Part of my series starting with “To Go Beyond”. First two stories will be linked in the comments.
It started with a call from Robin’s mother, which was never a good sign. This time it was because Robin’s younger sister was being accused of a crime she claimed to have not committed, and Mrs. Lee wanted her private investigator daughter to help the family out. Unfortunately, where Robin went, Arpina and Dana followed, which was how they ended up packed on a train from California to Arizona. Arpina, who had never been on a train before, was taking it remarkably well. Then Dana decided to make a game out of the train ride, which ended with the group hiding under a table in the dining car as a wealthy woman raged about the stolen bird from her hat. The bird in question remained clutched in Arpina’s hand for hours until Robin finally coaxed her into giving it back. Dana was competitive, but Arpina took it to a whole new level. Getting back to their seats was a struggle, as everyone on the train was packed in like sardines.
“Definitely not traveling in style.” Dana squirmed around in her seat, accidentally kicking the one in front of her and getting snapped at by a guy three times her size. Robin had to physically restrain her to keep her from starting a fight. Arpina stared out the window, unaware of the situation unfolding before her.
“There are too many people on this train.” Robin complained, “I’m surprised they haven’t started tying passengers to the roof.”
“That guy in the dining car was so rude. I mean, I get that it’s overcrowded, but I just wanted a snack.” Dana flopped across Robin’s lap, “Train food is good for psychics.”
“Okay, now you’re pushing it.” Robin shoved Dana back into a sitting position.
“Are we there yet?” Dana whined.
“Why can’t you be more like Arpina? The only time she did anything remotely annoying was when you dared her to steal that fake bird.”
Arpina glanced over at the sound of her name and Dana stuck her tongue out. Of course, Arpina responded in a similar fashion. Robin rolled her eyes, but couldn’t contain the smile on her face.
“Settle down you two, we’ll be at the station in an hour.”
“You booked the hotel near the ghost town, right?”
“Yes, I booked the hotel that’s three hours out of our way so we can explore a ghost town.”
Dana had been doing research on the town of Clarity, Arizona ever since she discovered that Robin lived a few hours away as a child. Once a prosperous mining town, an accident caused the mines to be shut down and the people left seeking work. When Robin was little, her parents took her and her sister to go sightseeing there. The nineteenth century buildings were reminiscent of an old western movie, but the ground was too unstable for much walking around. Penny, Robin’s sister, decided to become a small town sheriff on that day. Robin had to stifle a laugh at the memory, as Penny was currently in a holding cell on an account of bank robbery.
After an uncomfortable hour, during which a child in the seats behind them would not stop crying, the train pulled into the station. Dana grabbed the luggage in an incredible feat of strength and led the charge off the train. Some people lift cars to help the people they love. Dana could lift six suitcases and barrel through a crowd, creating a pathway out of the station. The hotel Robin chose- at Dana’s request- looked like something out of the early nineteenth century. The woman at the counter looked like she was from the same century. She didn’t blink as Dana walked in talking loudly with Arpina about the rich history of Clarity. Robin walked up to the counter, “Um, I have reservations under the name Lee.”
“Room 208.” The woman said. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.
Without breaking eye contact, the woman dropped a key into Robin’s hand. An uncomfortable beat of silence passed before the woman finally looked away and screamed, “RODNEY! Git your behind out here and take these ladies’ bags!”
A door burst open and a man in overalls paused in the doorway to catch his breath, “Aw, do I hafta, Ma?”
“I didn’t hire you so you could sit in the boiler room all day with your contraptions!” The woman snapped. She gestured at Dana, and Rodney sighed.
“I can take your bags, Miss.”
Dana took one look at Rodney’s oil covered hands, shrugged, and handed him some suitcases.
“Lead the way, Mr. Rodney. We’re in room 208.”
Robin turned to follow when the woman spoke again, “If you need anything, just pick up the phone and ask for Ma Cook.”
“T-thank you.” Robin hurried up the stairs to catch up with Dana and Arpina, as well as to escape Ma Cook’s blank stare.
“I don’t think that woman has eyelids.” Robin whispered when she joined the group again on the first floor. Dana laughed, and Rodney glanced back over his shoulder, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing!” Dana hurried to amend, “So, contraptions, huh? I mean, I know you’re a bellboy at a hotel, but what goes on in the boiler room?”
“Aw shucks, you don’t want to hear about all that.” Rodney blushed, “Why, a purdy lady like you’d be bored outta your mind.”
“I’m more than just a pretty face.” Dana winked, and Rodney turned an even deeper shade of red. Something in Robin’s gut tightened, but she ignored the feeling.
“I’m an inventor.” Rodney drawled, “I make machines and stuff.”
“Oh?” Dana prompted. Rodney stammered out a more detailed explanation.
“W-well, I take bits and pieces of scrap metal I find around town and I hook ‘em together with wires. I’m working on automating a luggage cart so I don’t have to carry bags up and down the stairs.”
“You think so? Ma says it ain’t nothing but a waste of time.”
“I think it sounds awesome. Robin, doesn’t that sound awesome?”
“Yes, in theory. How are you going to get it to go up the stairs?”
Rodney frowned at that, “Shucks, I forgot about the stairs.”
Robin patted him on the shoulder, “Keep working at it. You’ll get there eventually.”
He grinned at her, and then unlocked the door to room 208.
“Here ya are, home sweet home. What’re ya in town for?”
Dana grinned, “I’m so glad you asked. Have you ever heard of Clarity, Arizona? Oh, what am I saying? Of course you have, you live so close to it! It’s a ghostly hot spot, the perfect place to learn some paranormal history, and Robin, Arpina, and I are going to do what we do best and investigate the tragic mine collapse of 1857!”
Rodney blinked slowly, uncomprehendingly. He then shrugged, “Alright. Have fun.”
Arpina frowned, “Not everyone likes ghosts?”
“Most people are a little too superstitious for that sort of thing. You’re living with two of the outliers.” Robin said, watching Rodney go down the stairs. Dana crossed her arms, “I think it’s fascinating.”
“Hey, why is it that every time we go somewhere one of us ends up at a mine?” Robin lifted her suitcases, making a face at the oil and grease coating the handles.
“We don’t end up at mines all the time.” Dana argued, carrying her own, cleaner suitcases into the room.
“Oh really? There was the mine in New Mexico, the mine in Colorado, the mine on Isla de Abundancia-” Robin dropped her suitcases in the room and went to go wash her hands, “I could go on.”
“Okay, but they’re not all mines.” Dana flopped down on one of the beds, “Some are just caves.”
“We spend more time underground than we do writing case reports.” Robin commented from the bathroom, “Either that means we spend too much time underground, or we don’t get enough cases.”
“Um, La- uh, Dana, there’s a scorpion on your pillow.” Arpina mumbled. Dana screamed and launched herself out of the bed.
“Kill it! Dismember it, tear it limb from limb!” She wailed, hiding behind Arpina, who just looked confused. Robin left the bathroom with a sigh, “It’s not poisonous, you big baby.”
She picked the scorpion up with one hand and opened the window, setting it down on the sill and locking it out of the room. Dana stared at Robin in horror.
“Go wash your hands again.” She ordered. Robin chuckled, “Don’t forget to check your shoes in the morning. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as getting stung by a scorpion when you put your shoes on.”
“I hate this hotel.” Dana declared. Robin sat down on the couch and motioned for Arpina to join her.
“You’re the one who picked it. Now can Arpina and I go over a few cases before dinner?”
“I’m going to take a shower anyway.” Dana rolled her eyes, “If there are any more scorpions, you’re going to get rid of them.”
“Uh-huh, sure.” Robin turned her attention back to the case files she was drilling Arpina on, a fond smile on her face.
A scorpion free night turned into an early morning of walking through the desert. It only took half an hour to get to Clarity, but during that half hour Dana attempted to climb a cactus to get away from the wildlife, Arpina lost the sunscreen Robin had bought for her, and Robin acquired at least three new blisters, courtesy of the hiking boots she was trying to break in. Despite the setbacks, they made it to Clarity in one piece.
“Ghost town!” Dana declared, standing in front of the others and spreading her arms wide. Robin frowned, “When I was a kid there was usually someone with pamphlets standing out here.”
“We don’t need pamphlets!” Dana declared, “I know everything there is to know about this place! The general store was run by an elderly couple that people suspect were actually infamous serial killers! Oh, and the bar was run by some politician’s son who ran away!”
“Stop bouncing around.” Robin scolded, “The ground here is really unstable.”
Dana ignored her, running around and pointing everything out at a mile a minute. Arpina seemed mildly interested, but more concerned about the possibility of the entire town collapsing into the mines below. Damage on that scale didn’t happen, but Robin did notice widening cracks in the heavily baked earth around Dana.
“Okay, we should really go now.” Robin warned, putting a hand on Arpina’s shoulder. Dana seemed to remember the situation and stopped moving.
“Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.” She gave Robin a sheepish look, “I hate how fragile this place is.”
“I know.” Robin could emphasize. When she was little, the ground hadn’t been quite unstable, but she and her sister had been so fascinated by the ghost town that they almost caused a sinkhole from their running around. Dana walked over slowly, and then lost her balance. Robin was moving before she realized what was happening, pulling Dana out of the way as the ground fell through. The next thing Robin knew, she was falling as well. Arpina screamed, reaching out for Robin, and Dana grabbed her before she could pitch over the edge. Robin hit the ground with a thud, a pile of dirt knocking the wind out of her but protecting her bones.
“Are you okay?” Dana yelled, voice tinged with hysteria.
“I’m fine!” Robin tried to call back. It came out as a wheeze, since she still hadn’t gotten her breath back. After a few seconds she tried again, “I’m okay, don’t worry!”
“I’ve got a rope in my backpack!” Dana called, “Hold on, we’ll get you out of there in a jiffy!”
Robin looked around at the abandoned mines. Lanterns, cracked and dripping with cobwebs, lined the walls, and wooden support beams lay on the ground, rotted through. A draft brushed past Robin, and she squinted in the direction it came from.
“I think there’s an easier way out!” She yelled up to Dana, “Give me a second, I’m going to go check it out!”
On the surface, Dana looked at Arpina, “She’s going to get killed by some vengeful spirit of the mines.”
“The ground opened under your feet.” Arpina pointed out with a huff, “Maybe the vengeful spirit wanted you.”
“Don’t.” Dana warned, “Don’t go there. I don’t like to think about that.”
“You’re going to have to one day, but right now my mentor is in an abandoned mine with potentially hostile spirits, and we need to focus on getting her out.”
Dana stared at Arpina, surprised by the sudden Robin-esque maturity. Underneath it all, she realized, Arpina was terrified. Robin had been the closest thing to a parental figure to Arpina since they left Isla de Abundancia. While Dana had never known her own parents, she could see where Arpina’s fear was coming from.
“We’ll save her.” Dana promised, “Like a couple of knights in shining armor.”
The wan smile on Arpina’s face settled something in Dana’s stomach. While things weren’t okay yet, she knew that they would be.
What would Dana do? Robin wondered as she walked down the hallway. Dana would be talking, humming, singing, and dancing her way down the hall. Not even the darkest tunnels were impervious to her light. Robin was quiet, she didn’t hum or sing, and she had two left feet. For once her mantra was failing her.
Maybe it isn’t about what Dana would do, maybe it’s about what I would do?
No, that couldn’t be it. Robin thrived in cities, surrounded by cases to solve. She just wasn’t made for wandering around abandoned mineshafts like Dana was.
“One of us always ends up in the mines.” Robin mused, watching a centipede disappear into the wall.
“Guess it was just my turn.”
The ground dropped out unexpectedly below her, and Robin tripped, landing face first on the ground. As she pushed herself back up to keep going, she noticed a faded yellow arrow painted on the ground.
“And you call yourself a detective.” Robin grumbled as she brushed some dirt off her shirt, “You didn’t even notice the arrows on the ground.”
The draft was stronger in the direction the arrows pointed away from, which seemed like further proof that this was a way to get out. Maybe at some point it had been an entrance, but depending on how well it had held up, it would be Robin’s exit. Unfortunately her hopes were dashed when she encountered the cave-in. The draft could be felt through the gaps in the rocks, but Robin knew she couldn’t move them by herself without risking a bigger collapse. She sighed, steeling herself to return and attempt to climb up a rope onto already unstable ground when something caught her attention. A metal door with a bird flying past a cloud emblazoned on it sat unassumingly ajar. Robin pushed it open further, shoving her shoulder into it as it shrieked in protest. It led to a room that was coated in a fine layer of dust but cleaner than the rest of the mine. Three tables lined the walls, each with their own chair. A corkboard hung askew over one, covered in graphs and statistics that made no sense to Robin. She pulled a photo of three people in lab coats off the corkboard. Two men and a woman. One man looked like the woman, and the other had his arm around her.
This must be a husband, wife, and a relative of the wife. Robin thought to herself. The woman looked familiar, smiling playfully at the camera, but Robin couldn’t place where she had seen her before. The photo was carefully labeled on the back.
Greg, Lizzie, and Virgil: Project Songbird.
The empty file with the rest of the Regent’s notes was also called Project Songbird. Robin put the picture in her backpack. It was too rare of a name to be a coincidence, and something told her that the Regent wasn’t gone for good. The graphs went into the bag as well for later study. With nothing else to do, Robin turned around and headed back to the sinkhole.
“I couldn’t find another way out!” She yelled, “Do you still have the rope?”
“Yeah!” Dana’s voice was thick with relief, and a rope dropped down. Robin started to climb up. As soon as she was close enough, Dana and Arpina grabbed her and pulled her to safer ground.
“No easier way out, huh?” The waver in Dana’s voice was unmistakable, and Robin wrapped her arms around both her partner and apprentice.
“Find anything cool at least?”
Robin paused at that, weighing the pros and cons of telling them what she had found in the mines.
“Nope, just dirt, bugs, and rocks.”
“I’m glad you’re okay.” Arpina snuggled in closer as Dana pulled away.
“Me too, sweetie. Sorry if I scared you.”
There was something about Dana’s expression that Robin didn’t like, but she left it alone for the moment. The three of them sat facing the town, framed by a blue sky and a dull landscape.
“It’s kind of pretty, isn’t it?” Dana asked. Robin stared at her with a small smile.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Definitely makes up for the fact that we have to prove your sister innocent in court.”
“Don’t ruin the moment.” Robin gave her a gentle nudge. They would find the evidence to prove Penny innocent, survive several meals with Mrs. Lee, and Rodney would ask Dana on a date every time they returned to the hotel, as if her opinion had changed. For the moment, however, Robin was content to put the future out of her mind, watching clouds drift across the sky with the two people she loved the most.