“Do you still take your tea with fourteen spoons of sugar, Broof?” Sage sang towards him as the pot finished brewing with a precise ping!
“No, I’m down to six now. Thank you,” Broof said, lifting the mug he was offered, before Sage could place it on the coaster-less countertop, and taking a small sip. He was gradually getting used to his tea tasting like tea. He couldn’t say he enjoyed it much, though.
Sage had taken the seat beside him and began a light-hearted conversation about the weather. Broof had known Sage all of his life, but the two rarely sat down – alone – to talk.
Sage had been good friends with Broof’s grandmother and had often visited the Glimmerbrook house, bringing along Wyatt. But ever since Ma had passed on and Wyatt had become capable of making his own way to Glimmerbrook, Broof’s contact with Sage had dwindled. They were both now in that awkward place; where each knew more about the other than they should, thanks to their remaining mutual contact, and neither knew what to ask.
“The senior members of the coven have agreed to let Wyatt begin casting,” Sage said cheerfully, choosing the common ground. “I haven’t told him yet. That will be fun, won’t it?”
“Yes,” Broof agreed, fiddling with his fringe.
“None of us believe Wyatt’s grown up enough to be given free rein just yet, but he’s such a bright boy that he’s somehow figuring it out all on his own, isn’t he?” she gushed.
“Yes,” Broof agreed again.
“Oh! It will be wonderful to finally teach him how to do something with his energy, other than simply discharge it all, won’t it?” Sage beamed. “Because that’s definitely all he knows how to do right now, isn’t it? He’s cast a few times accidentally while discharging, but he’s definitely never done any spells deliberately, has he?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Broof murmured.
“Nor mine,” Sage winked and silence, heavy with the weight of mutual deceit, fell on them both like an itchy blanket.
Wyatt had said that he’d be home in thirty minutes and that was over an hour ago. Typical. Broof took a quick glance at his phone, but still no word. He finished his tea and made his way to the sink to immediately wash up his empty mug, hearing Sage chuckle behind him.
“Darling, you can use your magic here, you know!”
Broof smiled to himself, enjoying the hot, sudsy water on his hands; it was so much more satisfying than a quick spell, not that he trusted himself to cast with any accuracy.
He’d fobbed off an invitation to Becky’s last night so he could practice his Craft. Five hours of solid effort later and he still couldn’t conjure himself a palatable dinner, but he’d finally got candle lighting down.
He wondered if the High Priestess would agree to let him mentor Wyatt. Their training sessions would both allow Broof to gradually regain his own skills and also make him appear to be an excellent teacher, because Wyatt already knew much more than the basics anyway.
All thanks to Ma, who had been a staunch believer that witches of Wyatt’s calibre should be let loose sooner rather than later, despite all the risks and history to the contrary.
Broof couldn’t say that he agreed with his grandmother.
Broof was idly re-washing everything on the drainer when behind him there was a clatter and he heard Sage gasp. At first, he thought that Sage had fallen while dismounting her barstool and he panicked, almost relieved when he heard a desperate, male voice groan, “Mum, I’m so sorry. Yell at me later, yeah?”
The scene was almost comical; Wyatt half carrying, half dragging a young fellow into his kitchen whilst looking like he was regretting every choice he’d ever made in life.
Sage rushed over to help, but as she did, the unconscious man’s head lolled back and Broof got a good look at his face.
He knew that face. Why did he— Mother Earth. That was him! The vampire who visited the mansion, draped over his buddy, his neck inches from the monster’s face.
Broof started towards the pair, opened his mouth to shout a warning and stopped dead in his tracks, his hands flying to his face with a slap.
He tried to cry out but all he succeeded in doing was emitting a forceful, muffled noise that sounded like ‘grandpa’.
What was this? Some kind of vampiric mind control? Could they do that even when they were out of it?
“What happened?” Sage asked, still surveying the scene before her with shock.
“I took him to that party I went to last night. I know, I’ve screwed up, but can you help him? Should I call an ambulance?”
Sage stepped closer to the pair, examining the unconscious man carefully.
“I can help him. Put him in my room; yours is a health hazard,” she muttered angrily.
She waved her hand and Broof watched as the darkly-dressed guy floated gently from Wyatt’s relieved shoulder, hanging gracefully in the air as if suspended from a wire. Wyatt beckoned him towards Sage’s bedroom and he dutifully followed.
Sage remained in the same spot until Wyatt exited her bedroom and sheepishly made his way to his own without a word.
The whole atmosphere in the room changed as Sage and Broof were alone once more. The older witch turned slowly, walking back over to Broof who was still unable to tear his hands from his face. Thank goodness. She’d see he was struggling; she’d do something to help.
As she got closer, from the corner of his eye he could see her giving him what looked like a cold stare but… that couldn’t be right.
“Spill,” she ordered.
Ralf hadn’t gone to the café, he had come straight home and had been pacing the floorboards, trying to think.
The second he had mentioned the word ‘vampires’ Wilbur had faltered. Ralf had thought that was a reaction to the absurd, but now he doubted himself.
He doubted everything.
There was surely a logical explanation for all of this; the footage must have been tampered with. It was a hoax. The man in the sketchbook, who was identified as the same man who was supposed to be in that footage, could not also be the same man who was seen where Chase’s body was found.
Jessica could not be right.
It couldn’t be linked.
It couldn’t be—
Ralf clenched his fists. He was getting paranoid through lack of sleep, likely. It was probably only Mr. Greer from next door, complaining that Ralf’s car was parked too close to his, again. Maybe it was his sister or his niece stopping by with pecan pie and more memories of Chase to share.
But maybe it was Wilbur flanked by a white apron and a heavy tranquiliser.
He couldn’t know Ralf was having doubts – could he?
Again, Ralf considered running out of the back door, driving as far as he could and never looking back. But he knew that he only had one option where Wilbur was concerned.
He swallowed back the lump in his throat and headed to the door, expecting the neat shock of white hair, the sharp suit and shark eyes.
Not the mumsy, casual woman who was waiting.
Unlike Wilbur, Beth did offer a greeting; a warm smile. But like Wilbur, she too stepped into the hallway without invitation. She scanned her surroundings and then tutted.
“Skiving off, Widdlefinkle?”
“I was just fetching my—”
“Save it,” Beth said, her voice was warm and full of understanding despite her language, “You’ve lost your nephew and your team and now that inflated scrotum is forcing you to work, to save face, and with me of all people? I’d have told him to go screw himself in the craphole too, if I were you.”
Ralf nodded curtly, unsure how to respond.
“I understand your silence; I’m too close to the fire,” Beth whispered. She smiled, returning to her usual volume. “Let me tell you, Widdlefinkle; I disagree with the Wankshats on a lot of things and I’m certainly not about to force you back to work when you’re grieving. You know, Will has been missing for a week now? The bugger is probably dead in a ditch, or he actually has left me for that teen bimbo and I’m expected to carry on like nothing has happened, too. I mean, I barely ever saw the arse and it is definitely not an epic love story of a marriage, but I am still his wife, you know?”
Ralf remained silent as Beth looked around the room. “Nice place you’ve got here; he clearly pays you well.” She gave him a knowing look and followed it up with a playful smile. “Got any good liquor? Because I don’t know about you, but I really resent being made to work Saturdays. Saggy Balls can lump it; you need a friend and I need a rant.”
At Sage’s order, Broof’s muscles relaxed so quickly that he almost fell backwards into the freshly-cleaned sink. He steadied himself, frantically trying to get his words out.
“The guy with Wyatt! I think he’s a vampire!” he blurted, trying not to be too loud.
Sage looked down at him as he danced around in panic, and sighed.
“Yes, he is,” she confirmed. “I see your research has been fruitful.”
“I know it sounds loopy but — what? You know? And you let him… he’s been hanging out with Wy? He’s in your bedroom!”
“Darling,” Sage cooed, trying to calm him. “Relax. I’ve been hunting vampires since the 1700s and I know exactly how to handle them. This one calls himself Thor; isn’t that cute?” she laughed in her sugary fashion. “He’s actually my newest employee and quite the salesman, would you believe that?”
Broof took a moment to consider Sage’s words, her playful tone and her smiling face. “Is he? So this one’s not dangerous?”
“They’re all dangerous,” she corrected brightly.
Broof thought for a moment. Sage knew this guy was a vampire, had hired him and he was in her home, despite being a danger. Did he dare to believe that this meant there was hope? That destroying them wasn’t the only option?
How could he word this without confessing everything?
“What will you do with him?” Broof asked carefully.
Sage’s face hardened, her mouth set into a firm line. She scrutinised Broof as if deciding whether he was ready to hear her words. Broof had always known that Sage had been an active participant in the culling of vampires across the centuries, but he had never really been able to link this chirpy lady with that kind of violence.
For the first time Broof could really see a formidable hunter beneath the saccharine façade and it chilled him to the bone.
“I will slay him. I would have done it instantly, however,” she paused, staring straight into his soul. “How much have you learned about vampires, Broof?” she asked. “Have you read about the binding ritual?” Broof shook his head. “It’s the way the hierarchy vampires took a spouse, turning their conquest post-mortem. It takes the meaning of Master to a whole new level; robbing the victim of both their life and their autonomy,” she explained. “Are you following so far?”
Broof was horrified, wondering why she was telling him this. He nodded to convey his understanding.
“Our guest here has what they refer to as a bind,” Sage said quietly. “I need to find them before I slay him. To be successful, the pair need to be taken out simultaneously.”
“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.”
“You can’t kill her!” Broof cried out.
“Her? It’s not like you to assume such, Broof,” Sage cocked her head to her shoulder. “But even if I overlook your pronouns, I can’t slay them? And why ever would that be?”
Broof had backed himself into a corner and he knew it.
“His… bind,” he mumbled. “I think it’s April. I recognise this guy; he came to the mansion, calling himself ‘Caleb Vatore’ shortly before April disappeared. And before she disappeared she was… turning into one.”
He winced, expecting at least a dressing down for lying to her.
“I see,” Sage said. Her voice had lost its honeyed sweetness and its sparkle, but lacked the anger or element of surprise Broof had been expecting, and he realised; Sage already knew this. Her words were sincere and gentle. “It will be swift and painless for her, darling. She won’t suffer.”
Broof physically shook, his heart sinking with regret as he fought back tears. “Is there no other option?” he wheezed, surprised he even made any noise at all.
“Can’t we cure her?” he pleaded. “I read about a fruit?”
“It’s a fairy tale. No vampire really wants to be cured, Broof.”
“But all the things we can do, that the coven can do, the wonder we can weave; please, there must be something,” he sobbed, the desperation growing in his voice. “Can I bring her here? Can we sustain them? Can we try?”
“Broof, she is not the girl you knew.”
Sage’s tone was kitten-soft as she gently stroked Broof’s hand, “I know you became attached to April while you were in her service, but that girl no longer exists. And, my love, hear me. I understand with my whole heart what it’s like to lose a child; how you’ll cling to anything familiar—“
“Then understand!” Broof cried. “Sage, we can’t just stand by and let this happen to someone else.”
“With respect, who else is there?” Sage asked softly. “Sandy is gone and Travis is never going to walk free from that crime.”
Broof was shaking. He had one last card in his hand and he placed it carefully on the invisible table between them, wholly unsure of the reaction it would receive. “Wyatt,” he said. “Travis is not April’s father, Sage. Wyatt is.”