Ember awoke with a start. A persistent rattle caused her to sit up in alarm, the blankets dropping around her waist.
Cedric rolled over and huddled into himself, muttering in his sleep. Ember stood up and went to their bedroom window. A powerful storm had sprung up while they’d slept. She gazed in alarm at the trees in their backyard, their branches bent at an extreme angle by the raging wind.
“Cedric, wake up,” she said, shaking her husband until he roused. “There’s a bad storm out. Should we go down into the basement?”
Cedric awoke, rubbing his eyes. “I thought the weather was supposed to be nice all weekend?”
He stared out the window and shrugged. “Doesn’t look so bad to me.”
“Yeah, it is…” Ember frowned. “There’s branches snapping!”
“It’s all right, my love.” Cedric pulled her into a tight embrace. A rattling came at the window. Ember feared a branch had snapped and bent down over their home, striking the window in rhythm with the wind.
She glanced over and gaped at a black, winged shape beating at the window. “Cedric, what is that?”
“What is what?”
“There’s something at the window! This is no normal storm.”
“It’s hardly a squall.”
The winged shape beat against the window harder. Ember screamed as glass showered into the room, bringing with it the howling wind.
“No!” Ember clung to Cedric’s arm as the wind lifted him into the air, tearing his body toward the open window.
“Ember, help me,” Cedric pleaded. “Something’s got me. Something’s got—”
He ripped from her grasp, flying into the dark storm and vanishing without a trace…
Ember sat bolt upright in bed, chest heaving with pants. Beautiful golden sunlight came through the window, carrying that gentle quality only found in the early morning or early evening hours. Their neighbor’s rooster crowed as she looked about her and Cedric’s bedroom. Sun dappled the quilted comforter they had nestled under the previous night. There was no storm, no winged thing at the window. Nothing but peace.
Ember looked over to see Cedric wasn’t in bed. The smell of bacon and someone singing Looking Out my Back Door out of tune brought a smile to her face.
She slipped out of bed, pulling her housecoat on over flannel jammies. Ember stepped into her fuzzy slippers and padded down the stairs to find Cedric swirling about the kitchen. One second, he tended the maple flavored bacon sizzling in the skillet, the next he turned about to flip a fluffy buttermilk pancake with a practiced flick of his wrist.
“Good morning,” he said, flashing a smile her way as he turned back to the bacon.
“Good morning. It smells lovely in here.”
“Bacon and pancakes, with blueberry marmalade instead of syrup for you, peanut butter instead of margarine for me, and of course, coffee.”
Ember lifted her mug and arched a brow. “Is there scotch in this?”
“Right answer.” She took a sip and sighed. “You’re spoiling me, you know. Home cooked breakfast and a rock concert. Although I’m surprised, you’re singing a well-known drug song.”
“What?” Cedric shook his head. “No way.”
“Uh, yes way. He just got home from Illinois, an infamous LSD junction back in the day, and he looks out the back door and sees a Dinosaur Victrola? Come on, Cedric. You’re a detective. You didn’t detect those references before?”
Cedric flipped the pancake onto a waiting plate and arched a brow at her. “The song’s about having a healthy imagination and that’s it.”
“Come on, Cedric—”
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” Cedric said with a wink. “Even if I know you’re actually right. You usually are.”
They shared a laugh and he returned to his culinary duties. Ember felt a sudden urge to be outside, in the bright sun away from the darkness of her dream.
“Dear, could we have our breakfast on the patio today?”
Cedric paused for a moment, then a grin spread across his face.
“That’s a fine idea. It’s a gorgeous morning out there.”
They moved the dinnerware to the round glass surface of the patio table, aided greatly by Ember’s cantrip to make them virtually weightless.
Cedric nearly dropped the glass carafe, but Ember’s spell slowed its descent to the point she was able to reach out and right it back onto its base. The orange fluid sloshed around, but they spilled not a drop.
Ember kissed him on the nose, and they settled in at the table. They dug into their repast as the morning birds tittered competing songs. The resulting cacophony felt more like a symphony than dissonance, the backdrop of her domestic bliss.
Ever since she had been a child, Ember dreamed of the day she would be married. For Ember, the wedding wasn’t nearly as important as the everyday of her married existence. She wished and hoped she’d find a man both kind and challenging enough to make every day a treasure.
She’d finally found him in Cedric. Married life wasn’t as good as she’d thought it would be as a child.
It was even better.
“So, dear, what’s on your plate today?” She poured orange juice into her glass with a slosh. The sweet aroma crossed her palate before she took the first sip. It washed away the dryness of slumber and stirred an electric rejuvenation in her breast.
The dream seemed less and less important with each sip.
“I have a meeting with Big Tobacco. Remember him?”
“Big…Tobacco?” Ember frowned as she spread blueberry preserves on her pancake. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Oh, right. You never much liked the pro wrestling matches.”
“That’s because I have more than two brain cells.”
Cedric laughed merrily. “I’m no fan, but lots of my friends are. I’m not judging people’s choices in entertainment, but the last time Tobacco brought the ‘rasslin to town, there was almost a riot.”
“If that’s the case, why not just tell him no, outright?”
Cedric shrugged. “He promised that won’t happen this time and agreed to coordinate with my office for security matters. Also, a lot of the local merchants have been saying the ‘rassling is good for business. Fans come from all the little cities around to see the wrestling stars.
“Wrestling?” Kali leaped her dark calico-hued resplendence onto the kitchen counter. “Did somebody say wrestling? Oh, I want to go! Blue Cyclone and the Spider are teaming up to face a team that never HAS been beat!”
Ember and Cedric laughed. She kissed him on the forehead and squeezed his shoulder on her way past.
“Sounds like I should prepare for a larger than normal lunch rush. Good luck at your meeting, honey.”
“Thanks, hey, wait up.”
Ember frowned, pausing halfway out the door with her purse dangling from her grip. “What?”
A dimpled smile spread across Cedric’s handsome face. “I love you.”
Ember melted a little. “I love you too. Be safe.”
She shut the door behind her and sighed. What a lovely morning…
Yet the dream of dark beating wings stealing her husband lingered in the back of her mind, a malignant shadow resisting even the cheerful morning sun.
Ember stirred the pot of burbling chili furiously, struggling to move the thick sludge near the bottom of the double boiler. The buzz of twenty or more conversations grew louder as Ash pushed open the doors adjoining kitchen and lobby floor at the Broken Broom Pub.
“Have you got those chili dogs yet?” Ash glanced over her shoulder. “They’ve been waiting a long time.”
“I know that,” Ember said, her face scrunching up in annoyance. “I didn’t count on having a full lobby on a Tuesday.”
“Well, this mob might be noisy—and demanding, and bad tippers—but we’re looking at paying next month’s mortgage with this lunch rush.”
Ember glanced over at the waiting hot dogs, steaming on their buns. She cast a cantrip which sent the plates floating over near her pot of bubbling chili. One by one she drizzled the thick morass onto the waiting dogs.
“Two of these had cheese,” Ash said, piling the plates onto her serving tray.
“It’s in a plastic bin on the prep table. About two scoops each.”
“Maybe you should look into hiring help?”
Ember laughed. “This is the exception, not the rule, Ash. Most days if I had seven people for lunch it would be a banner turnout. I can handle the kitchen work myself.”
“Yes, but it might give you more time to spend with your hunky husband,” Ash said with a grin, using her butt to push the doors open and backing into the lobby.
Ember chuckled as she dashed over to the oven. She slipped on a pair of mitts and drew out a tray of roasting pork shoulders. A stab of her fork sent the meat to peeling away like butter.
“Perfect.” Ember pinched off a bit of the succulent meat and popped it in her mouth. She laid out the buns for the pulled pork sliders when Ash burst back into the kitchen, her face red.
“You will not believe who just walked in the door and sat down at table number three.”
Ash flinched. “No, she’s smart enough to know when no one wants her around.”
“Then who is it?”
Ember froze. She dropped the bag of buns onto the prep table without closing it up and stalked to the double doors.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ember sputtered. Kara Dennings sat at table three, drumming her fingers on the wooden surface and glancing about with growing impatience. She wore a pantsuit and her hair in a tight bun. “What’s she doing out of prison?”
“Maybe she escaped?”
“I doubt she’d waltz in here if that were the case.” Ember took off her plastic gloves and rolled up her sleeves. “Can you finish the sliders? I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
“Sure thing. Be careful, she’s a murderer.”
“I know.” Ember stomped over to Kara’s table and glared down at her. “What are you doing here, Kara? Did you break out of prison?”
Kara’s face split in a wide, smug grin. “Oh, Ember McNair. Or is it Ember Jamison now? Congratulations on your nuptials, by the way.”
Ember brought a protection spell to mind in case Kara intended something hostile. All in all, Kara seemed far too calm to be a fugitive from justice. “It’s McNair-Jamison, actually. And you didn’t answer my question. You’ve got some nerve coming in here if you know the sheriff is my husband.”
Kara sneered. “He can’t touch me. No one can. I appealed my case on grounds of temporary insanity. I’ve been set free by a jury of my peers.”
Ember’s mouth gaped open. “That’s—that’s an outrage! You weren’t crazy, just selfish, mean, and evil!”
Kara shrugged. “The legal system would seem to disagree—I suggest you stick to pouring drinks and making gumbo, because you obviously don’t know anything about the law.”
She settled back in her chair and picked up the menu. “I think I’ll have fried pickles. If I recall, they were pretty good.”
Ember was about to tell Kara she was not welcome to dine in the restaurant when a sharp cry caught her attention.
“You!” James Connor, curator of the local history museum, slid out of his chair and stormed across the floor to glare down at Kara. “What are you doing here? You killed Laura!”
Many locals bobbed their heads, eyes narrowed to slits. Kara did not have any friends in the pub. Not a single one.
“I’ll go where I please. There’s nothing that you or anyone else can do about it.”
“You want to bet?” James grabbed an empty chair at table three, knocking a ceramic plate to the floor in his haste. The plate hit flat and cracked into a dozen pieces. Ember wrestled the chair away from James’ grasp.
“James, you’re going to have to leave,” Ember said, hating herself for every word.”
“I have to leave?” James pointed a finger at Kara. “You’re going to kick me out and serve a murderer?”
“I overturned my conviction, so I’m not a murderer,” Kara said smugly.
James sputtered, inarticulate in his rage. Ember interposed herself between them and glared.
“Get a hold of yourself, James. You threatened someone and damaged my property. You can come back tomorrow, but right now you need to leave and cool down.”
James’ face twisted into a sad, miserable mask.
“This isn’t right, Ember. It just isn’t right…”
“I know, James,” Ember said, resting a hand on his shoulder.
“Well done,” Kara said as James sulked off out the door. “Now, about my fried pickles—”
“You can get out, too,” Ember said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“But I didn’t break any plates, or threaten anyone,” Kara said innocently. “On what grounds can you make me leave?”
“On the grounds that this is my pub. It’s a privately owned business. I can refuse service to anyone I want, for any reason or no reason as per state law. And I’ve got plenty of reasons. Leave. Now.”
Kara dropped her napkin and stiffly strode out the door to the applause of the locals and the amused grins of the transient guests.