Broof Hogwash cradled his head on his arms and tried to calm his heart, keep his anger in check.
Anyone who really knew anything about the former butler of the late Sandy Moss would not describe him as a tempestuous or aggressive man, but the memories of a hundred cameras and flashbulbs, the snide words of reporters and the jeering of the crowd reverberated in his head and lit a fire underneath him.
His suited friend took a seat beside him; ever flippant and infuriatingly calm as he stared at something only he could see. “That went well.”
“Well?!” Broof repeated, snapping up. “Wyatt, they think I’m a paedophile.”
“No, they don’t,” Wyatt assured him, the shadow of a smile teasing his lips. “They thought you were a sex offender, kidnapper and murderer.”
Broof groaned. “I’m never going to be able to leave this house again.”
Wyatt leaned back in his chair, still frustratingly at ease, although Broof could hazard a guess as to why. “The charges were dropped,” he said. “Come on, let’s celebrate! I have some—“
“This isn’t funny!” Up it bubbled, the simmering rage. The product of the tarnish, the injustice. “You shouldn’t have interfered; it’s too risky!”
Wyatt continued to smile, irritatingly unperturbed. “You needed a lawyer—“
“I had a lawyer!” Broof shouted, heat building in his face and hands.
“Not the kind you needed,” Wyatt said, looking at Broof’s reddened palms with a note of surprise. “Besides, I didn’t interfere. It was all law skills.” The suited man climbed down from his bar stool and walked over the altar, idly rolling the wick of a candle between his thumb and forefinger until it ignited at his fingertips.
Broof scoffed. “What law skills? You didn’t even finish high school. And stop touching my stuff.”
Wyatt sighed and blew out the candle, turning to Broof. “School doesn’t teach you everything, Hoggy.”
Broof eyed his friend suspiciously, but Wyatt’s slightly zoned out face didn’t give anything away.
“Be honest with me,” Broof said calmly, his anger ebbing. “Did you cast any spells?”
Wyatt smiled and gestured to himself.
“Clearly. Speaking of which…” he trailed off, drawing his arms around himself in an exaggerated arc. Ever the showman, he conjured some completely unnecessary stars as he ran his hands over his hair, his face and down his body.
With a bright, blue flash – that was also completely for show – the stars fell to the floor at his feet, along with the dull brown jacket and trousers. His hair regained its comb-defying curl and Wyatt looked a lot more like… well, Wyatt.
“Much better,” he sighed, shaking off the residual stardust. “Oh, you’ve moved.”
“Yeah,” Broof replied. “For some reason I didn’t want to stay put on the bar stool, so for the Watcher’s sanity, we’ll have to chat over here now. And did you have to do that right in front of the window? Couldn’t you have just used the dresser?”
“Oh lighten up, Hoggy; there’s not a soul for miles. And ugh, effort,” Wyatt huffed. “Besides, we have more pressing issues, like how we go about finding April.”
At the mention of her name, Broof seized up. April. The one the media thought was shackled in his non-existent sex dungeon. The one who was still missing. The one he was supposed to be looking after.
He swallowed back the lump in his throat. “I overheard them in the car; they were heading for a house in Forgotten Hollow. I believe Travis had an aunt there—“
“Marjorie, yeah. They’re not there,” Wyatt said flippantly. “Next idea?”
Broof faltered. “Wait, what? They’re not there? They must be there.”
“No. They’re not there. I went twice, just to be sure. So, next idea?”
“I… I don’t know.” Broof looked at his lap. “Maybe we’re too late.”
Wyatt shook his head, but that inappropriate smile was still there. “Dude. How could you let her get bitten by a vampire?”
Wasn’t that the million simoleon question? And one that Broof had asked himself almost continuously since that unscrupulous doctor had told him not to worry about April’s blue lips and said, with a wry smile, that perhaps the girl’s diet should contain more iron.
“In my defence, I didn’t know there were any vampires left,” Broof said.
“Didn’t he look like a vampire?”
“What do vampires even look like?”
Wyatt scratched his head. “I don’t know, never seen one. Pale? Big fangs?”
“Huh. He was pale. I didn’t notice any fangs but he didn’t really open his mouth much. He was young-looking, dressed a bit strangely but I just thought he was simply a bit weird, a lot of Del Sol Valley types are. Plus, he was distracting Sandy so I thought I’d take the chance to—” he paused, looking at Wyatt who raised an eyebrow. “You know what, Wy? I don’t have to answer to you. Besides, you could have stepped in at any time—“
Wyatt rolled his eyed and mumbled. “Not this again. We’ve been over this a hundred times. I was not the only one at that party.”
“I saw you take Sandy into that closet.”
“I remember being in a closet, but I’m pretty certain I was with a man, Hoggy.”
“And which man was that?” Broof asked.
Wyatt waved his hand, dismissively. “Details.”
“You have no frigging clue because you were off your face, as usual,” Broof said, studying his friend’s eyes. “You’re an idiot.”
“Harsh,” Wyatt whistled. “That’s the last time I bust you out of jail.”
The anger was simmering again. Broof knew he wasn’t really angry at his friend, but as there was no one else in the room, Wyatt became the target. “Sorry to interrupt your busy days of being holed up in your room getting repetitive strain injury.”
“Wha—? Dude.” Wyatt looked almost offended. “I don’t do that all of the time.”
Broof scoffed and turned away.
“Mum needed help at the shop,” Wyatt explained. “I’ve been getting up at 8am and talking to people about different kinds of flower arrangements, like I give a hoot. It is literal hell. Not like your life, off living in the lap of luxury, in a fancy mansion, screwing one of the most beautiful women in the world—“
Broof burned at this, rounding on Wyatt. “Sandy Moss was the ugliest person I have ever met. I was allowed to be nothing but the silent man, a slave in a suit, while trying to keep April from drowning in herself and praying that Travis didn’t murder me in my sleep. So yeah, tell me again how selling hanging baskets was ‘literal hell’.”
The two men stared at each other. Broof could feel the heat in his face and palms again, especially as he looked at Wyatt who was barely ruffled by this confrontation, chilled as always.
“Always gotta one-up me, haven’t you?” Wyatt asked, looking as serious as he ever did.
Broof could feel his cheek twitching, lifting the corner of his mouth into a smile. “Not exactly hard to ‘one-up’ you when you do nothing.”
Wyatt grinned. “I’d argue that but… effort.”
The tension once again dissipated, and his energy returning to a manageable level, Broof twiddled with his fringe, a bad habit he had when he was thinking. “Maybe the vampire found her, at Marjorie’s. Probably a long shot to assume that you did, but did you research him?”
“Of course I did. I found absolutely nothing at all about Caleb Vatore. Although there is a plastic surgeon called Vatore. Lilith. She lives in Del Sol Valley; she grew up in Windenburg, doctorate from U.Brite, full, accountable ID, even has a website with her photographs on. All seems above board. As far as I can tell, she has no living relatives.”
“Dr. Lilith Vatore,” Broof mused, stroking his beard. “I might go and pay her a visit.”
“Want her to make you as beautiful as me?” Wyatt grinned. “That’ll be costly.”
Broof didn’t even acknowledge this half-joke, half-insult. “So who was this guy? Where’s he from? Why April?”
“Beats me.” Wyatt put his feet on the coffee table and Broof kicked them back off. “He must be ancient and probably super-intelligent to evade capture for so long, though. My guess is that he’s one of the old society vampires; they liked kidnapping young women, the absolute savages. Took them as food or brides.“
“Shoot, really?” Broof’s eyes were like saucers as Wyatt nodded. Ma had always told him the stories about vampires, and he’d listened, humoured her, but he’d always assumed the idea of them to be a bit far-fetched. Until April sank her fangs into his neck, that is. “Damn. I’ve really screwed up, haven’t I?”
“You really have,” Wyatt agreed. “Why did you let them leave? Dude; what if she’s drained her friends?”
Broof had been trying not to think about this. He groaned. “What choice did I have? Slave in a suit, remember? I didn’t know Sandy was dead at that point. I didn’t know what to do and no, before you say it, I couldn’t cast.”
Wyatt raised an eyebrow. “Of all the times to enchant someone, preventing a brand new vampire and her human friends from being sent to serial killer town would’ve been it.”
“I thought I had time so I didn’t factor ‘might be arrested for murder’ into my decision-making process,” Broof said sarcastically. “No, I mean, I couldn’t cast. I tried when the police came for me, but I got nothing.”
Wyatt’s eyebrow was inching its way up his forehead again, his tone was surprisingly serious. “Nothing?”
“My hands got hot,” Broof muttered and shook his head.
Wyatt whistled. “Dude.” He thought for a moment before turning to his friend, suspicion written all over his face. “When was the last time you conjured something, Hoggy?”
Broof hesitated. “I crafted food at the Moss Mansion, sometimes.”
“Uhuh, crafted.” Wyatt nodded. “Was it any good?”
Broof could’ve lied. Told Wyatt that the food was masterful, wonderful, exquisite. But then the sod would probably make him prove it.
“No,” Broof said, quietly. He sighed. “It was awful. All the textures were wrong.” He fiddled with his fringe again before looking at his friend. “I know what you’re thinking, but if I’d needed to, I’m sure I could’ve channelled something. I’m just out of practice, by the time we find her—“
Wyatt held up a hand, cutting him off. “Broof,” he said; just that name alone coming from that face told Broof that Wyatt was, for once, being serious. “We’re facing at least one ancient vampire here, probably a whole underground society. Those parasitic goons will wipe the floor with your unmagical butt. No way in hell am I letting you go after April now.” He smiled, the seriousness passing and the humour returning. “You can go and help Mum at the shop. You’d look good in those flowery shirts she makes the staff wear.”
“No. I was the one who screwed up, I should fix it. I can do it, I’m sure. I was probably just hampered by all the bad energy in the house, or something.”
Wyatt’s lips curled. “Probably. One way to find out.” He got up and walked to the back door, gesturing Broof to follow.
“Where are we going?”
“Outside,” Wyatt replied in his frustratingly flippant way. He looked at Broof’s puzzled face then laughed. “I’m not throwing light around in here, Hoggy. What if I break something? It’ll be the Coffee Cup Ring Drama all over again but, like, tenfold.”
Broof’s eyes were drawn to the countertop as he passed. It was pristine, white and perfect to anyone else’s eyes. But to his meticulous ones he could still clearly see the shadow of that time that Wyatt had neglected to use a coaster—
“You took your time,” Faith teased as Melinda emerged from the basement. “Did it go OK?”
Melinda sighed. Faith noted that her friend’s skin was back to its usual colour and that she once again had irises, so even if she hadn’t been wearing a look of guilty woe, Faith would be able to tell that she’d definitely taken a drink.
“I suppose. Sorry I took so long. I heard you go out.” Melinda looked around. “Aren’t April and Caleb back yet? The sun’s almost up.”
“Nope, just me.” Faith replied, impishly. She knew that as Melinda crossed the room to sit beside her that she would be taking in her attire and putting together the pieces; she waited for the inevitable question.
“Did you bring someone back?”
Faith raised an eyebrow. “You could say that.”
Melinda wrung her hands and Faith waited, enjoying seeing her lifelong friend squirm. “Do you need help getting him down to the basement?” she whispered.
“No,” Faith said, trying not to laugh. “I can’t put him in the basement.”
“Why not?” Melinda asked.
Faith had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep a straight face. “Because he’s dead, Mel.”
Melinda’s eyebrows shot up into her hairline and she stuttered, horrified. “Wh- what? You killed him?! How could you! What’s wrong with you!? Oh my gosh, are you laughing?!”
“Relax! I’m not that much of a bitch,” Faith said, still managing to appear mostly serious. “He was already dead when I found him.”
Melinda looked like she might faint. She was so appalled that she hadn’t even noticed Seth appearing at the bottom of the stairs and she usually noticed everything.
“Melinda.” He nodded at her, he even almost smiled before turning his attention to Faith. “See you at nightfall, Fledgling.”
Seeing that face made Faith want to burst with glee, not least because he’d positioned his hair so that no-one would see the puncture holes in his neck. Which reminded her that there were puncture holes in his neck. No wonder Caleb had sunk his fangs into April so much; drinking from other vampires was so hot.
Not that she’d ever tell Seth how he made her feel. Especially not when he’d just called her a fucking fledgling as if a few hours ago he wasn’t on his knees, begging.
Faith walked over and stared Seth down. “Nightfall it is, little doggy,” she said, daring him to challenge her.
“What was that all about?” Melinda asked as the door closed behind Seth. “Didn’t you two break up? Weren’t you really peeved with him only yesterday?”
“Yeah,” Faith purred. “Think I’ll have to be peeved with him more often.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy, but you seem much more like yourself today, at least,” Melinda said and she hesitated. Faith wondered what was coming; her money was on a lecture about self-worth. “Is… is he OK?” Melinda asked.
Faith flopped back down on the sofa. “What do you care? What did you call him? A fuckpoodle?”
“A fopdoodle. I hate his guts and I’m really annoyed that you’re still seeing him,” Melinda muttered through gritted teeth. “But despite all that, he seemed a bit, I don’t know, sad?”
“Sympathy for the murderer, hey? You and your bleeding heart. He’s just butthurt.” Faith waved her hand dismissively. “Now he’s realised I’m not just a huge pushover.”
“Right,” Melinda said quietly, in that irritating tone that always meant the complete opposite.
“So, come on,” Faith coaxed. “Tell me all about how it went with Mr. Bloodbag-in-the-Basement. What were you doing all night?”
“Oh, Mellybean,” Faith cooed and pulled her friend in for a hug.