After 9:00 every night, the Broken Broom Pub became the hippest place in the little town of Cauchemar, Louisiana.
During the day, the Broken Broom was a glorified cafe, serving food and drinks to people of all ages, just the same as any other restaurant in town. They even kept a high-chair around and offered chicken nuggets and quesadillas for picky, sticky-handed children. They served syrupy lattes to teenagers who wanted to feel sophisticated but didn’t actually like the taste of coffee.
But as soon as 9:00 hit, the proprietress, Ember McNair, turned out everyone under the age of twenty-one, and the Broken Broom magically transformed into Cauchemar’s one and only option for anything like nightlife.
Of course, this business model kept Ember busy with her pub night and day. Luckily, busy was how Ember liked it.
It’s busy enough tonight, all right, Ember thought as she made her way through the full tables, careful not to bump anyone with her hips. On nights like this, Ember wished she could afford to pay a bouncer.
She reached the bar and rapped at it to get the attention of Lyndsy, her bartender. Lyndsy looked up sharply from where she’d been chatting with one of the waitresses.
“Gin and tonic,” Ember said. “Table seven’s been waiting on it a while. They just grabbed me to send back a reminder.”
“Oh, shoot, sorry, I thought I sent that out,” Lyndsy said. She was usually on-the-ball, but tonight she looked distracted.
Ember turned to the waitress, Tara. She looked sour-faced, too.
“Everything all right?” Ember asked.
“It’s fine,” Lyndsy said, too quickly, already pouring out the shot of gin. “Nothing to worry about.”
Tara shot Lyndsy a sideways look and scoffed. “Yes, worry. Laura Hall and her hideous cronies are here.”
Ember watched Lyndsy, concerned. She knew Lyndsy had some bad history with those women. Lyndsy looked hyperfocused on not overfilling the tonic in the drink she was making, like she was worried she might spill. When Ember looked closer, she saw that Lyndsy’s hands were shaking.
Meanwhile, Tara kept talking. “I cannot serve them, you understand me? I refuse. You should have heard them just now. ‘We want the fanciest wine you’ve got. None of that swill you normally serve.’ Like, if you hate it so much, go someplace else?”
“All right,” Ember said. “Tara, you take that G&T over to seven. I’ll get Laura and the others.”
Ember didn’t mind throwing herself into the line of fire. She had a tough hide.
“What’s the best wine we’ve got tonight?” Ember asks Lyndsy. Being a good bartender, Lyndsy also acted as something of an unofficial sommelier for the Broken Broom.
Lyndsy didn’t answer, just plucked up a nearby bottle, uncorked it, and started pouring. Ember didn’t want to push her on it, so she grabbed a nearby tray and loaded the three glasses onto it before leaving the bar and going off to find Laura Hall and her crew.
Jake Peterson, still dressed in his slightly-crumpled suit from his long day of work, bumped against Ember as he fought his way toward the bar, nearly upending the glasses of wine. She had to whisper the quickest spell to keep them from tipping over and spilling.
“Watch where you’re going,” Jake growled, irritated.
Ember suppressed an eye-roll and moved on.
“Ember,” Laura practically shouted as Ember approached their table. “We were just talking about you!”
The other two women, Jayla Graham and Sheila Myers, giggled.
“I’ll bet you were,” Ember said, trying a pleasant smile.
“Great crowd tonight,” Laura continued as Ember set the three wine glasses in front of them. “Lots of men in here. Friends of yours, are they?”
Another giggle from the peanut gallery.
“You must have really pleased a lot of guys to be so very popular,” Laura continued, putting on a fake, saccharine smile. “Tell us, Em. How many of these men have you slept with this week?”
Ember couldn’t help but laugh. Laura was known for trying to start rumors. Had ruined more than a couple people’s lives and sanity that way. This wasn’t the first time she’d gone after Ember, either, but Ember had learned that the quickest way to disarm the rumor was simply to roll her eyes at it and walk away. It told whoever was listening in that she didn’t care one way or another what was said about her, and best of all it tended to get Laura flaming mad.
So that’s exactly what Ember did.
Luckily, Laura and the others only stuck around long enough to have a couple glasses.
“Glad to see the back of those witches,” Lyndsy said darkly.
Ember bit back her instinctive defensive response to the term. Lyndsy didn’t know that Ember was a witch, and they were both better off that way.
“Show me that bottle again that you served to them?”
Lyndsy handed it over. Ember turned it in her palm, investigating the label.
“Hmm, I haven’t seen this one before. Did it come in with the latest shipment?”
“Couldn’t tell ya,” Lyndsy said. “I mean, we could check the inventory report.”
Ember hesitated, considering, and then shrugged. “It’s too late now, but in the future, if you don’t recognize a label, let me know before we serve it. Prissy Laura Hall demands or no.”
Lyndsy nodded. “Sorry about that. I will.”
Later, after the bar had cleared out and Ember had sent Lyndsy and the waitresses home to clean up on her own, the door suddenly blew open as if of its own accord.
At first, it looked like it might have been the wind that caught it. But then a small, fluffy kitten came zipping through the open doorway and into the bar.
“Kali,” Ember said, grateful to see her familiar. “You should have waited at home. I’ll be finished soon.”
Then, she noticed that her familiar had an agitated energy in her step, and had begun to pace restlessly.
Something was wrong.
“What is it?”
Kali spoke in a purring voice, which was uncharacteristically urgent and on-edge. “Laura Hall’s car crashed into a tree on the way home from the Broken Broom tonight.”
Ember gasped. She hadn’t thought that Laura was that inebriated after just two glasses of wine. She wouldn’t have let her drive home if she’d known.
“That’s awful,” she said. “Is Laura okay?”
Kali’s whiskers twitched. “She’s dead. And so are Jayla Graham and Sheila Myers. They were in the car.”
“Oh my god. Did the crash kill them?”
“It isn’t clear. The medical examiner has taken them for an autopsy.”
A sudden, unseasonable chill blew in through the open door. In a little town like Cauchemar, this crash would mean a whole lot of trouble. A sinking feeling in her stomach, Ember walked across the room closed the door, double-locking it just for good measure.
The next morning, Ember woke up already feeling exhausted. She’d spent most of the night dreaming, something she did often. Occasionally, her dreams showed her snatches of the past or future, of other people’s perspectives and emotions. She couldn’t control when and how it happened, and she couldn’t always identify what event or person she was being shown.
She also couldn’t always tell what was a vision and what was just a normal, run-of-the-mill dream.
In her dream last night, someone had been angry. Very angry. She’d experienced the anger herself, the hatred coursing through her, making her shake and wringing her out like she had been dropped into an agitated washing machine.
She woke up bone-tired, still feeling the vestigial emotion the dream-world had thrust upon her.
Luckily, a quick glance in the mirror after her morning shower told her she didn’t look as bad as she felt. Her long black hair hung in faint natural waves all the way down to her waist. There were no bags under her eyes, the color of which was, at present, a neutral cobalt.
Ember’s eyes had a tendency to darken and lighten in hue according to her moods. “Like a mood ring,” Ember’s best friend, Sage, had once helpfully described it. This particular color meant she wasn’t either happy or upset.
“You stay home,” Ember advised Kali once she was dressed and heading out the door. “I have a feeling today is going to be murder.”
Kali, curled up on the sofa, lifted her head and let out a sleepy, acquiescent yawn.
She hadn’t even opened the restaurant yet when Sheriff Cedric Jamison rapped at the door.
“Morning,” he said, more terse than she was used to seeing him. He was always a straightforward, no-nonsense kind of guy, but today he had an anxious energy about him that set Ember ill at ease. “Mind if I come in? Ask you a few questions?”
“Sure,” she said, stepping back to let him in. She might not be feeling great, but she could only imagine how Cedric must be feeling, with three sudden deaths to get to the bottom of. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Ember knew Cedric pretty well, had known him since they were kids. He’d been in the year above her during their school days, and he, like Ember, was part of the supernatural community in Cauchemar. Unlike Ember, however, Cedric was not a witch but rather a wolf shifter. Ember thought his wolf instincts and senses were probably a major help to him when it came to maintaining the law and sniffing out the various mysteries that cropped up around town.
Hopefully they would help him get to the bottom of this case, sooner rather than later.
As if he’d read Ember’s mind, Cedric said, “So I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened to Laura Hall and her friends last night?”
“Yeah,” Ember said, following Cedric up to the bar and rounding it as he sat down on one of the tall stools. She imagined he had probably been on his feet all night and was grateful for the chance to take a seat. She went ahead and poured him a cup of coffee, slid it across to the bar to him black, just like he liked it. “I was sorry to hear it.”
He cut her a disbelieving look but didn’t call her on it. “Thanks,” he said, tilting the cup in her direction and then taking a cautious, grateful sip. She thought she saw some of the tension in him relax.
Ember smiled softly to herself. She was good at reading people, figuring out what they needed, a strength that was half magic and half just plain intuition. She liked to use this quality about herself to try to make people feel better, to help them when they were hurting.
“Well, I traced them back here,” Cedric said. “Seems they were driving home after having a few.”
“Just two glasses of wine apiece,” Ember answered, addressing the unasked question. “They should have been fine to drive. You know I don’t hesitate to take keys and call a cab if anyone looks like trouble.” Even now, there were several sets of keys from last night locked up in the drawer under the cash register, waiting to be reclaimed by their hungover owners.
Cedric inclined his head. “Sure, sure,” he said distractedly, then flashed her a wait a second gesture. At first, she didn’t know what it meant, but he swiveled the bar stool away and withdrew his vibrating phone from his pocket. Pressed a button to answer. “What’s up?” he greeted whoever was on the other end of the line.
She did her best to keep busy as he spoke, but she couldn’t help noticing his body language. His broad shoulders were hunching in increased tension, and he kept running his fingers anxiously through his shoulder-length blond hair.
“All right,” he said tersely after a few minutes of listening. “I’m there right now. I’ll ask. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, bye.”
He hung up and turned back around.
“Ask me what?” Ember said, deciding not to try to pretend she wasn’t eavesdropping on his end of the conversation.
“Jake Peterson,” Cedric prompted.
After a pause, Ember nodded. “He was here last night, too. He comes in all the time. Glass of wine alone at the bar, makes a general nuisance of himself to my staff, heads home.” Cedric was frowning, so Ember asked, “Why? Did he have something to do with the accident? I thought they crashed into a tree.”
Cedric shook his head. “He’s been found dead at his house. Cause unknown.”
This was all getting to be very strange. Ember didn’t know what to say.
“Four people dead after spending time at your bar?” Cedric asked, sounding the perfect mix between paternally concerned and accusing. “Doesn’t exactly look good for you.”
Ember scoffed, feeling a sudden surge of anger. “This is stupid. What are you saying–that I had something to do with this? Sure, I’m going to sabotage my own business by intentionally endangering my customers! You know me better than that, Cedric.”
He rose from the bar and stepped away, coffee still only half-drained. “I’m not saying anything like that,” he told her, voice taut. “I just hope you’ll continue to cooperate as we figure out what happened last night.”
Frowning, feeling angry and chastised, Ember took a few deep breaths before forcing herself to nod.
Cedric, evidently satisfied by this, tipped a nod at her, flipped a five dollar bill onto the bar to cover the coffee, and left.