“There’s someone else here looking for Chelsea too,” said Naomi.
Melanie sounded hesitant as she responded, drawing out the word’s first syllable. The hesitation made Naomi suddenly more nervous.
“There’s–There’s no harm in helping her look. Right?”
“There might be,” said Melanie. “In helping either of them. Or maybe both.”
Naomi looked at the two women standing in front of her. Neither looked dangerous.
“Oh, uh… oh,” she said. “Why?”
“I don’t want you to panic, alright? They’re probably harmless. But someone attacked Falcon and Chelsea, and whoever it is, they’re not gonna stop ’til they find him. Just be careful, alright, babe?”
Naomi felt a chill run through her.
“Oh, um, okay.”
“I’m gonna tell you a code, alright? If anything feels sus about either of those people–if anything seems off–I want you to tell me ‘My mobile’s about to die’. And if you feel like you’re in danger, I want you to tell me ‘Mel, the connection’s breaking up’ in those exact words. Can you do that for me?”
“Okay. I will,” said Naomi. “Um, what will you do if I do?”
“I’ll be honest. I’m not sure there’s a lot I can do. But if you don’t, I’ll at least know you’re safe.”
Underneath the queasy feeling in her stomach, Naomi felt a tiny thrill of excitement. She was on the phone with Melanie Graham. The Melanie Graham was actually worrying about her.
A flush of embarrassment quashed her brief excitement. This was no time to be a childish fan-girl. Her life could be in danger and her best friend was missing.
“It won’t cost you any money to stay on the phone, will it?” said Naomi.
“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. We have an international calling plan for booking tours.”
“Can I ask who’s on the other line?” said the woman in the lab coat.
“Oh, just, uh.” Naomi paused, trying to think of how to explain. “It’s a long story. She’s helping me look for Chelsea, kind of. Her name is Melanie.”
The woman leaned forward, closer to the phone. “Hi, Melanie!”
“Hi!” said Melanie.
“So that was Melanie,” said the woman. “Can I ask what your names are?”
Jen introduced herself, and Naomi followed suit.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jen. Naomi.” The woman straightened her lab coat and smiled at them. “I’m Sarah.”
Sarah led them across a small gravel courtyard with four stone benches forming a diamond shape in the center.
“Are you sure you saw them both in the IT building?” said Jen. “I know it’s where Chelsea works, but Sam never goes over here. Maybe we should check the engineering building instead.”
“I already checked,” said Sarah. “They weren’t in there.”
“It’s real big, though. Maybe we could check again?”
“Maybe.” Sarah shrugged. “We’d probably be wasting our time, though. This is the last place I saw them.”
“Looks like Falcon’s logged into messenger,” said Melanie. “I’m gonna ask him to describe the person who attacked him.”
“Okay,” said Naomi.
“What did your friend say?” said Jen.
“Just…” Naomi thought about it for a second. “Just that she thinks the engineering building might be worth a second look.”
“I guess we can check if we don’t find them here,” said Sarah.
“He’s replying now,” said Melanie. “He says… long dark hair, brown eyes, slightly above average height. Sound like either of the people you’re with?”
Naomi’s pulse sped up a little as she looked at Sarah.
“Yes.” She paused. “My mobile’s about to die.”
“Okay, alright. It doesn’t have to mean anything. Heaps of people fit that description. But just to be safe, try to find a way out without sounding too suspicious.”
“But what about–“
“We’ll do everything we can for Chelsea. But don’t put yourself in danger too. And try and get the other person out of there too if you can.”
“Naomi. Babe. Trust me, alright? These aren’t people you want to fuck around with.“
And they have my best friend.
Naomi felt a lump growing in her throat.
“I know you’re worried, but you won’t do Chelsea any favors being reckless. We’ll do everything we can to find her, alright? But right now your life could be in danger. Please, get out of there as soon as you have the chance, and I promise we’ll figure this out.”
“Something wrong?” Sarah turned around, her smile wide and her voice chipper.
Naomi took a deep breath, hoping her nerves didn’t show on her face.
“No. Nothing’s wrong.”
“You mean other than your missing friend, right?”
Sarah grinned again. Her expression sent a chill through Naomi’s body. Who grinned while they said something like that?
“Um, right. Yeah. Other than that. Obviously.”
“And my missing boyfriend,” said Jen.
Shut up, Naomi wanted to tell her. Your boyfriend probably forgot his stuff and got another ride home. Chelsea could be in danger.
Sarah swiped her badge at the IT building’s entrance and held the door for Naomi and Jen.
The building was dark for a few seconds, then a sensor noticed their presence and fluorescent lights buzzed on overhead, illuminating the hallway. On one side of the hall was a wall painted with a “modern” blue pentagon and hexagon pattern, with some of the larger hexagons containing words like “innovate” and “teamwork”. On the other side, a frosted glass floor to ceiling window gave them a blurry view into a room that was completely dark save for a dim red light that could have come from an exit sign.
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s in here,” said Jen.
“Not on this floor,” said Sarah. “We can still try the second.”
“She works on the first,” Naomi lied. “She’s probably not here.”
The fewer places they searched the better, Naomi decided. As much as she wanted to find Chelsea, she could end up putting her in even more danger if Sarah found her too.
“Are you sure?” said Jen. “The first floor is all tech support. I’m pretty sure she works on the second.”
Naomi suppressed an exasperated sigh.
“Come on,” said Sarah. “It can’t hurt to check.”
Naomi thought about protesting, but couldn’t think of a way to do so that wouldn’t make Sarah suspicious if she was the woman who had attacked Chelsea and Falcon.
Sarah led them down the hall, stopped in front of an elevator, and pressed a button. She turned to them and smiled.
“So do y’all live around here?”
The lump in Naomi’s throat grew larger. It could have been innocent small talk, or Sarah could have been fishing for information–trying to figure out where she lived or where Falcon was hiding.
“Kinda,” said Jen. “I live in Fort Mill, so it’s not too far from here. I have to get on 77 though, so trying to get here is like, urgh.“
“Really?” said Sarah. “What’s wrong with 77?”
She sounded so normal, so casual, but something was off about her words. Anyone living in Charlotte should have known how bad rush hour traffic was on 77, especially if they worked in this area.
“I can’t really hear, but it sounds like she’s making small talk. Don’t answer any questions, or lie if you have to. Better safe than sorry.”
“It’s like, super super busy.” said Jen. “Plus, I have to pick up Sam every morning, so it ends up taking forever to get here.”
“Does Chelsea ever carpool with you guys?” said Sarah.
“Nope,” said Jen. “I think she lives in one of those apartment complexes just down the street.”
Oh, my God, thought Naomi. Please, please, shut up.
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open. Jen stepped in and held the door.
“So she doesn’t live too close to you, huh, Naomi?”
Sarah turned to Naomi, giving her a wink.
Naomi’s heart jolted in her chest.
She knows I know.
Trying to keep her voice even, she spoke into the phone.
“Mel, the connection’s breaking up.”