Nine in the morning, and the sun already baked the pavement to scorching levels. A recent rain had done nothing to dispel the heat, instead cloaking the land in an oppressive humidity.
Ember thought it only fitting that her morning be uncomfortable. The hot blasts of air coming through the open windows of Cedric’s squad car were penance for thinking she could let her guard down.
Ash, her sister, may very well have paid the ultimate price for Ember having done so. That fact weighed heavily on her mind. So far all Ember knew for certain that a woman was dead, and it might be Ash.
“I think it’s this exit up ahead,” Cedric said, squinting his eyes against the bright Louisiana sunshine.
“No, it’s the next one,” Ember replied. “We have this argument every time. Country road sixteen B. That’s the exit we want.”
“Are you sure?” Cedric asked. “I don’t remember having this discussion before.”
Ember glared at him, her pulse throbbing in her ears. How could he say such things? “Of course you don’t remember, your memories of me were stolen. Uh, remember?”
Cedric sighed and rubbed his nose. Ember knew better than trying to encourage Cedric to recall memories simply were no longer present in his head. That was the path to madness or even death.
She simply had to accept the fact that for the time being, her Sheriff husband had only known her for a week to his recollection. Restoring his memories was high on Ember’s agenda, yet dead bodies had a way of blowing one’s schedule all to pieces.
“I hope it’s not Ash,” Ember said with a sigh.
“Me too. Most likely it’s not. I don’t recall Ash getting out this way much. There’s not much out here.”
Ember glanced out her window as the sun-dappled trees sped past. From time to time she could see a blacktop trail winding throughout the trees, part of an exercise trail built by the state. Everyone knew the land developers were hungry to build up Cauchemar. The exercise trail was meant to encourage realtors to build homes in the area.
So far, it hadn’t worked, which sat well with Ember. Cauchemar was a small Louisiana town, proud of its ‘swamp folk’ heritage and rugged individualism. The touch of magic which seemed to spring from the very earth around them only added to its unique charm.
Ember didn’t want a bunch of big city slickers ruining the small-town feel. Unfortunately, there were many people in town who wanted progress. Cauchemar was at a crossroads; grow bigger or remain mired in the quainter ways of the past.
Ember knew which way she preferred, but at the same time didn’t want to prevent her fellow denizens from being happy, either. It was true most of the local businesses barely scraped enough to get by. Maybe progress was the right move?
“You got quiet.”
Ember glanced over at her amnesiac husband and pursed her lips. “I was lost in thought. Trying to distract myself from worrying about Ash.”
“We’ll hit her place next, I promise.”
Ember nodded. She just hoped it wasn’t to look for clues to Ash’s murder.
They came to the exit, tires crunching in the gravel and Cedric turned down the lane. Katydids chirruped in the trees, seeming to pulse along with the waves of heat rising from the road.
“Sure is a hot one today,” Cedric said, blinking sweat out of his eyes.
“Turn on the AC already,” Ember said with a frown, her gaze narrowed.
\ “I thought women liked it warm. I was keeping it off for your sake.”
Ember wiped a hand down her face and heaved a heavy sigh. “Cedric, giving that you have amnesia, maybe not making assumptions is a good place for us to start, huh?”
“We’re here,” Cedric said. “I’ll crank it on the ride back, all right?”
Ember rolled her eyes and leaped out of the car. Her knees grew weak as she approached the group of state troopers and eyewitnesses standing around a tarp-covered form. Was it Ash underneath that blue tarp?
Cedric came up behind her, placing a steadying hand on her elbow. “You’ve got this.”
He squeezed her elbow and moved on ahead of her. “Trooper Sawyer, Trooper James. Have we ID’d the vic yet?”
The brown-clad troopers nodded their heads, faces shiny with sweat. “It’s Rose Ditkowitz. Single mom. She’s been missing for a day or two.”
Ember almost fainted with relief. Not Ash. Then her heart swelled with pity and sadness. Rose had endured a short, but tragic, life. She left behind a young child, April, who’d already suffered her own unfair portion of darkness.
Even if it meant Ash wasn’t dead, Ember reminded herself it was not a win that Rose died.”
“I didn’t know that was Rose’s last name,” Ember said numbly as she stared at the tarp. All she could see of her friend was the bottom half of her pink and silver running shoes.
“I think she reverted to her maiden name, or something.” Trooper Sawyer grimaced; wiping sweat from his brow. “It’s your jurisdiction, Sheriff. You care if me and James skedaddle?”
“No, get out of this heat, by all means.” Cedric laughed without much mirth as he stared down at the body. “Looks like I’ve got a long morning ahead of me.”
“Rose went missing?” Ember swallowed hard. “I hate to say it, but has anyone seen her Ex, Tom?”
“We’ll definitely want to talk to Tom.” Cedric chewed the eraser of his pencil as he regarded the scene. “I know he was under the influence of a love spell at the time he killed Cassandra, but sometimes Magic doesn’t create something that’s already there. Sometimes, it…”
Ember nodded. “Sometimes it just amplifies urges that are already present. I’m not saying Tom didn’t do this. I am saying Rose was a shifter, and very cautious.”
“Do you detect magic?”
Ember’s brow furrowed with concentration. “Other than that innately possessed by Rose, not really. There’s so much magical energy in Cauchemar it kind of builds up in most people’s aura. No overt magical method killed her, I can say that.”
“Good enough for now. We’ll wait for the coroner to arrive, then we’ll go check out Ash’s place.”
Cedric put his hand on Ember’s shoulder. “We’re going to find her, Ember.”
Ember nodded, resting her hand on Cedric’s and giving it a squeeze. She hoped he was right.
Unchained Melody wafted above the rush of freon-cooled air inside the squad car. Ember’s first instinct was to switch the channel, but she didn’t want to have the inevitable discussion as to why.
Eventually it grew too much for her. When they crossed a rough railroad junction, Ember used her magic to change the station.
“Huh.” Cedric went to change the channel from the Rockabilly anthem squealing from the speakers, but Ember stopped him.
“It’s all right. I like this song.”
Cedric shrugged, his hand returning to the wheel. Ember sighed in despairing relief. That song had been one of their favorites, and they’d danced to it at their wedding. Ember had lost her husband as surely as if he’d died. The man next to her was like a ghost or hewn from an alternate reality. She knew him, remembered all their times together, but his mind was blank on all of that.
As if guessing her thoughts, Cedric glanced over at Ember. “It’s not easy for either of us.”
Ember rubbed her eye sockets with the heels of her hands. She hadn’t been getting much sleep of late. She feared her dreams. “I know.”
“I mean, here’s the thing,” Cedric said. “It sounds like you were a significant portion of my life for quite some time. With my memories stolen, I feel kind of…hollow. Empty. Like I’m not a complete person without those memories.”
Ember felt a stab of pity. She’d been mostly focused on her own loss; she hadn’t considered the toll on Cedric. “I’m sorry. Ash and I have been doing all we can looking for your memories.”
“I don’t see how. The witch hid them in another dimension, then made herself forget where. Even if you summoned her ghost and compelled it to tell you where, it wouldn’t work.”
Ember glazed out at the Spanish moss hanging from the branches of the trees overhead. The heat that time of year had a cloying effect. She could imagine how hot and heavy her own limbs would feel burdened by moss.
“Ash and I can use the same techniques you use investigating a crime,” Ember said softly. “We interview potential eyewitnesses. The other dimensions aren’t unpopulated. It’s quite possible someone, or something, saw the Glawkus hiding your memories.”
“How would you even know where to start?”
Ember sighed. “We don’t. What Ash proposed is to go though the dimensions one by one, but that could take twenty years or more, assuming we could find time to find and investigate one per week.”
“Brute force and blind luck, eh?”
Ember nodded. “We’d like a way to narrow down the search parameters. Possibly if we investigate the fallen house—”
“No way,” Cedric said. “We all agreed nobody goes back to that place. It’s…cursed. Fouled. I wouldn’t be surprised if that hag is still around in a spectral state.”
“We could measure which walls between dimensions are thinnest in the area, it could cut years off our search—”
Cedric sighed, pulling to a stop as a train trundled past on the hot iron rails. He turned to look at her, a frank light in his eyes.
“Ember, I may only have known you a week by my perspective, but I get the feeling you’re the type of woman who does what she thinks is best no matter what.”
“You think I’m hard headed?” Ember cocked an eyebrow.
“No…well, yes, but in a good way. You’ll listen to what others have to say, but, once you make a decision, you see it through. I’m just asking, slow down a minute before you go back to that place. All right? Just slow down.”
“Every minute without your memories is a minute wasted,” Ember snapped. She slammed her fist down on her thigh and glared at him. “It’s easy for you to say slow down. I lost my husband. The man I love barely knows me. Hell, yes I’m in a rush to get your memories back.”
Cedric swallowed, turning his gaze back on the road as the train passed and the gates raised into the air. “That’s fair enough. I’d hate to think this time is wasted. I enjoy your company.”
Ember glanced at him sharply as they entered the small downtown area. Ash rented a studio over a currently empty shop space below. They pulled up outside the building, Ember gazing intently up at the window.
“Everything looks quiet from here,” Ember said.
“Could be that your sister came back home,” Cedric nodded toward the building.
“And didn’t answer my texts or call me back?”
“If she lost her phone, she might not be able to do that. Let’s not make any assumptions until we have a look around up there.”
Ember and Cedric walked across the sun-baked street, the hot air buffeting her hair. They used the landlord’s key to open the stairwell access door, then tromped up worn, carpeted steps to the loft.
“I see the broken glass,” Ember walked over to brown shards scattered on the floor near the kitchen area. “I think this was a candy dish she’d never bothered to fill.”
“Some signs of a struggle.” Cedric gestured at an overturned chair. “Sense anything magical?”
Ember shook her head. “Ash was a witch too, and she’s woven some protective and alarm wards about. One of them has been triggered, but there’s no sign of what may have done so.
“Let’s give the place the old-fashioned naked eyeball once over.”
Ember nodded. They divided the place up between them. Ember sat down at the writing desk near the old-school landline phone, chewing on her fingernail. Nothing. The room on her side was clean as a whistle, nothing out of the ordinary.
Her gaze dropped down to the calendar atop the desk. Ash had apparently struggled with a pen which refused to write. A long scribble became a red streak when she tried an alternate pen. Mkrebs leadsled.
Normally, Ember might have dismissed it. Since her sister had gone missing, she carefully tore it from the calendar and tucked it in her pocket.
“Hey, what do you make of this?” Cedric approached her, heavy tread squeaking the floorboards. He handed her a small plastic disc with a skull sticker. A number on the inside seemed scratched in by hand.
Ember squinted at the piece for a long moment and shook her head. “Looks mass manufactured. No apparent magical aura of its own. Any ideas what that number means?”
Cedric shook his head. “I’ll get the techie-oriented deputies on it.”
He looked about and tried to smile. “We’ll find her, Ember.”
Ember nodded, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile back. Until Ash was safe at her side, Ember wondered if she’d be able to smile at all.
She was quite tired of losing people.