Beth had poured Ralf another glass of her gin and lemon concoction and handed it over.
“I used to make these all the time in my former life of barmaid,” she laughed. “Not for the patrons; they only wanted beer. Cheers!” She tapped her glass against his and sat back in her chair, still talking – but he was good at blocking that out.
It was early and technically he was on the clock, but it was the weekend and he had to admit it; he liked this carefree, chatty side of Beth. Prior to today, Ralf had barely given her the time of day let alone found himself embarrassingly pre-occupied with the shape of her hazel eyes and her supermodel high cheekbones.
“Was it porn?” Beth asked.
“Um, what?” Ralf stuttered, crashing back into the room from the cloud he had been floating on.
“On your computer earlier? I walk in, you shut it down and run out for a ‘sausage butty’. Is that your term for, you know?” she made a rude gesture with her hand, “You can tell me. I’ve got five brothers; I’m no Sheltered Susie. Will would plaster every wall in our house with pictures of boobs, if I’d let him.”
“It wasn’t… that,” Ralf huffed, his cheeks burning. “It was CCTV footage.”
Beth raised an eyebrow. “Why would you hide that?”
Ralf didn’t want to answer but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. “Because it contains something I can’t explain and I’m wondering if Jessica’s theory was right.”
“Interesting,” Beth said, in a bored fashion, like she was humouring him. “And what was Jessica’s theory?”
“That there are vampires,” Ralf replied quietly, unable to stop the words spewing from his reluctant lips. He concluded that there must be a lot more gin in this drink than he could taste to make him this unburdened. “Isn’t that mad?” he added, laughing uneasily.
Beth tapped her glass and returned it to the table, without taking a sip. Ralf noticed that the rim of her glass was free of lipstick stains and he connected the dots; she hadn’t taken a drink the whole time she’d been sitting here. And he’d had… a few.
“Vampires? That’s rather a far-fetched theory, up there with aliens and mermaids,” Beth mused. “I’m struggling to comprehend it. Perhaps you should elaborate?”
Ralf was willing himself not to answer, fighting himself, but the words tumbled out regardless.
“Chase was completely drained of blood, a woman in a hotel was partly drained of blood, we found a sack of transfusion bags at the hotel along with sketches of a mysterious man. A man who, Jessica was adamant, was present the night Chase disappeared, who is then positively identified by the receptionist as her attacker.”
“This man sounds like a lunatic, but a vampire? Really?”
“The CCTV footage shows the alleged victim being carried through the reception by an invisible force.” Ralf knew he’d gone too far. He tried to close his mouth but that didn’t stop the spiel. “Then, I slipped to Wilbur that Jessica thought vampires were a viable theory and he locked her up.”
“Is that why he did it?” Beth asked. “Have you told anyone else these theories, Ralf?”
Ralf bit his tongue but it broke free from his teeth; he twisted to leave his chair but his body held firm. He wanted to answer that he hadn’t, he wouldn’t. He wanted to lie, but he couldn’t.
“Not yet, but I will,” he confessed feeling the ground drop out from beneath him.
Beth smiled, drumming her fingernails on the table.
“No. You won’t.”
“Wyatt and… Sandy?” Sage repeated, for the dozenth time. “Together as in… together? How old is April, eighteen? So this was, what, late nineties?”
“July 1998,” Broof replied. “Back when Sandy was hardly known, making those seedy b-movies.”
“1998. So Wyatt would have been… gracious moon! And it was consensual?”
Broof groaned. He’d often thought about what it would be like when Sage eventually learned about her granddaughter, but he hadn’t envisioned that she’d get so hung up on the how part of her coming to be.
“Sandy was pretty drunk and Wyatt was hi— um, hiding, yeah, because he was star struck, so he was hiding, ahem,” Broof cleared his throat, but appeared to get away with it. “They got chatting and he was trying to impress her; I think he told her that he was a movie director or some such.”
“I’m not sure that Sandy believed him because she did have eyes,” Broof commented. “But she flattered the pants off him anyway. Knowing what I know now about Sandy, I don’t think it actually mattered who he was or what he did, just that he showed an interest.”
Sage leapt on this nugget of hope. “With respect, Broof; if Sandy was that loose, then who knows how many men she slept with! And she was adamant that April was Travis’s, so—“
“She didn’t meet Travis until the October,” Broof took a deep breath ahead of his scathing assessment. “I think Sandy chose the least rubbish option she had when she found out she was pregnant, Sage.”
Sage spluttered, pressing her hand to her chest. “Excuse me?! Wyatt is not perfect, but he’s not rubbish!”
“Objectively. He was young, jobless and,” constantly loaded to the eyeballs to deal with his dad’s passing, “had a few issues. Meanwhile, Travis had a good job, or at least his father did, his own place, famous clients to mingle with. No-brainer really, from Sandy’s point of view.”
“He’s far too good for that overprized harlot,” Sage muttered under her breath. She scowled at Broof. “What makes you so sure? I know you wouldn’t make a claim like that without more evidence, Broof.”
“A few things,” Broof replied. “They have similar mannerisms and April started to fall behind her human peers, as would be expected of a witch, in her teens. Not quite as much as Wy, but definitely substantial.”
“Maybe the girl is simply a bit dim?” Sage suggested. “If you had a genuine suspicion, you would have raised it with the coven, not let a potential witch roam the world, unsupervised.”
Broof felt his blood boil at this suggestion, hearing the echoes of Sandy, the music of the mansion: stupid girl! “A witch can tell a witch,” Broof pointed out. “April wasn’t allowed to roam the world. She wasn’t allowed to do anything. And if I’m completely honest with you, Sage; my faith in the integrity of the coven took a real knock after I lost Cabbage and downright died when they voted Claudia to be a senior witch,” Broof snarled. “What would they have done if I told them that the daughter of a world-famous actress was magically inclined? Do you think Claudia has the tact to keep that under wraps?”
Sage winced; Broof knew that she had her own doubts, but she was far too indoctrinated to state them. She fixed him with her penetrating stare. “Even if April was ‘magically inclined’, she could have been a new bloodline, it doesn’t mean that she is Wyatt’s.” Sage folded her arms and shook her head. “What’s to say that Sandy didn’t sleep with another witch around that time?”
Broof sighed. “She’s Wyatt’s. She has the same rare blood type—“
“Rare, but not unique,” Sage pointed out, unmoved.
Broof ground his teeth, trying to think of how best to convince her. If this wasn’t quite literally a matter of life and death, he would have laughed. Wyatt was just like his mother; both rolling their eyes, similarly stubborn to accept this possibility, no matter how much Wyatt claimed that he took more after his laid-back dad, Warren.
“Warren!” Broof reached abruptly into his pocket, startling Sage who was looking at him with a mixture of shock and concern at the abrupt shouting of her late husband’s name in this conversation. “Look at her eyes, Sage. She has Warren’s eyes.”
Sage sighed like this task was a huge burden, but played along as Broof loaded up a photo of April on his phone, zoomed in and passed it to her.
“Sweet mercy,” Sage whispered, heart-stricken. “It’s been a long time… I…” she paused, unable to find traction with her sentence. “Does he know? Does Wyatt know?”
Broof was momentarily startled to realise that the photo had worked. He looked down at the image of April, then back at the sorrowful, silent woman before him, feeling that pull to comfort her as he always had with April. If the two weren’t related, he’d eat his metaphorical hat.
“He does,” Broof confirmed, reaching out to pat her arm. “I’ve told him enough times.”
Sage shrugged off his touch and hardened, screaming Wyatt’s full name and scaring Broof half out of his skin. “Get out here! Now!”
It was barely a minute before Wyatt sheepishly entered the room. He took one look at his mother’s face and baulked. “Can I grab a glass of water, maybe a coffee before you start? No?”
He sighed heavily at Sage’s weighted silence. “I know, OK? I screwed up big time, you can’t trust me, I’m an awful son and a shame to the Harper name. I’ll work a whole week on the shop floor with no pay and go to your room, Wyatt. Gladly, as long as he’s OK.”
Sage brushed past Broof and hissed at her son, “You get your skinny bottom back here, you responsibility-shirking rascal.”
Wyatt groaned and turned to face her. “I swear, I don’t know why Thor fainted. OK, he had a lot of rum, but he was fine one minute, bragging about his infidelity, and then bam! floor.”
“And what about you; did you have a good night while you were intoxicating my employee?” Sage asked making no attempt to sprinkle her usual sugary coating on her words. “Or were you too busy having irresponsible romantic encounters in closets?”
“Actually, it was Thor who—” he trailed off as his mother gave her knowing look and the penny dropped. Wyatt looked at Sage, horrified, and then turned on Broof. “Why would you tell her that?!”
“It sort of slipped out. Look, he’s the vampire, Caleb Vatore,” Broof said, gesturing towards Sage’s bedroom. “And I think you were right; I think he did take April as his bride and if he did, I guess then you’re, what, his father-in-law?”
Wyatt shook his head feverishly. “No, he’s just Thor, he’s not a vampire. There aren’t any vampires, right Mum?”
“Oh, drop the act, Wyatt – you are a terrible liar!” Sage spat. “You don’t think all the sudden interest in the zombified leeches went unnoticed, did you?”
Wyatt made an incredulous noise, looked at Sage’s bedroom door and then back at Sage. “Wha—? Shouldn’t we like, be staking him or something?”
“We can’t do that while he’s bound to April,” Broof said. “We have to find her first.”
“Wait… is that what the repellent was for?” Wyatt asked. “To stop him biting me? You let me party with a vampire?! Why didn’t you tell me? He could have had my throat out he… OMG, Roxie! No wonder she looked like death this morning! She could have died!”
“She wouldn’t have died; I doubt he even managed to drink from her if he’s this listless; at least that part worked,” Sage took a step closer, waving her finger in Wyatt’s face. “As for you; I left you in an impeccably controlled, monitored environment, with set instructions, a heavily subdued threat and, as back-up, enough repellent in your veins to make even me want to disown you! Whatever illicit magic you cast to override that is not on me!”
Wyatt chewed his lip. “I didn’t cast anything, not that you’ll believe me,” he muttered, reaching for his bedroom door handle.
Sage slapped his hand from the door knob. “Don’t you walk away from me! Why didn’t you tell me that you might have a daughter, Wyatt?”
“Because I don’t!” Wyatt whined. “Look, even if it was Sandy in that closet – which it wasn’t – we only did it one time—“
Sage’s pointed look alone could’ve slain a vampire. “I’ll get my diagrams. We clearly need another in-depth talk about the birds and the bees.”
“Oh, Mother Earth, no. We really don’t.”
Sage took a deep, mellowing breath and rubbed her temples. “If April really is a witch, if we can prove it, that might be her only chance,” she said thoughtfully.
“A chance?” Broof asked, jumping on his sliver of hope. “So, what? It’s possible to cure her, but it’s just not allowed for humans?”
“I never said that.”
“We can save her?” Wyatt asked. “It’s possible?”
“You’ve changed your tune.”
“Mum, come on. I don’t think she’s mine, but I don’t think she deserves to be staked. To be honest; I don’t think either of them do,” he said. “Not when there’s a cure.”
Sage sighed. “The coven stopped working on a cure a long, long time ago. It could take decades to create one. It may not even be possible to cure them, especially not with a bound pair.”
“We should still try!” Broof cried. “We can find her, catch her, bring her here.”
“You will do precisely nothing!” Sage ordered. “If the other witches find out there are more vampires, that you two knew about them, that they’ve been allowed to multiply,” she shuddered. “If they found out we were harbouring vampires after what they’ve done to our kind throughout the centuries… I may as well build us a pyre now.”
“They won’t find out,” Broof assured her. “We’ll make sure of it.”
“The answer is ‘no’.”
Sage looked between the two younger witches and shook her head, firmly.
“Even if you found her and somehow managed to get her here, whatever will we feed them? You do know what they survive on, yes? And we’ll need to feed both of them, a lot, daily.”
“They can feed off me,” Broof said.
“And me,” Wyatt agreed. “There’s a potion, isn’t there? That speeds up how fast red blood cells regenerate? I’ll learn it. I’ll make as much as we need.”
“Oh please. You faint when having your vaccinations; how will you handle a vampire bite?” Sage laughed. “Plus, the erythrocyte elixir takes a full lunar cycle, Wyatt. It is a notoriously challenging potion.”
“If I can make LSD, I can make eurythmic elixir,” Wyatt said confidently.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Sage murmured. “Are you two even thinking? What if Thor and April are just the tip of the iceberg, hey? What if there are thousands of vampires? Are you going to bring them all here?” Sage argued. “There cannot be one rule for one, and one rule for another.”
“Of course there can be,” Wyatt said. “I’ve got different rules to everyone else.”
“Yes, because you’re special,” Sage said.
“So is April,” Broof replied, with determination. “You don’t have to help us, Sage. But if there’s a way to help these creatures, we should and I will.”
“Yeah, I’m with you, Hoggy,” Wyatt nodded. “Have you even read the Rede, Mum? An it harm none, do as thou wilt. ”
“Please,” Broof murmured. “Help us save April. Guide us.”
You’ve missed one.
I’ve bought you some time.
“Do you still take your tea with fourteen spoons of sugar, Broof?” Sage sang towards him as the pot finished brewing with a precise ping!
“No, I’m down to six now. Thank you,” Broof said, lifting the mug he was offered, before Sage could place it on the coaster-less countertop, and taking a small sip. He was gradually getting used to his tea tasting like tea. He couldn’t say he enjoyed it much, though.
Sage had taken the seat beside him and began a light-hearted conversation about the weather. Broof had known Sage all of his life, but the two rarely sat down – alone – to talk.
Sage had been good friends with Broof’s grandmother and had often visited the Glimmerbrook house, bringing along Wyatt. But ever since Ma had passed on and Wyatt had become capable of making his own way to Glimmerbrook, Broof’s contact with Sage had dwindled. They were both now in that awkward place; where each knew more about the other than they should, thanks to their remaining mutual contact, and neither knew what to ask.
“The senior members of the coven have agreed to let Wyatt begin casting,” Sage said cheerfully, choosing the common ground. “I haven’t told him yet. That will be fun, won’t it?”
“Yes,” Broof agreed, fiddling with his fringe.
“None of us believe Wyatt’s grown up enough to be given free rein just yet, but he’s such a bright boy that he’s somehow figuring it out all on his own, isn’t he?” she gushed.
“Yes,” Broof agreed again.
“Oh! It will be wonderful to finally teach him how to do something with his energy, other than simply discharge it all, won’t it?” Sage beamed. “Because that’s definitely all he knows how to do right now, isn’t it? He’s cast a few times accidentally while discharging, but he’s definitely never done any spells deliberately, has he?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Broof murmured.
“Nor mine,” Sage winked and silence, heavy with the weight of mutual deceit, fell on them both like an itchy blanket.
Wyatt had said that he’d be home in thirty minutes and that was over an hour ago. Typical. Broof took a quick glance at his phone, but still no word. He finished his tea and made his way to the sink to immediately wash up his empty mug, hearing Sage chuckle behind him.
“Darling, you can use your magic here, you know!”
Broof smiled to himself, enjoying the hot, sudsy water on his hands; it was so much more satisfying than a quick spell, not that he trusted himself to cast with any accuracy.
He’d fobbed off an invitation to Becky’s last night so he could practice his Craft. Five hours of solid effort later and he still couldn’t conjure himself a palatable dinner, but he’d finally got candle lighting down.
He wondered if the High Priestess would agree to let him mentor Wyatt. Their training sessions would both allow Broof to gradually regain his own skills and also make him appear to be an excellent teacher, because Wyatt already knew much more than the basics anyway.
All thanks to Ma, who had been a staunch believer that witches of Wyatt’s calibre should be let loose sooner rather than later, despite all the risks and history to the contrary.
Broof couldn’t say that he agreed with his grandmother.
Broof was idly re-washing everything on the drainer when behind him there was a clatter and he heard Sage gasp. At first, he thought that Sage had fallen while dismounting her barstool and he panicked, almost relieved when he heard a desperate, male voice groan, “Mum, I’m so sorry. Yell at me later, yeah?”
The scene was almost comical; Wyatt half carrying, half dragging a young fellow into his kitchen whilst looking like he was regretting every choice he’d ever made in life.
Sage rushed over to help, but as she did, the unconscious man’s head lolled back and Broof got a good look at his face.
He knew that face. Why did he— Mother Earth. That was him! The vampire who visited the mansion, draped over his buddy, his neck inches from the monster’s face.
Broof started towards the pair, opened his mouth to shout a warning and stopped dead in his tracks, his hands flying to his face with a slap.
He tried to cry out but all he succeeded in doing was emitting a forceful, muffled noise that sounded like ‘grandpa’.
What was this? Some kind of vampiric mind control? Could they do that even when they were out of it?
“What happened?” Sage asked, still surveying the scene before her with shock.
“I took him to that party I went to last night. I know, I’ve screwed up, but can you help him? Should I call an ambulance?”
Sage stepped closer to the pair, examining the unconscious man carefully.
“I can help him. Put him in my room; yours is a health hazard,” she muttered angrily.
She waved her hand and Broof watched as the darkly-dressed guy floated gently from Wyatt’s relieved shoulder, hanging gracefully in the air as if suspended from a wire. Wyatt beckoned him towards Sage’s bedroom and he dutifully followed.
Sage remained in the same spot until Wyatt exited her bedroom and sheepishly made his way to his own without a word.
The whole atmosphere in the room changed as Sage and Broof were alone once more. The older witch turned slowly, walking back over to Broof who was still unable to tear his hands from his face. Thank goodness. She’d see he was struggling; she’d do something to help.
As she got closer, from the corner of his eye he could see her giving him what looked like a cold stare but… that couldn’t be right.
“Spill,” she ordered.
Ralf hadn’t gone to the café, he had come straight home and had been pacing the floorboards, trying to think.
The second he had mentioned the word ‘vampires’ Wilbur had faltered. Ralf had thought that was a reaction to the absurd, but now he doubted himself.
He doubted everything.
There was surely a logical explanation for all of this; the footage must have been tampered with. It was a hoax. The man in the sketchbook, who was identified as the same man who was supposed to be in that footage, could not also be the same man who was seen where Chase’s body was found.
Jessica could not be right.
It couldn’t be linked.
It couldn’t be—
Ralf clenched his fists. He was getting paranoid through lack of sleep, likely. It was probably only Mr. Greer from next door, complaining that Ralf’s car was parked too close to his, again. Maybe it was his sister or his niece stopping by with pecan pie and more memories of Chase to share.
But maybe it was Wilbur flanked by a white apron and a heavy tranquiliser.
He couldn’t know Ralf was having doubts – could he?
Again, Ralf considered running out of the back door, driving as far as he could and never looking back. But he knew that he only had one option where Wilbur was concerned.
He swallowed back the lump in his throat and headed to the door, expecting the neat shock of white hair, the sharp suit and shark eyes.
Not the mumsy, casual woman who was waiting.
Unlike Wilbur, Beth did offer a greeting; a warm smile. But like Wilbur, she too stepped into the hallway without invitation. She scanned her surroundings and then tutted.
“Skiving off, Widdlefinkle?”
“I was just fetching my—”
“Save it,” Beth said, her voice was warm and full of understanding despite her language, “You’ve lost your nephew and your team and now that inflated scrotum is forcing you to work, to save face, and with me of all people? I’d have told him to go screw himself in the craphole too, if I were you.”
Ralf nodded curtly, unsure how to respond.
“I understand your silence; I’m too close to the fire,” Beth whispered. She smiled, returning to her usual volume. “Let me tell you, Widdlefinkle; I disagree with the Wankshats on a lot of things and I’m certainly not about to force you back to work when you’re grieving. You know, Will has been missing for a week now? The bugger is probably dead in a ditch, or he actually has left me for that teen bimbo and I’m expected to carry on like nothing has happened, too. I mean, I barely ever saw the arse and it is definitely not an epic love story of a marriage, but I am still his wife, you know?”
Ralf remained silent as Beth looked around the room. “Nice place you’ve got here; he clearly pays you well.” She gave him a knowing look and followed it up with a playful smile. “Got any good liquor? Because I don’t know about you, but I really resent being made to work Saturdays. Saggy Balls can lump it; you need a friend and I need a rant.”
At Sage’s order, Broof’s muscles relaxed so quickly that he almost fell backwards into the freshly-cleaned sink. He steadied himself, frantically trying to get his words out.
“The guy with Wyatt! I think he’s a vampire!” he blurted, trying not to be too loud.
Sage looked down at him as he danced around in panic, and sighed.
“Yes, he is,” she confirmed. “I see your research has been fruitful.”
“I know it sounds loopy but — what? You know? And you let him… he’s been hanging out with Wy? He’s in your bedroom!”
“Darling,” Sage cooed, trying to calm him. “Relax. I’ve been hunting vampires since the 1700s and I know exactly how to handle them. This one calls himself Thor; isn’t that cute?” she laughed in her sugary fashion. “He’s actually my newest employee and quite the salesman, would you believe that?”
Broof took a moment to consider Sage’s words, her playful tone and her smiling face. “Is he? So this one’s not dangerous?”
“They’re all dangerous,” she corrected brightly.
Broof thought for a moment. Sage knew this guy was a vampire, had hired him and he was in her home, despite being a danger. Did he dare to believe that this meant there was hope? That destroying them wasn’t the only option?
How could he word this without confessing everything?
“What will you do with him?” Broof asked carefully.
Sage’s face hardened, her mouth set into a firm line. She scrutinised Broof as if deciding whether he was ready to hear her words. Broof had always known that Sage had been an active participant in the culling of vampires across the centuries, but he had never really been able to link this chirpy lady with that kind of violence.
For the first time Broof could really see a formidable hunter beneath the saccharine façade and it chilled him to the bone.
“I will slay him. I would have done it instantly, however,” she paused, staring straight into his soul. “How much have you learned about vampires, Broof?” she asked. “Have you read about the binding ritual?” Broof shook his head. “It’s the way the hierarchy vampires took a spouse, turning their conquest post-mortem. It takes the meaning of Master to a whole new level; robbing the victim of both their life and their autonomy,” she explained. “Are you following so far?”
Broof was horrified, wondering why she was telling him this. He nodded to convey his understanding.
“Our guest here has what they refer to as a bind,” Sage said quietly. “I need to find them before I slay him. To be successful, the pair need to be taken out simultaneously.”
“My guess is that he’s one of the old society vampires; they liked kidnapping young women, the absolute savages. Took them as food or brides.”
“You can’t kill her!” Broof cried out.
“Her? It’s not like you to assume such, Broof,” Sage cocked her head to her shoulder. “But even if I overlook your pronouns, I can’t slay them? And why ever would that be?”
Broof had backed himself into a corner and he knew it.
“His… bind,” he mumbled. “I think it’s April. I recognise this guy; he came to the mansion, calling himself ‘Caleb Vatore’ shortly before April disappeared. And before she disappeared she was… turning into one.”
He winced, expecting at least a dressing down for lying to her.
“I see,” Sage said. Her voice had lost its honeyed sweetness and its sparkle, but lacked the anger or element of surprise Broof had been expecting, and he realised; Sage already knew this. Her words were sincere and gentle. “It will be swift and painless for her, darling. She won’t suffer.”
Broof physically shook, his heart sinking with regret as he fought back tears. “Is there no other option?” he wheezed, surprised he even made any noise at all.
“Can’t we cure her?” he pleaded. “I read about a fruit?”
“It’s a fairy tale. No vampire really wants to be cured, Broof.”
“But all the things we can do, that the coven can do, the wonder we can weave; please, there must be something,” he sobbed, the desperation growing in his voice. “Can I bring her here? Can we sustain them? Can we try?”
“Broof, she is not the girl you knew.”
Sage’s tone was kitten-soft as she gently stroked Broof’s hand, “I know you became attached to April while you were in her service, but that girl no longer exists. And, my love, hear me. I understand with my whole heart what it’s like to lose a child; how you’ll cling to anything familiar—“
“Then understand!” Broof cried. “Sage, we can’t just stand by and let this happen to someone else.”
“With respect, who else is there?” Sage asked softly. “Sandy is gone and Travis is never going to walk free from that crime.”
Broof was shaking. He had one last card in his hand and he placed it carefully on the invisible table between them, wholly unsure of the reaction it would receive. “Wyatt,” he said. “Travis is not April’s father, Sage. Wyatt is.”
There was no electricity in this house so once the battery died, it was over. Melinda had been calling Chuck from Lilith’s phone on and off for most of the night, redialling after every drop, hampered as she was by the poor signal.
Lilith had busied herself, while she awaited Caleb’s return, by seeing to the prisoner. She had tried to wind the clock back on Danny’s memory, but couldn’t get further than a few hours. Fatigued, she’d accepted that she’d have to release the boy into the wild when they fled and hope that his memory was patchy enough to not incriminate her.
She wandered the house looking for April, trying to avoid the plethora of items that reminded her of wasted efforts and empty promises, and found the girl in Caleb’s room, staring out absently over the lake.
Lilith was quite accustomed to being unable to hear the stream of thoughts from her fellow vampires, but April unsettled her.
There had been a time when Lilith had been able to hear both Caleb’s perceptual thinking and Seth’s over-analytical musings, so she knew how their minds worked even if she could no longer read them. There was not a note to be heard from the girl since the completion of the binding and, with hindsight, Lilith had to wonder exactly how much of what she had been able to hear prior to that was actually April.
The spoiled, rich, manipulative brat that had she believed April to be was not who was now standing before her.
Gone was the stubborn, stroppy, selfish girl. This April was softly-spoken, suggestible and irritatingly sprightly. It had Lilith wondering, not for the first time, exactly how much Caleb had actually changed in these recent weeks and how deep those changes were.
She knew how binding worked; she always likened it to being one entity with two shells. Unforced, the bound pair would settle to be almost identical; undefined, impossible to determine where one ended and the other began.
But of course, most of the society vampires with their egocentrism and devotion to the cause did not take a bind, and all her drawbacks, for company or in the pursuit of a tepid middle ground.
Lilith’s own parents were a perfect example. Her mother, Charlotte, had once been a feisty human; a swindler with a temper as sharp as her wit. A million miles from how Lilith remembered her, as the helpless husk, robbed her her spirit and forced into a life of servitude by her own husband.
Silas, who had been heavily ridiculed and dubbed the ‘mortal-loving milksop’ before his binding, became a force to be reckoned with following his treatment of Charlotte.
Remembering this always made Lilith feel five degrees colder, never more so than now. If April was presenting this level of softness and the likes of empathy and introspection, which were not traits Caleb had ever organically had, but ones he had always claimed he’d wanted, he was clearly not taking the ‘neutral’ option.
Where was he? And, worse, what the hell was he doing to tip the scale?
“The sun is up,” April said quietly, stirring Lilith from her thoughts. “Maybe he’s not coming back.”
Lilith could not acknowledge this possibility. She took a seat on the bed and waved April over. The girl took one long final glance out of the window before joining her.
“How are you feeling?” Lilith asked, more as a gauge than a genuine concern. “How is the sickness?”
“Better,” April mumbled, fumbling with her skirt, something she clearly did often judging by the state of the stitching and the looseness of the button she was toying with. “I feel much less nausea today, but my head sure hurts a lot.” She gently chewed her lip and looked at the floor, before glancing back up to Lilith, shyly. “If he’s dead,” she whispered, “will that undo his commands?”
Lilith had been waiting until Caleb’s return before she started explaining the full horror and the intricacies of the vampire ‘marriage’ the pair had unwittingly found themselves in. She still hadn’t ruled out removing her brother’s head in order to rectify the situation, so April’s question floored her.
She blinked, keeping her icy composure. “Commands?”
“Yes,” April confirmed. “He makes me do things I don’t want to and I can’t say no. Melinda said that he told her that he’d turned me the wrong way and he now controls me. Does he?”
Lilith could have lied and given the blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl some sweetened hope to keep her optimistic and fighting, but it suddenly struck her; reassurance wasn’t what April was asking for. Her question, asked with a overly casual, ‘hey-ho’ air, told Lilith more than any unconscious stream of April’s thought could.
This girl was used to mistreatment; so accustomed to being supressed and side-lined that confirmation it was happening again would be a non-event; an additional pin through her already tattered butterfly wings.
Lilith understood that. She had lived that.
“Yes, he does control you,” Lilith said, watching carefully as April nodded, her reaction as expected; nothing. “What sort of commands has he given you, April?”
Lilith hoped for something tangible, something they could test to check if Caleb was still kicking. But as it was her brother they were discussing, and he was evidently slipping back to how he used to be, Lilith had an inkling what kind of demands April had received.
“He told me that I wasn’t allowed to kiss anyone else. He tells me to be quiet and to come upstairs,” April answered, finally fiddling her skirt button free of its weathered thread. “Oh dear, now I have to learn to sew.”
“Do you want to kiss anyone else?” Lilith asked, pondering the implications of testing this command.
April pouted and turned away; her voice so quiet that a human wouldn’t have heard her, “Sometimes I want to kiss Melinda. I know I shouldn’t.”
Lilith thought for a moment before she carefully asked, “Do you ever want to kiss Caleb?”
“Sometimes,” came the hushed response, her final word barely there, “Less.”
“I see,” Lilith uttered. “April, do you simply want to kiss everyone? Do you want to kiss me?”
“Goodness, no!” April squirmed and Lilith nodded, relieved that she didn’t have to test that particular command.
Clearly Caleb had only given April petty, self-serving instruction and there was nothing to test his hold on the girl. Lilith was about to give up when April cleared her throat. “He gave me one big, scary command, Lilith; he told me I wasn’t to leave this house without him.”
It was an awful thing to prevent her doing and yet, knowing her brother had housebound his bind brightened Lilith like a bulb. This was testable.
“Can you disobey?” she asked. “If I asked you to, say, go out to the well, right now – could you? Can you try?”
April tilted her head, perplexed, but quickly cottoned on to what Lilith was suggesting. She rose to her feet but that was as far as she got before being drawn back to the bed like a magnet. “No, I can’t.”
“Why not?” Lilith challenged. “You’re nowhere near the front door. Walk to the front door.”
“I can’t!” April whispered excitedly. She turned to Lilith, beaming. “He’s not dead!”
“No,” Lilith replied. “Appears he’s not.”
April sat back on the bed, clearly deep in thought. “Lilith,” she began. “What happens if he’s alive, but he just doesn’t come back? Will I be stuck in this house forever?”
It was a good question and Lilith did not know the answer. To her knowledge, a sire had never, willingly, left his bind permanently. Not while he had a head, anyway. Whether they saw them as a genuine partner, an investment or purely a dumping ground, the sire was always compelled to return, eventually.
“He will come back,” Lilith assured her. “He’s probably on his way right now.”
“How are you doing?” Wyatt asked.
His buddy responded with a groan and Wyatt nodded. “Yeah. Me too. For someone so young, you really know how to party,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone drink Roxie under the table before; she could barely say goodbye. Where did you learn to neck booze like that?”
Thor shrugged but offered no further response. It seemed that they were back to the one-sided conversation scenario. Wyatt tried again, hoping that the gleeful, interesting side of Thor was not simply a result of the intoxicants. “Wanna come back to mine? It’s only a few streets away. We can chill in my room, play some games. I can whip up something to sort that head out, too.”
“I’d better get back home,” Thor muttered. “Another time, maybe.”
“Where is home?” Wyatt asked, eking out the conversation. “Do you, like, live with your folks? Hey, did you let them know where you were?”
Thor smiled and shook his head. “I live with my wife and her friends. But we’ll have our own place soon.”
“Wha?” Wyatt breathed. “You actually have a wife? I thought that was the tea talking.”
“No, she’s real,” Thor said. “I’m not so sure that the elk was, though.”
Wyatt was a laid-back guy, but the casual way Thor was talking about his life partner, paired with his actions the previous night, rubbed Wyatt the wrong way. “Do you guys have, like, an open relationship or something? You both see other people?” he asked, hoping this was the case.
“No,” Thor replied.
“So… you’ve just outright cheated on your wife with Roxie?” Wyatt asked, still hoping he was misunderstanding something. If Thor would have just looked horrified or guilty, started justifying himself or shown any emotion akin to remorse for Wyatt to hitch his compassion on, his blood might not have been boiling.
“Cold,” Wyatt muttered after a lengthy silence. “Why do I get the feeling it’s not the first time you’ve done that to her?”
Wyatt clenched his fist, feeling the excessive heat in his palm as his emotions started to get the better of him. “Dude, what is that face?” he asked, through gritted teeth. “Are you bragging? Because if you are, I’m so not impressed. If you wanna sleep around, whatever, but don’t do it while you’re in a relationship. That’s such a crappy thing to do, dude. Seriously crappy.”
For a moment, Wyatt thought his words had resonated. Thor ran his hand through hair and looked pained. “You don’t understand,” he muttered. Was he slurring? “She and I… we…”
“You and her… what?” Wyatt asked, his patience wearing thin as Thor fell silent again, remaining upright for a single heartbeat before his knees gave way beneath him.
“Thor!” Wyatt called, alarm overtaking anger as the younger guy’s legs slid akimbo. Wyatt somehow managing to wedge himself under Thor’s dead weight in time to prevent his face hitting the road. “Dude! Can you hear me?”
Woah, this guy must be all muscle; his body felt taut and firm like a rock and he weighed a ton. Wyatt tried not to focus on the sudden desire he had to rip Thor’s shirt off and instead planned what the heck he was going do now.
Ralf was rarely at work before nine, especially on a Saturday, but last night, once again, sleep evaded him. He’d driven to the station as the sun rose, determined to find something to occupy his mind. He had a coffee and settled down to check his inbox, noting that the Glimmerbrook Grand CCTV was still pending.
He still didn’t think staring at a night’s worth of footage of a hotel reception was going to yield anything, but it would be one thing off his list. He hit play.
He’d seen this part previously, the receptionist perched on the reception desk, talking to the air. She was obviously just some lunatic trying to garner attention. After five minutes of conversation and, bizarrely, flirting with herself, she headed up the stairs and disappeared into the honeymoon suite.
Ralf let the video roll, each of the four reception cameras showing in turn providing a full view of the empty foyer. He yawned at glanced at his television.
He was itching to put it on and watch something other than grainy footage. With all the drama of the last few days, he’d forgotten just how boring policing in this town usually was. Maybe if he skipped on through a few minutes he might see the receptionist come back and wander into the bar to complete her fictional attack scenario, then he could write this off as the flight of fantasy it clearly was.
He hit fast-forward, watching the same empty reception from all four angles, but faster as the minutes whizzed by.
Nothing. What a waste of…
Ralf blinked and rubbed his eyes but there was no denying what he was seeing. The receptionist, who appeared to be floppy and unconscious, was floating down the stairs as if being carried by an invisible man.
He paused, rewound, zoomed in, repeated until his brain had no option left but to acknowledge what he was seeing.
“What you watching, Widdlefinkle?” Beth asked, causing Ralf to nigh on jump out of his skin.
The brazen woman stood before him, in his personal office, uninvited and dressed far too casually to be taken seriously as an officer of the law, holding a cup of his coffee. He hadn’t heard her enter, let alone register her pour herself a drink.
How long had she been standing there?
“Are you OK?” Beth asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Had Jessica’s bizarre hunch been correct? Ralf glanced at the screen then back at Beth’s suspicious face. He hastily forwarded the email to his personal account and deleted the original before shutting down his computer. She was his deputy; he should be able to share this footage with her without hesitation. They would review, discuss and investigate. In a perfect world.
This was not a perfect world. Ralf had been in this game long enough to know a non-pursuable case when he saw it. Either he was going insane and was therefore becoming a liability himself, or this genuinely was something fishy and he’d be ordered to cover it up as the Wangshafts made it disappear. All while Jessica rotted in the Tower; her mind warped and her reputation ruined when she might actually be right.
He trusted Beth Wangshaft about as far as he could throw her. Ralf knew that everything he said to Beth would be fed back to Wilbur and therefore he should handle her exactly as he handled him.
With a five foot pole.
“I’m going to get a sausage butty from the café. Would you like anything?”
Beth’s left eyebrow twitched but otherwise her face remained in that stoic stillness Wilbur lauded her for. “No thanks, I’ve eaten.”
“Okie dokie,” Ralf replied, a term he’d never used in a voice that didn’t sound like his own. He began to whistle, something he never did, and he walked out of the door in what he hoped was a casual manner.
Lilith found a certain joy in conducting job interviews. She’d had three bright-eyed hopefuls in the hot seat so far today, being grilled all round until they were blabbering incoherently and weeping. Some might call her interrogation methods harsh, but she needed a specific kind of person to be entrusted with her personal paperwork.
Someone who would not snap under her heavy pressure.
“Marshall Law,” Lilith called to the waiting room.
“Sup doc?” came the response. Lilith gently bit her tongue, eyeing this man with disdain. Who in hell would rock up for a job interview wearing pool shoes?
Usually, being able to see a candidate’s toes would be enough to send them straight out the door, let alone his overtly casual greeting to his potential future employer.
However, his mind was quiet, he was remarkably calm and he was wonderfully well-proportioned, a fact not missed by Gertrude and Penelope who were both watching with interest.
“Right this way, Marshall.”
It’s for your mother’s own good, Jessica.
Ralf sighed as Wilbur hung up abruptly from their one-sided phone call. Ralf’s new deputy would be arriving imminently and Wangshaft expected the transition to be as seamless and discreet as possible. Ever paranoid, Wilbur would not disclose who it was on the phone, but it was someone who had ‘years of experience’ and could be ‘trusted implicitly’.
Translation; someone else completely corrupt.
Ralf dared to turn his phone to silent now that it was unlikely that Wilbur would call again; he couldn’t handle the constant trill of messages from his sister and concerned friends. How he longed to grab his jacket and walk out, leaving behind the WBPD, the Wangshafts and the shitstorm he and his unwilling nephew had slowly been caught up in.
As if that could ever happen.
Everyone is disposable.
Was that Wilbur hinting at Chase? Had Chase found out what Wilbur was hiding in his precious tower?
Shit. Ralf had no idea what secrets that building held, but he knew one thing for certain; it’s worth killing over.
Ralf gulped. He turned his attentions to the open case file before him; the hotel manager assault. The hotel had finally gotten round to sending him the CCTV he’d requested, but he wasn’t sure if staring at hours of footage from the reception of the Glimmerbrook Grand would provide enough distraction from the heavy sense of hopelessness.
Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never.
He heard the main station door open and the soft pad of feet across the carpet tiles towards his office and waited with bated breath to see who exactly Wilbur deemed suitable to fill Chase’s shoes.
Oh no, no, no.
Wilbur’s daughter-in-law herself. Long-suffering wife. New mum. Tornado in trainers.
“I can see you’re about as happy as I am to have to work together in this craphole, under Saggy Balls’s thumb, Widdlefinkle,” Beth scoffed. “Just don’t expect me to be your skivvy and we might both survive this thing.”
“So then, Marshall. I’ve been looking over your resume—“
“My what now?” Marshall asked as Lilith held up a piece of paper. “Oh! Is that what it’s called?”
Lilith blinked a few times as she fought to contain her irritation, but continued smoothly, “It says you have eight years experience working in administration for a swimwear company. Tell me about that.”
“Yeah, so basically I was, like, admin for eight years for a swimwear company.”
“Can you elaborate?”
“Can I what?”
Lilith sighed. “What sort of administration did the job involve?”
“Um,” Marshall looked around, his eyes landing on Lilith’s filing cabinet. “I filed stuff.”
“Filed stuff,” Lilith repeated. “This role calls for a little more than filing stuff. What other duties did you have? Expenses? Ordering? Payroll?”
“I dunno what any of that is, but Penny reckons I can do it, so how hard can it be?” Marshall smiled. “To be honest with you, I just did modelling in that job, but that’s probably obvious, right?”
“Modelling,” Lilith repeated. “Right well I think I’ve heard enough. Thank you for your time, Mr. Law. Let me see you—“
“Duh, of course,” Marshall responded, starting to unbutton his shirt from the bottom. “Do you want everything off or just the top half?”
Lilith had seen an awful lot in her three hundred and twenty-one years and was rarely rendered speechless, but watching Marshall’s midriff suddenly appearing before her certainly almost did that. “What in hell’s name do you think you’re doing?!” she managed.
Marshall paused, his shirt half undone. “Showing you the goods. I was gonna come here just in board shorts, but Penny said I should probably wear, like, clothes.”
“Why – what?” Lilith spluttered.
“Like, I don’t wanna insult your interference, but I saw the previous guy you got in here and, well, you don’t wanna be hiring any mingers, you get me? Bad advertising.” Marshall shrugged. “And you did just say ‘let me see you’.”
“Out, you moron! Let me see you out! Get out of my sight before I- can I help you?!”
“Nah, I can fasten my own shirt,” Marshall replied but Lilith did not respond. She was glaring at the space behind him where three humans had appeared, uninvited, in her office.
The three serious-looking, darkly-dressed figures were an amplified void against the bright pistachio walls. The woman at the front stepped forward, shadowed by the surly suits she was flanked by. When she spoke there was no question in her voice and no emotion. “Marshall Leonardo Law. Come with us.”
“Damn, Doc. I was already gonna leave, you didn’t need to get your bodyguards in.”
Lilith ignored Marshall, focusing instead on the woman who had commanded him. “I demand an explanation, Ms…”
“Dudley, Sigrid. SBI,” the woman said, flashing a badge that caused Lilith’s words to dry up in her throat. “Mr. Law, we wish to speak to you about the disappearance of one Chase Crooks.”
“Yeah, he’s been missing for days,” Marshall replied. “But I don’t know nothing.”
So you do know something, Lilith heard Sigrid think. Instead she simply repeated again. “Come with us.”
Marshall got to his feet without argument – a level of compliance that would have certainly worked in his favour for getting this job, had he had half a brain – and was escorted from the room.
As the door opened, Lilith realised that Penelope was not at her usual station, the pieces fitting together swiftly in her keen mind.
Chase Crooks? He was Penelope’s ex-boyfriend, I’m sure – she whined about him enough – and didn’t Marshall mention that ‘Penny’ told him to wear clothes? Add in that, according to Sigrid’s current thoughts, Chase had apparently been… drained of blood and thrown in the river?
“Why have you taken Penelope?” Lilith asked trying to remain calm. “You can’t just burst in here and arrest my staff without consulting me.”
“I think you’ll find that I can, Dr. Vatore,” Sigrid sneered. “But who said anything about arrest?”
Lilith faltered. “I simply assumed.”
“Once a con, always a con?” Sigrid replied coolly. “I must say that it’s admirable of you to offer Ms. Spender an opportunity. I’m sure she is very grateful for your employment; that it perhaps offered… opportunities.”
“She’s efficient. Trustworthy,” Lilith lied, unsure why she was defending the girl when it might be implicating herself.
“And easy to keep quiet, I do imagine.” Sigrid nodded at Lilith’s silence and headed towards the door. “That is all for now, Dr. Vatore. I’ll see myself out.”
Lilith stood alone in the office, reeling. Drained of blood and thrown in the river.
Seth? No, that was not his style. Possibly Caleb; although he wouldn’t ever choose to feed from a man, not after Nathaniel. Had it been one of the three girls? A combination of the three?
Someone else entirely?
Having the SBI involved in an investigation for her receptionist’s ex-boyfriend seemed like overkill. Those guys usually dealt with very high-profile crime, terrorism, security threats. So this meant that either Chase had been someone secretly significant or there was more to it. Either way, Lilith probably wasn’t getting Penelope back any time soon and it was likely only a matter time before Sigrid would be back to talk to her or to search her surgery.
She’d only managed three years this time. Three bloody years and here she was, once again, needing to start over.
Maybe it was time to just give up.
Lilith didn’t get any deeper into that depressing thought; it was drowned out by the sound of screaming.
“What the heck was that?” Gertrude gasped. “I didn’t know that the Watcher made people that ugly! She needs the works, starting with that nose! Oh my goodness!”
Lilith tried to laugh over the searing rage. “Indeed. So, how are feeling, Ms. Bapflap? It’s normal to feel a little light-headed after the blood-letting procedure, but I must be closing up now.” She thought for a second, best not to arouse suspicion. “Shall I pencil you in for another appointment?”
“I’m fine, but,” Gertrude shook her head. “I didn’t expect Penelope to be dragged away by men in suits!” She motioned towards the scene outside where Penelope was being wrestled into a waiting car as onlookers filmed on their mobile phones. “I demand discretion, Lilith.” Gertrude explained, “I don’t want the world knowing that I have surgery! How am I supposed to leave here now? I can’t just stroll out of the door in front of those cameras!”
I’ll throw you through the window, if you wish, Lilith thought. “I can offer you an empty cardboard box to wear over your head?”
Gertrude tutted. “You know, Lilith, your work is top-notch but your people skills are sorely lacking. I think I might be better at Caliente’s after all.”
The door slammed behind the over-inflated bimbo leaving Lilith alone in the room with only the ringing phone and her simmering anger for company.
She was seriously considering smashing the place to smithereens, devouring all the bags of O-neg and rampaging down the street, but was distracted by a beep from her pocket that completely dissolved her ire and replaced it with a buzzing, nervous energy.
It was a message, from Chuck.
Please tell me vegetarians eat fish.
Melinda was in the kitchen preparing soup when Seth left, looking a lot happier than he had the previous morning, Melinda noticed. Almost smug.
He nodded at her again as he passed, although this time he wasn’t so keenly followed by Faith, who appeared a few minutes after he’d gone.
“Everything OK?” Melinda asked as Faith seated herself at the card table. Her frown quickly gave way to her over-confident smile.
“Yeah, just fucking knackered.” She smirked and winked. “Holy shit, Mel. That man is so damn into me, couldn’t keep his hands off me, again.”
Melinda sighed. She was very used to Faith’s brazen talk, but this was far too full-on for first thing in the morning and on an empty stomach, too.
“So I could hear,” Melinda muttered, cringing as she remembered trying to find a place in the house where she couldn’t hear bed springs and Faith’s potty-mouthed bedroom talk. She busied herself with preparing Danny’s breakfast, hoping that Faith would just stop talking but, in a way that reeked of over-compensation, Faith went on.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” she said dismissively. “He wants to see me again tonight, but this time we’ll go fuck outside, give your ears a rest. Is Caleb done yet? I really need a shower. I probably should wash the bedsheets, too…”
April and Caleb had arrived shortly before dawn and Caleb had gone straight up to take one of his hour-long showers and get ready for his job interviews. For the second night in a row, they hadn’t found anyone suitable for the basement and for the second night in a row, it appeared that the two had been arguing; Caleb was wound tightly and April looked miserable.
Although, April seemed to look miserable a lot lately. Melinda really hated to see April sad, but soon she wouldn’t have to see her sad face ever again.
April had gone to lie down in the little bedroom, still feeling sick and now dizzy, too. Faith was not Melinda’s first choice for basement back-up, but Danny really needed to eat soon and, Melinda hated to admit it, but she did too. But before Melinda could ask Faith to join her, she heard the shower stop running.
“About time,” Faith huffed, leaving the playing cards in an untidy pile and heading upstairs.
Melinda watched her go, looking at the soup bowl, her insides gnawing away. Could she eat tomato soup? It was warm, it was red…
She took a spoonful to her lips, but the ashy, acrid taste was all she got as it burned its way down her throat, then immediately burned its way back up again and into the sink with the force of a bullet from a gun.
No, guess not.
Maybe she should just go down to the basement by herself. If Danny was awake she’d just have to immobilise him somehow. Could she bring herself to restrain him and drink from him? Could she even do that by herself? Was she strong enough? She sighed. For the first time ever she was wishing that she was a bit meaner when, thankfully, April appeared.
“Feeling better?” Melinda asked.
April nodded. “A little.” She looked at the hot bowl of soup on the counter. “Are you going to see Danny?”
“Yes,” Melinda said quietly. “It’s breakfast time. For both of us.”
“I should probably go with you, then. Mesmerise him for you,” April said. “Unless you want to feed off him while he’s awake, but I don’t know how Faith can do that. I think it’s really cruel of her. I don’t think I could bite someone without mesmerising them first.”
You bit me without mesmerising me, Melinda thought bitterly.
The two girls made their way down to the basement. The route had two doors that each locked with a combination handle, much like the front door. Caleb had explained that Lilith had designed it this way, for security.
The girls locked the first door behind them and they approached the second door that would lead them down into the main basement chamber; Melinda eagerly listening for any signs of movement.
“He’s by the bed,” April whispered. “We can sneak in now, I think.”
“How do you know he’s by the bed?”
April shrugged. “I just know.”
In any other circumstance, Melinda would have been in awe of this; another thing about April that was just amazing, but the cooling bowl in her hand, the knot of hunger in her stomach and memories of April looking at Caleb like the sun shone from his bum while he mistreated her and made her unwillingly carry his demon spawn were dampening her spirits somewhat.
April gently teased the door open and the two girls entered, as quietly as possible, rounding the corner to see Danny, who leapt out of his skin as he laid eyes on them.
Melinda had expected him to be terrified of them, maybe even aggressive towards them but the look on his face was pure surprise.
“Oh my god! I’m so relieved to see you! Are there any others trapped here? Why are we here? Is there a way out? I’ve been exploring every crevice, poked every brick, y’know? In case there’s a secret passageway or something, but there’s only that door that doesn’t have a handle and… wait, how did you get in? Is there another chamber? Have you been here long? Is that for me?”
He pointed to the bowl in Melinda’s hand; she could hear his stomach growl.
Melinda so wanted to explain to poor Danny. Ideally, she wanted to take his hand and run off up the stairs with him. But every plan she’d made in the distant rooms of the house evaporated in the proximity to the boy in the basement. She could see Danny’s lips moving, remember her plan, but all she could focus on in the dark, echoing room was the painfully loud thudding coming from his chest.
She swallowed back the lump in her throat, placing the bowl of soup on the floor and stepping back. “Yes, um… we…”
Was it her imagination or were her fangs suddenly sharper? She pressed her tongue against one, felt the brief pain as the cusp of the tooth pierced the flesh as easily as a hole punch does to paper. It felt like penance so she did it again. The blood that welled forth was thicker than she remembered, heavier almost, reminding her of that night in April’s bathroom.
Ah. And she thought she couldn’t feel any worse.
“Um… we’ve been trapped in here for days,” April interjected, giving Melinda a funny look. “We’ve been kidnapped.”
“We have?” Danny said, looking confused. “Why?”
“We don’t know,” April said. “All we know is that we were given this soup and told to bring it to you then to return to our chamber immediately and await further instructions.”
Melinda threw April a look that clearly said ‘he’s not going to buy that!’ but April didn’t even blink.
Danny rested his head on his shoulder, fixing April with a suspicious stare, before he picked up the cold soup and ate the lot within about a minute. He belched and looked over at the two girls, focusing on April in particular.
“I know you; you’re April Moss! And you must be her friend, um, something Bucket, right? Where’s the other girl? Woah, so the news was right, you have been kidnapped! Was it that Wangshaft guy everyone thinks it is? Is he the one holding us here?” Danny began pacing and the girls followed. The way he walked, the way he talked – it suddenly hit Melinda how young he was. “What does he want with us? I get what he’d want with you two, but me? I’m nobody.”
“I don’t know, Danny,” April replied.
“We need to get out of here. I’ve tried calling my mum but I can’t get any signal in here and my phone’s dead now. Maybe if we work together,” Danny whispered, looking around as if he expected the kidnapper to stroll in any second. “Where does the soup come from? Is it like a dumbwaiter kind of deal? Through a hatch in a door? Maybe we can ambush them, next time they bring you soup?”
“Maybe,” April said quietly. She lifted her arm, no doubt to unleash some green wriggles, but Melinda slapped it back down, shook her head.
“Wait,” Danny breathed, turning sharply on the spot. “How do you… I didn’t tell you my name. Did he tell you my name? Wangshaft?” Danny looked between the two girls, panic starting to take over. “Are you… are you two involved with the kidnapping plot? Are you holding me for ransom or something? Oh, shoot! Have you mistaken me for someone else? Look, my folks are just teachers, they’re hardly loaded! What do you want with me? What’s going on here? Why are you just staring at me and not saying anything? Help me find a way out!”
“There isn’t any way out, Danny,” April said.
“No. There has to be a way out. There has to be!” Danny cried. “I’m supposed to be starting college in the summer; supposed to be training to be a sports therapist not locked in some weirdo’s dungeon. There has to be a way out. I can’t be trapped here forever! I can’t! I—“
Danny stopped mid-sentence; his arms dropped to his sides and his breath lingered in the air.
“Just like that, huh?” Melinda whispered as April lowered her hands.
“Just like that,” April replied. “I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t handle him talking about being trapped.” She gently slipped her hands into his pockets in turn until she had located and removed his phone. “This prisoner thing is a super bad idea, isn’t it? Please don’t tell him I said this, but I…” she lowered her voice so much that Melinda struggled to hear her. “I… I think Caleb has lots of bad ideas.”
Melinda nodded, looking at poor Danny who was clearly no longer with it.
“I can’t do this,” Melinda said, even as she felt her form slipping. “I think he’s even younger than we are.”
“He is,” April confirmed. “But not by lots.”
“I… I guess we can’t let him leave now. He knows too much,” Melinda sighed.
April nodded and Melinda stepped towards Danny. She lifted his hand gently, looked at the tiny, neat, barely-there puncture holes in his wrist and hesitated.
“You have to drink, Mel,” April whispered softly. “Please. I can’t lose you.”
“I’d never forgive myself.“