When two new clients seek Becca’s professional services, the fledgling witch detective is overjoyed. Finally, she can use her skills to help her magical community. But as the young witch finds the new cases intertwining, things grow more complicated. Becca’s three cats – the ones with the real power – can smell something is wrong with these clients. But not even Clara, the calico, knows what to do when a man ends up dead and a powerful and poisonous root appears – and disappears – in the case.
To make matters worse, Clara and her littermates are feuding – and she can’t tell them about an unsettling interaction she’s had with one of the client’s sisters. Is it possible that some humans may have the same powers as the magical felines? What does that mean for Clara’s beloved Becca – and for the potent poison that has already taken one person’s life? In this second Witch Cats of Cambridge mystery, Clara and her sisters must learn to work together if they are to save the person they all love.
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Laurel always did like to pretend she knew best.
"Something's not right with this girl," the slender sealpoint sniffed, her chocolate brown nose quivering over the new client's glitter-flecked sneakers. Keds high-tops that still smelled of glue, they provided the only touch of light in the visitor's otherwise all-black outfit. "She's trouble. I can tell."
The newcomer, whose ragged raven bob matched her goth-style skinny jeans and oversized shirt, didn't seem to notice the curious feline inspecting her sparkly feet as she sprawled on the sofa. Instead, she remained absorbed in her phone as she waited for Becca, the apartment's human resident, to return.
Laurel's two siblings, who had toys of their own, were not as oblivious.
"Well, of course!" Harriet, Laurel's creamsicle older sister, didn't even look up from her post on the windowsill, where she lay preening her lush coat. "If something wasn't wrong she wouldn't be here." The self-satisfied half-purr in her voice was barely muted as she reached to groom the orange patch that spread across her broad back. "That's our Becca's job, after all."
"Hush, please." Clara mewed softly from her seat on the dining table at the big room's far end. The youngest of the three littermates, the petite, plump calico was loath to interrupt her siblings. Although they were only minutes older, both Laurel, whose coloring revealed her paternal Siamese heritage, and the long-haired Harriet liked to assert their precedence. However, even as the felines murmured quietly among themselves, their conversation taking place in tones beneath those of human hearing, Becca had reappeared, balancing a loaded tray. The sweet-faced young woman was settling the tray on the low table by the comfy, if worn, sofa, and the little calico didn't want to miss a thing.
"Here we go." Becca, whose own brown curls most resembled Harriet's lush fur, unloaded two mugs, a teapot, and plate of cookies. "Peppermint tea," she said, placing one mug before her distracted visitor. "It settles the nerves. And besides, it smells nice."
"Thanks." The black-clad newcomer didn't look up as Becca poured the fragrant tea. "No thanks," she added, face down, as her host held out the cookies.
"Something is wrong with her!" Never one to turn down a treat of any kind, Harriet lumbered to her feet and launched herself onto the sofa, just as Becca replaced the untouched plate on the tray. "If she doesn't want cookies, I don't know if Becca can help her."
"Sorry." The thud of the marmalade cat landing next to her got the funereal newcomer's attention, and she had the grace to apologize as she tucked her phone into her jeans, a sheepish grin making her look suddenly younger. Close to Becca's own age of 26 – or about two-and-a-half cat years, thought Clara, as she made her own, less obvious approach and sniffed the air. Something did smell off about the newcomer, something besides her somber attire on what was otherwise a bright autumn morning. As much as Clara didn't want to admit it, Laurel might be right.
"No problem." Unaware of her pet's concern, Becca perched on the armchair that faced the couch, notepad open and pencil poised. "Gaia, you said? Gaia Linquist?"
A quick nod, her lips drawing in.
"Why don't we start with what has brought you here today?"
The visitor exhaled noisily, staring down at the plate, eyes heavy with liner. Perhaps the cookies were to blame, Clara mused. Maybe the black-bedecked girl had an eating disorder she hoped Becca could help her with. Or maybe she was in mourning, the inky coloring all over her face signaling some kind of enchantment. Becca, the cat's person, had started advertising her services as a witch detective only a few months prior, but what that actually meant was open to interpretation. Does she think Becca can counter a spell? Clara pondered this with growing alarm as her oldest sister edged closer to the tray. I hope Becca hasn't promised that she can cast one.
Harriet licked the nearest cookie, her tongue darting out as quick as could be, but still the visitor didn't react. When she finally looked up at Becca, the unpainted parts of her face were deadly pale. "I think someone wants to use the craft against me," she said.
Even Harriet paused, pink tongue slightly visible as she and her sisters watched to see how their person would respond. Becca was a normal young woman, after all, despite Clara's secret belief that her person's diminutive stature hid a great spirit. But the good-natured brunette who opened their cans didn't respond with the promise of remedial witchcraft, to the calico's relief. Nor did she react with the kind of shock or horror or even disbelief that many of her peers would. Although her eyebrows rose slightly, she only nodded and continued to write.
"Very well," she said, as if to herself before addressing her visitor once more. "And would you tell me how someone is attempting to use magic against you?"
With a nod, the young woman reached into another pocket, extracting a plastic bag that she held up for display. "This," she said. "I found it in my mug."
All three cats recoiled as the musty scent spread, and Laurel positively smirked. Becca, being more visually oriented than her pets, reached for the baggie and held it up to the light as if admiring the knobby root within.
"Do you know what this is?" Becca turned it around, examining it, as Clara forced herself to move closer. "It looks like ginger – or maybe ginseng?"
"I wish." The visitor said, with a dismissive snort. "It's wolf's bane. You know, monk's hood? Aconite?"
"You're sure?" Becca took in her visitor, though whether her eyes had widened in skepticism or alarm, her cat couldn't tell.
"Of course. I'm studying to be an herbalist, and I know a poison when I see one." The visitor clicked her tongue as if her profession were too obvious for words, showing off the glint of a tongue stud in the process. "I work at Charm and Cherish."
"Of course." Becca nodded. Clara knew her person had visited the little shop outside Central Square. Most recently, she had emerged with the pretty blue stone pendant she wore now. But even though the little calico often tagged along after her person on her errands she rarely accompanied her inside. Packed to the rafters, literally, with 'all things Wiccan,' the tiny storefront always smelled too strongly of strange dried plants and scented candles for the sensitive feline's comfort. "I knew I recognized you ..."
"That's how I got your number," her visitor went on. "I saw your notice on our community board. The one about 'Witch Detective.' I figure, if someone's coming after me using the craft, you're the one who can help."
Becca nodded, and Clara, who loved her, could see the play of conflicting emotions across her face. "I understand," she said, at last. She spoke slowly, as if she were still figuring out what to say. "And I have worked on several cases already. But – this is serious. And this is more than a simple spell or hex. if you really think someone is trying to poison you, you really should talk to the police."
"And tell them what? That someone put a root in my mug?" The visitor shook her jet-black bob, revealing more metal up the side of her ears. "No, someone is trying to use my own craft against me. I need another witch to help me find out who. I mean, I know wolf's bane is supposed to have medicinal uses. I was reading up on it. But a whole root? If I'd swallowed any part of that, I'd be gone fast."CHAPTER 2
"I don't know about this case," Clara mewed softly, whiskers drooping with worry. Even after the new client had left, Becca remained hunched over her notepad, scribbling away as her cats looked on. Every now and then she'd look over at the root and turn it over once or twice. Still in its plastic bag, the knobby piece's odd, musty smell was a source of discomfort to the assembled cats. "It could be dangerous."
"How dangerous? The stench of that – thing – would put off a dog." Laurel put her ears back dismissively as she glared at the source of the offensive odor. "Only a human would be in danger of drinking anything it had been anywhere near."
"I don't see why Becca has to let strangers in here at all." Harriet lay on the sofa sulking. The cookies had been brought back into the kitchen once the visitor had left. To make matters worse, Harriet's special pillow – velvet with gold tassels – had been shoved to one side. "Just when I had the cushions arranged so perfectly, too."
"Well, she does have to earn her living." Clara wasn't sure about this new person – or the strange object she had left behind – but at least she understood Becca's motivation. Sometimes, her sisters could be so shortsighted. "She needs to buy our cans, after all."
A slight feline shrug ruffled Harriet's luxuriant creamsicle-colored fur, as Laurel turned away to wash one dark brown paw. Neither would openly admit that their baby sister was right, and Clara knew better than to push her point. That didn't help them in their current dilemma, however.
"She should be able to do that without bringing such filth into the house." Laurel bit at a recalcitrant claw, revealing a sharp white fang. Whether she was referring to the goth-y girl who had recently visited or the smelly baggie she had left behind wasn't clear, and Clara decided the better course was to not inquire.
"Don't expect me to do something about it." Harriet huffed. She didn't look at her youngest sister. She didn't have to. While the large longhair had dispensed with unwanted items in the past simply by eating them, the odor coming off the baggie as well as its size made her draw up her already blunt snout in disgust. Besides, they all remembered how much trouble the fluffy orange and white cat had caused the last time she had used her magic.
"Nobody's expecting you to sacrifice yourself, Harriet." Clara, the peacemaker, decided to put the best slant on Harriet's earlier efforts as she leaped silently up beside Becca to get a better look at the foul root. "But I do wish that strange-looking girl hadn't brought it. If only we could get rid of this somehow ..."
The idea wasn't entirely far-fetched. The sisters had come to their person's aid before. It was, of course, the feline way – cats always help their people using techniques their humans rarely understood – and these three cats had an edge. Although they might not look related, through their mother they were descendants of a long line of magical cats. As different as they appeared, all three had specific skills beyond the scope of even the usual feline magic. They also, as they all knew, were expressly forbidden by the laws of their kind from revealing their powers to their human companions.
"We don't have to be obvious about it." Thanks to the Siamese in her background. Laurel tended to be chatty. "I could put it in her mind that that Miss Glitter Shoes was full of it, and that she should simply toss that disgusting thing." Her distinctive yowl was muffled by fur as she reached around to lick her café au lait back. Not, Clara suspected, because her sleek torso needed grooming, but to show off how agile she was. Laurel was the slimmest of the three siblings and as proud of her figure as she was of her ability to "suggest" ideas into the minds of susceptible humans. "It wouldn't be too difficult."
"I don't know if that will do any good." Clara's skills ran more toward invisibility, as well as the ability to pass through closed doors. Her distinguishing characteristic, though, was her deep loyalty to the young woman who had taken them all in. "She thinks her new blue necklace lets her spot a liar when she's wearing it. She thinks she'll hear them or they'll make her ears itch of something."
Loyalty didn't mean that Clara fooled herself about her person's abilities. "Besides," she added. "She has to take on clients."
"She wouldn't have to if you let me give her some better ideas." Laurel had railed at the restrictions on feline interference. "Like letting some nice young man take care of her."
"Laurel, please, no," Clara pleaded. After having her heart broken the previous spring, Becca had gone on a few dates, but she was – to the calico – understandably reluctant to rush into anything. "She's just beginning to date again. We don't want her to settle down with someone who isn't right for her."
"Humph!" Laurel spit out a tuft of fur, expression enough of her disgust.
Harriet, by then, had fallen asleep, but Clara continued to watch their person. Becca, as she often did, had opened her laptop. Jumping soundlessly to the back of the sofa, Clara could see that she had opened the homepage of Charm and Cherish, the shop the new client had mentioned as her workplace. More New Age boutique than old-fashioned botanica, the shop sold everything from magic kits to pricey amulets. Becca's computer also confirmed what Clara remembered, that the shop had a wide selection of various plant products as well, though without the aid of scent, Clara was hard pressed to distinguish one saw-toothed leaf from another.
"Enough of that." Becca closed the laptop before Clara could examine further. It didn't matter. Her cats knew what came next. Ever since Becca had started working as a witch detective, three months before, she'd developed a ritual. She'd light some sage to clear the air and then sit, cross-legged, on the floor. Usually the fragrant smoke sent Harriet and Laurel off to the bedroom, but Clara – who always wanted to help – had learned not to try to climb into her lap during these moments. This was her "clarifying time," she'd explained to her pet, lifting the plump calico off and depositing her on the floor. That really meant she was gathering her thoughts, Clara suspected. Although if she knew that her three pets were the ones who had the magical powers that she so desired, Becca might have felt differently about rejecting Clara's help during her ritual.
As it was, both Laurel and Harriet trotted off as Becca reverently removed the bundle of twigs from its earthenware container – a splurge from Charm and Cherish, Clara knew. The sisters could be heard tussling in the bedroom by the time Becca got it lit and began making sweeping motions through the living room.
"Clarity, come to me ..." Becca murmured to herself, before dousing the bundle. She'd learned the hard way how sensitive her smoke alarm could be. The faint incense that remained didn't quite mask the stench of that root, not to a cat, and Clara considered joining her sisters in the bedroom. But when Becca settled into her meditative pose, Clara's whiskers perked up. Her person couldn't tell – not yet – but her brief break was about to be interrupted.
Not thirty seconds later, the doorbell rang. "What the ...?" A startled Becca exclaimed, rising to her feet. "Hello?" She opened the door to a short, stout woman, old enough to be her mother, dressed in what looked like a vintage double-knit suit.
"You're the witch detective, right?" The woman, whose wiry black hair came up to Becca's nose, pushed in. "That's what your flier says, right?"
"Yes – I'm Becca Colwin." She stepped back, blinking. "May I help you?"
"I hope so." The woman deposited two full shopping bags on the floor and turned to face her host. "I need your services – and fast! Someone has been stealing from me, and I have a good idea who the nasty little thief is."
"Okay..." Becca drew out the word, a furrow of concern creasing her forehead. "Please, why don't you have a seat and we'll start at the beginning."
"The beginning? I don't even know when that was." Despite her exasperation, the woman plopped onto the sofa, right in Harriet's favorite spot.
"Would you like some tea?" Becca responded. "I find that it helps me think through things more clearly."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Incantation of Cats"
Copyright © 2019 Clea Simon.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
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