The Broken Broom had just closed up for the night, the last patrons heading home and the wait staff, counting their tips, chattering their friendly goodnights as they trotted in the streetlights out to their cars. All around, the little town of Cauchemar, Louisiana, seemed to be settling into a thick, heavy, summer night’s sleep.
The pub windows went dark, their warm orange glow blinking out until only one faint light, the shine of a single lamp, remained.
Inside the pub, the proprietress, Ember McNair, sat in the circle of that lamplight going over the evening’s numbers. Not bad for a weeknight.
The Broken Broom had been so busy Ember had barely had time to get off her feet all night. Her ears still echoed with the sounds of all the night’s chatter and cheer. The quiet and the comfort of her seat were a wonderful relief after all that excitement.
And yet she couldn’t seem to settle down. There was a sense in the air–a dancing, prickling feeling crawling up and down Ember’s skin, causing her hairs to stand on end.
It was a magical feeling, one that a trained witch like Ember had learned not to ignore. During the busy rush of evenings at the pub, she must have mistaken the rising sensation for sheer industry. But now, left alone in the darkness and quiet, she recognized it for what it was.
There was something wrong.
“Hello?” she called, looking around, alert to her surroundings. She had the sudden, uneasy feeling she wasn’t alone.
No sooner did she call out than she thought she heard something shift–the lightest sound, off in the distance.
As quietly as she could manage, Ember rose, careful not to let her chair scrape loudly against the ground. “Hello?” she called again, more softly this time.
That was when her fluffy kitten familiar, Kali, chose to make her appearance. She trotted quickly into the dining area, and hopped with great delicacy and acrobatic flair up onto the table.
“Were you really scared?” Kali asked, curious. “I’m sorry. I was just hunting mice.”
Ember laughed nervously and let out a little sigh. “Please don’t tell me we have mice,” she groaned.
“No, it turned out to be a shadow,” Kali said, clearly disappointed. “Why? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Ember said. “I guess it’s nothing. Just a feeling….”
Kali was watching her witch carefully. As Ember’s familiar, Kali was often even more tapped into Ember’s emotions than Ember herself was. As soon as Kali gave her that look, Ember realized that Kali was right to be worried.
That strange, prickling, all-over feeling hadn’t gone away.
“The painting,” Ember said, distracted. Her instincts were telling her… something about a painting?
She turned and looked at the nearby wall. Over one of the booths, there was an old painting hanging. She’d never paid it much mind. It was an old, stiff-looking portrait of one of her ancestors, and it had been hanging in the Broken Broom since before Ember took over running the place.
Now she could see it was hanging crookedly. She crossed to it and leaned over the booth to straighten it.
No sooner did she do so than the face in the painting seemed to bulge outward, gaining dimension–the nose growing toward her, the eyes and chin emerging from the flat oil-painted panel.
Ember shrieked and startled backward, nearly toppling over.
Except that, once she had caught herself against the table, she saw that the face hadn’t moved at all. Rather, a ghost had phased through the wall, passing through the painting as it did so.
The ghost was none other than Talako, another deceased ancestor of Ember’s, and a good friend. He was looking down at Ember, wearing a concerned expression.
“Are you all right?” Talako asked.
Kali was, unhelpfully, snickering.
“I’m fine,” Ember said, catching her breath and dusting herself off, attempting to retain her dignity. “Talako, it’s good to see you. What brings you here?”
“Some strange news from the art museum,” Talako said.
Ember knew that the art museum was one of Talako’s favorite places to haunt. He was a huge art fan, and surprisingly progressive in his tastes for someone who had been dead for over centuries.
“What’s the news?” Kali asked.
“One of the paintings has been stolen,” Talako said. “I was there when it happened, but I was in a different section. I heard a noise, but by the time I figured out where the noise came from, it was all over.”
“What was over?” Ember asked. “What happened?”
“Evidently someone hit the guard on the back of the head.” Talako shook his head sadly. “Brent Underwood–the guard, I mean. I’m not sure who did the hitting. Brent looked incredibly injured when I came across him. I was sadly unable to do anything to help him, of course, but I did manage to dial 911 from the museum phone. I didn’t say anything to the operator, but she sent a police car by, and the officer found Brent and called an ambulance.”
“That is exciting,” Kali said. “Is Brent going to be all right?”
“I don’t know,” Talako admitted. “The injury looked most severe.”
“And which painting was it?” Ember asked. There was that unsettled, buzzing sensation again, snaking just underneath her skin. “You said a painting was stolen. Which one?”
“That’s the really interesting part,” Talako said. “Whoever the thief was must have moved very quickly, because by the time I found Brent unconscious the place where it had hung was gone. It was the painting called ‘Black Seas and Dark Skies.’”
“The cursed one?” Kali asked.
“Cursed?” Ember echoed. “A cursed painting?”
Kali nodded sagely. “It was supposedly cursed by the painter. She was accused of witchcraft, but she managed to curse it before she was burned at the stake.”
“According to the curse, anyone who has the painting in his home is doomed to die,” Talako added.
They all looked at one another a moment. Ember wasn’t certain what to say.
“Well,” Kali added eventually, “if the curse is real, I suppose we’ll find out the identity of the thief soon enough, won’t we?”
Just as Ember had finished with the closing-up work and was about to switch off the last lamp and head to her apartment above the pub, she heard a faint knock on the door.
In the doorway stood Cedric Jamison. Tall, built, and handsome. Wolf shifter, local sheriff, and Ember’s boyfriend. Cedric smiled faintly when Ember opened the door and let him in.
“Tired?” she asked.
“Weird night,” Cedric said. “Just got off a very strange call. I thought there was the faintest chance you might still be up. Maybe even already knew about it.”
“Why would I know about anything?” Ember asked with a faux-innocent smile.
“Because whoever called 911 disappeared into thin air for some reason,” Cedric replied dryly. “And because I happen to know that Talako loved spending his time at the museum late at nights.”
Ember grinned. “Yeah, all right. Talako told me what happened to Brent Underwood. And that ‘Black Seas and Dark Skies’ had been stolen. Any leads?”
Cedric strode into the dining area and sat down. Kali immediately started to rub up against his ankles, and he leaned down to scratch her head.
“Well, I got to talk to Underwood a little,” Cedric said. “He’s hospitalized now, but he was conscious enough to speak after a while. He says he doesn’t know who hit him. Whoever it was hit him from the back.”
“That’s what Talako said.” Ember sat across from Cedric. “How long was Underwood out for?”
“Just a few minutes, according to him,” Cedric answered. “The painting was stolen during that time.”
“Do you believe Underwood?”
Cedric sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. Lots of times, you hear about these art heists, and the guard is in on it. But he got a pretty nasty knock. I’m still not sure he’s going to be okay. It would take a real commitment to an inside job to take a blow like that.”
“Would I be able to talk to him sometime?” Ember asked.
“Sure, if he’s well enough for it.” Cedric blinked at her, then cocked an eyebrow. “Would you want to go now?”
“If that’s okay,” Ember said, already standing. Suddenly, her exhaustion from the day’s work was entirely forgotten. Mysteries had a vivifying effect on her.
“Yeah, that’s fine.” Cedric stood gingerly, careful not to tread on Kali as he did so. “I’ll drive you.”
“I should go, too,” Kali offered, eager. “I’ll be able to tell if he’s lying about anything.”
Kali did have that uniquely useful power, which had come in clutch on more than one occasion.
Cedric, however, shook his head. “I don’t know it’s such a good idea to bring a cat into a hospital. Hygienic issues, you know?” He cast a look around the pub, clearly indicating that he also wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to have a cat hanging around a place that served food.
Kali turned her back on Cedric and Ember and twitched her tail and sniffed imperiously. “Fine,” she said. “If you two wanted to go alone you could have just said so.”
Brent Underwood was sitting up in bed when Cedric and Ember made it to his room. He looked seriously worse for wear, with a complex web of bandages wrapped around his forehead and covering most of his hair, but he was conscious.
Still, Ember felt guilty making him walk through the story again, just for her sake. In a slightly halting, thick-tongued tone, Brent explained the same version of events that she had gotten from Talako and Cedric.
It was an ordinary night, just like any other. And then, suddenly, he’d been hit in the back of the head, hard. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. By the time he woke up the phone was already off the hook, and the emergency operator was on the line. He realized the painting was gone just seconds before the cops arrived.
“And you didn’t notice anything before you were attacked?” Ember pressed. “You have no clues as to who could have hit you?”
“I didn’t see them,” Brent said. “Whoever it was came up from behind. I didn’t even get a glimpse.”
Now Ember wished she had found a way to sneak Kali in, after all. She could really have used Kali’s lie detection skills right about now.
But for her part, Ember couldn’t help but believe Brent. He was adamant, and he seemed righteously peeved at whoever had hit him.
“At least whoever it is has to deal with that curse now,” Brent slurred faintly. “They’ll get what’s coming to them.”
Ember couldn’t tell from his lethargic tone whether he was joking or not.
“Well?” Cedric asked as he drove her back home. “Are you convinced?”
“That the painting is cursed?” Ember asked. “No, not at all. After all, the painting’s been hanging in that museum for years, and no one has died.”
“I think the curse did say something about being in someone’s house….” Cedric pointed out.
Ember scoffed. “Seems like an awfully specific stipulation for an angry witch’s curse to split hairs over.”
Cedric chuckled. “And do you believe Underwood?”
Ember shrugged. “I do. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. I don’t think he knows who hit him.”
Cedric was quiet for a while, and they both mulled the whole case over for the remainder of the drive back to the Broken Pub.
Only when Cedric pulled to a stop in front of the pub did he speak again, his voice softer and more raw this time.
“And… have you given it any more thought?”
This time, Ember knew he wasn’t asking about the case.
He was asking about the marriage proposal he’d given her, which she hadn’t been able to answer. Over a week had passed now, and Ember still hadn’t said either yes or no.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He breathed in sharply, clearly hearing this as the beginning of a no.
Ember rushed in rapidly. “No, it’s not that, not at all. I still haven’t decided. I don’t want you to jump into another engagement so quickly, not after your last long-term one.”
“Don’t you think that’s my decision to make?”
Ember smiled at Cedric patiently. “It’s our decision,” she said. “Which includes me. I care about you, and I don’t want to rush you into anything. Please, Cedric, just let me think it over.”
He huffed, but nodded.
She leaned across the console and gave him a sweet, gentle kiss.
“It’s not a no,” she said firmly. “It’s just not a yes. Yet.”