She threw some clothes into the gym bag she usually took to jujutsu practice and fixed some sandwiches for the road. She left her schoolbooks on her nightstand. It wasn’t even worth it to try. She loaded up her trusty cherry red 1999 Ford Escort and prepared to go. That car was Justine’s baby, her pride and joy. She had seen it parked on the side of the road by the Baskin Robbins one day, lonely and neglected, a hand-written sign in black marker advertising it for $995. No one wanted it, but Justine saw its potential, saw what it could be. She had spent the months leading up to her sixteenth birthday working every conceivable crappy job to save for that car and the repairs it would need. Sure, it had a little rust, a couple of dents here and there, and it reeked of weed, but Justine could fix those things and all it took was a couple of air fresheners to get rid of the smell. Justine knew there were plenty of better cars in Jersey, but the Ford Escort was hers, fully and 100%, and that’s all that mattered.
Before she pulled out of the driveway, Justine took a deep breath and dialed Gwen’s number once more. She knew it was stupid to try, but she couldn’t help herself. The phone went directly to voicemail. It was eerie to hear Gwen, so breezy and cheerful. Justine hung up and closed her eyes, then started the car.
The May weather was gorgeous, the sky a perfect blue. Pink azaleas were in full bloom all along her street. Everything was in place for a spectacular Memorial Day weekend.
It was all an illusion. The world was going wrong. There was war in Central Asia, drought across half the world, monster hurricanes dismantling the Gulf Coast when it wasn’t hurricane season yet. Justine wasn’t even going to get into the rumors of magic. The world was screwed up enough without bringing something that ridiculous into the mix.
Even on her peaceful little street, insulated from the suffering and war, things weren’t right. The Azaleas should’ve bloomed weeks ago, the lilac bush in front of her family’s little Cape Cod had flowered a month early. It was as if the natural world itself was breaking down. Gwen going missing was only the latest proof that something was seriously wrong.
Justine turned down the street, past Gwen’s old house. They had known each other since kindergarten, when Gwen’s family had moved into the little white ranch house on the corner.
Five years old, Justine had found Gwen playing by herself by the creek one day, trying to catch frogs in Justine’s favorite spot. Gwen always played alone, none of the other kids in the neighborhood seemed to know what to do with her. Justine glared at the intruder and told her that if she wanted to hang out in her spot, that she’d have to prove herself by crossing the creek on a rickety old log. Gwen was up for that. She danced across without a moment of hesitation. Then she dared Justine to do the same. Justine fell off into the water, twisting her ankle. Their friendship was instant.
Justine still couldn’t believe her friend had gone missing. Gwen was the most beautiful person Justine had ever met. She was pretty enough, slim, with long black hair, dazzling honey-colored brown eyes, and a sublime grace. That’s not what made her beautiful. She had an inner light, a kindness that shone through. And she put up with Justine, which said a lot.
They spent all of elementary school together, inseparable. Then in the seventh grade, disaster struck, at least it seemed that way to a young Justine. Gwen moved out of the neighborhood and her parents enrolled her in an exclusive private school.
Their friendship held strong, even when last year, Gwen’s mother received a promotion and the family moved once more, two hours south to the seaside town of Avalon. The distance wasn’t an issue. Justine and Gwen e-mailed back and forth, spoke on the phone every other day, and Gwen made a point of cheering Justine on at her cross country meets and jujutsu matches. And now she was gone, and Justine was going to find her.
As she turned onto the parkway, she pondered the unspoken fear that everyone shared. Twelve teens had been murdered in the last eighteen months. In every case, the victim had vanished without a trace, only to be found days later, dumped in a river or in the woods. It’s why Justine had to help now, school be damned.
She hugged the coast as she drove to Stone Harbor. Justine had been there before. She had been up and down the entire south Jersey shore with Gwen since her friend moved there, shopping, exploring, and just generally getting into trouble, which the two of them did exceedingly well. She pulled onto 96th Street, slowing down as she scanned the area, viewing the place in a way she never had before. A darkened alleyway, a homeless person begging for change, everything took on a sinister cast.
One day before the official start of Memorial Day weekend and tourists were already getting an early start. She passed by restaurants, souvenir shops, and little boutiques. The world was falling apart, but people came here to forget their troubles, if only for a little while. With one eye still on the road, Justine turned to her left, to catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean stretching to the horizon. She found a moment of peace there, just watching the waves crash against the shore, rolling down her window to catch the cool ocean breeze.
She finally found a spot to park and walked down the street. Here she was, Gwen’s last known location. Justine didn’t know what she expected, but this wasn’t it. She walked past a fudge shop, then a store that sold seashells and postcards. A sno-cone stand came next. The sun was shining, people walked by in shorts or even just in their bathing suits, smiling and carefree. Had something bad happened to Gwen here? If it had, Justine never would have guessed it.
She scoured the area, asking shop owners and locals if they had seen Gwen last night with no luck, her frustration growing. Of course her mother had let her come down here. Her mother knew her too well, knew she would need a way to satisfy her curiosity. She probably figured there wasn’t much harm in letting Justine wander a sleepy little beach town in the middle of the day.
Justine wasn’t beat yet. She turned her attention to a 24-hour diner just down the street. It would’ve been open when Gwen’s car broke down, maybe someone there had seen something. After all, Gwen’s blue BMW had a way of standing out. It occurred to Justine as she pushed open the diner’s door, a couple of bells helpfully jingling to announce her entrance, that Gwen’s car was almost brand new. It’s possible that it had broken down after only six months on the road, but it still struck Justine as odd.
She was rehearsing in her head the questions she would ask when she glanced up. Change of plans. She walked up to the diner’s counter and nonchalantly ordered a Coke and asked for a menu, pretending to take her time deciding what she wanted. Should she get the BLT or the Turkey Club? It all looked so good. The police were here. They weren’t in uniform, but who else would walk into a beachside diner wearing a suit and tie? The woman of the pair was only a little more casually dressed in dark slacks and a black jacket. Hell, it was the end of May and 85 degrees outside. They had to be cops.
In her shorts and tank top, Justine fit right in with all the other tourists. She stared at the menu as she eavesdropped on the conversation. “I’m Detective Barbara, this is my colleague Angela Faust.” The middle-aged man with the narrow face and graying blonde hair flashed his badge and took out a photo. “We’d like to get the names and phone numbers of your nightshift staff, anyone who would’ve been working yesterday evening between 10:30-11:30pm. We’re investigating the disappearance of this young woman. She went missing last night after her car broke down not far from here.” Justine took a peek at the photo. It was Gwen, dressed in a white doctor’s coat from the time she volunteered at the local clinic. The photo was recent, from last month. They must have gotten it from Gwen’s parents.
Recognition lit up the manager’s eyes. “You’re not the first person to ask about her. Her boyfriend, I think it was her boyfriend, was in here earlier. I haven’t seen her. I would’ve remembered a pretty girl like that. Then again, I work the afternoon shift. I’ll give you a list of all the employees who were working that night. And if you like, you can talk to Frank over there. He’s a regular. Chances are he was here around that time.”
It seemed you couldn’t have a respectable 24-hour diner without a regular like Frank to grace your establishment. The guy was in his sixties or seventies, with a gray beard, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a loud Hawaiian shirt. He looked as if he had packed for Honolulu and somehow ended up in Jersey.
Frank walked over, shaking both the detectives’ hands and slapping Det. Barbara on the back, much to his dismay. Frank held the photo in his hands, looking it over. “Never seen her. I was here last night though. Didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. I hope she turns up. Seems such a pity.”
“Can you tell me what time you came to the diner last night?” Det. Barbara asked. Though he was so far doing all the talking, Justine had a feeling it was the woman who was really in charge. Justine couldn’t take her eyes off of her. By the gray in her hair, Justine guessed she was about the same age as the other detective. She was strikingly tall, though not quite as tall as Justine, with mahogany skin and countless long braids captured into a pony tail in the back. She moved with an air of authority and every once in a while Justine noticed Det. Barbara sneaking a glance over to her, as if seeking her approval.
Frank shrugged his shoulders. “I stopped by around 10:30pm, the way I usually do.”
“And when did you leave?"
Frank opened his mouth to answer and suddenly frowned. “I don’t really remember, but I don’t think I stayed too long. I was having some coffee and pie, then I guess I headed home.”
“You don’t remember leaving the diner last night?” Det. Barbara pressed further.
Frank considered it some more. “Not really, but I got home, so I must’ve left at some point. It’s such a part of my daily routine, I don’t give much thought to it anymore, you know?”
“Did you use a credit card to pay for your meal?”
Frank cocked his head to one side, not really understanding what the detective was getting at. Justine took a sip of her Coke and wondered as well. “I must have. That’s what I always use to pay. Why do you ask?”
Det. Barbara turned to the manager. “Can you go into your system and pull up his payment from last night? I want to see what time he paid for his meal.”
“Know what you’re getting?” the lady behind the counter asked, hands on her hips, surly and world-weary the way any good waitress should be.
“I’ll take the BLT and fries,” Justine said, tearing her gaze away from the cops for a moment. “And can you make that to go?” She watched out of the corner of her eye as the manager checked the computer with a scowl. “That’s odd. I can’t find his check. Between 10:40pm and 11:32pm, I’m not seeing any activity at all. It can be quiet that time of night, but it’s usually not that quiet. Maybe it’s a computer glitch.”
“So according to that computer, there was absolutely no business in your restaurant during that time period. Even though you supposedly had customers here at the time,” Det. Barbara concluded.
“Which is why it has to be a glitch,” the manager responded.
Det. Faust looked all around. Justine quickly buried her face in the dessert menu. “You don’t have security cameras here, do you?” she wondered.
The manager shook his head. “We don’t need them. Even during the height of the busy season, we don’t have much crime, just some trouble with drunks, things like that.”
There was something odd about Det. Faust, but Justine couldn’t put her finger on it. At least not at first. It was her jewelry. Cops didn’t wear jewelry like she did on the job. Carefully, so as not to be noticed, Justine studied the heavy gold pendant that hung around her neck. The large red stone at its center almost glowed. On her fingers were several ornate rings, some with strange markings on them. Justine wondered why the detective didn’t leave the chunky jewelry at home, what with all the running around and beating up on bad guys she must’ve been doing on a regular basis.
If Det. Faust was disappointed at the way the interview was going, she didn’t show it. Justine couldn’t read her at all. “Thank you for your help,” Det. Barbara said as the manager handed over a list of employees for them to contact. Justine looked towards the kitchen as the detectives started to walk out. The cook was carefully arranging the bacon on her sandwich as if it was a work of art and not Justine’s next meal. “Come on,” she muttered under her breath, slipping off her stool and pulling out her wallet to pay for the food. Slowly, ever so slowly, the cook handed off his masterpiece to the grizzled waitress, who tossed it into a box, shoved it into a bag, and plunked it in front of Justine. She grabbed the sandwich and ran. “Thanks,” Justine called out. “You can keep the change!”
Justine stepped out onto the street, back into the sunshine. The detectives were nowhere to be found. “Shit,” she said, searching the crowd of beach-goers. She walked up and down the sidewalk until she caught sight of the two detectives standing in a parking lot behind the shops. She lingered in front of the sno-cone stand, watching them from a distance.
The two detectives seemed to have friends. They must’ve been cops, it wasn’t law enforcement social hour, but Justine had never seen police work like this. How was anything they were doing related to finding Gwen? There was the dark-haired geek with what appeared to be a Geiger counter pacing back and forth across the pavement, then an older woman in a hippie skirt who walked the perimeter of the lot, putting her hands on every tree she passed. People walked by, hardly paying the cops any notice.
Justine continued to observe from a distance, confused and angry. Why weren’t they looking for witnesses? She told herself to calm down. Whoever these people were, Justine had a feeling they knew what they were doing. There must have been some method to their madness, though it was pretty mad. Justine studied the area, suddenly realizing she wasn’t the only one watching the cops.
In a shadow-filled alleyway, a figure crouched down behind a trash can, observing every move the detectives made. Justine wondered if she had finally found a witness to her friend’s disappearance. Walking at a brisk pace, she circled around the shops, stepping into the alleyway from the other side without a sound. It occurred to Justine a little too late that what she was doing was potentially dangerous. Even black belts weren’t immune to bullets and she didn’t know who, or what, she was confronting.
The figure whirled around, almost sensing her presence. It was a dark-haired girl about her age, perhaps Asian judging by her features, but she moved like a feral animal. Her hair was a tangled mess, her clothing falling to pieces. The way she crouched, Justine couldn’t get a full sense of her size, but she knew she wasn’t big. The girl tensed her muscles, as if preparing to make a break for it. “Wait! I have food!” Justine blurted out, holding up the bag that contained her BLT. It was the first idea that had popped into her head. Hopefully it would work.
The girl stayed where she was, tilting her head to one side. “Let me see,” she said in a raspy voice.
Justine pulled the BLT out of the bag and opened the box. The girl’s eyes widened as she fixated on the food. She was painfully thin, Justine imagined she didn’t get a good meal very often. The girl motioned with her head for Justine to set the box down. Justine did so, slowly backing away. “I’m looking for my friend. Her name’s Gwen. Her car broke down not far from here and no one’s seen her since.”
The girl pounced the moment Justine was far enough away, swiping the box and retreating back to the relative safety of the trash can. She lifted the lid and breathed in deeply, savoring the food instead of devouring it. She picked up a French fry and took a bite. “No ketchup?” she asked, finally remembering that Justine was there, her voice taking on a more normal tone.
“Sorry,” Justine said, trying to get a better view of her in the weak light. The girl had a habit of letting her hair hide her face. “About my friend…”
“Excuse me?” Justine said, figuring she must have misheard the girl.
“You’re searching for the queen,” the girl stated as she munched away on the French fries.
“I’m looking for my friend,” Justine said once more, trying to hide the irritation in her voice. “Her name’s Gwen Martinez. She’s my age, medium height, about 5’7”, with black hair and brown eyes. Her car…”
The feral girl cut her off, speaking almost matter-of-factly. “You’re looking for the queen. I know they took her. They’re trying to make me care. Problem is, I don’t.” She turned her attention back to the BLT, muttering to herself, “A little too much mayo…”
Justine had the sinking feeling she was talking to a crazy person, but perhaps a crazy person who had seen something. “Who are they? Who took Gwen? Did you see something?”
The girl shook her head. “Wasn’t here when it happened, but I know who they are, I know their methods. It’s not your battle. You think you have a belt that says you can fight?” Justine blinked. What the hell? “Forget the queen, forget this war. Or you’ll die, and I won’t care.”
As Justine tried to make sense of what the girl was saying, she grabbed the box of food and took off. Justine ran down the alleyway after her, turning the corner and coming to a dead end. The girl was gone.