I thought my life was difficult with one cat. Three were practically unbearable.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like I didn’t love their cute, furry little hearts—but I swore to any goddess listening to me that if one of the kittens had another spellcasting “accident,” and I wound up plastered to the ceiling again, I was going to have to ban them from my apartment. I didn’t care how much Jameson complained.
I finished pulling out the yellow confetti that was stuck in my hair—courtesy of the kittens—and I was grateful it wasn’t an exploded can of cat food, like last week.
Both were black kittens, but Jules had white feet, and Jessamin had a white-tipped tail. Jessamin ran into the living room, jumped on the couch, and leaped off toward the apartment door. She stayed where she landed and watched Jules make the same run. Jules beat Jessamin’s distance by two paws, so Jules pounced on her sister.
They played this game repeatedly while they were here, and I wondered if they weren’t trying to teach themselves how to fly.
“Hey, do you want me to make all this pasta?” Delia called from the kitchen.
I sat at the dining room table. “Sure. I don’t mind eating leftovers later this week.”
We were cooking in my apartment, because the aunts had gone to the Maine Magic and Crystals trade show for the weekend. They were looking to replenish supplies for Proctor House, and I had given them a list of hard-to-find ingredients and the maximum price I was willing to pay for each item. I wasn’t ready to leave the apothecary to Mackenzie for two days straight, so I stayed home. I really should speed up my production of candles and bath products and start selling them at the trade show.
I didn’t quite understand how the event worked but, somehow, non-witches weren’t able to buy anything they could harm themselves with.
Grandma was in Sewall, spending a few days with Hope, so Thea, Delia, and I were on our own. Tonight we were having spaghetti with meatballs, but I had a backup plan of frozen pizza in case things didn’t go well. Palmer had been working nights lately, so I wasn’t able to talk him into taking pity on us and cooking dinner.
Thea was on the couch, petting Jameson and, whenever they would slow down enough, Jules and Jessamin. All in all, it was a lovely domestic scene in my apartment, and I was grateful for every peaceful moment of it.
Hope had finally convinced the sorority to accept me as a member last week, but things were calm even with them, because there had been no word of the Fraternity of Free Witches doing anything wrong. The fact we hadn’t heard from them at all was worrying, but there wasn’t anything to do except prepare for their next attack.
“Delia and I have decided we’re going to hire an assistant,” Thea said as Jules jumped off her lap to chase Jameson’s Roomba-like toy.
I turned to her. “Really? That’s great. What are you going to have them do?”
“Reception,” Delia called from the kitchen. “If we didn’t have to answer the phone and greet people coming in off the street, we could get a lot more done.”
I bet they could. They ran Port City Tours and, in addition to working with customers, they developed their own tours, researched everything they talked about, and sewed their own tour-themed costumes. On busy weeks it was exhausting to watch them work. Unlike my apothecary, where I used magic in my potions, my cousins did not use any magic in their business. They didn’t need to, and they felt a strict line of no magic was better for them.
“Where did you find Mackenzie?” Thea asked. “If we could find someone like her, that would be great.”
I definitely lucked out when I hired Mackenzie. On paper, she looked like the least promising candidate, but once she got into the shop and we started talking, I knew she’d work out. “I posted a job ad on one of those online sites.”
“How did you know she’d work out so well?” Delia asked.
I shrugged. “I didn’t. Not until I met her. Now, I’m not sure what I’d do without her.”
Jameson hopped off the couch and called to his nieces. They stopped playing and followed him into his room.
“Weird,” Thea said, watching them walk in a line down the hallway.
Jameson’s bedroom door closed. “Worrying,” I said. “It’s like when you babysit and you can’t hear the kid anymore, you know something bad is happening.”
“Can I get some help in here?” Delia asked.
“Yeah, sure. What do you need?” Thea asked as she walked into the kitchen.
“Take the garlic bread out of the oven and, Isabella, you can set the table.”
Five minutes later, we were eating the best meal we’d ever made on our own. “Maybe we’re getting the hang of cooking,” I said.
Delia laughed. “I don’t think so. But we’ve learned which canned and premade foods we like best. I’m not sure I’ll ever be as good a cook as my mother.”
A loud crack sounded from Jameson’s room. “Hey! Don’t bother the neighbors,” I called to him. When he didn’t answer, I walked down the hall and opened his door. Bright green smoke billowed out of the room while Jameson, Jessamin, and Jules walked out as though nothing was wrong.
“Get rid of that smoke, would you?” Jameson asked me. You’d think that because he was my familiar, he’d do what I told him, but often it was the other way around.
Delia used her magic to open a window and blow the smoke outside. When it was all gone, she pointed her index finger at the open window and moved it down. The window closed, keeping the rest of the chilly December air out. “What was that?”
Jessamin started to meow. The kittens had moved to Proctor House six weeks ago, on Samhain, and could communicate with Thea and Delia. I was still out of the loop though.
Thea laughed. “She thought we might not notice.”
I turned to the kitten. Even though I couldn’t understand her, she had never had a problem knowing what any of us said. “You thought we wouldn’t notice a thunderclap and green smoke? Seriously?”
Jameson licked his paw. “I told her you were smarter than most humans, but she insisted we wait to see.”
Jules began to meow, and Delia translated for me. “Jules says she doubts it, and that you still have confetti in your hair.”
Shoot! I thought I’d pulled it all out. “That’s it. The kittens need to go home after dinner. For now, I want the two of you sitting quietly where I can see you.” I turned to Jameson. “What exactly are you teaching them? How to pounce on my last nerve?”
He looked up at me and yawned. How rude! “I am teaching them how to get along with humans. They’re mastering everything I give them faster than any other trainees I’ve ever had. They’ll be ready to take on their duties as familiars in another six months, and they need to test the boundaries of what humans will accept.”
Jules and Jessamin sat quietly by the front door, doing their best to look innocent. I wasn’t buying it. “Way past the line, girls. Way past.”
We sat back down to finish dinner and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jules batting at Jessamin. “Jules,” I said, sounding just like my mother when she warned me to behave when I was small.
“Six months, you say?” Delia asked Jameson.
Thea and Delia had become attached to the kittens, and I knew they would be heartbroken if Jessamin and Jules chose to be familiars for other witches when the time came. Delia, in particular, had ramped up her spellcasting practice in the hope she’d be strong enough to merit a familiar. As annoying as the kittens were today, even I hoped they’d stay with the family. I wished I had advice for my cousins on how to get a familiar, but my former neighbor Mrs. Thompson had chosen me for Jameson, and I had never figured out why.
I jumped at a loud bang on my apartment door. I looked to the kittens, but they weren’t responsible for this noise.
Someone knocked on the door again with more force than was necessary. I looked through the peephole and saw my new neighbor scowling at the door. I turned to the kittens. “Great, now you’ve upset the neighbors. Don’t you move while I’m talking to him.”
I opened the door. “Hi, Bruce. What can I do for you?”
Bruce worked from home and always seemed to be working, because he insisted on the building being quiet all the time. Apparently he didn’t do many video calls, because I doubted his stained T-shirt with expletives all over it was workplace appropriate anywhere. “You can quit making so much noise. The landlord assured me this was a quiet building and that you, in particular, were a quiet person that I’d never have any problems with.”
I certainly tried to be a good neighbor, but the kittens were making it difficult. I smiled at the thought of Mr. S. neglecting to mention the building fire and my part in it as he talked up my qualities as a neighbor. I am fairly quiet, but maybe Mr. S. was stretching the truth a little bit to convince Bruce to take the apartment. I looked at my watch. “You can’t possibly still be working, it’s seven o’clock.”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m working or not, you’re being too loud. I’d hate to complain to the landlord about you, but if this keeps up, I will. It would be a shame if you and that bad luck cat of yours had to move, just before Christmas.”
Jameson hissed, not happy to be called “bad luck.”
“Are you even allowed to have a pet? I’ll ask him that too.”
I wasn’t happy about where his veiled threats were leading, but I was confident Mr. S. wouldn’t throw me out—not after I’d found out one of his tenants was a kidnapper, and also apprehended the murderer of another tenant. Still, Bruce didn’t know that, and there was no reason to tell him.
“We’ll try to be more quiet,” I said.
Bruce took a step forward, as though he were going to push his way into the living room. I stood back as if to invite him in, confident in the wards my family had placed around my apartment. His foot passed over the threshold and the expression on his face changed from angry to confused. He withdrew his foot and looked at me. “Sorry, what?” he asked.
Say what you like about witches, but we could put up some fantastic wards. The wards on my apartment left a person confused as to why they were there and with a vague feeling like they ought to go home.
I smiled. “You asked me to be quieter, and I agreed to try.”
“Oh, right. Ah, thanks,” he said before he turned and walked down the hall to his door.
I closed my door and leaned against it. He’d never tried to come in before, and the expression on his face before he hit the protective ward wasn’t one I ever wanted to see again.
“You need to talk to your landlord about him,” Thea said.
I sighed. “I know. I’ll go down when you leave.”
We cleaned up after dinner, and I walked my cousins and their kittens out to the car. As they drove off, I wondered how I could diplomatically complain about a neighbor who would probably be complaining about me soon.
I knocked on the Subramanians’ door and Mrs. S. opened it. “Oh, Isabella, come in please.”
Every time I went into their apartment, I was intimidated. They had white furniture that I was certain I’d leave a stain on. Even though I didn’t make the sauce, I could have some on me and then I’d ruin their couch. “Is your husband here?”
She shook her head. “No. He had a call and rushed out. He said it was an emergency with one of the men on his bowling team.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I can tell him you stopped by,” she offered.
“That would be great, thanks.”
As I walked back to my apartment, careful to tiptoe past Bruce’s apartment door, I thought about the emergency. Mr. S. was on a bowling team, but I also knew he lied about some bowling practice times and visited his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson instead. For a brief moment, he had been a suspect in a murder investigation and I followed him, only to find out he was visiting family but not telling his wife. Since then, Mrs. S. had met her grandson and family reconciliation had started.
I unlocked the apothecary the next morning, still not having spoken to Mr. S. His car wasn’t in the lot when I left, so I resolved to call him during a slow stretch in the afternoon.
I had a morning routine that I didn’t deviate from. I hung up my coat and bag, changed out of my boots, and put a new candle in the holder next to Trina’s photo. Trina had been my mentor and the former owner of the apothecary. It wasn’t until after she’d been murdered that I learned she left me her business. There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t grateful for her generosity and her friendship.
I snapped my fingers and her candle lit. I’d taken to talking to her in the mornings, bringing her up to speed on what was happening in the shop. I knew it was silly; if her ghost was here, she already knew, and if it wasn’t, she couldn’t hear me. I wasn’t ready to give up my emotional connection to her yet. “Mackenzie is working out well. You should see how tidy the shop is now—she puts both of us to shame.”
Next on my list was to brew the tea I’d be serving customers throughout the day. I looked at the shelves and decided on double dark chocolate maté. A storm was going to blow in this afternoon, and I was sure my customers would appreciate the robust chocolate flavor.
I flew through the rest of my morning tasks on autopilot, thinking about my neighbor Bruce and wondering if Mr. Subramanian had worked out his bowling emergency.
At ten o’clock, I opened the shop to customers. Mrs. Scanlon got out of her car and hurried into the warm shop. She took a deep breath. “Chocolate?”
I grinned. “Double dark chocolate. It seemed like that kind of day. Can I pour you some?”
She took the mug I handed her. “What have you got for someone who can’t seem to stay warm?”
I looked at her for a moment and allowed my intuition to tell me what she needed. Cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric with a base of chamomile leaves. “Let me whip something up for you.” I pulled the jars I needed off the shelves and weighed out a week’s worth of tea for her.
“How warm do you keep your house?” I asked, knowing many older people lower their heat to save money.
“Sixty-seven. But I’m cold even if I turn it up.”
I handed her the bag of tea. “Have a mug of this after breakfast and another after dinner. This should last you a week and, if it works, you can come back for more.”
She smiled. “Thank you, dear. I think I’ll take some of this chocolate tea too.”
I put her teas in a bag and sent her off, hoping she’d be warmer now. My intuition had yet to fail me, so I thought she’d be fine and I’d see her in a week.
Half an hour later, my landlord came in. I smiled at him as he brushed snow off his jacket. “You didn’t have to come in, we could have talked on the phone.”
He looked up from his jacket. “What?”
“I should have told your wife it wasn’t urgent and you could call me whenever it was convenient for you.”
“You spoke to Nila? When was this?” he asked.
“I stopped by last night. She didn’t tell you?”
He shook his head. “No. I haven’t been home since last night.”
I took a moment to look carefully at him. “You look like something’s wrong. Let me pour you a mug of tea, and we can talk in my office.”
I poured two mugs and we went into my office. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here,” I suggested.
He set his mug on my desk and when he looked up at me, his eyes were brimming with tears. “It’s my son, Prashad. He’s been arrested for murder, and I know he’d never kill anyone.”
I wondered briefly if the parents of murderers also had that thought, or did they reflect and consider that yes, maybe their kid could have murdered someone. I shook my head. The Subramanians were gentle people, and I doubted they’d raised a murderer.
“That’s horrible! I’m so sorry to hear this. But I’m not sure I can help you.”
He took a deep breath. “You can. He was arrested by your friend, Detective Palmer.”
No wonder he hadn’t called me last night. I assumed he’d been busy, but I’m sure he also wanted to avoid telling me he’d arrested my landlord’s son.
“I know there are rules, but my son won’t do well in jail. Can you ask him to keep an eye on Prashad, to keep him safe. As soon as bail is set, we’ll pay it, but until then . . . I worry.”
“Of course I can call him and ask what he can do. He’s also allowed to have visitors, so you and your wife can spend a good part of the day with him.”
His face went pale. “No, you mustn’t tell my wife. She can’t know anything about this.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Nila and Prashad have had some problems since he got married,” Mr. S. confided. “She had other matches in mind.”
Prashad’s wife was a lovely woman named Heather. She was a librarian, and you’d never met a kinder person.
“Let me get this straight. You don’t want me to tell her that Prashad has been arrested? Don’t you think she’ll notice when he’s not at the next family dinner?” I asked.
Mr. S. looked at me, fear and desperation warring on his face. “I’m counting on you to find out who did this, so my son can be set free before that happens.”
“Okay, I can keep that secret. I’ll call the detective and I’ll let you know what he says.”
Mr. S. stood up and shook my hand. “Thank you. Please remind him that I let him into your apartment so he could assemble your furniture.”
I gave him my most reassuring smile. “He’s not the kind of man to forget when someone does him a favor. I’m sure you have a lot to do today, so I won’t keep you. If there’s anything else I can do, please call me.”
In the shop, I picked up a tin of chamomile and lavender tea. “Please, take this. Have some when you get home, you’ll feel much better.”
He reached for his wallet, but I couldn’t let him pay for the tea, not after he’d been so good to me. “On the house.”
At the door, he turned back to me. “I didn’t ask you why you came to see me.”
I’d completely forgotten about Bruce as soon as he’d told me his problem. “It’s nothing, honestly. Bruce complained that I was too loud last night. He said he was going to talk to you about it, so I wanted to tell you I’d be more careful in the future.”
“Don’t you worry about him. I’ll set him straight, and he won’t complain about you again.”
He left, and I wondered if my access to Palmer had just acted like a bribe to keep Bruce from bothering me. I didn’t like that idea, but there was nothing I could do about it now.
Mackenzie arrived minutes later with coffee and bear claws from the Fancy Tart. Some days, having coffee and pastry delivered at noon was the best part of my day, and absolutely worth every penny I paid Mackenzie. She looked into my eyes. “You don’t look so great.”
I tried to brush off my concern for Prashad. “I’m fine. I’m just worried about my landlord’s son. I’ve got to call Palmer and see if I can get something sorted out for him.”
“I saw him at the Tart. We coordinated orders so we didn’t bring you the same thing. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
Excellent. It was always easier to talk about things in person. “What’s in the bag?”
She handed me one of the bags she was holding, and a large hot cup. “Bear claw. And you’ve got a hot mocha as well.”
“Sounds great. I don’t have any special tasks for you today, so you watch the shop while I figure out what to say to Detective Palmer.”
She winced. “Good luck with that.”
In my office, I sat and closed my eyes. Being honest and forthright was the only way to go, but how to start? Before I could really get my mind around what I needed to say, there was a knock at my door.
“Are you busy?” Palmer asked, fruit tart in his hand.
I grinned at him. “Never too busy for a fancy tart.”
He set the tart on my desk and sat down. “I’ve got some bad news about your landlord.”
I leaned forward. “Mr. S. left just a few minutes ago, he told me. What makes you think his son is a murderer?”
Palmer sighed. “The evidence leads directly to him. He was overheard having a fight with the victim Thursday night, and the murder weapon was a heavy object from his desk. If he had any kind of alibi—anything at all—I’d have doubt, but since he doesn’t, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Mr. S. wanted me to talk to you. He’s worried for Prashad and thinks he’ll have a difficult time in jail.”
“We don’t make it easy for a reason, you know.”
I bit my lip. “Of course not, but you know the family a little bit, and you know how kind they’ve been to me. Is there anything you can do, at least until he makes bail?”
Palmer leaned back in his chair. “It’s a murder charge, Isabella. There’s no guarantee he’ll even get bail, much less be able to afford it.”
This would devastate his parents. “He’s got a wife and son, I doubt he’s a flight risk.”
Palmer thought for a minute. “Let me see what I can do once I get back to the station.”
I stood up and hugged him—awkwardly, because he was still sitting. “You’re the best boyfriend ever.”
He stood up without letting go of me and looked into my eyes. “You deserve the best,” he said.
My heart fluttered and my knees felt weak. I tilted my chin higher to kiss him, and there was a knock at the door. I let go of him and took a step back. “Yes?”
Mackenzie opened the door. “Sorry to disturb you, but Mrs. Williams is here and would like her tea.”
I sighed. Of course she would. She didn’t trust Mackenzie to choose for her. She didn’t trust me to choose until she had no choice, so I was probably stuck with the job for a long time. “I’ll be right out.”
Turning back to Palmer, I blew him a kiss. “Rain check?”
“Absolutely. I’m taking an hour for dinner at eight. Want to meet me somewhere?”
“Yes. The aunts are gone, and I’m fending for myself, so dinner out would be great.”
“Meet me at McGinty’s?”
Once Palmer left, I pulled the lavender and chamomile jars off the shelves. “You know, Mrs. Williams, I could choose your tea before you came in and then you wouldn’t have to spend so much time standing around in the shop.”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t dream of it. It’s not that I don’t trust you to give me good tea, but it never hurts to be certain.”
We were getting faster at assembling her tea, because I’d taken to dumping the jars out, one at a time, in a bowl for easier selection. Half an hour later, she had her weekly tea and was out of the shop.
“I don’t know how you stand working with her,” Mackenzie said.
I rolled my eyes. “I inherited her with the shop. She was really mad at me for a couple weeks and went somewhere else, but she came back.”
Mackenzie grinned. “Maybe you should make her mad at you again?”
We put the jars back on the shelves. “I don’t think I can accuse her of murder a second time. We’re just stuck with her.”
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