A few minutes before one, Riley was surprised to see Ethan walk into the shop. She smirked a little as she finished up what she was doing before walking over to him. “You know I was giving you a hard time, right?”
“Yes, but it still seemed rather important that I be punctual this time.”
“Fair enough,” she said, moving towards the back office. She grabbed her bag and said goodbye to Jack. When she joined Ethan again, he held the door open for her.
“I am depending on you for suggestions on where to go,” Ethan said.
“There is a diner that is close. It’s a bit hole in the wall, but the food is good, and it will allow more of a chance to talk than anything faster,” Riley replied, leading the way.
“Sounds good,” Ethan agreed and adjusted his pace to be about half a step slower than Riley, knowing he would easily outpace the woman otherwise. “One of the things you learn in traveling as we do is that hole in the wall places are often the way to go.”
“I guess I never really thought about it, but you must constantly be on the road.”
“More often than not, yes.”
“What brought you here?”
“Too many,” Riley said with a small chuckle as they arrived.
The two waited just a short bit to be seated and started looking at the menu before Ethan continued. Ethan took the time to subtly look around the diner and could see that people were staring at them. He didn’t sense a lot of malice, but it was quite clear that they did not know what to make of him or the fact that he was with Riley. He also noticed an air of extreme discomfort between Riley and their waitress. They also seemed sad to be around one another, though both were doing a lot of work to hide it.
Ethan found himself feeling unsure again and more than slightly afraid to accidentally insult her if he pushed about his observations. He hated feeling this off-kilter, but people often did that to him, and Riley seemed to bring it out even more in him.
Riley had noticed Ethan glancing around and also him getting more uncomfortable, so decided to take a little pity on him. “We don’t get a lot of people from out of town, and I am sure you’ve heard of this town’s reputation.”
“They keep looking at you too,” Ethan decided to risk adding.
Riley shrugged. “They aren’t used to me spending much time with anybody. An out of towner is especially odd.”
Riley leaned forward and studied Ethan carefully. “How much has Jack told you about me, Mr. Hill?”
“Ethan,” He corrected instantly, hating the idea of her falling into formalities with him and a little surprised how strong the feeling was and how quickly it rose. He then processed her question. “Not much. He has always been a bit cagey about discussing you in much detail. Yet, he has also expressed a great deal of interest in us getting to know one another over the years. It has honestly always felt a bit odd, but I assumed there was a reason and never pressed.”
Riley hummed and considered this before replying. “I have difficulties with people. Some days I cannot touch others without extreme pain, and on the days that I can, there is generally at least some mild discomfort with most that I might touch. Jack is one of the few that I can frequently have physical contact with. I also sometimes get the idea that I can feel other people’s emotions. It can be difficult for me to feel comfortable around other people between both of these things, so I simply avoid it.” Riley paused and looked a little sad. Ethan also noticed her glancing at the waitress. “I just reached a point that it was easier to not maintain close relationships. I stopped trying, and the people in town stopped pushing. My interaction with people outside of Jack or helping them in the store is extremely limited. That’s why they are staring at me too.”
“Does Jack know why this happens?” Ethan asked, although he had his own suspicions and was nervous for an entirely different reason now. He at least had more of an understanding as to why Jack wanted them to meet if this was the case.
“We both have theories, but no real way of testing them.”
“Why have you not sought outside help?”
“You must have some idea why.” Riley looked at him incredulously.
“Lack of trust?”
“Exactly. Depending on what is wrong with me or what I am, the results could be bad. Now that I am older, it is less likely, but when I was young.” Riley finished with a shrug.
Ethan sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. “From a scientific point of view, he made a mistake. However, from a personal one, I cannot honestly say I would have done differently.”
“There is also the possibility that I am simply crazy.”
“Possible, but unlikely.”
Riley motioned for him to continue, and Ethan sighed, looking more uncomfortable. “I felt something too last night, and I am guessing others have as well. You creating some sort of physical response to being uncomfortable with other people is not impossible, but other people experiencing that manifestation probably is.”
Riley blushed a little at the mention of the feeling from last night but nodded. He didn’t seem to pick up on the fact that she shouldn’t have had such a reaction to him, so she was not going to inform him of that. At least not for now.
When their food arrived, Riley allowed him a few minutes to dig in and was pleased that he seemed to genuinely enjoy it. She took this chance to change the subject. “So what case?”
“We try not to assume too much early in the case, even to the point of not assuming a spirit is real at all. However, if there is one, Abigail certainly seems the most likely.”
“Do you debunk a lot of cases?”
“There is a mix. Some are true spirits, some are completely fake, others are unintentional fakes.”
Riley paused. “People with powers not knowing they are manifesting something that appears as a spirit?”
“That didn’t use to happen as often, right?” Riley questioned.
“No, but we have noticed a rise in people with powers since The Event. Much like with the rise in activity of spirits, it seemed to have awoken something in those with paranormal powers. Whatever happened to cause The Event, I believe the barrier between our world and the spirit world has been permanently altered.”
“That means more people need help.”
“Yes. That is why part of my company is dedicated to helping people find the resources they need to be trained and get their powers under control and possibly in a field they can use them. Finding someone with powers does not mean case closed for me.”
“That’s good to hear,” Riley said, smiling at him.
Ethan was glad that he sensed the progress they made was real and decided to take another risk. She hadn’t responded poorly to the question earlier, after all. “I was hoping you might be interested in working on the case with us.”
“Really?” Riley was genuinely surprised.
“While we do not often bring outsiders in, locals can be helpful. Plus, you are not truly an outsider. It would also give us the chance to get to spend some time together, although I require a great deal of focus on cases and can completely shut down at times.”
“For Jack?” Riley pressed the issue wanting to know his motivations.
“And for me,” he answered quickly and knew it was true. “I am curious about you, Riley. Our conversations have never been much in the way of the personal, but our work is connected. You are also the charge, for lack of a better term, of a man who I greatly respect. He both brags about you and wants to keep everyone at arm’s length when it comes to you. I was already curious, but with the addition of what you told me today, I am more so.”
“Curious about potential powers?”
“That is not how I meant it. Of course, that is part of it, I cannot help that. But it is also curiosity about you as a person. I want to get to know you and give myself a chance at a better impression than our first.”
“I’d say you are doing a pretty fair job of that.”
Ethan nodded quickly. “I also think you might enjoy it.”
“Oh, that I can almost guarantee,” Riley quickly agreed.
“So will you?” Ethan found himself hopeful and disconcerted by that hopefulness.
“I have to talk to Jack.”
“I think you will find that he is already somewhat expecting this.” Ethan saw Riley stiffen a little and quickly pushed forward. “No, I did not discuss it with him first, but he is not subtle, so he may have casually tried to find out if it was something I had considered. And yes, in answer to both of you, I already had.”
Riley let out a short laugh. “Yeah, subtle is not his strong suit. Alright, when we are done here, I will just confirm, and we can sort out details.”
“No, thank you, it really is exciting.”
“As I said, locals can sometimes offer a certain perspective, and you have knowledge of the field, so you might be a great help. If you can think of anything about the library or Abigail that you might have some information on that could benefit us, we will be happy to hear it. I am also a bit curious about the level of superstition in this town.”
“I have a few theories. Both about the town and about the case itself. I have also read Abigail’s journals.”
“We do not have time right now, but that is something I will want to discuss. Shall we?” Ethan asked, motioning towards the door.
He quickly grabbed the ticket, and Riley rolled her eyes; even if she tried to pay, Jack would have just given her the money somehow anyway. The walk back to the bookstore was mostly silent once again, but this time without any awkwardness. Riley was enjoying the nice walk, and Ethan had to admit that slowing down a little felt good, but not something he was likely to repeat often.
“I will see you around closing tonight?” Ethan asked.
Riley resisted the urge to goad him again and just nodded. “See you then.”
Ethan felt a sense of calm wash over him at her acceptance. Maybe he hadn’t messed this up entirely.
She was an interesting woman, and depending on how she worked with the team, she could make an excellent addition. The possibility of her having powers worried him a bit, but they could cross that bridge if they got there. He quickly shook his head and got control of his thoughts again. He was getting ahead of himself and had been gravely rude. No, he needed to slow down and take it one step at a time. He also needed to consider if he could even ask her to join, considering Jack.
Meanwhile, Riley made her way over to the desk smiling at customers as she passed. She could see Jack looking at her from one of the rows where he was helping someone. Riley hid her smirk well and made sure to give no hint of how the lunch had gone. Jack would have to wait for everybody to clear out, a small price to pay for meddling, she thought.
It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate Jack’s efforts. She was just unsure about what, if anything, was next for her. She also didn’t feel great about still needing someone to push her. Then her life had never been normal, so maybe it made sense that she was a bit off schedule.
She also needed to slow down and stop assuming helping them with this one case would mean anything more. Still, there was a feeling that this was the start of something else. She shook away the thought, though, one step at a time, she reminded herself. Work this case and see if anything more comes of it, but be prepared for it not to happen. Her potential abilities and strong instincts didn’t mean she was right every time. She was still human, still missed some things, still could see what she wanted instead of what was actually there.
When the bookshop cleared, she could see Jack quickly making his way over, face covered in curiosity. “Well?” He asked.
“Well, what?” Riley feigned confusion. Jack rolled his eyes, and Riley laughed. “He asked me to help them with the case at the library,” she finally answered. “Should I look for people to help you?”
“Riley, about five people are on standby and secretly hoping one of us wants to quit. Getting someone to fill in will be easy.”
“So I assume it went well, but any other details?”
“He apologized this morning, so lunch was mostly us chatting. But, I still feel odd about him.”
“I am still mad, but I don’t know why it’s bothering me so much, and my gut keeps telling me there is something about him. About all of this. Something important,” Riley said, brows furrowing.
“Is that a bad thing?”
“It could be.”
“But it could also be good.”
“I suppose,” Riley admitted.
“If you live your life always assuming the worst and never trying because of it, you will never be disappointed, I suppose.”
“Yes, yes, Hippie,” Riley sighed. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Jack watched her carefully for a few moments. He did not need abilities to know her gut was right. This case would change everything for her. Sadly, he thought, for him too, but it was time. “I’ll be in the back working on a few things,” he finally said.
“Alright, I am going to review some of the stuff I think might help for tonight,” Riley said distractedly.
Jack smiled at that, glad that he was right. This would be something she could do.
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