Vigil (Verity Fassbinder #1) - Angela Slatter

Chapter One

The ribbon was judging me, I knew it.

It had become increasingly apparent that wrapping things was not my forte. Even a simple rectangular gift was obviously too much of a challenge. Corners broke through the too-thin tissue I’d bought because I’d thought, Hey, an eight-year old would love that! She probably would have, too, if it hadn’t developed holes within moments of me trying to swaddle a big book of fairy tales in it. The stiff lace ribbon I’d finally managed to tie around the middle looked self-conscious and a bit embarrassed.

Oh, well. Lizzie would turn the gold and silver paper into confetti in a matter of seconds anyway. I could hear the sounds of the birthday party-cum-sleepover already ramping up next door, and looking through my kitchen window into Mel’s garden I could see a circle of small girls in pastel party dresses made of shiny fabrics, glitter and sequins. They all wore fairy wings that caught the last of the sun’s rays as they danced and ran, lithe and careless as sprites. It made me smile. Mums and dads were scattered across the grass, some carrying platters of cocktail sausages, fairy bread, mini pies and other essential party foods while others seized the opportunity to laze around being waited on. It would be nice, I thought, to socialise, do something ordinary for a change.

I took a last look in the mirror to make sure I was presentable – or at least as presentable as I was likely to get. I picked up the offering, and that’s when the hammering started at the front door. It wasn’t the good kind of knocking and my spirits sank. Things didn’t improve when I saw who was waiting on the patio.

Zvezdomir ‘Bela’ Tepes, model-handsome in pressed black jeans and a black shirt, managed his usual trick of appearing ephemeral as a shadow, yet as all-encompassing as darkness. He gave a wave so casual it could have been mistaken for a dismissal. Just seeing him made my leg ache.

‘Verity. I’ve got a job for you.’

‘But I’m going to a birthday party,’ I blurted, clutching the present like a shield. ‘There’ll be cake, and lollies.’

He blinked, caught off guard by my unlikely defence. ‘I need you to come right now.’

‘Party pies, Bela. Fairy cakes. Mini sausage rolls. Small food,’ I said, then added lamely, ‘It tastes better.’

‘Kids are going missing,’ he said, gritting his teeth, and it was all over bar the shouting. ‘And someone wants to talk to you.’

He pointed towards the familiar purple taxi parked at the kerb in the late afternoon light. There weren’t too many cabs like this in the city, although I guessed demand would be growing as the population did; it wasn’t just people fleeing the southern states who wanted a new start in Brisbane – also known as Brisneyland or Brisrael if you were feeling playful, or Brisbanal if you were tired of restaurants closing at 8.30 p.m. The taxi’s general clientele covered Weyrd, wandering Goths and too-plastered-to-notice Normal, though most times even the drunkest thought twice about getting into this kind of car. It was almost like they were snapped out of their alcohol-fuelled stupor by the strangeness it exuded.

Through the passenger window I made out a fine profile and meticulously styled auburn hair. When the head turned slowly towards me, I recognised its owner, though I’d not formally met Eleanor Aviva, one of the Council of Five, before. It was a bit like having the queen drop in. The driver next to her gave a brisk wave.

My shoulders slumped. ‘How many kids?’

‘Twenty-five we can identify for sure, but that’s out of a couple of hundred a week. Not all those are ours.’

‘Don’t say ours, Bela. They’re nothing to do with me.’ I regretted the comment as soon as I said it; people had looked out for me when I needed it and I’d determined long ago to try to pay that back. ‘Let me drop this off, make my apologies.’

‘Don’t be long,’ he said. As he retreated to the vehicle I made a rude gesture behind his back, which Eleanor Aviva saw. After a moment, her very proper mask cracked and she gave me a conspiratorial smile, then faced forward again.

As I dragged my feet towards Mel’s house, I wondered if Lizzie would save me some ice cream cake.

*

I looked out of the window. My reflection stared back, and beyond that I watched the night speed past. I should be singing ‘Happy Birthday’, not here