The break room at the Woodland Borough Police Department’s station was every bit as uninspiring as the rest of the building and yet Jessica’s imagination was running wild.
The young officer – no, deputy – was sipping her decaffeinated green tea and staring through her sandwich on a break from doing nothing.
In order to survive a potential assassination attempt by the Wangshafts, owing to her potential knowledge about some potentially covered up missing person files, Jessica was about to potentially join a group of conspiracy theorists. They were, she gathered, also investigating the missing person cases, but were clearly so far off the mark with their theories and of such irreputable character that they posed no risk to the Wangshafts.
Joining the GliTS would allow Jessica freedom, of sorts, to investigate. All of that she could get her head around.
The thing she couldn’t get her head around was why a group of people – who thought that the forests of Forgotten Hollow were full of ghouls who sought to harm all who entered – would have spend a night in the forest as their initiation test.
Surely, if they really believed their ideas – and they really seemed to – they wouldn’t dream of doing that? Perhaps this was a test of commitment to the cause or a willingness to question everything she was told, or maybe even a way to show that she had gumption.
But what if this was the test? Was she expected to refuse if she truly believed the forest was dangerous?
Of course there was the more sinister option, that this was a way to get rid of her, but Jessica was not quite jaded enough to give that one much thought, no matter how loudly they shouted at her.
Jessica idly traced a finger over her abdomen. She spent a lot of time doing this lately, like it was being drawn there by her magnetic baby. She wasn’t afraid of spending a night in the forest but she was afraid of getting this decision wrong.
As her mind fluttered back to her silent surroundings and her untouched lunch, the inside sound intensified. She reached for the television remote. Jessica was not a huge television fan, but it was much needed tangible noise right now, a distraction.
As usual, the news channel was the first to display; Reb Porter’s ever-smug face filling the small screen.
“…at Sandy’s understated monument, located in this most modest resting place. Among the people she helped and loved, as she would have wanted and… holy moly! Is that—? It is! Broof Hogwash, former butler to the late Sandy Moss. Mr. Hogwash! Mr. Hogwash! Reb Porter, The News Channel—“
“Yes, I know who you are.”
“What brings you to the resting place of your former employer?”
“Actually I’m not—”
“Is it your guilty conscience?”
“What do you make of Travis’s confession? Was he the abusive monster we all believe him to be? Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Please, leave me alone. I’m just here to visit—”
Jessica looked quizzically at the suddenly blank screen. She was sure she hadn’t touched the remote. Probably a power cut, she reasoned, looking around to see if anything else had shorted and noticing Beth.
“Why do you watch that crap? Aren’t things depressing enough already?” She pulled up a spare seat and plonked herself into it, eyeing up Jessica’s sandwich. “Is that a BLT?”
Jessica had only been working with Beth for one morning, but she already had a headache. It felt as if every other word that came out of her new boss’s mouth was a mild curse and the force at which she said everything made Jessica wince like she was being hit. “Faux BLT. Do you want it? Everything is making me vomit lately.”
“Been there,” Beth said. “And no thanks; the thought of fake bacon makes me want to vomit. Crap, I’d better not be up the duff again; having one kid with that womanising twat is enough.”
Jessica wasn’t sure she wanted to sit here and make conversation with Beth about her absent husband; she was still carefully considering how bonkers she could appear to be without being fired, and thought minimising contact with the Wangshafts was probably a good option. She pushed her chair back and Beth eyed her suspiciously.
“Where are you going? You’ve got ten minutes of break time left, Jessica.”
“I thought I’d get back to my desk.”
“And do what? Bugger all ever happens in this district.”
It does, but you make it disappear, Jessica thought, remembering the big pile of missing person files that had apparently been filed and archived while she was away and now were nowhere to be found.
Beth beamed. “Guess I shouldn’t complain that there’s no crime though, right? Great place to bring up a kid, the Woodland Borough. Glimmerbrook, Windenburg…. safest place there is, Windenburg. Well, unless you’re a cop.”
Jessica wanted to bring up the third town in the district that Beth had conveniently left out; Forgotten Hollow, which was anything but safe. She wanted to ask about the mispers, about Chase, about Ralf, about what Beth knew but her senses told her not to take this bait.
“It’s so good that it’s safe!” she gushed, with a powdered sugar coating so thick she almost choked on it. “Only goblins and trolls to worry about. And the government, of course. Those scoundrels in office, pulling all the strings. Hiding the aliens,” she added in a stage whisper. Was that too far?
“And, um, fairies.” Definitely too far. It was a fine balance, this mask of madness.
Beth looked bemused. “You’re a weird one, Jess, but I like you. Hey, I was wandering the corridors earlier and found this unused holding cell and you know what I thought that’d be perfect for?”
Jessica’s mind raced. Imprisonment. Imprisoning me? Did I say something wrong? Don’t tell me goblins and fairies actually do exist… her head was spinning. She hadn’t finished knitting that rug yet. She never did get around to trying that peanut cookie recipe. She was too young to die!
“Crapping hell, Jess, you’re even paler than usual,” Beth gasped. “Eat your sandwich; that’s an order.”
Jessica stared at the sandwich in front of her. Was it poisoned?
No, this was madness. She was paranoid. She took a bite.
“A nursery,” Beth nodded, completing a sentence Jessica hadn’t heard the start of.
“A nursery?” Jessica repeated, chewing slowly, hoping that she came across as interested and not confused.
“Yeah,” Beth sighed. “I think this place has been stuck in the seventies long enough. If we’re running the place, we’re running it right. Plus, I don’t like leaving my Little Willy with Gloria and Old Saggy Balls.”
“Your little what?”
“My son, Willy. Gloria looks after him during the day. He can’t talk yet, but I don’t want the pair of them teaching him all their warped ideas about relationships and society. No, I want him here, with me, learning about fly tipping reports and filing and maybe goblins.” She laughed and winked at Jessica. “And if we have a nursery here, when your little one arrives,” she inclined her head towards Jessica’s lower half,” you won’t have to worry about finding a creche or taking time off.”
So you can always keep an eye on me? “No, I guess not.”
“Plus, they’re probably gonna have it in their blood, right? Police genes, I mean. From both you and former deputy Crooks.”
Don’t bite. “I guess so.”
“You guess a lot, don’t ya? Don’t guess, Jess. Make solid decisions and deal with them. Now, eat that damn sandwich.”
Sage very much liked Chuck. It was highly unlikely that anyone with half a heart, even an undead one, wouldn’t warm to the darling teddy bear of a man. She, he and Lilith had enjoyed a civilised drink together in the tavern next door to her store, where he had been fully informed of the situation and the true identity of all actors.
Disclosing oneself to a non-witch was forbidden in all but exceptional circumstances but what did that matter when she was housing vampires?
Chuck had taken it all surprisingly well; Sage had been prepared to demonstrate a small spell if it had been required, but it hadn’t. The sweet man was quite willing to believe what he was told – he had questions, naturally, but had been most content by the time Sage made her leave to head back to the house. Lilith hung back, to keep Chuck company.
That woman. Did she ever learn?
Oh, she wanted to invite Chuck to her home and she wanted to reunite this soft-hearted gentleman with his daughter. But Melinda had explicitly asked Sage not to do that. She was not ready for that. If anything at all had gone wrong with that reunion like it had with their prior one, it would be devastating and not just because poor Chuck had been drunk from a number a times over the past week. She was surprised that he could walk!
Back in the sanctuary of her store, closed as it was now late afternoon, she noted how many blooms were missing and smiled to herself. He may be a promiscuous, clueless monster, but Caleb was a very fine salesman!
The stairs creaked almost as much as her knees as Sage descended into the basement store. When she’d left, April had been whittering excitedly to Wyatt about zombies and he had been uncharacteristically quiet. She had clocked a large plastic bottle of water by his feet and assumed that was the missing ingredient for his potion.
Sage was relieved that it appeared to have not exploded upon addition to the simmering cauldron, of course. Her issues with this whole thing stemmed from the method.
Wyatt was prone to cut corners – his father had been the same.
“I’m streamlining the process, Sage.”
“You’re ruining the sacred nature of witchcraft.”
“I’m optimising time,” Warren would insist. “Time that we can fill with… other endeavours.”
Oh, gracious. She missed him so.
Where was she? Oh, right yes – cutting corners was one thing, but these modern-fangled techniques were polluting the art of magic. Why would anyone bother with the arduous 56-day-long ritual of cleansing water if some factory was producing it for them and shipping it with next day delivery? Witches today. The world today. So instant. Where was the devotion?
“How is potion-making going?” she asked politely, peering into the pot.
“It’s great!” April gushed. “It’s so much fun!”
Sage disagreed. Potion-making was tiring and she was more than happy to let Wyatt do it. “Are you a potion master now, April?” Sage joked.
“She’s not far off,” Wyatt mumbled. “She’s a natural.”
“Of course she is; chip off the old block,” Sage said smoothly, ignoring Wyatt’s shaking head.
“Potions are amazing! Wy was just telling me about the potion that temporarily turns you green. That sounds so funny! We’re going to mix that up afterwards and give some to Caleb.”
“No, Apes,” Wyatt said, his voice firmer than usual, but not one Sage could take seriously. “That’s a misuse of potions—”
“I’d allow it,” Sage sang. “Right my dear, are you nearly done here? We need that little talk I mentioned this morning.” The girl’s face instantly fell, taking her shoulders and spirit with it.
“We’re done here. This needs to rest overnight anyway,” Wyatt said, a stifled laugh lifting the ends of his words. “Off you go Apes, have your very important talk.”
Sage turned on her heel towards the kitchen, hearing April’s heels click against the stone floor as she passed Wyatt. She swore she heard him whisper something to her that she answered with a squeak.
In the kitchen, Melinda was at the sink and furiously scrubbing something as Caleb loitered at the counter, glaring at the girl’s back.
“Quit glaring at me,” Melinda hissed. “It’s not my fault that she— Sage!” she exclaimed, dropping her washing. “You’re back! Did you meet dad? Is he OK? Did he mention Mum?
“He’s fine. And so is your mother,” Sage paused here, wondering how much to say. Was it her place to tell the girl that her father and mother were having some difficulty seeing eye to eye? That Chuck had taken residence in a hotel until Babs came round? Sage thought back to Lilith making puppy eyes at the man and knew that any spouse in their right mind would see that as a threat.
Still, she didn’t know the dynamics, she didn’t know the history. It wasn’t her place. “They’re fine.”
Melinda nodded, letting out an empty breath and turned back towards the sink. “Sage, what paint do you use? I can’t get these brushes clean.”
“Leave them my dear,” Sage insisted. “Melinda, head on through to the sitting room and wait for me, will you? We three need a little talk.”
Melinda and Caleb exchanged a definite and heated glance before Melinda asked, “Is everything OK?”
“Yes,” Sage replied, staring at Caleb who who dutifully took ownership for a potentially incriminating conversation involving his fledglings, as she’d expected him to.
“What do you want to talk to them about?”
The two girls, April less so, immediately seized up, looking anywhere but at her while Caleb guffawed.
“That’s not necessary,” he managed after he was laughed out. “I know about sex.”
“No, Caleb, you do not. Sitting room, now.”
The girls had already left, eager to get their burning cheeks out of the room but Caleb stood firm, still grinning. He cocked his head and Sage could feel it – the tug of his allure. “Is this a hands-on sex lesson, Sage?”
“I… I, uh,” came a stammer from behind her that most definitely belonged to Wyatt and thankfully pulled her from the daze she almost slipped into. “It’s not is it?”
“Of course it’s not,” Sage tutted. “But this whole attitude,” she waggled her finger in the face of the yellow-shirted corpse before her, “is exactly the reason why we need this talk. Your sister might’ve let you get away with this abhorrent behaviour, Caleb, but in my house you live by my rules and I do not tolerate this attitude. Into the sitting room. Now.”
Caleb swirled his tongue around his fangs, his eyes glowed blue at the challenge. She could tell that he was thinking twice about snapping her like a twig, but ultimately sense won out and he skulked from the room after the girls.
“Woah,” Wyatt sighed, fanning himself. “Is there, like, a potion to stop the effects of that thing he does?”
“No, or I’d put it in the water supply,” Sage muttered, still staring at the closed door Caleb had exited through.
“Awesome. Right well, I’m gonna go hang out in my room for a while. Call me when dinner’s ready.”
“Actually,” Sage said, turning towards him as the rose tint faded from her vision. “I think it might be best if you sit in this chat. For back up.” She smiled.
The colour drained from Wyatt’s face as he realised what she was asking. “But Mum, I’ve heard this talk a hundred times and every time I still want to curl up and die.”
“Is this the birds and the bees presentation?” Broof said, entering the room. “Sage, forgive my intrusion. I would have rung the bell, but the shop door was open.”
“Quite alright and yes. Maybe you can sit in, Broof? Moral support and a second caster should things go awry.”
“Oh, I… um,” Broof said looking hopelessly to Wyatt who whined and kicked the bar stool.
“Ugh! Oh my god! I’m gonna have to sit and listen to it again! My life is hell!” he stomped off to the closet to retrieve the well-used flipchart before Sage could even ask him to.
“It’s not that bad—”
“It’s literal hell!”