Jessica jolted herself awake a second before her face would’ve hit her desk. She shook her head and gave herself a hard smack on the cheek, but it was a poor substitute for a full energy bar.
The previous night had taken its toll. After Beth had arrived – with a little old lady in tow, for some reason – she had given her and the GliTS a once over and ordered them to leave the area.
Jessica had eventually made it home in the small hours, having been given a lift back to her place by the GliTS in their painted van that was in no way whatsoever a poor man’s Mystery Mobile. They’d offered to stay the night, to check she was alright, but Jessica had sent them on their way. She’d claimed she was fine. Reminded them that she was a police officer; that homicide was all part of the job. And that after their crazy night, she’d surely sleep like the dead.
She’d spent the night counting and recounting the tassels on her bedspread as her mind replayed the moment she’d found Will over and over. Jessica hadn’t been to any kind of police academy, or had any real training. She’d seen an advert online and applied. Chase had barely interviewed her. And no amount of dead minks or real crime documentaries could’ve prepared her for what it’d be like to set eyes on her first human corpse.
Yawning, she tapped her computer back to life to check again if there had been any progress on today’s breaking news. She didn’t want to look; she didn’t want to see Paul’s face on her screen. She didn’t want to be reminded of seeing Will hanging in that tree. She wanted to forget it all happened.
But she couldn’t.
This morning, on her bus ride, Jessica encountered the usual people. The man who stared at her but didn’t say anything. The woman who had knitted a hat out of bin bags. She’d been afraid to talk to anyone, not trusting herself. Yesterday, these had all been normal people, but today? Were they alive? Were they ghosts? Jessica had no idea.
Had Paul’s ghost been a figment of her imagination? And if it wasn’t, what did that mean?
Jessica scrolled idly through the news; wild speculation was mixed with fact – yet it was the fact that was the strangest. Fighting to keep her eyes open, Jessica was considering drinking a cup of coffee for the first time in years, when she heard the police reception door buzz open.
“Why are you here?”
“Good morning to you, too.”
“No, I mean…”
Beth held up her hand. “Saggy Balls didn’t give me a choice.” She pulled up a chair and fixed Jessica with her steely gaze. “How did you find him, Jess?”
Jessica swallowed hard. “H-he was dead—”
“No shit,” Beth sucked in a breath, “I mean, how did you know he was there? And don’t give me any of that ‘found him by accident’ crap.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“You know with all the weird crap going on, I probably would,” Beth said. “Try me. What happened?”
“But if Mum isn’t speaking to ghosts then who is she speaking to?”
“No, she can’t be. She knows things. They teach her things. They—”
“—have driven her mad. It’s for your mother’s own good, Jessica.”
“I happened upon him by chance,” Jessica explained. “When we were looking for mushroom people.”
Beth sat back and eyed Jessica suspiciously. “And you just happened to know that Paul was deep in the ravine?”
Jessica nodded. “Morag spotted that.”
“I see,” Beth said quietly. “Wasn’t that convenient.”
Jessica nodded again. She tried to unfazed, but she wasn’t sure she was succeeding. “How was your little mission going last night?” she asked, changing subject. “Before I called? Did I blow your cover?”
“My cover?” Beth tensed up.
“Oh!” Beth gushed; relief evident. “That. Oh, yeah,” she said dismissively, “the old scrote is having an affair.”
“He is. And you should’ve seen the bimbo; some surgeon has made a killing from her,” Beth said, still looking distracted. “My digging on her shows that her previous husband – her third – was a ninety-five-year-old millionaire who died on Saturday.”
“What?” Jessica asked, alarmed. “This Saturday just gone?”
“Some people really don’t hang around do they?” Beth said then paused before she laughed awkwardly. “And some people do. Hang around, that is. Ha!”
At Jessica’s cringing, Beth sucked in a breath, swallowing her laugh. “Too soon?”
Beth ran her fingernail along the wood grain on the desk as Jessica stared at her blank monitor, unsure what to say.
“Drained dry and hung by his guts, like some sort of pig,” Beth whispered. “Wow. He had really pissed someone off, hey?”
“That’s Will. Biggest asshole this side of Windenburg… Save your sympathy; he’s the reason I’m dead.”
“I guess,” Jessica said quietly.
“I wonder if it was April and her friends,” Beth mused, as if making a great revelation. “And, if it was, I wonder what he did to them. Ugh, I shouldn’t immediately go to that but, well, he had form shall we say.” She leaned back in her chair. “His kidney was missing. And they’d mutilated his, y’know.” She whistled and pointed to her lap.
Jessica felt her face grow hot. “Um, what?”
“Yeah. Why would you do that to a man unless he’d, well…” she shrugged. “Some sort of sexual revenge? Not so sure about the kidney; sold on the black market?” Beth laughed. “But even if we narrow the list of suspects down to women he’d screwed and then screwed over, or narrow it down to body thieves, or, crap, even if we narrow it down to body thieves he’d screwed and screwed over, it’s probably still a huge list.”
By this point, Jessica was hyperventilating. How was she supposed to progress here? What was she supposed to say?
Beth could see her struggling and, mercifully, made her own assumption.
“I’m sorry, Jess,” she said softly. “You’ve had enough of a shock; you don’t need me pouring my nonsense theories on you. I bet you hear enough of them already with your new club. Why don’t you head on home?”
“N-no,” Jessica stammered. “I’m OK. I don’t want to leave you here by yourself.”
“…I really appreciate that. I didn’t think… it’d be this hard.”
The two women sat in silence for a while. The weight of their respective thoughts, worries and preoccupations filling the bland space around them.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Beth,” Jessica offered, with every sincerity. Will might have been, by all testimony, a horrible man, but loss was never about the one gone, it was always about the ones left plugging their gap. “How… how did everyone take the news?”
Beth blew a strand of hair from her eyes. “Predictably underwhelmingly. That family.” She shook her head. “When I was a kid, back in the village, my pet lizard died and my whole family mourned that thing. We had a burial ritual for Wriggly. Pa carved a little memorial stone and added it to the ancestral wall. My brothers carried the cardboard coffin between them to the pyre. Ma closed shop for the afternoon to join in; she conducted a blessing ceremony. For a lizard.”
Beth drifted into a reverie, speaking from somewhere else. “And yet Wilbur’s complaining about having to stump up for a funeral for his son. His only son. He’ll do it, of course, gotta play his part; but it’s not out of love. There’s no love in that family, Jess. Thankfully, Willy is far too young to understand that Daddy’s gone. Not that the bugger was ever really around. You know, he probably thinks the postman is his daddy.”
Jessica chewed her lip, her next question felt so insensitive, but she just had to know. “Beth, why did you, um…?”
“Marry Will?” Beth finished for her. She fixed with Jessica with an intense stare. “That’s a loaded question.”
“Quit apologising, Jess. You’re a cop; it’s your job to question everything.” She rocked back in her chair. “I did it for my family.”
“Your family wanted you to marry Will?”
Beth smiled with a sadness. “Actually, most of them didn’t. It’s complicated.”
Silence fell on them again, but this time it was Beth who broke it. “Do you know much about your family, Jess?”
“Not really. I never knew my dad, but my mum says I’m not missing anything.” Jessica shifted in her chair. “It was just me and Mum growing up. She’s…”
…always heard voices, talked to dead people, claimed to be over one hundred.
“…Not very well. Mentally. Hasn’t been for most of my life.”
“That’s a tough break. What about further back? Grandparents?”
Jessica couldn’t explain why at that moment, she felt so offended and so wary. “No, they’re dead,” she answered, thinking hard. “Why do you ask? Is this something to do with my surname? Wilbur said Spoon with distaste when I last spoke to him.”
“He says most things with distaste,” Beth replied, not really an answer. “Wow. I can’t imagine having no family, with just your mother. Still, I suppose you can always talk to your ghosts. Anyway, you look like crap, Jessica. Can I get you coffee?”
“Shouldn’t it be me fetching you coffee?”
“I can fetch my own damn coffee. I need to keep these hands busy before I start a hurricane.”
“Figure of speech.” Beth shrugged. “So, let’s get coffee – and a donut, why not embrace some stereotypes? And then shall we get cracking on that nursery? With all this drama, I might need to bring Willy here sooner rather than later.”
“Sure,” Jessica replied, following Beth from the room, her heart fluttering and her nerves on edge.
“You can always talk to your ghosts.”
Jessica was sure she hadn’t mentioned that.
Caleb cleared his throat, suddenly nervous as he faced her. He focused on her face, staring at her almost unsettlingly, to prevent his attention wandering. “You are the most beautiful thing—”
“I’m not a thing.”
“Ah, right,” he hissed and tried again. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever laid my eyes on.”
“And I will appreciate that beauty from a respectful distance until you are ready to be closer.”
“Aww, Caleb,” Melinda giggled in a way she hoped was flirtatious, although she had absolutely no idea what she was doing. “Do you mean that?”
“Ah,” he scratched his head, breaking his role. “You want me to honest with April, yes?”
Melinda smiled. “Honest but kind.”
“Honest but kind, all right,” he nodded. “Well, actually April, your mother was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Holy hell, she was hard to resist.” He faltered when he saw Melinda’s face fall. “But you are a very close second! And ugh!” he growled as Melinda’s shoulders dropped. “Oh, to hell with it, Melinda. I can’t do it. You can’t be honest and kind.”
“You can!” Melinda encouraged him, stopping him before he broke yet another vase in his frustration. “Just stay calm. You were doing OK, until you started leering at her dead Mum; I was beginning to feel special.”
“Yeah, it’s nice to hear someone say you’re pretty, April deserves to hear that, so do say that, just don’t make it all about that. Do reiterate that she has a decision; that was good. Just don’t compare her to her mother. Ever.”
“Noted,” he nodded firmly, as if stamping this instruction in his memory. Buoyed by Melinda’s watery smile, he grinned. “So, if you’re feeling special and respected, mission accomplished, yes? That means I can kiss you now, right?”
“Um, n— Caleb—!”
Melinda wriggled from his hold, thumping his chest until he got the message.
“…I’ve messed up again, haven’t I?”
“Caleb,” Melinda gasped, her lips still tingling from the force of his kiss and her voice raspy from having her lungs swiftly emptied. “Don’t you dare do that to me again.”
“I didn’t kiss you, Melinda,” Caleb made a face as if the idea was revolting. “I kissed ‘April’.”
“I’m answering as ‘April’,” Melinda shuddered. “You know what, I think that’s enough lesson for one day. We need to get back to work.”
For the second time, Melinda swiftly ran away from Caleb having just touched his mouth with her own. And for the second time, it left her feeling very confused. On the one hand, ick, but on the other…
She sprinted down the stairs, into the cauldron room, intending to zip through it back to the studio where she could hide and pretend that she hadn’t sort-of-not-really-kind-of liked kissing her friend’s boyfriend. Again. But she didn’t get that far; stopped by the undeniable metallic scent that was lingering in the basement air. Her feet wandered to the cauldron like they were possessed.
“What is that smell?” she whispered, as if being too loud would break the spell.
“We’ve just added a cup of blood,” April whispered back. “Doesn’t it smell so yummy?”
“Yeah,” Wyatt said, gagging. “Smells great. So, we can add blood to this potion, but not all potions because…?”
“Oh! Oh!” April said excitedly, hopping up and down. “I know this one!” She turned to Melinda, looking sure and knowledgeable. “It’s because this potion only targets the body and not the spirit or soul.”
“Correct!” Wyatt called, rolling the word like a gameshow host. He handed April a cup. “And for your prize, you can lick the beaker.”
“Yay!” April squealed, bringing the vessel to her lips.
Wyatt grimaced, trying not to watch as he stirred the cauldron. “Now, if we’ve done this right, it should start to turn red… yep, there it goes.”
Melinda peered into the cauldron, watching the mixture transition from blush to bright crimson as the room flooded with a hazy red glow.
“It worked!” April enthused.
“Yeah, it worked.”
“So what’s the next step?” April asked eagerly.
“Nothing,” Wyatt said. “One erythrocyte elixir, done and done. No more rationing for you lot and no more wooziness for us.” He dipped his finger into the bowl and sampled a bit. “Shoot, that’s rancid.”
“What happens if we drink it?” Melinda asked, watching the potion bubble gently.
“No idea. Maybe it’ll do nothing, maybe it’ll make you grow a new head. Wanna try?”
“Can we try it on Caleb?” April giggled.
“Heh, yeah, later. First we need to bottle all this up, clean the pot and then we can get started on the cure.”
“I can do that! And ooh! The cure! What’s going in there? First we start with a base potion, yes?”
Wyatt smiled. “Yeah, check you out, potion master.”
“Have you figured out the ingredients you need, yet?” Melinda enquired.
“Not exactly,” Wyatt admitted. “We have a few ideas, like I know that, symbolically, we’ll probably need something to offer to appease death, something that symbolises re-birth, maybe? I dunno. Making a new potion is pretty trial-and-error.”
“It is?” Melinda asked, alarmed. “Do things go wrong?”
“All the time! I’d be very surprised if I don’t blow it up at least a dozen times, but…”
“…That’s the fun part!” April finished his sentence.
“Right, I’m gonna go take a nap before Hoggy comes by later. We’ll all talk, see what combo we’ll try first. Apes, you OK to bottle the rest of this up? The labels are on the shelf there next to Skully.”
“Yes, Wy, no problem.”
“Cheers me dear. Laters,” Wyatt waved and left the room.
“We’ll be cured in no time, Mel,” April said, her voice almost trembling with glee. “Oh! Then maybe I’ll have magic! Oh my goodness! I can’t wait!”
Melinda looked at the wall of blooms, of the cupboards stocked full of gems and rocks and powders and heck-knows-what. She thought of all the ingredients in the world, of all the mind-bending combinations, of how long ‘trial-and-error’ could take. Could it mean that it might not happen at all? After all, Lilith and Sage had known each other for centuries and Lilith hadn’t been cured.
She wanted to tell April not to get her hopes up so high. She watched her humming a cheerful little ditty to herself as she waved her hands around, casting imaginary spells.
She looked so happy; really, genuinely happy.
Melinda couldn’t say anything. She murmured something that sounded like positive agreement and left quietly to rain on her own parade.