Atone: Chapter 1

Atone: A Fairytale

~Chapter 1~

 

“What do you mean I’m Nicholas Hunt’s emergency contact?”

The people in front of Becca Ward in line at her favorite fast food joint all turned their heads in surprise at the loud shriek that had replaced her usual husky alto. Becca normally would have felt some embarrassment for disrupting the pleasant hum inside of Ernesto’s Pizza by screeching like a banshee, but she was to—well, there wasn’t really a word that could cover the mixture of shock, annoyance, and anger she was currently feeling—to care.

“There has to be some mistake,” she assured the voice on the other end of the phone, in a lower tone. “Like a really huge, colossal mistake. Is this some kind of joke?”

The buzz of conversation resumed around her, and she pressed her cell phone tighter to her ear, trying to hear what the man was saying. The connection wasn’t the best. This was the last time she would answer an international call on her cell in a public place. Or possibly ever, if the result was going to have to be thinking about Nicholas Hunt.

“Hold on,” she said. “I can’t hear you; let me go somewhere quieter.” She put the call on hold and reluctantly slipped out of line. Damn Nicholas Hunt. She hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him in two years and here he was making her lose her place in line at Ernesto’s. At lunch. On a weekday. Becca looked sorrowfully at the length of the line behind her recently vacated spot as she headed for the door. She was looking at another fifteen-minute wait just to order, once she got off the phone.

She stepped out into the warm afternoon sunlight. Not that a sidewalk on a large street in Los Angeles was going to be much quieter than the inside of a pizza joint. Becca grimaced and headed down the street toward her car. Just what she wanted, to sit inside her hot car and talk to someone about Nicholas Hunt. Maybe she should start looking around for camera crews. This had to be some sort of elaborate setup to get her to melt down on a hidden camera show. There was no other explanation. She doubted that even if she were the last person left on earth, Nicholas would list her as his emergency contact.

“Sorry, not leaving,” she called to the driver of the Mini Cooper that was hovering right behind her space like a bird of prey waiting to swoop in and steal her metered spot. The driver shouted something and drove away. “Have a nice day,” Becca muttered under her breath.

She glanced down at the screen of her phone as she swung open the door of her Jetta and slid into the driver’s seat. Nicholas was in France, or had been the last she’d heard. She had no idea what the country code for France was, but she was beginning to get a sinking feeling that no one was going to jump out and shout that she’d been punked.

“Hello? Thanks for holding. I can hear better now. Could you repeat everything? I think I must have misheard some of what you said.”

“This is Becca Ward?” The slightly accented voice sounded like it belonged to a middle aged man.

“Yes.” Maybe that was a bad idea. Maybe she should just tell him he had the wrong number and decline any future calls that were not obviously from within the lower forty-eight.

“This is Francois Gagnon. I am Mr. Hunt’s employer.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of you.” Becca rested her head on the steering wheel in defeat. Dr. Gagnon was Nicholas’s former advisor, his current employer, the archeologist who had discovered the ancient bed that just so happened to hold former princess, and current fashion student, Lilia de la Foret in an enchanted sleep for over eight hundred years. “How can I help you, Dr. Gagnon?”

“I am calling because I am concerned for Nicholas. I found your contact information among his papers. It seemed very clear that if something were to occur to him you should be contacted.”

“I’m sure there must be some mistake,” Becca assured him. “Doesn’t he have anyone else listed? His parents? Or a friend or girlfriend or something?” Or some random guy on the street who would probably care more than I would?

“No, there is not anyone else listed. There’s also contact information for an Alexandra Martin? But in looking through his belongings it seems as if he meant to contact you. I could, however, call Ms. Martin.”

“No, it’s okay, don’t bother Alex.” Becca knew Alex had picked up Luke from the airport earlier that morning. Bringing Nicholas into her day seemed like a crappy way to start off her summer vacation with the boyfriend she so rarely got to see.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Gagnon, I really do think there’s been a mistake. I don’t know why Nicholas would have my contact information, but I can assure you we’re not on the best of terms. I don’t think he’d want help from me, or from Alex either.”

“I understand, Ms. Ward. I had hoped…it is a very concerning matter. There were some notes along with your name that led me to believe you might know what was going on. I am not quite sure who else to contact, but we will find someone.”

Becca glared at the floorboard of her Jetta, her head still on the steering wheel. Why was Nicholas keeping notes about her? And why did he have either her or Alex’s information in the first place? She wasn’t sure if she should be worried or just pissed.

Dr. Gagnon was being very mysterious. He was speaking of Nicholas in the present tense, so obviously he hadn’t gone and gotten himself killed somehow. But whatever it was, it meant Dr. Gagnon was going through Nicholas’s personal effects. A coma? Maybe someone had kidnapped him? Maybe he’d finally annoyed the wrong people and some French mafia family had…here Becca’s imagination ran out. She had no idea if there even was a French mafia, or what they’d do to someone who annoyed them. Make them eat baguettes until they died of carb overload?

She banged her head twice on the steering wheel. Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask. “What, um, what has happened to Mr. Hunt?”
There was a brief pause, as if Dr. Gagnon was considering whether or not to answer her. Which made sense. Just a minute ago she’d been adamantly saying she couldn’t have been Nicholas’s actual emergency contact. “Mr. Hunt has always been of the opinion that there was more than meets the eye in our dig in the south of France. He has become rather, uh, single-minded in his pursuit of proving that there is some kind of—this is going to sound quite fantastical—some kind of magic involved with the site. The rest of our company recently relocated to Paris, and Mr. Hunt chose to remain near the original site. Shortly after, however, he returned home, but I haven’t been able to get in contact with him for several weeks. I received a package in the mail from him. It mostly made no sense, but it did have your name and contact information listed in it.”

Becca resisted the urge to hit her head against the steering wheel some more. She supposed it had been too much to hope that Nicholas would just forget all about the magic and go along like a good little soldier. “And in these papers he said I should be contacted?” Should be blamed is more like.

“Yes. There was also quite a bit about someone named Lilia, but that was quite irrational in nature.”

“I just bet it was,” Becca said grimly. She’d kill him. With her bare hands. Too bad he was so far away. How dare he be messing around in things he had no right to mess with? The fact that he had contact information for both her and Alex, and any information about Lilia at all, made her eyes cross in rage.

“Wait a minute,” she continued. “Did you say Nicholas went back home? As in, he’s back in Los Angeles?”

“Yes, he returned to the States several weeks ago.”

Suddenly the thought of killing Nicholas with her bare hands didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“What exactly do you want from me?” Becca considered suggesting that Dr. Gagnon just call the police and report Nicholas as missing. But if he was keeping some sort of weird files on the three of them, she wasn’t sure she wanted to get the cops involved. She wasn’t so much worried about herself or Alex, but she didn’t want anyone looking too closely at Lila. They’d paid a lot of money to create an identity for her after it became apparent that she couldn’t just magically return to her own time, and in theory it should hold up under scrutiny. Becca didn’t really want to test the theory, though. “Nicholas is a grown man. If he wants to quit his job and disappear, he’s allowed.”

“True. If he had just quit, I would be less concerned, but his increasingly erratic and obsessive behavior leads me to believe there is more going on than just a man wanting to quit a job. Previous to his decision to stay at the site, he’d lost weight, become distracted. There was something—a look that was not quite right to his eyes. I am sorry to have bothered you, Ms. Ward. I thought, perhaps, you were close to him, or knew how to contact his family.”

“No.” She almost choked over the suggestion that she was “close” to Nicholas. Not that Dr. Gagnon could’ve known anything about their history. He sounded like a nice enough guy, concerned for an employee’s well-being. Although he seemed to like Nicholas, which immediately made his judgment suspect in Becca’s estimation. But then, pretty much everyone liked Nicholas, at least at first. She supposed falling for his smarmy charm was just something people did.

“I’m not really sure how to get hold of his family,” she said, once she’d recovered from the little choking-to-death-on-her-own-spit episode. “I, um, I guess I’m concerned as well about Mr. Hunt, but I don’t really know quite what to do at the moment. Why don’t I take down your number and I’ll get back to you.” She pulled out her day planner and stared blankly at her array of colored pens. She loved color coding her notes, but she was at a complete loss as to what color best represented “What the holy heck?!” She finally settled for a plain blue pen and jotted down Dr. Gagnon’s number.

“Do you have Nicholas’s number or address here in L.A.? I, uh, the information I have for him is all from before he went to France.” Not that she’d ever had a phone number for Nicholas Hunt, but Dr. Gagnon seemed to think she had some sort of connection with him. It was also beginning to filter into her shocked brain that she would eventually want to get her hands on whatever Nicholas had sent Dr. Gagnon about them, so it would benefit her to play the concerned friend. She wrote down the number and address. “I’ll try to get back to you in a day or two. I can maybe check with Alex and see if she has a better lead on his family than I do.”

“Thank you, Ms. Ward. I appreciate your assistance.” The professor’s voice was colored with relief. Becca felt slightly guilty as she hung up the call. She wasn’t actually going to call her friend and ask if she knew anything about Nicholas’s family. She didn’t want to interrupt Alex’s and Luke’s reunion. Plus, she doubted Alex knew any more than she did.

Becca sat for moment staring blankly out the windshield, not really seeing what was in front of her. Two things had become very apparent. One, Nicholas had not forgotten about what had occurred two years ago. Two, he was still trying to prove that Becca, Alex, and most importantly, Lilia, were involved in magic.

This meant that he was still a threat to her friends. Becca didn’t take kindly to threats to her friends.
“Well, today has taken an unexpected turn,” she said out loud to no one in particular. “I’m not even hungry for Ernesto’s anymore.”

Becca tried the phone number that Dr. Gagnon had given her. It didn’t even ring, just went straight to an automated voicemail. She didn’t bother leaving a message. Somehow she doubted that Nicholas would just call her back for a friendly little chat.

She keyed the address into her phone’s maps app and stared in disbelief at the directions. She jammed her key into the ignition and started the car. “I really am going to kill him.”

~

Nicholas’s house was way up in the hills. As in, the very nice, very expensive hills. Becca got more and more annoyed as she drove up the winding streets and past gated houses that cost more than her entire family would amass in their lifetimes. How in the heck did Nicholas live in such a nice area? Was he independently wealthy or something? And if so, why in the world had he been working at the Gem and Mineral Museum of Los Angeles for so many years on what had to be a pittance of a salary?
She had been telling the truth to Dr. Gagnon—she really didn’t have any idea about Nicholas’s family. Maybe his parents were wealthy. That could explain why Nicholas acted as if the world owed him something. The road kept winding up, higher than Becca had expected. She began to think that her GPS had completely misled her when she finally found it. Another small street branched off from the main road, and at the end of that, completely isolated from all the other multimillion-dollar homes, was a large, older-looking mansion separated from the street by a tall wrought iron gate.

“You’ve got be kidding.” The house—at least what she could see of it—was ridiculous. It was set back from the street by a huge expanse of emerald green lawn. A long, tree-lined drive ran between it and the front gate. More trees obscured most of the front, but she could tell it was huge. As in an-entire-apartment-building-plus-could-fit-inside-it huge. It was designed in what Becca would classify as a “Tudor Revival Meets Hollywood Golden Age Set Designer” style. Houses like this really could only exist in Southern California.

There were no cars in the drive, but one had to assume a mansion like this would have plenty of garage space. There didn’t seem to be any movement or sign of life on the grounds. A house like this took people to keep up. Like servant-type people. Becca snorted at the thought of Nicholas having servants. Poor schmucks. She hoped he at least paid well.

Becca pulled her car up to the front of the gate, rolled down her window, and pushed the call button on the intercom. No response. In fact, there was no indication that the system was even operable. She jabbed the button a few more times, just for good measure, before pulling the Jetta back out and parking it along the curb. Maybe no one was there. Or maybe Nicholas was laying dead of a premature heart attack somewhere on the grounds and no one would ever find him. Or maybe someday they would find his body and then find all of his weirdo files on Lilia and start asking questions. And maybe he wasn’t dead, but just holed up in there with said weirdo files, in which case she’d off him herself and make sure to wipe her fingerprints off the intercom on her way out.

She wasn’t usually prone to homicidal thoughts, she admitted darkly as she got out of the air conditioned car and back into the heat, but Nicholas had always been a special case. As she examined the front gates, she pulled her long hair up off her neck and into a sloppy ponytail.

The wrought iron gate was at least twelve feet tall and rather intimidating. “Hello?” she called as loudly as she could through the bars. She didn’t really expect a response. She was too far away from the house to be heard. The intercom was obviously a newer addition. The gates seemed to be as old and over-styled as the rest of the house.

“Whoever built this thing must have had a serious royalty complex,” she muttered to herself as she measured herself against the gaps between the bars. The gate definitely qualified in the ornate and pretentious departments. They had been designed more for looks than actual security, and by twisting just the right way she was able to slip through.

Halfway up the drive it occurred to her that maybe she should let someone know where she was. She paused under one of the large elm trees that shaded the drive and texted Lilia the address.

Don’t ask. Complicated. I’m at this address. If you don’t hear from me in 20 minutes I want you to call the police and tell them where I am.

Becca continued her walk toward the mansion. She was less than surprised when her phone buzzed with an incoming call a second later.

“Are you insane? What kind of a message is that? Are you in trouble?”

“Hey, Lilia. No, I’m not insane. Well, wait, maybe I am. I’m at Nicholas Hunt’s house; he may or may not be here. I’m checking on him for Dr. Gagnon. Just thought someone should know where I am.”

There was a shocked silence on the other end of the phone. “Are you serious? I thought that man was in France.”
“So did I. I guess not. I’ll tell you all about it tonight.”

“And you want me to call the police in twenty minutes if I haven’t heard from you? That does not make me very comfortable.”
“I’ll be fine.”

“If he is there and he threatens you in any way, knock him out and we will deal with it later.”

Becca laughed in spite of herself. Lilia’s answer to the problem of Nicholas hadn’t changed much in two years. When he’d proved less than helpful, wanting to exploit the fact that Luke had awakened the enchanted Lilia and magically taken her place asleep on that crazy, spell-laden bed in the museum, Lilia had responded with a sleeping curse of her own. They’d stuffed Nicholas in a storage room and set about figuring out how to break Luke’s enchantment by themselves. None of the girls had been very impressed with their advisor at the museum not only failing to come to their assistance but trying to use the unusual circumstances for personal gain. Even Alex, who’d had a crush on Nicholas, had her eyes opened to his true personality rather quickly.

“Will do. Not sure I’ve got the sleeping spell mastered quite like you, but I’ll give it a go. I’ll call you in a few.” Becca shoved her phone back into the back pocket of her jeans once Lilia had said goodbye. The walk from the front gate had taken longer than she expected, but she was finally facing the imposing front doors of this mausoleum that Nicholas apparently called home.

Becca could hear the doorbell echoing throughout the house, but there was no answer. She knocked loudly on the wooden doors. Still no response. “This is moving past dumb to plain old stupid.” She fanned her face with her hand. It was hot. Really, annoyingly hot. Nicholas obviously either wasn’t here or didn’t want to be bothered. “I should just turn around and go.”
Instead of walking back to her car, Becca tromped around the outside of the house. It was built almost right up against the hill and far enough away from other houses that she couldn’t see them. The trees made it seem even more isolated. From the west side of the house there was a spectacular view down the hills and over the city of Los Angeles. On the other side the trees thinned out and a large lawn rolled out for what seemed like forever.

There was a detached garage at the end of the driveway. Planters full of flowers were pressed up against the sides of the garage; she could spot the violets even from this distance. For some reason it annoyed her that Nicholas had her “emblem flower,” as Lilia called it—the flower that responded best to her magic, on his grounds. The front door of the garage was open and she could see a dark, sporty looking BMW. It wasn’t the same car that Nicholas had driven when he worked at the museum, but that was two years ago. He could’ve easily bought a new car. Becca walked back down the driveway toward the house, thinking that she must be coming up on her deadline to call Lilia back. She’d just pulled her phone out of her back pocket to text Lilia when she felt it.

There was magic coming from the house.

She stared at the side of the mansion, as if she could somehow see past the walls and into the rooms. It was a slow, steady, pulsating magic. This far away she couldn’t tell much about it; it just was. And why it was in Nicholas’s house, she had no idea.

Her phone, sitting forgotten in her palm, began to buzz and she quickly answered.

“Are you dead?” Lilia demanded. “You’d better be dead, because it has been twenty-three minutes.”

“No, sorry.” Becca walked up to the wall and put her hand on it. The closer she got, the stronger she felt the power emanating from whatever was inside the house. “Hey, so I’m outside Nicholas’s house, and I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of magic in there.”

There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line.

“Are you kidding?”

Becca snorted. “Nope. I’m thinking about going in and checking it out.”

“I think you should wait for us.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Becca asked sharply, noticing for the first time that the background noise on the other end of the line sounded less like a busy school and more like a car. “You better not have bothered Alex!”

“It’s not a bother,” Alex’s voice cut in. “And I’m glad she called me. Neither of us wants you going up to Nicholas Hunt’s house alone. Crazy girl.”

Becca rubbed her forehead. Of course Lilia had her on speaker phone. “But it’s Luke’s first day back…”

“He’s catching up with his mom; she’s feeding him enough food to make up for an entire semester’s worth of home-cooked meals. According to my phone, we’re about fifteen minutes from the address you texted Lilia. Just wait for us, okay? Especially if there’s magic.”

“Fine, I’ll wait,” Becca lied as she headed toward the front door.

“Are you walking back to your car?” Alex asked.

Becca looked up at the sky in exasperation as she changed direction and headed back down the long driveway. “I am now. How do you do that?”

Alex laughed. “You’re too predictable—and protective—for your own good. Whatever is going on with Nicholas, you’re not gonna solve it before I get there. Trust me, I will not be emotionally damaged in any way by seeing him again.”