Deadly Traditions Christmas anthology – Killing the Carol
FaLaLaLaLa the songbird’s dead.
My story in the anthology is entitled, KILLING THE CAROL. It’s a fun romp of a holiday mystery from one of my favorite series. THE GRAVE THEATRICS SERIES is based on a unique premise. The heroine is a professional mourner. Yep, it’s just like it sounds. She gets paid to play a mourner at a funeral/viewing/interment. Professional mourners are a real thing. They’ve have been around for centuries. The role has generally been played by women in poorer, less advanced societies because it was a good way for a woman to add to the family’s finances without stepping outside of accepted norms. Of course, my professional mourner isn’t worried about accepted norms. In fact, she’s more than happy to stomp all over the rules when she’s stalking a killer!
My name is MayBell Ferth, and the cute little ball of fluff and ‘tude sitting on my lap is Shakespeare… Shakes for short. Shakes is a Pomeranian, a.k.a. the Pomeranian Devil. He’s also my best friend and my accomplice in crime-fighting and other things.
I come from a family of cops. My dad, the Lieutenant, is a fearsome creature with a soft spot for Shakes that he tries to deny. My brother Argh is a detective. Argh got his weird nickname as a kid when he had to wear an eyepatch due to reoccurring eye infections. Argh and I have an older brother and sister who are also cops.
I’m pretty sure the very first Ferth to step off a ship onto terra firma in the New World was a cop of some sort. The Ferths have worn the impetus for protecting and serving as a badge of honor through countless generations.
I’m not a cop. And, I’ll bet you an entire box of caramel-filled chocolates that you’ve never heard of my job before.
I started out as a Community Theatre actor.
“Ha!” you say. You can almost taste those chocolates. I’m sorry to disappoint. I may have started out in the theatre, but I left that job behind because I couldn’t take all the drama. Wait…an actor who doesn’t like drama? Let me clarify.
I couldn’t take diva drama.
Which brings me to my current career as a Professional Mourner. Yep, that’s a real thing. I actually get paid to cry at funerals and play whatever role the client wishes me to play. Bereaved girlfriend, gloating college rival, conniving ex-partner. I’ve played them all.
I love my job, even though it has gotten me into a few “situations” since I started. I’ve bagged a murderer since taking my job at Exit Stage Left and almost gotten myself killed in the process.
But the situation I’m currently in isn’t due to my Professional Mourning job. I signed up for a role in a community theatre production for charity because the proceeds will be going to a really good cause. If I’d known I’d be working with one of the very divas who’d sent me sprinting from the stage in the first place, I might not have taken the role.
But I am, and I did.
Patrice Reynolds has been the bane of my existence since we both tried out for the same role in a high school production of Peter Pan. She’d shoved me down a short flight of stairs to keep me from getting the coveted role of Tinkerbell. Unfortunately for Patrice, we Ferths have excellent bones. I didn’t break a leg…euphemistically or otherwise.
And, I totally rocked the role of Tinkerbell.
Over the years, Patrice has schemed and lied, flinging self-respect to the winds in an effort to get one over on me, both professionally and personally. I’d thought I’d left her in my dust when I changed careers.
Then I found her dead body in the wings. I soon realized that made me the prime suspect since I was the only one in the theatre when I stumbled over her body.
Well…me and the shadowy figure I’d seen sprinting away through the cheap seats just before I found Patrice.
To make things worse, not only was Patrice dead but she’d clearly been murdered. No surprise at all to those of us who knew her.
Since Argh was the detective in charge of the case and I was the one to find her, with no witnesses to absolve me of the crime, I’ve also put my family in a terrible situation.
Enter the hero stage right. Okay, hero might be too strong a word. Eddie Deitz certainly looks the part, with his tousled black hair, smoldering gaze, and delectable…erm…flipside, but he’s no hero. He’s a private investigator. And since he was hired by the deceased to protect her much less delectable flipside from some unknown stalker, he’s surfing in the same shark-infested waters as I am.
So it looks like we’ll need to work together to figure out who killed the diva. With the help of a certain adorable Pom, potential assistance from my monosyllabic, dread-headed neighbor who lives in a medically-endorsed cannabis cloud, and an assist or two from the Lieutenant, whose involvement definitely nudges the line between ethical and not so much.
There’s a murder to be solved, and I’m going to solve it. I might not be a cop like the rest of my family, but I’ve got more detective than diva coursing through my veins.
“Have you seen Vel?” I asked my assistant as she buzzed past, wings whirring softly in the quiet space.
“No.” Sebille stopped in front of me and popped into full size, her expression perplexed. “I was just looking for Baca. One of the ceiling tiles is loose in the bookstore. I was going to have her fix it.”
I frowned, looking around the enormous, warehouse-like space of the artifact library. “I just realized I haven’t seen Mr. Wicked or Hobs either since dinner.”
Our gazes met and locked, alarm widening her iridescent green eyes and my blue ones in matching indications of concern. “What are they up to?” I asked, knowing it was a rhetorical question since nobody but the aforementioned little monsters knew the answer.
If my cat, Mr. Wicked, was missing, along with the brownie, Baca, and her constant companion, Hobs, that was concerning enough. If the newest member of our strange gang was missing too, things were almost guaranteed to get squiggy. Vel, our little demon dog, was a sweet but undisciplined disaster waiting to happen. We’d gotten her from the demonic plane, and I suspected she was just a puppy with massive powers she seemed to have little control over.
The front bell rang and a clear, worried voice called out. “Naida? Sebille? I need to talk to you.”
I looked at Sebille and she rolled her eyes. “What does she want now?”
Sebille didn’t usually react that way to our friend Lea, the earth witch who lived above the magical herbs shop next door. The sprite generally saved that level of derision for me. But Lea had been in something of a dither for the last couple of weeks. She’d read some signs in tea leaves or something. We assumed she was reading them wrong. But she was sure of her results. And they were bad. Really bad. Basically, she was predicting the end of the world.
Two brisk knocks on the dividing door between the store and the artifact library had me sighing. As much as I loved my friend, like Sebille, I was getting just a wee bit tired of the drama about the full moon. I mean, we had a full moon a dozen times a year, right? What made the current full moon so different?
I threw a wisp of my Keeper magic toward the door and it opened, revealing a harried, wild-eyed earth witch wearing pink and lace footie pajamas.
“Ah!” Sebille said, holding up her arms as if to ward off a boogie. “What are you wearing?”
Looking perplexed, Lea glanced down at her curvy form. “My PJs. Why? What’s wrong with them?”
“Other than the obvious?” Sebille asked.
“Says the woman who wears red and white striped footie PJs to bed all the time?” I said, in Lea’s defense. Not to mention the green and purple polka dot dress Sebille was currently wearing with black and red striped stockings and fire-engine-red shoes that matched her long, red hair. My assistant was the last person who should be picking on somebody else’s clothing choices.
“I wear them in the winter,” Sebille responded. “It’s only October. Way too early for the Full Monty, pajama-wise.”
Lea hurried over, the plastic bottoms of her footie feet scraping softly on the concrete. “My heat’s broken, and the shop is freezing.” She fluttered her hands dismissively. “That’s not important. I just read the tea leaves again.”
I didn’t look at Sebille. I didn’t want to see the face I knew she was making. “Oh?”
To be honest, I was with Sebille about the tea leaf overdose. Lea had just learned to read tea leaves, and she was seeing danger around every corner since starting. The whole thing had a “Chicken Little” feel to it. “I take it you saw something alarming?”
Sebille elbowed me in the side hard enough to make me grunt. She didn’t want me to encourage the witch. If she could communicate telepathically, she’d no doubt be telling me, “Shut it. The witch finds enough trouble without us encouraging her.”
I didn’t disagree.
Lea ran a hand through her long, light brown hair, her movements jerky and agitated. “Nothing new,” she responded. “Just the same death and destruction.”
“Can you give us anything to work with?” I asked. “Any detail at all?”
Lea shook her head, looking like she wanted to cry. “I’m getting the full moon, with a blood-red haze over it. And howling. Lots of howling. Then I get this feeling of death.” She shuddered, clearly affected by what she was seeing.
Even if it was all in her imagination.
“Look, Lea…” I began.
The bell on the front door clanged again. Hippopotamus halitosis! “Did somebody replace the front door with a revolving one?”
Lea frowned. “It wasn’t locked when I came inside. In fact, the knob is kind of kluge.”
“Kluge how,” I asked, heading for the front of the building. I tugged the dividing door open and found a man with broad shoulders and mahogany-brown hair standing by the front door. He was staring down at something in his big hand.
“Kluge like that,” Lea said. She nodded toward the doorknob in my boyfriend Grym’s palm.
He looked up, an apology in his dark caramel gaze. “I’m really sorry, Naida. It just came off in my hand.” It might have been the result of his gargoyle DNA. Or the door might have been compromised already, as Lea suggested.
Panic swirled through me. Had Croakies been broken into?
I looked at Sebille. “I need to do a quick read of the whole place.”
She nodded. “I’ll make tea.”
Tea would fix everything. Well, not everything. “We might need cookies too.”
The sprite nodded.
Grym turned back to the door and tried to stick the handle back into it. “Where’s Baca? She can fix this in no time.”
The brownie was becoming indispensable.
I closed my eyes and lifted my hands, palms up. Tugging power from my core, I released it in dual waves of silvery energy that spread throughout the bookstore and then moved into the much larger artifact library at the back. As it moved through the building, I mentally inventoried every magical book and artifact, finding nothing out of place or missing.
Opening my eyes, I shook my head. “I don’t know where Baca is,” I said, belatedly answering Grym’s question. “I can’t find any of them.” Noting Grym’s dour expression, I realized he hadn’t just come to Croakies to say hey. “What’s wrong?”
Grym was a detective with the Enchanted Police. I gathered from his manner that he had business of a police nature to share with us. I also guessed it wasn’t good news.
He motioned toward the table by the bookshelves. “You might want to sit down.” He took the tea Sebille offered him and nodded at Lea. “All of you.”
Panic swirled in my chest, making my heart flutter with concern. “What’s wrong?” I repeated, my tone going slightly shrill. “The kids are okay, right? You’re not here to tell us something’s happened to them?” Suddenly the idea that I hadn’t seen them since dinner took on a sinister feel.
My question was based on recent experience. There had been a whole Pied Piper thing that still gave me nightmares. The sight of all of my friends and loved ones being marched away to almost certain death had left me scarred.
Grym gave me an apologetic look. “No. This isn’t about them. But…” He stared into his teacup and sighed. “You might want to keep them close for a bit.”
“Why?” Lea asked. She glanced toward the door, and I didn’t need to read her mind to know she was thinking about her little cat, Hex, alone in her apartment next door.
Grym set the tea down on the table and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “You remember Rhonda across the street?”
I nodded. “The banshee.” I’d only met Rhonda a couple of times, but both times had been memorable. She’d joined us for a pretty chaotic Christmas party where someone had spelled the cookies to mix up our bodies with our spirits. I would never forget the experience, having spent way too much time as a frog, craving bugs. I shuddered at the memory. The second time, we’d been battling a building-sized snake, and she’d screamed the monster to sleep for us. “I haven’t seen her for a while.” Even as I spoke the words, I knew what he was going to say.
“Well, she…” his brows lowered as he seemed to be struggling with the right words. “Somebody…” He shook his head. “She’s dead.”
“Oh!” Lea said, shuddering violently. She looked at Sebille and me. “See! I told you. Somebody’s already been killed! I was right.”
I held up a hand for her to calm down. “How did she die?” I asked Grym.
He winced. “I don’t really want to…”
Sebille, Lea, and I all gave him the stink eye.
“You can’t come in here and tell us Rhonda’s dead and then not tell us what happened,” Sebille said.
“She’s right,” I told him.
“Was she murdered?” Lea asked, looking as if she’d just eaten a bug.
“Yes,” he finally said. “She was killed. Somebody, or something, chewed on her.”
Lord Acton once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I wouldn’t know. I have no power.
My name is Joey and I’m an unabashed bumpkin. I live in a quaint and quirky country town named Deer Hollow. We’re pretty simple and laid back in the Hollow. But that doesn’t mean the occasional murder can’t happen here. It’s just that when it does, it seems more surprising somehow.
Especially when a corpse turns up in the mayor’s kitchen.
(Psst! If you’re keeping track, he does have power.) But don’t worry, we’re on it. By “we” I mean me, the Greek deity (my boyfriend Hal), and my sweet Pitbull Caphy. Yeah, I didn’t include my snooty Siamese cat, LaLee or our adorable pot-bellied pig Ethel Squeaks. Not because I love them any less. But let’s face it, the cat isn’t going to get her paws dirty delving into a messy murder, and the pig…well…she tends to hoard all the evidence in her little tent in my kitchen, so…
5 Stars! Another Exciting Nonstop Action Pack Laugh Out Loud Cozy Mystery!!!
“I said I didn’t want peas,” a cranky elderly woman I didn’t know barked out. “They give me gas. I wanted the green beans.”
I bit back a retort and apologized, grabbing the plate back. “I’m sorry. I’ll go fix it.”
“Miss!” I barely made it two steps before one of the pre-teens in booth four waved me over.
I forced myself to smile. “Yes?”
“We asked for catsup twenty minutes ago. Our fries are cold now. We want new fries.”
I looked around the table and fought panic. Six plates with burgers and fries. I’d have to drop off the pea-phobic lady’s plate and come back. It had been a long time since I’d hustled plates, and I wasn’t sure I could carry six of them at once. That meant two trips, and my dogs were beyond tired.
Max came up behind me and handed the kids a bottle of catsup. “Stop torturing Joey,” she told the complaining teen, glowering down at him. “Or I’ll tell your mom I saw you kissing Missy Palentine outside the library last night.”
The boy’s pimply face paled, and he slumped in his seat.
I fought a grin. Whispering, “Thanks!” to Max, I hurried to the kitchen for a pea-extraction. Stopping in front of the pass-thru window, I was surprised to see Hal working the grill. “Where’s Tom?”
Hal looked up, his handsome face flushed from the heat of the grill. His dark eyes twinkled as he looked at me. “Cigarette break out back. I think he’s smoking a whole pack. He’s been gone for a while.”
I frowned. “You doing okay?”
He actually grinned. “I’m having a ball. Did I ever tell you I worked in a place a lot like this to put myself through college?”
“You did not.” I grinned back. “But now that I know, I’m going to make you do all the cooking from now on.”
He arched a midnight brow. “I already do all the cooking. Even, it seems, when we go out to eat.”
I laughed. He wasn’t wrong. “Can you swap out these peas for green beans, please?” I leaned in. “Peas give her gas.” He grimaced and quickly made the switch. Handing it back to me, he said, “Even if Tom’s heading for Mexico right now, I’d rather be back here than dealing with all those people out there.”
“You have no idea,” I whispered. “It’s an angry crowd.”
I took the plate back to the old woman. “Here you go.”
“About time,” she groused.
I turned away so I wouldn’t say something about how rude she was. The booth nearest the door was empty, and the table was covered in dirty dishes. I went to get the bin and started filling it.
The door jangled, and I looked up to find a familiar face coming through the door. When the server from the mayor’s house spotted me, she blanched, glancing at the door as if she was considering making a run for it.
I gave her a smile and picked up the now-full bin. “If you’ll give me just a minute, I’ll wipe this down and get you menus.”
I hurried away, hoping she didn’t leave. I’d love to question her about what she saw in that kitchen. When I returned, the woman was sitting down across from a dark-haired man who was around the same age. They were both wearing the white shirts and black trousers of the catering crew.
“Sorry,” I said, offering another smile. “Apparently, there’s a flu going around, and poor Max was short of help.”
I handed them menus.
“You work here?” the woman asked, looking surprised.
“Just for tonight. What can I get you to drink?”
By the time I brought two sweet teas to the table, the couple was ready to order. I took their orders and hesitated. The woman’s expression turned wary. “I’m sorry, I just wondered if you were doing okay? Finding that guy was…” I shuddered.
She chewed her bottom lip. “It was gruesome.”
“You and your friends seemed pretty chill about it, though.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Telling her that I found bodies all the time probably wouldn’t go over very well. I settled on, “We date cops.” The truth. Sort of.
As if that explained everything, she nodded.
I offered my hand. “I’m Joey.”
The woman shook it. “Karinne Magness.” She nodded at her dinner companion. “That’s Prince.”
“Nice to meet you, Prince. I love your music,” I quipped.
He gave me a flat stare in return. “Whatever.”
Alrighty then. I nodded toward his clothes. “Looks like you worked the party too?”
“I did. I was on the dessert table.”
“My favorite place,” I said, grinning. Talking about food made my stomach rumble. I was really going to enjoy that banana cream pie Max had set aside for us.
He shrugged. Clearly, the guy had no sense of humor.
“It’s quite a shock about your boss, huh?”
Karinne shuddered. Prince frowned at his silverware.
“Do you know of anybody who might have wanted him dead?”
Prince snorted. “That list is long. The guy was a jerk.”
Karinne glared at him. “That’s not fair, P. He was understandably nervous since the client threatened him like that.”
My spidey senses perked. “Mayor Robb threatened Jonathan Calliente?”
Karinne looked irritated by my question. “I told that cop this.”
I fought not to cringe. If she refused to tell me because she’d already told one of the deputies her story, there’d be nothing I could say to get her to open up. I couldn’t exactly say I was a cop. Though, I might be able to throw the PI card at her.
Fortunately, I didn’t need to go that far.
“The cop didn’t seem all that interested. But I think it’s important. Jon was a nervous wreck after the argument.” She glanced at her companion. “He was a little short with everybody because of it.”
“This was before the party?”
Shaking her head, Karinne clarified. “Just after it started, I guess. That woman got right in John’s face and told him he’d never work in the area again. She said the mayor would see to that.”
“I don’t know her name. The petite blonde. She works for the mayor. You know her. She was with you in the kitchen this afternoon.”
I blinked. Cecily? “But you said the mayor threatened him.”
Karinne gave me a sigh of exasperation. “She’s the mayor’s right hand, isn’t she? You don’t think a man like Robb would do his own dirty work, do you? I’ve had experience with these politician types. Believe me, they’re not going to stick their necks out. And they’re used to taking what they want.”
Karinne was bitter. That was obvious. I wondered what kind of experience she’d had. But I didn’t want to get her off track by asking. Besides, she was right. I didn’t think Robb did his own dirty work if he could help it. In fact, I knew he didn’t. But what if the dirty work was Cecily’s own? “Do you know what it was about?” I asked. “What did he do that made her threaten him?”
Karinne shook her head. “I have no idea. All I heard was her telling him he’d never get another job.”
Prince fidgeted in his seat, drawing my gaze to his guilty face.
“What?” I asked. “Do you know something?”
The order pickup bell jangled. “Order, Joey,” Hal called out.
Prince nudged Karinne’s arm. “Come on, I’m not hungry anymore.”
Not wanting to chase after them and cause a scene, I watched them walk out of Sonny’s with a sinking feeling in my gut.
Prince knew something that might throw light on the murder. And I’d just lost my chance at finding out what. “Jeezopete!” I said under my breath, heading to the window to pick up my order.
Talk about your midlife crisis. How was I supposed to know when I bought a pretty country church in a city named Rome that I was acting like a guardian deity? Lares Schmares. Anybody who deifies me needs serious therapy.
I went very still. Thirteen gongs? No. That wasn’t right.
Monty suddenly whipped around and ran back into the shadows. “Monty, come back here.” I hurried after him. The belfry was giving me the creeps and I’d decided I’d wait until morning to fix the bell. If I had to, I’d put earplugs in my ears to get through the rest of the night.
My little dog watched me approach with my light. He stood on his back legs, his front paws resting on the short belfry wall. Whining, he danced excitedly as I reached him, begging to be lifted.
“You can’t go up there,” I told him, eyeing the narrow ledge around the top of the short wall. Rising from the wall on all four sides were open archways so the bell’s music could travel across the countryside.
I looked out on the cemetery in the back, shivering at the sight of the fog roiling over the ground. It looked like a scene from a Halloween horror flick. Shivering violently, I pulled the robe closer as I stared out over the fog-shrouded tombstones.
The cemetery was old. Really old. With tombstones that were broken and falling over. The grass and weeds had grown up all around the stones, in some cases obscuring them entirely.
Maintenance on the little plot had been neglected for years. I was going to change that. The ground below me was sacred. The lives within it were important. Giving them back the resting spot they deserved was at the top of the list of things I planned to take care of as soon as I got settled.
In the distance, lightning spiked from the sky in a jagged spear of light and energy. A moment later, a soft boom told me thunder was hot on its heels. A cool breeze washed over me as Monty started to bark again.
Lightning stabbed downward again, significantly closer to my little piece of heaven. We needed to get out of there. “Come on, Monty. We’ll come back in the morning. With relief, I watched him bolt across the belfry and bound happily down the steps.
I started to follow him. But something caught my eye in the cemetery. I turned to look and felt a jolt of fear.
Someone was standing out there among the broken stones. I went very still, my eyes locked on the tall form. He…and I was pretty sure it was a man…stared back at me, though I couldn’t make out any features, just the gentle tilt of his head, but I could feel his gaze like a brand against my skin. With a sudden, inexplicable certainty, I knew he was looking directly at me.
We stared at each other for a beat as the fog swirled around his long legs, and then he slowly lifted a hand as if in a wave.
All the hair rose on my arms again.
The world exploded in light−detonated in a cacophonous boom. And the world turned charcoal gray beneath it.
“Say what?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear you right.”
Shane’s gaze landed on the two men standing before the hut. “You heard me right. The Brothers aren’t fond of travelers. Let’s just say they’ve been burned a time or two.”
“And yet this is where you brought us to spend the night?” Alina said. Despite her lowered brows, there was a suspicious twitch in her lips that made me think she was amused by our situation.
I wished I felt the same.
“I’ll agree it’s not perfect,” Shane said.
Hawk barked out a laugh. In a blink, several of the brothers had weapons in their hands.
We went very still, eyeing their weapons.
Alina’s slender fingers caressed the handles of her guns. “Blades made of stone. Interesting choice of weapon.”
“Don’t underestimate those blades,” Shane said, absently rubbing a shoulder. “They hone them until they’re impossibly sharp. And they can split a mosquito from forty yards with one of those things.”
“Let’s take a vote. Everybody who wants to move on,” I said, raising a hand.
Alina raised her hand too. When she saw Hawk hadn’t raised his, she lifted her other one. “I’m voting for two.”
I snorted out a laugh. A man stepped from the shadow of a smaller black hut. He held his blade low at his side, balanced between two fingertips. His expression didn’t show any emotion, but even from a distance of fifteen feet, I could tell he was tensed to throw the knife.
“Shane,” I murmured, pulling energy from the air. I gasped as the magic rushed to fill my core, thick and rich and vibrant with expectant power. I absorbed so much and so quickly that it shot to my hands, swirling in thick rust-colored clouds that filled the air around us with static electricity.
Every hair on my body stood at attention. Beside me, Alina sucked air and laughed with genuine humor. I turned to find her touching the ends of her hair that were floating around her head.
“What the…?” Shane rubbed the hair on his arms back into place, only to have it rise again.
I looked at Hawk. He looked back, his dark blond hair drifting around his face like an aura. He arched a single brow, making no attempt to tame his flyaway locks. That made me smile.
“I guess now we know why they all shave their heads,” Alina said.
“Um…look alive,” Shane mumbled, moving away from us and extending his hands as if preparing to fight.
That was when I realized every Brother in the camp was holding at least one blade. Several of them held a weapon in each hand.
And the air around us had become so saturated with magic it was almost impossible to draw breath.
We were going to die.
Belle’s door creaked as something shoved it open.
We didn’t dare turn to look at Nicht as he dropped lightly to the ground. A beat later, I heard him yawn, a long, theatrical affair that usually involved exposing a lot of big white teeth.
I risked a look and almost laughed. He looked like a giant black puffball. All of his fur stood at attention from the static.
Like a cold summer rain, the hellhound’s appearance doused the building hostility in the camp.
Blades slipped out of sight without any apparent movement. Backs went ramrod straight.
And before I knew what was happening, every single Brother had dropped to his knees and lowered his forehead to the ground.
We all looked at Shane. He shook his head. “I have no idea. But the dog seems to have caused a break in the hostilities, so I say we go for it.”
His comment was met with a low, extended growl, followed by another doggy yawn.
A portal protector and her baby gargoyle, a guardian daemon, a hellhound, and a witch. Together, they must survive in a strange land filled with unknown monsters. Combined they must be strong enough to defy an elite group of magical terrorists. They are Auctus, augmenting the magic flowing through her world…but will they be enough?
A Taste of Auctus…
The land that stretched out in front of me was a patchwork of different types of plants, all sown in perfect rectangular gardens with strange rock formations on every corner. In the farthest field, an enormous horse pulled a metal contraption through the gray soil. A tall man rode the back of it, standing on a small metal platform as the horse furrowed the fields.
I lay on my belly beneath the soft, overarching branches of a bush, a pair of special field glasses pressed to my eyes. With those glasses, I could see the small patch of white hairs on the horse’s back, probably regrowth after an old injury. I could also see the determined set of her taskmaster’s jaw and the hard glint in his pale eyes.
A bird trilled several yards from where I lay, and my gaze jerked in that direction. Tiny pieces of a nearby sandstone tree fluttered down around my head. I sneezed as the granular wisps of bark that gave the tree its name got sucked into my nostrils.
The man on the plow tensed and a hostile gaze slid unerringly in my direction. I hunkered down with a mumbled swear.
“Don’t swear, Glynnie,” said a soft, chastising voice. “It’th not nithe.”
Setting down the field glasses, I rolled onto my back and looked up at the baby gargoyle. “If somebody didn’t keep throwing bark dust at my face, I wouldn’t be worried about getting caught, and I wouldn’t accidentally say an admittedly unfriendly word.”
Boyle tsked me clumsily, his tongue not accustomed to the gymnastics needed for the sound. “Don’t make ’scuses for your bad behavior, Glynnie.”
I frowned, but there was nothing behind it. He was just too darn cute. Even if he was becoming a bossy boy since his Aunt Sissy had decided we were barbarians and started teaching us both manners. “We have to stay really quiet, baby boy. I told you that. If the man over there saw us spying on him…”
“He’d be really angry,” said a deep, rusty voice from a few feet away.
Boyle’s head shot up, his turquoise gaze went wide, and he covered his mouth with a long-fingered hand.
I rolled and leaped to my feet in a single move, the knife I kept in a sheath on my thigh hitting my palm before my mind even had time to register that I’d gone for it.
The man standing on the gray-green grass five feet away from me crossed tanned, muscular arms over his chest and lifted shaggy silver brows skyward. “First, you trespass on my land and now you’re going to stab me with a knife?”
I moved to stand between him and the baby, who was climbing down the tree with the ease of a monkey or a…well…a gargoyle. “When you put it that way,” I said. “It sounds unfriendly.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought his lips twitched slightly at that.
His gaze slid to Boyle as the baby clasped my hand in his warm grip. “Don’t be mean to Glynnie. She’s not treespassin’. She only mostly passed bushes ta come here. Not trees.”
I pressed my lips together to keep from smiling.
The man in front of me cleared his throat. He looked down at his muddy boots. “Well, if you’re sure she’s good people, I won’t yell.”
Boyle’s little face lit up in a smile. He bounced up and down, jerking me along with the energy of his jumps. “See Glynnie, he nice. We don’t have ta be quiet no more.” Boyle kept bouncing like he had an invisible jump rope, his energy off the charts from too many recent days stuck inside Victoria. Apparently, we’d landed in Outvald just before the rainy season. And, so far it had been a doozy.
The man’s eyes sparkled, his steel-gray eyes warming. “He sure is a springy little thing.”
I nodded, sliding the knife back into its sheath. “He’s been cooped up too much lately.”
The man looked out over his fields, grimacing. “It’s all I can do to plow this year. The mud’s just about to do old Bessie in.”
As if responding to his statement. The enormous horse blew through its nostrils and dipped its head. The short tail swished at a bug and her head whipped around, big teeth snapping at something that pestered her. I’d noticed the bugs in Outvald were downright scary. At least twice as big as anything I’d ever seen at home.
The man extended a work-roughened hand. He looked at it and grimaced, pulling it back. “Name’s Shane. You have to be Belle’s granddaughter, Glynn.”
Belle was a nickname Grams had used, a name from her past. “I am. How’d you guess?”
“She had long brown hair just the same color as yours, with the sun glinting copper off the strands. And you have her eyes. A brown as dark as night.” He tilted his head. “You’re taller than Belle though, what are you about five-ten?”
“Five eleven,” I told him, feeling self-conscious about my size. I wasn’t only taller than most women, but I wasn’t small-boned either. I was a big woman, not meaty, but strong. Not a woman who men felt like they had to tuck away and protect.
“Belle was a strong woman too. She always gave as good as she got.” He stared toward my land, his expression seeming to reflect good memories rather than bad.
Hearing him call Grams Belle was a little disconcerting. I knew Grams had been called different names by different people. She’d liked to compartmentalize the segments of her world. But to me, she’d always just been Grams.
Belle had been a special name. She’d told me a little bit about the time when she’d used it. And I’d seen the fond memories dance across her face as she had. It was a name from her youth. So, it made sense she would have gotten the name on Outvald. She’d spent her youth there. “I haven’t heard that name for a while,” I told him, laughing. “Except as it pertained to that stupid car.”
It was his turn to look surprised. “She still has that old Chevy? Goddess, that thing has to be as old as I am.”
“We still have it, yes.” I gave him a searching look. “You knew Grams passed, right?”
His gaze slid to the horizon toward Victoria, and sadness filled his expression. “I didn’t know for sure. But I thought she had.” He stared hard at the rolling hills and oddly shaped trees in the distance as if he could picture Victoria’s weathered peaks and chipped paint from there. “I’ll tell you a little secret, Glynn, your Grams was never far from Outvald, even when she went through the portal that last time.” He thumped his chest with his fist. “She stayed here. In the hearts of all the people she touched.” His eyes glistened and he blinked, looking away with embarrassment. Sniffing, he turned to Boyle with a forced smile. “And who is this handsome young man?”
“I’m Boyle,” the baby said proudly. He drew himself up to his full height of twenty-eight inches and a smidge, as Sissy liked to say to make him giggle.
“Boyle’s my son,” I told Shane. My gaze held his for a beat, looking for any kind of judgment that would make it impossible for us to be friends.
But he only inclined his head in a quick nod and crouched down to speak to Boyle. “I’ll bet you’ve never ridden a horse.”
Boyle’s eyes almost popped out of his head. He started bouncing again, his fingers clutching at my shirt as his eyes went wide. “Can I, Glynnie? Can I? Can I?”
I grabbed his hands to keep him from ripping my shirt and looked at Shane. “Are you sure it’ll be okay?” I nodded toward Bessie, who was contentedly ripping gray-green grass out of the ground with her powerful teeth.
“Absolutely. Old Bessie loves kids, don’t ya girl?”
The horse lifted her head and nickered softly, her ears twitching toward Boyle and then swiveling away, unconcerned.
“Then, I’m sure he’d love it. Thank you,” I told him warmly.
He held my gaze a beat and I saw the truth in his words when he said, “It’s my pleasure, Glynn. It truly is.”
What more could you possibly want in a Valentine’s Story? heh
Hearts and Heresy
Never let it be said that I have a thing against heart-shaped stuff. Goddess knew I was currently surrounded by it.
Heart-shaped cutouts hung from nearly every surface above navel height throughout Croakies bookstore. Heart-shaped doilies dotted every flat surface.
Heart-shaped candies enclosed in heart-shaped tins and wrapped in heart-colored foil filled a heart-shaped wicker basket on the sales counter.
Heart-shaped cookies, sans frosting since I’d sworn off frosted cookies after our ill-fated Christmas fiasco, were displayed on a heart-shaped platter with a pink paper heart taped to it proclaiming, “Snarf to your heart’s desire!”
And, right at that moment, a heart-shaped face, peering at me with heart-felt emotion brimming in eyes that reflected a heartbreaking level of devastation from my lack of hearty despair for her heartfelt disappointment.
“But you advertised that ‘Hearts of Bomb’ would be available today,” The cupid’s bow lips said. The heartsick client shook her head, her stick-straight mop of Valentine-colored hair swinging back and forth to reflect her disgust. “You promised.”
I opened my mouth to tell Holly Heartsick that the shipment of books had been delayed, risking another accusation of bookseller heartlessness. Thankfully, the heart-rending announcement was waylaid by the arrival of my own personal Valerie Valentine.
Sebille’s naturally heart-colored hair was plaited into two waist-length braids on either side of her long, freckled face. She wore a matching red dress dotted with white hearts and pink and white striped socks that covered her knees beneath the calf-length dress. Her usual Wicked Witch of the West shoes were the perfect complement to the bad dress and ugly stockings.
By contrast, I wore a plain white shirt, worn blue jeans and white sneakers. My below-shoulder-length brown hair was straight and my dark blue eyes were wary. Valentine’s Day wasn’t my favorite holiday. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t seem to like any holidays. That wasn’t true. Exactly. I just haven’t found the one I like yet.
The sprite surged energetically into the bookstore, her sticklike arms wrapped around a plain brown box marked all over with heart-shaped stickers. “They’re here!” Her iridescent green eyes flashing, she grinned at my excited customer, who was currently hopping around and clapping her hands with wholehearted, heartfelt glee.
My shoulders slumped with relief. I grabbed a frosting-free sugar cookie, pink sparkles glittering from its pale surface, and jammed it into my mouth, wishing I had tea to go with it. Sebille settled the box on the table and opened it, pulling out a glossy paperback whose cover was a study in…you guessed it…pinks and red hearts.
Sebille plucked a copy of ‘Hearts of Bomb’ from the box and offered it to my merrily cackling client.
“Yay! I can’t believe it’s here,” Holly Heartface enthused as she did a little happy dance.
I rolled my eyes for two very good reasons.
Number one, though I loved books, and made half…okay a third…all right, a tenth…of my living with the sale of them, I couldn’t imagine becoming so enamored of one that my world literally ended if I couldn’t get my hands on it.
And two, unlike my heart-eyed customers, I knew the author of the book personally and was finding it exceedingly difficult picturing my Uncle Archibald Pudsnecker, a.k.a. Ben E. Nigma, as the type to write a cozy murder mystery with a cutesy name meant to bring to mind a stalky vegetable. Especially since the book that was currently all the rage with my customers was only his second. Pudsy’s first food cozy, “Banana Scream Pie”, had taken the mystery world by storm, selling out its first modest print run and earning two additional runs by the time the new book was released. This was no small feat for a guy whose previous works had included the riveting treatise, “Spatial Voids Around the World” and “The Argument For Embracing The Abyss”.
Sebille and her new best friend shoved me out of the way and I all but ran away from the counter, leaving them to it.
In a desperate move I knew I’d regret later, I shoved another cookie into my mouth. I was going to gain ten pounds before the current Valentine’s Day book massacre ended.
“Thanks so much for coming!”
I jerked around at the pleasant, happy sound of Sebille’s voice and caught her waving gaily at her heart-faced bestie as the woman headed out of Croakies with a tin of candies in one hand and her new book in the other.
The door opened again and three women, all old enough to know better, bounced inside to the sound of the jangling doorbell. The oldest and tallest of the threesome set her bright, expectant gaze on me. “Please tell me you have Hearts of Bomb in the store?”
I swung an arm toward the box. “Just came in. Help yourselves.”
My dour mood didn’t seem to have any effect on their excitement. The gaggle of giggling women descended on the box like a school of piranha and extracted whole handfuls of the books.
Finally, my shopkeeper mojo kicked in. “Only one per person,” I told them. My Valentine’s Day crankiness earned me a trio of scowls, but I yanked the box off the table and held it out for them to replace their extras.
I’d like to say that I was trying to make sure every single one of Uncle Pudsy’s adoring fans got a copy of his latest book, but really, I just didn’t want to face another rabid reader with the bad news that we were out of stock. Again.
Sebille happily made the three sales, doling out candy tins with every purchase, and then sighed with unnatural contentment as the three women left in a dither of excitement. She turned to me and her smile wilted like raw spinach in a hot frying pan. “What’s wrong with you, Dour Dana?”
I started arranging the books atop the table in a happy display of pink and red hearts, my lips curling. “Not a thing, Valentina. Why are you so blasted happy?”
Sebille shrugged, her thin lips curving in an irrepressible smile. “Nothing. I just like Valentine’s Day.”
I looked agape at my usually morose and unhelpful assistant. “Why? You realize it’s a totally made-up holiday, right? It’s a retail holiday, created just for selling stuff.”
“Apparently you haven’t noticed this is a retail establishment?”
I slammed a paperback down on the table with excessive force.
Sebille came over, a half-eaten cookie in her hand and vanilla crumbs painting the corners of her lips. “Still no word from Grym, huh?”
I grimaced and didn’t respond. My fight with the prickly detective was not a subject I wanted to discuss.
Sebille nodded. “Okay, don’t tell me. I’ll just guess.”
Realizing that letting the sprite’s imagination run wild over the bumps in the road of my love life was a recipe for disaster, I sighed. “He’s about as malleable as a…” The thought slid away from my brain and turned to mist. I’d been having trouble holding a cogent thought all day. I blamed the copious amounts of sugar I’d eaten. I’d gorged on two heart-shaped jelly donuts for breakfast, a heart-shaped red velvet cupcake for lunch, two tins of heart-shaped candy, and three of the sugar cookies.
I was mood eating. And, I was in dire need of some of the stalky inspiration from Pudsy’s cozy. Or anything even remotely resembling a vegetable.
“As malleable as a boulder?” Sebille finished for me, snickering. “Granite?” Her snickers turned to guffaws. “A mountain?” She bent double, happy tears pouring from her iridescent green gaze.
I was not amused. “Gargoyle humor. Har,” I said, glaring.
The dividing door opened between the bookstore and the artifact library at the back of the store. A blur of pale pink and white shot into the store and skidded to a stop right in front of me. For a blip, the air around the creature looking up at me with oversized blue eyes was striped with cartoon-like contrails from his superfast arrival. Then the glowy lines on the air sifted away into nothingness.
I narrowed my gaze on Hobs, my resident hobgoblin. “Are you wearing a diaper?”
He laughed, happily bouncing on his oversized toes. “Miss Sebille made it for me. Do you like it?”
My still-narrowed gaze slid to the matching, heart-shaped spots of pale red highlighting his cheeks and then to the tiny bow in his hand. “Please tell me you’re not supposed to be playing Cupid?”
Hobs cocked his head, looking confused. “I’m not supposed to be playing Cupid?” His high-pitched voice was filled with a question.
I sighed and threw a glower Sebille’s way.
“What?” she objected. “Customers will love him.”
My eyes went wide. “We can’t…”
The dividing door slammed back on its hinges and Mr. Wicked skulked through, his dark orange gaze wide as he hit my calf with a manic, “Yeow!”
“Hey, buddy,” I said, bending to scoop him into my arms. I buried my face in his fur and sucked a snout full of something small and irritating.
Sneezing violently several times, I nearly dropped my cat. I sniffled, glancing at my hands. They sparkled. “What is in your fur?” I asked him.
Wicked swished his tail. Hard. A tiny growl slid from his throat.
He was all sparkly. Pink sparkly! “Sebille!”
She rolled her eyes. “Uncoil your granny panties,” she said. “He’s fine.”
I sneezed again, placing him on the floor. “You’re killing me with this Valentine’s stuff. What other surprises do you have for me?”
She flipped a dismissive hand. “I’ll make tea. Maybe that will calm you down.”
I looked down at the fat, green squish on the floor by my feet.
He blinked up at me, his eyes blank pools of black, like miniature Pudsy voids.
Horror slid up my spine. “What…?”
Get it off me! screamed the irate frog in my mind. Now!
Enormous pink lips protruded from the frog’s sparkly green face. “Oh, Slimy,” I said in a commiserating tone. “I can’t believe she did this to you.” I crouched down and tugged at the lips, expecting them to be made of paper or wax. Instead, realistic-feeling flesh, plumped and puckered, resisted my tugging. I jerked my hand away, straightening on a squeal. “They’re real!” I rounded on the Sprite, who quickly turned away from me when I tried to catch her eye. “I can’t believe you gave him puckery lips! Have you lost your mind?”
She hid a grin behind her hand. “Don’t you get the joke? Kiss the frog, get a prince? Come on,” she said as steam wafted from my ears. “Customers are going to love it.”
“Ribbit!” Slimy proclaimed indignantly.
I pointed a shaky finger toward the quivering frog. “Fix. Him.”
Sebille gave me a long-suffering sigh and threw a pale green jet of magic toward the frog. The big, puckery lips disappeared with a pop.
Slimy gave the sprite one last indignant, “Ribbit!” and then hopped underneath the nearest bookshelf to work on regaining his self-respect.
“You’ve lost your mind, sprite,” I told her, madder than I’d ever been. Well…in the last week anyway. “What’s going on with you?”
Amazingly, she gave me a secret smile and headed for the door. “I’m taking my break.”
I felt my eyes go wide. “What? You can’t take a break. You just got here.”
She shrugged and slipped through the door, leaving me with one delighted Cupid who I couldn’t let anybody see, a traumatized frog, and a seriously annoyed cat.
I sagged. Could the day get any worse?
Proving that it could, the front door bell jangled and I steeled myself for more shrieking Ben E. Nigma fans. Instead, I found myself looking into a handsome, craggy face and an intense dark caramel gaze. “Oh,” I said, my wit firmly intact.
“Hello, Naida,” said Detective Wise Grym, a.k.a. my maybe-boyfriend.
It’s an age-old battle–country folk vs city folk–verdant hillside vs concrete jungle–Pickup vs Prius. City folk think all country folk are simple-minded bumpkins. Country folk believe all city folk are rats living in a maze. But some things transcend culture. Some things spoil any lifestyle.
Murder is one of those things…
Hal’s younger brother has been banished to Deer Hollow because of his proclivity for getting into trouble. Hal’s parents are hoping he’ll take the kid under his wing and straighten him out. But Asher Amity has a knack for finding trouble, and it doesn’t take him long to find it in Deer Hollow. When Asher steps into a steaming pile of murder and treachery, Hal and Joey are destined to get dragged into the mess with him. Who knew how dangerous babysitting could be?
The sun was high and bright and the day had turned hot. I left Caphy to run free, the leash dragging the ground in case I needed to catch her.
She and her snotty sister explored every tree we passed, teasing the squirrels that chittered angrily from the highest branches.
Unbeknownst to the chirping rodents, LaLee could actually climb the trees if she wanted to. She’d nearly caught one of the squirrels who’d been taunting the pitty from the distant heights of a particularly impressive walnut tree.
Even worse, the cat ignored my shrieking for her to leave the hapless creature alone as only a cat could. After a suitable period of time had passed to prove she was doing it on her own terms, LaLee finally descended the tree, sailing gracefully from branch to branch until she landed lightly in the dirt.
Felines. You couldn’t live with them, and you couldn’t return them for a refund.
I settled into the walk, blissfully inhaling the sweet, hot air and enjoying the pleasant trills and flutterings of a multitude of birds.
The trees provided enough shade to make the heat bearable, but adequate sun to keep the Grimm’s fairytale feeling at bay.
We followed familiar paths that wound up familiar hills and into familiar ravines. After an hour of exploring, the distant sound of the river told me we’d probably better turn back, or I was going to lose one of my frisky companions to the enticement of a cool swim.
The currents in that part of the river were treacherous, and I’d always made it a point to keep Caphy away from it. She got into enough trouble in the pond in front of my house.
As if I’d conjured her from my thoughts, Caphy started barking from somewhere over the next hill. LaLee had been sharpening her claws on the rough bark of a walnut tree, but her head came up and the lazy waving of her long tail took on a more energetic tone.
The first tendrils of unease tightened my chest.
“Caphy girl, come!”
Caphy continued to bark, the sound growing increasingly strident.
I hurried toward the hill. “Caphy! Come!”
The pitty usually listened to my “mean voice”. Unless there was something more interesting to keep her attention.
LaLee sprinted along beside me as I started to run. The hill was one of the larger ones in the woods. When I’d topped the incline, I found myself standing on the edge of a ravine, the sides steep and treacherous. I all but slid down the first side and then had to scramble and grasp at roots and saplings to make it up the opposite slope.
My voice was breathless when I called Caphy again. “Caphy, girl. Come!”
Somewhere around the middle of the upward slope, the pibl had gone quiet. Already at the top of the hill, LaLee yowled unhappily and hissed.
Icy fear made me quicken my steps. What if Caphy had run into a coyote? The thought was terrifying. I’d heard too many stories of pets being lured away by seemingly playful coyotes, only to be attacked in numbers once they’d gotten them alone.
“Caphy!” My voice took on a strident shriek as panic took me completely over.
LaLee suddenly shot away on an angry yowl, and I nearly choked to death trying to find the air to scream as I scrabbled for purchase on the slippery ravine wall. “LaLee, no! Caphy!”
I shoved myself the last couple of feet, my heart pounding like a piledriver and my hands bloodied from the fight to climb.
My frantic gaze slipped over the woods that was laid out in front of me. I spotted a low form shooting through the trees, agile and fast.
I cried out, an unformed sound built of pure fear. Had that been a coyote? No…please no.
I started to run, my eyes on the fast-moving form gliding too quickly away from me.
LaLee disappeared into the obscuring branches of a huge evergreen ahead of me. I stepped up my speed, catching my foot in a root and slamming to the ground with a surprised cry.
Ignoring the pain in my knees and palms, I shoved back to my feet and started forward.
Something moved to my right and, before I could see what it was, pain exploded on the side of my head. And the ground roared up to smack me.
How in the name of the goddess’s favorite sports bra am I going to do this Magical Librarian job? I have no idea what I’m doing. And the woman who’s supposed to be training me is…well, let’s just say she’s distracted and leave it at that. I guess I’ll bumble through. It’s become something of a trademark move for me.
My name is Naida Griffith and I’m a sorceress. I actually found that out not too long ago. I’ve lived with an undefined something burning in my belly for a while, feeling as if something wasn’t quite right under my skin. Then, on my eighteenth birthday I started getting headaches. Bad ones. And random stuff started following me around.
Recently I was approached by a group called the Société of Dire Magic to become Keeper of the Artifacts. A magical librarian. Given that magical artifacts have taken to following me around, I decided I might have an aptitude for the job. So I said yes.
But in the first few days, I’ve been flogged by flip flops, bludgeoned by gnomes, and discovered a corpse in a suitcase. Then there’s the woman who’s supposed to be training me. She’s…interesting.
Will I survive the training long enough to get the job as artifact librarian? You might as well ask me if a caterpillar gets manis or pedis. Who knows? But I know one thing for sure. This gig is hard. I’m going to do my best to succeed. Or die trying.