Witchless In Seattle Mysteries, Book 1
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Left, Stevie! Left!” my familiar, Belfry, bellowed, flapping his teeny bat wings in a rhythmic whir against the lash of wind and rain. “No, your other left! If you don’t get this right sometime soon, we’re gonna end up resurrecting the entire population of hell!”
I repositioned him in the air, moving my hand to the left, my fingers and arms aching as the icy rains of Seattle in February battered my face and my last clean outfit. “Are you sure it was here that the voice led you? Like right in this spot? Why would a ghost choose a cliff on a hill in the middle of Ebenezer Falls as a place to strike up a conversation?”
“Stevie Cartwright, in your former witch life, did the ghosts you once spent more time with than the living always choose convenient locales to do their talking? As I recall, that loose screw Ferdinand Santos decided to make an appearance at the gynecologist. Remember? It was all stirrups and forceps and gabbing about you going to his wife to tell her where he hid the toenail clippers. That’s only one example. Shall I list more?”
Sometimes, in my former life as a witch, those who’d gone to the Great Beyond contacted me to help them settle up a score, or reveal information they took to the grave but felt guilty about taking. Some scores and guilty consciences were worthier than others.
“Fine. Let’s forget about convenience and settle for getting the job done because it’s forty degrees and dropping, you’re going to catch your death, and I can’t spend all day on a rainy cliff just because you’re sure someone is trying to contact me using you as my conduit. You aren’t like rabbit ears on a TV, buddy. And let’s not forget the fact that we’re unemployed, if you’ll recall. We need a job, Belfry. We need big, big job before my savings turns to ashes and joins the pile that was once known as my life.”
“Higher!” he demanded. Then he asked, “Speaking of ashes, on a scale of one to ten, how much do you hate Baba Yaga today? You know, now that we’re a month into this witchless gig?”
Losing my witch powers was a sore subject I tried in quiet desperation to keep on the inside.
I puffed an icy breath from my lips, creating a spray from the rain splashing into my mouth. “I don’t hate Baba,” I replied easily.
Almost too easily.
The answer had become second nature. I responded the same way every time anyone asked when referring to the witch community’s fearless, ageless leader, Baba Yaga, who’d shunned me right out of my former life in Paris, Texas, and back to my roots in a suburb of Seattle.
I won’t lie. That had been the single most painful moment of my life. I didn’t think anything could top being left at the altar by Warren the Wayward Warlock. Forget losing a fiancé. I had the witch literally slapped right out of me. I lost my entire being. Everything I’ve ever known.
Belfry made his wings flap harder and tipped his head to the right, pushing his tiny skull into the wind. “But you no likey. Baba booted you out of Paris, Stevie. Shunned you like you’d never even existed.”
Paris was the place to be for a witch if living out loud was your thing. There was no hiding your magic, no fear of a human uprising or being burned at the stake out of paranoia. Everyone in the small town of Paris was paranormal, though primarily it was made up of my own kind.
Some witches are just as happy living where humans are the majority of the population. They don’t mind keeping their powers a secret, but I came to love carrying around my wand in my back pocket just as naturally as I’d carry my lipstick in my purse.
I really loved the freedom to practice white magic anywhere I wanted within the confines of Paris and its rules, even if I didn’t love feeling like I lived two feet from the fiery jaws of Satan.
But Belfry had taken my ousting from the witch community much harder than me—or maybe I should say he’s more vocal about it than me.
So I had to ask. “Do you keep bringing up my universal shunning to poke at me, because you get a kick out of seeing my eyes at their puffiest after a good, hard cry? Or do you ask to test the waters because there’s some witch event Baba’s hosting that you want to go to with all your little familiar friends and you know the subject is a sore one for me this early in the ‘Stevie isn’t a witch anymore’ game?”
Belfry’s small body trembled. “You hurt my soul, Cruel One. I would never tease about something so delicate. It’s neither. As your familiar, it’s my job to know where your emotions rank. I can’t read you like I used to because—”
“Because I’m not on the same wavelength as you. Our connection is weak and my witchy aura is fading. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I get it. Listen, Bel, I don’t hate BY. She’s a good leader. On the other hand, I’m not inviting her over for girls’ night and braiding her hair either. She did what she had to in accordance with the white witch way. I also get that. She’s the head witch in charge and it’s her duty to protect the community.”
“Protect-schmotect. She was over you like a champion hurdler. In a half second flat.”
Belfry was bitter-schmitter.
“Things have been dicey in Paris as of late, with a lot of change going on. You know that as well as I do. I just happened to be unlucky enough to be the proverbial straw to break Baba’s camel back. She made me the example to show everyone how she protects us…er, them. So could we not talk about her or my defunct powers or my old life anymore? Because if we don’t look to the future and get me employed, we’re going to have to make curtains out of your tiny wings to cover the window of our box under the bridge.”
“Wait! There he is! Hold steady, Stevie!” he yelled into the wind.
We were out on this cliff in the town I’d grown up in because Belfry claimed someone from the afterlife—someone British—was trying to contact me, and as he followed the voice, it was clearest here. In the freezing rain…
Also in my former life, from time to time, I’d helped those who’d passed on solve a mystery. Now that I was unavailable for comment, they tried reaching me via Belfry.
The connection was always hazy and muddled, it came and went, broken and spotty, but Belfry wasn’t ready to let go of our former life. So more often than not, over the last month since I’d been booted from the community, as the afterlife grew anxious about my vacancy, the dearly departed sought any means to connect with me.
Belfry was the most recent “any means.”
“Madam Who?” Belfry squeaked in his munchkin voice, startling me. “Listen up, matey, when you contact a medium, you gotta turn up the volume!”
“Belfryyy!” I yelled when a strong wind picked up, lashing at my face and making my eyes tear. “This is moving toward ridiculous. Just tell whoever it is that I can’t come to the phone right now due to poverty!”
He shrugged me off with an impatient flap of his wings. “Wait! Just one more sec—what’s that? Zoltar? What in all the bloomin’ afterlife is a Zoltar?” Belfry paused and, I’d bet, held his breath while he waited for an answer—and then he let out a long, exasperated squeal of frustration before his tiny body went limp.
Which panicked me. Belfry was prone to drama-ish tendencies at the best of times, but the effort he was putting into being my conduit of sorts had been taking a toll. He was all I had, my last connection to anything supernatural. I couldn’t bear losing him.
So I yanked him to my chest and tucked him into my soaking-wet sweater as I made a break for the hotel we were a week from being evicted right out of.
“Belfry!” I clung to his tiny body, rubbing my thumbs over the backs of his wings.
Belfry is a cotton ball bat. He’s two inches from wing to wing of pure white bigmouth and minute yellow ears and snout, with origins stemming from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, where it’s warm and humid.
Since we’d moved here to Seattle from the blazing-hot sun of Paris, Texas, he’d struggled with the cooler weather.
I was always finding ways to keep him warm, and now that he’d taxed himself by staying too long in the crappy weather we were having, plus using all his familiar energy to figure out who was trying to contact me, his wee self had gone into overload.
I reached for the credit card key to our hotel room in my skirt pocket and swiped it, my hands shaking. Slamming the door shut with the heel of my foot, I ran to the bathroom, flipped on the lights and set Belfry on a fresh white towel. His tiny body curled inward, leaving his wings tucked under him as pinhead-sized drops of water dripped on the towel.
Grabbing the blow dryer on the wall, I turned the setting to low and began swishing it over him from a safe distance so as not to knock him off the vanity top. “Belfry! Don’t you poop on me now, buddy. I need you!” Using my index and my thumb, I rubbed along his rounded back, willing warmth into him.
“To the right,” he ordered.
My fingers stiffened as my eyes narrowed, but I kept rubbing just in case.
He groaned. “Ahh, yeah. Riiight there.”
“Yes, Wicked One?”
“Not the time to test my devotion.”
“Are you fragile?”
“I wouldn’t use the word fragile. But I would use mildly agitated and maybe even raw. If you’re just joking around, knock it off. I’ve had all I can take in the way of shocks and upset this month.”
He used his wings to push upward to stare at me with his melty chocolate eyes. “I wasn’t testing your devotion. I was just depleted. Whoever this guy is, trying to get you on the line, he’s determined. How did you manage to keep your fresh, dewy appearance with all that squawking in your ears all the time?”
I shrugged my shoulders and avoided my reflection in the mirror over the vanity. I didn’t look so fresh and dewy anymore, and I knew it. I looked tired and devoid of interest in most everything around me. The bags under my eyes announced it to the world.
“We need to find a job, Belfry. We have exactly a week before my savings account is on E.”
“So no lavish spending. Does that mean I’m stuck with the very average Granny Smith for dinner versus, say, a yummy pomegranate?”
I chuckled because I couldn’t help it. I knew my laughter egged him on, but he was the reason I still got up every morning. Not that I’d ever tell him as much.
I reached for another towel and dried my hair, hoping it wouldn’t frizz. “You get whatever is on the discount rack, buddy. Which should be incentive enough for you to help me find a job, lest you forgot how ripe those discounted bananas from the whole foods store really were.”
“Bleh. Okay. Job. Onward ho. Got any leads?”
“The pharmacy in the center of town is looking for a cashier. It won’t get us a cute house at the end of a cul-de-sac, but it’ll pay for a decent enough studio. Do you want to come with or stay here and rest your weary wings?”
“Where you go, I go. I’m the tuna to your mayo.”
“You have to stay in my purse, Belfry,” I warned, scooping him up with two fingers to bring him to the closet with me to help me choose an outfit. “You can’t wander out like you did at the farmers’ market. I thought that jelly vendor was going to faint. This isn’t Paris anymore. No one knows I’m a witch—” I sighed. “Was a witch, and no one especially knows you’re a talking bat. Seattle is eclectic and all about the freedom to be you, but they haven’t graduated to letting ex-witches leash their chatty bats outside of restaurants just yet.”
“I got carried away. I heard ‘mango chutney’ and lost my teensy mind. I promise to stay in the dark hovel you call a purse—even if the British guy contacts me again.”
“Forget the British guy and help me decide. Red Anne Klein skirt and matching jacket, or the less formal Blue Fly jeans and Gucci silk shirt in teal.”
“You’re not interviewing with Karl Lagerfeld. You’re interviewing to sling sundries. Gum, potato chips, People magazine, maybe the occasional script for Viagra.”
“It’s an organic pharmacy right in that kitschy little knoll in town where all the food trucks and tattoo shops are. I’m not sure they make all-natural Viagra, but you sure sound disappointed we might have a roof over our heads.”
“I’m disappointed you probably won’t be wearing all those cute vintage clothes you’re always buying at the thrift store if you work in a pharmacy.”
“I haven’t gotten the job yet, and if I do, I guess I’ll just be the cutest cashier ever.”
I decided on the Ann Klein. It never hurt to bring a touch of understated class, especially when the class had only cost me a total of twelve dollars.
As I laid out my wet clothes to dry on the tub and went about the business of putting on my best interview facade, I tried not to think about Belfry’s broken communication with the British guy. There were times as a witch when I’d toiled over the souls who needed closure, sometimes to my detriment.
But I couldn’t waste energy fretting over what I couldn’t fix. And if British Guy was hoping I could help him now, he was sorely misinformed.
Maybe the next time Belfry had an otherworldly connection, I’d ask him to put everyone in the afterlife on notice that Stevie Louise Cartwright was out of order.
Grabbing my purse from the hook on the back of the bathroom door, I smoothed my hands over my skirt and squared my shoulders.
“You ready, Belfry?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“Ready, set, job!”
As I grabbed my raincoat and tucked Belfry into my purse, I sent up a silent prayer to the universe that my unemployed days were numbered.
I sagged against the brick façade of the pharmacy and blew out a breath of defeat as I watched the pouring rain splash into a puddle-filled pothole in the middle of the road. “Okay, so that didn’t go quite as I’d hoped.”
Belfry scoffed from the inside of my box-shaped purse. “It didn’t go at all.”
“Jeez Louise. She was like a drill sergeant.” I referred to the manager of the pharmacy, who, in all her yellow-smocked militancy, had shot my application and me down like a skeet shooter.
“Uh-huh. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a sourpuss. She’ll need to set up camp in the laxative aisle if she keeps that up.”
“I feel a little like the fates are conspiring against me, Belfry. This is the ninth job I’ve been turned down for. I didn’t think the humiliation could be topped after yesterday’s rejection. I mean, if you can’t get a job at Weezie’s Weenie Hut, what’s left?”
“That’s not the fates, Stevie. It’s your resume. You have no resume. Humans in the real world have resumes. It looks bad that you’re thirty-two and have no job history. We need to create a human you. A reinvention of sorts.”
Now that really burned my britches. I did so have a job history, and I said as much when I managed to offend the manager of the pharmacy with my outraged disbelief.
Jeez. This was miserable. “I do have a job history, Belfry. I have ten years as a 9-1-1 dispatcher. Shouldn’t that count for something?”
“Well, it might if, in the human world, people were looking for an emergency operator whose specialty was talking psychopathic warlocks off the ledge of a spell.”
Yeah. Good times. I managed a snicker. “I was really good at that.” Then I frowned, annoyed by the memory. My job was the very reason I was in this stinkpot of toxic waste.
“You know what I say to this, Stevie? I say bollocks!”
Somebody’d clearly been influenced by the UK this morning. “Does the British guy say that, too?”
“No. Or I don’t know. I mean, he didn’t when we had that hacked-up communication out there on the cliff. I just imagine that’s the word he’d use for this mess we’re in. If it weren’t for your old job, you’d still be a witch. So again, I say bollocks and bull teats!”
“Bulls don’t have teats. They’re male.”
“Whatever. Why won’t you just listen to me and help me figure out a way to get your powers back? To prove you did nothing wrong? Then you wouldn’t have to worry about getting a crummy minimum-wage job. We could do it. You and me. Just like Rizzoli and Isles. We’ll find a way.”
Ah my Belfry, always my little champion. “Because who knows how long that could take, and in the meantime we have nowhere to live. Besides, what’s there to figure out? A council member stole my powers. Does it get any more definitive than that?”
Why was I allowing myself to be sucked into this conversation? No one wanted to relive the horror of that night less than me.
Belfry growled from inside my purse, rustling the napkin I’d tucked him into to keep him warm. “If I ever get my hands on that dirty bird council mothereffer, I’m gonna rip a hole in him!”
“With your big scary teeth?”
“Oh, shush. I can be scary.”
“No doubt. So scary the word ‘terrifying’ should be a hyphen on your name.”
I nodded. You bet your bippy I was avoiding. “Yep.”
“So now that you’ve been usurped by a pimply sixteen-year-old who probably still plays with his X-Men dolls—for a job even someone like me, with no opposable thumbs, could perform—what are you gonna do?”
“Steal his X-Men dolls and burn them in effigy?”
Belfry did his impression of maniacal laughter. “Ooo, I like this plan, Dr. Evil. Tell me more.”
I was still in job-history shock. When a teenaged high school student has more work history than you do at thirty-two, a reevaluation’s in order. It wasn’t like I could tell the manager of the pharmacy I had more people skills than the cruise director on the Love Boat as a 9-1-1 operator for the paranormal.
I’d stopped my fair share of spells gone awry, earthquakes, one tsunami, two almost-shifts in the equator, countless wand lashings, a broom landing on the moon, not to mention hundreds of witch vs. warlock domestic disputes—just to name a few. Believe me, when a wand and a binding spell are involved, it’s a hundred times worse than your average human 9-1-1 call.
But none of that counts anymore and if I let the pot with all my emotions about my current situation sit on the burner too long, it was sure to boil over. So I’d taken to compartmentalizing my anger and only letting it out when I couldn’t feed off the energy of Belfry’s rage.
He only encourages me to ball my fist and raise it to the sky in anguish. For now, that isn’t helping us. Once I manage to figure out this new half of my life, I fully intend to let ’er rip.
Pushing off the side of the building, I huffed a determined breath. “I say we go grab some lunch off the dollar menu at that food cart with the guy who makes tacos out of recycled something or other and rethink our plan of attack.”
I began to walk along the cracked sidewalk, staying dry by ducking under the awnings of the various locally owned businesses that had cropped up since I’d been gone.
I wouldn’t admit it to Belfry, but I’d missed the scent of Puget Sound, the tang of water in the air, the colorful sails of the boats in the harbor, and the mountains peeking at me when the skies were clear. I loved Seattle. I never would have left to begin with if not for the job offer in Paris.
The squawk of seagulls darting through the parking lot across the street was like music to my ears. A parking lot for a fresh-fish market that hadn’t been there when I’d left Seattle. Still, Ebenezer Falls was as charming and quaint as ever.
Multicolored awnings decked out each storefront, and though it was February now, the spring would bring with it spots of dappled sun and tulips by the dozen, anchoring each store’s door in bright clay pots the size of barrels.
Bicyclers would stream through town in an array of festive Lycra, the streetlamp posts would sport hanging pots brimming with purple petunias and daisies, and the curbs would be lined with wrought iron tables for diners who were willing to brave the chance of rain with their alfredo.
Despite my circumstances, it was good to inhale cool, tangy air again.
As I made my way down Main Street, blinking lights from a flashing pink and green neon sign caught the corner of my eye, making me slow my roll and look upward at the twinkling bulbs, racing around the perimeter of the sign.
I stopped dead in my tracks, my galoshes splashing into a small puddle as I looked again.
Shut the front door.
Belfry rustled around in my purse, pulling himself up until his little yellow ears poked out of the rim. “What’s the holdup, Boss? I’m starving,” Bel asked, until he, too, read the sign on the store.
Our reflections in the big picture window mirrored one another’s for a moment and then he went silent along with me.
Before he exploded. “I told you the British guy was on the up and up! Told you, told you, tolllld you!”
I reread the flashing sign. Madam Zoltar’s Psychic Readings. Medium To The Heavens. Séances—Palm Readings—Tarot Cards.
Okay, so when British guy relayed the name Zoltar to Belfry, maybe he had heard him correctly. Then again, maybe it was just a bizarre coincidence.
Still, there was an odd tingle in my belly, like the days of old when I still had an emotion to offer other than despair and defeat.
But I wasn’t so convinced yet. “Bel, c’mon. Listen, it’s not that I don’t believe you heard a guy ringing you up from the afterlife. You’re a familiar to a defunct witch. You still have your powers. It makes sense that you’d be some sort of weird channel to my old life and maybe even some residual ghostly chatter, but what does a British guy have to do with a psychic? Especially a psychic who named herself after the one in the movie Big? All human psychics are full of Twinkies. You know it, I know it.”
“No way are you not going in there, Stevie! No bleepin’ way. I know what British Dude said, and the name Zoltar was crystal clear. Not a chance in seven hells I’m not investigating this. If you won’t take me inside, I will climb right out of this musty old purse of yours and find a way in myself. Plus, I’ll strike up conversations with every single person who passes by. Once they’re over the shock of a talking bat, we’ll talk about the weather, the price of pork bellies, we’ll swap recipes and Facebook pages—”
“Okay fine!” I shouted, and then gave a surreptitious look around to be sure no one heard me yelling at my purse. “You settle down in there, Saucy Pants. Nowhere in this friendship of ours are you in charge. Got it? I’m only going in because you seem so certain this ghost is trying to tell you something rather than just testing out his afterlife voice.”
“Then after you,” he said with a grandiose tone.
I grabbed the handle of the glass door, hoping against hope I wasn’t making the biggest mistake I’d made yet.
The smell of incense wafted to my nose immediately, almost overwhelmingly, with the scents of vanilla and a hint of sage. The odor was swiftly followed by a dozen or so obnoxious chimes attached to the door, ringing out our entry.
Belfry squeaked a cough. “Egads, is she trying to hide the scent of a corpse?”
I lifted my purse and stuck my face in my familiar’s. “You pipe down,” I whisper-yelled from a tight jaw. “We cannot afford another problem. Now, we’re here, and I’m playing along, but I won’t play so nice if we end up in the psych ward for an evaluation because I’m talking to my purse.”
With a quick glance, I assessed the interior of the small store, littered with all sorts of freestanding metal shelves holding various-colored candles, each representing a meaning when you lit them.
And statues of Mary. Lots and lots of statues of Mary. One rack held healing crystals, most of which were bunk and wouldn’t heal a blackhead, but I reminded myself not to judge. Everyone had to make a living, and maybe this Madam Zoltar would be the first human I’d ever encountered who really could talk to the dead.
Who was I to say, being a former witch who really could make a caldron bubble? I had no right to talk.
I wandered past a spinny rack with postcards, and tarot cards, too, a wall of wind chimes and dream catchers, and a back room with a gauzy purple piece of fabric separating it from the rest of the store. The store itself was lit almost solely with LED candles that ran on batteries and one dim light bulb beneath a red lampshade with beads hanging like fringe around the edges.
As I looked around, Madam Zoltar’s appeared devoid of human life.
But another scent, one that rose above the incense, drifted to my nose. I knew I recognized it. I just couldn’t place it. Woodsy and expensive, the cologne or perfume—I couldn’t decide—lingered for a moment and then it was gone.
“Madam Zoltar?” I called out, hoping against hope she wasn’t home so I could end this wild goose chase of Belfry’s feeling confident I’d at least tried to humor him. I noted the employee bathroom and rapped on the door with my knuckles. “Madam Zoltar, are you in there?”
Nothing but silence greeted my ears.
I tapped the side of my purse with my nail. “See? Nobody’s home. Now can we go get lunch?”
“Not on your life, sister. Put me on the counter by the cash register and let me fly, baby.”
I set my purse on the glass covering the counter and shook my head. “You’re absolutely not getting out of my purse. So whatever you have to do, do it from in there.”
“Shh! I think I’m getting something.”
I fought a roll of my eyes and waited, crossing my arms over my chest.
Belfry gasped, a tiny rasp of air, but a gasp of surprise nonetheless. “I can hear him! Pick me up and face me north, Stevie. Do it now!”
His tone was so urgent, I decided there was no reason to upset him if there was no one to witness his shenanigans. I scooped him into my palm and held him facing north when he suddenly stiffened.
“Do you hear him?”
Was that some kind of joke? “No, I don’t hear him. I can’t hear anyone from that plane anymore and you know it, Bel. Stop being cruel.”
“Sorrysorrysorry. It was just instinct to ask. Forget that. He’s here, Stevie. He’s here!”
“Yay.” I wanted to be excited for Belfry, because his excitement was infectious. Yet, I couldn’t help but instead feel a pang of jealousy, and I didn’t like admitting it.
Belfry burst out in a fit of giggles, making me feel incredibly left out.
“Hey, I wanna hear the joke, too.”
“Oh, so now you wanna play, Mopey Gus?”
I shook my head, knocking off my raincoat hood. “No. I don’t want to play. I want to eat lunch. Finish up with British Guy and let’s get out of here before Madame Zoltar comes back from her lunch break and we get caught.”
“I was laughing at his name.”
My ears perked. “Which is?”
“Winterbottom.” And then Belfry laughed again, his munchkin-like chuckle spurring my own laughter.
A giggle escaped my lips. “Winterbottom? Was he a butler?”
“Mate? Give me one second. My mean friend is making fun of your name.”
I seesawed my hand, giving him a little shake. “Traitor,” I muttered under my breath.
“Shhhhhh! I’m trying to hear what the fudge he’s saying and he keeps fading in and out.”
I let my eyes fall to the floor, a cold slab of concrete painted gray. “Sorry.”
“Argh! Hold your palm up, Stevie, and your right leg. The signal’s weakening.”
“I will not.”
I reluctantly held up my right leg, noting my galoshes had seen better days.
“Say that again?” Belfry requested, his tiny body rigid with the effort to hear British Guy. “Oh boy.”
Belfry’s tone sounded ominous. “What’s happening?”
“Just one more sec…” he trailed off as he strained forward, his wings at full mast.
My right leg began to wobble and cramp. “Can’t hold on much longer, Belfry!” I gritted out.
“Just a little longer, Stevie!”
The moment Belfry begged for reprieve was the moment I tipped backward, the burning in my calf finally getting the better of me. As I toppled, I tried to hold my hand up to keep Belfry from harm.
Which was when I completely lost it and crashed into the spinny rack, knocking it over and falling against the sharply pronged wire postcard holders. “Ow!”
Postcards exploded in every direction as I rolled away from the prongs poking into my skin, but in the process somehow managed to catch the unstable metal shelf full of candles.
There was a small rumble like distant thunder before everything just collapsed in a screech of metal. One candle after the other dropped in a domino effect, some knocking me in the head, others splitting into chunky fragments.
I howled a word I can’t use in polite company as the candle meant to bring your true love back to you whacked me on the noggin. Stumbling blindly from the sharp sting, I attempted to scramble upward, only to stand on a cylinder-shaped candle and, like some demented log roller, lose my footing once more.
“Stevie! Lookout!” Belfry shouted from somewhere above me.
The problem being, he shouted too late.
Head over heels, I plowed face first toward the rack housing crystals near the back room with a yelp of dismay. I managed to cover myself only in time to keep my face from smacking the edge of the shelving unit.
I lay in the pile of my rubble, a bit dazed as the dust settled, and Belfry swooped downward to land on my chest.
I began to sit up with a groan, my head aching. “Yes, Belfry?”
“If you can manage to do it without the effort resulting in an emergency brain transplant, turn around.”
I blew at a strand of hair stuck to my mouth. “If I do what you ask, what will happen? Will the store fall into a sinkhole?”
“No, no. It’s much, much worse.”
His somber tone had me—and obviously my better judgment—sitting up straight.
As I took in the room behind the purple gauze material, my gasp echoed, the noise flying from my mouth, making me cringe and press my fingers to my lips.
I closed my eyes and gulped as Belfry climbed up my jacket and settled on my shoulder. “Please,please,pleeease tell me that isn’t Madam Zoltar.”
“I’ve only been saying as much for nigh on three hours now. Blimey, you Americans are slow.”
Enter British Guy.
Jolly good show.
“Belfry? Why can I hear but not see a British guy?”
“Winterbottom,” a smooth voice whispered against my ear, sending a cool chill along my spine. I knew that chill. Oh yes, I did. British Guy was a real live ghost. That much of Belfry’s story was true.
How could this be? I was a mortal now. No mortal I knew could truly talk to the dead. “Bottom who?”
I squinted and looked around the store, just as I did back in the good old days when a ghost made contact, hoping against hope I’d see him appear just the way ghosts always did in the past when they came to me for help. But there was nothing. No filmy, transparent glimmer of anything. Just a store trashed courtesy of yours truly.
What the heck was going on?
“I’m Winterbottom. The name’s Winterbottom,” the disembodied voice repeated.
I wasn’t sure where to begin. With what I saw in the room behind the purple curtain, or the fact that I was hearing the voice of a ghost even though I technically shouldn’t be able to hear anything from the afterlife.
I decided to attack the unclear first, before I sank my teeth into the obvious. “Okay, um, Bottom’s Up, how can I hear you?”
“Winter. Bottom,” he enunciated, dry as a bone, sounding a lot like he’d stepped right out of an episode of Game of Thrones. “And it’s a bit of a tale for the X-Files. A tale we don’t have time to indulge in, but I’d be chuffed to pieces to share with you later. As you can see, we have far more pressing matters.”
A warm breeze wafted past me and ruffled the gauzy material, revealing problem number two.
My eyes slammed shut and my fingers spread over my temple to pinch off the ensuing headache. “Madam Zoltar, I presume?”
“It is indeed. No need to check for a pulse, she’s dead.”
The desert my throat had become made it difficult to swallow. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. That’s why you’re here. To help me figure it out.”
“So all this trying to talk to Belfry was to get me to come here?”
“That wasn’t the original intent.”
“What was the original intent?” I asked.
“Forget that for now. As I was saying, you are, as they say here in the afterlife, the best in the biz. They also say you have a big heart, you’re tenacious, you cry at Hallmark movies during Christmas, you’re unbelievably gifted at finding bargain designer clothes from consignment shops and the like, you love a good mystery and are rather proficient at solving them, and you have a lovely shade of gray-blue eyes—of which I’d quite agree.”
My cheeks flushed red. “That’s very kind of them, and you. The problem is, I can’t help you or anyone from the afterlife anymore.”
“Mmm. I’ve heard. That’s neither here nor there.”
I stared up at the direction the voice came from and made a face. “No, that is here. Did the afterlife gossips fail to mention I’m not a witch anymore and all my medium powers are gone?”
“Yet, here you are, talking to me. They couldn’t be gone entirely, because I truly am gone from this plane and still we communicate…um, sorry. What’s your name?”
“The afterlife didn’t tell you my name?”
“They’re all quite vague here. As though you’re some secret family recipe for Yorkshire pudding they aren’t willing to share. They had the absolute audacity to tell me to get in line. Though, they did mention your very annoying familiar. Their words, not mine.”
“Hey!” Belfry chirped. “I’m right here, you know. And it’s Belfry, BTW. As in ‘bats in the’.”
I plucked Belfry up and tucked him against my chin, where he clung to the lapel on my jacket. “I’m Stevie, as in Nicks, the singer. Stevie Cartwright.”
“The pleasure’s all mine. Anyway, as you can see, we have a problem.”
“Are you sure she’s dead?”
When I’d assisted souls from the afterlife, they’d never sent me to help with a dead body. Still, I couldn’t stop myself peeking around the corner of the purple material to assess the situation.
Madam Zoltar was flat out on the floor on her back in the mostly sparse space. Compared to the outer portion of the store, the back had no clutter at all. There was only a water cooler at the other end of the room in the right corner with some cone-shaped cups.
There was a wooden chair tipped over next to her, her body crumpled as though she’d slid from the seat she was sitting on at the round table and collapsed to the floor.
A purple tablecloth just touching the floor looked as though someone had yanked it half off the scarred table.
Madam Z must have grabbed it when she fell backward, which explained why the tarot cards were scattered over the top of the table and on the floor beside her still body.
She wore a turban made of some sort of white clingy material, with a big green jewel in the center, but a tuft of her graying hair poked out from beneath the edges by her neck. Her dress was flowing and multicolored, a caftan was how I’d classify it, with a matching jewel-encrusted neckline revealing her ample décolletage, and a scarf tied around her neck.
Gaudy rings graced almost every one of her fingers and in every color, with enormous costume gems. Yet her feet were bare, something I found curious. For someone who appreciated a little finery, I found it odd she didn’t have matching kitten heels to complete her outfit, or at least a cute pair of functional flats.
That curiosity had my eyes swerving to her chubby feet. Ten toes were painted red and, in keeping with her love of jewelry, she had a toe ring on one middle toe.
But the ball of her right foot really caught my eye. There was a hole about two inches in size where her skin looked torn and missing, the edges of the wound almost charred. It was as though the spot on her foot had randomly exploded.
I’d call it a blister, but if that wound was a blister, I’d throw away the shoes that gave it to me.
My first instinct was to consider the obvious. A heart attack. After seeing the tablecloth she’d clearly dragged with her when she fell, it looked to me like she’d latched on to it in the throes of pain. Madam Z was an older woman, probably in her later sixties, her skin said as much. A heart attack made sense.
“Heart attack?” I finally asked out loud.
“I don’t think so,” Winterbottom replied, as if he had this all sewn up.
“Were you a medical examiner in your former life?”
“Um, nope. Guess again.”
Planting my hands on my hips, I frowned into the empty store. “Then how do you know she didn’t die of a heart attack or stroke? Did you see something?”
“No. Unfortunately, when I arrived just before I tried contacting you through Belfry this morning, Madame Zoltar was already dead.”
Why was a legitimate ghost visiting a fake psychic? “You were here? Why?”
“We had business to attend.”
“Could you be any more vague? You invited me to this party, Weatherwarning. I didn’t crash it.”
He chuckled, sort of low and slow and absolutely meant to be condescending. “Now you’re just teasing me, Stevie Like-Nicks-the-Singer. Surely you’re not that dense. I repeat, it’s Winterbottom. And you make a fair statement. But it sounds as though we’ll have to continue this conversation later. I believe I hear the dulcet tones of police sirens.”
I froze, my eyes skimming the front of the store and the picture window, where the sign still blinked, looking for in-store cameras.
Ebenezer Falls was mostly crime-free as I remembered it, but that didn’t mean Madam Z wasn’t smart enough to protect herself on the off chance someone broke in. The last thing I needed was to end up on America’s Most Wanted.
I raised my hand to cast a vanishing spell in case I’d been filmed and then I remembered, like a punch to the gut, I couldn’t handle my problems with a spell and the flick of my hand anymore.
A thread of panic screamed through my veins, making my blood run cold. I’d had enough of being accused of something I didn’t do in my witch life. I refused to start my human one with the local police as my guide.
Scooping Belfry from my collar, I located my purse on the countertop, where all my trouble began, and plopped him into it. “Okay, SummerButt or whatever your name is. I apologize in advance if I have that wrong, but I can’t think straight when I’m in a panic. And this is me, officially in a panic. This looks bad. So, so bad. I’ll call 9-1-1 once I’m safely out of here. They’re going to take one look at this mess and think I had something to do with it!”
I’m not sure why I came to the conclusion the police would immediately think I’d killed Madam Zoltar. Maybe it was because I was still so freshly raw from my witch-slapping incident. Raw enough to know not everything is always as it seems.
I began picking my way through the debris of candles and crystals, wondering if I’d left muddy footprints anywhere with my galoshes. Didn’t the forensic police always match footprints to shoes?
Of course they did. They did it all the time on Castle.
But there was no time for me to cover my tracks as the sirens grew closer.
The door to the store burst open, filling the interior with the sounds of the busy street outside. A short round man pushed his way through, almost tripping on some of the candles. “That’s her!” he yelled, pointing at me.
There was a local police officer right behind him who eyed me critically, shoving the short man behind him in a protective gesture. “Police! Put your hands where I can see ’em!” He pointed what looked like the biggest gun in the history of guns right at me. “Chester! Stay behind me, would you?”
My hands flew upward in compliance; my purse, once in the crook of my arm, fell to my shoulder, unintentionally tossing poor Belfry around. No way was I giving anyone any guff. I watched YouTube. I knew what could happen if I got mouthy.
I fought a groan of distress as the officer approached me, his eyes narrowed and suspicious, as if he’d just caught Hoffa in the middle of a mob kill.
“Let me explain,” I began, keeping my tone even and, above all, calm while I forced myself to look into his dark brown eyes.
If I were going to explain, I’d do it right to his handsome face like someone who was telling the truth.
“That’s her!” the round senior with suspenders and a plaid green-flannel shirt chirped, as though he’d just identified Bigfoot. “Saw her comin’ in here about fifteen minutes ago then heard all the ruckus from my son’s coffee shop next door. Called you boys right up.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “That’s true, Officer. The gentleman’s absolutely right. It was about fifteen minutes ago. I was just…”
Just what? What could I possibly tell them? I came in to investigate the voice my bat familiar heard calling to him from the afterlife? And as a point of interest, he’s a ghost with a British accent and his name’s SpringLoaded—or something fancy and pretentious.
Ugh! When I got my hands on British Guy, I was going to knock him right into the next plane!
Gathering myself, I decided I had to be very careful about what I said and how I said it. “I just came in to look around. I’m recently back in Ebenezer Falls after being gone for a decade or so, and there are so many new things to see—”
“Then why in tarnation did it sound like a herd of elephants was doin’ the fandango in here?” the sweet-looking senior asked. “These walls are thin, lady. You were in here roughin’ up my Tina, that’s what you were doing!”
I found it hard to hide my surprise as I looked into this man’s blue eyes, so alive with anguish. “Who’s Tina?”
Winterbottom’s rich, sophisticated voice grazed my ear. “That’s Madam Zoltar’s real name. Tina Marie Martoni. And this little chap with the suspenders and sharp eyes? He’s Chester Sherwood. Seventy-two, and a spry old goat. His son runs and owns the coffee shop next door.”
I rolled my shoulder to dislodge Winterbottom from my ear. If there was anything I was skilled at, it was ignoring clingy ghosts who wanted to talk when I was in the middle of something.
“May I put my hands down now, Officer? I think my fingers are numb.”
But Chester began hopping around in protest, the tuft of white hair on his balding head bouncing in time with his feet. “She was in here up to no good! Tell her to keep her hands in the air ’til her fingers fall off!”
Aw. That was kinda mean. I sent big pleading eyes to the officer, averting my gaze away from Chester The Heckler.
The officer lowered his gun and holstered it when his backup arrived, but he pointed a warning finger at me. “You can put your hands down, but you stay where we can see you.” Then he turned to his partner, a reed-thin, sandy-blond man who had to be at least six-three. “Keep an eye on her, Gorton, while I take a look around. She was here in the middle of all this when I got to the scene.”
“Wait!” I yelped a warning without even thinking. “Madam Zoltar’s…” I looked to Chester, who had called her “his” Tina, leading me to believe there might be some kind of romantic attachment, so I wanted to tread delicately. I’d hate it if I blurted out in a careless manner that she’d left this world.
So I inched my way over to the first officer on the scene, and caught his name badge. Dropping my voice to a whisper, I leaned into him. “Um, Officer Nelson? Madam Zoltar is dead.”
Chester was becoming more agitated by the second. He gripped the tall officer, his fingers sinking into the policeman’s forearm, his lips thinning into a line. “What are you whisperin’ about over there, girlie! What did you do to my Tina?”
Officer Nelson planted his hands on slender hips. “And how do you know she’s departed, Miss—”
I stuck my hand out between us, cutting off his words. “Cartwright. Stevie Cartwright. I know because I saw her. If you’ll just let me explain—”
He gave me a sharp gaze that said shut it and firmly ignored my hand, but his spoken instruction was polite. “If you’ll just wait here, Miss Cartwright, I’ll take a look.”
As Officer Nelson climbed over the carnage of my klutziness, I shoved my unshaken hand back to my side and held my breath.
From this distance, I saw him kneel down next to Madam Zoltar, pressing his fingers to her wrist. Then he spoke softly into the radio at his shoulder, obviously alerting headquarters there was no rush.
It was then the sorrow of a soul passing over hit me in waves of remorse, arcing over my initial shock. Madam Zoltar had probably been someone’s mother, sister, daughter, friend. I hoped wherever she’d landed on the other side, she was happy.
I said a small prayer to that effect while Officer Nelson assessed me again with a critical pair of brown eyes, his tight jaw and clean good looks hard to ignore. He struck me as the kind of man who made hospital corners on his bed and devoutly avoided anything chaotic.
But it appeared as though he wouldn’t be able to avoid chaos today. As passersby and probably other shop owners began to gather at the window and the entry to the store, more police arrived.
Was Madam Zoltar important to the community in a way other than her work? Or were these rubberneckers just a bunch of ambulance chasers?
“Nana Tina?” someone from the back of the forming crowd called, followed by a pale hand waving from the street.
All heads swiveled to see where the cry had come from before a young woman barreled through the gawkers.
Her eyes were wide and green, her hair dyed so red, under the dim light of the store it looked almost pink. The cut was shaggy and unkempt, worn jagged and spiky around her heart-shaped face. She had on as much jewelry as her nana, but she wore most of it in the way of piercings in her eyebrows and nose.
The slouch of her loose jeans rolled at her ankles, a pair of navy-blue Keds and a neon-green hoodie all said she was quite young.
“Nana Tina?” she cried out again, her eyes taking in the mess on the floor. Then she looked to Officer Nelson. “Where is my nana?”
I knew what was coming, and the very thought made me hurt for this young woman.
Officer Nelson’s wide shoulders slumped for only a moment before he squared them and stepped in her path, blocking her from the back room. “May I ask who you are?”
Anxiety began to take over, that much was clear from her tone and the way she attempted to get around him. “I’m Liza Martoni. I’m Tina, er, Madam Zoltar’s granddaughter. Now where is she? What happened? Was she robbed?” Tears stemming from obvious fear were beginning to form in the corners of her eyes, threatening to spill from her round orbs.
Officer Nelson placed a broad hand on Liza’s shoulder, and though he towered over her, he still managed to keep his voice gentle. “I’d afraid she’s gone, Miss Martoni. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Gone?” Liza wailed, collapsing against the glass counter. “What happened?”
“That’s what we’re here to try to find out. Please, let Officer Gorton take you outside so we can investigate thoroughly.” Officer Nelson swept a hand toward the door, but Liza began to sob, clinging to him.
“Why do you have to investigate? What’s to investigate? She’s my nana. I have a right to know! Tell me what happened!” she begged, twisting my heart.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Someone had to comfort her. I normally only dealt with people after they were gone. I usually didn’t see the sorrow and grief. I had to at least reach out and offer her some consolation, something other than the unsympathetic eyes of Officer Nelson, who appeared desperately uncomfortable.
Putting my hand on Liza’s arm, I squeezed. “Why don’t you let the police do what they have to and come outside with me, Liza? I’ll wait with you.” I wasn’t supposed to leave Officer Gorton’s sight, but I didn’t care if it got me into trouble. Liza shouldn’t have to see this.
Instantly, her round eyes melted into a puddle of more tears when she took my hand. “I can’t believe this happened,” she sobbed. “I just saw her yesterday. She was fine.”
I squeezed her hand and patted her arm, keeping my body in front of hers so she wouldn’t see Madam Zoltar’s still body. “I’m so sorry, Liza. Can I get you something? A water, maybe? Coffee? What’s your pleasure? My treat.”
She shook her head and sniffed, her spiky hair ruffling. “No…no, thank you. I just want to know what’s going on. I need to know what’s going on.”
It was almost as if she didn’t fully understand that no one knew what was going on. “They don’t know just yet, Liza. That’s why we have to let the police do their job.” I tried inching her toward the door, and away from the gruesome figure of her nana lying on the floor, but she wasn’t budging.
“How does a perfectly healthy sixty-eight-year-old woman die suddenly?”
“So your nana was in good health?”
“She was an ox!” Liza spat, anger now clearly replacing her grief. “She’d just been to the doctor and left with a clean bill of health. And that’s why I want to know what happened. Because this doesn’t make any sense!”
I grasped at straws when I offered, “Maybe it was an intruder? A theft of some kind?”
Though that didn’t make a lot of sense, even to me. Her foot had an injury I wasn’t qualified to diagnose, but an intruder made no sense. Nothing had been disturbed.
Liza finally looked up at me, but behind those big watery eyes was something. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.
Her frantic eyes went to the seemingly untouched register. “Then why wasn’t anything taken from the cash register? Was something stolen? Because it sure doesn’t look like it. Plus, there’s an alarm she wears around her neck. It’s a necklace, small chain, a pendant with a sapphire-blue jewel in it she can press discreetly and it silently signals a place called Senior Alert. We made her get one when she wouldn’t give up the store because we worried about her and the late hours she kept just to keep this place running. She hated wearing it. She wouldn’t have had to wear it at all if she didn’t need the money her readings brought to supplement her income because the government’s cheap idea of a pension wasn’t enough for a cat to live on!”
Funny, I didn’t remember a necklace around her throat. You’d think for all the jewelry Madam Zoltar wore, she wouldn’t forget something so important. I wanted to ask Liza more questions, despite the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. Something wasn’t sitting well with me—or right—or whatever.
I smiled and attempted another push toward the door, hoping I could get her safely through the crowd. “So she was a hard worker, your nana Tina? Come and tell me all about her, would you? She sounds so interesting. I mean, how many people are lucky enough to have a psychic medium in the family? Let’s grab some coffee. There’s a coffee cafe just next door, I hear. It’s new to me because I’ve been away since I graduated high school and I’m dying to try it.”
Officer Nelson hitched his jaw in the direction of his partner Gorton, stepping in front of us. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to do that, Miss Cartwright.”
My eyes flew to his sharply constructed face as my pulse raced. “Why’s that?”
A voice from behind me answered my question in a cordial tone. “Because you’re coming to the station for questioning, Miss Cartwright.”
Liza promptly dropped my hand, her mouth falling open. “Oh my God! Was it you? Did you hurt her?”
Everyone at the door went silent and looked at me with the glare of a thousand fiery suns.
Oh, seven hells.
Officer Nelson stepped in before I could protest, keeping Liza from me and somehow redirecting her to another officer who’d arrived on the scene.
My stomach sank. I didn’t need this kind of trouble so early on in my return to Ebenezer Falls. It was all I could do not to scream right then and there.
So for sure, when I got my hands on Winterbutt, he was a dead ghost walking.