“I’m sick of it,” Kathy O’Connell said morosely. She spoke directly into the foam at the top of her freshly pulled pint. The foam rippled faintly with the force of her words. “Just sick and tired of it.”
It was just before the dinner hour, a perfectly acceptable time to be drinking a pint. And the Broken Broom Pub, the best–practically the only–drinking establishment in Cauchemar, Louisiana, was a perfectly acceptable place to be drinking a pint, too.
But Kathy O’Connell wasn’t feeling perfectly acceptable this evening. As a matter of fact, she was feeling pretty horrible.
“You don’t have to put up with it, you know.” Ember McNair, the Broken Broom Pub’s pretty young proprietress, leaned onto the bar. She looked at Kathy with those piercing, ocean-blue eyes of hers, a look of insight and understanding that Kathy just knew got the entire town spilling its secrets to her like magic.
Of course, Kathy O’Connell didn’t know that Ember really was magic. Even now, underneath the bar, she had enchanted a set of pint glasses to wipe themselves down. The rumble of customers settling down to their dinners throughout the dining area easily drowned out the slight clink clink of the newly cleaned glasses restacking themselves along the shelf.
She didn’t use magic to do her job all the time. Ember was as committed as any of her fellow witches and supernatural creatures to avoiding detection by the mundane world.
But these glasses really did need to be cleaned, and Kathy looked like she was having a really tough time. What else was Ember supposed to do–abandon her friend for a little bit of washing up?
“You wouldn’t understand,” Kathy accused, flapping a hand at Ember. “You’re all… tiny and gorgeous. And young. And engaged.”
The ring on Ember’s finger took this cue as an opportunity to sparkle brilliantly in the low yellow light.
“Come on,” Ember demurred. “You’re beautiful! You’re tall and thin, like a model. And aren’t you, like, thirty? That’s just a couple years older than I am. You could do a lot better than a married man in his forties.”
“He’s not in his forties,” Kathy said.
“He looks like he’s forty-five,” Ember said. “At least.”
This wasn’t strictly true. The fact was that Steven Smits was attractive and young-looking, but in that skeevy, oily, manufactured TV-personality fashion that really rubbed Ember the wrong way. What was worse, he was a food critic. Ember was sure not all food critics were horrible snobs, but Steven Smits certainly seemed to have an inflated sense of his own importance in Cauchemar’s restaurant ecosystem.
Ember knew she wasn’t close enough friends with Kathy to be offering this kind of advice, but the woman was clearly in crisis.
And as Cauchemar’s best bartender, Ember didn’t mind doling out some tough-love words of wisdom once in a while, when the situation demanded it.
“Fine,” Kathy said. “You’re right. I’m going to break it off with him.” Even she didn’t sound very convinced, however.
“Good,” Ember replied, enthusiastic. “It’s not right dating a married man. And it’s not good to yourself dating someone who’ll just use you like that.”
Kathy took a deep breath, clearly taking in Ember’s words, drinking it up like liquid courage. Her actual pint, she had set aside, scarcely touched. “Yes,” she said, with more conviction this time. She rose from the barstool. “You’re right. I’m going to go and do it today.”
Ember watched as Kathy left the pub. Ember was feeling nervous but optimistic, hoping that Kathy would be able to follow through with her conviction.
In the meantime, she had glasses to finish cleaning.
Kathy had her own restaurant to run, and her own oncoming dinner rush to handle, so she didn’t have long to meet with Steven.
They met Steven’s car in the parking lot outside Kathy’s Korner, the local café Kathy owned and operated. Her wait staff could see them from the windows that looked out over the lot.
It didn’t look like they were having a very pleasant conversation.
“You think we should go out there and step in?” asked one of the waitresses, a diminutive girl named Bobbie who was just out of high school.
“Nah,” said Randy through the window that looked into the kitchen. He was leaning on the shelf where he placed the orders for pick-up when he finished preparing them. “The boss is tough. She can take care of herself.”
He had a look of distaste on his face that Bobbie didn’t question.
Still, she couldn’t help but try to tune in to what Kathy and Steven were saying when she stepped out of the café to run the trash into the alley dumpster.
“–am absolutely done with you.” Kathy’s voice, heated but firm, slipped through the cracked-open passenger side window. “You are out of time.”
“You’ll change your mind,” Steven was saying. “Mark my words.”
“Yeah, no, I don’t think so.”
With that, Kathy let herself out of the car and slammed the door behind her. Seeming not to see Bobbie at all, she breezed through the alley and into the café by way of the back door.
Bobbie watched as Steven’s car peeled away in an angry rush.
The dinner rush luckily went off without a hitch. Randy was speedy as ever, and the customers all loved the food.
“Compliments to the chef from tables 6, 7 and 10,” Bobbie chirped at him through the window.
He waved it off, but it was clear he was pleased by the praise.
The place had just started to calm down again when Steven walked in.
“Uh oh,” Bobbie said. Kathy was back in her office, but Bobbie highly doubted she would want to see Steven.
Luckily, Randy was on alert from the second Steven walked in. He came out from the kitchen–something he almost never did–and greeted the man at the counter.
“I’m here to talk to Kathy,” Steven said stiffly.
“Sure, man, I’m sure she’ll be out soon,” Randy told him. “In the meantime, do you want to try something new? A recipe I’ve been working on. It’d be great to get the famous Steven Smits’s input while it’s still in the development stage.”
Billie saw the second that Randy’s flattery won Steven over. He shrugged, sitting at the bar. “Well, if I’m going to be waiting anyway,” he said.
It took Randy a few minutes to put the plate together. When he came out, he had some sort of lima bean hummus surrounded by corn flour chips.
Steven took a sniff, then a sip of ice water to cleanse his palate. After his first exploratory bite, his face brightened. He dug in more and more.
Randy was watching him with a faint smile on his face.
“Delicious,” Steven said. “I usually don’t finish my plate, but those were wonderful.” Only once he’d said this did he look around for Kathy. “Now… is Kathy here?”
“Actually,” Randy lied, “now that I’m thinking about it she might have stepped out for the night.”
Steven scowled at Randy, then rolled his eyes elaborately and stood. He swiped his finger through the last of the hummus and licked it off, muttering, “Well, at least this wasn’t a complete waste of time.”
By the time the sun rose the next morning, Steven Smits was dead.
Fifteen minutes before the Broken Broom was set to open the next morning, Ember was busy wrapping sets of silverware and thinking up the day’s specials. She had ordered too much catfish at the top of the week, so she was mentally flipping through all the different catfish recipes she knew–baked? fried? tacos?–when she heard an insistent tapping sound coming from the front door.
In Ember’s life, there was an equal chance that someone tapping at her locked pub door might be a ghost, a familiar, or a deranged murderer. However, Ember’s small black kitten familiar, Kali, was currently curled up on the chair next to her. And the pub’s resident ghost, Talako, would have no need to rap at the door when he was perfectly capable of phasing right through the walls or appearing wherever and whenever he liked.
And, as far as Ember knew, all the deranged murderers at large in Cauchemar had been apprehended and locked up already.
Still, she gave Kali a nervous look.
“What are the odds it’s just an overzealous early customer?”
Kali opened one eye, barely visible as her face was nestled in against her own dark fluff.
“Maybe they heard about the catfish special,” Kali drawled lazily.
Ember tried to be on her guard when she approached the door. Through the window that looked out onto the sidewalk, she couldn’t see anyone standing there at all, which only set her all the more on edge.
She waited until she heard another urgent tap–more like a whumpf sound, really, like something heavy hitting the wood at about knee-height–before she wrenched open the door and looked out, ready to cast a defensive spell if necessary.
Instead, she was delighted to see that her visitor was a small black bat.
No sooner was the door open than the bat zipped inside. Ember shut and locked the door again and turned to face the intruder, who had taken off into the dining area.
“Hey, Sage,” Ember said happily. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
As Ember looked on, the bat changed shape, growing and elongating until a woman, not a bat, stood in the middle of the room. She was thin and pretty with sleek dark hair and a sharp, classic profile.
“Yeah, well, you should keep a window open!” Sage replied, rubbing at her head with an affected wince. “It’s tough to knock on my bat form.”
“You could have changed back, then knocked,” Kali remarked dryly.
“You really want me shifting on a public street in broad daylight?”
“Well, you could always walk over in human form instead of flying.”
“Sure,” Sage conceded. “But I was in a hurry! Ember, have you heard the news?”
Ember shook her head. “I just woke up and came down here. I haven’t heard anything all day except for Kali snoring. What’s up?”
“Steven Smits,” Sage said, as if the name itself should have meaning to her.
Of course, for Ember, it did have meaning. She had just been discussing Steven Smits with Kathy O’Connell last night.
Funny, she normally tried her best not to think about Steven Smits at all. Now here he was coming up in conversation two times in as many days. She couldn’t say it was a very pleasant coincidence.
“What about him?”
Ember blinked, confused, as her mind tried to catch up to this information.
“Wait,” she said. “Steven Smits? The food critic?”
She almost asked whether this was Kathy’s Steven, but she stopped herself in time. It was possible Sage didn’t know that information about Kathy yet. Not likely, of course–Sage had a tendency to know just about everything worth knowing in Cauchemar–but still possible. And Kathy probably didn’t want Ember spreading that information around.
“One and the same,” Sage said with a nod. She lifted up a magazine that was set on a nearby windowsill. Louisiana Cookin’ regularly featured Steven’s writing. On this issue, he’d written the cover story. Sage pointed to his byline. “Cauchemar’s own Jonathan Gold.”
Ember snatched up the magazine. She subscribed to various food magazines to keep them around the pub, which contributed to the casual café vibe she liked to promote during the day. She was aware that Smits’s articles showed up in these magazines from time to time, and that they often caused quite a stir in Cauchemar whenever they did because they had the potential to promote the town as an attractive tourist location on a statewide and even national scale.
Ember didn’t have a particularly high opinion of his writing. But she had to admit that his work had boosted Cauchemar’s profile. Often when tourists came in to the Broken Broom they would cite Smits’s writing as the thing that had put the town on their radar.
“That’s awful,” Ember said, sincerely. She might not have thought much of the man, but it was still sad when someone died such an untimely death. “Does anyone know what happened? I mean, was it some kind of accident?”
Sage shrugged. “No one knows for sure. I guess he was rushed to the hospital sometime in the middle of the night. He was vomiting blood. The doctors did what they could, but he died at the hospital.”
“That’s not a good sign,” Ember remarked. A sense of foreboding was creeping over her. She had a very bad feeling about where all of this was heading and how this news might be attached to her conversation with Kathy last night.
“And that’s not all, either,” Sage continued. “I guess before that, that same evening… well, his last meal was at Kathy’s Korner.”