‘In three hundred meters turn left,’ the GPS intoned.
Keeping her eyes on the road, Julia Jones wasn’t convinced there was a turnoff coming up. Both sides of the road were thick with native forest. Julia shook her head, not that there was anyone in the car to see it. She could scarcely understand her folly in this. A delivery guy rocks up at her door, asks for identification and hands over a small package containing only a black notebook. A used black notebook, with a note taped to the cover saying ‘she wanted you to have this’.
Less than twenty-four hours later Julia was driving towards who the hell knew where or what. She’d told no-one what she was doing, and not only because the instruction in the book insisted. Usually that kind of demand resulted in a knee jerk reaction of the exact opposite. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t told Brad or Diane what she was doing, because everyone knew instructions to keep things to yourself were little more than the start to a bad horror film. She’d thought bad, because according to her friend, Diane, very few were truly scary. Di loved horror, Julia not so much. Working within the prison system, she saw and heard more than enough horrific crap, and absolutely didn’t need to indulge in other people’s interpretations of the stuff.
Which again begged the question, why hadn’t she told anyone about this weird little adventure. There was only one answer to that. Julia needed some alone time. Work had been rough recently; having to deal with that last death in custody, and people questioning whether she had missed something, which she hadn’t but they always wanted someone to blame. It seemed working with some of the worst society had to offer was finally taking its toll. Added to that the system from the top down was… Julia shut that thought off before it was fully developed. Having issues at work, in no way made her unique.
Suddenly an un-signposted road was there and she turned hard.
‘Stay on this road and in two point two kilometers you will reach your destination.’
People were assholes, and if they weren’t she’d be out of a job, one she was good at, just tired of. She was tired of the excuses, the blame and the stand that women were broken and unable to work towards a better future because they had shitty experiences in their past.
Julia wasn’t exactly sure how that reasoning applied to only some women, because she’d had experiences that weren’t the most positive in her life and she was still a law-abiding citizen, no matter how hard it got. She had experienced or had her life touched by rape, suicide and death. She’d lost both parents before she was thirty. She’d been rejected, personally and professionally in life. All these things left a mark, and hearing bullshit sob stories was starting to wear thin.
All this had had a flow on affect into other areas of her life. She was starting to take risks she never used to, such as sparring hard with the guys at the gym. She told people it was because she liked to push herself, the truth was more complicated. The pain from sparring drowned out the frustrations that were beginning to pull her down into the grey.
‘In one point five kilometers, you will reach your destination.’
Julia was still convinced this journey was a wild goose chase, but on the off chance it wasn’t… She’d been asked to do this thing by someone she’d respected, and as strange as it was, she felt compelled to do it.
Driving down the road, the forest still thick and tall on both sides of her. The sunlight only penetrating through the foliage in flecks, did nothing to alleviate the idea that she was somehow in the opening of a horror film. As much as this situation wasn’t the most normal thing, she hadn’t exactly come out unarmed. Most of her weapons experience was with practice blades and kali sticks, but she did own real swords, live ones, and a particularly wicked machete which was currently partly under the passenger seat. If she was pulled over she’s definitely be in trouble, but somehow that only added to the adventure of it all. She also had a hunting knife in a sheath attached to her belt. Silly this thing may be, but Julia wasn’t completely unprepared.
Brad was going to be super pissed she’d gone off without him. She adored her boyfriend but he’d just gotten his new job and couldn’t afford to take a day off. The book had said to act immediately, so even though she’d have preferred to wait until they both had a day off, she didn’t. She figured there was a better than even chance someone was just having a good laugh at her expense, but if there was even a hint this trip could leave to a small financial windfall she would take it. Of course, one person’s windfall was another person’s petty cash, though at this point, she’d take what she could. Her car was in desperate need of a service, not to mention new tyres and her gaming computer seriously needed an update. None of those things could be done with her budget being so tight at the moment, and sometimes hope was the very thing you needed to help break the hold depression and the grey had put on you.
‘In two hundred meters, you will be at your destination.’
Julia stopped thinking and made herself pay attention to what was around her. At this moment, it still looked like rough, green native forest, with loads of underbrush.
Without warning the trees just stopped. Slamming on the brakes the car skidded on the gravel a little, and Julia found herself looking at some kind of town. Her brain had trouble making sense of what she was seeing. She hadn’t noticed this on Google maps, and couldn’t begin to understand how that was possible.
As she studied the tableau in front of her, Julia knew Brad was going to be even more pissed. There was no movement anywhere, except the breeze through the branches, this appeared to be a legitimate abandoned town. A ghost town. She’d always wanted to explore one of these, and she knew Brad had too. Still there was nothing for it, she wasn’t going back to get him now. There would be the chance to properly explore later, or at least she hoped there would be.
Studying the buildings, she realized she knew this town. Leaving her car at the main street intersection she got out to walk taking only the little black notebook, completely forgetting the machete and potential horror set up. This town didn’t actually exist, except what was in front of her seemed to say otherwise. The courier had been told to say the book would change her life, when in truth it already had.
The notebook had once belonged to Roma Grey, one of Julia’s favourite authors, someone she had worked with once at a pop-culture convention. They’d had an amazing two weekends, even breaking the rules of engaging with guests, but sometimes life gave you unexpected connections. Roma had been like that. They’d bonded over the tour and kept in touch over the years, none of which meant Julia expected to be a beneficiary when Roma passed.
Roma had been known for her fantasy writing but had also loved mysteries. The two of them had bonded over noir fiction. When Roma released a western noir novella Julia had devoured it, and loved it. The majority of fans however hadn’t, and Roma had gone back to her first love, writing the stories that made her money.
None of which explained why or how, Julia was standing in a replica of the town from that novella.
The story revolved around a young woman forced into a loveless marriage, who had stolen jewelry to fund her leaving her husband. The law came after her when he wound up dead and someone needed to be responsible. Julia didn’t need the book to follow the femme fatale’s steps. Ignoring the bank, the sheriff’s building, the general store, and the saloon, she headed directly to the town’s whorehouse.
Once inside she took a good look around. Everything was covered in dust but Julia could still picture how it was meant to look. The polished dark wood all around, the piano to the left, and a fully stocked bar. She fancifully felt she could picture working women flirting with the poker players, and six shooters on everyone’s hips. She was really tempted to see if there was a shotgun behind the bar, it had been Madam Truvey’s weapon of choice, but pushed that idea aside. She could follow that up when she bought Brad back here.
Now she was only looking for one thing, the one thing that could change her life, the one thing if she waited someone else might get their hands on. Going up the stairs, Julia checked each one before putting all her weight on them. The woodwork creaked every step of the way.
Ignoring the first three rooms, two on the left and one on the right, she reached out for the handle of the fourth door. Even as her mind was trying to tell her it was all bullshit, Julia decided she didn’t care. Whatever she found beyond this point would just be icing. Her friend had left a hidden message in her will that sent her on a silly little adventure, reminding her of the value of friendships, no matter how nebulous they could seem at times. Those memories were now shining bright, and the grey that had been closing in, had been blown away.
The handle turned but door was stuck. Julia put her shoulder into it, almost falling as it crashed open. A wrought iron bed frame was hard up against the wall, no mattress in sight, either moved or turned to dust. Focused, Julia moved the bed away from the wall, she didn’t need the book to tell her where to look but she turned to the last pages to re-read Roma’s final message to her.
To My Dear Friend Julia,
We didn’t talk often but you were my anchor during those times I thought I might get swept away. You gave me the best gift, your genuine self. I was ready to give up writing when we met, but you reminded me of the gift I had and though this story never meant much to anyone but you and I, it served its purpose. It inspired.
Now I believe my muse should get her dues. I know these last few years have been a bit tough and the last eighteen months or so have taken a toll on you. What I give you won’t take that away, but I dearly hope it will help. You know where to look.
PS This town is also yours.
That last made no sense to Julia, surely it was in the middle of a national park and belonged to the government, but she’d investigate that later.
Under the floor board she was standing on, was supposed to be twenty thousand dollars, worth of jewelry. She wasn’t sure if that was old or new currency value, but she’d be happy with either.
Taking her knife out of its sheath, she worked the tip into the dust filled edges of the floorboards, prying a specific one up. As the board came up it revealed a small black lock box, just as the book had detailed. Sitting down, she lifted it out of the hole in the floor and using the but edge of the hilt smashed the lock. Opening the box, the breath she’d not been aware she was holding, escaped in awe and a wide smile spread across her face.