Witchless In Seattle Mysteries, Book 4
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The day I met the man who claimed to be Crispin Alistair Winterbottom, my dead British spy gone ghost. Which was impossible, because Win wasn’t just dead; my British spy specter had been right in my ear, calling this handsome man a liar.
We’d just wrapped up a particularly crazy week in our unconventional lives. I use the word “unconventional” because, hello, how many people do you know who have a ghost always yapping in their ear with a sexy British accent? (Truth. Swear it on my secondhand Carolina Herrera pantsuit.)
For that matter, how many people do you know whom, after losing their witch powers (that’s me. Little Lost Ex-Witch) and being shunned from their coven, end up broke and a little battered in their old hometown of Ebenezer Falls, WA, with a saucy and eternally hungry bat familiar to feed?
To make things really outlandish, how many broke ex-witch’s do you know who not only stumble onto a dead body, but make contact with a dead British Spy who has a house straight out of an episode of The Munster’s and a zillion dollars he wants to give you, if you’ll help him solve the murder of his beloved medium (the dead body), Madam Zoltar?
That’s what I mean by unconventional.
Add in the fact that I’ve taken over Win’s favorite medium’s business and reinvented myself as Madam Zoltar 2.0, and we now basically live together in this monstrosity turned majestic mini-mansion with my bat familiar, Belfry, and our rescue dog, Whiskey, in a town made up entirely of humans—a town where you’d think murder was the least likely event to occur yet seems to happen every month or so—and you have my unconventional life in a nutshell.
Anyway, we’d just finished up a grueling week when this imposter, as Win calls him, shows up at our door. We’d hosted a housewarming party earlier that week because my uppity British Man of Mystery thought I needed to make more friends and reconnect with my old and new fellow Ebenezers. And in the midst of this amazing party with mimes and Cirque Du Soleil acrobats, my stepfather, Bart Hathaway, was murdered.
Also in the middle of this big, fancy party chock full of the most disgusting goat-cheese-and-fig appetizers I’ve ever tasted, the father I didn’t know about, international star of stage, screen and film in Japan, Hugh Granite, showed up and announced, well, that he was my father.
Crazy, right? After almost thirty-three years of a fatherless existence, I have this man—handsome, incredibly egotistical, yet still charming and as charismatic as one of those TV preachers—show up and claim ownership of parental duties like he’d always been my dad.
Now, dig if you will the picture (Prince forever!), the other half of my gene pool—my mother, Dita. As vain as my father, but not quite (read: not even close) as charming in her own brand of vanity, with dead husband number five on her hands. I think he was number five. I’ve lost count (apologies).
Mom’s husband is dead, right? Murdered at the height of our housewarming party. To be precise, he was strangled with one of the acrobats’ silky sheet thingies. Outwardly, she does all the right things. Cries, wails, grieves when prying eyes are upon her. But behind my back, while I’m still digesting the death of my stepfather, a man I didn’t even know, she’s scoping out the lay of the land for her next husband.
During all this upheaval, my familiar Belfry’s family arrived and wreaked havoc on our beautiful new home, while Win and I attempted to catch a killer amidst complete chaos.
So one more surprise on the very day we’d cleared the house of any and all manner of bananapants after solving said murder—wherein I almost drowned in Puget Sound in my cute little Fiat (currently swimming with the fishes. Sad panda)—this guy claiming to be the man I’ve been solving mysteries with shows up.
He says he’s the man I’ve had inhabiting my ear for since February. The man I still know very little about…
Anyway, on this day, I was in the middle of making jokes about how awful some of the appetizers at the party were, and Win was bashing my ill-refined palate. That was when the gong of the doorbell thwarted him reading me the riot act about my taste buds…
My finger shot up in the air. “Save the foodie sermon, Iron Chef Winterbottom, just a minute more. I don’t know who this could be.” Then I laughed. “Maybe Mom forgot something. Like the spare husband she had stashed away in the closet.”
Win’s laughter rang in my ear as I grabbed the door handle and looked out the stained-glass window at the warped figure.
I’ve had really bad luck when answering my door in the recent past, but I was pretty sure it was Sandwich, who’d said he’d drop off my stepfather Bart’s personal effects around this time. So I wasn’t at all prepared for what—or rather who—greeted me.
Popping the door open, I felt a warm breeze blow in, but Sandwich wasn’t on my doorstep. A very handsome gentleman in a crisp suit, probably in his early thirties, with dark hair and even darker eyes, looked back at me. Or at least I think he did. The sun was a blazing hot ball of flames, glaring me in the eye, so it was hard to tell.
Either way, he definitely wasn’t Sandwich. Sandwich smelled of old school Old Spice and peanut butter. This man didn’t smell like peanut butter.
“Stevie Cartwright?” he asked in a cultured British accent.
I smiled and nodded, still unable to clearly see his face in detail. I squinted. “In the flesh. You are?”
He paused for only a minute, his eyes scanning mine. Again, I couldn’t see his eyes, per se. Rather, I felt them on me—felt their intensity, felt their scrutiny.
Then he moved in closer, smelling of subtly expensive cologne, before he said, “My name is Winterbottom. Crispin Alistair Winterbottom.”
I frowned at this stranger, cupping my hand over my eyes to block the sharp rays. “Say again?”
“I said, I’m Crispin Alistair Winterbottom. You are Stevie Cartwright, correct?”
“Maybe…” I offered, my eyes trying desperately to adjust to the harsh glint of sunlight. What in sweet Pete was going on?
“Cat’s out of the bag, Dove. You already told him who you were, Stephania,” Win chastised in my ear. “Always remember what I’ve taught you. Never reveal vital information unless forced by jumper cables or, heaven forbid, water torture.”
“Might I come in and ask you some questions?” he inquired, almost pushing me out of the way as he stepped into our wide foyer. And yes, now I could see his eyes penetrating mine.
Yep, they were definitely penetrating.
So I took a step back and blinked away the white spots floating in my vision. “How do you know who I am?”
“You were easy enough to find,” he said affably, the breeze lifting his hair and ruffling it in ripples of deep chocolate. Which I could see as my eyesight adjusted. His hair was as thick and lush as the real Winterbottom’s.
And then the sun moved. Moved so far right, I got an unobstructed view of this man who’d called himself Winterbottom.
I’m sure right at that moment, I gaped at him. Openly, awkwardly gaped.
First, let me say, I’ve only seen Win once, and that was during the mess while we were investigating my stepfather death. Somehow, he’d managed to make himself appear to me from his afterlife haven.
The incident had been brief, but I’d seen him as clear as day. Recalling that moment still makes my heart pound harder than horse hooves racing in the Kentucky Derby. It isn’t because I’ve never seen a ghost. On the contrary. I’ve seen many. But since I’d lost my witch powers, I hadn’t seen a one.
Second, I only have one picture of Win. I’ve looked at it a thousand times since he’d admitted it was, in fact, a photo of him. It’s older and faded, a shot taken with his ex-lover, Miranda. They were at the Eiffel Tower, and from the way they looked at each other, they’d been nuts in love.
Until she’d killed him. Or at least that’s what my Win claims she did, anyway.
So as this man audaciously entered my house and looked me square in the eye as though I owed him money, my mouth fell open. Unhinged completely.
Because I gotta say, he really did look exactly like my picture of Winterbottom in Paris.
When I was finally able to put words together, I wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs and asked, “Who did you say you were again?” Maybe I’d heard wrong, or maybe he’d been making some kind of sick joke.
A thought occurred to me then: Could this be one of Winterbottom’s spy friends, playing some elaborate hoax.
Who looks exactly like him, Stevie? What episode of the Twilight Zone are you reenacting?
He smiled pleasantly, a gorgeous, toothpaste-commercial-worthy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes and repeated his words. “I said, I’m Crispin Alistair Winterbottom.”
“Stevie!” Win finally spewed in my ear. I’m not sure what took him so long to react, but by the sounds of it, he surely had a grip on the gist of things now. “That is absolutely not me. Do you hear me? He’s an imposter. I repeat, an imposter!”
Yeah, yeah. I heard Win. But here was a guy standing in my foyer, wanting to talk to me, claiming he was my Spy Guy and he was, without a doubt, the spitting image of my Spy Guy. Not a chance in the deep blue sea I was passing up this newest mystery.
“But he looks exactly like you,” I muttered under my breath.
“Say again?” Fake Winterbottom requested in a pleasant tone, his head cocked as though he were intently listening to me.
“Well, that I can’t deny, Dove. I don’t know how or why, but he does uncannily resemble me.”
“Uh-huh,” I whispered.
“Aha!” Win declared with a tone suggesting he’d figured things out. “Maybe Arkady Bagrov sent him? Though why, I can’t begin to guess. Surely that crafty wank Arkady’s long over our last little disagreement, wherein I bested him in a rousing game of Disarm the Nuclear Missile, Save Istanbul? But to go to this extreme? Bah.” Win dismissed the notion. “Arkady’s a vengeful man, but I don’t recall him ever using plastic surgery as part of his criminal portfolio—it’s too extreme even for him.”
I turned my back on Phony Win and whispered, “You knew criminals who used plastic surgery for disguises? Like, that was really a thing?”
“If you only knew how much of a thing,” Win confirmed.
Faux Winterbottom was growing impatient. I saw it in his gorgeous face when I turned back around, still astounded a spy tactic like plastic surgery, a tactic so James Bond-ish, did indeed really exist. “You were saying, Miss Cartwright?”
“Um, sorry. Nothing. I’m just…”
What was I? Stunned was too small a word. I was verklempt. Flabbergasted. Gobsmacked, as Win would say.
I lifted my shoulders in helplessness. “Um, I’m just…”
“Just in my house?” he asked, driving his hands into the pockets of his expensive suit. I knew it was expensive. I’d know Armani blind and without benefit of the gift of scent.
“I’m in your what?” I spit the words out, frowning.
“Oh, tell this numpty to move along, Dove! He’s handing you a load of bollocks,” Win groused, totally dismissing the man who looked exactly like him.
Leaning in, Phony Win kept that irritating smile on his face as he dropped the bomb. “I said, you’re in my house, Miss Cartwright. I purchased this house, and somehow, you’ve managed to end up the one living in it. How did that happen, do you suppose? Are you an identity thief?”
Now I was getting impatient. Who the heck was this guy and how dare he claim our house was his house? If this was some sort of convoluted joke—though again, I stress, plastic surgery just to prank someone is far and away well beyond elaborate—someone was going to have to pay for stirring me up like this.
So I crossed my arms over my chest and looked this crackpot right in the eye with my best stern face. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what kind of sick game you’re playing, but Crispin Alistair Winterbottom is dead, and this is my house. It’s easy enough to look up at the Department of Land Records right here in town. So why don’t you go do that and get back to me when you have some solid proof of alleged ownership?”
He sucked in his cheeks, and oddly, when he did, it was exactly how I imagined my Win would look when he grew impatient with me. “Oh, I assure you, this is no game, Stevie Cartwright. I am Crispin Alistair Winterbottom, and this is my home, and I fully intend to prove such. Until then, take notice, I don’t know how you got your hands on my house, my money, but prepare to pay back every dime you’ve stolen from me—including the cost of these borderline garish renovations you’ve perpetrated!”
“Garish?” Win squealed with indignant outrage. “Box this nutter’s ears, Stevie! Box ’em but good then send him on his way!”
I waved a hand at Win, trying to get him out of my ear, but I didn’t need to bother shooing him away. Phony Winterbottom pivoted on his heel, barreled back down the steps and made a graceful exit to his car.
An Aston Martin, I might add—a black one with yellow rims.
“That’s my car! Did that son of a backside scratcher steal my car?” Win yelped in utter outrage.
There was lots of very inappropriate language at that point. Words I didn’t even consider my cultured Spy Guy knew. But he used them, and he continued to use them in the ensuing days.
But since that day, we hadn’t heard from Fakebottom, as I’d begun to call him. Not a peep. And I was glad. I had no explanation for his existence. I almost think his uncanny resemblance to my Win was too creepy for my head to wrap around.
Nothing about his showing up out of the blue made sense. Nor did his claim he could prove he was Winterbottom. Even if something as outlandish as plastic surgery was involved to make himself look exactly like Win (and let’s be realistic here, folks. That kind of plastic surgery only exists on soap operas), there was DNA and fingerprints to consider.
So while it lingered heavily in the backs of our minds, we went right on living, and from time to time discussed the absurdity of it all—neither of us able to come up with a feasible explanation as to why he looked so much like Win. We speculated that Fakebottom had likely gone away because he really couldn’t prove he was Win. Doing that would mean he’d have to come up with some DNA, and that was simply ludicrous, given Win’s background at MI6.
He assured me MI6 had not only his fingerprints but plenty of DNA to spare, should push come to shove. So we filed it in our Impossible folder and moved right along.
Though I admit, I’ve secretly stared at that picture of Miranda and Win in the privacy of my bedroom a hundred times since Fakebottom showed up, and it freaks me to the ends of the earth and back how identical he is to my Spy Guy.
But we were in the midst of enjoying a lovely summer, with plenty of tourism at Madam Zoltar’s, picnics on the water every weekend, nights spent with a bottle of wine on the back patio, now totally renovated and sparkling with Chinese lanterns, Bel buzzing about in the evening sky and Whiskey at my feet.
Life was really good and I was pretty content. Probably more so than I had been my entire life—even as a witch.
Which brings us to today—two months later.
When life got very, very ugly-complicated, and there was plenty of discontent to spare…
It was a sweltering August day in Eb Falls. We were experiencing the beginning of a reported weeklong heat wave, something we’re not used to here in the Pacific Northwest. Even the breeze from the Puget was sluggish today. Still, boats dotted the horizon with colorful sails, windsurfers dipped in and out of the fairly calm waters, and with the mountain as its backdrop, even the heat didn’t deter from the water’s beauty.
Except for one thing…
I’d just received a summons to appear with legal representation at the law offices of Keck, Flittenbaum and Morrow, on behalf of Crispin Alistair Winterbottom.
So much for the impossible.
As Whiskey, Bel, Win and I wandered along our private stretch of beach on the Puget, I forced myself to focus on this latest disaster and not relive my last nightmare, where I was sinking to the depths of the Sound in my car while a madman tried to kill me. I fought this battle every time we took walks along the shore. So far, I was winning.
In indignation, I shook the letter I’d grabbed at the mailbox before our walk under the hot midday sun. Whiskey splashed after the tennis ball I’d tossed, caught it, and took off at breakneck speed down the shoreline with Bel clinging to his back, while I ranted.
“It’s been two months with no word from this Fakebottom! What’s he been doing all this time?” I yelled, grateful for our privacy. “We got complacent, my friend. We should have popped the lid on that can of worms and started investigating him the moment he showed up in his designer duds. Just who does he think he is?”
“Well, Dove, he thinks he’s me.”
I flapped the letter in the woefully small yet frightfully muggy breeze. “You know what I mean. Still, we haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the fact that he looks exactly like you, Win. Plastic surgery and Russian revenge aside.”
In fact, Win hadn’t even truly acknowledged that fake Win and real Win were identical. Nor had he asked if I believed anything this man claimed. Which, I’ll admit, I found pretty wonky.
We have a great deal of trust between us, Win and me. He’s saved my life three times to date with his spy moves and ghostly secret agent man instructions. That alone instills a bond. But his trust in me is based on my having shared all my darkest secrets—almost everything of note in my past—including the worst nightmare of my life, when I’d lost my witch powers to a vengeful ghost.
But I knew little about Win’s life prior to his death. Still, I kept a tally of facts I’d collected in my head. He was British, in his thirties, and ungodly rich. I guess the spy business pays well. In life, he’d been a spy for MI6 and he’d worked under deep cover. He had one lunatic cousin named Sal who was now dead, courtesy of me.
His parents were both deceased, with no other living relatives to speak of. He’s had some seriously crazy-cool spy adventures he often uses as examples in order to help me when I’m in a bind—the kind of bind where a killer holds me hostage or chases me with a gun.
He knows all manner of torture and escape—some too hideous to repeat. He’s been to almost every country known to man. He was once wildly and, according to him, foolishly in love with another spy named Miranda, whom he claims owned the house we now live in until it was put back on the market after she was declared dead, and Win bought it, in all its dilapidation. The purchase occurred just before his death, which is why the renovations were handed down to me.
Oh, and he speaks seven languages fluently. I think that’s everything.
It troubled me something fierce, the details he wouldn’t share with me. For instance, why he believed Miranda was the one who’d killed him. What purpose had it served for her to take him out? Had she been in some kind of deep-cover mission, where she was supposed to trick the British spy into falling in love with her then whack him?
Questions—I had a million, believe that.
But I didn’t rock the boat much. I’m a firm believer in time. Whatever happened to Win with Miranda, it was clearly painful for him. Sometimes painful memories aren’t easily shared—especially from a man who’d spent a good portion of his adult life keeping secrets.
My hope was, in time, he’d reveal all—or I’d pry it out of him. It could go either way. But there again was the trust between us. I trusted he’d eventually tell me, and as crazy as this sounds, I didn’t at all doubt Fakebottom was, indeed, a fake.
“Garish renovations. I have every mind to hunt this imposter down in his dreams and turn them into nightmares!” Win raged, interrupting my thoughts.
“Stop getting your boxers in a twist. He said borderline garish. Which means almost, but not quite.”
“Really, Stephania, is that any less of a slight?”
“You know, I can’t believe that’s what bugs you the most, Spy Guy. He’s not on board with your decorating but it’s no skin off your nose that he wants to steal your house?” I made scales out of my hands to demonstrate the imbalance of his priorities. “I say stealing your house outweighs insults about what color your curtains are, any given day of the week.”
“It’s our house, Stevie. And lest ye forget, he has my Aston Martin!” Win ranted, endlessly insulted by his precious car in the hands of an imposter.
“Now that does rankle a little,” I replied in mock disappointment. “I can’t believe he got his grimy hands on it before I was able to figure out where you’ve been hiding it all this time. So back to the Aston Martin. How do you even know it’s yours, anyway?”
“How many 2014 sixtieth-anniversary edition Aston Martin Vanquish convertibles, black with yellow rims, do you see zooming about here? None, I say—because it’s a custom paint job I commissioned.”
“I don’t know any Aston Martins at all, but la-de-da. Aren’t you fancy, Mr. Custom Paint Job? Maybe he’ll get a ticket for driving too fast in your fancy European sports car.”
“Not the point, Stephania,” he growled as I finally caught sight of our private dock in the distance.
“Which is exactly my point, Win. Your possessions aren’t what’re important here. Who cares about your Neanderthal rich-boy-spy car and your garish decorating skills when we’re about to lose our house to Fakebottom?” I shouted, making my way over the rocks toward the spot where Dana Nelson had left our small rowboat tied to the dock, exactly where I always left it.
He’d borrowed it for a very hot date just last night. Dana—or Officer Rigid, as I called him—was head over heels in love with Sophia Fleming, a newer resident to Ebenezer Falls of only eight months or so, I’m told.
She worked at the library and she was positively lovely. Not just her personality, which was quiet and maybe even a little introverted, but physically, she was a knockout. More dark, thick hair than a Pantene commercial and beautiful almond-shaped green eyes in a tiny heart-shaped face.
I envied the way she moved; her petite frame floated, rather than walked like the rest of us average Joes, and she always had a smile on her face for all her patrons.
Chester, my surrogate granddad of sorts, often opined if he were thirty years younger, Dana Nelson wouldn’t stand a cow’s chance at a fasting, because Chester would’ve locked her down with a ring by now.
To say Sophia was as crazy about Officer Nelson as he was about her was an understatement. Every time their eyes met, and they often did, as Dana had become a frequent visitor of the library these days, I mentally heard angels sing.
Their sweet courtship was that powerful, and it often made me yearn for someone who felt that way about me. It also made me wonder how Eleanor Brown felt…
Eleanor worked at the Ebenezer Falls Diner as a waitress for her aunt, and it was beyond obvious she secretly crushed on Officer Nelson. From the way she made sure his eggs were specifically over medium to the care she took in demanding Baron, the short-order cook, make Dana’s bacon crisp.
Hers was an unrequited love—one she was either too shy or too hurt by his relationship with Sophia to pursue, and in more ways than one, I understood her predicament.
Eyeing the boat off in the distance, I sighed. The rowboat wasn’t much to look at, truthfully, with its peeling paint and battered oars. But it was fun to hop in with Bel and Whiskey, and anchor to the dock and row in circles while we shared a picnic lunch.
Anyway, Officer Nelson had asked to borrow it to take Sophia out last night. He didn’t say what he was planning, but Win, Bel, and I were almost certain he was going to propose, from the look of his sharp suit and the twinkle in his usually stern eyes.
“Stevie?” Win prodded.
“Sorry. Lost in thought there. I think the sun fried my brain. Which monetary item were you kvetching about again?”
I was rethinking this little venture I’d proposed on a day like today. I guess I’ve acclimated again to the cooler weather of the Pacific Northwest after leaving the relentless heat of Texas, because just the few steps I’d taken had me sweaty and uncomfortable.
“The Aston Martin.”
“Right. The unimportant item in comparison to a roof over our heads.”
“Bah! How can you possibly say my Aston Martin isn’t important, Stevie?”
“Because we can’t live in the Aston Martin, Win.”
“I don’t know. I think I could manage,” he teased with less tension in his tone.
Wiping the sweat from my brow, I clenched my teeth. He couldn’t just sweep this under the carpet anymore. We couldn’t pretend it never happened, like we had these last couple of months because we’d figured Fakebottom had disappeared after we didn’t hear from him. Now that he was back, I was the one here on this plane that had to deal with him.
“Listen, I need you to tell me what we’re going to do about this, Win. We need to take action. We need a plan. I have to go to Seattle next week to meet with him and his lawyers. This isn’t the time to be worried about your car. What you should be worried about is that ridiculously expensive wood-fire oven in our kitchen. So let me give you a visual.”
“Uh-huh. It’s the one where Fakebottom is cooking frozen pizzas in it while he admires his view from the kitchen that took you almost two weeks to decide on the color of the fixtures alone.”
“Fixtures are important, Stevie. They’re the backdrop, the coup de grâce of the bigger picture,” he said sheepishly.
“They’re going to be your swan song if you don’t tell me what to do next. Talk to me about who this guy could possibly be. Have any theories? Ideas?”
Win sighed. “Well, it’s obvious he’s an imposter, Dove.”
“Yeah, you’ve said that, but that’s all you’ve said. You haven’t theorized, you haven’t said boo about this guy coming out of nowhere and laying claim to your riches.”
“That’s because I have no answer, Stephania. None. I admit, he looks exactly like me, and I don’t know why or how—or how he could possibly prove he’s me in a court of law. I’m confounded, and that’s not something I feel very good about.”
I sighed in sympathy, hoisting the picnic basket I carried with our light lunch higher, knowing how hard it was for Win to watch this all play out without being able to do a dang thing to intervene.
“Well, that’s at least a deeper insight than the complaining you’ve been doing over the state of your car. So what do we do about this meeting?”
“You contact Luis Lipton to represent you, of course. You tell him what’s going on. He knows you. He knows how you came about all this money. You also contact Davis Monroe, who handled my will and such. He has my death certificate and all the pertinent details of my will. That’s all the proof you need.”
Luis was the attorney who’d represented me when I was accused of Madam Zoltar’s murder, and Davis was the attorney who’d handled all of Win’s assets after his death. “Isn’t Luis a defense attorney? How can he represent me in a property dispute?”
“Lipton is an everything attorney because his large retainer says such.”
Right. I always forget how rich Win is—er, I am, and how that appears to make all things possible.
“How is it remotely imaginable this guy can prove he’s you? Didn’t you once tell me a Google search would only tell me you were a mild-mannered grade-school teacher? Wasn’t that your online cover or something? Did he assume that identity? If he’s pretending to be you, how does he explain a schoolteacher driving an Aston Martin? I mean, assuming that’s the identity he’s stolen. Wait! Did you use your real name as your spy name?”
“When I signed up, of course I did. I had a code name, though.”
As the sun beat down on me in all its sizzling heat, I began to poke him for more answers to add to this compartment of puzzle pieces I’ve been collecting where he’s concerned. “Really? Like what? Popsicle? Icebox? No, I bet it was something really distinguished, like Crushed Ice, right?”
“Crushed Ice, Stevie? How is that at all distinguished? It sounds like a bloody rapper.”
My shoulders slumped. “I was riffing on your last name. You know, Winter-bottom—popsicle. Like things that are cold.”
“Zero Below,” he muttered with a hangdog tone. “Zero for short.”
I giggled and spun around, almost tripping over my flip-flops. “Hah! So, Zero—or do you prefer Below?”
“Okay, sorry. So the question was, did he assume your average everyday fake online persona?”
“How could he? It was strictly on paper. Had anyone checked those credentials, they’d find there were no real credentials. It’s all made up. I have no certificate stating I’m a school teacher—my online persona just claims I do. It’s rather like the supermodel in an online chat room. She can claim she’s a supermodel all she likes when no one can see her, but were one to actually research to see if she has any valid proof she’s a supermodel, they’d find nothing. But MI6 handles everything. I’m sure they were careful.”
Closing my eyes, I stopped walking for a moment, turning away from the sun. “Well, whether you like it or not, we have a mystery to solve, pal, and we need to figure it out before next week, when I have to face the firing squad. Imagine me explaining to a bunch of suits how I came upon eleventy-billion dollars virtually hand-delivered by you. ‘It went like this, Mr. Attorney. I met a ghost, and that ghost needed my help. He offered me stacks of cash if I’d help him find who killed his medium buddy, Madam Zoltar.’”
I puffed out my chest to depict one of those stodgy lawyers. “‘A ghost, Miss Cartwright? A ghost left you eleventy-billion dollars?’”
Now I nodded my head, keeping my eyes wide and innocent. “‘Uh-huh, Mr. Attorney. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, a ghost? Is she bonkers? But here’s the rub. See, I’m an ex-witch who used to be able to communicate with the dead—’”
“Oh, enough, Stephania!” Win always called me that when he was annoyed with me. “I get the picture. We’ll address this, I assure you.”
“Whiskey! Slow down, buddy!” I heard Bel holler from up ahead of us, where they’d been playing in the water. “Heel, you cretin! Heel!”
Whiskey came barreling down the shoreline with Bel on his back, water flying everywhere, his thick mahogany and white coat drenched, his enormous paws skipping over the rocks like they were glass.
And he had something in his mouth.
Ugh. I prayed to the goddess it wasn’t another pair of underwear. Whiskey loves to bring me presents. It’s his way of showing his love, his devotion. He brings me mice, and to his credit, he tries not to mutilate them with his big slobbery jaw before he leaves them on my pillow. He often brings me shoes, and again, to his credit, sometimes they’re even mine.
My boy Whiskey gifts me with all sorts of thing. But the last time we’d been here for a picnic, he’d found some soggy underwear in the sand and had proudly presented them to me by dropping them in my plate of chicken salad.
But that sure didn’t look like a pair of underwear in his mouth. Hiking the heavy picnic basket over the crook of my elbow, I ran toward him, worried whatever he had he’d end up eating, and then we’d have to have his stomach pumped or something.
“Oh, Whiskey, what have you done, chap?” Win chastised as I met Whiskey and Bel just a few feet from the boat.
Whiskey wagged his big thumping tail at me, splashing up more water the moment I said, “Drop it.” He panted at me, pride in his wide, soft eyes as I knelt to look closer at the item. “It’s a purse.”
“That’s not all it is,” Bel commented, his tone dry, yet almost oddly coming across as resigned.
“Whaddya mean, Bel?” I asked as the contents of the rectangular peachy clutch spilled out of the purse and fell about the rocks. I stooped and began to pick them up when I saw a postcard from our own store.
It was one of my favorites, in fact—a picture of the steamboat that took people on a dinner cruise around the Sound, with the mountains rising up majestically behind it, their snow-covered peeks like dollops of icing.
I picked it up and turned it over to snoop, because I don’t know how to stop myself. I mean, the person who’d lost the purse would surely want it back, right? I couldn’t find out whom it belonged to if I didn’t snoop at the contents.
As I quickly read the back, Win stopped me with his hiss of a gasp, making me jump as my hands grew sweaty.
“What?” But he didn’t have to explain. As I looked up, that’s when I saw it, too.
Just the mere glimpse of a peachy, soft piece of material, hanging over the side of our rowboat.
My heart began thumping in my chest, but I inched my way over to the high side of the rowboat where it sat moored crookedly on the rocks, and held my breath, leaning over the edge with closed eyes so I could send up a prayer before I opened them.
Please let this be old man Hinkle passed out after his old lady Neelie pitched him out the door for coming home drunk.
He lived up the road about a mile from our house. Sometimes he came here to our stretch of beach to sleep off his binge before going home to beg forgiveness.
In my head, I heard the question Win would surely ask if I’d spoken the request out loud. “Would old man Hinkle be in a peach sweater with a matching clutch? Come now, Stephania,” he’d chastise.
I pushed my eyes open and forced myself to look at who was in our rowboat.
And then I swallowed hard, tears stinging my eyes as sorrow filled my chest until I almost couldn’t breathe.
“Oh, Dove. How tragic,” Win whispered in my ear, his warm aura instantly cloaking me in sympathy.
“Yeah,” I whispered back, as I dropped the picnic basket and inhaled a gulp of steamy air to keep from passing out.
Almost on auto drive, I flipped the top of the basket open and felt for my cell to dial 9-1-1. Wrapping my shaky fingers around it, I yanked it out, ran my finger over the screen, hitting the appropriate numbers, my heart so heavy I thought it would drop out at my feet.
As the ugly-hot sun beat down on my head like a bongo player wailing on his drums, I heard the operator say, “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
Licking my dry lips, I answered, forcing my voice to remain steady, my information clear and concise. “This is Stevie Cartwright. I live at 711 Samantha Lane. I’m on my private beach as we speak. I’m not in any danger, but I’ve happened upon a dead body as I was taking a walk along the shore with my dog. It’s Sophia Fleming.”
Sandwich, one of our local law enforcement officers, handed me a bottle of ice-cold water, his enormous body blocking the sun as the police milled about in every direction with crime scene tape and evidence bags. “You okay, Stevie?”
No. I was never going to be okay again. But forget me. Forget all about me and how I felt. That was insignificant. As small as the smallest concern ever.
How was Dana going to feel?
His face, his typically hard grrr-face, gone all soft and gooey yesterday, kept flashing in my mind’s eye. He’d been almost euphoric when he came to ask to borrow the boat. It wasn’t just in his eyes, but oozing from his pores, singing through his veins. His vibe was full of energy, hope and joy for a future, undoubtedly one he wanted to share with Sophia.
“Stevie?” Sandwich eyed me with a critical glance, cocking his head.
Wrapping Whiskey’s leash around my wrist, I tugged him to my side, his wet fur and bulk bringing comfort. “I’m fine. Forget about me. But who would…?”
My words hitched, but I kept thinking who would do this to someone so kind—so sweet and gentle? Who, by goddess?
Sandwich shook his head, running his beefy fingers over his chin, his eyes tired, his tone defeated. “Danged if I know, Stevie. Though, I’m sure sorry. She was one of the nicest ladies I know.”
“Does Dana know yet?” I asked, afraid of the answer as I pressed the cold bottle of water to my throbbing temple.
“He was out on a call. No one’s told him yet.”
“Maybe it’s better he doesn’t see…this…her…” Goddess, please don’t let him see Sophia like this.
“So you didn’t see anyone? Hear anything?” Sandwich asked, pulling out his notepad.
“I sleep like a rock, Sandwich. I didn’t hear a thing last night.”
Sandwich stopped writing, the beads of sweat on his brow almost disappearing when he frowned. “What does this have to do with last night? How could you know when this happened?”
I rolled my eyes. I was too wrecked to play this game today. “Don’t give me that suspicious look, Lyn Paddington. I think we’ve established I’m not a killer after Madam Zoltar and Tito. But if that didn’t cinch the deal, for sure my stepfather’s murder should have. Would I really blatantly kill people and continue to reside in Eb Falls while I did it? I’d have to be a sociopath—which I’m not.”
He gave me a sheepish glance. “Sorry, I’ve been watching too much Sherlock Holmes. Trying to brush up on my investigating skills is all.”
I’d laugh, but I did that, too. I took a chug of the water and nodded. “I get it.”
“And you did say last night like you knew the time of death. I’m paying closer attention to body language and details these days. Especially details from witnesses.”
“Well, it’s obvious it was last night, Sandwich. Look at how she was dressed. In a cute outfit and matching purse. Even though it’s smeared now, she has lipstick and mascara on, suggesting she was dressing up for something. Sophia was a natural beauty. She hardly ever wore makeup and she didn’t dress like that at the library. Plus, at one point, her hair was up, judging from the silver barrette now stuck to the side of her head. Also, the wound just above her heart. The blood’s coagulated now and that suggests it happened a while ago…”
I stopped. I had to, because seeing that wound in my head was going to hang around for a long time.
“Wow,” he said with a touch of awe in his voice. “You’ve really been taking this investigating thing seriously.”
“I sort of have to, with the way dead people keep turning up.” Then I shook my head, my stomach turning. “Sorry. That was an awful, ugly thing to say. I’m frazzled is all. It’s hot, and the heat makes me cranky. I’m sick with upset because I really liked Sophia, and I’m sicker with worry for Dana. He was so excited… I know he’s the last person you’d expect to be all light-of-step and hearts and flowers, but last night he was in such a great mood—”
“Last night?” Sandwich interrupted, his eyes razor sharp now as he peered down at me. “There are those words again, Stevie. How do you know what Officer Nelson’s state of mind was last night?”
Aw, hellfire and toad spit. Why not just hand him over to the police on a platter with an apple in his mouth, Stevie? You know he’s going to be a suspect. The boyfriend’s always the first person the police look at. You know he took her out last night. You know he was taking her out for something important.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to answer because the roar of a police car, sirens blaring, screeched to a halt just up the cliff by our house.
Officer Nelson flew down the stairs to the shorefront; his long legs taking the rickety steps I’d been meaning to have Enzo look at, three at a time. “Sophia?” he bellowed, heading straight for the cluster of police and investigators surrounding the boat. Even from here I saw his face—stricken, a mask of inconsolable grief beneath tightly stretched, ruddy skin.
Good Cop, as I called him, Detective Ward Montgomery, grabbed him and prevented him from going any closer toward the boat, while Bad Cop, Montgomery’s partner Sean Moore, stood behind him. “Stop, man!” he shouted as Dana struggled with him, almost knocking him down. “Dana! Stop!” Detective Montgomery roared, giving him a hard shake.
That was when Officer Nelson’s wide shoulders collapsed, and I almost followed suit. The combination of the heat and Dana’s grief, watching a man so emotionally in check lose it, was almost more than I could stand to watch.
“Just let me see her, Ward!” he cried, his anguished words echoing in my ears until I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from screaming myself.
No. He shouldn’t see Sophia. I didn’t want him to have that with him forever.
But Dana pushed away from Detective Montgomery and appeared to shake off his rage, flexing his fingers and rolling his shoulders as he blew out breaths.
Then he held up a hand to his fellow officers as they began to gather closer, move in tighter. “Okay, okay,” he said, backing away a step or two, but still pacing like a caged lion. “Just tell me who found her? Who found her, Ward?” he shouted, edging closer to the men preventing him from getting to the rowboat. “Who found her?”
“I did,” I croaked, moving toward him, my hands outstretched in apology. “I’m sorry, Dana. I’m so sorry, I—”
But Officer Nelson wasn’t paying any attention to me. He’d noticed the small gap in the collection of officers keeping him from the boat, and took that opportunity to bum rush them, barreling through their bodies until he was beside the boat where Sophia lay.
That moment, the moment he saw the woman he loved, all the life drained from her, will always be emblazoned on my heart’s memory. That bloodcurdling howl of her name as Dana Nelson fell on his knees beside the boat and raggedly sobbed was probably worse than anything I’ve ever witnessed.
* * * *
Tucked into a cushy lounge chair on our patio at the back of the house, I shoveled Sno Ball number four into my mouth and washed it down with some white wine.
Yes, I was stress eating. But I had to put something in my mouth to keep from screaming my hatred for the universe at the top of my lungs while I dropped to the ground on my knees and raised both fists to the sky in choked rage.
Why would something like this happen to someone as kind as Sophia? I was a muddled mess in my head as I tried to make sense of something so incredibly senseless.
The only thing I could consider was a jealous ex. Maybe she’d had a stalker no one was aware of? Maybe someone had followed her here to Eb Falls from wherever she came from, and had seen how happy she was with Officer Nelson and lost it?
I turned over and over a hundred different scenarios and came up dry every time.
“Yeah?” I asked, wiping another batch of tears from my eyes and Sno Ball frosting from my lips.
Win’s way of hugging me from the afterlife enveloped me, rocked me, consoled my aching heart. “I’m sorry, love. Tell me how I can ease your suffering?”
Bel buzzed in on Whiskey’s back and hopped to my shoulder, burying himself in my hair. “Shoot, Boss. This sucks Baba Yaga’s rank toes.”
Whiskey was even somber, pressing his cold nose to my hand before letting his chin rest against my thigh with a blubbery sigh.
“What Winterbutt said. What can we do to help you through this, Boss?” Bel chirped, snuggling into the lapel of my shirt.
“Help me figure out who’d do something so awful to someone so nice,” I said, preparing to rise and do just that.
But Win chastised me. “Stevie, love, you’re traumatized. Why not let this sit for just this one day? You’re in no shape to chase after another madman. Please, I’m begging you.”
But I shook my head. “You know I can’t do that, Win. Did you hear Dana? Did you see him? He’s broken,” I choked out.
Again, there was that haunting visual of him kneeling beside Sophia in the boat while his fellow officers struggled to pull him away, as they begged him not to taint the evidence.
Officer Rigid had flown the coop right before my very eyes in that moment, and was replaced with someone very human, someone fragile and vulnerable, reminding me not everyone was as they seemed.
“I did,” Win murmured, husky and low, his voice full of emotion. “I did see. I hated seeing him like that, but I saw. Yet, I also saw you. You’re distraught, Dove. You came upon something awful. This is different than finding Madam Z or Bart. You weren’t emotionally attached to them. But you knew Sophia. You frequented the library. Chatted with her on more than one occasion at Strange Brew. It’s different.”
I thinned my lips and nodded, disgust rising in my throat like toxic sludge. “You bet it is. She was one of the nicest people in Eb Falls and she deserves to rest in peace. She can’t do that if her killer’s on the loose. We know a thing or two about catching a killer. So I’m going to use those things to find the animal.”
Win didn’t respond, but he rasped a sigh, knowing full well there was no way he could stop me from pursuing this. I pushed open the sliders leading to our unbelievably amazing kitchen, with all its shiny appliances and marble countertops, with Whiskey and Bel in tow, and grabbed a notepad and pen from one of the drawers in the kitchen island.
“So let’s get this show on the road, guys,” I muttered, doggedly determined despite feeling exhausted.
My legs were shaky, but my mind darn well wasn’t. I’d never sleep anyway. Not now. Not until I gave Sophia justice.
“Boss, maybe Win’s right,” Bel twittered against my ear. “How about we wait until tomorrow? If you throw one of those gag-worthy frozen sandwiches in the microwave and pop some popcorn, I’ll stay up all night and binge watch repeats of the Gilmore Girls with you.”
“No!” Bracing my hands on the counter, I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Bel. I didn’t mean to yell. But I can’t let this go. Okay? Please?” I begged.
Bel snuggled next to my ear in answer and Win clucked his tongue in resignation. “Then let’s begin. Tell me what you saw, Stephania. Every detail. Let’s write it down.”
A thought occurred to me then, making me grip the edge of the smooth counter. “Wait, did you see her cross over, perchance? Maybe she’s in limbo? Alone? Confused?”
I couldn’t bear that. I just couldn’t stand the idea that Sophia might be wandering around, looking for the light, alone and afraid.
“There’s been no sign of her here on Plane Limbo, Dove. Surely you know I would have told you.”
“Right. Also, she’s definitely religious. At least to some degree, if the cross she always wore was any indication. She probably crossed. I have to believe she crossed, Win.” Tears began to well up in my eyes, but I swiped at them with impatience.
“Well done, Stevie. Good personal observation. You’re growing in leaps and bounds as an investigator.”
Win’s approval spurred me on. Squaring my shoulders, I set about remembering as much as I could from the crime scene before the police arrived. Every ugly detail.
“Cause of death,” Win said.
I squeezed my eyes shut to block out the horror of that wound and reopened them with the intent of keeping my recollections clear and my details sharp. “Gunshot wound to the chest. Maybe the heart? I know it was the left side of her chest and just above her breast. Very clean, if I do say so myself. The blood was coagulated and dried around the wound, meaning it likely happened sometime earlier, and because of the way she was dressed, I’d say it was after she left her date with Dana last night.”
“So someone who knew how to handle a gun, would you say?”
“I don’t know a lot about guns, but whoever the killer is, they were either lucky or skilled. I mean, think about it. We didn’t hear anything, right? I know I sleep like a rock, but did you hear anything last night, Win?”
“What leads you to believe this happened last night?”
Rubbing the heel of my hand over my eyes, I pinched my temples. “Because she was still dressed up. She had on a cute outfit, matching shoes and purse. Makeup, too. She doesn’t normally wear makeup at the library. In fact, I know she doesn’t because I was forever green with jealousy over her gorgeously creamy skin. So it had to be after she left Officer Nelson and their date. Also, she was stiff… I think I read somewhere rigor mortis sets in around twelve hours after…after death. Or maybe it was two to six. I can’t remember.”
I blew out a breath. It was one thing to read facts like that on the Internet, but another entirely to attribute them to something you’d actually witnessed.
Win cleared his throat, and I knew exactly where he was headed, but I didn’t try to stop him because I knew we had to explore this avenue, even though this avenue was a dead end. I knew it in my heart.
“Their date…” Win said, caution in his tone. “Do you suppose something went horribly awry?”
“Like maybe he popped the question and she said no?”
“Yes,” was Win’s reluctant answer.
I crossed my arms over my chest and emphatically shook my head. “Uh, nope. I sure don’t. You can theorize all you want, do it until you’re blue in the face, but there’s not a snowball’s chance in Arizona Dana Nelson hurt Sophia Fleming. Whether she said no to his question or not. A question we don’t even know he asked.”
“Good enough. Now, do you think she was killed on sight, or brought there afterward?”
I stuck the tip of my pen in my mouth and considered that. “You know, that’s a steep decline, and while Sophia was petite, it’s still a haul to carry a limp body down our rickety stairs to get to the boat, if the killer did it somewhere else. Unless the killer works out—a lot. I didn’t note any scuffle, but I imagine a scuffle would be pretty hard to see with the tide washing it away. Which makes the beach a pretty perfect place to dump a body. Also, why would she go back to the beach after her date with Dana anyway?”
“No one said she went back, Dove. Maybe she never left…”
Again, I shook my head. Dana was many things, a PITA among them because he was so by the book; he’d prevented me from snooping when I’d been wrapped up in Madam Zoltar’s murder—and Tito’s, too. But a killer he ain’t.
“Sorry, Spy Guy, but that’s a no go. No way Dana had anything to do with it. So let’s mark the origin of the murder as unknown for now and come back to it.”
“Okay, so a robbery gone wrong?”
“There’s always that,” I agreed on a nod. “Maybe she had cash on her? Or some valuable jewelry. But if robbery was the motive, why was her credit card, or maybe it was a debit card, still in her purse? I saw it on the ground when it spilled.”
“Let’s move on to something else. Like placement of the body. Anything to suggest this was a ritual killing? Anything significant at all that stands out?”
My eyes grew grainier by the second as I squinted into the kitchen and thought. “You mean like a serial killing? I guess anything’s possible, but I didn’t see anything suggesting there was a ritual to the technique. But then what do I know? It simply looked like someone placed her back in the boat. In fact, if I didn’t know better, if I hadn’t seen the gunshot wound, I’d have thought she was napping, she was set there so carefully. Her shoes were still on, her hair was mussed but there could be several reasons for that. The wind at the beach, or maybe a little snuggling with Officer Nelson… Her clothes weren’t in disarray at all.”
“Her purse? How did Whiskey come upon her purse, Bel?”
“It was right there on the ground by the boat, Winterbutt. She must’ve had it in her hand or something just before…well, you know. It was right next to the boat in the sand. Big guy here got to it before I had the chance to,” he said with a tiny tremor against my neck.
“Which leads us to the contents of the purse. What did you see aside from the credit card?” Win coaxed.
“Lipstick, a drugstore brand I’ve seen before. Like I said earlier, credit or debit card, can’t be sure, but it definitely had her name on it, keys and… Oh! I forgot!” I shouted, that tingle of mine kicking into high gear. I’d forgotten about the postcard and what was written on the back. “There was a postcard. One that came from Madam Zoltar’s.”
“Did she write something on it, Stevie?”
The words I’d read had more impact now than they had when I’d first read them, knowing almost certainly they were Sophia’s. I had to swallow hard to get the words out.
Leaning forward, resting my head in my hands, I nodded, feeling worse than I had just moments ago, if that were possible. “It wasn’t signed, but there was definitely a message. If that was Sophia’s postcard, it makes sense, I suppose.”
“What she’d write, Boss?” Bel asked.
My throat grew tight as I recalled the words and repeated them out loud. “I think I found the one. Wish you were here. Love you to the moon and back.”