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Theo may be home from Chicago, but his troubles are far from over.
Theo Warren has been sulking on his sofa for the last few weeks. When he's called on it, he sets himself two tasks: to get back to his usual friendly self and to learn more about using this magic he apparently has a connection to. When he ventures out of his house, the first thing he hears is a rumor about a monster in the area and the last thing they need is monster hunters coming to town.
Theo's worst fear happens almost immediately, in the form of internet cryptid show host Tito Norris. Tito is convinced that there are undiscovered creatures out there, and he's determined to be the one to finally catch them on camera. Worse still, people start turning up in the hospital, with wounds they blame on a big, blue monster. With wings.
Now Theo has to help steer the police away from possible monster hunts, calm the nonhuman community's fears, and work on his own magic skills. Oh, and figure out what-- or who-- killed Tito's cameraman. Just another day in the life of Whitelake's Gatekeeper.
Theo was entirely unsurprised when Marielle stormed up to Tito, but the newcomer jumped about a foot into the air when she interrupted him. Tito's friends had leaped to their feet and stared wildly around the café before realizing that it was just a middle-aged woman storming up to their leader.
"How dare you propagate such... such... bullshit!" Marielle stalked up to Tito and stabbed him in the chest with her sharp finger.
Theo felt his eyebrows shoot up. He had never heard her swear before and was more than a little startled to know she was capable of it.
"There is nothing even faintly unusual about Whitelake and anyone who says otherwise is spreading slander! I will sue you into the ground!" Marielle shrieked. Her friends were now standing, too, looking as irate as they could. Theo thought one of them had just had some sort of cosmetic thing done and managed to look more constipated than anything, but the fire in her eyes made up for the odd facial expression.
Alaric looked horrified at what was happening in front of the counter, and Avery stood, unsure of who to back up. Tito was clearly the one being assaulted, but Theo could see that Avery was sort of on Marielle's side on this issue. Hell. So was Theo. Nobody needed rumors of the paranormal drawing ghost or legend hunters to the area, or worse, actual hunters. Alec had told him a bit about them while they were sorting things in the museum storeroom in Chicago. Mostly historical events, with Wendy chiming in about Chicago-specific history. Some of it was awful and Theo hoped like hell nothing like real paranormal hunters ever came to Whitelake to threaten his friends.
Theo shook his head and snapped back into the moment. While he had been lost in his own head Marielle had been laying into Tito with a stream of aggressive language that amounted to "we don't want you here, besmirching the fine name of our hometown, so get out or I'll make you."
Tito, meanwhile, was fending her off gently and backing up slowly while grinning ear to ear like a lunatic. Or like the cat that got the cream, dammit. Marielle's reaction was confirming to the man that there were, indeed, rumors, even if the veracity of them was still in question.
"Look, ma'am," Tito finally said as he backed into a table. "This is a public place and unless the staff decides to throw me out, I'm allowed to talk about anything I like. I'm sorry that upsets you, as that was the last thing I intended."
"You are not allowed to spread slander! That's illegal, and you'll be hearing from my lawyers, the city's lawyers, and anyone else I can find!" She actually got right up in Tito's face, which was impressive since she only came up to his chest and therefore had to shove up on her tiptoes to get close enough to make her threats. "You'll be buried under so much litigation that your grandchildren will still be digging to get you out again!"
Tito's confidence flickered for just a moment. "Ma'am, I'm very sorry to have upset you. I assure you it was not at all my intent. I'm a scientist. I go out and solve mysteries of nature."
This was never going to end at this rate and Alaric was looking more and more stressed the longer it went on. Even Alice looked worried, chewing her lip by the espresso machine. The kitchen had gone quiet as well, rather than echoing with the customary sounds of cooking that drifted out of the double doors during the quieter moments in the dining room.
"There are no mysteries here!" Marielle shouted. "This is a nice, perfectly normal place to live! The good people of Whitelake won't stand for this–"
Marielle's tirade cut off abruptly when Theo put a hand on her shoulder.
"Theobold!" She turned to glare at him and no doubt intended to start in on him now, but he cut her off before she could start.
"As much as I agree with you, Marielle, you don't want to give him a case to countersue you for assault."
He took a moment to enjoy watching Marielle's jaw drop in shock. She blinked at him several times and finally squawked out, "You agree? With me?"
Theo bit back a laugh and managed to say very seriously, "I do. I strongly suspect that this monster nonsense started with a very drunk college kid and something like a jacket slung over a bush in a way that Dickens would describe as 'hanging in a suspicious attitude.' I sincerely doubt that there is any reason for Tito to hang around, and he'll no doubt realize it soon enough."
Marielle huffed and stepped back, brushing down her shirt and patting her hair back so that the rings on her fingers caught the light just so. She was nothing if not a performer, he thought.
"Well. I'm sure you're right about that," she said. Her minions muttered their agreement behind him. "I should talk to the administration over there about substance abuse education. It's obvious that there is something very wrong at the university, what with all that ridiculousness with that professor and that thug he hired. I was so glad to see Darren bounced right back from all that, and the work he's doing is so important, you know. All that history of Whitelake that needs to be preserved. But there's a bad apple over on campus somewhere, and it's going to spoil the bunch if something's not done."
Theo could barely keep up. Marielle's tone went from strident to cooing to firm and determined so fast that he could only nod and blink at the torrent of words.
Marielle nodded decisively. "Come on, Sandy, Jeannie. We have work to do," she said before spinning back to Tito. "And don't think I've forgotten about you! Scientist my butt. If you have any brains at all, you'll leave now before I have you arrested!"
And with that, Marielle swept out of the café, her friends following behind like a high school mean-girls clique in a TV sitcom. Theo gaped and then looked over at Avery who looked equally amused.
"Well, she certainly knows how to leave an impression," Tito said after a moment of silence in the whole café.
"Yes, well. That's Marielle for you," Theo said. He turned to Tito and gave the man an assessing stare. Tito was just a few inches taller than Theo, but it was enough to force him to look up to meet the man's gaze. "She was right about one thing, at least. There are no monsters in Whitelake. Unless you count a few thugs and criminal wannabes. There's just good people, occasionally drunk students, and some decent hiking. I think we had a coyote in the park in the early spring, and that was all the wildlife excitement we've had in, what, Avery? Years?"
"We had a moose once right after I moved here. It was freaky. I still don't know why it was wandering down Maple Street, but there are photos in the newspaper archives if you want to look them up," Avery said, shrugging.
"There you go," Theo said. "Although there could be an argument that a moose is a monster. Those things are huge. So, Tito. You're a scientist, you say? What are you studying, exactly? I can't think of any grants awarded for following up monster rumors."
Tito's seemingly perpetual grin dropped briefly so he could purse his lips and sigh deeply. "The scientific community has no appreciation for anything they can't stick in a lab and dissect."
Theo nodded, thinking of his mother. It was true.
"They're very closed-minded as a group. They can't conceive of the idea that maybe they haven't discovered everything there is to know about the world already," Tito said, warming up to his subject. "Sadly most grants are for refining knowledge already gained or mapping out things we already know about in general in a more specific manner. If I wanted to look into the particular grasping mechanism of an octopus or something like that, they would cheerfully fund me forever, but tell them I'm looking for a creature they haven't already got documented proof of? I'm labeled a crackpot."
"I grant you that anyway, much of the scientific community is very focused. That's still no reason to go around promoting what is likely a drunken hallucination," Theo said.
"I have been labeled a cryptozoologist and I wear the tag proudly. If they want to bury their heads in the sand and ignore that there are so many wonders still out there to be discovered, that's on them. I'll be the one to find these creatures and then I'll be the one in the history books!" Tito's eyes gleamed with the passion of his words.
"I'm pretty sure that you're not the first person to say that," Theo said, stepping back a bit. "And every time, those rumors turn out to be some scam or lie or exaggeration."
"Or a shaved bear, or a person in a costume," Avery chimed in.
"I think those count as scams," Theo said.
"Yeah, I suppose so," Avery said with a smirk.
Tito's eyes flashed and a snarl flickered over his lips so fast Theo almost missed it. "Oh, you should definitely look into my show. You'll see that we do serious investigations into our leads before we even begin to travel. I'll admit that we came here a little hastily, but that's because we were already close by. No harm in looking into the story personally since we're here, right?"
"That depends on if you run into Marielle again, I'd bet," Avery added. "I loathe that I'm about to say this, after all this time and harassment, but she's right. There's nothing here. We'd have heard about it long since. First I heard about any rumors was a couple of days ago and I've lived here for over a decade. Monsters don't just hitchhike around the country."
"Well," Tito said, his confident grin returning. "We'll just see, I guess. I'm starting a comprehensive deep dive into this area, its history, and the possible identities of this creature that has moved into the area. I admittedly never like to say anything like 'oh, this sounds like Bigfoot' or anything of that nature, but from what I have heard it certainly sounds at least bipedal, which does tend to make one think of apes and the like. I'm looking forward to talking to more people and getting closer to someone who's had an actual sighting. God, the excitement at the beginning of a project! There's nothing like it!"
"Tito! Your food's getting cold!" his friend called over, interrupting anything Theo was about to say.
"Oh! Wow, I was starving when I came in and it smells amazing in here, but then I got so excited." Tito flashed that smile at Theo again. "I get a bit focused when I'm discussing my passion. Thanks for the help with that crazy lady, I appreciate it. You should check out my channel, though! We'll catch up later!" Tito hurried off to the table with his friends. As Theo watched, the guy who had been carrying the giant pack looked over and gave him a sympathetic look. Theo just nodded an acknowledgment and turned back to his own table and his own now-cold meal.
He poked at the pasta– which was still delicious, even cold– before looking up at Avery.
"This is going to be a problem, isn't it?"