After her recent promotion to junior partner, Keli is putting in overtime to juggle her professional career and private Wiccan spiritual practice. With Halloween fast approaching, her duties include appearing as a witch at a “haunted” barn and hand-holding a client who’s convinced her new house is really haunted. But it’s the disappearance of Josephine O’Malley that has Keli spooked.
The missing person is Keli’s aunt, an environmental activist and free spirit who always seemed to embody peace, love, and independence. When Josephine is found dead in the woods, Keli wonders if her aunt’s activities were as friendly as they seemed. As Keli comes to terms with her loss—while adjusting to having a live-in boyfriend and new demands at work—she must wield her one-of-a-kind magic to banish negative energy if she’s going to catch a killer this Samhain season. Because Keli isn’t ready to give up the ghost . . .
Praise for Yuletide Homicide
“A perfect read.” —Library Journal
“Hesse easily balances murder and romance in this holiday tale that’s so cozy.”
About the Author
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"You know there's no such thing as ghosts!" My words came out in a raspy whisper. I was trying to be forceful enough to get through to the hysterical woman on the other end of the line, while avoiding the attention of the small crowd of business people milling about in front of the converted barn. I failed on both counts.
All eyes looked toward me with blatant curiosity. Among them were those of the park district supervisor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and the senior partner at my law firm, all of whom were awaiting the start of their VIP tour through the Fieldstone Park haunted barn. Every year, Edindale's town leaders recruited local businesses to create spooky displays and a funhouse-style maze inside the emptied-out storage barn. This was the law firm's first year participating. As one of the newest partners, I was roped into playing a costumed volunteer. As if that weren't embarrassing enough, now I'd unwittingly placed myself in the spotlight.
With my cell phone pressed to my ear, I looked for an escape route. Instead, I saw Pammy Sullivan, one of the associates at the law firm. She broke off from a small group that included our boss, Beverly Olsen, and made her way toward me with a gleam in her eye. An incorrigible gossip, Pammy probably just wanted the scoop on my strange phone call. On the other hand, maybe Beverly had sent her over to chide me for taking a call right when the tour was about to start.
I offered an apologetic grimace and squeezed out from behind the makeshift ticket booth. Scanning the park for a quiet spot, I landed on a cluster of maple trees beyond the pavilion. As I made my way through the throng, past picnic tables filled with laughing kids and rowdy teenagers, I kept my head down and listened to my client fret on the other end of the line.
Scratch that. She was beyond fretting. She was freaking out.
As soon as I reached the relative privacy of the maple grove, I allowed myself to interrupt. "Mrs. Hammerlin! Wait a minute. Just think about what you're saying. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation —"
She cut me off, leaving me to pinch the bridge of my nose. I took a slow breath in and out and tried again. "Okay," I finally said. "You're right. I agree. We don't know for sure what happens to our spirits after we die. But, really, it's highly unlikely that the noises you're hearing —"
"Keli?" I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a tall man in an old-fashioned tuxedo and flowing black cape. He had slicked, coal-black hair and a matching trim beard. Most striking, though, was the glowing white powder, which rendered his normally pale face even more anemic. Not to mention the two pointy false teeth protruding from his blood-red lips.
In spite of the Dracula getup, there was no mistaking the impatient scowl. It was my fellow junior partner, Crenshaw Davenport III, Esquire.
I nodded and rushed to end the call with my client. "I have to run now, Mrs. Hammerlin, but I promise I'll stop by later this evening. Okay? Okay. Good-bye."
I sighed loudly as I stuffed my phone into my purse.
"I trust everything is under control?" said Crenshaw around his plastic canines. "You gave me quite a start. When I saw you leave your post, I was afraid you were going to abandon your ticket-selling duties."
"I wouldn't do that. I just had to take this call. This client is driving me crazy. We closed on her new house last week, and she's called me every day since — several times each day."
"Ah. Buyer's remorse?"
"I don't know. It's the weirdest thing. She insists the house is haunted, and she wants to go after the seller for failure to disclose."
Crenshaw raised his eyebrows. "You do attract the most interesting people, don't you? But there's no time for that now. Doors will open soon, and those tickets won't sell themselves."
"Fine," I grumbled. "Though I still can't believe we have to do this. I have better things to do with my Friday night."
He ignored my complaint and gave me a nudge. We'd already been through this earlier in the evening, when he'd met me in the parking lot near the ball field. He must have been watching, waiting for me to pull in, because he pounced the moment I opened my car door.
"At last!" he'd said.
"What's the rush?" I asked, checking my watch. "I'm not late."
"People are already starting to arrive, and we need to get changed. Come on."
"Changed? What are you talking about?" I stepped out of the car and stared at his hair. It was different from how it had appeared at the office earlier in the day.
"Here." He thrust a garment bag into my arms and tossed another over his arm. "I brought our costumes, so we can arrive at the barn in character."
"Costume? What costume? I'm not wearing a costume."
He glared at me under heavy dark eyebrows that were normally ginger-colored. "Of course you are. Don't be ridiculous."
Ridiculous? A grown man who dyed his hair for a silly haunted house gig is calling me ridiculous?
"Come along now," he said.
I shook my head and dug in my heels. "I'm only selling tickets at this thing. I don't need to be in costume."
Crenshaw looked down his nose. "You do understand the concept of a haunted house, do you not?"
"I do. But I'm not going to be in the haunted house." I had to trot to keep up with him as he led the way toward the restrooms. I realized it was futile to keep arguing. As an amateur actor involved in the local theater scene, Crenshaw fancied himself a true thespian. He loved playing dress-up.
I unzipped the garment bag as we walked. "What is it anyway?" I asked, trying to look inside. "Please tell me I'm not the Bride of Frankenstein."
"Where's your Halloween spirit, Milanni? More to the point, where's your community spirit? You know Beverly's on a big push to raise the firm's visibility. As partners, you and I have a vested interest in promoting —"
"I know, I know. Hey, what is this? A witch costume?"
"What's wrong with a witch costume? It's a classic Halloween character."
"Never mind. Here we are. Wait for me?" I dashed inside the ladies' room without waiting for a response.
Luckily, the facilities at Fieldstone Park were well-maintained. Still, I wasted no time in switching outfits. In spite of my protests, I didn't want to disappoint our boss. As it turned out, the gauzy black dress with jagged trim and bell sleeves wasn't too terrible. But the accessories were another story. I cringed as I pulled the bushy, Elvira-style wig over my own chestnut-colored hair. The artificial black mop made my face appear wan and washed out.
Or, I realized as I peered into the mirror above the sink, maybe I just needed to get outside more. Now that I thought about it, I couldn't remember the last time I'd sat outdoors in the sun. What kind of Wiccan was I? I'd been so busy at work; I had let the entire summer pass me by without a single trip to a lake or swimming pool. If I didn't make a change soon, the last mild days of autumn would pass me by, too.
I grabbed the garment bag, now containing my business suit, and joined Crenshaw, who had just emerged from the men's room in full creature-of-the-night formal wear. I did my best not to laugh, but he looked none too happy. "Where's the rest of your costume?" he demanded.
"This is good enough."
"Well, at least put on the hat." He gestured toward a pocket on the outside of the garment bag. "A witch isn't a witch without a pointy hat."
Ha! I thought. Out loud, I muttered, "Shows how much you know."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing," I said, as I donned the pointy hat.
The truth was, in all my years of being Wiccan, from the time I discovered and embraced the path at age sixteen to now, I had never been offended by the image of the Halloween witch. Some might disagree, but I didn't view the stereotypical witch's costume as demeaning to my religion — or even some kind of cultural misappropriation. How could it be, when the "wicked witch" archetype predated Wicca by hundreds of years? Besides, fictional witches came in all stripes. Considering all the pop-culture teenaged witches, not to mention the Harry Potter franchise, witches were as likely to be seen as cool rather than scary. After all, we could wield magic!
Even so, I had to draw the line at the warty rubber nose and sickly green face paint. A girl was entitled to a smidgen of vanity.
Now, as we left the maple grove and made our way back to the entrance of the barn, I was glad to see the business crowd had already gone inside. I took my place behind the cash register. Crenshaw paused at the counter. "Say, do you happen to have a mirror in your handbag? I'd like to check my stage makeup."
"Sure," I said, reaching into my purse. "But it won't do you much good, if you can't see your reflection."
Crenshaw stared at me, evidently not getting the joke. I waved a compact mirror in front of his face as if to clue him in.
While we bantered, a side door opened and a middle-aged man in a charcoal-gray suit came barreling out of the barn. I recognized him as Tadd Hemsley, a local business owner who advocated for small farmers. He was usually pleasant enough, but now his lips curled above his grizzled soul patch as he glared at his cell phone. I could relate to the sentiment. My own phone had buzzed in my handbag at least three times in the last five minutes.
As Tadd passed us, he bumped into Crenshaw and glanced up. His frown turned into a smirk. "I always knew lawyers were bloodsuckers," he drawled. "I guess this proves it."
Crenshaw flushed beneath his white makeup, and I suddenly felt sorry for him. That was a cheap shot, I thought. With a strange sense of almost-parental indignation, I stood taller, ready to defend my over-eager colleague. But it was too late. Tadd Hemsley was already halfway down the sidewalk with his phone pressed tightly to his ear.
I looked at Crenshaw and tugged lightly on his cape. "Still want the mirror?"
"Never mind that. I need to join the monsters inside." He straightened his stiff high collar, then disappeared behind the ragged strips of black cloth that blocked the main entry to the "haunted barn."
I shook my head as I peeked at my own reflection, then tossed the mirror back into my purse. While I appreciated the fun factor, Crenshaw was right that my spirit was lacking tonight. Halloween was usually one of my favorite holidays, especially since it coincided with Samhain, one of Wicca's most important festivals. I was probably just too tired to be in the mood tonight. I still had a week before the big day. I'd find the spirit before then.
As I unlocked the cash register, I became aware of a man loitering near the picnic tables. He appeared to be alone, some distance apart from the group of teens clustered a few feet away. He caught me eyeing him and ambled up to the counter.
"Open for business?"
"Uh, sure." I glanced at my watch. "Doors will open to the public in about five minutes."
"I'll take one ticket," he said.
I took his cash and handed over a ticket. He accepted it but didn't leave right away. He seemed to be studying me, which made me slightly uncomfortable. He had a friendly enough face and wasn't bad looking — with his blue-gray eyes and smattering of freckles, he reminded me of my mother's Irish cousins — but wasn't it odd for a forty-something-year-old man to hang out at a place meant for kids?
Perhaps he read my mind. He cleared his throat and looked away. "I haven't been to one of these things in ages. Guess I'm feeling a little nostalgic." He flashed me a small grin. "Is it very scary?"
"Oh, I'm sure it's a fright fest in there." I smiled. "You'll be fine."
A small line had formed behind him, so he finally stepped aside. I sold tickets to several teenagers and a number of giggling tweens, then looked up in surprise at the last two people in line — a bubbly blonde with a large smile and a sharply dressed man with a glint of amusement in his warm brown eyes. If I didn't know better, I might have mistaken them for a couple.
"Hey, you two." I looked from my best friend, Farrah Anderson, to my colleague, Randall Sykes. Although Farrah was a lawyer, too, she had left the traditional career path to become a legal software salesperson, which perfectly suited her outgoing personality. Randall, on the other hand, was cool and laid back with a wry sense of humor. Catching a glimpse of Randall's single gold earring, it occurred to me that he and Farrah might not be a bad match after all. "What are you guys doing here?" "Oh, my God," said Farrah, lifting the ends of my black wig. "This ... is ... awesome."
Randall chuckled. "Your friend stopped by the office just as I was heading over here. How is everything?"
"Peachy," I said drily. "There's nowhere I'd rather be right now."
Farrah whipped out her cell phone and snapped a picture of me. She probably had several shots before I realized what she was doing and held up my palm. She laughed. "What's the matter? You make a perfectly lovely witch. There's something so, I don't know, natural about seeing you this way."
I wrinkled my nose at her. Farrah loved that I was Wiccan and that she was privy to my secret. While I trusted her like a sister, I sometimes feared that, with her overabundant enthusiasm, she might inadvertently spill the beans. Given how judgmental some people could be about unconventional lifestyles and lesser-known religions, I felt I had to be discreet to protect my job. Not that I thought Randall would care, but he wouldn't be above some good-natured teasing. And that wasn't the kind of attention I wanted at work. Heck, even my family back in Nebraska didn't know I was Wiccan.
Luckily, at that moment a skeletal arm beckoned the group inside, and I was left alone with my thoughts. I exhaled softly as I gazed across the empty ball field at a line of trees in the distance, the shadowy branches swishing in the breeze. It was a quiet evening. The low rumble of ghostly sound effects emanating from the barn, punctuated by the occasional bloodcurdling shriek, made for an eerie backdrop. My mind flickered briefly to Mrs. Hammerlin and the strange noises she'd been hearing in her new home. I was sure they'd turn out to be as innocent as the ones within the barn.
Thinking of Mrs. Hammerlin, I reached for my phone to check my messages. Sure enough, I had missed another call from the anxious woman. The other missed calls were from my office and from my boyfriend, Wes. I felt a twinge of guilt for not checking in with Wes sooner, but he knew I was working tonight. I shot off a quick text to let him know where I was. I would have added that I planned to stop by Mrs. Hammerlin's on my way home, but I was distracted by another person coming up the sidewalk. She wore a colorful kaftan with matching head scarf and walked with short, deliberate steps. For a moment, I wondered if she was another volunteer.
"I was told you would be here. I recognize you from your photograph." She spoke with a Caribbean accent and gazed at me with earnest ebony eyes. "I must speak with you. Please. It is urgent."
I glanced around the empty barnyard. Who told her I'd be here? And where did she see my photograph?
"What can I do for you, Ms. ...?"
"My name is Fredeline Paul. I need to speak with you about Josephine."
Josephine. Ms. Paul didn't provide a surname, but she didn't have to. There was only one Josephine she could mean: Josephine O'Malley — Josie, to her old friends, Aunt Josephine to me. The name brought up a rush of conflicting feelings: affection, curiosity, exasperation. Coating it all was a sense of frustration. Aunt Josephine was a mystery. I had never met her, yet I felt like I knew her — or at least a part of her. At one time, I'd even thought I might take after her. But, for some reason, she never let me find out.
"What about her?" I asked.
"She is missing."CHAPTER 2
Josephine O'Malley was my mother's older sister by five years. When my mom was twelve, Josie packed her bags, kissed her sister good-bye, and snuck off in the middle of the Nebraska night. She met up with her boyfriend, a college dropout who wrote beat poetry, boarded his 1969 Volkswagen Bus, and headed for the highway. She never looked back.
When I was growing up, not a whole lot was said about Aunt Josephine, especially around my grandparents. Although she did send cards and letters sometimes, they were few and far between, only adding to an overriding sense of disappointment and heartache. It was understood that Josie was the black sheep. Any references to her were usually accompanied by shame-filled terms such as ungrateful, irresponsible, and even traitor. Now and then, someone outside of the family laughingly called her hippie-dippie or, more kindly, free-spirited.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Samhain Secrets"
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer David Hesse.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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