I’d finished shaking by the time I made it back to my brother’s office. If it was from rage, fear, or both, I wasn’t sure. So, I took a moment to compose myself before I knocked. The muffled voices on the other side of the door went quiet. When it opened, my brother was in the doorway, blocking the rest of the room from my view. He didn’t look too terribly happy with me, if the stony expression and clenched jaw were any indication.
Well, you did make his wife cry, Rational Brain said.
“I, uh, came to apologize,” I said lamely.
He didn’t move, just regarded me with his best, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ brother face. Ouch. He’d gone for the big guns.
“Joel,” Candy admonished softly, “let her in.”
It was another, long moment before he obliged, his eyes narrowing on me, telling me to behave, or else. Then he opened the door wide enough for me to enter the room. I shuffled in, my head down and my hands in my pockets. Once I’d come inside enough for Joel to close the door, I stopped, keeping as much distance between the couch and me. My brother walked over to join her there.
I took a deep breath, and brought my gaze up to meet Candy’s. Adding another point to the unfair category, she was pretty even when she cried. Her bright eyes were wet, and the tip of her nose was ever so slightly pink, but other than that she was still her usual, pristine self. When I cried, I went full-on ugly mode: blotchy skin, red eyes, snot, stuffy nose. The works.
“I need to apologize to you,” I said. My words were soft, and burning with shame that also reddened my cheeks and the tips of my ears.
Joel muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “You’re damn right you do.” Candy elbowed him in the side, and sent a glare his way. It contained no heat, but the message there was, ‘Shut up.’
When she turned back to me, we exchanged small, commiserating smiles about my brother. I straightened and cleared my throat, now that it wasn’t likely I’d alienated my sister-in-law for all eternity. Which was likely literal for her.
“I won’t try to make excuses about being in shock, and I could have handled that a lot better. I just want you to know my feelings about you and the children haven’t changed.” I paused, thinking of ‘Uncle Dizzy,’ and his threats. Something in my mind hardened, and I did my best not to clench my teeth. “And I’ll do anything I can to make sure you don’t have anything to worry about from me.”
Something must have shown on my face, because Candy tilted her head, and a small line formed between her eyebrows when she frowned. She opened her mouth to say something, but my brother covered her hands with his.
“Dear, I think we’ve both been away from the children far too long. It’s Jason’s birthday, and I don’t want to be stuck up here longer than necessary. Would you mind going down, so he doesn’t think we’ve abandoned him?” Joel said, his face softening as he spoke.
Candy and I knew what it was, though: he was trying to speak with me without her there. She narrowed her eyes, and gave him a long, assessing look. Whatever silent communication went on, it wasn’t long before she pursed her lips then rose from the couch. I thought she was going to the door to leave, but instead she made a beeline for me, and embraced me in a completely unexpected hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered, holding me close.
We will not cry, Rational Brain said, voice thick.
Primal Brain just blubbered.
“Of course; you’re family,” I said, the words hoarse.
She pulled back, and gave me a watery smile before looking back over her shoulder at Joel.
“You owe me,” she said, smug satisfaction coating her words like the most delectable chocolate.
When she turned back to me, she winked, and left the room. Once the door closed with a soft click, I turned to Joel and raised an eyebrow.
He rubbed the back of his neck and refused to look at me. “When we got married, we might have placed a bet on the hypothetical scenario that, if you ever found out, whether or not you’d accept her and us.”
My mouth dropped open. “And you-you bet against me?” I asked, incredulous.
He shrugged, and chuckled sheepishly. “You aren’t the most tolerant person, Stumblebum.”
I snorted. “That’s beside the point. You’re my brother. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs through thick and thin, and we aren’t supposed to bet against each other with other people. It’s against the rules!” I growled, putting my hands on my hips.
He chuckled and shook his head, and then finally looked up at me. “Against the rules, huh? I’ll keep that in mind.” As the laughter died on his lips, his expression sobered.
“What happened downstairs?” he asked, leveling his best lawyer eyes my way, willing me to tell him everything.
My gut cramped, and I sucked in a small breath between my teeth that hissed.
“I met Dezanoth,” I said, forgoing the children’s nickname for him. As much as I wanted to downplay the threat in my own mind as far as my personal safety went, I needed Joel to be a little more cautious.
At the demon’s name, he grimaced. “Dezanoth doesn’t have a very high opinion of humans in general, much less an upstart like me who married one.” He took in my grimace and sighed. “And I supposed you were your usual charming self?”
I chuckled weakly and raised my hands, palm up, and shrugged. “Guilty as charged.”
Joel groaned, and put his face in his hands. “It’s shocking that something hasn’t murdered and eaten you yet.”
I made my way over to the couch and sat on the other end from him. At the couch’s movement, he looked up at me with a pained expression.
“What am I going to do with you?” he asked.
“Help me not get murdered and eaten?” I guessed.
He scoffed. “I don’t take hopeless cases; you know that.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Speaking of cases,” he said, his tone going from brotherly to lawyer, “I heard you cleared Celinwel of Stribs’ murder?”
I blew out a sigh. “Yeah, which means I’m back to square one.” Then a stray thought wandered through my brain. “You don’t think the goblins will let me off the hook, do you? I may not have proved it was Celinwel, but I did prove it wasn’t her. Does that count in some roundabout way as fulfilling the bargain?”
“I doubt it,” he said, and shook his head. “You can try to use that logic on them, but I don’t think Gozuk will let you off the hook until Stribs’ killer is caught.”
I slumped back into the cushions. “And here I was hoping that’d be the end of it, and that I’d get my apartment back.” I sighed.
“Get your apartment back? What do you mean?” he asked, eyes narrowing. “They didn’t in some way cause you to get evicted to hold that over your head, did they?”
“Aw, I’m touched at your concern,” I said, and put a hand to my chest.
He scoffed. “As if. I just didn’t want to deal with you moving in here.”
“Hah! I could just move in with mom and dad,” I said. Our eyes met for a moment, and we both shuddered at the thought. “Okay, so I’d rather live in your kids’ treehouse than move back in with our parents, but, no. They didn’t threaten to evict me, or anything that convoluted. They sent a goblin to stay with me, and keep an eye on me, I guess.” I shrugged.
“Which goblin?” he asked, curious.
He relaxed visibly at this. “Slies is a decent enough guy. More easy-going and willing to speak on-level with humans than most other goblins. At least it wasn’t Brikt.”
I let out a surprise burst of laughter that devolved into giggles when I tried to picture the wall of muscle trying to fit on my futon. I waved off Joel’s questioning look, and got myself under control.
“At any rate, Dezanoth and Gozuk basically threatened me with the same thing should I fail: you.”
Joel’s eyebrow’s shot up to his hairline. “Me?” Then after a beat, he shook his head. “I guess for most normal people that kind of threat would make sense. Obviously, they don’t know us very well.”
“Yeah, though Dezanoth added a bit of spice to his, threatening the continued well-being of Candy and the children,” I said.
Joel’s humor vanished. His eyes hardened at my words and his mouth formed a thin line. “He did, did he?”
I bit my lip, but gave him a small nod.
Joel’s smile in response was more feral than friendly, and I didn’t want to be Dezanoth the next time the two were in the same room without any witnesses. After a moment or two, where I’m sure visions of murder were dancing in my brother’s head, he spoke again.
“Obviously I haven’t been able to make any calls for you, since I was consoling my distraught wife,” he said, giving me the side eye. He ignored my subsequent grimace and continued; “But I can say that The Owner contacted my law firm about the steps he needed to take to prove someone was stealing from him.”
I perked up at this, sitting up straight. “Oh? Someone’s stealing from him? Does he know who?”
“No,” Joel said.
I sighed, and slumped back down.
“However,” he said, ignoring my theatrics, “he did say he thought it was Stribs, and likely Celinwel, too, since they were thick as, well, thieves.”
I pondered that for a moment. “Well, we’ll be able to find out soon enough, since he’s dead and she quit.” I turned my head to look him in the eyes. “You don’t think The Owner killed him, do you? And why does it sound like you guys say The Owner as though that’s his name? Come to think of it,” I said, not pausing long enough to let him answer, “no one has ever said his name, who he is—” I glanced at the door”—or what he is.”
My brother blinked at the endless stream of words pouring from my mouth.
“No, I don’t believe the owner killed him. He’s too smart to come to the firm for help with a thievery problem, telling us who he thought it was, and then go through the trouble of killing him.”
I tilted my head back and forth. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. It’d be too obvious for you guys to not suspect him after something like that.”
“As for his name and what he is, well, no one knows. Everyone just calls him ‘The Owner’.”
“What do you mean, no one knows? Didn’t you just say you guys do business with him?”
“Yes…” Joel said slowly, “but with supernatural clients we have a, ‘Don’t ask, don’t wind up with your spleen removed,’ policy. I’ve never been crass enough to ask, after being introduced to him that way,” he said, and leveled a hard look my way.
I chuckled and bit my lip. “Well, we both know you’ve always had the better manners of the two of us.”
Joel sniffed and looked down his nose at me. “Isn’t that the truth?”
I took the opportunity to throw one of the couch pillows at him, which he caught with relative ease, the jerk.
“Anyway, if you want to know more about the missing inventory, you should speak with Elodie. She does the inventory for the store, and she’s a vampire like Odella. Though, as far as I know, they pretty much hate each other, so the fact you work with Odella and that she’s marked you might not get you two off on the correct foot. If you’d like, I can put in a call to The Owner, and have him smooth the way with Elodie. However, if she’s the one who killed Stribs, it might tip her off.”
I frowned and tilted my head. “I know Stribs was a dick, but it doesn’t sound like Elodie would have a reason to kill him, unless he did something to really offend her. And since Stribs didn’t seem to like Odella, I imagine he’d be nice to Elodie just to irritate Odella.”
“You’re not wrong there. As far as I know, Elodie and Stribs were on neutral terms until she discovered inventory was missing. How much do you know about vampires?” he asked, leaning forward and putting his elbows on his knees.
Not expecting to be put on the spot, my mind scrambled for as much information as possible.
“Well, they drink blood, can hypnotize you with their eyes, have to obey their masters when they’re young…Beyond that I’d just be pulling from all the trashy romance novels I’ve read, where the only thing that makes it fantasy is the lead love interest’s desire for blood and sharper than average canines,” I admitted.
Joel’s mouth quirked up in a smile, and he gave a short bark of laughter. “Well, you’re not wrong about those books. Candy likes them, too, but I can’t say I see the appeal.
“However, only two of the things you mentioned are true for all vampires: blood and obeying their master when they’re young. All of the other traits will vary from vampire to vampire. Odella is better at hypnotizing, as you put it, whereas Elodie is better at communicating with snakes, one of the animals associated with vampires.
“There’s one thing that all vampires share, though: their compulsion to count. Now, you can’t just throw a bunch of stuff on the ground and have that distract them while you run away. It really depends on the vampire. From what I understand, Elodie is incredibly good with inventory, and Odella is never wrong when it comes to her cash flow.
“Combine all that with the fact vampires are just as territorial as the Weres, and I would not want to be the person Elodie catches stealing inventory she’s in charge of,” Joel finished, his voice going low and his eyebrows knotting.
“When you put it that way, I can see how she might end up murdering him,” I admitted.
Joel checked his watch and sighed. “We’ve missed most of the birthday. We should get down there before my good-natured wife turns into something far less pleasant,” he said, and then stood.
For most guys it’d be a joke to say their wives turned into she-demons or hell cats when riled, but for Joel, well, it might actually happen. So, I wisely followed him out of the room, an apology ready on my lips.
The remainder of the birthday was a pleasant affair, and I was sent away with more leftovers than Slies and I would likely know what to do with. I’d been piled on by my nieces and nephews before leaving. I could see Dezanoth lurking in the background, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smug smile, and his head tilted just enough that he could look down his nose at me. I threw a glare his way, and made sure to hug the kiddos extra tight, and for a little longer than usual. I even gave Candy a hug before leaving, though my brother and I just waved, forgoing the familiar affection.
I checked my clock on the dash of the car when I got in. If I made it home in the next half an hour, I could get a few more hours of sleep before work. The thought of hitting my pillow and drifting off to dreamland was more than enough to motivate me along the roads back home. I know Joel told me not to take Thea home, which I assume means he didn’t want me to drive by the tree anymore. I’d avoided it on the way to their house, but it was the fastest way back into town, and it was practically the middle of the day. Didn’t witches need darkness, midnight, and virgins? Since none of those things were available, I doubt the Witch of the Wood would be on a stroll near the road and decide to snatch me up.
Remember what we said about not being that white girl in every horror movie ever? Rational Brain asked, voice scathing.
I hate to agree with stick-in-the-mud, but Joel might be right here, Primal Brain hedged.
“It’ll be fine,” I said out loud, and then took the turn toward town.
Famous last words, Rational Brain muttered.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you, Primal Brain cautioned.
The trees flew by, the evergreens looking particularly lovely in the early afternoon light, but as we drew closer to the tree, my shoulders bunched up more and more. Tension sang through me like a plucked line of a deep-sea fisher’s rod with a fish on. When I came within ten feet of the tree, I held my breath. Level with it, and my hands gripped the steering wheel so hard my fingers went bloodless. But then we were past the cursed thing, with nary a whisper of encouragement to kill myself.
I let out a shaky breath, loosened my grip on the wheel, and slumped a little in my seat—
“See? Nothing to—”
–just in time for the largest stag I’d ever seen in my life to walk casually in front of my vehicle. I let out an unholy screech to rival that of my tires as I slammed on my brakes and swerved to avoid the animal. I veered across the oncoming lane, and that was the last thing I remembered before slamming into a tree.
The calm, unconcerned eyes of the deer, and my steering coming to meet my face when my airbag didn’t deploy.