When Lee Barrett joins a former student’s bridal party as maid of honor, she expects cake tastings and dress fittings. But wedding planning becomes more peculiar than Lee’s scrying talents could ever predict. There’s a magical baker, a best man with a checkered past, and a talking crow named Poe as the ring bearer. There’s also a kindly old man dead under his apple tree—one of a series of unexplained deaths hanging over the Wiccan community . . .
With witches dropping dead before they even come out of the proverbial broom closet, Lee’s best friend, River, fears she might have somehow unleashed a terrible curse on the city. Now, aided by Poe and her clairvoyant cat, Lee sets out to investigate. Are lives being claimed by vengeful supernatural forces—or by something more shocking? She soon discovers, casting light on the wicked truth can be one killer commitment . . .
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I'd just finished my sample slice of almond cake with vanilla cream filling and vanilla buttercream frosting, and was about to take my first bite of chocolate cake with chocolate ganache and chocolate glaze covered in chocolate cookie crumbs, when I heard that Megan was dead.
"I can't believe it." Therese Della Monica put down her phone. "I saw her last night and she looked fine." She shrugged. "I mean as fine as anyone can look at a hundred and five."
Bride-to-be Shannon Dumas paused with a forkful of vanilla cake with hazelnut ganache and buttercream frosting halfway to her mouth. "You actually know a woman who's a hundred and five years old? I mean, you knew her?"
"We both did," I said. "Therese, does River know?"
"That's who called me." Therese brushed the back of her hand across misty eyes, picked up her camera, and once again focused the lens on Shannon. "Megan was the oldest witch in Salem, Shannon. She's sort of famous for that."
It was a pleasant spring Saturday afternoon. Shannon and I sat on pink ice cream parlor chairs at a round marble-topped table in the Pretty Party Bakery. We tasted wedding cake samples while Therese photographed the occasion for an album celebrating Shannon's upcoming marriage to Salem artist Dakota Berman. I'd accepted Shannon's invitation to be her maid of honor, not fully understanding exactly what duties that honor might entail.
I'm Lee Barrett, nee Maralee Kowolski. I'm thirty-two, red haired, Salem born, orphaned early, married once, and widowed young. My aunt Isobel Russell — I call her Aunt Ibby — raised me after my parents died and now we share the fine old family home on Winter Street along with our cat, O'Ryan. Therese and Shannon had each been my students at the Tabitha Trumbull Academy for the Arts, where I teach TV production. It was because of my class at the Tabby that Shannon and Dakota met and fell in love. Actually they met in a graveyard, but that's another story.
I was sad about Megan's passing, but she was, after all, more than a century old and blind, so the news wasn't altogether surprising. I'd met Megan through my best friend, River North. River is a witch too, and a member of Megan's coven. I knew she must be upset and I planned to call her just as soon as a decision on the cake was made.
"I don't know what to do, Lee." Shannon held up two forks — vanilla cake on one and chocolate on the other. "Dakota loves chocolate and so do I, but a white wedding cake seems, I don't know, like — more traditional."
"They're all delicious," I said, "so why not have a tiered cake with alternating layers — chocolate and white — with the yummy buttercream frosting on the whole thing? It'll look like a regular white wedding cake with chocolate surprises inside."
"Perfect. That's what we'll do. Thanks, Lee. What would I do without you?" She popped the last bite of chocolate cake into her mouth and stood. "Want to go pick out invitations now?"
"Maybe later," I said. "I need to call River and check on funeral arrangements for Megan. Okay?"
Theresa packed up her camera equipment. "I'm guessing it'll be a big event, even though Megan would have preferred something simple." Her eyes were still moist. The young photographer, who'd learned her craft in my class at the Tabby, had landed a part-time videography job at WICH-TV. She was also a novice witch-in-training who'd studied with the recently departed Megan. "I loved that old woman," she said. "I just want to sit down and cry, but Megan would tell me to get to work. Come on, Shannon. Let's check out that beginners' cooking class." I waited next to a display case filled with an assortment of fanciful confections, while Shannon filled out paperwork and wrote a check. Therese spoke quietly with the pastry chef, his tall white chef's hat bobbing affirmatively. She and Shannon left together, planning some cute shots of Shannon in a frilly apron holding a wooden spoon.
I was anxious to talk with River and called her as soon as I reached my car, a blue Corvette Stingray — a major and much loved extravagance.
"River, Therese just told me about Megan. What happened? Are you all right?"
"Oh, Lee. She died in her sleep. We're all so sad. Everybody loved her."
"I know. Want to come over to my place and talk about it? There's nobody home but O'Ryan and me. Aunt Ibby's training staff at the library and Pete's working a double shift. I'll leave the downstairs door unlocked for you."
My aunt is a semiretired reference librarian. She's sixty-something and doesn't look, act, or sound it. My police detective boyfriend, Pete Mondello, knew Megan too. She'd actually helped him solve a tricky case a couple of years back. They'd both be sorry to hear the news. O'Ryan, our big yellow striped cat, had come to live with Aunt Ibby and me after Ariel Constellation, his previous owner — as if anyone can own a cat — had been murdered. Ariel was a witch too, and some say O'Ryan was her familiar. (In Salem a witch's familiar is to be respected, and sometimes even feared!)
River agreed to join me in my third-floor apartment in the house on Winter Street. She's the late-night host on WICH-TV, the local cable channel. Her wildly popular phone-in show is Tarot Time with River North, where she reads the tarot cards for callers in between scary old movies. I once hosted a phone-in psychic show called Nightshades in the same time slot on that same station. Though I'd had a number of years of previous successful on-camera experience — both as a show host on a Florida shopping channel and as a network weather girl — Nightshades did not turn out well, and that is one huge understatement.
In less than half an hour, River knocked on my living room door, with O'Ryan making loving figure eights around her ankles. "Thanks for inviting me over," she said. "The coven has asked me to help plan Megan's service and I can't seem to stop crying."
"I'm so sorry. Come on out to the kitchen. Coffee's on. I have some cute little cupcakes too. Shannon and I were at Pretty Party tasting cakes for her wedding."
"Good choice. I know the pastry chef, Fabio. Great baker but a terrible magician."
"Sure." She smiled. "The Fabulous Fabio. He does kids' parties in his spare time. Pulls rabbits out of his hat and does card tricks. If anybody orders a birthday cake for a kid, he tries to get hired for the entertainment."
"I guess he doesn't entertain at weddings," I said. "At least he didn't offer to. Anyway, everything we tasted was wonderful."
"Wedding planning is a lot more fun than memorial service planning." River picked O'Ryan up and followed me to the kitchen, with the cat snuggling against her shoulder. "This will be the third one I've had to go to this month."
"Really? Who else died?"
"Elliot Bagenstose, the banker. Died a couple of weeks ago. They found him dead in his own backyard under an apple tree."
"Oh, yes. I didn't know him but Aunt Ibby did. I think they attended some antiques symposiums together. She was at his funeral too. I didn't realize he was a friend of yours."
River looked away, eyes downcast, and sat in one of my 1970s Lucite kitchen chairs with O'Ryan in her lap. "Yeah. He was. Kind of."
"Here. Have a chocolate cupcake. It'll make you feel better," I said, firmly believing in the power of chocolate. I put a little cake on each of our plates, poured two mugs of coffee, and sat opposite my friend. "You said there were three?"
"Uh-huh. You remember Gloria Tasker? She used to be a waitress at one of the old diners years ago. It was a hit-and-run. She was riding her bike early in the morning down by Ropes's Point. They never found out who did it. Police said maybe the driver didn't even realize he'd hit somebody."
"I remember her vaguely." I offered River a paper napkin. "Gloria and Mr. Bagenstose were both older than Aunt Ibby and you're younger than I am. I didn't realize you had such elderly friends. Were they tarot clients?"
Tears coursed down River's cheeks. "No. They were kind of ... associates."
"I guess there's no harm in telling you now as long as you promise not to tell anyone else." O'Ryan licked River's face and she continued. "They were witches. All three of them."
"Of course I won't tell anyone. That's a very personal thing. I knew Megan was a witch, of course, but the banker? The waitress?"
River nodded. "Those two weren't ready to come out of the broom closet yet, but they were witches too — not in my coven, but I saw them sometimes at gatherings."
"Three witches in a month," I said. "Is that pretty unusual?"
"I think so. And, Lee," her voice dropped to a thin whisper, "it might be all my fault."
"Huh?" It took a moment to process her words before I managed to form a couple of sentences.
"You realize that doesn't make sense, don't you? People die every day because they're old or sick." I refilled our coffee cups. "And poor Gloria was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
River sighed a long, deep sigh. "I know. I keep trying to tell myself that. But ... but, Lee," Again the whispery voice. "I've recently had bad thoughts about each of them."
"Bad thoughts don't kill people, River."
"Are you sure? I'm a witch, remember? There are such things as spells. Bad ones." She raised her chin, almost defiantly. "At least, in the old days, in the old religion, there were."
"But you don't believe in or practice such things."
"Not on purpose," she admitted, "but sometimes things happen to people that they can't control." She pointed at me. "You, of all people, must understand that."
She was right. I did understand it. River is one of the very few people who know about something that happens to me sometimes — something I can't control. I'm what's known as a "scryer." River calls me a "gazer." That means that I can see things in reflective surfaces that other people don't see. Every so often, these visions, or whatever they are, can appear suddenly in a mirror or a windowpane or even in a shiny shoe. Some consider this ability a gift. For me, it's not always been a welcome one, though I'm getting kind of used to it and they don't terrify me the way they did in the beginning.
It was a sobering moment. "I'm sorry, River," I said. "I do understand. How can I help? I don't know what to say to make it better, except that I know you — and I know that you'd never harm anyone. What's that saying the witches have?"
She smiled. "The Wiccan rede. 'An it harm none, do what ye will.'"
"You see? You've lived by that rule for a long time and you do so much good with your readings." I put another cupcake on her plate. "Here. Have some more chocolate."
"I know you're right." She tossed her long black braid over her shoulder, sat up a little straighter, and accepted the cake. "It just seemed so creepy. Such a coincidence, that three of us would die in a row like that. It was strange, going to the first two funerals, you know? It seemed as though half the mourners there were witches."
"Of course I'm right. In a city this big, there are quite a few deaths every day," I said. "Once in a while one of them is bound to be a witch."
River nodded. "I know. I always say that I don't believe in coincidences but I guess sometimes they just happen. Even so, it's odd to see a funeral home full of witches twice in one month. And now there'll be another one."
"I suppose it is. But it probably just looks like a roomful of sad people to most everyone else. Did you all sit together at both services?"
"Pretty much. The broom closet people didn't sit with us, of course. Like Mr. Bagenstose was at Gloria Tasker's service, but he sat in the very back with one of the other secret witches. They both left early."
"Then poor Mr. Bagenstose died too. Weird. Pete doesn't believe in coincidences either, you know. But he's a cop. They just deal in facts. He still has a hard time dealing with my — um — peculiar talent."
"Huh. So do you." She dabbed at her eyes with a paper napkin but managed a little smile. O'Ryan put his paws up on the edge of the table, tilted his head to one side, and winked one golden eye — which may be the cat equivalent of a snicker.
"Go ahead and laugh at me, you two," I said. "I have to admit, though, sometimes the visions have come in handy."
"You aren't kidding. They sure have. Hey, thanks for listening, Lee." River gently deposited the cat onto the floor and stood up, brushing cake crumbs from pink jeans. "Talking to you really helped. But if I eat any more of these I won't fit into my TV glamour-host wardrobe. I have a new smokin' hot electric blue sequin number for next week and I'm not sure I can even sit down in it."
"Call me anytime," I said. "Come on. I'll go out to your car with you."
Together we walked through the short hall to the living room with O'Ryan leading the way. He scooted out his cat door onto the landing, with its "Attack Cat" welcome mat, and we followed him down the narrow, curving stairway to the back door and out into the yard.
We stopped to admire Aunt Ibby's garden, where daffodils had just begun to poke green shoots above ground and lilies of the valley had already established fragrant clumps along the fence. River paused before heading for her car. "Well, aren't you going to ask me?"
"Ask you? About what?"
"About what my bad thoughts were about them. About the dead witches."
"No, I didn't even think of it — except maybe regarding Megan. I can't imagine a single bad thought about her."
"True." River's big, dark eyes were downcast. "That one wasn't exactly a bad thought. It was more a case of jealousy on my part."
I frowned. "Jealousy? Of what? I don't get it."
She spoke so softly I could barely hear the word. "Therese."
"Therese? You're jealous of Therese? Why?"
"I thought ... think ... maybe Megan loves — loved — her better than she loved me!"
"River. What on earth makes you say that?"
"I know it was wrong to think it. Megan spent a lot of time studying with me too, before I was admitted to the coven." She climbed into her car. "It was Therese's turn. Now neither of us has her anymore." She began to cry again. "But I still don't care about Mr. Bagenstose. I was mad at him because once he turned me down at his bank for a tiny little loan. And Gloria was just plain mean. I'll call you later. Bye." River hiccupped, shut the car door, then rolled down the window. "I still don't believe in coincidences." I lifted my hand in a silent good-bye wave as she backed out of the driveway, leaving me standing there alone and puzzled.
A soft "merrow" from O'Ryan called me back to the garden, and after a quick circle around my left leg, he led the way back to the house. The sound of music from Aunt Ibby's kitchen told me that she must have arrived home while River and I were upstairs. O'Ryan was first into the back hall via his cat door while I entered the more traditional way. Aunt Ibby's kitchen door opens onto that hall, as does the door leading up two narrow flights to my apartment as well as one to our shared laundry room. I tapped on my aunt's door.
"Aunt Ibby? It's me. You busy?"
"Come in, Maralee. Door's open."
O'Ryan and I entered the warm, cozy room. My aunt looked up from the round oak kitchen table, which was strewn with papers, index cards, and lots of sticky notes in assorted colors.
"I'm just doing a little revision on the cookbook," she said. "There's fresh coffee in the pot. Turn Alexa down and help yourself."
I lowered the sound of Dean Martin singing "That's Amore," poured a cup of coffee, but passed on the plate of cookies on the counter. My recent cake binge had provided quite enough sugar to keep me wired for hours. The cookbook my aunt referred to was "The Tabitha Trumbull Cookbook," an updated assemblage of the recipes collected by the namesake of the Tabby — Tabitha Trumbull. The school is located in the building that long ago housed Trumbull's Department Store and Tabitha was the wife of the old store's founder, Oliver Wendell Trumbull. My aunt had discovered the cache of old recipes and planned to release the completed cookbook as a fund-raiser for the library.
"How is it coming? Nearly finished?"
Long sigh. "I keep thinking I've finished it and then another one of Tabitha's dishes sounds appealing and I'm off again — translating pinches of this and dabs of that and lumps of things 'the size of a walnut.'"
"Pete will be glad you're not finished with it. He loves being part of the taste- testing team."
She smiled. "He's not very impartial. He likes everything. Was that River's voice I heard a few minutes ago?"
"Yes. She was feeling a little down so I invited her over and fed her cupcakes from Pretty Party. I guess you heard that Megan the witch died."
Excerpted from "It Takes A Coven"
Copyright © 2018 Carol J. Perry.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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