They checked every room they passed, one by one. Most of them were empty. One in particular looked like it had been in the process of being dug out from the ground, with the far wall a rugged chunk of stone and dirt. Prosper moved on to the next room.
"Weird," said Ruben. "I don't see signs of anyone else down here."
"We know," Billy said with a sigh.
"No, I mean, I don't see any signs people are down here, ever!" Ruben pushed open the next door and gestured at the room. "Look! See this table? Covered in dust!" He ran his finger through it, leaving a line on the table. "Man. Gross."
He wiped the dust off on his pants and stepped back out. "Okay," said Billy. "What does that mean?"
"I think it's a literal ghost town," Ruben said. "Like, the haunted kind."
Prosper snorted, then sneezed. "It is not," he said. "Ghosts aren't real."
"I mean, there are theories," Billy said. "They're just not scientific theories."
"Untrue!" Ruben crossed his arms. There exist phenomena unexplainable by our current means of measuring reality. That doesn't mean it's not science! There are scientific studies of ghosts!"
"They're not real," Prosper repeated. "I'm not having this conversation right now. We need to find the guy."
He increased his pace, walking down the hall. Billy shook her head and followed in silence.
Ruben followed, but not in silence. "Dude, what if that guy was a ghost?"
"He isn't!" Prosper snapped. "Shut up about it!"
"Hey!" Ruben yelped. "What's up with you and ghosts?"
"There's nothing up with me and ghosts, they're just not real!"
"I mean, you're getting kind of really upset about it," Billy said. "I think what Ruben's trying to say is, what's actually going on here?"
Prosper groaned. "I'm upset 'cause some random weirdo knew I have a sister, somehow, and it's creeping me out. How would he know? He would have to know Goldie, yeah, but he'd also have to know that she has a brother. It's weird, okay? And I really don't like it."
Ruben nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense. Okay, I'll shut up about ghosts."
None of them said anything for a few moments. The hall sloped down, and the stretch in front of them had no doors to check.
Prosper took a deep breath. "Also, for a long time my dad thought Goldie's ghost was haunting us, and he kept talking like she could hear us,."
"What the hell!" Billy exclaimed.
"Okay," Ruben said, "now I feel super, super bad for bringing up ghosts at all. I am so, so sorry, Prosper. I'll doubly shut up now."
"It's fine. It's my dad's fault, not yours." Prosper shuddered. "I'll be fine, I just… gotta figure out what's going on here." He raised his voice. "And it starts by finding that weirdo!"
Nothing answered his yell. Billy and Ruben exchanged a worried glance.
"Y'know," Prosper said, "my dad got all messed up after Goldie left. Before she left, too. I dunno… after we find her, I think I'm not gonna go back home."
"That's super understandable," said Billy. "Honestly, if I didn't have my siblings, I'd probably do the same. You know what my home is like."
"So you're really straight up stealing your dad's cat," Ruben said. "That's cool, but…"
Prosper shook his head. "But what? What's he gonna do? Call the police?"
"That's what people usually do when their cars get stolen, yes."
"He won't," said Prosper. "Not on me."
They had been walking down a slope for some time, now, and it was a long while since there was any doors or items of interest to break the monotony of rock wall and concrete floor. Prosper shined his phone's light ahead as they walked, but it was the same as far as the light could reach.
"How long we gonna walk down here?" Ruben said.
"Yeah," Billy said. "I don't think we should keep going without a plan."
Prosper said nothing, so she pressed further. "I don't think we even locked the car. Maybe we should head back."
Abruptly, Prosper stopped walking. "You're right," he said, and his posture slumped. "We're not gonna accomplish anything like this. I just… sorry, guys."
Billy smiled. "Dude, it's fine," she said. "This whole thing is kind of a mess, you know?"
"Yeah. Let's go back."
They saw nothing of note on the walk back to the stairs. The shop was still empty. Their car was untouched. Prosper opened the door and took out his phone as he sat down. "No reception," he said. "I thought it was just 'cause we were underground…"
"Do we have a map?" Billy asked.
"On our phones, yeah."
"No, like, a paper map. The app isn't going to help us if we don't have internet."
"I don't think I've ever seen a paper map before," Ruben said. "I mean, not counting the cheap ones they give out to tourists."
"We can follow signs," Prosper said. "It's not like we can't find a highway, and then we'll probably be able to get somewhere with reception. Besides, I don't want to leave this town just yet."
"Right," Billy said. "We should look around, see what's up."
"Exactly. I want to find out everything we can about this town." Prosper started the engine. "Like, if this is gold town six, what does that even mean? What is a gold town?"
"You think it has something to do with your sister?" Ruben asked.
"I think it has something to do with that weirdo, and he knows something about my sister, so maybe if we find out more about this town, we'll get some clues about what happened to Goldie."
"That makes sense."
As they drove further in, the town wasn't any less run-down from their initial perspective; the gas station looked like the newest hing there. Prosper didn't see any other cars on the road, or even in the parking lots – he only saw some when he accidentally drove into a residential area and had to turn around, and they were all sitting unused in driveways.
"This is weird," Billy said. "Why's it so empty?"
Ruben frowned. Prosper saw his expression in the rear view mirror. "There's gotta be, like, a library or something, right?" he said. "Anything?"
Eventually, Prosper saw a sign that said "GRANITE VILLAGE TOWN HALL," and he made a sharp turn into the parking lot, which did have a few other cars. "Okay," he said. "Might as well start here."
Inside, they found the town clerk, an old woman with black hair that was clearly dyed. She looked up and frowned at the trio when they walked up to her. "Who are you?" she asked.
The confidence drained out of Prosper and he couldn't answer.
"Travelers," said Billy.
"Tourists," said Ruben.
"Yeah right," said the clerk. "In this town?"
Ruben sucked in air through his teeth. "Uh –"
"Yeah, you got us," Billy said. "We're lost. We filled up at the gas station, but we wanted to, like, get our bearings before we keep going."
The clerk's frown didn't change, but she nodded and let out a long sigh. "Figured," she said. "Where you heading?"
"We're researching gold towns," Prosper blurted out. Billy elbowed him in the ribs.
"Gold towns?" the clerk said. "What do you mean? Like, towns that were big in the gold rush?"
"Yeah," Ruben said quickly. "Exactly that."
"Well, if you're willing to stay a bit, there might be something in our library, and we're desperate for business. It's right across the street." She shrugged. 'Or you could ask Frank. He's big on that sort of stuff."
"That sort of stuff?" Billy asked.
"You know, history. Our history, specifically." The clerk cracked a smile. "Not that we have much. We've always been a small town. Still, Frank's a good man."
Prosper swallowed hard. "Where can we find him?" he said.
"Oh, he owns the gas station. You've probably already run into him."
Billy and Ruben thanked the clerk and dragged Prosper out of there.
"Well, we're not talking to Frank," Ruben said, standing outside the town hall.
"Sure aren't," said Billy. "Let's check out the library."
"She didn't know what a gold town was," Prosper said. "I mean, not that I know, either, but like… she didn't recognize the phrase or anything."
"She could just have a really good poker face." Ruben frowned. "Unlike me, and also everyone I know. Remember our high school poker games, Prosper? Those were wild."
Prosper shook his head. "No, I think she was genuine. If she doesn't know anything, then I don't think the library will have anything, either. How would she know where to look if she doesn't even know what we're talking about?"
"That makes sense," Billy said, "but our only other lead, is, y'know, the gas station. I think we should give the library a check."
Ruben piped up. "Libraries have newspaper archives, right? Maybe that'll have something!"
Prosper nodded, slowly. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, you're right. It's worth a shot."
They left the car in the town hall's parking lot; the library, true to the clerk's word, was right across the street, and also didn't have a parking lot of its own. Prosper wouldn't be surprised if some of the cars in the town hall's lot were patrons of the library.
There was no one at the desk when they walked in. "Should we call someone?" Ruben whispered.
"No," said Prosper.
"Yeah," said Billy. "I mean, no, I'm agreeing with Prosper. Any avoided social interaction is a good social interaction."
"So I take it you know where the newspapers are?"
Prosper and Billy glanced at each other in embarrassment.
"Yeah," Ruben said. "You two go sit somewhere. I'll get someone to socially interact with."
While Ruben leaned on the front desk, Prosper and Billy hightailed it to the back of the building, where they found a dusty old desk and a door marked "DO NOT ENTER." Prosper gave it an experimental push. It was locked.
"Dude," said Billy.
"We already found one secret tunnel," Prosper said.
"I guess that's fair."
They heard Ruben's voice on the other side of the room, as well as a quieter, high-pitched voice. Billy took the chair at the desk, so Prosper leaned against the door and waited for Ruben to return.
"It shouldn't take that long to ask where the newspapers are," Billy said.
"Maybe he got distracted," Prosper said. "It's not that big a deal."
"I guess so."
Eventually, Ruben showed up, trailed by a girl with dark brown hair and an old-fashioned yellow dress. She couldn't have been older than sixteen, maybe, and she wrung her hands together in front of Prosper and Billy, her eyes darting side to side as Ruben introduced her.
"This is Susannah," he said. "There's no staff on duty right now, but I asked if she could help us, and she says she knows the library pretty well. Right?"
Susannah nodded and stammered incoherently before she cleared her throat and said, "Yes."
"Ruben," said Billy, "you're a dear friend of mine, and I love you, but this girl looks terrified. Are you sure you didn't kidnap her?"
"What!" Ruben yelped. "No! I just found her like this!"
Susannah managed a smile. "This is how I am," she said. "It's not your fault."
"Yeah," said Ruben. "Anyway, she's gonna show us where the newspapers are. So let's go!"
The newspaper archive was an old bookshelf with rows and rows of old files. "They're not kept very well," Susannah said quietly. "It's a shame. What are you looking for?"
"We're researching gold towns," Prosper said, then immediately wondered if he should've said it. Susannah seemed nice, but so did Frank – and after Frank, everyone in the town seemed suspicious.
Susannah's eyes widened. "Gold towns? No one's talked about those in years. Most people here have forgotten about them."
"You know what they are?" Prosper sat up a little straighter. "Can you tell us? We don't even know where to start looking."
"Oh," Susannah said, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm not sure…"
"It's really important," Billy said. "Uh, I don't know how much we can tell you, but…"
"It's super, super important," Ruben confirmed.
Susannah still looked unsure. "You're not from here, are you?" she said. "A lot of bad things happened with the gold towns. I need to know I can trust you."
"We don't know if we can trust you!" Prosper said. "I mean, we just met!"
"I know, but…" Susannah trailed off.
Ruben looked at Prosper, who shook his head and sighed. "I don't want to say any more than I need to," he said. "We're… looking for someone who went missing a few months ago, and we think that the gold towns have something to do with it." He took a deep breath. "Do you know anyone named Kristin Reyes?"
Susannah frowned. "No," she said. "I haven't heard that name."
"She also goes by Goldie," Ruben added.
Susannah's face went white, and her body faded and disappeared.
Ruben screamed. Billy jumped to her feet. Prosper stared at where Susannah had been, his face as pale as hers was the moment before she vanished.
"That was clearly supernatural!" Ruben shouted after he stopped screaming. "Definitely, definitely, definitely!"
"It was freaky, that's what it was!" Billy said. "What just happened? Where did she go?"
Prosper spoke: "Keep your voices down, we're in a library."
Both Billy and Ruben looked at him. "Are you okay?" Billy asked. "I mean, what just happened…"
"I don't know," Prosper said. "I mean, I don't know what just happened. It doesn't change what's important. We need to find Goldie, and now – now I'm sure the gold towns are related."
"So what do we do?" Ruben said, his eyes flicking around the empty library. "We just saw someone disappear!"
Prosper looked at the shelf of files. "We start looking here," he said. "Keep an eye out for anything about gold towns… and maybe anyone named Susannah, too."
Ruben and Billy hesitated, but Prosper was already moving to grab a random file and sit down at the desk with it. With a shared sigh, his two friends took files of their own and joined him.