Witchless In Seattle Mysteries, Book 2
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Crispin Alistair Winterbottom!”
“What now, Miss Cartwright?”
I ignored his aggravated sigh and my urge to lob something at the wall.
“You know exactly what. This will never work if you keep trying to land a date with our client’s deceased lover. Understood?” I whisper-yelled at my partner in spy.
“Bah,” he whisper-yelled back. “It’s not a date, Stevie. I was just asking if Kitty liked to dance. When has a trip around Plane Light Fantastic ever hurt anyone, Funstomper?”
I ran my hand over my temple before giving it a good squeeze to ease the tension. “That’s not the point and you know it. When we agreed to do this—reopen Madam Zoltar’s with me as her successor—you agreed to play by my rules when contacting the dead.”
“Nonsense. I am playing by your rules, Dark Overlord. You said nothing about asking a client’s deceased loved one if they had a hobby. Not a solitary word. Did she, Belfry?”
Belfry, my tiny cotton ball bat familiar, stretched and yawned from the bed he’d made out of one of the leaves of an elephant ear plant. “I hate to side with the Cumberbatch-alike ghost, but he’s kinda right, Boss.”
Chiding my ghost for not playing by the rules was as close to pointless as one got, but I did it out of habit. Much the way any mother of a toddler who needed repetitive reinforcement would.
Winterbottom, or Win as I call him, is my afterlife connection—my conduit to the other side.
Really. That’s the absolute truth.
Plainly speaking, he’s a dead British spy who barged into my life (or my ear, if we’re being literal) just over a month or so ago when he needed my help and wouldn’t leave until I caved.
If I helped him solve a murder, in return, he’d help me move on with my new life here in Ebenezer Falls, Washington, as a shunned, powerless, broke ex-witch—and give me all his worldly possessions as a reward of sorts.
“Worldly possession” being a decrepit old Victorian in crumbling, graffiti-filled disrepair and more money to renovate it than I could spend in five lifetimes.
The truth. My hand to God. That really happened. Though, according to him, he’d already planned on giving me his house and money before I’d agreed to help solve the murder.
He said my afterlife connections were enough of a reference to consider me a worthy recipient. Also according to him, that was all he needed to ensure his monster of a house—what I now lovingly call Mayhem Manor—would be in good hands.
Win never reminded me of what he’d so generously given my bat familiar Belfry and I. He never rubbed it in. He’d never asked for anything more than his initial request in return.
But he sure made up for it in other ways. Like today. We’d taken over Madam Zoltar’s tarot card reading and medium business here in town in her honor.
Madam Zoltar’s death was the murder I mentioned, and what brought Win and I together in the first place. Now it was the glue sticking him to my backside.
I longed for the days when I was a witch and I desperately missed communicating with spirits—my specialty before I was shunned (another long story). Running Madam Zoltar’s helped ease that ache a bit, even if I was only communicating by proxy.
Also something of note: Shunned is a kind word for what happened to me. After I literally had the witch slapped out of me by an angry spirit, I ended up booted out of my coven back in Paris, Texas, when I became mortal again, by the very leader I’d have trusted with my soul.
And it hurt—stung like no tomorrow. My fearless leader was Baba Yaga, in case having a name to attach to my tragedy is necessary, and the longer I thought about how she’d dumped me like a fickle girl dumps a ’90s boy band, without listening to a word of my defense, the less I was able to continue to outwardly support what she’d allowed to happen to me. I worked hard not to be bitter because technically, she was still Belfry’s head honcho, but as of late, the work had become harder.
Anyway, once the dust settled after solving Madam Zoltar’s murder case, Win and I concocted a plan—one that had given me a reason to get up in the morning.
I’d be the new medium, hence my turban and caftan (another shout out to Madam Zoltar and her keen, quirky fashion sense—hey, girl!), and Win would be my legit conduit to the afterlife. Being that he was in limbo and had no plans to change his afterlife Facebook status to “crossed over” anytime soon, our arrangement worked just fine—so far.
We’d agreed to take this journey together in memory of Madam Zoltar, a beloved figure here in Ebenezer Falls, and also someone Win had become very fond of just prior to her death.
But we had rules and stipulations to this agreement.
Though, hear this, I’d never take money to contact the deceased from someone who was in the throes of grief. Never. I’d also never take their money if I couldn’t truly communicate with said deceased.
So Win and I decided not only would we work as a team, we’d donate whatever the customer could afford to pay (yes, you read that right. Sliding-scale séances) to various charities—animal rescue being high on my list—and use only what we needed to pay the store’s expenses.
And that’s what led me here—to Spy Guy’s otherworldly philandering.
I looked at the picture of Kitty Talucci, the one our client, Edward Randolph, had brought to the reading. A picture of his lover, her luscious ebony hair falling down her back in a riot of curls, lying against the alabaster skin of her shoulders. Decked out in a strapless, red Lycra dress, which hugging her abundant breasts and accentuated her tiny waist and lush hips, she was beautiful. I pointed to it with the tap of my index finger.
“You were not asking about her hobbies, Win. I know it and you know it.”
“I beg your pardon,” he spat in that uppity British tone of his.
“Does Kitty look like a woman who hasn’t danced a time or two, Win?”
He gasped with his high-pitched-mock-Stevie-girlie-squeal. “You’re stereotyping. That’s against the law.”
“Point for the dead spy,” Belfry chirped, stretching his wings.
“It’s called profiling and I’m not a cop, but even if I were, I’m really not profiling. Kitty was a dancer. Burlesque. You’d know that if you weren’t busy looking into her deep, dark velvety eyes. Now quit trying to pick her up and help me help Edward find her last will and testament, so he can prove to her evil ex that Snape is now his cat because Kitty left him to Edward in her will.”
“Who names their cat Snape?” Win balked.
Repositioning my turban, I smoothed my colorful caftan and made a face. “Women who like Harry Potter and Alan Rickman?”
“Ah, a fellow Brit. This bodes well for me,” he purred in his whiskey-smooth voice.
“No. There is no boding anything. Now, get out there to that table and let’s get ’er done. One more swish of your flirty ghost hair and it’s curtains for you, International Man of Intrigue.”
If I could actually see Win, I’d bet five bucks he was rolling his eyes at me right now. “Fine, fine. You’re the boss. Just remember, the spirits respond well to me and my hair swishing.”
I made a face at the air. “When I was a witch, I never had to swish my hair to get the spirits to communicate with me. They just did. No bribes, no flirting, no cash exchanging hands.”
“She speaks the truth, Winterbutt,” Belfry agreed, tucking back down into the green leaf. “Though, cash would have been nice.”
Win scoffed in that way he had when he wanted me to hear he was disgusted. “That’s because you’re a woman, Stevie. The game of pickup is not a two-way street. It’s a proven fact that women are far more successful at picking up men than the other way around.”
“I bet that fact checker was a man. A man who didn’t want to admit we just have better game. And you basically just admitted you’re trying to pick up Kitty.” I pointed to the door separating us from the room we’d privately dubbed Séance Command Central, and said, “Now go. We need to finish up because I have a lunch date with Forrest.”
“Oh, then by all means,” Win drawled with his uppity British lilt. “We shouldn’t waste a second longer. I wouldn’t want you to miss a ham on rye on my account.”
Forrest Sherwood was our next-door neighbor here at the shop. He owned Strange Brew, the coffee café to the right of us. He was also an old high school acquaintance who’d taken an interest in me since I’d moved back to my hometown, something Win didn’t seem to care for much.
He was always picking at Forrest, who, of course, is thoroughly unaware of Win’s existence. Win’s dislike of Forrest leaves me scratching my head sometimes. Forrest’s a nice guy who works hard, makes amazing coffee, and has the cutest grandfather ever named Chester.
But I didn’t have time to address Win’s sarcastic jabs at Forrest today. Today was all about finding our feet out here in the world of commerce in Ebenezer Falls.
Madam Zoltar’s had been reopened just a week, and we were finally seeing some foot traffic as curiosity got the better of the locals and tourists alike. Everyone wanted to know if the formerly accused murderer, Stevie Cartwright, really could communicate with the dead.
I won’t get into the murder accusation. Suffice it to say, even though I was utterly innocent and totally exonerated, the fact that my fellow Ebenezers had all but tarred and feathered me during the investigation into Madam Zoltar’s death still stung. So maybe I still feel a little grudgey, despite how kind the townspeople have been since my good name was cleared.
After checking on Belfry and finding him fast asleep, I pushed open the door of what was once Madam Zoltar’s small apartment, now our storage/coffee room, and wiggled my finger over my shoulder at Win. Pointing to Edward, our grieving boyfriend, who was waiting for me to help him find Kitty’s will, I said, “Let’s do this, Spy Guy.”
“Is everything all right?” Edward asked, his sweet face lined in worry as I reentered Séance Command Central.
I patted him on the hand to reassure him before taking a seat at my brand-new reading table. “Everything’s fine. Sometimes I just get so overwhelmed by the spirits and their shenanigans, I need a moment to gather myself and refocus.”
That’s not a lie, either. Win could make the man above need a moment, so someone like little ol’ mortal me didn’t stand a chance.
I took in a deep breath and looked Edward square in his eye. “Now, where were we?”
Edward reached his forefinger up under his round, thick, black-rimmed glasses and wiped a tear from his eye. “You said my Kitty was here—right here in the room with us.”
“Yes. She absolutely is.” I closed my eyes again and focused my attention on asking the appropriate questions for Win to relay. “Kitty? Edward’s here. He wants you to know he misses you very much and he has a question for you. Can you help?”
“Kitty says to tell Edward she’s busy,” Win supplied in a dry tone.
The house that Win gave me is at the height of renovations with his contractor Enzo, and it’s gorgeous—and he’d lose his ever-lovin’ afterlife if anyone were to mar his precious.
So, yep. When we got back to the house, I was going to draw on the freshly sheetrocked wall with a black Sharpie. Maybe a peace sign, or hashtag #payback.
I stirred in my chair and cleared my throat, our mutually agreed-upon signal for “quit screwin’ around”.
“So, Kitty, like I said, Edward has a question for you. He’d like to know where you left your will. It’s not in the place you said it would be, and your ex-boyfriend, Marlon, is threatening to take poor Snape away from your beloved Edward. Where did you put your will, Kitty?”
“She says she’s still busy.”
I clenched my teeth and muttered under my breath, “Well what is she doing? Her nails?”
Edward gripped my hand with his sweaty cold one. “Are you really talking to her? What is she saying?”
“She said she’s busy. I can’t make her talk to me, Stevie,” Win said in exasperation. “Rule number five hundred and twenty-two clearly states, no former spy interrogation tactics with the spirits. This is inclusive of, but not exclusive to, waterboarding, jumper cables, cigar cutters, any sort of contractor’s tool, all forms of bamboo-ish-like torture, fire, bullets, bombs, anything affiliated with bombs, chains, razors, yelling, berating, and/or other forceful measures that may never be taken when inducing spirit conversation in the afterlife. Your words.”
I grated out a sigh, forgetting Edward was with us. “Oh, we do not either have five hundred and twenty-two rules yet. It’s only in the three hundreds, Melodrama Mama, and I said nothing about razors, but I’m glad you mentioned them. They’re definitely out. Please put that on the list.”
Edward leaned back in his seat, pulling his hand from mine, the vein running along his forehead pulsing. The apprehension on his face was clear. “What? I don’t understand what she means. What do razors have to do with anything? What’s happening?”
The distress on Edward’s face was obvious, from the lines in his forehead shaped in a frown to the downward turn of his trembling mouth.
I patted his hand again then sneezed, giving Win the second agreed-upon signal to quit screwin’ around. If we got to the stage where I coughed, it was DEFCON and Win better be prepared to be on the receiving end of a good tongue-lashing.
“It’s all going to be fine, Edward. Sometimes other spirits interfere with my communication and our signals get crossed.”
“Other spirits?” he asked as he peered at me with watery eyes.
“Yep. Spirits who struggle with simple directions. They’re everywhere. All around us. Some even have names that rhyme with Winterbottom.”
Edward’s face went openly confused.
“You truly are despicable, Stevie Cartwright. You do this all the time and I have absolutely no way of defending myself. It’s cruel.”
I fought a grin, but just as I reached for Edward’s hand once more, there was a commotion outside at the front of the store.
A crowd had gathered, the voices floating toward my ear filled with rising hysteria, lifting above the loud music typically blaring in the food court.
But I shrugged it off. Maybe Forrest’s grandfather, Chester, had threatened the kids who skateboarded along the sidewalk with his big broom. Chester was infamous for chasing the local teens when they scooted along the sidewalk, his broom in his chubby, weathered hands, held high over his head as he bellowed at them and called them words like miscreants and rug rats.
Chester made me giggle. I adored this crabby, chubby little man, and he liked me pretty well, too, but we didn’t always have such a mutual admiration for one another.
He was the first person to accuse me of murdering Madam Zoltar, totally unfounded and completely reactionary on his part, but at the time, it had caused me some serious grief.
However, I’d forgiven him since then, and he was now one of the best parts about living here in Ebenezer Falls. I especially loved that he was helping me design gardens for the front of Mayhem Manor. We’d spent hours at the kitchen table, plotting and planning for spring, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands in the soil right alongside him.
Someone screamed outside, cutting off my thoughts.
Edward gripped my hand. “What’s going on?”
I rose from my seat and headed toward the new picture window I’d had installed in the front of the store, peering around our blinking Madam Zoltar sign toward the food trucks parked just across the street.
Frank Jessup, the manager of the local used bookstore, flew across the street, his eyes wide, his long legs eating up the distance between the food trucks and my store. He looked panicked, maybe even afraid as he ran straight for Forrest’s coffee shop, ducking inside.
Forgetting about Edward and Kitty, I ran to our front door and pushed it open, the chimes Madam Zoltar had been so fond of tinkling a haunting sound. We were having an unusually warm, sunny day for March in Washington, which had brought a big lunch crowd to the food court.
I couldn’t see anything through the throng of heads crammed around my favorite taco vendor’s food truck.
“He’s dead!” someone screamed in a light Spanish accent.
My heart began to pound and I tried to swallow, but my throat kept closing up. No. Please don’t let it be…
And then someone confirmed my deepest dread. “Call the police! Tito’s dead! The Taco Man’s dead!”
Win’s aura surrounded me, his oddly cool yet somehow warm presence enveloping my space. I often equated it to a hug, but I’d never tell my spy that.
If Win knew how much he meant to me, especially arriving at a time in my life when everything had been falling apart, I worried he’d find me too needy, too much for a man who’d likely spent a lot of time on his own as a spy—without distractions like sticky relationships to keep him from doing what he had to do. I’d made it my mission to tread lightly when it came to my squishy girl feelings.
“Damn, Stevie. I’m sorry, love.” Win’s voice caressed my ear, offering the comfort I’d come to relish.
I bit the inside of my cheek. I couldn’t believe it. Tito was dead? I pushed out of the door, walking into the sunshine blindly, my feet more than familiar with the path I was taking because I’d taken it a hundred times before.
It was the path that took me directly to the food truck of my favorite taco vendor in the world. The Salty Sombrero’s tacos were what had kept me from starving to death when I’d first moved back to Ebenezer Falls after my shunning.
At the time, I was alone, without any family but Belfry, pushing poverty and a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere. Tito’s lunch specials, three for a buck on Tuesdays and Thursdays, allowed me a decent if not exactly low-calorie meal. I’d buy as many tacos as I could fit into my purse and my dwindling budget would allow, keep them in the hotel room Belfry and I were staying in, and eat them cold at night for dinner.
I loved Tito, even though he’d accused me of murdering Madam Zoltar, too. But like Chester, once he’d realized how wrong he was, Tito had gone out of his way to make things right with me.
In fact, just last week as Win and I were cleaning up Madam Zoltar’s, right before we had our grand reopening, he’d brought free tacos for me and the high school kids I’d hired to help.
He’d been all smiles on his roundly cheerful face as he passed out warm, soft-flour-tortilla tacos in twos, chatting with me in broken English about getting his final papers next month.
He’d been so proud to finally be on the path to getting his American citizenship; he’d recited the Pledge of Allegiance to show me how good his English had become. We’d laughed and laughed when he kept saying “One nation under God, invisible” instead of “indivisible”.
Dang. The memory felt like someone had just ripped my heart out by way of my belly button.
And now he was dead. Could this have something to do with the message Win had gotten from the afterlife about a month ago, one that we were never able to pursue due to lack of information?
A spirit had reached out to me via Win. A spirit of Latin descent—a female aura, to be precise. She’d requested help with a “friend” and then she’d up and disappeared. Win had no description of her. He claimed she was just a voice—an older voice who’d said she had a friend here in Ebenezer Falls in need of earthly aide.
I’d told Win to tell her we’d get right on it, but then she’d disappeared.
I stood just on the fringe of the food truck parking lot in the warm sunshine, seeing the colorful sails bobbing on the choppy waters of the Sound, unable to push past the wall of people. Unable or unwilling, that is. I couldn’t pinpoint which.
I think I’m still a little raw from my last bout with murder and my feet are telling my brain to move along, but my heart is telling my brain to piss off.
“Do you suppose this has to do with the voice that contacted me?” Win asked what I’d just been thinking.
I nodded numbly as the wind caught my caftan, whipping it about my feet. “I wondered the same thing. But how could she have known this would happen? In fact, what did happen?”
“Dang. Seems like we can’t keep anybody alive in this durn town,” Chester muttered as he came to stand next to me, threading his arm through mine and leaning into me while we shared the view of the small parking lot.
Many times, when I peeked out the picture window of Madam Z’s between readings, I’d look out over the sea of multicolored trucks parked in a semi-circle end to end and smile at the people who lived in my town and frequented the carts, rain or shine. Families, couples, everyone who made up Ebenezer Falls, strolling and enjoying the one thing we all did universally—eat—and the sight always made my heart warm.
But today, even as the sun beat down on our heads via a cloudless sky, while tulips and daffodils bloomed all around us in the beds the community had built, and despite happy music blaring from speakers set about the court area, the trucks looked less cheerful.
I noted Jacob, the fish-and-chips guy who owned The Deep Sea Diver, wasn’t in the vicinity today. Sally, over at The Sunshine Inn, had mentioned he skirted the permits necessary to park and serve food whenever possible. Today was probably a smart day to avoid the place altogether.
The breeze picked up, bringing with it the call of seagulls and bike horns as Ebenezer Falls celebrated this unusual break in the weather.
Still, my eyes went back to the area where I suspected Tito was sprawled. “Do you know what happened, Chester?”
He shook his silvery-white head and patted my arm, his normally twinkling eyes somber. “Nope, and this time, I’m gonna be real careful about what I say, girlie. Don’t want ya goin’ to jail for round two or we’ll never get those gardens done.”
I’d laugh if I didn’t still remember what the interior of an Ebenezer Falls holding cell looked like, thanks to a whole lot of unfounded suspicion on not just Chester’s part, but the police department’s, too.
“Stevie? You okay?” Forrest asked from behind me, his tall presence strong and reassuring. He placed one of his big hands on my shoulder and squeezed before moving to stand on the opposite side of his grandfather.
“I’m fine. I had nothing to do with this one, if that’s what you’re wondering.” I tried to joke, but inside, my guts were all ripped up.
There’d never be another taco like Tito’s Supreme Grande soft taco slathered with sour cream, guacamole and, of all things, dandelion leaves. Never.
I often thought Tito was trying to fit in with the latest fad of organic meets traditional in order to continue to compete in the marketplace with some of the more foodie-minded trucks. But the line at his door every day was proof enough he didn’t need tofu and quinoa to make a sale.
Thankfully, someone had the smarts to turn off the music, and only hushed whispers now pervaded the food court. The police arrived then in a wave of sirens and flashing red and blue lights, the screams of the ambulance not far behind before their tires came to a screeching halt.
As the crowd parted to allow the paramedics and police through, I got my first real glimpse of Tito, splayed out on the concrete in front of his festive pink and mint-green food truck with the dancing sombrero splashed across the side right next to the menu for all that taco goodness.
He’d often said the colors of his food truck were meant to represent his life. Fun, colorful, like a Mexican hat dance every single day.
“Bloody hell,” Win muttered in my ear—exactly what I was thinking.
“Is that what I think it is?” Chester asked in a somber hush, tightening his grip on my arm.
“I think it is, Pops,” Forrest said, his voice wooden and perplexed, if one’s tone could be such at the same time.
It absolutely was exactly what Chester thought it was.
Tito’s whole shiny ebony head was covered in cheese. The gloriously velvety, mildly spicy, brilliantly orange-yellow cheese he so generously poured over his Not-So-Naked Nachos and topped with slow-cooked brisket, chives and jalapenos. Another of my favorites.
There was also a trail of cheese from his truck to where he’d fallen.
Okay, so after my last experience, here’s where I should bow out, right? March myself right back to my shop, finish Edward’s reading and ignore anything to do with a potential murder case.
Because let’s face it, I’d been to this rodeo. The difference was, this time I hadn’t been anywhere near Tito or his truck when he was found. Unlike the last time, when I was in Madam Z’s shop with her dead body when the police arrived—with Chester hot on their heels, ready to burn me at the stake.
Back then, it never even occurred to me that Madam Z had been murdered. My first thought was that she’d had a heart attack. And that had been my first thought here, too, but I’d learned real quick about first impressions after my run-ins with the law and a real live killer.
But then I had a crazy niggle that what happened here was none of those things. The one I used to get when I was a witch. The one that was never wrong—and that niggle said Tito’s death had to do with foul play.
“Heart attack? Stroke?” Chester asked, his gruff voice smaller today.
“It sure looks that way,” I agreed, despite the gnawing…nay, burning protest of my gut. “Maybe he fell into the vat of cheese before he stumbled out here? He always had that huge pot of it simmering on the stove by the back door of the truck. Maybe he was trying to get help when he did?”
Win coughed in my ear. “Hmm, Mini-Spy. A heart attack? Haven’t we heard that before?”
So Win must be feeling that niggle, too. But two murders in the matter of as many months? Here in Ebenezer Falls, where crime was on record with an all-time low for a suburb just outside Seattle?
“I smell fish, and it’s not Forrest’s breath,” Win murmured.
I shook him off, riveted by what was happening around Tito’s body as the paramedics and police gathered to assess. His white apron, typically covered in all manner of whatever food he was cooking that day, was still around his neck but untied at his waist, suggesting maybe he’d just been putting it on. It lay flat on top of him, a stark white against the dark concrete.
He’d clearly fallen out of the truck backward, landing flat mere steps away. His arms were spread out beside his body, suggesting he hadn’t even tried to stop his fall. His face troubled me the most; the cheese was beginning to harden over his skin in the sun, turning dull, while bits of jalapeño stuck to his nose and cheeks.
As the police began to move people along, I noted for the first time a man in the very back of the crowd, his youthful face a mask of pain, as though he were on the verge of crying. His eyes were a startling green, shimmering with unshed tears.
Handsome, with deep chestnut hair and chiseled good looks, he looked away, his wide football-player shoulders trembling when the paramedics finally covered Tito’s body after placing him on the gurney.
“Titooooo!” a woman wailed, her agonizing sob slicing through the warm breeze as said woman pushed her way through the parting crowd.
Everyone turned to see Tito’s estranged wife, Magdalena—or Maggie, as we called her here in town—stumble toward the gurney, a tissue in her hand, her long black shawl with the red fringe falling from her rounded shoulders.
“Didn’t she throw Tito out just last month?” Win wondered.
“I thought she and Tito were getting divorced?” Chester mirrored Win’s thoughts.
“I knew there was trouble. I was right outside here, changing the sandwich board, just before she confronted him about something. She caught him upside the head with a broom, yelling and carrying on, crying too—left in a real huff. Next thing I heard from the gossip mill was she’d told him she wanted a divorce and was staying with her daughter, Bianca,” Forrest said.
I hated hearing there’d been trouble between Tito and Maggie, but I hated it worse because they hadn’t mended fences before he passed. “Do you know what happened?”
“Forgive my crassness. I’m simply repeating what I’ve heard. Word around town is, Tito put his enchilada in the wrong oven,” Win provided in my ear.
I had to fight a gasp. No. He wouldn’t…
“Heard he was cattin’ around,” Chester supplied, running a hand over his stubble-littered jaw.
Tito? My Tito was a bandito? Naw. He loved Maggie. Adored her. Talked about her like she was the second coming. I couldn’t imagine he’d cheated on her. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding.
Maggie’s cherubic face was tearstained, streaking her thick makeup and leaving dark circles around her usually vivid coal-black eyes. “Mi amor!” she howled, her voice raw and scratchy. “Como pudistes dejarme asi? No, mi amor, no, no, noooo!”
Bianca, her daughter, ran behind her, catching her by the waist as Maggie fell on Tito’s body, clinging to his prone hand.
“Mama, please!” Bianca begged, tears of her own streaking down her gorgeously high cheekbones.
Bianca was every man’s dream. Svelte, with curves in all the right places, and full lips filled in with a raspberry gloss. Thick, straight hair the color of a raven’s wing fell down her back to almost her waist, accentuating olive skin so clear, if I were the jealous type, I’d hate her hot tamale guts.
Her waist was tiny, her hips full in her brightly colored mini-skirt, accompanied by a white, off-the-shoulder peasant shirt and big gold hoops in her ears.
She caught Maggie’s shoulders, her ringed fingers gripping at her mother, tugging to pull her away from Tito. “Come, Mama. Shh-shh, now,” she crooned in a hoarse whisper. “Come with me. No mires, por favor.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and gripped Chester’s hand tighter, sorrow filling my heart.
“Folks, I’m gonna have to ask you to move it on out, please!” ordered my favorite local law enforcement officer, Lyn Paddington, a.k.a. Sandwich (because he once ate a sardine and mayo sandwich with sweet pickles on a dare).
I shifted out of the way but I didn’t leave as directed. I was riveted, my eyes scanning the surrounding area where Tito had fallen, looking for anything that would tell me he didn’t have a heart attack. Which was a little insane. I’d far prefer Tito left this world that way than by way of a murderer.
“Stevie?” Sandwich said, looking down at me.
I glanced up at his normally happy face, now tight with concentration. “Yes?”
“I said move it along, please. Remember the last time you were at a crime scene?”
I planted my hands on my hips and nodded, my turban tilting awkwardly to the left. “You mean the time I was accused of a crime I didn’t commit, and Starsky and Hutch questioned me like we were remaking Silence of The Lambs? You bet I remember, buddy. Weren’t you the one to take me to your place of business like a lamb to slaughter?”
Sandwich sighed, a brief look of remorse on his face before he hitched his rounded jaw toward the other side of the street. “I apologized a hundred times for that, Stevie. Now please, go back to the store and tell fortunes and let us do our job.”
Lifting my chin, I narrowed my gaze at him. “I do not tell fortunes. I communicate with the dead.”
He chuckled. “Yep. And I’m Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Rolling my eyes, I didn’t bother to try to defend my afterlife activities. No one believed me anyway. Everyone in town humored me, despite several gushing testimonials on Yelp.
But I did as I was told. I just didn’t do it in a rush. I’ll admit I was reluctant, so I lingered for a few moments until Sandwich became distracted by another thrush of gawkers who’d stopped to form a cluster by the ambulance, and then I scurried on past him, heading straight for Tito’s truck.
“I knew you couldn’t resist,” Win remarked with a chuckle.
Okay, so I couldn’t resist. I swatted Win out of my ear, inching my way around the back of the truck, peering around the corner to be sure no one was behind it.
There was a shadow crossing the sharp midday sunlight, making me look up at the chain-link fence backing the food court area. I caught only a glimpse of a plaid flannel shirt, and what appeared to be an inhaler sticking out of the back pocket of the jeans worn by whoever it was, before they climbed through the ripped opening in the fence and the sun blinded me.
It was probably one of the local kids playing hooky from school. Not everyone’s a suspect, Stevie Cartwright. Get it together.
When I saw the coast was clear, I made a break for the back door of the truck, near which I knew Tito kept the pot of cheese he ladled with such love. I don’t know why I had to see the interior of the truck or what I hoped to find. I don’t know a lot of things. Like what compels me to speak impulsively or connect dots one wouldn’t necessarily connect. I just had a feeling—a tingle of awareness something was off.
A strong one.
Trying not to contaminate anything in case my gut was right and this genuinely was a crime scene, I stepped around the trail of cheese leading to where his body had ended up and peered inside Tito’s truck, a vast wonderland of taco shells, the mouthwatering scent of spicy meat, and an overturned pot of hardening cheese on the floor.
I leaned in just a little, noting the interior was clean as a whistle with the exception of the overturned pot. Utensils hung neatly above the long counter of burners and prep space. A tall fridge where he housed his dandelion leaves and juicy, locally grown, farm-fresh tomatoes shone as though someone had just waxed it. The credit card machine sat at the window and there was even a small stack of bills right next to it.
So if foul play was involved, it wasn’t a robbery. None that was visible anyway.
“How could someone have murdered him in a crowd of people, Win? If someone dunked him in some nacho cheese, don’t you think he’d have made a whole lot of noise banging around? He didn’t just go quietly. Not if he managed to get out of the truck. He was running away if this was murder.”
“It was quite noisy outside. The music is always loud. Surely loud enough to cover up a struggle.”
I glanced around again, but it was all quite ordinary. “Nothing,” I muttered, squeezing my temples. “So maybe we’re wrong. I think we’re just on edge after Madam Z’s murder and we’re seeing shadows that don’t really exist.”
“Some would say I don’t really exist, Stevie.” Then he snickered. “Maybe I’m just a figment of your imagination. Maybe neither of us is really here. Maybe this is all a dream.”
“Hah. If only they could hear you yapping in my ear all the time. No one would doubt your realness, Spy Dude.”
“I do not yap. Every bit of information I pass on to you is culled to within an inch of its usefulness. It’s one of the first things they teach us in spy school. Less is more.”
“They really have a spy school?”
“Well, not a school per se, but certainly there’s rigorous training. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your super-spy skills are unmatched. But I hate to tell you, I don’t think there’s really anything to see here…”
That was, until I saw it.
“What are you seeing, Stevie?”
Tilting my head, I made sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing, then nodded. Yep. I was seeing something. “In the puddle of cheese. See it? It’s a picture. Curled at the edges with a blop of glutinous deliciousness on it.”
Which was strange indeed. Tito had a row of pictures of himself and his family, all lining the wall above the prep surface, clothes pinned to a string. He’d told me he hung them there to remind him of when he’d come to America so many years ago. So, how did this one get knocked down but not the rest? It didn’t look like one was missing from the lineup.
Win inhaled. “Hmmm. But a picture of who? Doesn’t look like anyone in the family.”
“No. But it sure looks like the guy I saw standing at the edge of the crowd earlier when they were taking Tito’s body away. I’ve never seen him here in town before either.”
“Why would our Tito have a picture of him? And who’s the other person in the picture? Whoever it is, they have their arm around the boy, but I can’t see his face.”
“Good question, Spy Guy.”
So if this guy were a newcomer to town, why would a stranger be so broken up over Tito’s death?
Could it be he’d seen something?
Or was he just as crushed as I was that Tito had gone to the great enchilada in the sky, leaving my taste buds to mourn him in quiet anguish?
“Was he doing anything suspicious? Anything unusual?”
“Nope. Nothing unusual at all other than the fact that he looked like he was in agony. It sure appeared as though he was trying not to make a scene, but it was very clear he was pretty torn up. I mean, I’m shattered about the loss of Tito’s tacos. His sons don’t make them quite the way he did. But am I so shattered I’m in a puddle of misery?”
I almost plucked the picture out of the cheese but Win, as though reading my mind, scolded me.
“Hands off, Sticky Fingers Louise. No touching evidence. You do remember how that went down the last time, don’t you? Think Montblanc pen and accusing someone unjustly.”
I rolled my eyes at the reminder of how I’d waved what I thought was evidence under the wrong person’s nose.
“It was a heat-of-the-moment thing. There’s someone else in the picture, Win. I can’t just leave without finding out who it is. I just want to see,” I complained, angling my head while balancing in the entry to the truck so I wouldn’t touch the frame of the door and leave my fingerprints. But no such luck. The glob of cheese covered the identity of the other person. “So why do you suppose this kid was so upset?”
“Quite possibly, he’s just as broken up as you over the loss of the Taco King. It is you who always said no one makes Mexican the way Tito does. In fact, as I recall, just the other day as you gorged on the Bangin’ Burrito—item number six on Tito’s four-star menu, was it?—you said if you died right then, your life would be complete as you sighed like a schoolgirl dining with her crush. Maybe this young chap feels the same way you do, and it brought him to tears.”
“Maybe,” I sighed, planting my hands on my hips, giving the inside of the truck a last critical once-over, only to find more of absolutely nothing. “I think we’re making mountains out of molehills because we love a good whodunit. But we can’t turn this into something it’s more than likely not. I don’t know what the picture is from, but it likely has a really good explanation. Tito probably had a heart attack or fell or something that has nothing to do with murder. Let’s forget this. We need to get back to Edward anyway.”
“Edward has left us, but Kitty’s back,” he purred in the whiskey tone reserved for his ghostly dabbling.
“Win, I’m warning you. Knock it off. You leave Kitty Talucci alone. She is not up for afterlife grabs.”
“Well, if it isn’t Stevie Cartwright.”
I fought the impulse to jump out of my skin at the sound of Officer Nelson’s voice—or Officer Rigid, as I secretly called him after our last tango over Madam Zoltar. Wherein he did everything by the book and made me feel guilty with his hawkish, intense gaze and perfectly starched uniform without a speck of lint on it. All without even trying.
I turned to face him, the sun blocked by his tall frame, and watched him scan my face with his dark eyes that would be quite attractive if they weren’t always looking at me like I was Ebenezer Falls’ resident unprosecuted serial killer.
“Hola, Officer Nelson. I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing back here.” I might as well just be open. It’s not like Mr. Scary Face wasn’t going to make me feel like I’d done something wrong anyway.
“I was absolutely wondering, Miss Cartwright. Or should I call you Madam Zoltar 2.0?”
Naturally, someone like Mr. Law Enforcement wouldn’t believe in ghosts. I heard it in his scathing tone. But I was determined to make him like me. Don’t ask why, I don’t understand it either. I just know his disapproval unsettles me. He’d be a great ally to have, being a police officer, if he’d just give in and let me weave my Stevie Cartwright web.
I smiled up at him, trying to keep my turban from slipping off my head as I craned my neck. “How about just Stevie? Seeing as I’m not a suspect in any more murders, we can do a first-name basis, can’t we? Skip the formalities? What’s your first name?”
“Bet it’s something solid and stalwart like John-Boy,” Win commented dryly.
He stared down at me for a long moment from beneath the brim of his hat, his deep eyes swirling in thought, and then he said, “It’s Officer Nelson, Miss Cartwright. And as I said, I was wondering what you were doing back here. This is a crime scene until otherwise notified. Which means, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
My mouth fell open. I knew it did, but I couldn’t stop it from unhinging. “A crime scene? So it was murder?” I breathed the word out, fighting the hitch in my throat.
His head swiveled from left to right. “I said no such thing. All deaths with unusual circumstances like Mr. Bustamante’s are considered crime scenes until the coroner says otherwise. Now, if you’d please exit the area.” He held out his arm and motioned for me to beat feet, his mouth in a thin line of still more disapproval.
Mr. Bustamante? I’d had no idea that was Tito’s last name. He was just my Taco Man. My beloved purveyor of spicy, meaty goodness.
I batted my eyes at him. Unsuccessfully, because my eyelashes stuck together, but whatever. “But in your esteemed, highly respected opinion, would you consider this a crime scene?” I asked as I pried my right eye apart.
“Bloody hell, Stevie. We’re going to have to work on your brown-nosing flirt. It’s ghastly and lacks so many subtleties,” Win crooned.
Now Officer Nelson buttoned up tighter than a drum, standing erect, his casual stance gone. “I have no comment. Again, I’ll ask you to please exit the area, Miss Cartwright so that we can continue to do our jobs.”
“Please exit the area, Miss Cartwright,” I muttered under my breath in a saucy mimic of his words, but I sauntered out of there just as I was told anyway so I wouldn’t land in the klink.
The parking lot had emptied out and it appeared all the trucks had closed up shop. Their awnings were rolled up and their serving windows closed.
My heart clenched as I made my way across the street, the joy of the warm day gone for me now that Tito had left the building.
Entering the store, I noted Win was right. Edward was gone, and without any client appointments until early tonight, I decided going home to check on Enzo, our contractor, was a good idea. He’d made enormous progress in just under a month of renovations, but we were a long way from done.
“Bel? You awake?” I asked, making my way to the back room where I’d left him napping.
I heard him chirp a yawn. “Yep. Wide awake.”
“So you haven’t heard?” I peeked under the broad leaf of the banana plant and stroked his wing, his soft white body twitching as he shook off sleep.
“Not a peep. Did you find out where that hottie Kitty keeps her will so we can save Snape from the evil ex-husband?”
“Tito’s dead.” I cringed as I said it out loud.
Belfry gasped. “No. No way. What happened?”
I scooped him up and tucked him into my purse, where I’d nested a small washcloth for him when we traveled back and forth to the store. “C’mon. I’ll tell you on the way home.”
When we got back to the house, despite my sadness over Tito as I told Belfry about his cheesy death (pardon the pun), I almost yelped in joy at the sight of the subcontractor who was due to pave the driveway, standing in the mud with Enzo, whose arms were flapping up and down.
“Look, Win, the cement guy’s here! Dance with me!” I cheered, twerking without an ounce of rhythm.
“Beyoncé salutes you,” he said dryly.
“We’re going to have a real live driveway, Spy Guy! Whatever will I do with all the extra time I’ll have on my hands when I don’t have to rappel down the stairs to get to the road to reach my car every morning?”
Win barked a laugh. “Don’t be so dramatic. When you rappel down the side of Mt. Olympus, then we’ll discuss treacherous conditions.”
I stopped short on my way up those very stairs I mentioned. “Stop. You did not rappel down Mt. Olympus.”
“How would you know?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know, would I? I still don’t even know how you died. In fact, I have no confirmation you were ever a spy at all.” I was still a little bitter about that. Win held the circumstances of his life and death close to his ghostly chest and I was just supposed to take him at his word.
Which I had.
I reasoned his being a spy was probably part of his motivation not to share, but the other half of me, the half that wanted to use my Google Fu on him and dig into his life, thought it was terribly convenient to claim he was a spy with no recorded history. Yet. I continued to respect his wishes.
“Don’t be bitter, Stevie. I told you, all in good time.”
“When is a good time, Win? Define ‘good’ in Win’s world.”
“Say again, Miss Cartwright?” Enzo said from behind me before he plowed up our crumbling steps to stand in front of me, a pink piece of paper dangling from his thick, calloused fingers.
I pressed my hand to my totally fake Bluetooth, the one I used as my beard when someone caught me talking to Win, and shook my head. It was an ingenious idea and kept people from asking too many questions or thinking I was bananapants for talking to myself. And yes, it had been Win’s idea. Score another one for the spy.
Smiling, I said, “I was just on the phone. So how’s everything going? Is the driveway going in? Please say yes. I don’t even care how much it costs. I don’t. I’d pay double just to avoid dragging my sorry butt up these stairs in the pouring rain every day.”
Enzo grunted the grunt that meant more money was required. “Glad you said that, because it’s gonna cost ya,” he offered in his bold New York accent.
I stopped to look at him just before reaching the wide porch, now newly planked with a gorgeous, darkly stained cedar. “You say that like it’s a million dollars. How bad can it be?”
His moon-shaped face wrinkled as he fussed with his signature Yankees ball cap, rearranging it on his head. “Close enough.” He held up the estimate from the driveway guy and stuck it in my face.
“Oh, bloody bollocks!” Win barked in my ear. “The devil I’ll pay that kind of money for a blessed driveway! Besides, the exercise is good for you, Stevie. You said as much yourself just the other day when you were admiring your thighs and how toned they’d become.”
Fighting a blush, because I hadn’t realized Win had actually paid attention to my comment or my thighs, I smiled at Enzo. “I told you, I don’t care how much it costs. Tell him we’re in.”
Enzo’s moon face scrunched up in distaste. “But he’s way the heck over budget, Miss Cartwright! He could cut some corners on a job this big and still come out smellin’ like a rose in Brooklyn.”
“What the wise contractor said, Stevie,” Win agreed.
But I shook my head, pulling my turban off and stuffing it under my arm. “I don’t want to haggle with him because I want it done ASAP. I know you want to get the best deal for me, Enzo, and I appreciate it, but this isn’t up for negotiation. I need to be able to get to the front door of my house without feeling like I’d just climbed Everest in some sandals.”
He shrugged his pudgy shoulders and jammed his thumbs under his overalls. “All right, but I’m tellin’ ya, he’s takin’ ya for a sweet ride.”
“Then consider me his willing passenger,” I said on a chuckle as I reached for the beautiful antique doorknob I’d driven all the way to Portland for because Win absolutely had to have it.
“Oh! Almost forgot. There’s a lady in there waitin’ for ya. Dresses like she’s on her way to a Duran Duran concert. Popped up outta nowhere, too. Went to use the facilities, coulda sworn I locked the front door and bam, there she was. Nice enough, though, and darn sharp to look at. Seemed pretty harmless and said she wasn’t budgin’ an inch ’til she saw your pretty face. You want I should go in with ya?”
My stomach somersaulted in a nervous lurch. I only needed to hear the Duran Duran part of Enzo’s explanation to know who waited for me inside, and she was anything but harmless.
Baba Yaga was here.
Baba had a penchant for anything from the ’80s, her all-time favorite era, according to her. Leg warmers, dog-ear teased hair on either side of her head, Aqua Net, leopard leggings, ripped sweatshirts and row after row of bangle bracelets were her jam.
Patting Enzo on the shoulder, I shook my head. “No. You go give two thumbs up to Driveway Guy so he can get started right away and I’ll handle my guest. Thanks for watching out for me, though.”
“Made ya a pot of coffee. Got a new brew the other day. Heavy on the hazelnut with just a hint of dark-chocolate roast.”
Pinching his cheek, I smiled at him. “You are my dream man, Enzo. Will you marry me?”
He grinned, wide and facetious. “Ya think the missus’ll mind a sister-wife?”
I giggled in response, pushing open the heavy door. As I stepped into the entryway, now light and airy with new walls painted in a pale lemon and reclaimed dark wood flooring, complemented by white crown molding, I inhaled. Setting my purse down on the small table next to the stairs, I let the beauty of my surroundings soothe me.
I loved the bright, cheerful entry with its multicolored stained-glass window above the hulking door Enzo had taken such pains to restore, the winding staircase leading to my future dream bedroom, the light infusing every corner of the space.
“Am I hearin’ right? Is the old bat here? Like here-here, in Ebenezer Falls?” Belfry asked.
I scooped him out and nodded, tucking him onto my shoulder. “She is. She probably wants to see you, buddy. You know how much she likes to check up on her subjects and be treated like one of the people.”
Belfry bristled, the hair on his tiny body standing on end. “Why would she wanna see me?”
“Because you still serve her, Bel, and she’s always been hands-on, and you went through a trauma just the way I did. I have no affiliation to her anymore. Which means she has no power over my mortal butt. So what could she want to see me about? Has to be you she’s checking on.”
“I take it this is the fearless leader you spoke of who shunned you?” Win asked.
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Ex-fearless leader, and you take it right.”
“Shall I make myself scarce? Do you wish to speak privately? Or do you want me to pull the old ghost routine? Shake the table? Flicker the lights? Hold that thought. I know. Why don’t I open and shut the fridge door? I’m getting quite proficient at it. Just ask Bel.”
“The truth, Boss! Winterbutt totally held the door open long enough for me to see the moldy sliced ham you bought a hundred years ago for sandwiches you never ate in favor of chocolate Pop-Tarts.”
Shrugging my shoulders, I shook my head. “Nope. There’s nothing I haven’t told you at this point and nothing I want to hide.”
“Poke, poke, poke,” he teased.
Feeling prickly, I got saucy. “Well, it’s true. You know almost everything there is to know about me.”
“All right then, I’ll come with. I’ll be with you the whole way. If you need my assistance, simply say the word.”
I’d never tell him, but I took comfort in knowing Win had my back. That he’d be right in my ear if I needed him.
How did you make chit-chat with the woman who’d once been your esteemed ruler after she’d blatantly sided with an angry, spiteful, deader-than-a-doornail, no-good warlock and his fellow council members?
Not only sided with them, but didn’t say word one in my defense when said no-good, wife-abusing warlock literally slapped the witch right out of me in a fit of rage after I’d dared intervene in his private family matter. And all this after he’d nearly killed his wife and son while I tried to stop him.
That was exactly how I’d ended up back in my old hometown of Ebenezer Falls. Not just because I had nowhere else to go. But because I’d tried to help an abusive, power-tripping warlock’s son in the most frightening moment of his young life and in return, I no longer had my powers, my friends, or my life.
My old life. My new one was shaping up quite nicely, thank you, and if Baba was here to check on the debris she’d left in her wake, I’d tell her so. I was never a very outspoken witch. I played by the rules. I was loyal to the coven even when I thought something wasn’t totally fair.
But no more.
Squaring my shoulders, I took my time getting to the kitchen, parsing my angry thoughts, trying to form them into cohesive sentences.
But I just couldn’t. Now that the eleventh hour was here, and I was about to face the person who’d technically agreed I deserved to have my powers taken from me, I found I had only ugly things to say.
Which meant I’d better say nothing at all.