After learning that she comes from a family of witches—and adopting a familiar named Alistair—artist Annabelle Britton has made beautiful Portsmouth, New Hampshire, her home. Together with her coven, this good witch is trying to put a stop to magic and murder most foul.
When Anna takes Alistair to see local veterinarian Ramona Forsythe, they meet the most famous cat in town: Ruby the Attitude Cat, spokes-feline for a pet food brand. But then Ramona turns up dead, and Ruby goes missing. It seems like the murderer used magical means, so it’s up to Anna and Alistair to catch a killer and cat-napper as only a canny cat can.
About the Author
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I want to be really clear about a few things. I do not habitually hide important information from my friends and family. I do not eavesdrop on other people's conversations, especially from under tables, and I don't run out on parties to which I have been invited as the guest of honor.
Unless it's really important.
My name is Annabelle Amelia Blessingsound Britton. That's a lot by normal standards. When you belong to an old New England family, though, it's part of the standard package, along with the native stubbornness and a reluctance to pronounce the letter R.
I'm also an artist. And a witch. That's a little less standard.
In fact, I found out about the witch thing only when I moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I had always known there was something . . . different . . . about me. I have a-well, call it an unusual ability. I pick up on the emotional vibrations associated with dramatic events that happen inside a house or building. If something happened in the past, like a death, or something is coming in the future, like a wedding or a birth, I will know about it as soon as I walk into a room, whether I want to or not. If the emotions surrounding the event are intense enough, they will flood right through me. The stronger they are, in fact, the stronger my reaction will be. That reaction can include breaking down or passing out.
This doesn't happen all the time, thankfully, or I wouldn't be able to walk into the Circle K without losing my mind. But, while I've lived with what I call my "Vibe" since I was a kid, it was only recently that I found out it's rooted in a long, secret family history of magic and magic workers that includes my sweet and innocent-looking grandmother.
I was still trying to get used to that.
My Vibe was not the cause of today's headache, however. Today's problems were purely the fault of my cat, Alistair, and the fact that I had to take him to the vet.
Alistair was a facet of my Portsmouth life I was still getting used to. He had been living on his own for months before I arrived in town, and he was still a part-time outdoor cat. That meant he really needed a checkup, whether he wanted one or not.
Trips to the vet can be challenging for any cat owner. Many otherwise loving felines will find creative ways to resist the simplest medical procedures. But when you're an apprentice witch and your cat is also your magical familiar, there're some added levels of complication. Especially when your familiar has the ability to (literally) vanish into thin air.
Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve. Despite the occasional outbreak of witch-hunting, there are still fair a number of magic practitioners scattered around New England. Portsmouth, for example, is home to a witch cop, a witch bookstore owner, a witch bed-and-breakfast proprietor, and even a witch housekeeper. So I wasn't entirely surprised to hear we also have a witch veterinarian.
"Ramona Forsythe has been taking care of Max and Leo for years," Julia Parris told me. Julia is the leader of my coven. She's also my mentor and the human partner to a pair of miniature dachshunds. "She knows Alistair very well. She can handle him."
I hoped so. Because here I was, walking out of New Hampshire's truly impressive November cold into the cheerful green-and-blue-tiled waiting room of the Piscataqua Small Animal Clinic with an (entirely empty) kitty carrier in one hand and my fingers crossed. The carrier was strictly for appearances. I mean, it would look a little strange to come to a cat appointment without a cat. But Alistair had vanished the second he saw it.
The assistant at the reception counter wore scrubs covered in rainbow-striped cats and a name tag reading jeannie. I gave her my name and my cat's name and made sure to set the carrier on the floor so she wouldn't see someone was missing from this conversation.
She was still registering my arrival when a woman leaned out of a door labeled room 3.
"Anna?" she asked. "I'm Dr. Ramona Forsythe. I've been expecting you and Alistair." She held the door open and motioned me inside the bright, antiseptic-scented examination room.
Dr. Forsythe was one of those short, round women whose cheerful competence tends to mask a steely core. Her chestnut brown hair was just starting to go gray. She wore a white coat and green scrubs and certainly didn't look much like a modern-day witch. As she closed the door, though, I felt a slow prickling begin in my fingertips. This, I was beginning to learn, was the sign of active magic happening somewhere close.
"Nice to meet you, Dr. Forsythe," I said as I set the empty kitty carrier on the stainless steel exam table.
"Please, call me Ramona," she said. "And it's great to finally meet you. I was so glad when I heard Alistair found a new partner. We were all worried about him after Dorothy died." She squinted inside the carrier. "I see he still doesn't like vet visits, though."
"Well, don't worry. This is the room we keep for our special patients." She winked and gestured to the walls. Now I could see what I'd thought was a wallpaper border was actually a carefully painted pattern of knots and stars. I might be new to the practice of the "true craft," but I could recognize a ceremonial circle when I saw one. Eventually anyway.
Ramona adjusted the door so it was open just a crack. "Go ahead and call him."
Alistair, being my familiar, cannot be kept away from me, except by strong, focused magic. He can appear in an attic, a deep basement or the locked bathroom when I am taking a shower, and he has done all of these. The flip side of this is he has to come when I call, something he considers an affront to his feline dignity.
I would be hearing about this for days.
I let out a long, slow breath and reached down inside to gather my personal energy.
"Alistair," I called to thin air. "Come on, Alistair."
"Try these." Ramona opened a drawer in the examining table's pedestal and pulled out a bag of K.T. Nibbles. Clearly, Ramona was familiar with my cat and his habits.
I took the bright green bag and shook two treats out into my palm. Attitude Cat, the famous black-and-white spokesfeline, glowered up at me as if she resented being used for our nefarious plans.
Come on, Anna, focus. "Alistair!" I called again. "Nibbles!"
And just like that, my big gray feline familiar was sitting on the examination table. I held out the nibbles and he stretched his neck forward to take one. Ramona slapped the door shut, closing the room, the circle and the spell contained in the painted border. A prickle of fresh magic shot up from my fingertips to my elbows.
Alistair's head snapped up.
"Merow!" Alistair shook himself, but nothing happened. He lashed his tail and put his ears back. Still nothing. "Meerr-ooowww!"
"Sorry, big guy," I told him. "But it's for your own good. Finish your nibble." I held out the remaining treat. Alistair grumbled deep in his throat, but he did take it.
I won't say Alistair exactly cooperated after that, but he didn't exactly fight either. He just sort of melted onto the table as if he thought that if he flattened himself out far enough, Dr. Forsythe wouldn't be able to pick him up. This did not faze Ramona one bit. Ignoring Alistair's glowers, grumbles and general bonelessness, she efficiently weighed him (twenty pounds-wow), took his temperature (normal), checked his ears (clean), and palpated his tummy (big, soft) and other places (pass, citizen). I held him down for the shots and winced with him.
"Well, Alistair here is in very good health." Ramona scratched him behind the ears. He did not look mollified. I put another couple of nibbles on the examination table. He ate them both, without taking his eyes off me. Oh, yes. I'd definitely be hearing about this for a very long time. "He also seems to have made a full transition to bonding with his new partner."
Alistair's previous partner had been Dorothy Hawthorne, one of the founding members of the guardian coven that I now belonged to. In fact, Dorothy was responsible for a lot of my life in Portsmouth. Her magic had helped bring me here; her cat had helped keep me here. Her former cottage had become my home once I really did decide to stay. I didn't actually own the house. That belonged to Frank Hawthorne, Dorothy's nephew and the publisher of the local paper, the Seacoast News.
Ramona beamed at me. "Do you have any questions, Anna?"
"Actually, I did. It's about his diet. He won't eat cat food." Unless there was nothing else available. In the whole county.
"That's not a surprise. A lot of familiars prefer to eat what their partners do. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea. In fact-" A knock on the door interrupted her.
"Dr. Forsythe?" Jeannie, the receptionist, called from the other side of the door. "Kristen and Ruby are here."
Ramona glanced at her watch. "Oh . . . shoot, that's right. I'm sorry, Anna. I'll just be a second."
I gathered up Alistair, and Ramona slipped out into the waiting room. I swear for a minute I felt him begin to dissolve in my arms, which was very weird. As soon as the door snicked shut, though, he was back to being solid, and highly annoyed.
Alistair flowed out of my arms and under the visitors' chair.
"Fine." I sighed. "Be that way."
"Merow," he answered. He also flattened down in a clear attempt to become one with the floor tiles.
"Kristen," I heard Ramona say out in the lobby. "Hi. I'm sorry. I thought you weren't coming until two."
"I wasn't," answered another woman. "But, well . . . some stuff has come up, and I needed to bring Ruby over early."
The exam room door had a narrow glass window above the handle. In an effort to show my indifference to Alistair's sulks, I drifted over and looked out into the lobby. Ramona stood with a slender young woman in a black knitted hat and green parka. She had no carrier with her. Instead, one mittened hand held a bright red leash. A black-and-white cat sat beside her on the reception counter, calmly washing its whiskers.
Must be nice. I squinted at the unusually mellow cat. It was a longhair and had one black ear and one white ear, which, along with the blotches on its face, gave it a kind of checkerboard look.
In fact . . . I blinked. I also looked at the bag of K.T. Nibbles on the counter by the sink. The cat out there, Ruby, was a dead ringer for the famous K.T. Nibbles spokesfeline, Attitude Cat.
"Merow?" Alistair poked his head out from under the chair.
"Nah," I murmured back. "Couldn't be."
"I've got a meeting with some of the PR people," the woman, Kristen, was telling Ramona. "You would not believe the stuff they've got us deciding on. I mean, T-shirts were one thing, and the toys, but now it's greeting cards, and they want to do an Attitude Cat coloring book . . ."
I looked at Alistair. I looked at the Nibbles bag. Attitude Cat looked back. "Maybe it could."
"I told you, you should hire an assistant," said Ramona.
"Or three," agreed Kristen. "Pam kept insisting she had it covered, and I believed her." She reached across and rubbed her cat under her black-and-white chin. "And now here we are."
"Merow." The cat, Ruby, rolled over on her back and swished her tail a few times.
Alistair and I blinked at each other. This was Attitude Cat? The famously aloof and never-to-be-pleased feline who stared with indifference at every kind of food, toy, or snack that did not come from the aisles of a Best Petz store?
"You're just tired, Kristen," said Ramona. "It's been a roller-coaster ride for you, and now you've got to go take care of your mom."
This, I realized, was eavesdropping. It was rude. I should move away from the door and pay attention to something else. I should check my e-mail on my phone or read the warning posters about heartworm and feline leukemia. Really. I should. Right now.
Out in the lobby, Kristen shook her head and said something I couldn't hear. Ramona touched her arm. I thought I saw Kristen wince.
"Can you hang on just a second?" Ramona asked Kristen. The vet walked briskly back toward our room. I jumped back from the door so it wouldn't look quite so much like I'd been listening in.
"Anna, I need to ask a favor . . . ," Ramona began as she opened the door.
This time Alistair was ready for both of us. He darted straight past Ramona like a bolt of fat gray lightning and vaulted up onto the counter beside the black-and-white cat.
"Oh, good grief!" I muttered. "He's gone fanboy. Sorry," I said to the woman, Kristen, as I scurried over to attempt to retrieve my familiar. "He's, uh, friendly."
Fortunately, Kristen just laughed. "I can tell."
"Kristen Summers, this is Anna Britton." Ramona performed the introductions. "And the ladies' man here is Alistair."
"Hi." Kristen and I shook hands. Alistair pushed his nose toward Ruby. Ruby lifted her chin and looked away in cold disdain. Oh, yeah. This really and truly was Attitude Cat. Even Alistair seemed taken aback. His hesitation gave Ruby a chance to jump down onto the floor.
"Your name sounds familiar," Kristen said. She was a few inches taller than me, and a few years younger, with tawny skin and rich brown eyes. She wore her dark brown hair in a long braid down her back. "Did we meet somewhere? And if we did, I'm sorry I forgot . . ."
"Don't worry about it," I told her. "We haven't."
Down by our shins, Alistair nosed Ruby, who turned away from him. He circled around her.
"Do not be that cat, big guy," I muttered. "Take no for an answer."
Alistair promptly plumped himself down and started washing his hind leg.
"I really am sorry," I told Kristen. "He just doesn't know when to quit."
"Don't worry about it. Ruby can take care of herself." Then Kristen snapped her fingers. "I remember now! You're a friend of Valerie's, right? Valerie McDermott?"
"That's right." My yard backed up onto the garden of McDermott's Bed & Breakfast, which Valerie ran with her husband, Roger.