Chapter 3.48 – Flickering Lights

While Jessica’s cohorts figured out how to safely dismount from their precarious people tower, Jessica had subtly checked the house. As well as ensuring that the coast was clear, she was looking for clues; any sign as to the reasoning behind Ralf’s fate, anything he’d left behind.

Her search turned nothing up. Nothing at all. No reason, no rhyme, no clue as to his state of mind. It was like he’d simply been erased.

Jessica re-joined her companions in the dining room, where the trio had been hard at work moving furniture and lighting oodles of creepy-looking candles for their séance. All eyes locked on her as she took the vacant seat at the trussed-up card table and Yibbo switched on the battery-powered plastic ball.

They had discussed how this would work during the drive over; Pixie, as an experienced ghost communicator, would lead the proceedings and Jessica’s role was to ‘attract’ Ralf to the familiar. Jessica didn’t point out that it was his house, it was probably already familiar to him; she had simply played along.

Yibbo and Morag might have been sure of Pixie’s skills, but Jessica knew that Pixie was talking out of her butt long before Paul had mentioned it. She had a strong inkling that Pixie couldn’t speak to ghosts at all. What Jessica hadn’t yet established was if she could actually talk to ghosts or whether she, like her mother before her, was simply losing the plot.

Maybe she was imagining the whole thing. Maybe this entire event was a figment of her imagination, a delusion, a dream and she’d wake up tomorrow back at The Tower, eating steak and spinach.

“Oh, earth-bound spirits! Hear my call!” Pixie announced, waving her arms around. “If you can hear me – give me a sign.”

Morag and Yibbo remained in their polite trances, but Jessica couldn’t resist peeking at the room. Unlike back at Joe’s bar when the GliTS had last held a séance, there were no electrical anomalies, no flickering lights. Nothing happened at all.

Pixie, undeterred, cleared her throat and tried again a little louder, “Spirits! If you can hear me – give me a sign!”

In the stillness and silence that followed, Pixie sighed, drawing the attention of her fellow GliTS.

“Nothing?” Yibbo asked.

“Nothing,” Pixie confirmed.

“What about you, Jessica?” Morag asked. “Are you seeing anyone? Here, I mean. Not are you seeing anyone. Ahem.”

Pixie huffed. “There’s nothing to see. What a waste of candles.”

Jessica looked around the room politely and shook her head. A blend of disappointment and relief washed through her as she battled with the hope of seeing Ralf versus the confirmation at not being delusional.

“No,” she confirmed, lowering her hands as Yibbo reached to turn off the ball. “There’s no one he… oh, shoot.”

Her eyes grew as large as saucers as a colour-washed elderly lady appeared in her field of vision, glowing like moonlight on the edge of a blade. For a moment, the tangible form of Jessica and the ethereal form of this lady locked eyes and a chill ran down Jessica’s spine.

The ghost walked a slow circle around the table, seemingly delighted that Jessica’s gaze followed her every step.

“Heavens above,” the woman whispered, her voice distant and soft and sounding from every direction. “You can see me.”

“Jessica?” Morag whispered. “What is it? Is it Ralf?”

“No, I most definitely am not ‘Ralf’,” the lady tutted. “My name is Dorothy.”

Jessica swallowed hard. “I-I can see a woman. She says her name is Dorothy.”

“Huh,” Morag tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I went through the history of this house before we left, familiarising myself with the spirits that we might encounter, and no one named ‘Dorothy’ has ever lived here.”

“I lived next door,” Dorothy explained. “I popped over with a fruitcake to greet my new neighbour, but my husband had beaten me to it. I’m not sure if it was the shock of seeing him undressed for the first time in twenty years that finished me off, or the ghastly colour of her curtains, but I died on the porch.”

“She lived next door,” Jessica repeated. “She died here.”

“No way!” Pixie gasped. “I knew a lady who lived next door. Dorothy? Dottie?”

“Pixie?” Dorothy sighed and placed a hand to her bosom. “Oh my, look at you! You’re all grown up. And just as… individual as ever.”

“She knows you,” Jessica somehow managed to say, despite not having taken a breath for five minutes.

“I used to babysit her,” Dorothy urged. “Tell her.”

“She says she used to babysit you,” Jessica repeated numbly. She felt like some sort of spiritual translation machine.

“She did! Oh, Dottie!” Pixie cried out, her smile turning to a sob. “I used to go over to her house after school and she’d make me fish fingers and we’d watch cartoons until my parents finished work.” She turned to a place where Dorothy wasn’t standing and blurted through tears, “Dottie! It’s me! It’s Pixie! I’m so sorry I haven’t visited your memorial in the last five years; I’ve just been so busy with work and helping Dad decorate his house—”

Dorothy made a strange face as Pixie continued to ramble. “I have a memorial?”

“Um… she didn’t know that she had a memorial,” Jessica mumbled as reality hit home. There was no doubt about it – Jessica really was talking to a dead woman.

Pixie fell silent, blinking at Jessica through watery eyes. “Of course she has a memorial. Everyone loved Dottie. She was cremated in 2006—”

“Wait,” Morag interjected. “If she died eleven years ago and was cremated, how come she’s still here?”

“Good question,” Pixie mused. “Dottie, what’s keeping you here?”

Dorothy shrugged. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t still be here.”

“She doesn’t know.”

“So paying proper respect to the dead isn’t what makes them cross over?” Morag asked sadly.

“What do you think?” Dorothy said, looking directly at Jessica. “Enough of the existential questions. I don’t know why I’m here and clearly neither do you. Let’s not talk ourselves in circles growing frustrated with the unknown. This is the first contact I’ve had with the living for years and I have some questions of my own.”

“She’s rather bossy,” Jessica whispered, to which Pixie only returned a knowing smile. “What do you want to know about the land of the living, Dorothy?”

“Ask Pixie what happened to Burt.”

“Pixie, what happened to Burt?” Jessica asked.

“Oh, Dottie’s husband? He, um, he moved away with his new wife, not long after… after Dottie passed.”

“So that’s where they went,” Dorothy sighed. “He married her.”

“She’s… she’s not happy about that.”

Quite the understatement,” Dorothy scoffed. “I could have haunted my own lovely house but oh no, the fates are cruel! Tethered to where you die; no ifs, no buts! Nothing to do but wander aimlessly, room to tacky room, watching Burt get his rocks off with that cheap tramp. Then there was that family with the teenagers – my word am I glad I never had children. And finally that shambles of a police officer—”

Jessica perked up at this last one, her breath caught in her throat. “Ralf?”

“Ralf’s here?” Morag gasped.

“Oh, no,” Jessica clarified, “I was responding to Dorothy.”

“No he is not here, thank the Watcher. Yes, him, Widdlefinkle and his robe that was at least two sizes too small.” She shuddered at the thought. “Back in my day the police were reliable, efficient and trustworthy, not moping around in bathrobes making underhand deals with the wealthy elite.”

“Ralf was making underhand deals,” Jessica repeated quietly, not really hearing what she was saying.

A chorus of “He was?” sounded around the tiny table.

“Oh yes, he was as crooked as they came,” Dorothy answered. “Thousands of simoleons of hush money greased his grubby palms.”

Jessica’s heart was racing, pounding in her ears. She couldn’t hear her fellow GliTS and the queries she assumed were spilling from their moving mouths. Her entire focus was on the glowing woman before her, the cusp of the truth.

“What happened to him?” she asked. “When he died, were you here?”

“Where else would I be?” Dorothy said, impatiently. “He was with a woman. She gave him a drink and he collapsed.”

“He… oh my god. A woman? What woman?” Jessica asked, vaguely hearing her words echo around the table in three different voices.

“Oh, I don’t know her name, didn’t recognise her,” Dorothy said. “A striking woman; tall, wild hair and the mouth of a sailor. She stopped by and made him cocktails. Cocktails! A man of the law!” she scoffed. “Added something to them too; I didn’t see what it was, but it came from a tiny vial.”

Striking? Tall? Could have been anyone.

But wild hair? Mouth of a sailor?

She added something to his cocktail?

Dorothy smoothed her outfit and her demeanour. “I apologise. I see that he meant something to you. Enough for you to come here and to do this.” She took a breath. Jessica didn’t try and consider how that was actually possible. “I gather he was in too deep, one deal too many. She said that she was on his side, that she had a plan, a way out for him.”

Jessica shook her head vigorously, trying to comprehend. “She said he was on his side? She had a plan? A way out? Surely not… murder?”

Jessica turned her wild stare to Yibbo who shrank back. “Yibbo, you found him. He was definitely dead, yes?”

“…Ralf?” Yibbo asked uncertainly, making Jessica realise that her companions were only getting part of the story. “Yes. Jess, what’s happening? What is she saying?”

“And you called the police?”

“Yes, of course, I—”

Jessica’s mouth was as dry as the desert. Her head was spinning. She was going to be sick. “Who turned up?”

Yibbo hesitated, looking at the table. “Officer Beth Wangshaft and someone from the coroner’s office. Why? What’s going on?”

“You know, the Wangshafts have one heck of a maid, Officer Spoon. There’s never a speck of dirt to be found…”

“…Anywhere.”

Jessica tried to get to her feet but no part of her would co-operate. She sank back down, melting into her chair like chocolate on hot car bonnet.

“I think Ralf was murdered and I think Beth did it,” she managed in a single breath as the colour faded from her world.

Faith had only been walking for about forty minutes and she was already sore and fed up. She had been following, on foot, the much-travelled bus route through the shitty suburbs of Del Sol Valley and out towards Willow Creek. From there, she planned to join the river and follow it towards Windenburg, hoping that she could remember enough about the blurry journey when she was thrown over Caleb’s shoulder to find her way to the old Vatore cottage.

She had no idea how far it was. She hoped she could make it by sunrise, but if not she’d have to get creative. Maybe break into a house. Perhaps hide out in a subway. She’d think of something.

Dulled by the monotony of placing one foot in front of another on a never-ending path of concrete and darkness, her mind wandered, as it had almost continuously, to Joy. The image of her sister’s tiny, unmoving body on the threadbare rug burned into Faith’s brain, blocking out almost everything else. The first thing Faith had done after leaving Seth the Shithead in the apartment was to call the emergency services to her childhood home. Skilled as she was at mimicry, Faith had disguised her voice as she’d placed the call, claiming, in a tone spookily similar to Chuck’s warm, bear-like one, that she was walking her dog past the house and had simply heard ‘commotion’.

As she hung up, the sickness inside her threatened to take over. She scratched at her wrist, eyeing the receiver, wondering if she should just call back. Hand herself in. Be done with it all.

Lose everything and everyone. Let him win.

“Who are you? If you can’t see all the red flags here, if you’re really considering this, him, there’s something seriously, seriously wrong with you.”

She’d always prided herself on being the savvy one in the group, the one least likely to be scammed or manipulated. She couldn’t believe she’d been so fucking stupid.

She had to do this. She had to go back and face the music. She had to grovel and beg until Melinda accepted her back. She’d take her back eventually; she knew she would. Melinda didn’t give up on anyone – even when she should. And this time, with this chance, Faith would be better. She’d be a better friend and she’d be a better person.

There really was no way she could be worse.

She’d gratefully accept Lilith’s gloopy clinical shit bags. She’d live under the Fun Vacuum’s thumb watching the bizarre Fringey and Blondie and Mellybean triangle play out. She’d live with her guilt and shame until it ate her from the inside.

Fuck, maybe she’d prefer prison after all.

With dogged determination, she carried on walking, holding her broken, stinging arm and feeling it tingle as it slowly knitted itself back together while her feet rubbed themselves apart. She’d finally reached the shopping precinct where a lifetime ago she’d been part of a quartet of teen(ish) vampires on the run, not a care in the world. How things changed.

“What’s wrong with your arm?”

Faith didn’t look round as a stranger approached her from the shadows. “I fought a huge snake.”

“Did you win?”

“You bet I did.”

“Heh,” he snorted. “You look like a girl who can handle a huge snake.”

At this Faith finally stopped and turned to face the creep. “And you look like a guy with a tiny one.”

A beat of silence and then a roar of laughter. The unidentified man walked towards her. He reeked of cigarettes but was otherwise doable, she thought, then immediately hated herself.

He chuckled. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

Faith carried on walking. She wasn’t in the mood for a causal come on, for once.

Undeterred, he followed her. “My name’s Bill. Bill Bangshaft.”

Was this a joke? Faith shook her head and tried to move faster, but Bill caught up quickly.

“Where are you going?”

“Fuck off.”

“’Fuck Off? Is that near ‘Get Lost’? Yeah, it’s nice there this time of night.”

He followed behind her in silence, no doubt noticing that every step she took was in agony.

“Seriously,” he said, sounding suddenly very concerned. “Do you need a ride?”

Faith was about to answer with a sharp retort and then she noticed that Bill was gesturing to something. Looking over, she could see a cab parked up, the side emblazoned with the words ‘BANGSHAFT CABS’.

She hesitated. She wanted to say that the last thing she wanted was to get in a car with this guy, but honestly, the last thing she wanted was to walk any further.

There was just one problem.

“I have no money,” she admitted.

He smiled, a gold tooth glinting under the dingy streetlights. “You don’t need any.”

“Right,” Faith scoffed on the verge of tears. “Just a blowie in the back, yeah? Go fuck yourself, Bill.”

“That thing is broken, isn’t it?” he gasped, pointing to her arm. “What happened? Were you attacked? Do you need me to call the police for you?”

“No, I need you to fuck off and mind your business!”

“An ambulance? You can barely walk, you’re covered in scrapes—”

I’m fine!”

This time he didn’t laugh. “Wait here, please,” he requested, heading back towards the cab office. Faith considered running, but only briefly. Her mind began playing a fantasy of pinning this creep against a wall and draining him dry through his little—

Her thoughts were interrupted as Bill reappeared with a woman beside him. Faith looked between the couple with utter confusion.

“Claire, my wife,” he said by way of introduction. “She’ll take you wherever you need to go.”

“Free of charge,” Claire added, her smile broad and her expression warm. “No questions asked. Come on, love.”

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Chapter 3.44 – Strawberry

Note: drug use/influence

April was full of bubbles and rainbows. She had to admit that she couldn’t really taste the strawberry flavour of her magic tea, but it was a pretty colour and smelled super yummy. And it was definitely magical!

After one sip, everything went a little fuzzy and soft around the edges. After two, the world started glowing and shivering before her eyes; the lamp had started to dance! Now, a bit more later, and the world had become a technicolour kaleidoscope of moving patterns and shapes. As April swayed, the world around her swam and morphed and everything had been so funny!

She had yet to see an elk, but at one point she could have sworn she’d seen the inside of her own brain. It looked like spaghetti.

Ooh, spaghetti! It had been such a long time since April had eaten spaghetti. Or rather, such a long time since she’d been served up a plate of spaghetti and politely eaten a nibble and then claimed to be full. But she wasn’t full! She’d never ever been full!

Stupid spaghetti.

She tried to remember what strawberries tasted like and took another good swig of her tea. Her taste buds played along; the fruity flavour burst forth, juicy and sweet and… meaty? That wasn’t right.

Oops! No, that was just her biting her own tongue. Her tongue was so squishy and wriggly. She chomped her jaw a few times, trying to catch the slippery eel between her teeth. She succeeded and gave it a gentle little chew. Yum yum!

“April? What are doing?”

Melinda’s voice. Squeaky, like the air being slowly let out of a balloon.

“Um eedin ma dung.”

“What?”

April laughed and released her tongue from her teeth. “I was eating my tongue,” she answered. “It tastes like a meaty, snakey strawberry.”

“Ooooo…K,” Melinda answered slowly. She was smiling. She was so pretty when she smiled. It lit up her face, making her resemble a lamp with eyes. Big, blinking, brown eyes. Big and blinking. Blinky, blinky. And her hair was so thick and bushy. And she was so slim, with her slender bones and little boobies. She was so pretty. Pretty, pretty, pretty.

“Why are you staring at me?”

“You’re so pretty,” April murmured, wetting her lips with her meaty-strawberry tongue. She heard the sound of a throat being cleared and pivoted her head to see Caleb. Oh, he was still here. Well. He was sitting by himself because Wyatt had had some of his pongy apple potion, the one that made Caleb wrinkle his nose and shrink away.

He had a nice nose. Even when it was wrinkly.

He was also pretty. So pretty.

But not as pretty as Melinda. With her little boobies and her lamp eyes.

Caleb frowned and leaned forward in the red chair. The strawberry chair. He was like a black seed amongst red watermelon flesh. Except he looked angry. An angry seed.

He was drinking Wyatt’s tea as Wyatt had only made enough strawberry tea for April. It was her own special drink made just for her. No one ever made things just for her. Wyatt was so nice! His tea was rhubarb flavoured, because that was Broof’s favourite flavour, Wyatt said, and Broof needed to escape reality every once in a while. April didn’t know what rhubarb tasted like, she had never had it, but it also smelled super yummy. And strong, so strong!

Caleb looked so intense, like his tea wasn’t working. Or maybe he was hallucinating when he looked at April. He was gripping his glass tight. April remembered back in the motel room, when Seth had been super nasty to Caleb and Caleb had broken his drinking glass in his fist. She hoped that wasn’t about to happen again. He was so scary when he was in dark form!

“Am I an elk?” she laughed. “Is that what you’re seeing? Do I have antlers!”

His lip twitched and then he frowned. April didn’t know what wrong with him. He was so moody sometimes. She turned back to Wyatt, who was never moody, and he smiled back at her lazily. He smelled bad, very, very bad, but April didn’t really mind. She liked him right beside her. He made her feel so safe, and so smart, and so welcome!

And he was so amazing! He could make potions from plants! He could open doors without touching them! He made her feel so strong and so special. He could do anything! And he thought she could do anything.

Maybe she could…?

April wafted her hand around and was amazed to see a shower of sparks fly from her outstretched fingers.

“I’m doing it!” she squealed. “I’m casting magic!”

Wyatt chuckled and sipped his tea. “What are you casting, Apes?”

“Um, I’m casting, um…” April continued to wave her hand, watching the stars dance across her palm and then fade into the air. “An invisibility spell!”

“Yep,” Wyatt agreed. “That’s invisible, alright!”

She didn’t know what he meant, but the combination of his words and his goofy grin? April found that hilarious. She collapsed into giggles and took another big swig of tea as the conversation swilled around her, stirring itself into the room soup.

“…Above a bar. If I work a few shifts for him, the rent is totally manageable,” Wyatt said.

Melinda nodded; the motion of her pretty head sending colourful waves through the room. “Your own place! That’s exciting.”

“Heh, yeah about time, too. I mean, I love my mum, but she’s always there, y’know?”

“I know that feeling,” April chimed in, thumbing at Caleb, who scowled back.

“And now I’ve got my hat it feels like I should have my independence, too.”

“You’re moving out?!” April gasped, finally grasping what the conversation was about. “Can I come with you?”

Wyatt made a noise that was somewhere between a choke and squeak and took a big, big gulp of his tea. “Uh… maybe. Hey, what spell are you trying next?”

If April hadn’t been so giggly, she might have read into this rejection, but instead she perked up and waved her hand again.

“I’m going to start a fire!” she laughed, waving at the table. “Enflamio! Zap, zap, zap!”

Melinda was laughing. That sound was not like a squeaky balloon, more like a fizzy drink. April tried to copy it, which only made Melinda laugh harder.

She sighed as April continued to drink. “I wish I’d had some tea now; it looks like fun.”

“It is fun!” April agreed, thrusting her glass at her friend. “Try some.”

“I can’t,” Melinda replied.

“You can!”

“No I literally can’t April; your glass is empty.”

“Oh.” April blinked and looked at her glass. It was empty. Except for the goldfish. How did he get in there? Was it a he? Did girl goldfish – goldfishes? –  wear bows?

“Sorry, Mel, I only made a small portion of that. But hey, you could have a bit of mine?”

Caleb opened his mouth, then closed it again, then opened it again. Clearly he could also see the goldfish in her glass. Bonky, she was going to name him Bonky. The goldfish, not Caleb, although he also was quite bonky. She mirrored Caleb’s actions, his face, until he looked at her and licked his fangs.

By now, Wyatt had passed his drink to Melinda who was chewing her lip and looking at it like it was alive.

MAYBE IT WAS?

April watched in amazement as Melinda rolled her brown, lamp, big, lamp, big, um, eyes up to April’s face and smiled. She took a little sip of the wibbly creature in Wyatt’s glass and grimaced.

“Tastes like ash— woah!”

“Yeah,” Wyatt breathed. “Think I steeped it a bit too long. Just a sip or two, yeah? That stuff is potent as fu— fudge.”

“Fuck,” April announced. “Just say it! I’m not a little girl; you can swear around me.”

“Nah, it feels… wrong,” Wyatt admitted.

“It does,” Melinda concurred. “I never really understood why people swear when words like ‘fudge’ and ‘ship’ convey the same message.”

“But they don’t!” April insisted. “Sometimes you just need a ‘fuck’!”

Caleb jolted, almost spilling his drink as Wyatt choked on a laugh.

“Apes,” he wheezed, trying to compose himself. “I mean, I agree, but – oh my god.”

“That stuff is as potent as fuck, fuck, fuck,” April sang, oblivious. “Fuckity fucky fuck.”

“That word sounds so wrong coming from that sweet, little mouth,” Wyatt laughed. “I feel like I should, I dunno, scold you or wash your mouth with soap or something.”

April pouted. “Oh.”

“I won’t,” Wyatt added quickly. “But… should I? Fuck, I don’t know.”

“You said it! Hooray! Your turn, Mel!”

Melinda didn’t respond. She was holding her stomach and looking in Caleb’s direction, but April couldn’t see her expression through the unicorn clouds.

All she could see was Caleb’s, staring back.

“Fuck,” he said quietly and lifted his still full glass to his lips.

Jessica slowly walked the perimeter of the building, wondering for the umpteenth time if this was such a good idea. She finally became aware that her shiny-headed clan was no longer following her lead and took pause.

In the dead of the night, it wasn’t difficult to hear the hushed whispers that echoed from the stilled trees.

“Your foot is in my face!”

“Maybe your face is on my foot?!”

“Ladies, can we please focus?”

Jessica rounded the corner of Ralf’s house – former house – and looked up at the brightly-coloured tower of bodies before her. She was struck completely dumb for a moment, taking in this marvel of balanced posing.

“Ouch! That was my finger!”

“Yibbo, can you reach yet?”

“Why oh why did I wear heels?!”

“Um, what are you doing?” she asked, finally.

“Well, we’re not cheerleading, Jess!” Pixie snapped. “We’re trying to climb in through this tiny, slightly ajar window!”

“Trying… to… reach… the window!” Yibbo added breathlessly. “Almost there!”

“My face!” Pixie moaned as Yibbo clawed into it to maintain her balance.

“My feet!” Morag groaned, her legs trembling beneath the weight.

Jessica coughed politely into her fist to hide her laugh. She gestured across the garden.

“We could do that, or we could go in through the unlocked back door…”

“Why do we never try the doors?”

Caleb swirled the liquid in his glass. He hadn’t taken a single sip the whole time he’d been sitting here. Only Melinda appeared to have noticed and she hadn’t been able to comprehend it for long. She had taken some of Wyatt’s tainted drink and it had quickly pulled the slight little vampire under.

Caleb couldn’t quite believe that he’d gotten away with this, that his plan was working. His plan was working! And working even better than he’d anticipated. Melinda was gone, asleep after only a few sips – at least he hoped she was asleep – on the couch, and Wyatt was not far behind, judging by his posture.

The witch was slurring and shaking, fighting to keep himself upright against the effects of the two cups he’d drunk, as April wittered on at him about colours and fruits in her cute little way. His skin was clammy, pale. Caleb could hear his pulse racing, see the sweat on his brow, smell the fear emanating from him; the unease, the regret.

He thinks he’s done this, he realised, the idea tickling a little something within Caleb that he had been brutally trained, over centuries, not to acknowledge.

But something that had never quite died.

April was singing, oblivious to the events around her. Waving her arms and dancing in her seat to a tune only she could hear. Every movement she made in those flimsy pyjamas made her pert breasts and soft thighs jiggle in a way that hypnotised Caleb. He longed to sink his teeth into her soft flesh, to rip the fabric from her perfect skin; to own her, possess her, fill her.

Damn to the rules, to hell with being ‘nice’ and obeying the chart. Everything was fine before they came here, before the witches ruined everything with their ridiculous rules. What did they know about anything? If he could just get April alone for one night, he was sure he could fix this. He could show her that he could love her properly, could make her feel good, really good, that she didn’t need to be afraid of him.

As Wyatt dipped like a broken beacon, Caleb broke from his trance and salivated like a dog presented with a bone. Wyatt could barely hold his head up, let alone cast a decent spell, Caleb was sure of it. No one could stop him. Not this time.

He was so close.

Wyatt’s head rose, as if trying to fight the effects of the tea that he brewed. His face was… confused? Yes, that face was definitely confused.

“I deferettly omly used wun da-daturuuh,” he slurred, aghast, grasping for April’s hand. “Apesss,” he hissed, “Apes. Lissen t’me. Call mu… call Bruff.”

“What?” April asked, reaching out to stroke Wyatt’s face. “You silly sausage! Those aren’t words!”

“Apesss,” Wyatt tried again. He paused, shook his head, the sentence lost. “Fug, I um so dead.”

April linked her fingers through his and continued to sing as she enjoyed her waking dreams. She scanned the room and only then did she notice Melinda.

“Oh!” she gasped. “Mel is asleep!”

Caleb nodded, hoping – for April’s sake – that she was.

But then, he didn’t give the tea to Melinda. It wasn’t his fault if she never woke up.

“Can you please put her to bed, Caleb?” April asked, her big, blue eyes locked onto his. “She’ll get a super sore neck slumped like that.”

“Sure,” Caleb answered, swiftly rising to his feet and sweeping Melinda into his arms. He’d take her into the girls’ room – if he physically could. If not, he was sure the plush rug on hallway floor would suffice.

And then he’d be back, and April would be his.

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Chapter 3.43 – More Meat

Seth Grimm had faced a number of arduous challenges in his time on the planet, from false accusation to imprisonment, but he’d take another three decades in solitary confinement if, for once, he could just get his bloody fledgling out of the door on time.

It had taken almost an hour to get to this point, but Faith had finally whittled her outfit choices down to two. It wouldn’t have been this difficult if she hadn’t learned, during her snooping as she recovered in the small apartment, that the former occupant had a number of designer dresses in her closet that were, coincidentally, in Faith’s size.

She was swanning about like a supermodel, trying on each and every gown and ruling them out one by one, while Seth waited in various places in the apartment, growing steadily more bored and frustrated.

“Which of these would work best for wherever we’re going?” she asked, gesturing to the two shortlisted dresses.

Seth sighed. He’d answered this question, albeit worded a few different ways, a half dozen times in the last thirty minutes as Faith had attempted to wheedle out his plans without directly asking. It was even more tiring than a direct hit. He could have simply told her his plan, but he did enjoy watching her dance around him on hot coals. And dance indeed she did, especially after the show she’d made of herself the previous night.

“Either. It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters.” Faith pouted. She pinched at the fabric on the blue dress. “I like this one, but it’s so classy – does it need to be classy?”

“No.”

“Oh.” She plucked at the black one. “But the fabric on the black one is softer, stretchier. Does that matter?”

Seth rolled his eyes. “No.”

She tapped her chin. “The black one has a massive cut-out, though, so my huge fucking gut will be on display.”

“What gut?” Seth snorted.

“This!” Faith puffed her abdomen out and gave it a slap. “I’ve never ‘eaten’ so well in my life. I look like a blimp.”

Seth only laughed.

“Seriously,” Faith said, suddenly concerned. “Am I getting fat?”

“I’ve seen more meat on a butcher’s pencil,” he murmured, without looking at her.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

Seth had been trying to resist ogling her as she stretched and bent before the dresser in only her underwear, but there was something about her being on the fringe of losing her temper that revved his engine past the point he could ignore. He finally turned to face her, taking in the svelte shape of her for a moment before replying, “You are not fat, Faith.”

She drummed her fingers on her skin. “Caleb called me fat once. Sort of.”

“Caleb is an idiot.”

Faith nodded, looking back towards the rail. “So, I won’t look like a taped-up sausage in the black one?”

“No.”

“I might still wear the blue one,” Faith said softly. “It’s Joy’s birthday today and blue is her favourite colour. It’ll be like an homage.” She ran her fingernail down the dress, contemplating. “Did you take her present around today?”

“No.”

Faith rounded on him, tipped instantly to rage at his words. “You said you would go today!”

“I did,” he agreed. “And I will, if you ever pick a bloody dress.”

It took Faith a moment, but she eventually realised that he had, inadvertently, given her the answer she’d been trying reach.

“You’re going tonight?” she asked, her eyes going wide as he nodded. “So, what are you dumping me round the corner first? Great. I may as well wear a fucking bin bag.”

We’re going tonight,” he corrected. “You can give Joy her gift.”

Faith’s face split into a huge grin, that slowly warped and twisted itself into a grimace and look a look of abject horror.

“What the fuck. I can’t go and see her. Can I? No, I can’t!” she squealed answering her own question so he didn’t have to, torn between her rapture and her panic. “She might see me!”

“Isn’t that the point of visiting someone, to see them?”

“But I’m… I might… wait, we don’t need to go in, right? I can leave her present on the doorstep, right?”

“You could,” he agreed tentatively.

“I could…” she mused, chewing her lip. “But I can’t go all the way there, leave her a present and not see her.”

He cleared his throat and offered her his plan, finely presented, naturally. “Perhaps,” he mused as if he hadn’t already given this copious thought. “With my supervision, I suppose we could go in, briefly.”

She wasn’t listening. “I bet she already thinks I hate her for abandoning her in the first shitting place.” She thumped the dresser and let out an anguished roar. “I’m just like my dad, floating in and out at his whim, always leaving her wondering when she’ll next see him! Ugh!”

Seth remained silent, allowing her tantrum. Eventually she whispered. “Maybe it would be better to let her forget me. Forget her.”

“If only that worked,” Seth murmured, but Faith didn’t hear. “You don’t want to see her?” he asked.

“I do!” she whined. “But how can I? She’d definitely want to hug me and you saw what Mel did to her dad—”

“I did,” he agreed. “And you saw what I did to Melinda.”

“Yeah… but you can’t control me properly, I’ve got, you know,” she waved around her head. “The weird brain thing.”

You have indeed, he thought to himself, trying very hard not to lick his lips. Instead, he smiled. “If subversion should fail, Faith, remember; I am stronger than you, faster…”

She snorted. “Yeah, sure you ar— oof!”

The wind was knocked out of her as Seth moved, part man, part mist, pinning her to the wall in an instant. He waited until her senses caught up with her and her unimpressed neutral expression returned before relenting.

“That was just lucky,” she said. “I was distracted by dresses.”

“As will I be if you wear the black one.”

Faith let out a little gasp as he stepped back, still smarting. “Then maybe I should wear the blue one.”

“Maybe you should go naked,” he jested. “Let her play the bongos on that belly blimp of yours.”

“You’re such a fucking tool,” she tutted, but her smile was bright, her eyes alight. “OK! OK, oh my fucking god!” she gasped. “I can’t believe I’m gonna see her little face. Even if it is through a window, even if only for a minute. I’m so excited! Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

“I can’t wait to see her expression when she sees those pictures. It’s going to be fucking epic.”

“It is,” he agreed. Seth fought to restrain his smirk, watching Faith as she deliberated on the dresses with renewed vigour.

“You’re so good to me.” Faith grinned. “All the stuff you do for me. One day I will do something for you, I promise. Something huge.”

I don’t doubt it.

“This looks amazing, Jess. Great job!”

Jessica looked around at the ‘nursery’ that she and Beth had spent the day creating. It looked better, for certain, but it couldn’t have looked much worse than the dank, brown space it had started as. The dinosaur border certainly added some playfulness to the clinical white walls, but one feature was still off-putting for Jessica.

“Are we doing anything with the cell doors?” she asked.

Beth glanced towards them and shrugged. “Shall we paint them?”

“Um,” Jessica bit her lip. “I thought more along the lines of removing them.”

“No way, they’re a safety feature,” Beth insisted, dragging her nail across the iron bars. The tinny reverberations echoed around the police station basement, emphasising the closed-in feeling that made Jessica shake. “What we have made here, Jess, is essentially a giant playpen. We can leave the little ones here to play or nap, with no worries that they’ll escape, or try to climb those stairs, or worse.” She reached down and scooped up her son, who beamed back up at her. “Even you can’t get through those bars, can you, you little rascal?”

“He escapes?” Jessica repeated, more to distract herself from the noise in her head, rather than out of genuine interest.

“He tries to,” Beth confirmed. “He’s as slippery as his dad; always looking for a way out.” Her face flickered with a flash of sadness that was gone as soon as it appeared. “Paired with that, he’s as charmed, um, as charming as me. Dangerous combination.”

Jessica nodded emptily. Her thoughts that day had been originally been dominated by the knowledge that she’d be dressed like clown vomit and breaking into her former boss’s house in a few hours’ time to try and talk to his ghost. But as the day had worn on and, as usual, barely a call came through to the sleepy Woodland Borough Police Station to break up the hours of decorating, Jessica had been forced to think about her other big issue. Perhaps, arguably, the bigger of the two.

She wondered how her brewing baby would blend. Would they be hot-headed and non-committal like their dad? Would they be quirky and creative like their mum?

Would Jessica be a good mum or would she be like her own mum; trying but never quite succeeding?

Who would she turn to when she needed support? Who would help?

Could she do all this on her own?

The tinny ringing seemed to be getting louder in Jessica’s ears, drowning out her spiralling thoughts. It was only when a soft, damp weight was thrust into her arms that she realised the sound wasn’t coming from the barred door, but from Beth’s pocket.

“Take him for a sec, Jess so I can see who this is,” Beth said. She paused for a moment, admiring the scene she’d created. “Aw, it really suits you, you know?”

Jessica wasn’t so sure. She juggled the squirming child, trying to find a position that felt natural as Beth looked at her phone.

“Crap,” she muttered under her breath. “It’s Saggy Balls. I’d better go take this in the office. You’re OK alone with Willy for five minutes, right? Honestly, he’s an absolute angel.”

“By myself?”

“That is what ‘alone’ means.”

“But—”

“You’ll be fine.”

Jessica tried to protest, but Beth had already abandoned her in the half-painted cell.

She might have been expecting and flooded with hormones, but that didn’t mean that Jessica knew what to do with the tiny person in her arms. She’d had no younger siblings, no younger relatives at all, no experience of caring for anything other than feral cats. Between trying to join the GliTS, being locked in the Tower, covering her tracks at work and desperately trying to keep food down, she hadn’t had much time to read parenting books, either.

She looked at Willy and he looked back with those dark, shark eyes synonymous with the Wangshafts. He certainly didn’t look like an angel, but perhaps looks were deceiving.

“Hello,” she said, clumsily. “I’m Jessica.”

“Blurbla!” he gargled. He reached out a chubby little hand, grasping Jessica’s glasses and attempting to remove them.

“Oh, no, don’t do that!” Jessica gasped. She managed to free her glasses, only for him to grab at her hair, or her earrings instead. “Ow! Oh! OW!”

Willy giggled at this game and began patting Jessica’s face thwarting her every attempt to stop him. Jessica had no idea what to do to make him stop. Trying to grab his flailing arm was like trying to get a hold on a lubricated squid. She eventually caught his wrist, by some miracle, and told him a firm ‘no’.

He stopped, what a relief! But then, oh no! His eyes overflowed. His lower lip trembled.

“Oh, no. No, no, no!” Jessica panicked, imagining Beth’s face if she returned to find her precious child crying and miserable after only two minutes in her care. “Shh!” She danced on the spot, frantically looking around for a distraction. This was a nightmare! What was she thinking?! She couldn’t be a mother! She was a disaster!

Just as she thought she’d have to either give up her spectacles or admit defeat and allow him to pummel her face for his own amusement, he reached up towards her again, but this time he only sniffled, wrapped his small arm around her neck and held on tight.

Oh no, now he was terrified! She had barely registered that she was bouncing and swaying. He probably thought she was going to drop him, and—

“Oh,” Jessica sighed, feeling his gentle breath on her neck, his powder-soft cheek, plump and warm against her own. He settled into the curves of her, naturally finding the space he fit best and stayed there, gently grabbing and releasing the collar of her blouse as he gargled happily.

“Oh.” Jessica smiled, holding him a little closer. The instincts she’d doubted she had finally kicked in as she held tight to the sleepy little one. Her body found a rhythm to rock, in time with his slowing breathing and her own. She cooed softly at his sweet face, enjoying every second of him falling asleep in her arms.

Maybe Beth was right, she thought into the silence as she stilled. Maybe I really can do this.

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Chapter 3.40 – Irritant

Jessica’s scalp was so itchy.

When she’d first been presented with her MAD hat she’d felt pretty good in it. She was fully starting to embrace the ‘wear whatever makes you happy’ mantra of her fellow GliTS, almost starting to like her starched, polyester poodle skirt and the little static shocks she got periodically from her faux silk blouse, so having a metallic, reflective head was no big deal, really.

But now she was two hours into being a fully initiated member of Glimmerbrook’s Trust Society and Jessica was becoming desperate to run home and take the thing off.

But she couldn’t. Yet. The GliTS were holding a Very Important Meeting – a ‘post-phenomenon’ de-brief at their headquarters (aka, Pixie’s dad’s house) where they had discussed, in detail, all the gory, impossible events of the previous night and what it could mean. Jessica had, once again, reiterated that no, she’d never spoken to ghosts before, or since, and no, she hadn’t had any near-death experiences or been struck by lightning lately, all while Pixie’s dad delivered refreshments and dusted bric-a-brac around them as if everything was completely normal.

Normal. Jessica almost laughed out loud. What was normal? A few days ago she thought she’d been a normal person, possibly even on the border of boring, living a normal life, despite everyone always thinking that she was a bit ‘kooky’.

And now that she was some loon in a tinfoil hat who spoke to dead people? Even she thought she was strange.

“We should go back to the forest,” Morag said for the umpteenth time. “After they’ve buried Paul, to see if his spirit remains.”

“And to look for others,” Pixie chimed in. “There could be hundreds of them. Just think! The stories they could tell you, Jess. The mysteries you could solve!”

“Isn’t the mystery solved? Surely it’s likely that all the Forgotten Hollow missing people were eaten by a monster,” Jessica sighed. “What can I do with that information? Make people think I’m insane? How would you even catch a man-eating monster?”

Morag and Pixie shrugged.

“I don’t even know if I can actually talk to ghosts, or whether Paul was just a fluke,” Jessica continued. “I mean, I haven’t seen any since, unless he’s a ghost.” She gestured at Pixie’s dad, who had entered the room with a fresh plate of cookies. “And if I can only see fresh ghosts, what do you suggest I do with this ‘talent’? Wait until another person goes missing in the forest and then go say ‘Hi! Sorry you’re dead! Want to chat?’”

“I guess… Maybe we could find out what actually happened to Sandy Moss?” Morag asked.

“No, she was buried already,” Pixie mused. “She has probably passed on, if Paul was right.”

“Oh, right. What about, um, Chase was it?” Morag asked, pointing to Jessica’s abdomen.

“Oh my gosh, Morag!” Pixie gasped. “Sometimes you can be so insensitive!”

“Sorry,” Morag mumbled. “I didn’t mean… I just thought… I’m gonna shut up.”

“I don’t know where he died,” Jessica admitted, feeling rotten, but wanting to ease the embarrassment. “So, unless we wander the whole river, which I’d rather not…”

“No, of course not,” Pixie agreed, scowling at her fellow conspiracy theorist.

Yibbo, who had been unusually quiet for most of the meeting, reached forward for a cookie. “Gee, Morag. Next you’ll be suggesting we go do a séance at the dead police chief’s house—”

“…that’s a great idea!”

“No! It’s not!” Yibbo wailed. “It’s sarcasm! No more dead people this week, please!”

“Technically, you’ve already seen him, so he doesn’t count, right?” Pixie asked. “Plus, he’s freshly dead under mysterious circumstances and not yet buried! He might be perfect! Um, if that’s OK with you, Jessica?”

“Uh…” Jessica pouted; her heart pounding, her palms sweating, her hat becoming a major irritant. What if she did find Ralf’s ghost? What if she could speak to him? What would he say? Would she want to hear it? Would it be safe for her to hear it?

Could she afford not to?

She shot to her feet; decision made. It was completely crazy, but everything was completely crazy.

“Let’s go break into Ralf’s house and hold a séance!”

“Woo! Casual trespass!” Morag squealed, running towards the back room. “Pixie, Jess – let’s go draw up a plan for tomorrow night!”

“And what about me?”

“‘Join the GliTS,’ they said,” Yibbo muttered to herself. “‘It’s all cocoa and spooky stories!’ they said. ‘It’ll be fun!’ they said. Fun? Fun?! My bum! This sucks!”

Seth ascended the stairs of the Orange Box nightclub, freshly fed and carrying about his person a keyring that was, by weight, 90% freezer bunny charms and 10% actual keys. He didn’t have to look far to find his fussy fledgling.

Even in a pulsing room of bodies, even here of all places in this day-glo daymare, she stood out, and it wasn’t simply for the fact that she danced like half of her limbs weren’t correctly attached.

He watched her for a while from the shadows as she flaunted herself for the crowd who all but ignored her, with the natural exception of a few caught men. These smitten souls were watching every swerve and undulation of her shapely figure with that distant, glassy-eyed stare. The tell-tale sign of allure at work.

Thank the devil he was naturally immune to the pink fog. Although he did appear to be leering. Seth licked his lips to break the trance; a subtle action but enough for Faith to lock eyes on to him. She sneered.

“Oh, you’re back,” she scoffed. “Did you enjoy Rochelle?”

As much as he loathed her tiresome childishness, the way she kept asking him questions despite his requests not to, and the mocking way she slurred ‘Rochelle’, he had to admit that having someone who cared about who he’d had his mouth on did hold a certain charm. That, and the slithering shape of her, was sending his senses into overdrive.

Once again, he reminded himself that none of these feelings were real. However intense they felt, they were nothing but a cruel effect of her, questionably subconscious, attempts at using his own manipulation against him.

“I did.”

“I bet you did, you…” Faith scrunched her face up, clearly looking for the right insult. “You fucker.”

Not what he thought she’d call him. Barely an insult at all, by definition. He extended his hand. “Are you ready to go?”

She pulled her arm back, sending herself into a spin that she only just about regained poise in.

“No. I’m not ‘ready to go’. I’m having a great fucking time here.”

“We’ll come back another time,” he said without thinking, briefly wondering why he was trying to please her, and silently cursing himself for committing to another night in this ear-bashing hellhole. “Come.”

“No!” Faith whined, pulling back. “Why do we always have to do what you want to do?”

“Because your taste in everything is atrocious,” Seth muttered, casually distracting a human who was thinking of intervening in what he thought was a lover’s tiff. “Come on, Fa— Vi— you.”

“I’m not… going!” Faith managed, stumbling into a fellow dancer and apologising to her, but while facing the wrong direction.

Seth straightened up and looked at Faith with bemusement as the explanation for her more-irritating-than-usual behaviour became clear. “Oh sweet Lucifer; how are you drunk?”

“What? I’m not drunk!”

Seth took a step closer and peered into her unfocused, grey eyes.

“Fuck off, you weirdo!” she snarled, trying – ineffectively – to shove him.

“You’re inebriated!” he exclaimed, in disbelief. “Bloody hell! I’ve been gone for half an hour, at most.”

“I’m not ineb… inbred… abbreviated!”

“And tonight of all nights,” he growled. “Is this a bloody joke?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she hiccupped, tossing her hair. “I haven’t even had anything to drink!” She gestured to a human nearby. “Hey! You! Have you seen me have a drink?”

“Nope.”

“You clearly have.”

“I haven’t! Well not, y’know any booze just… y’know…” she waved her hand, smacking aforementioned human beside her in the face, but he didn’t seem to notice as he was also three-sheets-in-the-wind, as most of the humans in here were.

Ah.

“I see,” he looked around at the wriggling crowd, trying to gauge who was missing. “Who was it?”

“Um,” Faith pondered, but it became a choked gargle. “That guy. Fat sarong man. And yeah… he was. He was… he was not good. Nope. He tasted like shit.”

“Yes, probably loaded on devil-knows-what,” Seth sighed. “As you are now.”

“He cried when I bit him.”

“Right.”

“And then,” Faith paused for dramatic effect, swaying in her heels. “Then! He threw up on me.”  She gestured to her feet and the remnants of her spoils that clung to her expensive shoes.

“Wonderful,” Seth muttered, rubbing his temples.

He wasn’t an expert on the types of intoxicants that humans ingested, but he knew enough to understand that Faith was likely a write-off tonight. On the one hand, he couldn’t blame her for not knowing how to determine the suitability of her supper. On the other, it put his night’s plan on hold and ground his gears. As he glared at her, carefully deliberating his course of action, she pouted at him, stubbornly.

“I’m not drunk. I’m not.”

“Not hardly.”

“I’m not! I’ll prove it!” she looked around for a method to prove her sobriety but, perhaps tellingly, came up short.

Seth sighed. “Touch the tip of your nose.”

Faith made a face and looked down at her finger. “What?”

“It’s not brain surgery,” he growled and tapped his fingertip to his own nose.

She squinted at him a bit longer before she finally understood. After muttering about how stupid this was, how sober she was, how much of a bastard he was, she followed his example.

“Fuck!” she gasped. “Fuck! What did you do that for?!”

Seth would have laughed if he wasn’t so annoyed by the whole turn of events. “Come here, we’re leaving.”

“No!” Faith screamed, backing away. “You made me poke myself in the eye!”

By now a few people on the dancefloor had stopped cavorting and were watching the scene. A number were advancing, once again, to intervene.

Seth had had enough. The carefully amassed power he had obtained from his evening’s quarry would not be seeing its intended use, anyway. With irritation, he gestured around at the crowd in turn, draining himself as he dropped each worthless body into slumber, in turn. The club fell silent as its occupants succumbed.

Exhausted and frustrated, Seth glared at Faith until she finally realised what had just happened around her.

“Overreaction, much?”

“Here. Now.”

Faith sighed in that over-dramatic, teenaged way and stomped over, glaring at him the whole time.

“I hate you,” she hissed.

“You wound me.”

“I will wound you,” she muttered. “Maybe I’ll poke you in the fucking eye.”

“Finally, something to look forward to in our shared eternity of misery,” he snarled, pulling her to him and half-hoping that she didn’t have the mental capacity to keep her focus as he misted with her.

“Eternity?” she whispered. “Aww, baby. I love you too.”

“I didn’t say that.”

Faith made cutesy noises as she clumsily stroked his face and moved against him in the silent club. This, combined with her unusually doe-eyed and docile demeanour, knocked him completely off-kilter again.

How did she keep doing this?

He groaned, pulling her firmly into his embrace. It was going to be a long night now his plans were shot to hell and so was his fledgling. Tonight, he’d play along with her game. He’d wait.

Tomorrow night.

She could lose her mind tomorrow.

Orange Box Nightclub is by Snowbnuuy

Slow dancing (used for some Seth & Faith poses and a million times better than that bouncy crap EA gave us) is part of MercuryFoam’s awesome ballroom mod

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Chapter 3.35 – Question Everything

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?”

“Herself.”

“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.

“Tailing Wilbur?”

“Oh!” Beth gushed; relief evident. “That. Oh, yeah,” she said dismissively, “the old scrote is having an affair.”

“He is?”

“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.”

“I’m sorry—”

“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.”

“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…”

“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.”

“You were?”

“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.”