Ember McNair smiled as she looked around at her patrons laughing and enjoying the atmosphere in her pub. Today was Saturday and the Broken Broom was heaving with folk taking a break from their weekday routines.
She had been wiping down a recently vacated table and noticed a man she had never seen before. Cauchemar was a small town, so most people had entered her radar at some point. But the man talking to a couple of teenage tourists she had chatted with earlier was giving off a manic aura.
He was pale skinned with wavy grey hair. She stared at the man for a moment. His bony hands were animated as he spoke. His dark gray suit hung loose in places it ought to have fit.
As Ember looked to his side, she noticed a bag with what looked like several carved stakes poking out of the top.
Ember made her way over to the table where the man was sitting.
“Hi, can I get you anything?”
The man turned in his seat and peered at her. His eyes were small and reminded her of the cigarette burns in her tablecloths.
“A shepherd’s pie for me please,” he said.
Ember nodded and began to write down his order. “I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you on vacation?”
“I don’t live here. I’m on a mission to find vampires,” he said without even a hint of humor.
“So you’re a vampire hunter?” Ember glanced down at the bag of stakes and couldn’t help the corners of her mouth from lifting.
“Yep, I’ve heard that one of the head vampires is in the region so I’m gonna get me one.” He waggled his bushy gray eyebrows.
The two young men serving as an attentive audience were grinning with excitement.
“Oh… well, good luck with that.” Ember gave him a short grin as she was about to leave, but the man held out his arm to stop her.
“You’re a local,” he said. “Do you have any information on the location of the vampires’ lair?”
Ember covered a cough with the back of her hand. “I don’t think we have any vampires in this area. Or if we do, they certainly haven’t invited me to their lair.”
The man tilted his head at her. “I see,” he said, “I’ve met folk like you before–nonbelievers. Well, let me tell you missy, there is a whole supernatural world out there full of supernatural creatures and those who don’t understand will be the ones who are taken first. You mark my words.”
Ember felt her eyebrows raise as she nodded slightly before leaving and wondering what his reaction would be if she turned him into a toad and poked him with one of his sticks.
Back in the small pub kitchen Talako was waiting for Ember with a mischievous grin on his face.
“Oh, hi, Talako,” Ember said as she noticed him in the corner. “What brings you here?”
“I wanted to see my great, great, great… well, you get the drift… niece,” he said, arms folded but still with an uncharacteristic grin on his face.
“Sorry, you know you’re welcome any time. What’s with the girly grin?”
“I came for a visit, but I was behind the post when you were talking with that weird vampire dude.” He bent over and held his stomach. “So funny. And I know what you were thinking as you walked away.”
“Honestly, what a strange guy! And what is it with the suit? He must be boiling.”
“I surmise it’s so he can hide his stake from the vampire before he attacks. Although a raincoat would have done the job better.”
Ember shook her head. “It takes all sorts, I suppose.”
“If you ask me, and it is always a wise path, it’s people like him who are dangerous. They’re always looking for some person he considers bad to hang, just like at the Salem witch trials. Someone is going to end up getting hurt, I can see it now.”
“I must admit I would rather like to see his expression if you apparated into the wall in front of him.”
They both walked back to the door and looked across in the direction of the vampire guy, who was now apparently demonstrating how he would kill a vampire by making stabbing motions with one of his stakes.
Later that evening, Ember made her final checks in the kitchen before going into the bar to close up for the night. She yawned and rolled her head around to release the tension from her shoulders. Her long black hair now free from the hairband she usually wore when serving food.
As she hung her head to stretch the back of her neck, she caught something in her peripheral vision. Her eyes moved from the floor to the bar where she suddenly froze. Her body remained motionless as she slowly moved her eyes from one side of the pub to the other.
The churning in her stomach was accompanied by the sound of her heart thumping in her ears.
On each of the tables was a pyramid of wine glasses: the way you would stack them if you were attempting a champagne fountain.
Ember swallowed and moved slowly around the front of the bar, listening for anything unusual. The only sound she heard was the gentle humming of the wine refrigerator.
She looked at the glasses again and then behind the bar where her glasses would normally be kept–they were gone.
Her mind was turning, trying to figure out how someone managed to do this without her hearing them. She had been the last person here, and when she let the last member of staff out, the tables were clear.
Several questions raced through her mind all at once. Who had been in her bar after hours? What message were they trying to send? And, most importantly of all, were they still in the building?
Outside, the air had grown balmy and dark, and the streets were empty. With even the Broken Broom closed for the night, nobody had any place to be except home.
The exception, of course, was Fairy Tales Inn, which was still full of light and sound late into the night. Later than its owner, Luka Reynolds, would like.
This was the double-edged sword of doing a good business. It was all well and good to have the most popular Inn in Cauchemar when she was doing the books or paying her staff, but it was less of a fun time when the place was fully booked up and the guests wouldn’t go to bed.
Not everyone hanging around in the dining area even was a guest. Some of them had rooms booked somewhere upstairs, but the majority of those sitting around, listening to the old man ramble, were people Luka well knew were locals with homes to get back to. They had no business hanging around, eating the complimentary Sweet Things Bakery pastries Luka came around for paying guests.
“Who is that man and what is his deal, Luka?” One of the kitchen staff, done from serving dinner, drifted over to her, looking curiously into the throng of people.
“His name is George Franks,” Luka explained wryly. “And I’m not sure what his deal is.”
She had been startled by George Franks before she ever met him. Even over the phone, booking his room, he had struck her as odd. And not just because he had not-so-subtly begun inquiring into the presence of supernatural creatures in Cauchemar.
Of course, Luka pretended not to know what he was talking about.
“Really?” he’d said. “Never met a witch? A shapeshifter? A fairy?”
As a matter of fact, Luka had met a witch. Ember McNair over at the Broken Broom was of the sweetest people Luka had ever met, as a matter of fact.
Shapeshifters? Try several. Luka was particularly fond of her friend, Sage Weyant, the town’s general store owner who could turn into a bat at will. But there was also Sheriff Cedric Jamison, whose wolf side had a tendency to show through even in his stoic, striking human form.
As for fairies–well, there was Lyla de la Croix, who ran Sweet Things, which made the best desserts in the entire state, though she insisted that the only magic involved in the process was top-grade butter.
And of course Luka herself was a fairy. Not that she let that fact get around among the mundanes.
To George Franks, she had simply denied any knowledge despite his persistent questioning. But she’d tried to keep a wary eye on him since he arrived.
Luckily, watching him didn’t take much care. He’d more or less set up court in the dining room now, and was talking loudly about, of all things, vampires.
“I must have hunted down and eliminated, oh, dozens and dozens of them,” he said to his rapt audience, mostly comprised of local young people. “So you can take my word for it. Any questions you’ve got about vampires, I’ve got answers.”
“Sir,” piped up one girl who couldn’t have been older than fifteen, “is it true that they can’t stand sunlight?”
George shook his head. “That’s a myth. Probably put out by vampires themselves to catch you off-guard. They’re sneaky like that. The only way to kill a vampire is to stab it in the heart with a wooden stake. Anything else you hear is vampires trying to trick you.”
Luka checked her watch. It was nearly 11:00 p.m. already. She knew there were probably a few guests trying to sleep upstairs who wouldn’t be thrilled if the noisy chatter in the dining room carried on much later.
Luka herself could use a little peace and quiet. Maybe it was time to take a vacation soon.
“All right,” she said, walking into the dining room and clapping her hands imperiously. “Dining room is closing up! All non-paying guests should be on their way.”
A general groan of disappointment rose at this announcement, so she put on her sweetest smile and added, “You don’t want to be caught in the streets when the vampires come out to feed.”
At that, the young people all quickly stood and shuffled out to leave.
Luka chuckled to herself. Then, she quickly did the rounds in order to send home the remaining staff who had been lingering around, waiting for the guests to go to bed. They were all grateful to her, and by the time she made it back to the dining room, the place was empty.
She flicked out the light, then went to her own room.
All this talk of vampires had made her curious. To be honest, she didn’t know whether vampires truly existed. She had never seen one before–at least, not that she knew of.
Then again, there were plenty of people who had seen Luka and still didn’t know that they had met a fairy. Didn’t even believe that fairies existed. So who knew? She wasn’t the type of person to pretend she knew everything there was to know in the world.
Luka had nearly managed to get to bed when a ruckus kicked up elsewhere in the inn. Groaning and throwing a robe over her pajamas, she went out into the hallway and mounted the stairs to see which room the noise was coming from.
It sounded like raised voices. Following the sounds brought her to the door of room 7.
She listened to the voices but couldn’t make out the words. It took her a sleepy second to place the room’s occupants–a young, friendly-looking couple. Why were they arguing at this hour?
Suppressing a yawn, Luka rapped at the door. The voices paused.
“Hey,” she called through into the room. “Would you folks mind quieting down? I could hear you all the way downstairs.”
To Luka’s surprise, the door opened. The young woman–Luka thought her name was Jennie–came out, still stressed business casual as she had been when Luka saw her earlier in the day.
“Sorry about that,” she said, terse. “I’m leaving, anyway. Going to take a walk.” And she shoved her way out into the hallway and away from Luka, slamming the door to room 7 behind her.