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Home for a Spell

Madelyn Alt - Author

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ISBN 9781101475300 | 304 pages | 04 Jan 2011 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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Back to work at her antique shop, Enchantments, Maggie's broken leg makes helping customers a lame proposition-but that doesn't mean the rest of her life is slowing down. While her boyfriend, the magically- inclined Marcus, has some unfinished business to attend to and her best friend is getting ready to tie the knot and move away, Maggie decides it's time to find her own change of scenery. And she'll start by finally getting a new apartment.

But Maggie's new dream home turns into a nightmare when the apartment manager is found dead before she can even sign the lease. And Maggie finds herself not only searching for a new home-but for a frightfully clever killer...



Chapter One

To the world at large, I am Margaret Mary–Catherine O’Neill. A good Irish name for a good Catholic girl, strong, sturdy, steadfast, true to the religion that was bestowed upon me at the moment of my birth.

Most of the time, though, I’m just Maggie, a somewhat neurotic, normal, everyday kind of girl, living large in a small, conservative Midwestern town.

Notice, I did not say normal town.

Because my beloved hometown of Stony Mill, Indiana, is as far from normal as you can get these days. But hey, so long as we keep pretending that everything’s still hunky–dory around these parts, pilgrim, none of that should matter. It’s appearances that make you or break you.

Right?

But it is hard to gloss over murder. Especially when month after month the body count kept rising. Unrelated, all of them, but still sordid. This town evidently carried a lot of secrets.

Always with the secrets.

There was more to the sense of something being very wrong in town—like all the paranormal stuff that didn’t even register on most people’s radar. But as an empath—a person of heightened sensitivities, both intuitive and physical—I was especially atune to extrasensory signals. Had I really been oblivious to it prior to meeting my boss, mentor, and good friend Felicity Dow, aka Liss, owner of the superfab boutique Enchantments? In the last not–quite–a–year, with the help of Liss and the N.I.G.H.T.S., the ghost–hunting group of friends I had hooked up with in my pursuit of understanding the supernatural events that had been haunting our town, I had made a kind of uneasy peace with the forces that seemed to run as a dark undercurrent through neighborhoods and residents alike. Why it was happening, well, I couldn’t pretend to have an answer to that, but perhaps with enough study, understanding would follow.

At least I had some truly great friends to walk the path toward understanding with me . . . including my lovely new boyfriend, Marcus Quinn. Marcus, whose dark and dangerous good looks had once unnerved me as much as they attracted me, even as I tried to deny said attraction. Marcus, whose inner beauty far outshone his outer deliciousness. Was it true love? Meant to be? Were we MFEO? I think we are all looking forward to finding the answer to those scintillating questions.

Stay tuned . . .

I am Maggie O’Neill, empath, intuitive, and sometimes witchy nice girl, and this is my story.

Life . . . happens.

The worn bumper sticker on the aging, oversized sedan taking up the lane in front of us—us meaning Marcus and me—caught my eye as we made our way across Stony Mill proper bright and early that Monday morning as we moved into September. Boy howdy, I thought as my mouth formed a wry grimace. Did it ever. Case in point being the solid lump of a cast that had been my boon companion for the last four weeks. All seven hundred and fifty pounds of it. Seriously. What did they put in these things?

Life had happened to me when I stepped down wrong on a stair step at Stony Mill General while visiting my little sister Melanie on the maternity ward and—painfully—broke my ankle. Life had then happened to Mel herself when her perfect world shattered into a million jagged little pieces around her when her husband of six years abruptly shocked us all by leaving her and their family, now four daughters strong as of the birth of the twins. None of us, not even Mel herself, had seen that coming. To be honest, life seemed to keep happening around all of us in Stony Mill an awful lot lately. Or should I say, death? Murder, to be more to the point. The multiple murders that the town had endured in previous months had certainly been a shock to the town’s nervous system. Once a quiet, unassuming town of friends and neighbors who knew each other’s comings and goings (not to mention the goings and comings), Stony Mill was changing before our very eyes. Whether it was fate, karma, unerringly bad timing, or just plain, dumb luck, for this town life and death seemed incontrovertibly tied.

That morning Marcus and I were on our way to the X–ray lab at that self–same hospital for follow–up shots of my ankle, and I was sitting on the edge of the bench seat of his old pickup truck with anticipation. Dr. Dan Tucker had written up the orders for the follow–ups. When he’d been reminded that I had lost my family practitioner last December under less–than–auspicious circumstances and hadn’t yet felt the need to find a new one, he’d volunteered to keep an eye on my ankle situation throughout my healing process. Such were the perks of having a doctor in the “family.” Besides, he kind of owed me for having hijacked my thirtieth birthday party in order to propose to the love of his life and future wife, my longtime bestie, Steff. At least that’s what Steff insisted. And who was I to complain if Dan didn’t seem to mind?

We pulled into the circular drop–off zone at the front of the hospital, and Marcus set the emergency brake before coming around the truck to help, but I was too quick for him. I slid from the seat and down onto both feet, including the Casted Glory. Which didn’t go beneath his notice.

“Hey,” he protested, “you’re supposed to wait for me, Miss Independent.”

I made a face at him. “I’m fine. Look. See? I can stand.” I mimed a little tap dance, quickly smothering a wince when the foot–in–place movements brought a small jab of pain.

Not quick enough. My lovely honey of a man’s dark eyebrows raised, and he took my hand and placed it on his arm. Pointedly. “You push things too fast.”

“Fuss, fuss.”

“Someone has to look out for you.”

I smiled to myself, recognizing the stubborn angle of his jaw. Protective. But not overbearing. “Well, then, how about you hand me my crutches so we can get this over with?”

If he knew I had been practicing putting weight on my casted foot, testing out a few steps here and there with my arms outstretched for the next handhold like a toddler taking her first tottering wobbles, he might be a little less forgiving of me pushing myself. But what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. To appease him, I dutifully took the crutches in hand and let him guide me through the rotating door and down the hall to the X–ray department.

The X–ray process was over within minutes (one of the benefits of living in a small town, I suppose—there is rarely a line of any length unless it’s at the Friday night game at the high school) . . . which was a good thing, since Minnie—my foundling feline and the best friend a girl could have—was waiting for us in the shade with the windows down. I left my phone number at Enchantments—Indiana’s finest mystical antique shop, where I could often be found tending counter—and my personal cell number with the woman in blue scrubs behind the desk, and moments later we were out the door and on our way.

“Think we can spare a few minutes before I take you in?” Marcus asked as he got into the truck beside me as I gently stroked Minnie’s silky black fur through the mesh opening of her soft–sided carrier. She was still dozing. Kitty bliss. “I need to drop something off with Uncle Lou, and this is right on the way. And since I have rehearsal later with the guys and they’ll kill me if I cancel on them again, this is probably my only chance today.”

I winced, this time from guilt, not pain, and for once his gaze was still on the road ahead and he missed it. He had cancelled on his band’s rehearsals at least twice that I knew of in the last two weeks alone. I also knew it was because of me. He’d gone out of his way to make sure I knew that, at least on those occasions, his presence wasn’t required . . . but a part of me still wondered. Worried. We’d only been seeing each other for five or six weeks, and he’d already been required to go above and beyond. Nothing like throwing a guy into the deep end right off the bat. “Sure,” I told him, hoping my voice wasn’t as weak as it sounded. “Stop away. We’re making good time.”

“Great, I’ll give him a call.”

Uncle Lou would be Louis Tabor, a history teacher at Stony Mill High. Lou was a lifelong Stony Mill resident and also happened to be the stepdad to one Tara Murphy, Marcus’s cousin, a high school senior who now spent many of her afternoons working part time at the store and adding color and mischief to our days. Unlike Tara, Lou was just your regular guy leading a regular life. I had often wondered if he knew he had two witches in the family, or if he knew, if it even mattered? One thing was for certain: he and Marcus were very close. In many ways, Marcus seemed to look up to him as the father he had never known.

Our timing was perfect. Lou had a free hour between second and fourth periods. He told Marcus he’d meet us in the teacher’s parking lot behind the C–shaped high school building. He was waiting for us, there in the streaming sunshine, when Marcus pulled right up into the vacant Visiting Administrator’s spot without pause for thought or concern. I shook my head and grinned. Once a rebel, always a rebel.

Lou held up a welcoming hand. He was a big man, every bit as tall as Marcus, though he probably outweighed him by a good thirty to forty pounds, most of which was held for safekeeping around his middle and barrel chest. Still, he cut a handsome figure, complete with the same dark, softly curling hair and piercing blue eyes, though his were a darker shade than Marcus’s azure. “The Irish in us,” he said the one time I’d mentioned it. “Black Irish.” Whatever it was, it was an attractive look, at any age.

Marcus hopped out of the truck, and I rolled down my window. “Hello there, Mr. Tabor. Nice to see you again.”

“Lou, remember? Only my students call me Mr. Tabor. And that’s only because the school board frowns on more familiar forms of address. It’s nice to see you, too. How’s that ankle doing?”

“Fine. Great.” I put on my brightest, most confident smile. “I’m getting this thing off in a week or two.”

“And I’m sure you’re champing at the bit,” he said, laughing.

“Champing?” Marcus snorted. “I think that bit has been clean chewed through. Days ago.”

I pretended to pout, crossing my arms. “You try lugging this thing around every day for a month and see how you like it, big guy.”

“She’s getting testy, too,” Marcus added with a twinkle.

Lou nodded sagely. “Keeping you on your toes, I’ll bet.” He winked at me, then leaned forward and in a conspiratorial whisper said, “Someone’s got to do it, eh?”

“Hey, now. Whose side are you on?” Marcus asked over his shoulder with mock indignation as he lifted a piece of black casing out from behind the driver’s seat. “I have half a mind to take this back with me.”

Lou lifted his hands in surrender. “Now, now. No need to get hasty there.”

Marcus handed over the black metal box. “One better–than–new, completely up–to–date, revved–up and tricked–out computer, sir, as per the request. Whoever this was for should be pretty happy. There’s enough space and speed in this to run a small space station. Okay, well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but still. I take it the guy plays a lot of video games?”

“Video games, videos, photo galleries. You know how it goes these days. All those things take up memory and speed.”

Marcus nodded in agreement. “Software, too. The whole computer industry is in cahoots. They want you to feel like you need a new computer every year, just to keep up.”

“You got that right.” Uncle Lou scratched his head, and a sheepish expression came over his face. “Er . . . come to think of it, my home computer is a little sad. Maybe I should have you do the same for me.”

“See? What’d I tell you? They got to you, big guy.”

Lou laughed. “I guess they did at that. Maybe that can be your next project—when you get a little free time,” he amended with a sidelong glance in my direction.

Urg. Again with the guilt.

“I’ve been doing a little project work with photos and video myself lately—and don’t tell your aunt, that’s to be kept under your hat—and my hard drive is really complaining,” he continued. “It was fine before electronic mail and digital photographs and all the other bells and whistles I can’t seem to do without these days.”

“You mean, back in the stone ages, when photo sharing meant sending them along with the family Christmas card?”

Lou’s right eyebrow slid up, just the way Marcus’s did when he was playing things cool. “Hardee–harr–harr. Keep it up and I’ll send your girl here a copy of you in your Christmas sweatshirt, circa 1992.”

Marcus laughed. “No need for threats. I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

“Thought you might see it my way. Oh, before I forget, you brought the old parts with you?”

“Got ’em right here.” Marcus handed over a zipped gallon–sized plastic freezer bag. “If you think your guy might change his mind, I’ve got a friend who could repurpose them—he does it for the county to help out people with need that otherwise couldn’t afford it, and—”

“I’ll mention it to him, but my lodge brother was pretty specific about wanting ’em back. Listen, I’ve got to get back to my classroom. I’ll catch up with you later about this stuff”—Lou held up the baggie—“after I talk to him and collect your fee. For all I know he’s just concerned about personal security.”

With identity fraud being one of the fastest growing crimes in the world, it certainly seemed a valid concern to me. And not just identity fraud. Consumer shadowing was happening every day, too. Viruses, spyware, malware. And that was only the beginning. Just the other day a story had hit the news about a school corporation using the webcams in the students’ school–supplied laptops to spy upon them outside of school hours. Big Brother is watching . . . and evidently, personal privacy doesn’t seem to matter in the least.

Lou’s friend was right to be cautious, in my humble opinion. Better to be safe than sorry.

“I’d insist on wiping it myself before just handing it over, but whatever he decides is fine by me. It was just an idea.” Marcus got in the truck and started the old engine with a rumble and a powerful surge as he toed the accelerator to keep the pistons churning. He gave the dashboard an affectionate pat.

“Oh, hey. I almost forgot,” Lou said as an afterthought. “You ready for next week?”

Marcus cleared his throat, but it was the hesitation that made me pause. “I, uh . . . well, I meant to talk to you about that.” His gaze flashed in my direction and then back. “I, uh, think I’m going to have to postpone that. Just for a little while,” he said when Lou’s brows knitted together slightly. “I’ve waited this long. A little longer won’t hurt matters.”

“But you’ve already paid for your cl—”

“I’ve done a little checking. I can defer. Extenuating circumstances. It’s okay, Uncle Lou. It’s a few months, not forever.”

Lou’s gaze flickered toward me, just for an instant, but it was long enough. Whatever the current topic was, I was putting a damper on it. I reached for my purse and started pawing through its contents, going for an outward air of disinterest.

Wasn’t it the thought that counted?

“Okay. Well. You know what’s best, I guess.” A pause and then, “I just thought, with everything arranged and all, that—” He bit the words off suddenly. “Well, anyway. Will we see you two at Sunday lunch next weekend? Your Aunt Molly’s talking about doing it up right. And with your mom in Wisconsin for the last couple of months, she thought you might enjoy a little togetherness with the family.”

“Sure, sounds great.”

“Yeah? Maggie, you okay with that?”

“Great,” I echoed warmly, not about to let my questioning nature get in the way of a home–cooked meal surrounded by good people. Good people who didn’t put me on the hot seat with regards to my job, my finances, my relationships, my attitude, or my lack of interest in getting on with it and getting married and popping out grandchildren. Like my own family. Well, like my mother, to be more precise. “With any luck I’ll have this thing off me by then, and you can finally teach me how to do the limbo properly.”

Lou laughed. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He let us go then, with a wave and a blinding smile that stripped years from his face.

Marcus looked over at me when we were on our way. “Limbo, huh? I don’t think you’re going to be dancing anytime soon, sweetness. Not for a while anyway.”

We would see about that. I didn’t know when I’d hear the verdict from Dr. Dan on my healing progress, but I had high hopes for that very afternoon.

“So,” I began, gazing over at him curiously, “what was all that about?”

“All that?”

His attempt at nonchalance did not fool me. “Yes, all that. With Uncle Lou. About next week.”

“Oh. That.”

“What was next week?”

“Nothing for you to worry about, Maggie. Honestly. I’ve got it covered.”

Something wasn’t sitting right with me. He was keeping something from me for sure. But why? “Uncle Lou mentioned you having paid for something,” I persisted. “If you’ve already paid up for whatever it is, there’s no sense in putting it off. You should get what you paid for.”

If a man could squirm without actually, in fact, moving a muscle, Marcus would be doing just that at that very moment.

A sudden suspicion struck. “It was because of me, wasn’t it?”

He reached for his sunglasses from the visor clip and slipped them on. “What gives you that idea?”

It totally was. My heart sank. My stomach joined it.

He glanced over at me. “Oh, don’t look like that, Maggie. Look, it’s no big deal. I’ll start taking classes next semester. Like I said, I already looked into a deferral, and I think it’s the way to g—”

“Classes? Marcus, no! You can’t be thinking of putting that off. You’ve been planning this for months!” Marcus had been planning to return to college with an eye toward completing a teaching degree, an idea Lou had suggested originally but that Marcus had latched on to with an enthusiasm that made it seem especially meant to be. How on earth had I managed to forget about that? Why hadn’t it occurred to me to ask? Was I so wrapped up in my own egocentric world that I couldn’t see beyond my personal problems? Please tell me I hadn’t gotten that narcissistic.

“It’s no big deal—”

“No big deal? Of course it’s a big deal. It’s important to you.” I couldn’t be the reason he put off going back for his degree. I just couldn’t. Miserable, I wracked my brain. I had to think of a way to make him see reason. “You have to go. If you don’t, I won’t be able to live with myself.”

“Maggie—”

“I’m serious. Because what if something happens before the winter semester starts? Would you put it off then, too? People who put things off are just asking for something to happen, Marcus. And the universe is tricky that way. And if you didn’t go back, it would be all my fault.” I was on a roll. I barely noticed when he pulled the truck over to the curb and let it idle in neutral while he turned toward me.

“You’re being unreasonable.”

“No, I’m not. I’m telling you I don’t want that guilt to be on my head, hovering over me, waiting for something to go wrong.”

He sat there with his brows furrowed and a small, bemused smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “You’re kind of a glass–half–empty person, aren’t you. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

I couldn’t exactly disagree with him, at least not about that, so I didn’t say anything.

“Well, you don’t have to be.” He reached out and tugged at my fingers. “Nothing is going to happen.” When I opened my mouth to disagree, he shook his head. “Nothing. Look, the world isn’t a perfect place. Things happen—”

Yeah. Life. And worse.

“—but I prefer to think of them as challenges, not roadblocks. Just things that need to be worked around. That’s what our Guides are for. Ask and you shall receive. There is a way. A solution will come. You just have to be patient, have faith. Trust your Guides.”

I would have said more, but something wasn’t letting me. It might have been the voice of Grandma C quavering in my ear in a surprisingly authoritative tone. Considering the fact that she is, you know, dead. Deceased. No longer of this earthly domain. Moved on to bigger and better time zones in the sky.

You gotta trust somebody sometime, Margaret Mary–Catherine O’Neill. And since you won’t put your trust in God or his host of saints and angels, you might as well put your trust in me. You know I would never steer you wrong.

In my ear. Damn and double damn. I wished the voice would go back to being thought based. Somehow when it was within my head, it was a whole lot easier to imagine that it was probably just the voice of my conscience manifesting with my grandmother’s voice. Now I wasn’t so sure it was just my imagination. But if not that, what was it?

“All right,” I relented, trying for a smile. “I’ll try.”

“That’s my girl.”


Trying. What exactly did that mean?

I pondered that for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon while I puttered and clunked about at Enchantments. For a chronic worrier–slash–thinker–slash–overanalyzer like me, trying is exactly what trying proved to be. How was I supposed to just let him put everything aside for me and not wonder on a daily basis whether or not he was wishing he had just gone ahead with his plans? What if something happened to prevent him from going back after the fall semester? What if something happened to prevent him from going back at all? Wouldn’t he always wonder if he should have?

Must. Stop. Thinking.

From a shelf just overhead, Minnie made her agreement known with a soft murmur of a meow. I reached up absentmindedly and scratched her behind the ears, knowing she was right.

Maybe I was overthinking it. All of it. Maybe all I needed to do was to just cross my fingers and hope for the best as far as healing my ankle was concerned. Because if it was all good with my ankle, that meant life as Marcus had previously known it could get back on track.

Liss sensed my preoccupation and left me alone for the most part. It was for the better. Not even the scents of spiced pear tea and caramel apple cinnamon buns could lure me out of my guilt–induced preoccupation. I clumped around gloomily here and there on my crutches, halfheartedly dabbing at imagined specks of dust with a microfiber cloth even though I had just done the same spot hours before. Liss just watched me from over her half–moon glasses, quiet sympathy shining in her eyes, but like the wise woman she was, she kept her opinions to herself.

The shelves done, I moved on with a restless sigh to our sales counter and surrounding area. Not that it really needed it.

Respite came briefly when the phone rang just before one that afternoon. Liss had been walking past me with a pencil tucked behind her ear and a fresh cup of tea held aloft in one hand. She reached around behind me before I could even respond to the tweedling jangle of the phone.

“Enchantments Antiques and Fine Gifts, Felicity Dow speaking. How can I be of service?” It was her usual greeting, nothing out of the ordinary. I went back to flicking my cloth unenthusiastically at the cash register. “Oh, hello, Dr. Tucker. So good to hear from you, as always. And how is that lovely fiancée of yours? How wonderful for you both. And when will that be? So soon. Well, we’ll miss you, of course, but of course we wish only the best for you both. You will know the best path for you both. Precisely that. Oh, good heavens, listen to me. Yes, of course, she’s right here.” She listened another moment, then laughed. “Yes, as a matter of fact, she is behaving herself today. I know. Yes, it is rather a rare occurrence.” Ignoring my tongue poking out at her, she handed the phone over to me with a wink.

I cleared my throat officiously. “Dr. Dan.”

“Miss O’Neill,” he said with an equal amount of tongue–in–cheek formality.

My heart was beating an anticipatory tempo for the words I had been waiting for. Something along the lines of, Your bones look great. Fabulous! How do you do it?

“Sooo,” I said, “don’t keep me in suspense! How did the X–rays look?”


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