“Could I talk to her? Can you take the illusion down?”
“Um,” said Red, “not sure that’d be wise. I’m not sure she’d actually know who you are? I don’t know how the, er, effect that we’ve been noticing will work on interactions between you and people rather than on your stuff.”
“Right, right, yeah. It’s good to see her, though. Aside from all the, you know, nonsense, I can nearly pretend that it’s all back to normal.”
Red gave her a reassuring smile. “Well, hopefully we’ll be able to untangle everything here, and—”
The doorbell rang, sharply, cutting off his thought. A few seconds later, Sasha padded back down the stairs, between where Red and Alice were flattened against the walls again, and opened the door. A blast of cold air spread down the hallway.
“Good afternoon,” rumbled a voice from the other side of the door. “If you have a moment, we have a few questions.”
“Who are you, exactly?”
“Oh, my apologies,” purred the new voice, its strange harmonics echoing oddly down the hallway. “I hadn’t introduced myself — I’m George. Myself and my colleague here, we are… investigators. We’re looking into a local disappearance. Do you recognise this woman?”
Alice heard the sound of paper rustling as it was removed from a folder or something.
“I… I don’t think I’ve seen her before,” said Sasha, a tremor of uncertainty in her voice.
“Interesting. This is the house currently occupied by… Rachel Bowman, Sasha Carter, and Alice Huang?”
“Uh, no? I mean, I’m Sasha Carter, and I live here with Rachel — she’s not here at the moment, though. But it’s just us, no Alice Huang? I’m not sure where you’re getting that from, maybe a previous person who rented here?”
“Interesting,” said the voice again. “So, Ms. Carter, how many bedrooms does this house have?”
Sasha sounded taken aback by the line of questioning. “Three? What—”
“And how many people live here?”
“Two. Myself and Rachel.”
“Why don’t you seek another housemate?”
She sounded very confused by the direction the conversation was going. “Because there’s no more free bedrooms?”
“Interessting.” Alice could hear the smile in the strange voice of whoever was standing just outside the door, and the strange trilling hiss beneath their words. “You said that there are three bedrooms and two members of this household, correct?”
“And three is a larger number than two, correct?”
“What? Yes? Is this… is this some kind of bit?”
“Just an investigation, Ms. Carter. Explain to me again why you can’t have anyone else move in?”
“Because there are no more bedrooms! Look, if you’re just going to talk in circles, are you— are you even actual private detectives?”
“Red,” Alice muttered, “what the hell is going on, here?”
“I’m really not sure,” he replied. “It’s certainly an odd reaction to the inconsistencies bought up by your disappearance.”
“So what, she can’t perceive that there’s one extra room and one too few housemates?”
“More like… more like she has all the facts, but can’t actually synthesise them, can’t put them together into an actual deduction.”
“Who are these new people, anyway?” She took a few steps towards the door, trying to peer around where Sasha stood in the doorway, arguing with… whoever was outside.
The guy standing outside was pretty tall, taller than Sasha even though he was standing a few steps down the stairs that led up to the door. He was wearing very dark sunglasses and a crisp suit, and from what Alice could see of his face, was positioned somewhere in the indeterminable gulf of ages between thirty and sixty. Slightly behind him and to the side stood someone else who wasn’t interesting.
Red tapped her on the shoulder. “Look,” he hissed, pointing down.
Confused, she glanced down at the carpet in the entrance hallway, then did a double take. The afternoon sun was streaming in through the doorway, making it very hard to pick out details on the people standing outside, but their shadows were cast long down the hallway, Sasha’s to one side and an uninteresting one to the other. But the one that she saw first was the tall man’s, because his shadow had horns. A pair of long horns twisted up from the top of his shadow’s head, and perhaps another pair jutted out sideways from his jaw, although it was hard to tell — his shadow started being fully eclipsed by Sasha’s, and she had the exact same zero amount of horns as usual.
“Another STAR person?” she hissed.
“Presumably,” Red replied, still craning his neck to try to get a look at the people standing outside.
“Look,” Sasha was saying, irritatedly, “I’m not sure I believe either of you are really detectives or whatever, you’re just here asking me weird questions, and I have things to do. So, um, goodbye.”
As she went to close the door, the tall man looked back, to someone uninteresting who was standing nearby.
Someone didn’t say something, and the things they didn’t say didn’t sound like words, either, more like sharp shapes made of air and sound and absence. Alice felt it wash over her like a wave of cold water, and she came out the other side gasping and shivering. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Red stagger, and up ahead, Sasha made a small, surprised noise before keeling over and slumping to the ground.
“Appreciated,” the stranger murmured, stepping over Sasha, into the house and fully into view.
He must have been six foot tall at least, easily taller than Sasha, Alice or Red, whether that height included whatever spooky horns were there on his shadow or not. He wore dark, dark aviator sunglasses, his head was clean-shaven, and he looked for all the world like he was a vaguely middle-aged man who could have walked directly out of a conspiracy theorist’s description of a Man In Black. What was odd about him, however, was the strange mottled texture of his skin, and that, when he looked over to the side, Alice saw his eyes glowing behind his sunglasses like a pair of hot coals. Behind him, someone uninteresting stepped through the door and closed it behind them.
“Get her onto a sofa or something,” the tall man rumbled. “I’ll go find the extra room.”
There wasn’t a reply, or if there was one, it wasn’t interesting enough to listen to. The other, uninteresting, intruder went over to Sasha, grabbed her by the upper arms, and started to drag her off into the sitting room.
The tall man strode towards the stairs, and this time when Alice and Red flattened themselves against the walls, it was far more urgent. He breezed past, and a wave of unseasonal heat came in his wake.
“Red,” she said after the tall man had passed. “Someone just knocked out my friend and then broke into my house.”
“Huh,” he replied. “I’m not sure what’s going on with that guy — some kind of flame magician?”
“I’m not sure I can put up with weird STAR people attacking my friends and breaking into my house. What’re they even doing here?”
Red’s brow furrowed. “I’m not sure. Something… I feel like I’m forgetting something. I’m not sure what, though.”
Someone uninteresting walked out of the sitting room, turned, walked between Red and Alice, and up the stairs.
“So,” she hissed, glancing frantically upstairs, “what do we do?”