The Tortus Bay Examiner
Readers, we hear you loud and clear. Everyone in Tortus Bay wants to know what happened last week, and you deserve to be told the truth. But to understand the explanation, you first have to hear the history.
There is magic in this village. Not happenstance, or coincidence, or strange phenomena that don’t deserve to be investigated. Magic. And it is not new. It was born of a woman named Emmaline Cass—whose skeletal remains, as some of you will be aware, terrorized our streets. She was one of the original founders, and it is due to her sacrifice that Tortus Bay still stands today. When the land turned sour and neighboring settlements began to fail, Emmaline stayed behind with those doomed to die. Instead of accepting her lot, however, she chose to meet her own fate by walking out into the sea…
Swirling, sworling, endless water. Long thin hair, caught up as in a drain. The frosting on a cinnamon bun. Then her face, bone. Bone white flesh, and thin lips forming a perfect immobile circle. Her tongue whipped and wagged within. Flecks of saliva painted her cheeks. “You owe me. Will you do what needs to be done?”
Henry shot up out of bed, drenched in sweat, momentarily disoriented. The dream had been so real. Salt water still stung his nose. “These aren’t dreams.”
“Wazzat?” Niles snorted, rolling over heavily. It was a few minutes before dawn; weak yellow light streamed through the window.
“Go back to sleep.”
“Nah, I’m up. Why is the bed wet?”
“Sweat. Sorry. Nightmare.”
He pulled him into an embrace. “Again?”
“Every night. I don’t… listen, it’s crazy, but I don’t think they’re just dreams.”
“You think Emmaline is communicating with you,” Niles said, and laughed at the expression on his face. “Come on, it’s not that hard to figure out. She talked to you before you put her back in the grave, and now she’s figured out how to get into your dreams.”
“You’re taking this much better than I am.”
He kissed his forehead. “I’ve lived here my whole life. Can’t say I’ve seen anything more strange, but I got a lot of practice on a wide variety of things just slightly lower on the scale.”
“You don’t think I’m losing my mind?”
“No, I don’t. How do you feel about pancakes?”
Henry returned the kiss. “I’m pro-pancake.”
“Mmmm. Banana or chocolate chip?”
Glosspool Lane was as radiant that morning as ever it was, but Henry brought to it his own personal dark cloud. His useless arm had recently begun to itch or sting in places. Teresa called it good news, but he preferred the thing lifeless. No matter how he scratched, nor how much ointment he applied, the sensations would not leave him alone.
So it was that he rolled up to the Brihte estate heavily distracted with his own pinching and scratching, and took a moment to notice the unusual level of activity on the premises. The wrought-iron gates hung open. A series of trucks were parked on the driveway, and from them many men hauled objects to and fro. Tables, shelves, and candelabras.
Henry skirted around the work with a minimum of questioning eyes, slipped through the front door, and found Lucy and Beth Brihte sitting on a couch in the far corner of their foyer, sharing a glass of deep red wine. “Henry!” Lucy called, “if you’re intent was to rummage, I’m afraid you’ve been caught.”
“What are you talking about?” Beth asked.
“Did I never mention? I caught this one breaking into my bedroom, rooting around for imagined details about Mathas Bernard.”
“Yes,” she said, “he pulled a similar ruse at my house, I think. Taking advantage of the emotionally distraught. But he had a good reason, I’m sure.”
The room was in a state of disarray. Everywhere the furniture was half pulled apart, or else packed into tidy boxes. A table against the wall was covered with nick-nacks and old letters that the two women had apparently been in the process of sorting through. Henry felt the strange urge to bow as he approached them, but mastered it. “I guess it didn’t matter what I did, in the end,” he said. “Everything seemed to work itself out.”
Beth smiled. “Humble, now.”
“He’s always been humble,” Lucy said. “That’s his saving grace.”
“What’s happening around here?” he asked, watching a man walk out of the house with a rug thrown over his shoulder.
“We’re liquidating,” Beth said. “There used to be a whole host of Brihtes in this village, but now it’s just me and my sister. And she’s been bothering me to do this for ages.”
“There’s nothing here for us anymore. Oh, we had our distractions. A hiking club, a husband. Now that’s all gone. Wine?”
Henry awkwardly stepped forward to accept the glass. “So that’s it? You’re leaving?”
“You’re the last person I expected to be upset by that,” Beth said. “Do you see this house you’re standing in, Henry? And I have another, only a little smaller. What happened with Emmaline made it clearer for me than ever: the Brihtes have been a drain on this village for decades now. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that we have been funnelling money into the mayor’s office and the sheriff’s department, to maintain the fiction that Tortus Bay is a regular village filled with regular people. You have done more damage to that narrative with one issue of your newspaper than we allowed in the last hundred years.”
“And about time!” Lucy said quickly, raising her glass.
He took a drink. “What do you imagine the Gauthes will do? Are they also going to skip town?”
“Then I suppose your parting gift to the village will be to leave it diminished. I would imagine that the immense resources of this estate could be put to a lot of good.”
A sort of well-humored scowl settled into place on Beth’s face. “What did you come here for?”
“To convince you of several conclusions you appear to have reached for yourself, if I’m honest. I heard from a friend that the blood of the Brihtes and the Gauthes runs deeper than money.”
She leaned forward, subconsciously rimming her wineglass with her forefinger. “What are you getting at?”
“Books,” he said. “Secrets. Magic that nobody else has access to. How your family got ahead in the first place.”
“No such thing ex-” Lucy began, but her sister cut her off. Beth stood, and motioned for him to follow. He set his glass down, and she led him on a meandering route through the house. As they plunged deeper, they passed progressively fewer of the movers, and the opulence with which he was familiar re-asserted itself.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” Beth said. “Me and my sister get like that, when we’re together. I wanted to thank you, for everything you did in my husband’s case.”
“You want to thank me?”
She laughed. “I know the truth. Teresa told me everything. Or at least, as much as I could stand to hear. What a legacy, for this family. What a disgrace.” She led him to a locked door in the rear of the house, which opened onto a modestly sized library. The majority of the titles appeared to be assorted fiction, literary analysis, and poetry. Henry wondered if she had understood his request.
“You never knew, then?”
“Could I have been more attentive? Could I have cared more about the red flags? The answer to those questions is always yes. But I did not.” They stopped in front of a single squat shelf tucked away in a dark corner of the library. She unlocked the sliding cover with a rusted old key, and revealed a collection of twelve dusty tomes. “There you have it,” she said. “You said we would leave Tortus Bay in a worse place than we found it? Let this be the first step in fixing that: the collected knowledge of the Brihte family. Including, yes, a fair amount of secret magic.”
He stooped down to inspect the titles, of which only three were in English. “You mind if I take these with me?”
“Help yourself. I don’t want to see them again.”
“Thank you. Would I be pushing my luck, to ask for one more favor?”
She crossed her arms. “What do you need?”
“A meeting with the mayor.”