Broof loved Sage’s apartment. It was fresh, bright and clean – almost as clean as his own house. He had seen Sage interviewing a young lady in the shop; she had waved him a greeting but looked flustered, so he hadn’t disturbed her as he made his way down to the cellar.
He could hear the ‘music’ blasting from Wyatt’s room, and gently rapped his knuckles on the door. The noise stopped and Wyatt’s laid-back voice sang out, “Who is it?”
“It’s only me,” Broof called. He tried the handle but found the door locked. “Why have you locked the door? What are you doing? Um… should I come back later?”
“It’ll still be locked later. It’s for protection,” Wyatt explained.
“Protection against what?”
Broof sighed. “You think a locked door would stop a vampire? Don’t they have super strength? Let me in, I’ve got updates and I’m not talking to you through a door.”
Wyatt was making exaggerated thinking noises. “How do I know it’s you? It could be some evil, ancient, mind-bending, shapeshifting vampire who’s killed the real Hoggy, overpowered my mum and is now gagging for a taste of my sweet, sweet magical blood.”
“I’m not a vampire, Wy—“
“A vampire would say that,” Wyatt scoffed. “Prove it’s you; tell me something only you would know.”
“OK. You once wet yourself at the fairground.”
“Dude,” Wyatt laughed. “That ghost train was scary. But everyone knows that thanks to you calling me ‘Pisspants’ for years. Try again, Vampy.”
Broof thought for a moment. “If I was a face-stealing vampire, I would’ve absorbed my prey’s memories and would therefore be able to tell you everything they’d known, right? So I could stand here reeling off embarrassing stories all day – and I have enough to do just that – but there’s nothing I can really tell you that will convince you I’m not a vampire, is there?”
There was a moment’s hesitation before the door swung open.
“Only the real Broof Hogwash could be that tedious. Take a seat, I just need to delete a few… somethings.”
Broof waded through discarded food packaging and knick-knacks that were piled up on the floor and perched gingerly on Wyatt’s unmade bed, between a pile of books with half a sandwich as a bookmark and a stuffed toy with no eyes. A few hasty clicks and a bit of mild cursing later, Wyatt joined him, casually flopping down, sending random junk falling about.
“What can I do for you, Hoggy? If you want any fun stuff, you’re gonna have to wait. Mum’s banned me from the cauldron and I can only produce tiny amounts with the kit in here.”
“I’ll survive,” Broof said. “How did it go last night?”
“Could have been worse. Mum told HP I cast by accident, so she’s only slapped me with a twenty-four hour outage this time. Oh, and she made me sit in the kid’s circle, but whatever. The kids are more fun to sit with anyway; they think I’m all rebellious and cool.”
“Everything you just said really sums up how cool you are, Wyatt. So you got dressed the regular way today? Is that why your jumper is back-to-front?”
“It is?” Wyatt asked, looking down at his correctly-worn outfit while Broof guffawed beside him. “Yeah, laugh while you can, Hoggy. I’ll be back to normal in ten hours and thirteen minutes and you’ll still be dribbling out sad little twinkles wishing you were half as awesome as me.”
Darn. He was right. Broof coughed and changed the subject. “How was Wartilda?”
Wyatt groaned. “The usual. All up in my space, looking like fire. Burny, sexy, dangerous fire…”
Broof and Wyatt usually spent the full moon coven meet ups dodging the affections of the Globrot twins, Wartilda and Toadella who, despite their physical attractiveness and general pleasantness, were mentored by senior witch and Broof’s ex-wife, Claudia.
And therefore should be avoided at all cost.
It was still not confirmed whether Claudia had actually enticed Broof to marry her using her charm or her charms, but his love for her had certainly dwindled quickly when she’d set her sights on someone new and had stopped making him his favourite rhubarb crumble.
Still, his beautiful little Cabbage had been produced from that disaster of a relationship, so he couldn’t say it was all bad.
Broof suddenly realised that Wyatt was still talking, “She spent half the meet trying to find excuses to invite herself back here.”
Broof shook his head and looked around at the absolute rubbish tip that was Wyatt’s bedroom.
“Maybe you should invite her back here,” he said. “Show her your filthy junkyard of a room and play her some of that snarly crap; that’ll put her right off.”
“I don’t expect you to appreciate the genius of punk, Hoggy.” Wyatt looked around, clearly not seeing what Broof was seeing. “It’s not that bad in here. I can see the floor and sort of get in the bed. I know where most things are. OK, so it’s a little messier than your place—“
“It’s beyond messy. Why do you even have a closet if you’re just going to store your clothes on the floor and what is that smell? Did something die in here?”
“Possibly. There was a mouse in here a few weeks back and he stopped eating the bread I left out for him.”
“That’s… how can you live like this?” Broof gasped in horror. He shifted uncomfortably on the bed, hoping the lump he could feel under the covers wasn’t a mouse corpse.
“What’s the point in cleaning? It only gets dirty again,” Wyatt said dismissively. “Besides, I have to do it all the mortal way and it takes ages. Feel free to do it for me, though.”
Broof paused. His eyes shone with joy as if he’d been presented with a wonderful gift.
He loved cleaning the mortal way. Like, really loved it. Was there anything better than the feel of a sudsy sponge in his hand, the smell of bleach, or the squeak of a pristine polish? It would take him hours to clean this place and it would be so satisfying, making this hovel sparkle…
No. Some other time. There was a much bigger mess to be cleaning up right now.
“I’m not here to clean your pigsty, Wy,” he said ruefully. “I’ve been doing some research, about vampires. Reading through the old grimoires. And I went to the Windenburg Library yesterday, looking for a book Sage told me about; a vampire tome that belonged to your dad.”
“So unfair!” Wyatt whined. “I’ve been asking her for info about how my grandparents died my whole life and she never said a word, then you stroll in and ask once and she tells you everything.”
“She didn’t really tell me anything,” Broof objected. “And the grimoires were always there if you wanted to read them.”
“Effort,” Wyatt muttered as he idly kicked at a juice carton on the floor. Broof fought the urge to clean up the coagulated mulch that oozed from it, but couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away.
“Did you find out anything useful?” Wyatt asked. “Best way to remove a vampire’s head? Points where they’re squishiest and most vulnerable? Or a cure, I suppose.”
“No, not really, not yet. Everywhere I go I have to fight my way past that awful reporter from the News Channel, Reb something, so I had to run around the town a few times to lose her. And then the book Sage recommended wasn’t even in the library where it was supposed to be.”
Wyatt leaned forward, his tone serious. “What could have happened to a library book? Could someone have… checked it out?” He dropped his serious act and laughed.
Broof rolled his eyes. “You can’t check it out. It’s got historical significance, apparently, so it’s in a locked up the reference section. Well it should be. According to the librarian, no one has requested access to that section for about a month.”
“April asked to go Windenburg library a month ago. She would usually ask to be taken to the Willow Creek one so she could meet Melinda.”
“Huh, so… what, you think she was after this book? Did she go into the restricted section?”
Broof shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess so. She asked me not to follow her in.”
“And you listened? Some butler you were. Dude, I’d have followed her—“
“You don’t get this whole ‘butler’ thing, do you? You do as you’re told and you don’t ask questions; that’s sort of the whole job. I sat on a bench outside and waited for her. Dutifully.”
“Did you get what you came for, Miss. Moss?“
“Yes. We can leave now.”
“If April did go there to get that book, do you realise what this means, Wyatt?”
Wyatt thought for a second. “That April is a thief?”
“No. Well, yes, but more than that.”
“That you missed yet another chance to stop this whole thing from happening?”
“Don’t make me unleash the sparkles of doom on you, Wy. It can’t be coincidence that April just happened to be reading an ancient tome about vampires a few weeks before she’s attacked by one. How did she even know about that book in the first place?”
“Shoot,” Wyatt exhaled. “Do think he told her about it? Vatore?”
“Possibly. Darn it!” Broof fiddled with his fringe. “I think this whole thing goes a lot deeper than we think it does. I think she walked into a well-laid trap.”
“Is she dumb?”
“She’s not dumb, but she is incredibly naïve, has a way of getting herself into all sorts of scrapes. Kind of like how you used to,” Broof said, his voice loaded with accusation.
Wyatt fell quiet, still nudging that carton with his foot.
Broof continued, “It wouldn’t have been difficult for Mr. Parasite to get through to her if he was, say, looking for girls online to groom to be his vampire bride.” Broof paused, watching as Wyatt’s agitated foot broke open the carton, releasing the last of its contents. “She’s messy too, April. Imagine if you’d actually raised her; your house would be a biohazard.”
Wyatt was instantly back on the defensive. “Look, even if April was conceived around the time of that party and even if it was Sandy in that closet – which it wasn’t, because it was a man—“
“I definitely saw you with Sandy. Although I wasn’t there all night; maybe this mysterious man was afterwards.”
“Hoggy, can you… can you just not?” Wyatt swept his hand through his hair. “If April was mine, I’d know, wouldn’t I? Sandy would’ve told me; someone would’ve told me!”
“I told you.”
“Just… don’t, OK? Please. It’s not doing anyone any favours right now.”
“Fine,” Broof conceded. “Stay in denial. When we find April, you’ll see.”
“You’re the one in denial,” Wyatt muttered. He took a few breaths, mellowing back to his relaxed self and then turned to Broof. “Regardless, I really hate what this undead dipstick has done to her. I can’t wait to burn him to embers.”
“We have to actually find him first and it won’t be easy, Wy,” Broof said. “He could be anywhere. Absolutely anywhere…”
“Oh! Hey sweetheart! You must be Thor. I’m Sage. Right on time; that’s a big tick!”
Caleb, who had been wracking his brain all morning trying to think where he knew Sage’s name from, finally relaxed. He did not recognise this woman at all and she didn’t appear to recognise him. Unfortunately, no longer fretting about who Sage Harper was meant that he was once again free to worry about April and the… thing.
He told himself that now was not the time to worry. Now was the time to get on with it. Provide. Somehow.
“Hello. Pleased to meet you, Ms. Harper,” Caleb said. He extended his hand as Faith had coached him, but Sage merely looked at it, then back at his face, smiling.
“Well, aren’t your manners just lovely?” she gushed, her voice had a sweet lilt that reminded him of April. “My customers do like politeness; another tick! And look at you; clean-shaven, not a hair out of place, a freshly pressed shirt and oh, you do smell lovely! Appearances really do matter, don’t they Thor? Tick, tick, tick!”
Sage shimmied over to the counter, still talking. “The way things are presented is of utmost importance. No one wants to think that their father’s funeral wreath or their daughter’s bridal bouquet will be any less than perfect! Oh no, that would never do. You will be the first face the customer sees when they walk through that door and how you appear is as much my first impression as your own, Thor.”
Sage was scanning the surface and a shelf underneath the counter with a furrowed brow. “Now, where did I put that check sheet? Ah. One moment my darling, I think I left it downstairs. You wait right here and I will be back in a jiffy!”
Sage disappeared into a passageway behind the counter and Caleb stood alone, looking around the quaint little shop. It was so colourful that it was almost painful on his eyes, especially compared to the store he’d been interviewed in this morning, where apparently he didn’t fit the aesthetic they were looking for.
Caleb was admiring a pretty gilded vase full of delicate, pink flowers while he waited. He had no idea what kind of flowers they were, but he knew that April would love them.
He sensed the elderly woman approaching the store before the little bell above the door rang. She walked in, her eyes immediately finding Caleb and her face lighting up.
“Well, hello there, handsome,” the woman said. “I take it you’re the new boy? My word; and I thought Wyatt was a looker. I’m Agatha Bun. Mrs., although sixteen years widowed.”
The woman coquettishly made eyes at him and inched her way closer. Caleb took a step back, willing Sage to appear.
“Hello, I’m Thor. And I don’t work here. Yet. This is merely my interview.”
“Oh, I see,” Agatha purred, nodding and stepping closer, carefully analysing his face as she whispered. “Let’s hope it goes well then, Thor.”
“Afternoon, Agatha,” Sage sang, appearing from seemingly nowhere, much to Caleb’s relief. “Apologies for keeping you waiting. What can I do for you today?”
“Just browsing while I wait for my hair appointment, as usual,” Agatha replied, her gaze lingering on Caleb’s face, before sliding down his torso, eventually coming to rest on the counter behind him. “Say, how much is that cactus with the llama pot on the counter there? I’m making over my dining room and according to Thor here, those are very fashionable right now.”
“Oh!” Sage said, clearly surprised. “Twenty simoleons each and I can customise the pot, no extra charge.”
“Lovely,” Agatha said. “I’ll take two, but that colourway is fine. I’ll be by to collect them after I’ve finished at the salon. See you shortly.” She nodded and pivoted on her heel, the tiny door bell chiming as she exited the store.
Sage turned to Caleb. “What on earth did you do to her?”
Caleb faltered. Did Sage… did she know?
“I can explain, I—“
“You little star!” Sage gushed. “I haven’t even hired you yet and you’ve somehow managed to sell something to the notorious window shopper, Agatha Bun of all people! I couldn’t even sell her a one simoleon daffodil to raise money for the hospice and you’ve just made forty bucks from her with llama cacti, of all things! I don’t think there’s a checkbox big enough for that tick!”
Sage walked around Caleb in a circle, slowly, making approving-sounding little noises as she did so until she was facing him once again. The entire routine gave him an unusual feeling of warmth at his core.
“Interesting,” she murmured, gazing slightly past him. “Yes, I’m completely satisfied that you’re what I’m looking for.” Sage clicked her tongue, her smile wide and her eyes bright. “So, I guess there’s only one question I have left to ask you, Thor; when can you start?”