The Broken Broom had just closed up for the night, and Ember McNair had sent her employees home early, offering to handle the cleanup all by herself.
“Are you sure?” asked Tara, one of her waitresses.
The other one had already slung her purse over her shoulder and was halfway out the door.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Ember answered, practically beaming. “I’ve got this! You head home, kick up your feet. You’ve earned it.”
Tara didn’t argue with that. As she left, she reflected fondly on the way her boss had been smiling all night long. Ember was always friendly, and her employees thought of her as very nice to work for.
But the persistent smiling was new.
If Tara had asked Kali, Ember McNair’s fluffy kitten familiar, what had Ember smiling so much, Kali would have answered that it was all down to a certain dinner date with a certain Sheriff Cedric Jamison, after which Ember had been walking on air for a few days now.
If Tara had asked Talako, the ghost of Ember’s ancestor who lingered around the Broken Broom and invisibly picked up gossip all around town, Talako would have answered that Ember was grateful that the recent troubles that had put the Broken Broom, a family business stretching back several generations, into a distinct earnings slump had ended, and the after a few weeks of steady business the pub was finally back in the black.
But Tara couldn’t ask either Kali or Talako these things, because to her Kali was just a normal cat, and Talako was careful never to show himself around the non-magical citizens of Cauchemar, Louisiana.
As a matter of fact, Tara had been working for Ember several years now and had never once guessed that her boss was a witch.
Inside the Broken Broom, Ember gave a little whistle, casting a spell that enchanted a few of the remaining glasses along the bar to dance themselves through the air and into the kitchen sink. She probably shouldn’t be using such flashy, visible magic in front of the wide windows that looked out over the main street in Cauchemar, but she was feeling too happy, and the streets were empty now, anyway.
The only reason people stayed out late in Cauchemar, was to drink at the Broken Broom. And now that it was closed, everyone would be home and heading to sleep.
Yes, the troubles were over. Cauchemar was back to its usual, uneventful self, and Ember couldn’t be happier about it.
No sooner did she think this, however, than a sudden wind blew the pub door open, and a slightly larger-than-usual black bat came swooping in.
Of course, the appearance of this bat wasn’t odd in and of itself. Ember knew this particular black bat well. She recognized it even before it began to change shape, body growing and changing and morphing into the form of Sage Weyent, Ember’s best friend.
No, what was odd was the stunned look on Sage’s face, and the fact that she was slightly out of breath.
“You’ll never guess what just happened,” Sage said eagerly.
“Wait, why are you flying around as a bat?” Ember asked, not quite processing what Sage had said.
“Oh, that.” Sage smiled faintly and shrugged. “It’s mosquito season, right? They’re all over. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to keep myself fed as a bat. And besides, I think of eating up the mosquitos downtown as a sort of civic service I perform. Bats are a very important part of the fight against communicable blood-based diseases, you know.”
“Oh, okay,” Ember said. She wondered if Sage actually liked the taste of mosquitos. Though she guessed if she was flying around in bat form eating them up, there must be something tasty about them. “Sorry, what were you going to tell me?”
Already, however, Ember had a sinking feeling that she’d spoken too soon, and that Cauchemar was not quite as uneventful as she’d hoped.
“Natalie Gordon was found dead at the convenience store,” Sage said, confirming Ember’s worst fears.
“Oh my goodness,” Ember said, placing her hand to her heart. “Why didn’t you lead with that information?”
“I tried,” Sage objected. “You asked me about my bat form.”
“And then you gave me a micro-lecture about ecosystems instead of telling me about Natalie Gordon!” Ember tried to take it in. Natalie Gordon was the manager of the convenience store. She was young–younger than Ember, even. “Was it some kind of accident?”
“No one knows for sure,” Sage said. “An employee found her sometime late this afternoon. I guess she had a horrible bloody wound to the head.”
“That could be an accident,” Ember said.
“It could be,” Sage agreed.
Neither of them believed it, however. They both had magical instincts, and their instincts were screaming murder.
“Well,” Ember said, setting her sinking feelings at the distressing news aside. “This will be an interesting investigation.”
“I agree,” Sage said, walking over to the bar and taking a seat. “Is that a cherry tart left in the display case?”
The Broken Broom was famous for its desserts, some of which Ember made herself and some of which she sourced from local fairy baker Lyla de la Croix’s heavenly Sweet Things Bakery. On the rare occasion there were any remaining pastries or treats remaining in the display case come closing time, Ember would sometimes give one to Sage.
This time, she cut the tart in half, and the two saw at the bar a while talking, sharing all the information they knew about Natalie, which wasn’t much. She was gorgeous, young, and to all appearances healthy, but neither of them had picked up much about her social life, despite the fact that they’d lived in the same tiny, gossip-loving town for years and years.
“I’ll keep my ears open for any information I can pick up about her,” Sage promised, knowing that Ember was insatiably curious about these sorts of things. “All right,” she said, pushing her now-empty saucer away after swiping up the last few crumbs and licking them off her finger. “I’m still hungry. I think I’ll head out again for a few more.”
At that, she changed into her bat form, so Ember knew she wasn’t going off in search of more cherry tarts.
Ember smiled after her friend gratefully. She knew that, with Sage’s considerable, bat-powered ears on the case, she’d know all she wanted to know about Natalie in short order.
Whatever had happened to Natalie Gordon, Ember was sure it would be figured out in no time.
And then Cauchemar would be back to normal again.
All through the next morning as she got ready to open the Broken Broom for the day, Ember tried to distract herself with her work, but she couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened to Natalie. It was so tragic that someone so young and–to all evidence as far as Ember was away–pleasant to be around would die in such a sudden and unexpected way.
At one point, Ember even tried meditating, which sometimes allowed her to commune with ghosts and reapers, to see if there were any obvious scars or disturbed spirits who might know what had happened to Natalie or help point Ember in the right direction. But the only spirit who responded was Talako, who showed up and gave Ember a sad smile.
“I’m sure all will be understood in time,” he told her.
Kali, who had sensed Ember’s disturbance this morning and insisted on coming along to work at the pub with her today, hopped up onto her lap and nodded primly. “You know Sheriff Jamison is on the case.”
This time, Kali didn’t even sound like she was teasing Ember about the date the sheriff had taken her on. It actually sounded like Kali was trying to console her.
Ember scratched Kali’s forehead and smiled at Talako, feeling grateful that she was surrounded by so many people who cared about her.
Sage dropped in again later in the day. The pub was full of customers taking late lunches, and others getting an early start on their evenings, but one of the waitresses was on shift, so Ember took her break and went to sit with Sage at one of the tables outside where they wouldn’t be overheard.
“So?” Sage prompted.
“So?” Ember echoed, not sure what Sage was getting at.
“Are you going to take up the case? Natalie’s death?”
“Why would I take it up?” Ember asked, confused.
“Well, you solved the last case practically single-handedly,” Sage pointed out.
“I did not.”
Sage gave Ember an unconvinced look. At her feet, Kali also levelled a Stop pretending expression in her direction.
“All right,” Ember conceded. “Maybe I helped the local sheriff’s office a little more than the paperwork indicates. That doesn’t make me a detective, or anything like a local authority.”
“Maybe. But you were completely in your element, solving that case,” Sage said. “And it’s horrible what happened to Natalie! If you could help get to the bottom of it, why wouldn’t you?”
Ember held up both her hands in a position of surrender. “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here. I made enough of a nuisance of myself last time. But between the two of us, if we keep our eyes and ears open… I’m sure Cedric will listen if we throw him a tip or two.”
Sage beamed and clapped her hands together excitedly. “Great! Now let’s talk about the case.”
“Do we even know that there is a case?”
“Well, we do know that she died under very suspicious circumstances,” Sage said. “And we do know she wasn’t always treated very well in this town.”
“What do you mean?” Kali asked.
Sage and Ember exchanged glances.
“Natalie was a really beautiful woman,” Ember answered. “The fact is that some of the women in town–”
“The insecure, bitter ones,” Sage piped up.
“Some of the women were pretty awful to her,” Ember finished. “And the men weren’t much better, either.”
“Which is really horrible,” Sage added mournfully, “because I don’t think I ever saw Natalie be anything other than really, truly innocent and sweet.”
“Me, too. I mean, I’d be the first to admit I didn’t know her well. It’s possible there was another side to her, but all I ever saw was kindness.”
“And I’ve never heard a bad word,” Sage said.
Ember and Kali both knew that this was a high endorsement indeed. If there were ever bad words circulating around Cauchemar, there was a high probability that, at some point or another, Sage Weyent would hear them.
Just then, something flickered in Ember’s vision, like the faintest glimmer of light, not far off and faint but effervescent, inchoate, right in front of her face. She blinked, then rose to her feet, trying to clear her vision to see what was struggling to appear.
Sage got to her feet, too, sensing something strange and looking at her friend.
“What is it–?” Sage began, softly, but Ember silenced her with a finger over her lips.
The light returned, then moved, pulsing ever so slightly. It looked wispy and faint enough that Ember might inadvertently blow it away, so she held her breath and watched, wide-eyed, as the light bent itself into the faintest outline of a human’s shape.
Devoid of distinctive features, but unmistakably a woman.
In the absence where a face should be, the light parted, allowing sudden, nighttime darkness through in the form of a mouth.
The softest words seeped out, little more than a wheeze on the wind.
Then, with a final glimmer, the light dispersed.
Ember took in a deep, shocked breath. Her finger fell from her lips.
“What was that?” Sage asked, evidently aware that the spirit had gone.
“A ghost,” Ember said. “I think. Didn’t you see it? Hear it?”
“No, but I felt something.” Sage shuddered theatrically.
“Weren’t you meditating earlier, Ember?” Kali prompted. “Reaching out for Natalie’s spirit?”
Ember nodded. “I think that must have been Natalie.” It was a feeling more than a certainty, but the feeling was strong.
“Wait a second,” Sage said, “you asked if I heard it. Did it talk? What did it say?”
“She said ‘I didn’t,’” Ember repeated, turning the words over as she spoke them aloud.
Evidently there was something Natalie Gordon didn’t do. Something she felt was important enough to state even if it meant coming back as a ghost to do it.
Perhaps there were reasons Ember should involve herself in helping figure out what had happened to Natalie, after all. She might not be a police officer, no, but Natalie’s ghost hadn’t appeared to a police officer.
Ember had powers that might be able to help settle Natalie’s spirit and bring justice for whatever had happened to her. And if there was any chance that Ember could help, then she was going to take it.