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It was Harriet's fault. It's always her fault, not that she'll ever admit it.
That was Clara's first thought as she tried to settle on the sofa, flicking her long, grey tail with annoyance. As a cat, Clara wouldn't usually have any trouble getting comfortable. That's one special skill that all felines share. But even as she tried to calm her restive tail, curling it neatly around her snowy front paws, Clara, a petite, if plump, calico, couldn't stop fretting.
Harriet was her oldest sister, a creamsicle-colored longhair with more fur than common sense. Still, despite the fluffy feline's typical self-absorption, she and Clara and their middle sister, Laurel, had cohabited with a nice enough human for almost two years without any problems, until now. Until Harriet.
Yes, Becca, their human, had begun to believe she had psychic powers. Becca, who at twenty-six usually had more sense, was training to be a witch, as if that were something one could learn from books. But to the calico cat who now fumed quietly on the sofa, the petite brunette had always seemed a harmless soul — good with a can opener. Warm. Generous with her lap. And then, last week, Harriet — who cared only for her own comfort — conjured up a pillow.
"I was tired," Harriet said, in that petulant mew that Clara knew so well, when asked why in the name of Bast she'd be so stupid. "Becca wasn't even looking."
"You could have moved!" her younger sibling hissed back, the grey whorls on her sides heaving with annoyance. "And she was!"
Harriet was taking up the sunny spot on the windowsill, as she always did that time of the morning, and Clara narrowed her mysterious green eyes to glare at her sister. Harriet was more than fluffy, she was immense, a pale orange marshmallow of a feline, whose furry bulk and predictable habits prevented her youngest sister from enjoying any of the solar bounty. Still, she probably shouldn't have hissed. Harriet was Clara's elder, if merely by a few minutes. As it was, the orange and white cat just shuffled a bit and turned her rounded back on her sister rather than responding.
Clara didn't know why she even bothered asking. She already knew the answer: Harriet didn't move unless she had to, and on a warm spring day it was easier to conjure a cushion than make the leap from the sun-warmed sill to the sofa, where Clara now fumed. The sofa where, it turned out, Becca had been trying out a summoning spell. And so now, of course, their hapless human believed she had pulled that pillow out of the ether.
Which was a problem because Becca belonged to a coven. Had for about three months, ever since she saw a flier in the laundromat advertising an opening for "Witches: New and In Training." That was the kind of thing that happened here, in Cambridge, where the hippies never really went away. Since then, they'd met every week to drink a foul-smelling herbal concoction and try out various spells. None of which ever produced any magic, of course. None of the humans had the basic powers of a day-old kitten, and certainly nothing like Clara and her sisters shared as the descendants of an old and royal feline line. But now, Clara feared, Becca had become obsessed, spending every waking moment trying to reproduce that one spell, while Harriet, Laurel, and Clara looked on.
"Don't you dare ..." Clara muttered in a soft mew as Laurel sashayed into the room, taking in her two sisters with one sweeping gaze. Laurel was the middle one, a troublemaker and as vain as can be. Not simply of her own glossy coat — the cream touched with brown, or, as she called it, café au lait — but of her powers. That she was plotting something, Clara was certain. As Laurel glanced from Harriet back to Clara again, her tail started lashing and her ears stuck out sideways like an owl's.
"Why not?" Laurel had a streak of Siamese in her. It made her chatty, as well as giving her neat dark chocolate booties. "It'll be fun."
"It'll bring more people!" Clara felt her fur begin to rise. The idea of her middle sister meddling — and possibly adding more magic to the mix — made her frantic. "Don't you get it? They'll never let up."
The black, grey, and orange cat — the smallest of the three sisters — didn't have to explain who "they" were. That night, Becca's coven would be meeting again at their place, which, to the three felines, was bad enough. Strangers, six of them, would soon be sitting in all the good seats, with their odd smells and loud voices. What was worse was that Becca would think she had to feed them, as well as brew that horrible tea. And as the cats well knew, Becca had no money, not since she lost her job as a researcher for the local historical society.
"Redundant," her boss had told her. "What with the budget cutbacks and the advances in technology."
"That means they can get an intern to do a Google search." Becca had sniffled into Clara's parti-colored fur the day she'd gotten the news. Harriet might be the fluffiest and Laurel the sleekest, but Clara was the one Becca talked to. The one she had confided in months earlier when she found the book that had started her on this whole witchcraft obsession, a spark of excitement lighting up her face. She'd been researching land deeds, the scutwork of history, when she had stumbled on it, her eye caught by a familiar name — some old relative of hers who had been caught up in a witch trial back in the bad old days in Salem. Then, when she'd seen the flier by the coin machine at the Wash 'N Dry, she'd been so exhilarated, she'd raced back to tell Clara, leaving her sheets in the drier. And now, without the distraction of her job, Becca had thrown herself into the study of magic and sorcery, spending her days in the library or on her computer, trying to track down the full story of that great-great whatever, and sharing her fears and, increasingly, her hopes with Clara.
Maybe it was because Clara was a calico that Becca whispered into the black-tipped ears of her littlest cat. Calicos had a reputation for being more intelligent and curious than other felines. Plus, that uneven look — a gray patch over one eye and an orange one over the other — made her appear approachable. Inquisitive. Becca couldn't know that her youngest cat was often teased for her markings. "Goofy," her sister Laurel said in her distinctive yowl. "Clara the calico? Clara the clown!" Recently, Harriet had taken up calling her that too.
Clara didn't mind, as long as Becca kept confiding in her. The young woman didn't really think her cats understood about her being laid off, but, in truth, they were all quite aware of the straitened circumstances. Not that Laurel and Harriet always sympathized. There was that one time three weeks ago that Becca tried cutting back on the cats' food, getting the generic cans from the market instead of the tiny ones with the pretty labels. After wolfing down hers, Harriet had barfed all over the sofa. She didn't have to. She was just making a point about what she considered an affront to her dignity.
Tonight, when Becca took credit for conjuring that cushion, Clara didn't know what her haughty sister would do. Interrupt, most likely. Jump onto the table and begin bathing, if she had to, to be the center of attention. If she tried anything further — like pulling more pillows out of the ether — or if Laurel got up to her own tricks, Clara would have to get involved, she vowed with a final flick of the tail. And that, she knew, just wouldn't end well.CHAPTER 2
"Bad Clara!" Becca called softly as she clapped her hands at the calico cat. "Bad girl."
The cat glanced up from her perch on the counter and blinked, the picture of innocence except for the pink petal that hung from one fang. Her harsh words softened by a gentle smile, Becca reached over and scooped up the multi-colored feline, depositing her on the floor. "Now, you know better than that!"
"Is anything wrong?" Trent appeared in the doorway, a slight frown pulling his goatee into a pout.
"It's Clara." Becca sighed, shaking her head. "She's eating the flowers."
"You have another cat?" Trent's voice was neutral, but Becca knew he'd been disconcerted to find Harriet, her largest feline, stretched out over most of the sofa.
"Three, actually," Becca admitted. "They were littermates, and I didn't want to separate them."
"Of course." He nodded, his voice as warm as his dark brown eyes. "Besides, they're your familiars."
Becca turned to hide her flustered smile, as well as the blush that was creeping up from her chest. Trent was a self-professed warlock, the leader of the coven, the small group of would-be witches she had joined a few months before. More to the point, he was devastatingly handsome, with those flashing eyes and a devilish smile played up by that goatee. And he had brought over the bouquet that her cat, Clara, had begun to nibble.
Willing her color back to normal, Becca reached into the cabinet for her one good vase. Officially, the flowers were for the table — a touch of nature to bless the May full moon, the "Flower Moon," Trent had said — but the dark-eyed warlock hadn't had to arrive early to give them to her, she knew. Besides, Becca had felt a slight charge when Trent had handed them to her, a certain warmth behind that smile.
Still, she had to get ahold of herself. Any minute now, the doorbell would ring again. The group was meeting at her place this week, as it had the last four. Partly because her apartment was central, a Cambridgeport walk-up not too far from the T. But the main reason the coven was gathering here tonight was in the hope that Becca could replicate the group's one successful act of magic thus far: the conjuring of a pillow out of thin air. She was going to have to concentrate.
"Do you feel your power?" Trent nearly purred, coming up close behind her.
"I don't ... I don't know." Becca almost stuttered. "I hope so." In truth, she was beginning to despair. She had tried countless times since that day — donning the same jeans and sweater, letting her mint tea cool in the same mug beside her — as she read over the words of the spell. But she had been unable to make the magic work again. Now, Harriet was lying on the gold velvet pillow, one paw idly batting at its fringes, as if it were just another bit of home furnishing. "Maybe one pillow is the limit of my power," she said, voicing her deepest fear.
"Nonsense." Trent sounded confident — and so close she could feel his warm breath. Maybe, she thought, magic of another sort was brewing. But just then she heard the unmistakable hiss and squeal of a cat fight beginning in the other room.
"Clara!" Becca ducked around her guest, clapping her hands again to get the cats' attention. "Harriet!" The smaller of the two felines glanced up at her, wide-eyed, and Harriet used the distraction to push Clara off the couch.
"It's the pillow," Becca said, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice. Trent had followed her into the other room with — she was glad to see — an amused half smile on his lips. "They've been fighting over it since it appeared." "They sense its power." He sounded serious and reached down absently to stroke Laurel, who had begun to twine around his ankles. Clara, meanwhile, peered up into Becca's face, as if willing her to respond. But just then, the doorbell rang and Trent stepped back, neatly disengaging himself from Laurel, and gave Becca a gentle pat on the arm.
"Go," he said, the smile carrying through to his voice. "I'll finish up in the kitchen."
Maybe it was that pat — or the man's apparent preference for Laurel — but Clara decided to watch him and took up a position by the kitchen counter from which to observe this strange, dark-haired man who had made his way into their private space.
Sure enough, as soon as Becca had left the kitchen — with an affronted Laurel in tow — Trent began opening drawers. Aha! Clara thought. I've got you. But all he did was fish out a pair of shears and cut the blossoms loose from their wrapping. After he trimmed their stems and placed them in the vase Becca had set out, he even cleaned up after himself, and the cat began to wonder if, perhaps, her suspicions were unfounded.
"You're so naïve." Harriet sauntered in, and although she immediately buried her face in her food dish, she must have seen how her youngest sister was watching the newcomer. "You're not used to male attention."
"It's not that ..." her calico sibling started to argue as Harriet swiped her plume of a tail. "It's that I don't want Becca to be hurt again." Another swipe. Harriet didn't seem to care that their person had had her heart broken a scant two months ago. To the older cat, it was a plus when Becca began spending every night at home again. And when she lost her job, that was even better — until the incident with the store brand cans. "We don't know this new man," Clara said, blinking those green eyes.
"Jealous." Even with her mouth full, Harriet couldn't stand not having the last word. But by then, other voices had joined Becca's in the living room, and so Clara followed Trent as he carried out the ever-so-tasty bouquet.
"Suzanne, Kathy, merry meet." He nodded at the two women who'd come in together, each as unlike as Clara and Laurel, whose almond-shaped blue eyes gazed up in frank, feline appraisal. Tall and slender, Suzanne had a nervous habit of running her hands over her long blonde hair that made Clara think she wanted to groom. Tonight, though, they were occupied, holding a covered loaf pan, which had Laurel sniffing delicately, dark brown nose in the air.
"Lemon poppy seed," the willowy woman was saying as she handed the pan to Becca. "To celebrate the full moon tonight, as well as our triumph."
"Oh, I didn't think to bring anything." Kathy, on the other hand, was short and as plump as Harriet, although her curly hair was penny-bright auburn and not nearly as silky as the cat's. The youngest member of the coven, she was generally considered the pet, a designation that she appeared to enjoy even as it annoyed Harriet, perhaps because of the similarity in their shape and coloring. "I mean, merry meeting," Kathy corrected herself with a giggle. "Are you sure that's okay? We all chip in for the tea and the crystals and everything."
"We have more than enough," said Becca, taking the pan and the serrated knife that her guest had wrapped in a tea towel beneath it. "But this is lovely. Thank you, Suzanne."
Kathy had already turned away. "Trent!" She chirped with a happy smile. "Now we can get started." But her progress back into the living room was stopped as she noticed the flowers.
"Oh," she recoiled, taking in the collection of pink daisies and chrysanthemums that surrounded one red rose. "A bouquet?"
"A celebration of the Flower Moon," Trent corrected her with a warm smile as he placed the vase on Becca's all-purpose table. "As well as a hostess gift. After all, we've been meeting at Becca's every week for a month now."
Before Kathy could respond, the doorbell rang again.
"Please," said Trent, nodding at Becca. "Let me."
"Thanks." She looked relieved, as Kathy trotted after him. "I forgot to put the kettle on."
Clara followed Becca back into the kitchen, trying to read her expression and understand this strange nervousness of hers.
"Becca, I can't believe you did it. I mean, I'm really impressed." Suzanne had come up behind the cat, who sidestepped quickly to protect her tail. "In fact, I'm wondering if now maybe you can help me with something."
"I'd love to. Can you grab those mugs first?" Becca asked, filling the kettle. "I got a little behind this afternoon."
"Tea can wait." Suzanne stepped closer, as the cat scooted back to the counter. The skinny woman didn't seem like much of a threat — Harriet could probably knock her over — but she was wearing hard-soled shoes. "I've been trying to figure out what to do about something, Becca. It's ... well, it's kind of private, only, it might affect all of us."
"Really?" Becca wasn't listening, as her cat could tell. Instead, she was counting spoonfuls of that foul tea into her big teapot, and so the calico emerged to brush against her, willing her to pay attention. "Oh, Clara." She paused to look down at that grey and orange face. "Did Harriet eat your dinner again too? Hang on."
Leaving off her counting, she fetched the bag of kibble from beneath the sink and poured some into the now-empty dish. But while the smallest of her pets appreciated her concern, that wasn't what she'd been on about. Nor, it seemed, was it what had preoccupied Suzanne.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Spell of Murder"
Copyright © 2019 Clea Simon.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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