job, she couldn't just waltz into the asylum any more and she didn't know where he lived. She felt rude asking Cael, since their visit to Athena's went catastrophic. Then she wondered what actually happened between him and Rochelia, he never mentioned that. He looked pretty embarrassed about it... No, she didn't want to know. Stella huffed as she drifted through the aisle in the Icky-Quickie Mart, picking up milk as they'd ran out and she knew how much Zashmar loved his branflakes. Zashmar Stormcrow. Her last option. No way, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction. And what if Cael happened to peer out of his window and see them together? He lived in the same area as the twin psychos. Then a thought struck her; maybe he knew where they lived.
Stella paid for her groceries and left, pausing outside to use her mobile phone. The streets of Dead End were especially deserted, as morning advanced and people finally went home. Half the city's population were night owls and only the early-morning commuters were out and about. Lucky them.
"Hi, Cael. I was wondering if you could help me... no, that sounds dumb," said Stella, staring down at 'Cael Haigh' on her contact list. She rehearsed a little speech over and over again, before wondering if he'd be at work or not. Half of the staff's schedules were committed to her memory but now she found herself mixing them up, assigning random numbers to random names. Finally, after much internal battle, she closed her eyes and thumbed the 'call' button.
"Hey, Stella!" answered Cael, sounding pleased.
"Hiya. I know it's bad to ask, seeming what happened last time... but I need your help again with finding Bel."
"You still haven't heard anything back about that?"
"Nothing," Stella said, dipping her gaze sadly.
"Oh... Okay, what do you need?"
"I just need you to come with me somewhere. In fact, it's near where you live."
"Yep. You might even know it."
Stella decided she couldn't be too careful this time, as she changed into an old pair of combat trousers and pocketed a small blade. This Lucithia sounded violent and it's not like she could rely on her twin to hold her back. Meanwhile, Zashmar was spooning cereal into his mouth, looking like a right slob on the sofa.
"Looking casual today," he commented as she turned around.
"Not really," she said, hands in pockets, "just collecting a few things from work."
"Alright, see you later then," trilled Stella, heading for the door.
"Yep, see you tonight at the part-ay!" Zashmar grinned, fist-pumping the air in a mock rave. One last sound of amusement and Stella was out the door.
Stella felt ready this time, speeding up into a steady jog. Beliah would be found and she wasn't about to let Lucithia stop her. Narrowly avoiding a pool of vomit, Stella slowed around the winding street and then sprinted across the bridge. Gusts of wind blew up from the sea, propelling her forward encouragingly. As she neared the tunnel in Dead Drop, she hesitated. It never struck her before, but the tunnel was in total darkness. No lights to guide the way, not even a car to point her in a vague direction. She stared into the blackness and considered how she was about to do this.
"Right, okay," she said to herself, approaching the eerie tunnel before slinking into the abyss. Dead End offered minimal daylight, so she scarcely perceived beyond a few steps ahead. She touched the wall and ran her hand along it, feeling the cool, rough surface. Trickles of wind flowed through the tunnel, stroking her face and giving her goosebumps. Suddenly, her foot slipped off the pavement. Panicked, despite the black silence, she clung to the wall. The darkness around her closed in and she started to feel claustrophobic. She practised the breathing exercises she remembered from school and closed her eyes. Once calmed, she opened them, finding no visual difference. Stella hugged the wall and continued on at a steady pace. Then to her relief, a speckle of light appeared in the distance. Finally! The end. Stella fixed her gaze on it, watching as it rounded and then began to dance. Was she bopping up and down or was it actually moving? She squinted, noticing how fast it was approaching too. That was no light at the end of the tunnel...
Bracing herself for the encounter, Stella took her knife in hand and kept moving along the wall. She considered running across to the other side, but she wouldn't know when to stop and if a car came, that would be it. The torchlight came nearer until it shone in her face. She squinted as her pupils shrank. Attempting to avoid the harsh light, she turned away from it and stepped onto the road. Surprised, she hurried to regain herself on the pavement. Her feet got mixed up and she tripped.
"Stella!" echoed a voice. The torch dropped to the ground and Stella was caught by a pair of arms. Suddenly she was plunged into darkness again.
"Who is this?" she gasped, squirming away and clutching her knife.
"Stop, it's me, Cael."
"Cael?" Stella repeated, pausing and realising it was him who had hold of her arms.
"Yeah, I came to meet you at the tunnel. Clearly you're not a patient person," he said amiably.
"I'm so sorry! I thought you were a lurker or something."
"Don't worry, I should've called out when I saw you, but I wasn't sure who you were at first. Why haven't you got a torch anyway?"
"I didn't know the tunnel was unlit."
"Oh... Damn it. I should've just picked you up in my car, shouldn't I?"
"No, no. Look, nevermind that let's just go," said Stella.
"Alright. Gonna have to find the torch first though," Cael replied, crouching. Stella tucked her knife away and hunkered down beside him, feeling the ground. Their hands ran over each other's for a moment and they uttered their apologies in the darkness. "Found it!" Cael announced from a few metres away. She heard a click and a beam of light pierced the jet-black gloom. The two rejoined near the wall, but to their dismay, the torch started to flicker.
"Aw shit. We better hurry up before it goes out," said Stella. Cael spun on his heels and led the way, but merely three steps on, the torchlight faded and with a final splutter of yellow, went out. He swore and flicked the switch on and off. Nothing.
"Okay, new plan."
"Keep against the wall," Stella said.
"What if we lose each other?"
"We're heading in the same direction."
"Er, hold my sleeve so I know where you are and in case we run into someone," he said warily. Stella reached out, feeling his hand again; the smooth skin on his fingers and the protruding bones beneath. She quickly gripped the sleeve of his coat.
"Okay, let's go," she said, nodding. Cael moved along the wall and Stella stayed close behind, the wall brushing her cheek. When they exited the tunnel, the two blinked in the city's half-light; even then a stark contrast to the pitch-black behind them. Stella shook her hair, sending sprinkles of dirt to the ground while Cael wiped his hands on his jeans.
"Could've gone worse," Cael said. Stella smirked, finding the whole thing quite comical now.
"Okay, so you think you know what house I'm looking for?"
"Yeah. I've seen the twins before," Cael nodded, walking along towards the residential area. Opposite them, a line of trees fenced off a steep embankment that rolled down towards Dead Drop and Stella could pick out Beliah's house in the distance. She couldn't stop herself looking at it. What if Beliah was right there and she was wasting her time?
"Not much. I see the younger one more. At least I think she's the younger one; she looks it. Anyway, the only time I really ever saw them properly was when they first moved in a year or so ago. I welcomed them to the neighbourhood and said if they needed any help, I'd be happy to give them a hand... you know, with moving stuff or getting started in the city. Dead End's pretty rough after all."
"What did they say?" Stella asked. He sucked his lips in.
"The younger one didn't seem to mind but her sister nearly went nuts! Saying they were capable of running their own lives and they didn't need me snooping around. I never spoke to them after that."
"Was she tall and well-built?"
"That'll be Lucithia then. The violent, sadistic bitch who tried to take over The Harem," Stella said with razor sharp candor.
"She did that?"
"Yep. She didn't get far though and she was kicked out. But then she went back about four weeks ago, looking for Beliah apparently."
"Weird. I haven't seen her with Bel or anything. I mean, I barely see her at all but you know," Cael explained, "the house looks empty most of the time." He turned a corner, off the main road leading into Dead End and down a smaller one lined with houses on each side. Small, suburban homes with little driveways. Some kept their hedges trim and had cars out front, others let the front lawn grow to knee-height and the paint was peeling from the doors.
"Nice neighbourhood," Stella said. She wasn't lying; they made her motel room look like a squalor and it was certainly a step-up from the apartments in the city. These quaint little homes were on par with the houses in Dead Drop, but much less spooky.
"That's where I live," Cael told her, pointing to a house further down the road. She looked across, recognising his Prius out front. His house was identical to the rest, with the exception of having his door painted navy-blue and a small extension built at the side.
"Looks nice!" she said brightly, masking her envy. Cael must've worked his way up in this city. Either that or he came from a rich family, but as far as Stella knew, he didn't have a particularly notable background. Or maybe he was just secretive. "So where do the twins live?"
"We're getting there," he smiled. The two continued down the road and Stella could see the end now as the houses curved round, meeting from each side. "Far right, at the end," said Cael. Stella frowned. She could barely see it. Thick holly bushes grew out front, concealing half the house. Again, it was similar to the others, but apparently they didn't want any visitors because the gate was padlocked.
"Wow," said Stella, staring at the spectacle before her. They would've built a moat if they could.
"Yeah, not exactly the friendliest neighbours," Cael remarked, considering the pointy bushes and heavy padlock.
"They have a dog?" Stella indicated a sign on the gate; a bright, yellow triangle with 'Beware Dog' written across it.
"Not that I know of."
"They could own a pet dragon and that won't stop me," she said firmly, and without second thought she swung a leg over the gate.
"Can't say I'm thrilled about this," Cael mumbled, carefully climbing over. He followed her up the path and travelled his gaze along each window. A curtain twitched.
"Just be vigilant," Stella said, rapping her knuckles on the door. The two waited, straining their ears. After a few moments, footsteps approached from inside. A pause. Then the sound of bolts and metal sliding against itself with a harsh screech. No barking. The door opened a crack and a leaden face peered out at them.
"It's you!" gasped Lucretia.
"Yeah well, you did tell me where you live," Stella said coldly.
"What do you want?" she hissed, looking between the two strangers on her doorstep.
"Would you like to spend a moment talking about Jesus Christ, your Lord and saviour? What'd you think? I need to see your sister."
"You can't. She's busy at the moment," said Lucretia, narrowing her eyes.
"I can wait," Stella said, forcing the door open wider and barging in. She indicated Cael to follow and he did, offering a sheepish apology as the twin was standing there, flabbergasted.
"Please! Please don't disturb her!" she begged, closing the door. She scampered after Stella and Cael as they wandered into the living room. The house wasn't as soulless as Stella thought it'd be. There weren't any pictures, no, but there were dozens of little ornaments lining the shelves and a music player with a stack of CDs, revealing a darker taste. It looked lived-in, at least.
"Where is she?" Stella asked.
"Wait here," Lucretia said, gesturing the two to sit down. Cael complied and so did Stella, with reluctance. "I'll get you some tea."
While the twin escaped to the kitchen, Stella was restless.
"She doesn't seem so bad," Cael said quietly.
"Oh no, she's a right one. You should've seen her the other day. Shall I go check on her?"
"She might be making her escape."
"You'll probably stress her out even more," Cael said diplomatically.
"I don't care! I need to hurry up and see Lucithia, not sit around drinking tea," Stella said, nearly spitting the words out. Just then, Lucretia came in with a tray. The cups rattled and she placed it on the coffee table with such care, like an undertaker lying down a dead body. Then her delicate frame sank into the armchair opposite them.
"Thank you," Cael nodded. Lucretia pressed a tight smile. Stella didn't say anything, tapping an impatient finger against her mug.
"You should leave soon," said the twin. She hadn't touched her own drink.
"Not before I see Lucithia," replied Stella stubbornly.
"You don't understand! You can't. You mustn't."
"She's... busy," Lucretia said, nearly biting through her cheek.
"She's always busy," Stella scoffed.
"Why don't we come back another time?" Cael suggested lightly as the ghostly girl grew listless with anxiety and Stella's nagging pushed her further. He tapped Stella on the arm, indicating they should leave as Lucretia began mumbling to herself. Just as she was about to protest, someone came thundering down the stairs.
Thud, thud, thud!
The three silenced and looked towards the door. Lucretia could see into the hallway, so Stella glanced at her face. She didn't look forward to the approaching footsteps. Was someone else here? The air was tense and she realised her hands were clammy, caused by the hot mug or her own apprehension, she wasn't sure.
What must've been Lucithia came bounding in, pausing in the threshold, standing at six foot and filling the doorway with broad, masculine shoulders. She was clad in a corset and leather trousers.
"Where's the duct tape, Lu..." she trailed off, her eyes swivelling to the two strangers on her sofa. Cael sipped his tea awkwardly.
"It's... Uh, kitchen. In the..." gabbled her twin, her eyes wide and watery.
"You brought another?" Lucithia said brightly, then her brow creased. "Why are you giving her tea? And who's this man?"
"I'm Cael. I live up the road," he smiled, somewhat disappointed that she didn't recognise him.
"And my name's Stella. I've come to speak to you, actually."
"Oh," came Lucithia's monotone reply. Her face changed and she exchanged looks with her twin, as if communicating some silent message. Stella began to wonder if twins really did have some sort of telepathic connection.
"I'm looking for a girl named Beliah and someone said you were looking for her a few weeks ago," she piped up. Lucithia's eyes flashed, then suddenly her face softened and a wide smile crossed her lips.
"Oh, yeah. Er, I was. She wrote me a letter... you can see it if you like?" the goth said. Stella nodded eagerly.
"Okay, good," she replied slowly. "Come upstairs and I'll show you." Stella jumped to her feet and Cael got up too, but Lucithia tutted and said "no, you sit down and finish your tea!"
"Oh, um," he stammered, half-sitting so he arched over like an old man. Stella went to say something, remembering the last time they split up in someone else's place. Not good. But Lucretia's demeanour changed too and she started hushing, insisting Cael sit down and talk to her.
"Alright then!" Lucithia beamed.
"I'll be quick," Stella gabbled, following her out of the room and leaving Cael alone with the other twin. Her mind started reeling over this possible letter, excited at the prospect of finally getting somewhere. Maybe Beliah really knew this woman after all and had sent her a letter to tell her where she is, or why she's left? The burly woman started up the stairs, leaping two steps at a time. They reached a landing lined with book shelves. Stella looked down and gulped, sure the glimpsed titles were about medieval torture, gore, and Satanism. She tried to ignore the lizard part of her brain screaming 'GET OUT' and continued up onto the first floor. It was a small space with numerous doors surrounding them.
"Just in here," said Lucithia. Stella followed her into a bedroom which she assumed was hers. The room was relatively bare with a large chest sitting under the window. The curtains were drawn but very thin, letting in the grim daylight Dead End had to offer. She hadn't bothered to make the bed. Stella was reluctant to venture into the room, instead watching as Lucithia opened up the bedside drawer, finally taking out a piece of paper. There was no envelope to be seen.
"Is that it?" Stella asked.
"Yes, come look. Do you think she wrote it? I wasn't sure if it was her handwriting at first," she said, taking a step back as Stella approached, but holding out the piece of paper in front of her. The former nurse peered at it, firstly skimming for Beliah's name, then her distinct, rounded handwriting with little hearts dotting the 'i's. She noticed how printed it looked. How neatly the writing was presented, despite no lines on the paper. It was like a telegram. Stella realised all this within a split second.
It was a receipt.