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6.

“I’ve chosen a compass base,” said Zinnia, laying down a crisscross of narrow red carpet. “For one thing, I know what I’m doing and the rest of you don’t, because you’ve never done this before. So it makes sense to have a central figure, which would be me. But this is also a directional ritual, if you think about it.”

She held a little pot of incense and sat down where the two strips crossed. She crossed her legs (apparently, inside her voluminous dress) and waved around at the four places where the strips ended. Lilah thought Zinnia was going to say, “Have a seat, genius,” but instead she began a low chant. It rose slowly toward a bass violin level, and then doubled into a bass and an alto. The others took the indicated places: Lilah, then Rob on her right, then George, then Annelise.

They fell backwards into the history of the front office. They saw Zinnia arriving, the detectives having breakfast, then going to bed, then returning from the party, and so on, back and back. They went away, then George showed up, then they came back, then they went away, then Lucy was going to bed, being shown out of the front office in the direction of the guest bedroom by Marius.

They drifted on past, while all five of them, like passengers on a river raft, examined the event as well as they could. Then they let the past drift past them again, until Zinnia pulled them out of trance around where Lilah and Marius were setting off to get her ring.

“She didn’t leave from the front room,” said Rob. “How can we see what happened?”

“We can’t move the vision,” said Zinnia, getting up, still carrying the smoking pot of incense. “We just have to move the visionaries instead. Where do you think she did leave from?”

“Uh, try the guest room?” said Lilah.

So the five picked up everything and moved it all to the guest room, which had mysteriously been cleaned up. With a minimal amount of discussion, they moved the bed up against the wall, and Zinnia laid the strips of red cloth down. They resumed their places, but Zinnia pulled Rob back up by his armpits, saying, “I want you across from Lilah: you two are the more observant, and you should be facing opposite ways. And you two,” she went on, looking from George to Annelise, “are the more knowledgeable about time mechanics, am I right? So you also should be across from each other, so you can see opposite directions.” She stood back as Rob and George switched places. “See?” she said, tapping her temple. “Thinking.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” said Lilah. “Are we good now?”

“We will certainly see,” said Zinnia, sitting down. She put the incense pot, still smoking, in her lap, and started right into her chant: low, then bifurcated. It hit fast this time: Lilah barely had a chance to marvel at Zinnia’s vocal talents before they were falling back in time again.

This room had not had a very interesting recent history, and the five had to see it twice, because Lucy was walking backwards out of it, then backwards into it and backwards out of it and backwards into it with Marius and backwards out of it again before they really brought their minds to bear. “Well, that sucked,” was Zinnia’s only comment after the first time through, and before she added, “All right, folks, let’s try that again.”

The second time, as Lucy walked back from the room’s only door, Zinnia pulled them out of ritual.

“She went out the door,” said Lilah.

“But it wasn’t the same door,” said Rob. “Or it wasn’t the same hall outside the door.” He jumped up, went to the same door and opened it. Outside was the same hall. “See? It wasn’t that.”

“Then what was it?” asked George. “O, observant one.”

“Well, time-mechanically-inclined one,” Lilah replied, “what do you say about a door that opens into a different place from its usual place? Is it just moonlighting, making a little extra money as a door for someone else on the side? A second door job?”

“What did you see through the door?” asked George, wearing his serious face.

“Pitch black.”

“Uh huh. That would be consistent. Did you happen to notice her attending to any sounds during those last few seconds?”

Lilah looked at Rob. Rob said, “I did notice that, actually.” Lilah made a face and Rob added, “It wasn’t obvious or anything, I wasn’t sure it was anything, but since George asked. No, really, I was trying to pay attention right after, i.e. right before? Right before she went out the door. She sort of hesitated over her suitcase, she was, I don’t know, deciding which nighty to wear. Didn’t you see that, that little double take or something?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Annelise. “She stopped and turned her head to the right. Wait a minute.” She tilted her head back and muttered, “Ol sek ra kur.” The others all watched her; Zinnia got up and re-lidded the incense pot but still watched. After some seconds, Annelise opened her eyes. “Why can’t we do better than this drift ritual or my stupid timesight spell? The ritual only runs one direction, and the spell is like way too focused to be useful for stuff like this? Ergh!”

“So what did you see?” asked Lilah. “Nothing?”

“She’s at her suitcase. It’s on the bed. Then she looks to her right, and I got a very slight garbled noise. It must have made sense only to her. So she puts stuff back in the suitcase, she puts it on the floor, she looks at it, she grabs out her locket and puts it on, and then she heads out the door. Into black space.”

“A black time jump,” said George.

“Meaning a jump to a black time?” asked Rob.

“No,” said George, “a jump where no one, even her, could see where she was going.”

They took this in. Lilah said, “So did she look worried? Afraid? I didn’t get that but I was seeing it backwards. And that spell makes me nauseous.”

“It makes a lot of folks nauseous,” said George.

“I did not get her being afraid,” said Annelise. “I got her being kind of excited, anxious, like when you set off on a trip somewhere you’ve never been.”

“She’d never been here either,” said Lilah. “So what the hell? Someone sent her a message we can’t hear, and she went out that door but it was somewhere else?” She glared at Zinnia.

“And then there’s this ghost person,” said Zinnia. “And that, I believe, is why you wanted me here in the first place.”

“By all means, let’s find out about that ghost person,” said Lilah. “Ironically, he’s the only thing that’s not a dead end.”

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