Hexed Hiss-tory is coming out on July 29th! Here is a sneak peek at the book.
It was a place no self-respecting witch and feline familiar should have been. At least, not at half past noon on a Wednesday.
Winterspell’s favorite watering hole, Merlin’s Well, was one of those bars that was like an old shoe, or a worn-out pair of jeans. Comfortable, if not a little dingy, with a familiar feel that enveloped everyone who walked through its doors. My best friend, Leanna, managed to talk me into coming out to Ladies Night a few times a month, so I guess that made me something of a regular.
But on a weekday afternoon, the only patrons in the place thought of it as some kind of low-rent country club, a retreat for magical folks of a certain kind. Generally, old crusty warlocks and wizards, who enjoyed sitting around daydrinking their way down memory lane.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Selene’s tail twitched, her blue eyes narrowed as she considered the tavern’s sign mounted above two thick wooden doors.
“It’s not that bad, Selene. Besides, the deputy down at the station house told us Sheriff Templeton is inside.”
“When is Sheriff Templeton not inside?” The cat’s ears went back. “Besides, it’s easy for you to blow off a dirty floor. You don’t have to walk through there barefooted. Barepawed?”
I rolled my eyes and bent to pick up the cat. Never let it be said I couldn’t take a hint. I deposited the feisty feline on my shoulder and pushed open the heavy wooden door.
I paused in the foyer, allowing my eyes to adjust to the relative gloom. The Well’s décor tends toward darkly stained wood and old, cracked leather. It wasn’t dirty per se as the tavern’s owner, a Scotsman named Gerry, saw to its general upkeep, but between the worn floorboards, the furnishings that hadn’t been replaced in at least half a century, and the low lighting, it didn’t feel like cleanliness was of the utmost importance. In any case, it wasn’t the sort of place where you wanted to set your purse on the floor. Not that anyone complained. If anything, the old salts seem to like it a bit dark.
I heard Sheriff Templeton’s sandpapery laugh from across the tavern before I could see him. The mustachioed man held court at his customary spot at the corner table, his gaggle of friends hanging on his every word.
“—and that’s when this giant shark showed up. I swear, it was like something out of Jaws! This big old thing circling us, I could just about hear that music in my head. It brushed up against the boat and sent us sideways. I think Old Mickey about wet himself!”
A round of laughs echoed through the tavern.
“I’ve never seen him move so fast,” the sheriff continued with another guffaw. “Got that motor started up and didn’t even bother pulling in the lines. Bob lost his best fiberglass rod to the dang beast.”
I stepped up to the table and cleared my throat. Six pairs of weathered eyes swiveled my way, and for a moment, I felt like I must have sprouted wings and horns.
“Excuse me,” I said with a pleasant smile, “I don’t mean to interrupt your … um … lunch—” Though a quick glance revealed there wasn’t so much as a crumb of food on the table. Sheriff Templeton and his pals seemed to all be on the same liquid diet. “But I was hoping I could borrow the sheriff for a minute or two.”
Templeton sagged back in his chair as he heaved an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know what there is to talk about, Cora. I already took your report. We both know this isn’t the first time your Aunt Lavender has gone off on some adventure.”
I took a moment to tamp down a swell of impatience. “She’s not on an adventure, Sheriff.”
“Yeah,” Selene interjected. “Whatever brain cells you haven’t drowned in Pabst Blue Ribbon better listen up. I saw a masked intruder carrying Lavender out of her house. She was kidnapped!”
Templeton’s eyes rolled to the ceiling. “Oh good grief. The testimony of an elderly cat admittedly under the influence.”
My lips pursed. “I hardly think you could say she was under the influence, Sheriff. It was a memory candle, not hallucinogenic drugs.”
The sheriff flapped a meaty hand. “All right, fine, but my point is, there’s no sign of foul play at her house. No one has called or left a note, asking for a ransom to get her back. And as far as either of you know, she didn’t have any enemies who would want to hurt her. So, Cora, what exactly is it you would like me and my deputies to do?”
It was a fair question, I supposed, although perhaps not one meant for me. After all, I wasn’t a trained detective. Why was it my job to come up with an idea of what steps to take in a police investigation?
“She’s been missing for two months,” I continued. “We’re all just worried about her, sir.”
Templeton braced his elbows on the table. “Have you thought about putting up reward money?”
I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from screaming. How was that his best solution?
“I—I don’t know. I suppose I could speak with my mother about it.”
Selene’s chest vibrated against my shoulder as she released a low growl. “What does the city even pay you for? Does Warden Quinton know you spend your afternoons here, in a dark tavern, slurping up booze and telling old fish tales, while you’re supposed to be doing your job?”
That seemed to sober up the grizzled sheriff. He sat up a little straighter in his seat and dropped his elbows off the table’s edge. “I’ll send my deputies back to Lavender’s house to keep looking for clues and see about scraping together some reward money before we open a tip line. How’s that?”
“Sounds like the bare minimum,” Selene replied.
“It’s a start,” I quickly interjected. “Thank you.”
I turned my back on the sheriff and his pals. Selene fell silent until we stepped back outside into the bright sunlight.
“A third nipple would be more useful than that man,” the cat muttered darkly as I placed her on the sidewalk.
I shook my head, unsure of what to do. My muscles were coiled up, ready to spring into action, but there wasn’t any to take. Ever since we discovered Aunt Lavender wasn’t on one of her treasure hunts, and had instead been abducted, I’d had a tightness in my chest. A rising anxiety that never seemed to fully dissipate. It ebbed slightly when we were busy looking for clues, but after two weeks of searching, we were out of leads.
My lips twisted to one side as I ran through the past weeks of searching. “You’d think more people would be worried about Lavender,” I said after a long moment.
“Let’s face facts, Cora. Lavender isn’t exactly the most well-liked witch in Winterspell. She’s not the type of witch who likes to make small talk in line at the market, or bake cookies for the new neighbors. She keeps to herself, and saying she’s socially awkward would be something of an understatement.”
I frowned. “Aunt Lavender is eccentric, for sure, but I didn’t think people actively disliked her.”
“A lot of folks thought she was nuts. Off her rocker. One sandwich short of a picnic. Bats in the belfry—”
“Okay, I get the point, Selene.”
The pint-sized gray cat stretched her back into a languid arch, the way only felines can. “And if they didn’t think she was crazy, they still found her to be, well, borderline creepy. I mean, what would you think if you caught your neighbor rooting through all the trash bins on a regular basis?”
I blinked. “She’d do that?”
“Oh, yes. Your aunt took that whole ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ thing a little too seriously,” Selene replied with an indignant sniff. “She didn’t mind getting her hands dirty if she thought she might find some kind of trinket or bauble for her never-ending collection.”
“Yikes.” I exhaled slowly as I scanned the street. Summer had ended and Winterspell was in something of a slump as the seasons shifted. In the summertime, the magical town was packed with tourists and out-of-towners who came to vacation or visit from the non-magical world.
Things would pick up again in the winter, when the snow started falling and the mountains surrounding the picturesque town would open for winter sports. For now though, things were quiet and peaceful. It was often my favorite time of year, as my candle shop was a little less busy and I could cut out early to soak up the last of the season’s longer days on the lake. However, right now, even out on the lake, my mind was too loud. My thoughts too rapid. I didn’t think I would be able to properly unwind until we found Lavender and brought her home again.
“Well, law enforcement isn’t getting any closer to finding her.” I looked over my shoulder at Merlin’s Well. “Sheriff Templeton has clearly already written Lavender off. I guess he figures she’ll show up on her own and isn’t too concerned if she doesn’t.”
“Ah, we don’t need him.” Selene’s ears went back. “Sheriff Templeton is a bumbling idiot on the best of days. He’s not a trained detective. Winterspell doesn’t even have one of those.”
She was right. The magical community was guarded by enchantments and highly trained sentries. No one from the outside world could get in save via a single road leading in and out of town. Life in Winterspell could get busy in the peak tourist seasons, but overall it was a safe, quiet little community. The kind where everyone loosely knows everyone else. The residents trust each other, and crime, beyond stupid teenager antics, is basically nonexistent.
Or, at least, it used to be.
“You really think we can find Lavender, Selene?”
The cat swished her tail. “Why not? We solved the last case on our own, didn’t we? If we’d left that matter to Templeton, your boyfriend would be rotting away in some prison cell waiting for his trial date.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I corrected the cat, though I couldn’t help but smile a little. “And we didn’t do it all on our own. We had Clint’s help, too.”
“Yeah, yeah, he was great for cowering in the corner while we did all the hard work. My point is, we’ve got this.”
I arched a brow. “Okay then, master detective, what’s our next step? Because I was under the assumption we were stumped, hence the need to go and talk to the sheriff.”
Selene lapsed into silence. I have learned to treasure such times.
“Well, we still haven’t finished going through the rest of Lavender’s house,” she finally said.
I groaned in exasperation. “Yeah, and there’s a reason for that. We can barely keep track of our own rear ends in there.”
When it came to Aunt Lavender, the term hoarder might not be strong enough. Her bungalow was stuffed to the brim with odds and ends, with only a narrow passageway leading to the different rooms. Selene and I had been working our way through it, but so far, we hadn’t found anything helpful, and the sheer work of going through everything was beyond exhausting.
“I think our best bet is the guest room,” Selene said, already marching down the sidewalk.
“We can’t even get the door open, and the window is painted shut. Seriously, when was the last time Lavender went in there? You used to be her familiar and even you don’t know how she managed to get herself out of there.”
Selene kept walking, her tail swishing with every other step. “We’ll figure something out. For all we know, she’s put some kind of spell on it.”
“Okay, but if we don’t even know what the spell is, how are we supposed to break it and get inside?” I asked, jogging a few paces to catch up.
“I can’t think of a solution with all of your yapping. Just drive us there. I’ll figure out a way to get inside.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but then closed it. As annoying and brash as Selene could be, I had to constantly remind myself that she was just as worried—maybe even more so—as I was about Lavender. She wasn’t good at showing her true emotions, and tended to paint everything with the angry brush.
Wordlessly, we got into my car and I drove us to Lavender’s house on the other side of town. From the outside, you’d never know that Lavender has been missing for two months. After numerous complaints from the neighbors and city council, I’d roped my brother, Evan, into coming over and fixing the place up. Ever since, he’d been coming over weekly to cut the grass, pull weeds, and trim down the hedges. He’d even tended to her herb garden.
Of course, once you open the front door, that semblance of order goes right out the window. I’ve never seen what her house actually looks like behind the stacks of accumulated junk she has. She bought the house before Evan and I were even born, and by the time I was old enough to start remembering things, it already looked the way it does now.
Selene and I had slowly been working room by room, but we didn’t dare to get rid of anything. So it was something like a giant Tetris puzzle. We had to go through stacks of things, only to create new stacks in a slightly smaller space, to clear the next row of items to process. Most of it was junk. Hundreds—maybe thousands—of books, old magazines, records, and odd trinkets. She used empty boxes from pantry staples to store smaller items like marbles, crystals, and stones. Near the foyer there was a stack of Velveeta cheese boxes, and at first, I’d thought she just hadn’t bothering tossing them out, only to find that instead they were all full of small fossils, beads from broken necklaces, and precious stones. If I didn’t know better, I would think that at some point she’d planned to start a jewelry-making business, but upon the discovery, Selene had informed me that each item held some quantity of magic, and Lavender was holding on to them until she could uncover what the exact nature of said magic was.
According to Selene, my aunt Lavender was almost something of a one-woman magical bomb squad. She had her more eccentric quests, chasing after rare things like the horn of the first known unicorn, or Merlin’s training wand, or the cursed dagger that killed some famed dwarf king five hundred years ago. That sort of thing. But more often than not, she was after smaller, more mundane-seeming trophies. Rumors would swirl about a cursed ring, or a hexed book, and away she would go. Off to track it down in hopes of keeping it from falling into the wrong hands. Anytime she ran across something with magical properties—be it a set of Russian nesting dolls or a cuckoo clock—she’d purchase it and bring it back to her bungalow for safekeeping.
The problem was, she enjoyed the hunt far more than she liked unraveling magical secrets embedded in enchanted or cursed items. That kind of work took precision and patience. And focus. Selene told me that Lavender generally only did that part when she needed to sell something. She didn’t have a conventional job, so whenever her funds ran low, she would round up items she was willing to part with, dispel the charms or break the curses, and then sell the items at a flea market she frequented in the non-magical world.
Judging by the state of her house, she hadn’t needed to sell anything for quite some time.
Selene moved more easily through the house than I did, and reached the door to the guest room first. She ran one paw down the grain in the wood, her eyes falling closed. I stopped in the sliver of hallway and waited, trying to be quiet as she listened.
When her eyes opened, she shifted them my way.
“Well?” I asked. “Anything?”
“I’d say it’s definitely enchanted, but I don’t know how … or why.” Selene sat down and considered the door again, her head slightly tilted to one side. “I don’t even know when she did this, or how I failed to notice.”
The cat fell silent and my heart wrenched in my chest. “You did your best to help her. I’m sure she just forgot to tell you. Got distracted, or something.”
Selene didn’t say anything in reply. She just kept staring up at the door.
I clasped my hands together in front of me and wrung my fingers together nervously. “We could get the axe from the shed out back,” I suggested.
Selene’s eyes snapped to mine. “Are you insane? If this door has been spelled shut, all you’ll manage to do with an axe is slice that pretty face of yours clean off. And I am not cleaning up that kind of mess.”
I reached up and brushed my fingertips across my nose. “Right.”
“Just let me think. Go see if we have any more snacks in the fridge,” the cat groused, shifting her attention back to the door.
I didn’t love that my usefulness was being boiled down to the official snack-fetcher, but I did as she asked, and wound my way to the other end of the house to the kitchen. It was the cleanest of the rooms, as we’d been using the dining table as our main workspace—once we’d unearthed it, that is. The kitchen counters were cleared off as well, and after removing all of the spoiled food in the fridge, I’d given it a good scrubbing and then stocked it with some provisions to get us through the long days of cleaning and searching.
Selene was beyond picky when it came to her food, but in the nearly two months since she’d arrived on my doorstep, informing me she was now my familiar, I’d learned a few of her favorites and managed to keep them on hand—despite my bank account’s protests. The cat had expensive taste. I was just about to open a new canister of chef-prepared, all-natural, organic, no-preservatives, free-range cat chow, when Selene’s voice called out from down the hall.
“Cora!” The cat’s voice bounced around as she raced to the kitchen. “Cora! It’s open!”
I abandoned the cat food and hurried to meet her in the hall. “What kind of spell was it?”
Selene had a near infinite amount of magical knowledge, but seeing as she was a cat, her own magical range was somewhat limited.
The cat rolled her eyes. “Another one of her riddles. I swear, that woman must have been a sphinx in another lifetime.”
“How did you reveal the clue?”
Selene padded back to the door, which was now slightly ajar. A series of green runes glowed in the wood casing around the doorway, though the light appeared to be fading. “I used a Third Eye spell, to uncover that which has been concealed, and there they were.” She used the tip of her tail to gesture at the runes.
“You can read those?” I asked, leaning in closer to try and study them before they disappeared back into the wood.
“Of course! What do you take me for, some kind of dunce?” Selene tossed her head and slithered into the room. “Honestly, Cora, sometimes I wonder about you.”
“Right back atcha,” I muttered, pushing the door open a little wider to follow her.