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A Mackenzie Coven Mystery Book 6
“I made it in one piece.” Lexie brushed her hair back. “Give or take a bruise.” The Mackenzie Coven had a lot to answer for, expecting her to pull up her socks and act like a proper incoming High Chair but leaving her to figure it all out by herself. Would it kill them to give her a user’s manual? “How about you, Luna? Did you make it alright?”
“I’ll be able to tell you as soon as you let me out of this cage.”
Lexie scrambled in the dark. “It’s not a cage. It’s a pet carrier.” She pushed her bedroom closet door open to let some light in. “Hang on. I can’t work out how to open the latch on this thing.”
Luna purred deeply. “First there was the threat of a leash and now a pet carrier. I’ll never live this down. And I fear there is worse to come. My feline indifference is wearing thin so I shall have to acquire a stiff upper lip. You’ll have to forgive me if I growl in my sleep.”
And since they were tuned into each other’s thoughts, that meant there’d be no rest for Lexie, even in her sleep.
“Okay. Got it.”
Luna’s head emerged from within the confined space. “I see you’ve landed in the closet again.”
“Remember what the therapist said. No baiting. No biting. Besides, you know landing in the closet is a safety measure. What do you think will happen if I land in the middle of someone’s sitting room? I told you, I don’t want to be personally responsible for sending someone into therapy. It’s bad enough we still have to attend those ridiculous sessions.”
“Now who’s criticizing? You know it can and will land us in more trouble. Weren’t you paying attention? Let me remind you, Doctor Mercedes Shrink said we must stop disparaging the process. Otherwise, we’ll never see any progress. I’m inclined to agree… up to a point. Can you believe what she was wearing today? She must be color blind.”
Laughing, Lexie crawled out of the closet and straightened.
Luna followed and sniffed the air. “Are you expecting someone?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Luna sniffed the air again. “Someone’s been here.”
“Now that I think about it, it was probably Octavia. She wanted to drop some books off for me. She’s over the moon happy with the idea of working on a training manual for new coven members, more specifically, incoming High Chairs.”
“She actually fell for your idea?”
“What are you implying?”
“That it’s been a couple of weeks since you mentioned it to her and you’ve yet to sit down and start working on it. In fact, every time I’ve heard Octavia suggesting you get started, you’ve come up with an excuse to avoid it. Today, it was our scheduled trip to see Doctor Shrink. I’m curious to see what excuse you’ll come up with tomorrow.”
“Octavia’s busy tomorrow.” Lexie knew her personal assistant had been moonlighting, spending every spare moment at Mackenzie Hall—Mirabelle’s not so humble abode. Her cousin, the High Chair of the British Isles and all Circumferential Domains Pertaining to the Mackenzie Coven had been trying to steal her super efficient assistant from right under Lexie’s nose. Turning a blind eye to Octavia’s extra curricular activities had been Lexie’s way of keeping the peace and indulging Mirabelle’s fantasy that she could have everything her way. However, if push came to shove, Lexie would roll up her sleeves and fight to keep Octavia.
“I have an update for you,” Luna purred, “My senses are now picking up the lingering presence of several people. I recommend treading with care.”
“You sound like Data from Star Trek… The Next Generation.”
“You must be in a good mood. You just missed your opportunity to compare me to the Klingon, Worf, son of Mogh. And before you say anything, I threw in the extra information because I know you’re new to Star Trek and desperately trying to catch up on all episodes so you can establish a common ground and converse with Jonathan.”
“Where did you get all that from?”
“Are you going to deny you have a thing for your guardian slash occasional employer?”
“Yes,” Lexie protested with a yelp.
“Fine, I’ll guard your secret, but I can’t promise I won’t tease you about it.”
Nudging her bedroom door open, Lexie peered out. “I don’t see anyone.”
“That doesn’t mean there haven’t been people traipsing through your apartment.”
“How? The front door is locked. I’m sure it is.”
“As the lead detective for Crafty Investigations, you should be able to figure it out.”
Lexie clenched her back teeth. “Don’t think I didn’t pick up the underlying sarcasm.”
“Now, now… remember what Doctor Shrink said. We must avoid nitpicking.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but only if you do too.” Lexie stepped out into the sitting room, her gaze skating over all surfaces to see if she noticed anything out of place. Striding to the window, she nudged the curtain aside and looked out. Next, she checked to make sure the front door had been locked.
Turning, she saw Luna sitting primly in front of the couch.
Think, Lexie. Think.
No stone left unturned.
Look beyond the obvious.
She lifted her gaze and saw a piece of paper stuck to the wall behind the couch. Or rather, hovering against it.
“Whoever came in here didn’t need a key to let themselves in.” She knew Jonathan had a key, although she had no idea how he’d come to have one. Or even if he really did have a key. Perhaps he’d been pretending to have one and actually used some sort of as yet undisclosed power to let himself in. From the start, her guardian slash owner of O’Connor’s bar and employer… slash chronicler of all her adventures had been cagey about his connection to her. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Luna asked.
“For pointing out the note.”
“I did no such thing. I was merely resting and pondering my situation in life.”
“Sure you were. Admit it, you have very little to complain about now. You’ve secured your endless supply of Game Indulgence. I’ve met all your demands and provided you with a feline companion sized fainting couch so that you don’t have to suffer the indignity of sleeping at my feet.”
Lexie knew she’d walked right into that one. “I’m still looking into getting you a flying broomstick of your own. Not that you need one. I don’t have one. Anyway, they’re not actually your run of the mill mode of transportation available at every local outlet.”
Luna sniffed and murmured under her breath. “A likely excuse. You could always ask Octavia to hunt one down for you.”
Leaning over the couch, she plucked the note and read it. “What the—” Lexie bit back her explosive response but it didn’t stop the barrage of expletives from flooding her mind.
“Oh, my… I had no idea you could swear like a sailor.”
Lexie held the piece of paper up and shook it. “Can you believe this?”
Luna stretched and yawned. “If you mean to test my ability to believe something before seeing it… or in this case, hearing it, then I’m prepared to put all my trust in you. Whatever you’ve just read must be somewhat beyond belief, but obviously possible.”
“While we were attending our enforced regular session with Doctor Shrink, our apartment was subjected to a quarterly inspection and we have been found lacking. Lacking!”
“We? I’m happy to share some liability but when it comes to your apartment, you know very well it falls short of my expectations. As I have pointed out, there are spacious and luxurious duplex apartments facing Central Park. You’ve often said that living in the East Village is your way of mockingly adhering to the Coven’s insistence that all its members live within nature in small towns or villages. An abode across from Central Park would tick the essential box. Just saying.”
Lexie waved the document. “Lacking.”
“You’ve made your point. Now tell me the rest.”
“The Coven’s Board of Compliance has issued me with a first and final notice of compliance.” Lexie stomped her feet. “In their opinion, I am non-compliant. They’ve given me a week to pull up my socks.”
“What did they threaten you with?”
“That’s just it.” She turned the page over but it was blank. That’s when she released it and jumped back.
“You know very well what happened the last time I read something issued by the Coven. They’re a sneaky lot, not to be trusted. What if they inscribed a spell in the notice?”
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
They both stilled and looked around them. After a few minutes, they relaxed.
“Maybe they mean to catch us by surprise.” Luna strutted up to her. “Have they outlined their complaints? As you know, I find it always helps to be clear.”
Lexie pointed at the wall. “The chimney. They say I don’t have one.” She did, but it had been boarded up. “Specifically, a hearth.”
“I must admit, it would be lovely to light a fire in winter and curl up in front of it. Which reminds me, my list of demands had also included an Amish quilt.” Luna tilted her little head. “Is it being specially crafted for me?”
Lexie snatched the noticed off the floor and shook it. “Can we deal with this first? Apparently, I must have a fireplace because I must also have a cauldron.” A cauldron? Why did she need to have a cauldron?
“No witch should be without one.”
“If we must delve into the reasons why, then… without any need for wild speculation, I can confidently assume they are referring to your acquisition of new skills such as spell casting and the production of potions.” Luna licked her paw. “There’s an idea. It might be a long shot, but worth looking into the production of potions. We could mark them up and sell them for a tidy profit. It could be a lucrative sideline business for you. I still live in fear of your funds being cut off. In fact, only last night I tossed and turned, worrying about my supply of Game Indulgence running out.”
“Where does one even get a cauldron from?”
“Perhaps the same place from where you procure flying broomsticks. You could kill two birds with one stone. What other essential items did they list?”
“Suitable furniture in keeping with an appropriate ambiance.” She scrunched up the notice. “I thought we were supposed to fly under the radar. Am I to advertize the fact I’m a witch?”
“I don’t see any harm in acquiring a few antiques. You could mix and match. There’s a whole style revolving around eclectic tastes. Something new, something old… At first sight, you’d think my custom made fainting couch would clash with your mass produced couch, but I think they compliment each other.” Luna lifted her nose and sniffed. “Are you holding something back?”
Lexie read the business card she’d found attached to the Coven’s notice.
Cynthia Van Dyke
Safe Haven Interior Decorating
Lexie gritted her teeth. “They’ve recommended an interior decorator but only as a last resort. How kind of them to give me the opportunity to, in their words, do the best I can before resorting to professionals.” Lexie raked her fingers through her hair. If she rebelled and revolted in haste, she knew she’d be repenting at leisure.
“That’s almost philosophical,” Luna mused as she picked up on the thought. “I’m impressed.”
“I guess I’ve been hanging around you long enough to have learned a thing or two. Come on, let’s go.” She strode to the door and noticing Luna hadn’t followed, she turned. “Come on.”
“You really expect me to blindly follow you without you giving me even a hint of our destination? I’m not a flunkey.”
“There’s a store nearby. Charming Paraphernalia. It’s bound to have something of interest. Fingers crossed. If I don’t get on top of this now, I’ll never hear the end of it and the fact the Council hasn’t mentioned repercussions means we have no idea what they’ll do to us.”
* * *
“Nearby seems to be further than you implied. My mental pedometer tells me we have traveled far enough for me to develop a need to refuel. And, right on cue, here’s the Kitty Café. Again. We’ve been down this street twice now.”
“I know Charming Paraphernalia is here… somewhere.” Lexie stopped and looked up and down the street. So many new stores had cropped up like mushrooms; she could barely keep track of them. “Okay. We’ll have a quick snack and then try again.” As they settled at a table, Lexie tried to get her bearings. She’d been in the store once. In fact, that’s where she’d picked up a business card for Starr Black, Pumpkin Carver Extraordinaire. The year before, the local Neighborhood Halloween Committee had issued her with a warning to put more effort into her Halloween display or suffer the consequences. Starr Black’s Jack-o’-lanterns were so popular, she’d been lucky to get on the waiting list. Halloween was only around the corner. She didn’t need this harassment…
Everyone seemed to be on her case, pushing her to tow the line. What was up with that? Whatever happened to live and let live?
“Did I hear you correctly?” Luna asked.
Lexie finished placing her order for coffee and a bowl of milk for Luna. “What?”
“I thought I heard you mention the p word.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Must I say it?”
“It would help. I can’t even hear you thinking the word. Surely it can’t be that bad.”
Luna grumbled and spat out, “Pumpkin.”
“What about it?”
Luna sighed. “In the spirit of full disclosure, something we never really tackled, I should tell you I have a fierce abhorrence of pumpkins. Detestable, smelly, moldy things.”
“Okay. We’re all entitled to opinions.”
“It’s not just an opinion.” Luna waited for her bowl of milk to be served.
Lexie thanked the server. “Oh, before you go… I’m looking for a store and I could have sworn it was on this street. Charming Paraphernalia.”
“Yes, it’s right across the street.”
Luna waited until they were alone. “It was right under your nose. You seem to be under a lot of stress at the moment, so I’ll let it ride and I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
Lexie sat back and studied the elegant script on the store sign across the street. How could she have missed it? Maybe she should have her eyes tested.
She looked at a woman coming out of the store. Even from across the street, she could see she wore a gold wristwatch, a purple scarf and lace-up boots. She even noticed the buttons on her jacket. Gold with a black band around them.
There was nothing wrong with her eyesight. Perhaps she only needed to pay more attention.
“Anyhow, as I was saying…” Luna continued, “Jack-o’-lanterns give me the creeps. My previous companion understood that. I’m rather hoping you will too.”
“I’m glad we cleared that up.”
Someone else came out of the store, their steps hurried. Yet Lexie managed to take in the color of the man’s jacket. Chocolate brown leather, with some wear around the cuffs. Navy blue shirt with thin stripes. She didn’t even have to squint to see the signet ring he wore on his little finger.
Ever since her cousins had ambushed her with a not too gentle reminder of her responsibilities to the Coven, she had been, more or less, run off her feet playing catch-up and trying to learn the ropes.
Did she need a vacation?
Absolutely. From the Coven.
Lexie nibbled the tip of her thumb. No one had warned her about house inspections. What right did the Coven have to barge in unannounced?
“They are a mighty force to be reckoned with,” Luna offered. Licking her lips, she sat back. “I’m good to go.”
As they crossed the street, Lexie took mental notes of everything she saw. They came to the Kitty Café at least once a day. She must have noticed the store sign at least every other time. How could it not have registered in her mind?
Luna scampered up to the window. “I like that table lamp. It has tassels. While I consider myself above such puerile activities, I wouldn’t mind playing with the dangly bits.”
“Let’s focus on one item at a time. We are after a cauldron.”
“And a flying broomstick. Remember the broomstick.”
The store was an Aladdin’s cave of trash and treasure, with stacks of furniture and odds and ends. “Please stick close to my side.” Lexie stopped to inspect a rocking chair. The simple style appealed to her, but she didn’t have any room to spare in her apartment. The floor space in front of her couch had to remain clear for her incessant pacing. Maybe she could find a corner in her bedroom…
When she turned, Luna was nowhere to be seen.
Instead of chasing after her, Lexie approached the counter where she found a stack of business cards, including Starr Black’s. Heavens, she had been inside the store. She should have been able to find it blindfolded.
“May I help you?”
Lexie looked up and smiled at the store assistant. “I’m after a cauldron.”
“Any particular size?”
Lexie brightened. “You actually have some?”
“We carry a wide variety. From new to antiques.” The assistant signaled to the back of the store. “There’s a whole shelf of them. Also, our resident witch, Anya, is holding sessions today without appointments. If you’re interested in a consultation, you’ll find her in the room out the back.”
A resident witch? “Thank you.” Even before she reached the back of the store, Lexie caught sight of Luna emerging from one of the pots.
“What took you so long?” Luna asked.
“I don’t have your superior senses.”
“And what does that tell you?”
Luna blinked. “That you should perhaps follow me?”
“I guess.” She scanned the shelves. All the pots looked the same, more or less. Lexie made a grab for one.
“What are you doing?” Luna asked.
“I’m picking one.”
“Did you put any thought into it?”
“I didn’t realize I needed to.”
Luna gave a small shake of her head. “I suggest you work through a process of elimination. Cast iron or copper. Old or new. Small or large. Your choice will depend on the aesthetic look you wish to achieve. There are other factors to consider. For instance, one of these cauldrons might actually belong to you.”
Lexie shrugged. “I only want to appease the Coven and get them off my back. And… What do you mean one might belong to me?”
“There are powers within some of these cauldrons. Years of usage remain as layers.”
“Yes, it’s called grime.” Lexie peered inside one. “Perhaps I should select a new one.”
“And forego the benefits of experience gained through osmosis? That would be a mistake. I would advice against it.”
“Fine. You choose.”
“I can only assist and guide you. The final decision is yours to make.”
Lexie closed her eyes, stretched her hands out and hummed. “Oh, special cauldron, come to me. Show yourself. Give me a sign that you truly belong to me, but be warned, if we are to be united, we must join forces and together face this campaign of terror waged against me by the Council. Come forward willingly and fearlessly.”
“What are you doing?” Luna exclaimed, “You’re drawing attention to yourself. People are gawking at you.”
Lexie chortled. “Honestly, any one of these will do.” She pointed at one. “This one. It seems to fit your criteria. Cast iron, old, and possibly haunted by its previous owner.” She took it to the front counter where she paid for it.
“Sorry, I don’t have a bag big enough for it.” The sales assistant gave her the change and dropped a pamphlet inside the cauldron, no doubt advertizing some future sale.
Moments later, Lexie had to go hunting for Luna. She found her hovering at the back of the store.
“They have a resident witch,” Luna said, “If you ever need to moonlight and earn some extra cash to pay for my food, you could look into doing something like this. Go in for a consultation. You might pick up some ideas.”
“I’m already gainfully employed.”
“How long has it been since you did a shift at the pub?”
“I was referring to Crafty Investigations.”
“Oh. And how is that going?”
Lexie looked away. “You know very well my last job was pro bono.”
“My point exactly. The trust fund your great aunt set up for you only covers essentials. You can’t possibly expect me to tighten my belt. I don’t wear one.”
“Maybe you’re right. I should consult Anya. She might offer some guidance.” A sign on the door read ‘In Session’.
“While we wait, we could do some browsing,” Luna suggested.
“And lose our spot in the queue? I’d rather not risk it.”
“We’re the only ones waiting.”
“I’d bet anything if we wander off, we’d come back to a long queue.” Lexie was about to set the cauldron down when the door opened and a young woman stepped out, her brows drawn into a deep scowl.
“An unhappy customer,” Luna said. “Perhaps we shouldn’t bother.”
“Nonsense. I’m curious now. Come on.” They stepped inside the small room. Anya sat on a red velvet chaise lounge, her eyes closed, her luscious raven black locks cascading around her shoulders.
“Come in. I’ve been expecting you.”
“I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to come. Sit.”
When she opened her eyes, Lexie nearly missed the chair. They were a vibrant emerald green with specks of gold. Lexie felt the intense gaze reach all the way inside her.
“You are burdened by the weight of your responsibilities and the obscure path you must take. Only you can light the way. Do not listen to those who choose to disparage you. They are nothing but an encumbrance sent to test your fortitude.”
Wow, that’s a lot to take in, Lexie thought.
Anya closed her eyes and held her hands out.
Lexie didn’t dare speak.
“Do not be afraid to speak for fear that you might be exposed to ridicule. Be true to yourself.”
She could do that. Looking down at Luna, they shared a raised eyebrow look.
“I will now invite you to ask me a question.”
Luna scrambled up onto her lap. “She seems to be all knowing. Ask her if you’ll always be able to buy me Game Indulgence.”
Anya hummed. “I know nothing of this Game Indulgence you speak of.”
Luna’s ears twitched. “Hey, she heard me.”
Lexie cleared her throat. “Will I ever write my Mackenzie Coven manual?”
“Yes, but you will call it something more appropriate.”
Luna purred deeply, her tone disgruntled. “Why did you have to waste a question on that? I could have revealed that answer myself, without the histrionics.”
Anya swept her arms about. “Now for the truth you didn’t know you were seeking.”
Lexie slid to the edge of her chair.
Scooping in a big breath, Anya looked up. “Be warned. There is danger. The threat is real. The results final.” Collapsing back on the chaise lounge, she waved them off. “You may leave now.”
“That’s it?” Luna complained.
“I’m disappointed and now that we’re out of hearing range, I don’t mind telling you, she’s a charlatan. I’m so glad you didn’t have to pay for that.”
“What sort of danger could she have been referring to? Other than the danger of running out of your gourmet food, I can’t think of anything that would directly involve or affect me.”
“Really? How about someone else being murdered and you having to investigate it?”
“Perhaps the danger will come from the Coven Disciplinary Board.”
“I think you mean the Compliance Board. There is a distinction between the two.”
“Are you saying I have two branches of the Coven on my back?”
“Four if you count your mom and Mirabelle. The High Chair of the British Isles and all Circumferential Domains—”
“Yes. Yes. Mirabelle. She’s been fairly quiet and so has my mom. In fact, I haven’t heard from her in ages.”
“I imagine your mom is pretending to have given up all hope of you taking up acting. In other words, she’s biding her time. As for Mirabelle, perhaps she is plotting and patiently waiting for the most appropriate moment to pull the rug of complacency from right under you.”
“Why would she do that? We’re on the same team.”
“I don’t know,” Luna admitted, “I’m still disgruntled about Anya’s lack of interest in my wellbeing. She might have offered a tiny insight into my future. After all, we went in there together.”
Lexie hugged her new cauldron. “I hope this appeases the Compliance Board. Now to get the chimney sorted out.”
“You could organize a working bee. Invite everyone for afternoon tea and then set them to work for you.”
“Have you always been this cunning?” Lexie asked as they turned the corner.
“I have my moments.” Luna purred deeply. “I’ve just noticed. Charming Paraphernalia was only just around the corner from your apartment. You need to improve your observation skills.”
“What do I have you for? Remember, we’re supposed to be a team and—”
A piercing scream brought them to a halt.
“Did you hear that scream?” Luna asked.
“How could I have missed it? It made me shiver.”
“In case you didn’t notice, it came from the vicinity of your apartment. This poses an interesting dilemma. Do we run away from danger or toward it? I’m all for the former.”
Unfortunately, she had to agree with Luna. The scream had come from her building. “There’ll be no running. This cauldron is heavy.”
“In that case, I’ll bring up the rear.”
“It’s so comforting to know I’ve got you watching my back.” They strode up the apartment steps. A few heads had emerged from windows and were peering toward Lexie’s first floor apartment.
“I don’t hear any sirens and I don’t smell smoke, so it can’t be a fire.”
Reaching the landing, Lexie looked toward her door.
“Okay, if I’m not mistaken, that is a detective from the O’Rourke Group.”
He turned and pinned his ocean blue eyes on her. Every single one of the O’Rourke detectives she’d met all looked the same.
Her heart hammered against her chest. Why would an O’Rourke detective be standing outside her apartment?
He gestured for her to hurry. “Inside. Quickly.”
“Umm. Is it safe to go inside? We heard a scream.”
“Unfortunately, one of your neighbors saw me as I appeared.”
Appeared? As in, from thin air?
“That’s right. I’m Whip O’Rourke.”
One of one hundred O’Rourke detectives who all looked the same, more or less. Whip O’Rourke flashed his NYPD badge. The group worked under cover in plain sight and within all major police departments, both here and abroad. And like all the other O’Rourke detectives she’d met, he could read her thoughts.
“Here, let me help you with that.” He took the cauldron from her. “And… Sorry. Your neighbor is now on her way to her therapist so will no doubt put the experience of seeing me emerge from thin air down as a stress related product of her imagination.”
Lexie looked down at Luna and gave her an ‘I told you’ look. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be more careful?” she asked as she eased the door to her apartment open. “Personally, I avoid accidental sightings by landing in closets.”
“From what I understand, you land in closets because you haven’t yet mastered the art of travel.”
“You don’t hold your punches back.” Hence the name, she thought. “You can put my cauldron down on the table, thank you.” She sighed. “So, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?”
“You’re in danger. Someone is going to kill you.”
* * *
Copyright ©2017 Sonia Parin/All Rights Reserved