EDIT: Retroactive titling! The piece below you is: "Midnight Inquiry."
Julia leaned against the railing, basking in the light and heat radiating from the propane lamp standing in the roof patio’s corner. Like every other college-town ‘it-bar’ Altus drew from every social stratum: rich, poor, urban, rural, Greek, GEED. What passed for cosmopolitan in a southern college-town, combined with the noise, made Altus a good place to meet discretely if you could talk over the din.
Almost 9:30, Julia thought. She frowned. Sam said this guy would be freakishly punctual. She reached into her pocket for a cigarette.
“Any to share?”
Julia looked to her right to see an average boy about her age. He wasn’t unattractive, but aside from the faux-hawk he styled his hair into everything about him was utterly forgettable. The way he carried himself, Julia got the impression he preferred things that way.
Julia handed him a cigarette. He lit hers, then his, took a draw. He looked her up and down and smirked, pleased.
“The street’s pretty tonight, eh?” He turned to look over the railing and Julia followed suit, sliding closer.
“You have my fee?”
Julia handed him her clutch. The boy opened it, looked inside, then put it inside his jacket.
“It’s funny,” he said. “A girl like you usually buys pot, adderall; coke or molly once in a while. Not this stuff.”
“You get all sorts of surprises when your assumptions about people are based on how they fit their jeans.”
He grinned, blowing smoke out his nose, forming a temporary mustache. “True, but certain substances attract certain types. From what you requested, you’re not partying, you’re after answers.”
Julia flinched, but played it off as a shiver in the cold. She took a drag and exhaled.
The boy’s smile faded.
“I’m giving you what you asked for, make no mistake. But seriously reconsider how badly you want to enter Eden. There’s a reason I’m selling you ingredients, not the final product.
“Sam said you had a sober partner, and that you were both chemists, otherwise I wouldn’t have agreed to supply this particular assortment. But this goes beyond science and into something far more ambiguous…and disturbing. People sometimes come back wrong from acid. People sometimes come back right from a pilgrimage to Eden.”
Julia’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not stupid.”
“This isn’t a stupid person’s mistake.”
A pair of hands in the crowd behind them hooked a full-sized purse onto Julia’s free hand. She looked in that direction and saw nothing. She looked back towards the boy, but he was gone.
“You two know what you’re doing?” John asked. He eyed them from the door, more wary of his friends than being discovered.
“Just watch the hallway,” said Julia.
“It’s Saturday night, and Katie says no one’s come to this floor of the Aerospace lab since…everything.”
The three of them had set up shop in the radiation room, four floors below ground, where three of their friends had done the same two months ago.
“You don’t want to find out what happened?” Julia said, measuring the things the dealer sold them in the amounts Katie specified.
“I just think there are other avenues to explore that don’t involve pseudo-science and potential brain damage.”
“Oh ye of little faith,” Katie murmured, swirling something around a beaker. “The extract should be ready. 10 grams Julia.”
Julia poured the requested amount into a test tube, handed it off, then stood and stretched.
“Other avenues,” Julia said, walking around their circular work area. She gave a dry laugh. “You mean after the police gave up. After two private investigators gave up, and the third laughed us away before we could ask. Other avenues, for the three kids who vanished into thin air. No struggle, no foul play, not a single possession missing.”
“Doctor Snider—“ John began.
“Will not tell us anything! Just because the police couldn’t implicate him doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what happened. Why else would he take his sabbatical four months early? It would draw too much attention.”
John looked away. “He has to be guilty. What else could it be?”
Julia folded her arms. “I don’t know John, but this is our best shot. Snider was the head of Theoretical Physics, and Kyle, Ian, and Karla were working with him on fringe theories, so a little ‘pseudo-science’ comes with the territory. Besides, that one night we all saw—“
Now John snapped. “You saw something, I was drunk. You must have been drunk too.”
Julia bit her thumb. John had been drunk walking through an alley downtown, but Katie had seen the same thing in a lab on the top floor of the chemistry building…and Julia had seen it walking into her apartment bedroom.
It looked like Ian, but where he had been thin, the thing had been gaunt. It had been partially translucent, glowing with white light along its skin like it had stepped off a television screen. Julia had frozen as the thing that wasn’t Ian turned towards her, snarled, and let out a horrendous screech. John had fled, almost getting hit by a car; Katie had screamed, drawing the attention of night guards who found her sobbing in a closet two floors down; but Julia had remained frozen as it charged her, feeling a strange tingle as it passed through her, ghostlike. When she turned it had vanished.
“Done,” Katie said.
She stepped back. A soft mat and a pillow lay in the center of three concentric rings, one of copper wires, one of salt and one of yellow oil. Julia stepped inside and laid on the mat.
“How many hallucinogens are we dealing with again?” she asked.
“If you lost count, I don’t think you want a reminder,” said Katie. She flicked a syringe. “Last chance to chicken out.”
“Better stick me then.”
Julia closed her eyes, and relaxed. She felt a prick on her arm, followed by pressure. She counted until five minutes had passed, focusing on slow, deep breaths.
Then she opened her eyes.