“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”
― André Malraux
The rich aroma of coffee and maple syrup permeated through the air inside Kathy’s Corner. Ember had become convinced years ago the smell had inundated the dark, ‘80’s-style wood paneling on a molecular level. The familiarity of the scent both comforted and bolstered Ember as she sat in a beam of sunlight shining through the diner’s plate glass window.
Considering who sat across from her, Ember felt she needed a little bolstering. He appeared as a blade thin, ostentatiously-dressed man in his thirties. She knew the bowler style hat on his head concealed tiny horns.
Every time Ember had come up against Bubb, she’d walked away the clear-cut loser. She had determined this time would be different.
Steam rose from her untouched mug of coffee, forming a virtual barrier between herself and the demon. All around them, Cauchemar’s first-shifters struggled into wakefulness with the help of Kathy’s famous coffee. A construction worker yawned his way through scrolling on his phone, while an older gent with a graying mustache crinkled his way through the latest edition of the Cauchemar Tribune.
“Well?” Ember prompted when the demon continued to sit in patient silence.
“Hmm?” Bubb arched his brows and leaned forward. “Can I help you with something?”
“You asked me to coffee so we could talk this contract thing out.” Ember’s tone rose sharply in spite of herself. She knew Bubb would use the mounting anger against her. Still, she seethed. “So talk.”
“I was giving you time to enjoy your coffee.” Bubb shrugged his slender shoulders. He certainly was a handsome devil, no pun intended. Ember wondered what he really looked like. His current form was an illusion, a costume, at best.
Ember sighed, then took a sip from her steaming mug. “There, I’m enjoying my coffee. Now can we get down to business?”
Bubb’s face wrinkled in disgust. “I don’t see how you’re enjoying it.”
“You’re drinking it black.” Bubb shook his head as his delicate fingers expertly picked open a fluted drum of creamer. He smoothly poured the alabaster creamer into the inky depths of his coffee, then tore open a package of sugar. “I mean, I guess some people are into bitter, hot bean water.”
“Coffee is supposed to be bitter.”
“And Demons are supposed to be indirect.” Bubb laughed, his strange eyes focused on Ember. If she stared intently enough, she could see the fires of Hell dancing in his gaze. “Indulge me.”
“I like my coffee free of filters,” Ember said. “I weaned myself off of sugar and cream to better fit into my wedding dress, but I haven’t looked back since.”
“Ah, yes, you do like raw flavors, don’t you Ember?” Bubb’s grin spread wide on his impish face, revealing pointed, prominent canines. “That’s why you eat slices of red onion wrapped in fresh baked bread, isn’t it?”
Ember’s gaze narrowed. “So you’ve been spying on me.”
“Oh, spying is far too pedestrian a term for it.” Bubb added the contents of the sugar pack and stirred gently. His ebony drink turned a light beige. “I’ve been paying attention to you in such an…intimate detail, after all.”
“What’s your game?” Ember’s fingers gripped the wooden table top as she leaned in toward the demon. “What do you want from me?”
“Not your left eye, or even your sister, charming as she may be.” Bubb stirred his drink with a silver spoon shaped like an extended human skeleton. The scrape of metal on porcelain grated on Ember’s nerves. “I wanted you to be in my debt. Granted, I hadn’t planned on you having an Infernal Lawyer on speed dial, but one plays the cards one is dealt.”
Ember rubbed her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. She’d been awake all night, dealing with the Puppet Master’s infernal minions, and Bubb’s grating manner was taking its toll.
“What do you want from me right this minute, Bubb?”
Bubb set his mug down, face growing somber for the first time. “I need you to agree to help me. One favor to be repaid at an impending future date. No more, no less.”
“What kind of favor?” Ember leaned her back against the cushions and fixed Bubb with a baleful eye. “You think I’m going to kill someone for you, is that it?”
Bubb didn’t blink, or even twitch. “The nature of the favor will remain secret until our deal is finalized. This point is nonnegotiable.”
“Then no deal.” Ember shook her head firmly. “You’re a twisty son of a gun, Bubb. I’m not going to play into your hand again. Besides, the Arbitration might very well go my way.”
Bubb leaned back and laughed, crossing one leg over the other. He sprawled his arms out over the back of the booth as if claiming ownership.
“Ah, my dear. It’s a demonic contract, being Arbitrated in a demonic court, with a demonic Arbiter. Do you really think you have a chance?”
Ember’s belly tightened into a knot, but her jaw remained set firm. “Unless you can tell me exactly what favor you want from me, then I can’t possibly agree.”
Bubb’s laughter ceased. He loomed over the table, one hand pounding the surface like a hammer. Ceramic plates and cups jumped. His silver spoon tipped off the lip of his mug and clattered to the table.
“You don’t get it, do you?” His voice seethed with anger, and his eyes raged with hellfire. “This might be your sandbox, but I’m holding the shovel and pail! You should have read the fine print on the Arbitration. Ash might be allowed to dwell on the material plane of existence, but she still belongs to me.”
“I’m tired of listening to your threats.” Ember stood up, meeting his gaze spark for spark. “You think you’re the only one with power here? This is my swamp! My home. And I do not suffer the presence of demons—”
Ember blinked in confusion. Bubb was simply gone. She glanced around the diner, but he had disappeared utterly.
“Kathy,” Ember said, snagging her friend’s sleeve. Kathy paused, a carafe of orange juice held carefully in both hands. “Did you see what happened to the man I was sitting with?”
Kathy’s face twisted up in confusion. “What man? You were sitting by yourself, weren’t you?”
Ember snapped her gaze over to the table. “But he was having coffee—”
The table held only one mug of brew. Ember’s own.
“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”
“What was all of that about?” demanded the striped cat interposing itself in Ember’s path.
“Kali. I thought you were asleep.” Ember bent low and scooped the cat off the sidewalk.
“I was, but then I remembered you’re useless without me.” Kali flexed her paws, kneading Ember’s sleeve. “I can’t have you riding off into danger without the Heavy.”
“Oh, you’re the Heavy, now?” Ember chuckled. “Um, Kali, you saw Bubb, right?”
“Yeah, I saw you guys talking at Kathy’s place. That is, up until he vanished.”
Relief flooded Ember, but she didn’t let it fully take root. “Then if he was using illusion magic, it translated across the witch-familiar bond. I hate demons.”
“You think he was never really here?”
“I’m not sure.” Ember yawned so widely she feared her jaw would get stuck open. “I’m so tired, right now. I’m not even sure if I dreamed it or not.”
“He looked pretty angry at one point. What was that all about?”
Ember shook her head. “I don’t know. He said I should have read the fine print on the Arbitration. That Ash still belonged to him even if she wasn’t in Hell.”
“This is no good. You can’t function like this. You need sleep.”
“I wish.” Ember yawned again. “It’s monthly inventory at the Broom, and Ash wants to go over some things with me.”
Ember walked the short distance back to the Broom. Deciding she was too shaken for public discourse; she took the rear entrance and came in through the kitchen.
Ash looked up from where she squatted beside a box of ketchup packets. Her red hair fell like a curtain across her fine features. Ash snapped her head to the side and smiled up at Ember.
“You look like crap.”
“She’s not wrong, Ember.”
“Shut up, Kali.”
“You know, we can put the inventory off until tomorrow,” Ash said, cocking an eyebrow. “It’s not every day that an evil, puppet-show lunatic tries to overrun town with his marionettes of doom.”
“No,” Ember said, shaking her head and stifling another yawn. “We need to get the order off to PFD this afternoon or they’ll bump us back to the next delivery cycle. We’ll need flour, eggs, and milk a long time before then.”
“Suit yourself.” Ash motioned Ember over. “Does this look three quarters full to you?”
Ember pursed her lips. “Something like that.”
“Great.” Ash marked down a number on her inventory sheet and straightened up. “Let’s get this over with so you can go get some sleep.”
“I have to at least bring Cedric his lunch before then, but maybe you’re right.” Ember poured herself a cup of coffee. She sniffed carefully. “What is this?”
“It’s an exotic blend I found online.”
Ember sipped it and grimaced in disgust. “It’s terrible! What’s wrong with Kathy’s Choice?”
“I just thought we could shake things up a little instead of the same old same old,” Ash replied with a frown.
Ember sighed. “I like the same old same old when it comes to my coffee. With how chaotic my life is, it’s nice to know that at least my coffee is consistent.”
Ember shook her head and held up a hand. “Wait, belay all of that. I’m sorry, I’m cranky from a lack of sleep. You’re managing the Broom now. Brew whatever type of coffee you want.”
Ash poured herself a cup of the coffee and sighed. “Look, Ember, it’s still your Pub. I want you to feel comfortable here.”
“Your kitchen, your rules,” Ember said. “Drink your fancy coffee and let’s have our inventory meeting.”
Ash sipped the cup and then grimaced. “Ugh, what is this? It’s awful.”
One pot of Kathy’s Choice later they sat ensconced in the office. Ash sat in her chair, scribbling notes on a yellow notepad while Ember tallied up the numbers in the inventory.
“I think maybe you should order more of the summer shandy. We went through five crates when the carnival was in town.”
Ember heard Ash scribbling on the notebook. She continued far longer than should have been necessary for such a simple notation. Ember glanced up and found Ash had nearly filled the notepad with scribbling.
“Ash? What are you writing?”
It was her sister’s face that looked up at her; the same bump on her nose, the same freckles. Yet it was not Ash’s eyes staring back.
“It’s a list of names. All the people who died the last time Cauchemar flooded.” Ash grinned wickedly. “Would you like me to read them aloud?”
“Bubb!” Ember hissed. “Get out of my sister, now!”
“I told you, she belongs to me,” Bubb replied.
Ember snatched the notepad from Ash’s hand and tossed it across the room. “Don’t play games with me, demon. Cauchemar doesn’t flood. The army corps of engineers saw to that shortly after the civil war when they renovated the Cauchemar river levees.”
Bubb chuckled, using Ash’s voice. “Cauchemar doesn’t flood…only it has flooded, a few years before you were born, in fact. You see, the levee and drainage system, as well as the Swamp itself, helps protect your fair city from flooding…but it has its limits. Best to keep that in mind.”
Ember sidled to her left, eyes darting to a fishing trophy she’d won in high school. “I’m going to tell you one last time to get out of Ash’s mind, demon.”
“Oh, stop posturing,” Bubb grinned. “I’ve said my piece and will, henceforth, depart. So there’s no need to go for that vial of blessed water you have stashed in your trophy.”
Bubb closed his eyes, and when they opened Ash had returned.
“I’m sorry,” Ash said, shaking her head. “I sort of spaced out there for a minute. What did you say about the Summer Shandy?”
Ember opened her mouth, but no sound emanated from her suddenly dry throat. Outside her office window, dark clouds loomed ominously on the horizon.
Then a big, fat raindrop struck the windowpane, and another. And another.