“I’ve got it, Charm!” Star flew into the Tea & Tarot café, the ever-present star-pendant swinging wildly about her neck and a piece of paper clutched in her hand. The angel chimes holding court over the doorway accompanied her arrival, singing with enough enthusiasm to awaken the dead. Before I could move, she pulled me into a crushing hug, doing a spectacular impression of one of the black bears that our part of the world is renowned for.
“Slow down, sis. What’s going on?” I pulled away to pick up the faded tea towel I’d dropped in the brouhaha.
“I got the part! You know, the movie? Witches and Wolves! Get with the program, sis. See? I got confirmation right here.” She waved the crumpled piece of paper about as if it was a stock certificate. Maybe it was, for her. I had absolutely no interest in being in a movie, now or ever.
“What kind of part? Witch or wolf?” Tulip asked, shutting the lid of her laptop for once and joining us in the huddle. She and Star were gorgeous. Both blessed with blonde hair and tan-able skin while I looked like Snow White, only lacking the seven dwarfs, summer or winter. Go figure, and us triplets.
“Duh! Witch, of course. And it’s a period piece, too, so we get to wear awesome costumes.” Star gave a faux-waltz step, obviously in love with the idea. As the town’s resident country and western singer and songwriter to boot, she was into looking good. Sometimes a bit too into it—she attracted more than her fair share of jealous stabs.
“What’s it about?” I asked, squinting through the window at a couple who had just appeared walking down the street. They were looking rather chummy, if body language didn’t lie. Is that Constable Ace Collins? With a female? I slipped on a pair of polar ray sunglasses to sharpen the image.
“A company coming to town to develop a tourist mecca by selling the outside world on the natural hot springs in the area having magical properties.”
Hot springs laced with minerals we had for some weird reason, even though Snowy Lake perched on the Canadian Shield. Add in Skull Cave for the wolf clans, and the choice of location was now making a whole lot of sense. I shuddered. Caves gave me the willies. A nightmare left over from childhood.
But the sheriff—as I liked to call the constable—and an unknown female? Who was she? Tall and slender with her golden-brown hair tied up in a ponytail, she had the best tan. She also made it easy for the males of the species to appreciate those long, bronzed legs, in her short shorts. Maybe it was time to try the spray tan special that Susie was offering at the Clip Joint this month? My blue-white legs could use some help. Desperately.
Star, of course, kept droning on while I sidestepped to the front picture window for the best surveillance. “And it’s the werewolves’ territorial land, while the witches are upset they’ll be exposed, so they have to build an alliance to fight the conglomerate. But not everyone’s ready for a truce and all kinds of problems develop. It even features the use of arsenic by a suspected serial killer. They’ve got a poison expert on the set too, the daughter of the actress with the lead role—you know, Mimi Blake. Her daughter knows all about its uses. I forget her name. Oh, they need more billets for some of the extras. Can you think of people who might help with that?”
The pair vanished into Snowy Lake Hardware, with Ace holding the door open with a flourish for Miss Perfect Tan. They shared some comment that made her smile, and possibly giggle—I was too far away to be certain. The hackles on my neck prickled. A light fixture blew out over the first booth in a cascade of exploding sparks. I sighed. Now I’d have to scout the street to find the ladder to change the bulb. Seemed someone was always borrowing the handy-dandy climbing device.
“Sorry, what did you say about a serial killer and arsenic?” I focused on the part of Star’s intel that intrigued me.
“Aren’t you listening to me? I said a serial killer uses arsenic to kill off characters. Where’s your mind this morning?”
Star interrupted her spiel to make a spinning twirl, her usual performance piece when she was over-the-moon excited. The phone rang and I hurried to answer it, hoping it was who I thought it was. Yes.
“Auntie T.J. What’s the scoop?” I normally had the common sense not to ask, but today was different. I needed intel.
Her voice came over the house phone, all wheezy and breathy. Land lines were the only reliable mode of communication in Snowy Lake, where cell phones were a crap shoot. “Jennifer Morgan. She’s a geologist with Altima Explorations. A graduate student from the University of Manitoba. Good grades, though not brilliant. She’s here with a small team looking for precious minerals. Mark my word, a big gold strike is imminent. She lives close to his parents’ duplex in Winnipeg—did you know they live side by side? Families are old friends. I’m waiting on more information that I should have shortly. I think her father and Ace’s mother both work at that virology lab in Winnipeg. Will have verification soon.” With that my aunt stopped to take a breath.
I kept a sharp lookout across the street. Fortunately, the telephone rested on the counter near the entrance where we sold all sorts of cookies and bakery goods alongside my favorite magical items, including the new Gilded Tarot by Ciro with its black and gold borders framing lyrical illustrations that whispered to me whenever I ventured nearby. The location was perfect, offering up a proper surveillance position. A stranger came into focus, drawing my full attention—he was so stiff-looking with his pressed beige chino pants, white shirt and black tie and an old-fashioned pocket protector lining up a series of identical pens. He was coming right towards the Tea & Tarot with a determined look on his pasty-white face. His short ginger hair was pressed into service with one section at the crown that wouldn’t commit to the status quo sticking up with military defiance.
“I gotta go. Call me later when you know more.”
“Roger that. Over and out.”
I slipped off the sunglasses just as the angels tinkled a discordant note, announcing the visitor. He gave a harried look around, as though he had no idea how to go about what he needed, but needed it done—and done yesterday.
“Can I help you?” I got to him first. Easy enough, when no one else looked remotely interested.
“Yes, I’m here to check on catering. Do you do that?”
“Catering? Sometimes. What for?”
“I’m with Blue Vest Studios, the company producing the movie Witches and Wolves, and we need reliable catering six days a week at the movie set. You know, sandwiches, soups, salads, vegetable trays, desserts, that kind of thing. And especially anything chocolate. Can you do that?” He hurried his words, looking about with eyes that shifted so much I was concerned for his well-being.
“Well, possibly. And we specialize in chocolate, so you’re in luck. You must try our death-by-chocolate slice. It’s worth dying for with its hooey-gooey center of chocolate ganache and liquid caramel.” I caught the gleam in his eye at my description. While I relished the idea of a catering job, I knew most of it would fall to Tulip and me as Star had a role and, no doubt, she’d play that up. Add her bi-weekly singing at the Boots & Lace Tavern and she’d work both excuses for the foreseeable future.
“Would you like to try a sample?” I asked.
“Yes, definitely.” The gleam in his eye was blinding now.
I laid a square of the slice on a small plate, added a fork and handed it to him.
He demolished it in two spectacular bites.
“You do love chocolate.” I smiled at his satiated expression. Illicit drugs couldn’t have given him more of a sense of being in Blissville. “How many people are we talking about?”
“About a hundred and fifty.”
“A hundred and fifty meals a day?” My horror must have shown on my face, because he twitched and his eyes spun around like cartwheels.
“Yes, but just simple meals. Nothing fancy. And we’d pay ten dollars a head. One meal will suffice, delivered around noon. Send enough and we can eat off the buffet for the rest of the day. We have refrigerators in most of the trailers. What do you say?”
Hmm. Ten dollars a head times one hundred and fifty meals. Sweet. But I would need to hire an extra hand or two. No way could we manage all that on top of our usual workload. I made some swift calculations.
“Make that eleven dollars a meal and we have a deal.”
“Ten dollars and twenty-five cents. Then we have a deal. I’m Howard Smith, by the way, the resident accountant.”
“Charm McCall. Ten-fifty. And I’ll even throw in our gluten-free dessert, Cake of a Thousand Faces.” The yummy cake was called by that quirky name because it could be dolled up any number of ways—its vanilla flavor went with just about everything else in existence. That, and we loved weird names that made people stand up and take notice. “A house speciality that substitutes almond meal for pastry flour. So, as long as the customer is not allergic to nuts, it works really well. Low-carb, high protein.”
“Nice. Okay, that’ll work,” he agreed with a curt nod.
I sucked up losing the extra fifty cents and nodded my acceptance. An accountant would be concerned about costs. I got that, being the one and only bookkeeper for our small business. Cutting costs was essential to survival. Still, it rankled. We’d do the town proud with our catering—I’d make sure of that—even if it ate into profits.
He stuck out his hand for a shake and I was blessed with the dampest paw on the planet, accompanied by a zinger of an image. Howard cared about every penny because he was embezzling company funds, meaning there would be less to steal if I made a decent profit. Sometimes I wished Granny Toogood hadn’t banned swearing—I had a few apt descriptors for this weaselly dealer. I also hoped she was feeling better. The doctor had advised a few days of rest and that had me worried.
Instead, I narrowed my eyes at him and he slid his hand from mine. Yuck. I dried my palm by rubbing it discreetly down the side of my jeans, half hidden by my Tea & Tarot apron.
“Can you start tomorrow?” he asked, his desperation leaking through, making his face shiny with sweat. Probably because the only other quote he most likely got today far exceeded ours. Guaranteed. The Husky Service on the highway did some catering, but they didn’t come cheap. And their bakery goods came out of pre-frozen tubs and boxes. We prided ourselves on everything fresh baked, from scratch—my fingernails were reduced to rubble from constant work. Proof positive.
“Tomorrow! So soon?” All the nerves in my body slammed into high gear. There was so much to do to prepare for such a large undertaking. Could it even be done that quickly?
“We’d really appreciate it. Might even find you a bit part in the movie.” It wasn’t the incentive he expected—I just shook my head, giving his start date some thought. Sometimes it was best to jump into things, otherwise I’d never do it. I just prayed I could pull it off and do my family and our town proud.
“Okay, but minus the movie walk-on.”
The relief on his face made me smile, despite his weaselly-ness.
The café door opened abruptly and in strode a young man dressed in expensive dark-wash jeans and a tight black T-shirt clothing a wiry, thin body, his face a study in annoyance. “Howard, I need to speak with you right now. Don’t think you can just get up and walk out on me, mister.” His hand on his hip pressed his case.
Howard’s face darkened to a dull red. “Chace, this is not the time or the place. Go. I’ll catch up with you later.”
The man looked as though he was going to object before he about-faced and left. His one-finger salute, reflected in the front window before he pranced away, was not in the best taste. Hmm. Good thing Granny wasn’t around to cut him down to size. In the nicest, politest way of course—she could make the worst villain tippy-toe around her. Probably ask him if he needs the finger for anything other than being rude.
“Please excuse my friend. He’s not himself today.”
“Oh, who is he then?”
Howard gave me a blank stare.
Baby Ling Ling sauntered in, grabbing my attention as she always announced her arrival with a loud greeting, or warning, depending on how her day was going. Our spectacular white Himalayan with her adorable squished-in face and apricot-colored ears, fluffy tail raised high, proceeded to choose her steps with the utmost care across the tiled floor of the café. I’d guess it was in case we’d had the bad manners to add a trap door since yesterday’s saunter. She deigned to notice the new visitor, striding over and giving him a quick sniff. She jumped a couple of feet in the air with a loud howl, her fluffy white fur standing straight on end as though she’d placed her paw on an electrical charge.
“Hiss.” She made herself as big as a tiny eight-pound cat could make herself, arched her back and continued the hissing.
“Nice cat,” Howard deadpanned.
“Careful what you say to her. Ling Ling’s officially multi-lingual since our librarian, Miriam, added Portuguese to her weekly slate of free language lessons.” I just couldn’t resist, not liking his look of disdain. Or his cheapness that was certain to affect our bottom line.
His look of confusion was quite satisfying. He gave Ling Ling a wide berth and headed for the door.
“Okay, then, we’ll expect you tomorrow? You’ll get paid once a week, just come by my office and I’ll cut you a check. Oh, and the camp’s out by Spirit Springs.” He paused, his hand on the doorknob, obviously needing confirmation.
“Yes, I know where the camp is, and the food will be there. You can count on the McCall family. We never go back on our word.” I gave him a level look that he declined to return. A nervous twitch of his nose and he hopped out of the café.
“That guy has a blackish aura with streaks of gray,” Tulip said, pursing her lips.
“Yeah, no surprise—he’s working under a brain cloud.” I didn’t want to say the words embezzling cocaine addict out loud and sink the project before it started. “And since when did you start seeing auras?” And what was I going to do with the unwanted knowledge that the guy was stealing company funds? A moral dilemma. I shouldn’t think that was business as normal, even for the movie industry.
She gave me a smug look. “You’re not the only one discovering gifts since we turned twenty-one on July first.”
“Nice. Hey, what color’s mine?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s usually light with a halo of pink, silver or gold, but right now it’s tinged with green. Never seen that color on you before. Interesting.”
Movement across the street drew my attention, and out of Snowy Lake Hardware popped Ace and his fancy friend. Hmm. She was swinging that ponytail so much it was in peril of getting caught in something. Not that that would be a bad thing. I envisioned it catching in the closing door and…
“Who’s that with Ace?” Tulip joined me at the window. “By the way, your aura’s getting greener. Maybe you’re jealous, eh?” She poked me with a sharp elbow.
“Ow! I’m not jealous. That’s Jennifer Morgan, an old family friend of Ace’s. Graduate student here on geology exploration,” I said through clenched teeth. What else was going on? She lightly swatted Ace’s arm in feigned anger play, making me wince. A flirt to boot.
They crossed the street and strolled merrily toward the café. I ducked out of the window and hurried to continue dusting the shelves. Tulip dallied.
“Move away from there, they’ll see you spying on them,” I hissed at her.
“So?” She shrugged, but thankfully moved toward her laptop again and got back to keyboarding. Good, just write the blog already and pretend nothing’s going on. And what exactly was going on?
The angel chimes sang out the new arrivals with all the enthusiasm of a Baptist congregation. I swear they know more about who’s coming into our café than I do, changing their mood with each customer they announce.
“Mornin’, Charm, Tulip. I’d like you to meet an old family friend, Jennifer Morgan,” Ace said with a respectful tilt of his impressive hat. Star had long vanished into the back recesses of the kitchen, probably to text or call everyone of the Northern Lights Coven about her shiny new job. I sighed. Shoot. I had to get to the Grab-n-go and buy supplies for tomorrow’s catering or I’d be sunk.
I gave the pair a quick greeting, unable to keep from noticing how sweet-smelling our almost-brand-new Mountie was that morning. The fragrance of soap and a special mix that was all Ace’s own rolled off him in waves, like pheromones at a picnic. If I was an ant, I’d be crawling all over him. I took a deep appreciative breath, remembering to give the new female a smile of welcome. If Granny Toogood heard that I’d lost my manners, well, suffice to say, there would be repercussions. Three things she can’t abide, that special woman who took us in at the age of eight when we arrived unannounced on her doorstep—swearing, speaking ill of the dead and sex talk. But politeness, that was a given. Ace himself was no slouch in that department either, having grown up in the southern state of Kentucky before his parents moved with their three sons to Canada.
“What are you doing in Snowy Lake, Jennifer?” I asked, though it was a useless waste of time to confirm my aunt’s information. She was always spot on. We all have our gifts in Snowy Lake. Mine is finding lost objects and a recent development I hadn’t quite worked my mind around yet—some kind of weird ability to heal the human body—while Auntie T.J.’s was always knowing the news first.
“I’m a graduate student from the University of Manitoba. We’re working with Altima Explorations, checking for alluvial gold deposits.” Her voice had a serious edge to it, mixed with a lyrical quality.
“Ah, the kind deposited through water movements. But, of course, the best indicator is the fact that substantial gold deposits were found here in the past,” I added, entirely grateful for my need to know a little something about everything, when her eyes lit up with interest.
“Charm’s a major league bookworm,” Ace said with an appreciative smile.
Great. I’d just placed myself into the boring-librarian category. Maybe it was time for dark-framed glasses. Nah, I don’t even wear contacts. I’m one of the lucky ones, so far. Never been sick one day in my life, touch wood. Annoys my sisters no end when they’re stricken by a runny nose or fever.
“She’s a lot more than that, Ace. She runs a business and still manages to look gorgeous.”
Oh no. She didn’t just say that. The. Worst. Possible. Thing. A woman who looked like she did and was super-nice to other women? My barely begun romance was dead in the water. Kaput. All Ace and I had shared was one kiss, though. I sighed. But what a kiss. A treasured memory now, since it didn’t look like any more would be forthcoming. It didn’t help that Tulip made a circle with her forefinger and thumb at me, a gesture meant to emphasize my aura getting greener, no doubt.
A horrendous sound struck my brain. Oh, jeez, not today.
“Who’s that?” Jennifer pointed out of the window, her eyes wide open.
I cringed. Auntie T.J., in full battle dress and playing bagpipes usually reserved for fending off bear attacks, marched by the café’s entrance. At least the residents would turn a blind eye, knowing my family, though my auntie didn’t make it easy wearing head-to-toe plaid.
“That’s my auntie. She’s—uh—driving away evil spirits. Just ignore her. So, what can I do for you this morning? Quiche? Coffee?” I asked brightly, pretending it was business as usual. “We make mini-breakfast quiches in pastry pockets, easy for our customers to take to go.” I pointed them out to Jennifer. “How about you, Constable?”
“Sorry, no time, today, darlin’. I’m heading out to check that new movie set, to make sure everything’s up to code,” Ace said.
Jennifer’s eyebrows rose at the casual “darlin’”, but she continued to smile like a sunny pixie. At least her lips did. Her eyeballs appeared frozen over. “And I’ve got to get to work. Ace helped me pick up some supplies.” She held up the small Snowy Lake Hardware bag she was carrying as proof of their prior engagement.
“Maybe a croissant or a cheese scone?” For some reason I couldn’t let it go. She looked a tad narrow in the hips.
“Oh, do you make cheese scones?” she squealed. “My grandmother always did when we visited the farm each summer vacation. I love them!”
I inwardly groaned. Great, now I’ve made the elder woman category. “Yes, it’s an old family recipe of Granny Toogood.”
“Granny Toogood?” she inquired, turning to check out our glass display of bakery goods with a keen interest.
“You’ll meet her soon. She’s the matriarch of our family.”
“I do believe I must try them.” She pointed at a peanut butter cookie tray lined up with all the other array of choices. “And one of those as well.”
“Ace?” I asked, giving him a wee nudge, making sure to use his first name this time.
“Nothing for me, thanks.” Well, that was a first. What was the deal? Suddenly watching your weight, big guy? No need for that, no sir, not with that lean six-pack, quarterback shoulders and thighs like a lumberjack who’s been cutting down trees all day. Oh my…
“Don’t worry. We haven’t laced anything with cyanide this week,” I teased, filling the silence. “Besides, champagne works best.” He’d get the tribute to Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide and our last case where the murderess had placed the poison in our apricot jam. The nerve of the banker’s wife, making our wares suspect.
“That’s good to know,” Ace deadpanned, though he gave me a wink. Nice.
Jennifer opened the blue and white starred bakery bag I handed her with its Tea & Tarot moniker designed by Tulip, diving into the cheddar cheese scone. “Oh, this is wonderful. So moist. Ace, you must try a bite.” She didn’t wait for an answer, but force-fed him. He accepted the morsel from her fingers, swallowing it. She turned to give me a sly victory grin.
My heart sank.