At 9am on a Monday morning Ralf did not expect a run-down bar on the outskirts of Forgotten Hollow to be very busy. As it had been every other time Ralf had set foot in this sad establishment, the place was almost deserted except for two people; Fred Wino, a local drunkard and the owner, Joe Taverner, who offered a friendly greeting.
“Officers! Welcome. Drink? On the house, of course.”
Ralf had hoped it would be a quick in-and-out kind of visit. Hopes dashed as Jessica took a seat at the bar next to Fred and opened her mouth.
“Got any snacks, Joe? I’m famished! The night I’ve had!”
Joe nodded, scanning his stocks under the bar. “We’ve got pork rind, beef jerky…”
“Jessie won’t want any of that,” Fred mumbled, clearly drunk. “Will you? She’s one of them hippy types.”
Jessica smiled. “Got any crackers?” Joe nodded. “Crackers and orange juice for me then Joe, thanks.” She turned to Fred. “How’s life treating you Fred? Mum says she hasn’t seen you at the group for a while.”
“I don’t need no group,” Fred said, his words slurred. “And hey, I can’t complain. How is your mother anyhow, Jessie? Still seeing purple people?”
“Not now she’s back on the wagon and on these new meds. Although she’s still hearing the voices. They think that might be permanent…”
Ralf let Jessica’s voice fade into the background as Joe placed her orange juice on the bar and asked him again. “Drink, Chief? Think we’ve got some of that light beer, somewhere.”
“Beer? I’m on the clock, Joe. Just give me a piña colada.”
Joe clicked his tongue in his disapproving way and reached for the rum. “Are you here about those missing girls?” He nodded towards the television. “Because those goons at the SBI told me not to talk to anyone about them.”
“No, we’re not here about that festering cesspit of a case. We’re looking for someone. Does the name ‘Caleb Vatore’ ring any bells?”
Joe eyed the officer suspiciously before he casually replied, “Can’t say it does.”
Fred scoffed; his attention diverted away from his riveting conversation with Jessica. “You know Caleb, Joe! Lily’s brother. Young fella, funny hair, always in here looking sad, necking that green stuff.” He waved in the general direction of the back bar. “What’s he done?” Fred asked, eyes wide, pleading for gossip.
“It’s an assault allegation,” Jessica replied with a mouth full of crackers.
“Nah,” Fred laughed. “You’ve got that wrong. Caleb? Assault someone? Softest beggar I ever did meet; wouldn’t say boo to a moose.”
“Goose,” Joe corrected. “The phrase is ‘wouldn’t say boo to a goose’.”
“Why would you say boo to a goose?”
“Why would you say – never mind. He socked Dale on Saturday. Allegedly,” Joe hastened to add, glancing at the officers. He cleared his throat. “I wasn’t watching at the time.”
Fred suddenly sobered up as he registered Joe’s words. “I missed a brawl? Between Caleb and Dale of all people?” He whistled. “Well, shit a brick! Excuse my language, Jessie.”
Joe shrugged. “I didn’t see it. Heard Will and Dale talking crass about that Moss girl, again—”
“I told you! Will’s involved!” Fred said triumphantly, whacking his fist on the bar. “Why else would he do a runner?”
“I slipped out to make a call,” Joe went on, ignoring Fred’s outburst. “Then when I come back in, Dale’s spitting blood all over my clean floor and Caleb’s gone. Might have been Will who punched him, for all I know. He didn’t even check if Dale was OK, he just left.”
“Wangshaft? Nah, only assaults women, that one,” Fred spat, angrily. “The git. Still, more likely to be him than Caleb. Lives with his sister for sod’s sake and takes his drinks in them poncy glasses.” Fred looked at the half coconut that Ralf was drinking from. “No offence, officer.”
“Do you have any CCTV?” Jessica asked, looking around.
“Nah, never got round to installing any,” Joe replied. “We don’t usually get trouble in these parts.”
“It could have been Will who clobbered Dale,” Joe murmured. “Dale wouldn’t admit that; too afraid of the Wangshafts.”
As was everyone. Ralf finished his drink and stepped off his bar stool. “Might as well close the case now then,” he muttered. “Drink up, Jess. Let’s head back to the station.”
Jessica obediently downed her orange juice and shovelled one last handful of crackers into her face before hopping down to follow Ralf from the building. They stood together out front and Ralf took this moment to get his words in before Jessica had finished chewing.
“Nice and easy. Done and done. You alright to drive us back, Jess? Good, let’s go.”
Jessica swallowed her mouthful. “Oh, you are good, Boss!” she gushed.
Ralf turned back, surprised. “I am?”
“Yes! The whole casual, ‘I’m your friend, forget I’m a cop’ approach? Absolute genius! Even going so far as to have a mocktail!”
Ralf wasn’t about to admit anything to the contrary. “Well, you have to know how to handle these things…”
“For sure! I am learning so much! All that information we gleaned about our mystery man.”
Ralf didn’t have a clue what she was on about. “So much information! Let’s test you, what did you pick up?”
“Oh! Put me on the spot, why don’t ya? Well, Joe’s first response was that Caleb socked Dale, then he backtracked, so I’m not buying that Will did it. Also, we know that Caleb Vatore is either this guy’s real name, or at least his main alias, that he lives with his sister Lily, I presume that must be the same Lilith Vatore we previously identified, right? Sounds like Caleb’s a regular here, necking ‘green stuff’ which must be absinthe. That’s strong; there’s no way he’s going to trek all the way back to Del Sol Valley night after night on that. No, they have a place around here, for sure. So now I guess we’ll be heading back to the station to compile a map of possible residences to check out, yes? Ooh, although if he punched him after they were talking about the Moss girl, maybe he knows April. But then if he did, this case wouldn’t have landed on our desks, right? SBI would be all over this Vatore guy.”
They would. Even less work for him to do. Might even make a 3pm clock off today. “Yes,” Ralf said. “Well done, Jess. You didn’t catch everything I did, but most things. As you’ve shown yourself so capable, how about I leave you to log all the details?”
“Boss, really?” Jessica’s eyes glittered, full of the hope and promise that Ralf had long lost. Or may have never had. He couldn’t recall.
“Sure, whatever. Consider yourself deputy for the day, why not?”
“I’m honoured! I’ll be the best stand-in deputy you’ve ever had! You’d better watch out, bad guys of the world! ‘Cause Deputy Jessica Spoon is here and she’s gonna take you down.”
Lilith was still fuming. Chuck hadn’t accepted any excuses, any explanation of why he shouldn’t cook and prepare that wretched gift. She didn’t have the energy to mesmerise him or to argue and she could hardly tell him that it was a human organ. That the sick man who tormented her thought this sort of prank was hilarious.
Lilith had to leave the room to stew and to try not to pass out. She had reached a point where even she, with her deadened senses, could detect Chuck’s heartbeat from across the room. Her control was wavering; she needed him to hurry up and leave already and if that meant him eating that thing, so be it.
When she returned to the kitchen, Chuck was patiently waiting to tuck into his grim fare across the table from a place that been laid for her.
“I’m starving. It’s not haute cuisine, but I’m sure I’ll have had worse!” Chuck motioned for her to join him. “Please.”
“I’m not hungry,” Lilith huffed.
Chuck looked affronted and Lilith instantly felt bad as she took in his downcast features, listened to his hurt thoughts. She gingerly took a seat across the table from him, trying not to look at the dish he had served.
“Thank you. I appreciate what you’ve done, but I’m vegetarian,” she muttered.
Chuck laughed. “You could have told me that before! Can you still eat it if you pick off the kidney bits or is it a moral barrier?”
“Definitely the latter.”
If Lilith had a functioning stomach and she wasn’t made of ice and steel, she might have vomited. Instead, she closed her eyes against yet another wave of dizziness. She reminded herself that she only had to survive a few more hours. She’d take Chuck to Joe’s. She would somehow make it to work. She would grab one of the emergency O-negatives from the chiller to tide her over – to hell with the paperwork – and she wouldn’t pass out or turn feral while operating.
Then she’d carry on as before. Better than before. Free, at last.
Only a few more hours… I can do it.
She could sense Chuck watching her; he was in a house with a hungry vampire and he was worried about her.
He’s so kind. What a shame he’ll be prey. Probably Melinda’s; that’s how things always seem to go.
“When did you last eat something, Lilith?” Chuck asked. “You look pale.”
Of course I’m pale. I am a three hundred and twenty-one year old walking corpse. Lilith shrugged. “Couple of days ago? I don’t know. I’ll grab something at work. I’m fine, Charles.”
“You don’t look fine, you look like death.”
I am death and yet I am fine. I’m always fine. Go and find your ungrateful vampire daughter before she loses herself.
Shit. Did I say that, think it or project it? I can’t even tell.
“I should go and get ready for work.”
Lilith pushed her chair back and rose from the table, her head spinning in circles as she spiralled to the floor.
She sensed him moving, knocking over his chair in his effort to get to her as quickly as possible like a huge, clumsy dog clamouring to its owner. She felt him lifting her. Holding her.
His hands are like fire. Thumping fire.
He must have a death wish.
He’s too close.
“Don’t touch me,” Lilith hissed.
Chuck immediately let go of her waist but as he did she wavered again. He stood with his arms outstretched, his hands poised inches to either side of her, ready to catch her.
“I’m truly sorry but I couldn’t just let you fall.” His voice was so solid, so warm, so calm. The absolute opposite of what she was feeling. “Lilith, you can’t go to work and perform surgery like this. You’re not fine. You’re talking nonsense.”
He reached for her hand and she let him take it. He turned it over in his own. “You’re absolutely freezing,” he muttered.
He pressed his fingertips gently against her wrist in a few locations, growing more and more confused. She watched him without emotion, wondering how long it would be before she attacked him. Not long.
His touch seemed to burn her. She watched him trace her still veins, almost expecting him to leave blisters in his wake, her restraining threads slowly snapping. She heard him ruling out each logical explanation in turn until finally he had nothing left.
And neither did she.
“How?” he asked. “How is this possible?”