"I'm crazy about Laura Levine's mystery series. Her books are so outrageously funny." Joanne Fluke
When Jaine Austen's beloved cat Prozac unwittingly scares to death a parakeet belonging to the neighborhood's resident curmudgeon, Jaine finds herself knee-deep in toil and trouble. The cantankerous Hollywood has-been once played Cryptessa Muldoon, television's fourth most famous monster mom. Now she spends her days making enemies with everyone on the block. So when the ornery D-lister is murdered with her own Do Not Trespass sign on Halloween night, the neighborhood fills with reliefand possible culprits.
With a killer on the loose, Jaine hardly has time to fall under the spell of her yummy new neighbor, Peter. As the prime suspect, she summons her sleuthing skills to clear her name and soon discovers that everyone has a few skeletons in their closets. . .
"Levine's latest finds her at her witty and wacky best." Kirkus Reviews
"Cozy fans will enjoy seeing how Jaine wiggles out of this one." Publishers Weekly
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DEATH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD WITCH
By LAURA LEVINE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Laura Levine
All rights reserved.
I dashed into the market for a carton of orange juice. I swear, that's all. An innocent carton of orange juice.
But then I saw it. The giant display of Halloween candies, luring me with their shiny wrappers, a siren song of chocolate in a sea of nuts and caramel.
I tried to pretend they weren't there, but it was no use. I could practically hear the Mini Snickers calling my name:
Jaine, sweetheart! We're only seventy-two luscious calories. Surely just one can't hurt, can it?
Like the chocolate junkie I am, I fell for their come-on. Before I knew it, I was loading my cart with those sneaky Snickers, along with some Kit Kats and Reese's Pieces.
It's the same old story, I'm afraid. Every year I vow not to buy any Halloween candy. And every year, like the sniveling weakling I am, I break that vow.
The truth is, I have absolutely no need for Halloween candy. Here in the slums of Beverly Hills where I live, south of Wilshire Boulevard (so south it's practically in Mexico), there are very few children. People on my block are either singletons or retirees. The only trick-or-treaters who've ever shown up on my doorstep were a pair of surly teens with squinty eyes and multiple body piercings. And I'm guessing all they wound up with at the end of the night was a bagful of restraining orders.
By now I was at the checkout counter, my orange juice long forgotten.
"Just stocking up for the trick-or-treaters," I lied to the checker, a hardened blonde with thin lips and a concrete beehive. "Can't disappoint the kiddies."
The checker snapped her gum, oozing skepticism. She knew darn well the only one who'd be chomping down on those candies was me.
At the last minute, I threw in a miniature pumpkin, painted with a happy face, hoping to convince her of my Halloween spirit, but she still wasn't buying my "for the kiddies" act.
I heard her whisper to the bag boy as I walked away, "Ten to one she'll be breaking into those Snickers at the first stoplight."
How utterly ridiculous.
I didn't break into them until the third stoplight.
Back home, I found my cat, Prozac, doing battle with a pair of my brand-new panty hose. How she manages to raid my underwear drawer I'll never know. But there she was, tearing into my Control Top Donna Karans with all the gusto of a Jersey Housewife on estrogen.
"Prozac! What are you doing?!"
She shot me an impatient stare.
Vanquishing the enemy, of course!
Then back to my Donna Karans.
Die, spandex infidel! Die!
After wrestling what was left of my panty hose from her claws, I started unloading my groceries. When I took out the miniature painted pumpkin and put it on the counter, Prozac's eyes widened in alarm.
Omigod! An evil vegetable from the Planet Carotene!
One look at the goofy painted face with the crossed eyes and missing front teeth, and she forgot all about her war with my panty hose. Before I could stop her, she leaped onto the counter, digging her claws into Pumpkin Face.
"Cut that out," I said, whipping it away from her. "This is a perfectly harmless pumpkin, and I'll thank you to keep your paws to yourself."
With that, I trotted over to the door and put the pumpkin outside on my front step.
"You'll be safe here," I said, giving it a little pat.
Like a furry missile, Prozac whizzed out from behind me and, snapping up the pumpkin's stem in her jaws, took off like a shot. I chased her up the street and groaned to see her bounding up the path to a once elegant but now dilapidated old house.
Of all the houses on the block, why did she have to choose this one?
The crumbling Spanish hacienda belonged to the neighborhood witch, a grouch royale named Cryptessa Muldoon. That wasn't her real name, of course. That was the name of the character she played, decades ago, on a third-rate sitcom—a sorry cross between Bewitched and The Munsters—called I Married a Zombie. Cryptessa was the zombie in question, delivering her lines in a long black wig and slinky dress cut so tight it was practically a tourniquet. After one laugh-free season, the show had been canceled, and Cryptessa, as everyone on the block still called her, never worked again. Which over time had turned her into a bitter, whackadoodle dame.
She'd been living on the block ever since I could remember, growling at me whenever I'd had the temerity to park my car in front of her house.
I'd tried my best to stay under her radar, and up until that moment, I'd pretty much succeeded.
But all that was about to change.
Now as I raced past her DO NOT TRESPASS sign, desperately trying to catch up with Prozac, Cryptessa came bursting out of her front door, eyeing me with wild-eyed paranoia. No longer the least bit slinky, she wore ketchup-stained sweats, her stringy hair dyed a most startling shade of shoe-polish black.
"Hi there!" I said, hoping to disarm her with a friendly wave.
Alas, it did not work.
"Get off my property," she shrieked, "or I'll call the police!"
"Absolutely," I assured her, "just as soon as I get Prozac."
"What do you think I am, a pharmacist? I don't have any Prozac."
"No, my cat, Prozac."
I dashed around the side of the house, where I found Prozac staring transfixed into Cryptessa's window, Pumpkin Face lying abandoned in the grass.
Following her gaze into the open window, I saw a dull green parakeet perched on wobbly legs in a cage, feathers mottled with age.
The poor thing had been minding his own business, no doubt dreaming fond dreams of juicy worms, when he looked down and saw Prozac staring up at him. I guess he must have seen the bloodlust in her eyes. Because without any further ado, he let out a strangled peep and proceeded to keel over.
"Omigod!" cried Cryptessa, who'd raced up to the window. "You've killed Van Helsing! You've killed Van Helsing!"
And indeed, the poor little critter had kicked the bucket.
"I'm so very sorry," I said. "But really, I didn't do a thing. I was just standing here."
"You've killed Van Helsing!" Cryptessa wailed again, unable to let go of the thought.
"I know it's small consolation for the loss of your beloved pet, but I hope you'll accept this colorful Halloween pumpkin as a token of my apology."
I held out Pumpkin Face.
"Get the hell out of here!" she shrieked.
Only too happy to oblige, I grabbed Prozac and scooted off to freedom, leaving the pumpkin behind, just in case Cryptessa changed her mind.
Back home, I read Prozac the riot act.
"Bad kitty! Very bad kitty! You ran away from home and scared a poor little parakeet to death! Whatever am I going to do with you?"
She looked up at me from where I'd plopped her on the sofa.
I'd suggest a nice long belly rub, with some bonus scratching behind my ears.
I'm ashamed to confess that, after a calming Mini Snickers or three, I was actually in the middle of giving her that belly rub when I heard a loud banging at my front door.
I opened it to find Cryptessa standing there, eyes blazing, her shoe-polish hair standing out in angry spikes.
"You killed him. Now you have to help me bury him."
"I need you to dig a hole for Van Helsing's grave. I can't do it. Not with my bad back."
"Of course, of course. I'd be more than happy to."
I wouldn't have been so damn happy if I'd known what was in store for me.
I followed Cryptessa to her backyard, a landscaping nightmare with ancient patio furniture, spider-infested bushes, and a ragged patch of dying weeds posing as a lawn.
"Watch out for the oil slicks," she warned, too late, as I stepped in a puddle of black goo. "Gardener's damn lawnmower keeps leaking."
I looked down in dismay at the new pair of Reeboks I'd just taken out of the box that morning. They'd never be white again.
Cryptessa had chosen a shady spot under a hulking magnolia tree for Van Helsing's final resting place.
"Start digging," she said, handing me a rusty shovel.
The soil, clearly not having been watered in the last two decades, was like cement, and before long I was gushing sweat. Not happy with a shallow grave, Cryptessa made me dig at least three feet below the surface. When at last the grave had been dug to her satisfaction, she barked, "Wait here!"
And then she disappeared into the house.
I stood leaning on my shovel for a good fifteen minutes before she finally came sailing back out again in a long, black, moth-eaten dress, with matching veil—stolen no doubt from the wardrobe department of I Married a Zombie. In her hand she carried the "coffin"—a Payless shoe box, lined in pink Kleenex, Van Helsing's stiff little body nestled in the folds.
Then, gazing into his beady eye with all the pathos of a failed sitcom actress, she began singing:
The way you held your beak
The way you sang off key
The way you used to shriek
No, no, they can't take that away from me
The way your wings just flopped
The way you chirped "twee twee"
The way your poops just popped
No, no, they can't take that away from me
Wiping a tear from her eye, she put the lid on Van Helsing's coffin and slowly lowered him into the grave. I had no doubt that somewhere out there the Gershwin brothers were rolling over in theirs. Then, as Cryptessa hummed "Taps," I filled in the earth.
At last, my ordeal was over. Or so I thought.
"As long as you're here," Cryptessa said, "would you mind planting these for me?"
She pointed to a bed of bright pink petunias by her fence.
"I'd do it myself," she said with a long-suffering smile, "but my back is killing me."
So is mine, lady, was what I felt like saying.
But, still feeling guilty about Van Helsing, I picked up the shovel and started digging.
I spent the next half hour on my hands and knees, jamming petunias and potting mix into the concrete soil. Cryptessa stood over me, much as I imagine Simon Legree must have done down on the plantation, barking orders and hollering at me not to bruise the leaves.
Finally, when every petunia had been planted, she released me from captivity. My fingernails cracked and filled with dirt, my Reeboks stained black, I trudged back to my apartment, cursing Cryptessa every step of the way.
My mood took a slight turn for the cheerier, however, when I got to my duplex and found an absolute cutie pie of a guy ringing my doorbell.
"Oh, hello," he said when he saw me coming up the path. "I'm Peter Connor. I just moved in up the street and dropped by to say hi."
"Nice to meet you," I said.
Indeed it was. There was something about this guy's smile that radiated kindness. And I badly needed a dose of the stuff. I was still licking my wounds from yet another failed relationship with a guy named Darryl who I'd met up in central California. He'd been driving down to see me on weekends, bunking with an old college buddy of his. Before long, love blossomed, and Darryl proposed marriage. Not to me, I'm afraid. But to his old college buddy, a pert redhead named Tatiana.
So when I saw Peter standing there that day, smiling that sweet smile and looking like the kind of guy who would never fall in love with his old college buddy, my heart melted just a tad.
Now he held out his hand to shake mine, and I suddenly remembered my filthy fingernails. And sweaty armpits. And heaven only knew what my hair must have looked like. I'm guessing Early Bride of Frankenstein.
"You'll have to excuse me," I said. "I've just been gardening and I'm afraid I'm a mess."
"You look fine to me."
And I have to say, the feeling was mutual.
As noted before, Peter was one primo cutie pie: slim yet muscular, with a shock of thick sandy hair, soft brown eyes, and—just beneath that sweet smile—the most amazing cleft in his chin.
I happen to find chin clefts immensely attractive. It was all I could do not to run my finger along his. But of course I didn't. I knew the rules. I knew how to play it cool.
"Anyhow," he said, shooting me a winning grin, "I'm throwing a little housewarming party, and I was hoping you could stop by."
"I'd love it. Absolutely. I'll be there! For sure!"
So much for playing it cool.
"Sunday at about three o'clock?"
"Can't wait!" I gushed.
"See you then," he said, heading down the path.
I sailed into my apartment on cloud nine. True, the whole Van Helsing funeral thing had been a bit of a downer. But on the upside, it looked like I had just met a potential soul mate.
Ah, yes, I thought as I trotted off to the shower. Things were definitely looking up.
How wrong I was.
After a good twenty minutes in the shower, scrubbing away the dirt from my grave-digging duties, I was about to reach for a towel when I heard a disembodied voice call out:
"Hurry up and get dressed, Jaine."
No, I do not have a haunted bathroom.
I do, however, have a neighbor with X-ray hearing. His name is Lance Venable, and the man can hear toilets flushing in Pomona. Lance is a great guy, but for some reason he considers the paper-thin walls that separate our apartments a mere formality, never hesitating to barge in on my life when the spirit moves him.
"Get a move on, lazybones," he now instructed me. "I'll be over in five minutes."
And indeed five minutes later he came bursting through my front door, clad in the designer togs he wears for his job as a shoe salesman at Neiman Marcus.
"Fabulous news!" he gushed, his blond curls quivering with excitement. "I've met the man of my dreams!"
I stifled a yawn. You should know that Lance meets the man of his dreams about as often as he gets his roots done.
But I wasn't about to burst his bubble. I was in a most benevolent mood, having just met the man of my dreams myself.
"What a coincidence," I started to say. "Why, just a little while ago—"
"You won't believe how wonderful he is," Lance said, plopping down on my sofa and grabbing a Snickers from the bag on the coffee table. "So warm and friendly. The minute I met him, I felt like we'd known each other in a former life. There was something about him, a certain aura ..."
I nodded, on autopilot, still fighting that yawn. These paeans of his could go on forever. I watched as he unwrapped his Snickers, marveling at his ability to chow down on chocolate and still maintain his sylphlike figure. I'm guessing his secret is the ninety-seven hours a week he spends at the gym.
"And he's so good-looking," Lance was blathering. "Tall and lanky, with a fabulous smile and the most amazing cleft in his chin."
"Cleft in his chin?" I piped up.
"Yes. Isn't that heavenly?"
"Yeah, swell. Look, your dreamboat doesn't happen to be Peter Connor, does it? The guy who just moved in up the street?"
"My God, Jaine. You're positively psychic! Isn't it fabulous? The man of my dreams—just five houses away! What's wrong? You look like you just swallowed a lemon."
"For your information," I said, the merest hint of frost in my voice, "Peter Connor happens to be my dream man."
"Oh, please," Lance said with a dismissive wave. "Peter couldn't possibly be interested in you."
"Why on earth not?"
"Aside from all the obvious reasons," he said, shooting a none-too-subtle glance at my thighs, "Peter happens to be gay."
"Oh, really? How can you be so sure?"
"My gaydar," he boasted, his perfectly toned pecs swelling with pride, "is infallible."
In Lance's world, any guy who isn't surgically attached to a woman is gay. Really. According to Lance, notable gays of history have included Napoleon, Trotsky, and Homer Simpson.
"Peter didn't seem the least bit gay when I was talking to him a little while ago," I said. "On the contrary, I got the distinct impression he was flirting with me."
"Flirting? With you?" This accompanied by a most annoying chorus of giggles. "Jaine, sweetheart," he said, taking my hands in his, "you know I adore you, but I have to be honest. Peter was probably just being kind. No doubt he took one look at your elastic-waist pants, imagined your lonely Saturday nights with just a cat and a pizza for company, and decided to brighten your day with a little ego boost. It was obviously a charity flirt."
"A charity flirt?"
Of all the nerve!
I sprang from the sofa, grabbing the bag of Snickers.
Excerpted from DEATH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD WITCH by LAURA LEVINE. Copyright © 2012 Laura Levine. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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