CW: Strong language, adult situations, depictions of grief, trauma, and severe depression.
Vlad’s House, Henford-on-Bagley
After hours of reading, pacing, pretending to sleep, and driving Latimer insane with the number of times he texted, “is it alright to wake her?” Vlad noticed Alice finally stirring. He clasped his hands behind his back, trying to give the appearance of patience. “So Salim attended a lover in the restroom of a nightclub while you were taking a pregnancy test?”
She rubbed her eyes and blinked. “Uh…good morning.”
“I don’t think Salim knew I was taking a pregnancy test,” she rubbed her eyes again, “Where’s Gwendolyn? She needs breakfast.”
“Downstairs with Latimer. She had breakfast; I made her a frittata.”
“You what?” Alice’s mouth fell open. “And she ate it?”
“Of course, she ate it; it had spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. Also, a little quinoa on the side. I don’t understand the problem.”
“Well, normally she eats like crackers, dry cereal, applesauce…”
Vlad frowned. “All of that sounds awful. Regardless, we should return to my earlier question.”
“I told you a ton of stuff about my life, but you’re only worried about Salim?”
Vlad wasn’t only worried about Salim. He’d been up all night searching his old books for references to death wands and ghosts. Most of it was incomprehensible, so now he was focused on the problem he could solve.
“When did you meet? Where does he live? Does he live there now? What are the access points of his building?”
“Nevermind. If you give me the address, I won’t have a problem getting in.”
“Are you losing your shit?” she asked.
He opened his mouth to deny it, but then Alice narrowed her eyes. “Radical honesty,” she emphasized.
He shut it.
“Vlad, I appreciate that you’re trying not to—”
“I’m not trying,” he corrected. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him. Why would he try not to lose it on her sorry excuse for an ex? Not when Salim humiliated her, broke her heart, and ignored his daughter. Not when Vlad could flay open his chest, take each of his bones, and snap them, one by—
He looked up. Alice stood and covered her face, groaning.
“I’m sorry,” he replied automatically.
“No, don’t be sorry. I’m annoyed at myself. Well, actually, I’m annoyed at Penny.”
“My best friend and the originator of this stupid idea. I thought radical honesty would be like ripping the bandaid off, but it’s more like opening the floodgates. We both have a lot of baggage.”
His skin tingled. Vlad liked the “we” part. Previously, being “a lot” was a solo adventure.
“We need some ground rules,” she added.
“I don’t like rules,” Vlad told her.
Alice stared for a long time and then wrapped her arms around him. “Me either.”
Maybe she thought she was soothing him, rubbing small circles into the small of his back and murmuring, “it’s gonna be okay,” but Vlad was not soothed. In fact, he was alarmed. He could barely manage the rules Latimer set out for him, and now there would be more? What terror did she intend? What absolute horror?
“This is going to help us.” She hugged him tighter while Vlad let his arms hang limply on the side.
“Is this part of a plan to kill me?” he whispered.
Alice’s response was a laugh.
Ana’s Penthouse, San Myshuno
“You’re joking, right?” Caleb growled. “Tell me you didn’t stroll into the middle of a spellcaster’s place of business and slaughter a patron!”
“I didn’t stroll through—“
Anastasia rolled her shoulders and adjusted her hat. “Caleb, I don’t know why you’re bothering me with this. I’ve just woken up, and this argument is making my breakfast cold.”
She was insane. Caleb clenched his teeth. “You’re wearing a couture gown.”
“It’s a suit,” she slid her hand to her hip, “And it is not uncommon to dress for breakfast.”
He would not get caught up in her bullshit–HE WOULD NOT. He jerked a hand towards her, “Do they also dress to murder witnesses? I’ve got nine slaughtered werewolves, the remains of a ritual at a crime scene that no one can parse, an unknown vampire creeping around, two dead mortals, and apparently, a mother who cannot stop herself from ripping out someone’s heart!”
Anastasia was unfazed by his shouting. “Are you angry because I killed some wolf or angry because it complicated your case?”
If he were being honest, mostly the latter. Not that he could be honest. Someone in this family had to have a conscience. “The murder, mother, the murder is the thing I’m upset about.”
She fidgeted with her gloves. “Good, because if you were upset about the case, I’d tell you to stop being an idiot and focus on the fact that your real suspect is not very old, not working alone, and unfamiliar with the supernatural sideshow the Sages call the Magic Realm.”
Caleb ground his teeth. He would not, repeat, not ask her how she knew this.
“I know you won’t give me the satisfaction of asking how I know, so I’ll just tell you,” she continued. “Only someone young and unfamiliar with the Sages’ campaign promises in 1882 would be stupid enough to worry about killing mortals to cover their tracks. That means they are far too young to slaughter a pack of werewolves alone, so they’d need help. Probably from another werewolf. They do love to betray each other.”
“I’m not finished. Only one of your crimes matters; the other two are incidental; stop giving them equal attention.”
Caleb laughed, pouring as much malice into it as possible. “And I suppose you know which crime scene to focus on based on your extensive experience.”
Anastasia cocked a brow, “Sloppiness, Caleb. If I’ve taught you anything, it’s to clean up after yourself when it matters. You seem convinced there’s a vampire at the center of this, so use your brain, my son. An older vampire, with more patience, wouldn’t dare leave so much evidence behind. My advice? Worry about the case you can’t solve.”
Caleb clenched his jaw so hard he feared it would break. Wasn’t she listening to him? He couldn’t solve any of these cases! “Oh, do you mean an older vampire like you, who left a witness behind to see her commit a crime in broad daylight while wearing a distinctive dress?”
“It was a suit. And do I look concerned about being caught?” She held out her hands in mock anticipation of being arrested. “Have you come to take me away?”
Caleb could only glare.
“I didn’t think so.” She turned and dropped gracefully onto her couch, shoving the food around on her plate.
Caleb searched himself for patience. His mother could push his buttons like nobody else, but he did love her. He’d protected her, even when the the threat was gray-white with sharp teeth and wild temper. “Mother, are you going to tell me why you’re wearing couture at six in the morning?”
She didn’t so much as glance in his direction. “No, Caleb, I’m not.”
Salty Paws Saloon, Brindleton Bay
Caleb dispelled his bat form, landing at the mortal bar in Brindleton Bay, where he agreed to meet Akira.
“According to my mother, our culprit is a young supernatural outside of Glimmerbrook. Also, we’re wasting our time on two of these crime scenes because the only one that matters is the one we can’t solve. How? Fucked if I know how. But at least I can rest easy knowing that a baby vampire must’ve done it because an elder vampire would never leave such a mess.” He snatched a menu from off the table. “Why did you choose this place? I hate this town.”
“One, you made me miss the deli, so I never got my cheesesteak. Fried fish and grits is the least you can do, and Brindleton Bay is known for it. And two, you need to get laid because you are coming in extremely hot.”
“I did get laid,” Caleb grumbled.
Akira shook his head. “Not good enough.”