Plum’s office had been cleared out. I stood in the doorway with Chief Inspector Rhyme, Candle, and a few other shifties. The carpets had been taken away, exposing the cracked cement floor. The curtains were gone, revealing cinderblock walls. All the old, antique furniture was nowhere to be seen. The room was empty.
Except for the narylis flower, sitting in the middle of the room on its pedestal, lit by a single shaded lamp that had been left behind. It looked cold and grotesque, sitting there in a place it didn’t belong. In the warm elegance of Plum’s office it had been beautiful. In the concrete room it looked bulbous and obscene. The sight of it chilled me to the bone.
“He knew you were coming,” I said. Rhyme looked down at me. “This room was different just hours ago, before they locked me back in my cell. He must have… ” I put a hand to my head, disoriented. I was hungry and tired and I felt like I was losing my mind.
Rhyme stepped into the room and approached the flower.
“We’ll need to take this. Someone get in touch with parks. See if there’s someone who knows how to transport and care for these things.”
One of the shifties nodded and hurried away.
“I don’t understand,” I said, still in the doorway, not wanting to get any closer. “He’s had that flower for fifteen years. He told me. Why would he leave it behind? He cared for it.”
“He told you that, did he?” Rhyme said. “Hm.”
“You think he was lying? He wasn’t lying. He thought I was… ” I trailed off, intensely aware of Candle’s presence by my side, and started over. “It’s a message. He left the flower as a message for me.”
“Doesn’t make sense.” Rhyme’s voice was a low mutter, as if he were talking more to himself than to me. “Leaving messages? Diosec’s never done this sort of thing before. Not usually this easy to scatter, either.” Suddenly, he turned to me. “Why do you think Plum was leaving you a message?”
I shrunk. “I don’t… I don’t know… there’s nothing… ” I could feel my heart speeding up as I tried to backtrack. “I’m just one in a long line of kids the Diosec’s taken, aren’t I?”
Rhyme nodded slowly, but I could see he wasn’t convinced. With my stomach plummeting, I thought of something Plum had told me, and set my jaw, trying to muster my most stubborn voice.
“There’s nothing special about me.”
Rhyme frowned. “That may well be so… ” His eyes returned to the drooping, violet head.
“We should have caught him,” I said. “He should be here.”
Finally, after a period of thoughtful silence, Rhyme sighed. “It would have been too much to hope for, Nova.” He came over to me and knelt down, looking into my eyes, then Candle’s beside me. “Don’t feel too bad. All things considered, I think tonight was a success. We took down one of the Diosec’s cells, no small feat, and this is the first tip we’ve had on their leader in years.” He reached out and laid one hand on each of our shoulders. I flinched away, but his grip was too firm.
“I’m proud of both of you. I’ll make sure the Ferren knows who to thank for what happened here. But it’s been a long night, and I’d like to get home to my husband, so it’s time to start cleaning things up.” He gave us meaningful looks. “That means getting you two out of here.”
Later, Candle and I sat wrapped in blankets outside the takky shop, the night spinning with the blue and yellow lights of the Shift Patrol skims. We had been given paper cups filled with hot chocolate, but they were empty now, sitting beside us in the back of the emergency vehicle. Our legs dangled off the edge, not reaching the ground.
“Are you okay?” I said to Candle.
I didn’t answer for a moment, and then I said, “Thank you.”
“For rescuing me.”
Candle turned and tried to smile, but it was half-hearted. “I will always rescue you, Nova.”
“No.” I stared straight ahead, the flashing lights burning streaks in my vision. “No,” I repeated. “I think I might need to learn how to rescue myself.” I looked down at my empty paper cup. “Do you… do you want to go for a bike ride on Cantic?”
“A bike ride? Nova, you hate bicycles.”
The silence that fell between us was painful.
“I didn’t tell them everything, you know,” Candle eventually said. “I didn’t tell them why the Diosec was interested in you. That you might… that you might be the… ”
“Thanks,” I said, cutting her off.
On the other side of the Shift Patrol line, I spotted Fogwillow, Gruffin, Len, and Martha pushing their way to the front. When they got there, Candle’s parents ducked under the line and Candle sprang up, meeting them halfway and falling into their arms. Fogwillow followed close behind and cut an uneasy path toward me. Gruffin stayed behind, stroking his beard and watching the scene with a shocked, vacant look.
When Fogwillow finally reached me, I stood, looking up at her. She frowned at me, and I could see the myriad gears in her brain ticking slowly, processing everything that had happened, trying to take it all in. Finally, she nodded.
“You can tell me anything. You know that?”
“I know,” I said, and wrapped my blanket more tightly around me, looking away. We stood like that for a while, the space between us so small, but so difficult to cross, each with our own reasons not to cross it.
And on the other side of the street, I saw Chief Inspector Rhyme emerge from the takky shop. He was holding a glimmer in two hands, staring down at it with an expression that was equal parts horror and longing.