Jordane sat on a bench near the Duli police station, her head pulsing with waves of pain, the bump from her temple hitting a wall still not subsided. She stared blankly at the old “FOR SALE” sign on the front of a large store but thought of Inès. Her letter was true: there were indeed monsters here. She didn't know how it was possible, but she had witnessed it. A wolf bringing back voices from beyond the grave, no less. But was he the only one, or were there others? He had spoken of a human, who was involved in this story...

Then there was the prison riot. The various pieces of information she had gathered suggested nothing more than an outbreak of violence from prisoners tired of their confinement. Maybe that girl they had met was right, that she was indeed haunted. Perhaps even like the mine accident, something had driven a prisoner to start the slaughter.

What would Raphaël find there? Was he in danger?

“No,” she thought, “it's Raphaël. He knows how to handle himself, nothing will happen to him.”

And like her, he was an investigator: their mission is to unveil the truth, unmask impostures, and for the first time, the stakes were much higher than a simple article. Who knows how long the residents of Duli had been suffering from these evils, how many had already died at the claws of these monsters, and how many more would succumb without anyone taking interest? Someone needed to put this town under the spotlight, it was the only way to save its inhabitants. She had to find Inès; it was her best lead: she hoped to find necessary information at her last known place of employment. And she had to admit that the circumstances of the closure of the palace of the strange were at least suspicious. The collapse of a mine, a massacre in the enclosed space of a prison, and now a mysterious accident on the opening day. What was the extent of the accident? The cause?

Her instinct told her that something had whispered in a prisoner's ear just before the riot, like with the mine. And that something had also whispered in someone's ear during the park opening, and that was precisely the accident. Except this time, it had been hushed up. Were there any deaths? How many? What did they succumb to? The owner must have had the means to silence the newspapers. This Oswald... He inspired no confidence in her: and that was exactly why she had to dig into his affairs before meeting him. That way, she could have the upper hand when she turned the conversation into an interrogation.

She watched a pickup approaching her direction, reminding her that she needed to find a taxi. It parked not far from her, in the police station parking lot. The door opened, and the driver unfolded himself from the vehicle, the roof barely reaching his shoulders: it didn't take long for her to recognize the giant she had met the previous day at the café. Today, he wore a red plaid lumberjack shirt tucked into his jeans. He bent over to pick up an object from the passenger seat and headed towards the sidewalk, closing the old pickup's door: Jordane noticed his suede moccasins that completely broke his look, and she smiled.

The man headed towards the bulletin board, whistling absent-mindedly, and she was taken aback when she realized he was holding a rolled-up paper. He unrolled it sharply and moved existing thumbtacks to post it on one of the few remaining blank spaces on the board of ghostly looking faces. She approached to peek at the flyer: the man noticed her, seemed to freeze for a moment, as if thinking, then started a conversation:

“Myrtille, my neighbor's cat,” he said.

The poster showed a photo of a black cat grimacing at the camera. Below, a small text described the animal's dimensions, along with a touching paragraph about its playful nature and soft fur inviting caresses. Under the title “LOST CAT,” a modest reward was offered for its return.

“Madame Rosalie can't get around much these days, I promised I'd help her find her beast.”

His smile was warm and somewhat charming, and she couldn't help but return it:

“That's very kind of you,” she said, “Madame Rosalie is lucky to have a neighbor she can count on.”

“It's really nothing,” he replied, blushing. “If we don't help each other as human beings, what's left for us?”

She nodded, but her smile had faded: a feeling seized her, like an instinct, and she became acutely aware of the number of faces staring at her from the bulletin board. It seemed like they were trying to speak to her, to warn her: she realized the number of disappearances this town had swallowed, and for a moment, she almost wanted to flee.

“It's sad, all these missing people,” he interrupted, pulling her out of her reverie. “Strange times.”

She gathered her thoughts, and she saw that he was pointing at the bulletin board in front of them. His eyes were bright blue.

“Yes,” she finally replied, “but I think it's more a problem of the place than the time.”

“What do you mean?”

“It's the first time I've seen a town with so many unresolved cases,” she continued, “on top of such a loaded history.”

He shrugged:

“I don't know, I don't live here. I have some construction sites around, but it's rare. I look at the work and the amount on the check. But I know a lot of people pass through here, so I brought a poster.”

“You're a worker?”

“I'm an entrepreneur,” he corrected. “I have employees who do the work for me, until they realize I'm not much use except to cash the check. My official title is business manager, but I've been called the 'do-nothing manager' for a long time.”

He burst into natural laughter, and she could only laugh in return.

“But I talk, I talk,” he continued, “but you, are you from around here?”

“No,” she said. “Tales from the Crypt, do you know it?”

He searched his memory, stroking the corner of his mustache:

“No, I don't think so.”

“It's a magazine, I publish articles on paranormal phenomena, unsolved mysteries.”

“Ah yes?” he said, “and you're well served here?”

“Quite,” she answered seriously. “Do you know the story of Inès?”


“Never mind, apparently it's a well-kept secret by the locals.”

“I see,” he chuckled, “but nothing that can stop you so easily, am I wrong?”

“Exactly,” she said, feeling a surge of strength. “Not much can stop me.”

“I like that attitude,” he exclaimed. “Nobody wants to face their demons, so someone has to do it for them, right?”

This remark made her reflect: yes, that was exactly it. The inhabitants of Duli lived under the influence of their demons, and instead of fighting, they chose to remain unaware. How could the miner have lived all those years in that network of dark galleries, instead of working to find a way out? Ironically, the only place where he thought himself safe was evidently his lair. The same went for Ed, who had experienced a traumatic event in the forest, said it was hard for him to be there, so why had he agreed to accompany them? And Inès, how could she have endured so much bullying, stayed in the town where she was sure she had seen a monster - and Jordane was now convinced of it too - instead of fleeing?

Indeed, she was the only one who could save them. Or at least, to open their eyes.

“That's exactly it,” she finally said.

“And your friend,” he continued, “he's not with you?”

She raised her eyebrows, somewhat taken aback. He laughed and made an apologetic gesture:

“Guilty as charged, I recognized you: the girl who doesn't watch where she's going in cafes!”

She recalled the scene, bumping into him as she left the day before.

“Yes,” she said, a bit embarrassed, “it's not like me to be so distracted. My friend has gone on an errand for me, he should meet up with me later.”

“I understand,” he said, “demons never sleep.”

“You got it,” she concluded. “Speaking of which, I should already be on my way, I can only hope there are taxis in this town.”

“Where does your investigation take you, if I may ask? Just to know which places to avoid if I want to live a long life.”

She hesitated for a moment: the stranger was warm, and despite his large size and imposing physique, he seemed harmless. He radiated no aggression, no ego; but his questions seemed to slide off him, and in the end, during this exchange, she had revealed more than he had. Had she come across someone more skilled than her at gathering information? She smiled at the thought.

“Were you present during the opening of the Palace of the Strange, about ten years ago?”

Again, he took a thoughtful look and stroked his mustache between his thumb and index finger of his left hand: she briefly spotted a wedding ring on his ring finger, and was surprised to feel disappointed - what was she thinking, he was at least ten years older than her...

“You mean the old abandoned fairground, about twenty kilometers away? Sure, that place is a bit creepy. Is that where you're going?”

“Yes,” she said. “The owner seems quite shady.”

He shrugged again, looking into the void. Then, he returned from his imaginary world and clapped his hand into his palm, as if he had a revelation:

“But of course, what an idiot!”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I actually have to pass by there, I have some equipment to pick up at the sawmill right in front. It's barely a kilometer before, it wouldn't be a big detour to drop you off. If your friend meets you there, and he has a car, I mean, I'll drop you off and go back to my business.”

Jordane pursed her lips: was she going to get into a car with someone she had just met? She felt rather good about him, he had been very pleasant. The alternative was to look for a taxi, but would she even find one? And there, too, she would end up with a perfect stranger. It was a short trip, twenty little kilometers. Just this morning, she had survived much worse than that. She weighed the pros and cons, but her caution lost the duel:

“Alright,” she said, “let me just tell my friend.”

“Great,” he said, “I'll wait for you in the car.”

“At least,” she thought, “if I get slaughtered, Raphaël might remember what he looks like. Or else, my head will end up plastered on that damn bulletin board, on top of another long-forgotten resident. And one day, a few years later, or even months, someone else will be posted over my portrait.”

She pulled out her phone while the man got into his pickup. One ring, then two, then three: damn, he must be busy. Her heart pinched at the thought that he could be more than just busy, but she pushed that thought away: she needed to stay focused on her goals, he would join her in due time. She started writing him a message, searching for words while staring into space, when something caught her attention.

She was looking at the bulletin board, and something had caught her eye. A somewhat different poster from the others. She absentmindedly put her phone in the back pocket of her pants and approached the wall. She tore off an old poster and looked at it in horror: there was no photo on the piece of paper, no description, no reward. It was a drawing. A sketch of a face. The man depicted on the paper had rough features, but his piercing eyes were very clear, and especially his smile. A carnivorous smile she had seen before. Unlike all the other posters, the title was not “MISSING,” but: “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?”. And below, in smaller font: “IF HE APPEARS IN YOUR DREAMS, FLEE BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE.”

Yes, that was it: it was the face she had seen in her nightmare. The one who watched her and laughed. The sketch was very crude, but her heart squeezed in her chest, indicating there was indeed something.

The pickup started next to her, and she jumped. The man questioned her with his eyes from his seat, and Jordane, disconcerted, crumpled the paper and threw it in a trash can. Disturbed, she approached the car, her mind wandering: was it a coincidence? It had to be. It was impossible otherwise. How could she have recognized that face just from a dream? Her mind must have played tricks on her.

She tried to chase that thought from her head: there was no point in tormenting herself with this information, better to focus on her current task, the Palace of the Strange.

“And if I dream of him again tonight? What if it's really him?” She forced herself to sweep away this parasitic thought.

She reached the elevated vehicle, opened the door, and hoisted herself into the passenger seat.

“By the way,” she said, “we haven't introduced ourselves. I'm Jordane.”

The man engaged a gear, and turned his head towards her with an unexpectedly serious look: “I'm Richard, like my grandfather.”

The engine roared, and the vehicle, emblazoned “DAGUARD ENTERPRISE,” slowly moved along the main street, heading towards the north exit of the town.

Interlude: All things come to those who wait

Richard parked in an outlying lot of the downtown area, where only a few wrecks lingered. He had taken his wife's car for his outing; his name wasn't emblazoned in red letters on the side of the vehicle, making it more discreet. He got out, cracking his back and grimacing involuntarily: this damn sedan was much lower than his pick-up. He breathed in the air of Duli with disgust: it felt like arriving at a dump. It reeked of rot and mustiness. This city was a sad, empty shell, but that's exactly why he had come: it was full of transients, and even the locals seemed forgotten by society.

Easy prey.

He headed towards the parking meter, and although he was convinced that no officer had checked it in the last five years, he bought a ticket by sliding some coins in: people like him had been caught before over such small details, but nothing was trivial to him. Richard was meticulous. He placed the ticket under the windshield - an hour, more than enough for love at first sight - and set off into the deserted streets.

He passed a few shops with lights out, an almost empty children's park, save for a homeless person sleeping on the slide, an empty wine bottle at his feet, but he paid little mind.

His mind was wandering.

No, that wasn't it, let's be honest.

His fantasies were tearing him apart.

He had lost control. His sick mind craved blood. He was driven only by a sinister rhythm beating in his skull like the drums of Viking longships: “KILL... KILL... KILL... KILL...

He needed to taste it again, like a junkie in withdrawal. To calm his thoughts, his imagination, it was really time to start again. He knew the next one would only satisfy him for a while. Sure, it would be ecstasy: he knew exactly what he wanted, how he wanted it. He would take incredible pleasure in executing his fantasies. Then, for a while, he could relive the echoes of that magical experience through the little talisman he would retrieve. The memory. He never knew what would work, but when he saw it, he knew it was right. An ID card, a necklace, a lighter. The memory was a relic, calling to him as soon as he saw it. But in the end, it would all fall flat. The void would return. The void that ate away at him like acid, then the void would make room for his fantasies. They would fill his mind again to saturation, as was the case that day. And then, he would have to kill again. To regain some control. Richard passed by a café window, and stopped dead: there she was.

He watched the girl talking with someone, seated at a table. She had magnificent smooth chestnut hair, sparkling green eyes, and a posture so straight, like a doll. She was sublime. Her aura seemed to shine in the dull café, almost blinding him. It was her, no doubt. He noticed the man with her starting to stand up, then, instinctively, he pushed through the heavy glass door. He passed the boy without even seeing him. The girl stood up, and he deliberately got in her way.

“Sorry,” she said after they bumped into each other.

His eyes were drawn to an object almost hiding under the collar of her blouse: the little thing shone in the dimness of her cleavage. Even more, it seemed to emit a light that illuminated far beyond the room, like a relic endowed with magical powers. A silver cross.

He absolutely had to have it.

“No worries, miss,” he retorted, “it's my fault: I'm too busy looking at door frames and chandeliers to watch where I'm going...”

This comment seemed to make her nervous, and she replied in a low tone:

“Good evening.”

She left, and her sweet perfume lingered in his nose for a moment longer: no doubt, this girl was going to become his darling number twenty-three.