The lunch crowd at the Hot Cauldron Café had tapered off considerably, and Addie Kilorian was grateful for that because she’d be able to close on time without standing over anyone’s table and dropping not-so-subtle reminders that they always closed at three on Thursdays. Most of the locals from Shadow Lake respected her early closing time on this one day of the week. The tourists who stopped here on their way from Bellewood to Birch Hollow or back again were usually understanding.
Sometimes, however, she had to resort to putting the chairs up on the tables, or turning out the lights.
Once, a customer who had still been slowly munching his chicken wings at three-fifteen had contracted a sudden and very nasty cough. It only stopped once he paid his bill and left.
Addie smiled at the memory. A little brown powder added to his coffee refill had gotten her the results she needed. That trick was more science than witchcraft, and she doubted that her older sister would have approved. Kiera was such a stick in the mud sometimes. It wasn’t like she’d done any real harm to the guy.
Today there was no such worries, however. Elton Barrister was her last customer today. At a few minutes to three, he wiped his cloth napkin across his mouth and laid down a twenty dollar bill to cover his check and a fine tip. He waved at her before making his way to the front door, and she waved back. Elton was a regular every day for lunch. He was a very, very elderly man. Probably in his eighties, Addie estimated, but he had such a crush on her. It was cute, in a way, although he was literally old enough to be her great-grandfather. He claimed it was her red hair and the way her smile brought out the green in her eyes. Addie figured it was more in the way she listened to his stories of fighting in World War Two when no one else would.
Her work clothes probably had something to do with it, too. Button-up tops with plunging necklines, and tight black pants. She had a fine body, and she wasn’t afraid to dress to impress.
It seemed to help the tips.
On his way out, Elton made sure to stop and scratch between the ears of the cat resting in his quilted pet bed up in the window shelf. Everyone who came to eat here knew about Doyle the cat. He was kind of the unofficial mascot. His black-and-white patch fur and his aloof manner were a mainstay of the Hot Cauldron. The end of his tail was white. Three feet were black, along with just one ear. The rest of him was black or white in turns, and his pattern seemed to change when you weren’t looking.
Most days, Doyle kept to his basket in the warmth of the sun through the window. More than one tourist stopping in for a meal had asked if he was stuffed.
People either loved him, or they went to eat somewhere else. Of course, Addie was always sensitive to a customer’s request to move him to the back room if they had allergies. Doyle didn’t make too much fuss over being displaced. Usually.
As soon as Elton closed the door behind him and the shopkeeper’s bell over the entrance stopped ringing, Darla went and locked up for them. She turned the sign in the window from “OPEN” to “CLOSED” and that was it for the day. Addie gave her a smile and a thumbs up. She’d been working for Addie at the Hot Cauldron for just about a year now. She knew the routine.
While Darla swept up and cleared tables, Addie cashed out the register and made a list of things she would need to do in the morning. It turned out that owning your own café meant putting in a lot of hours both before and after regular business hours. No one had told her that when she was buying this property and obtaining her business licenses and setting up orders with the vendors that kept them stocked in coffee beans and hamburger buns. Of course, if anyone had told her all that, back in the beginning, it wouldn’t have stopped her. She loved being her own boss, and she loved this café.
Her second job kept her even busier, but that one didn’t pay the bills.
A mirrored plaque on the wall behind the front counter displayed an old Irish saying in scripted, gold letters. Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. Under the shelter of each other, people survive. It was a nod to her Irish heritage, but it was also a comment on that other job that took up so much of her time. What was that saying? Oh right, “It takes a village.” Well, the Kilorian sisters lived it every day.
They were the protectors of Shadow lake, and they took that job very seriously.
In the mirror, behind the words, she caught her own reflection. She had fine cheekbones and a cute nose, all dusted with freckles. At the corner of her lips was a laugh line from when she was a little girl and she used to smile a lot. The worries of being a grownup had sobered her, a lot, and had taken away some of the shine from her emerald green eyes.
As a grownup, she’d seen a lot of the bad in the world… as a witch, she had come face to face with every manner of evil.
She was still young. At twenty-four, it wasn’t like she was ready for the retirement home anytime soon. She was still a little wild when she chose to be, just like the untamed curls of her red hair and its natural highlights of copper and gold. The men in her life—when there had been men in her life—had loved her wild side.
“Um, Addie?” Darla asked her suddenly. “I’ve got the floors all swept and everything put away for the day.”
“Seriously?” Addie checked her watch. “Oh, my. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I’d been standing here that long.”
Darla shrugged one shoulder as she leaned on the broom. Her curly black hair had streaks of gray in it even though she was just in her mid-forties. “You looked like you could use a few minutes. Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks.” Addie gave herself a shake and then found a smile for Darla. She was a hard worker, and Addie considered her a good friend. “I’m just tired. Burning both ends of the candle, so to speak.”
“Hmm. I know how much you like candles. Well, I’ll get my stuff from the back and go home. Unless you need me for anything?”
“No, we’re all set. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Darla nodded, but then hesitated like she wanted to say something more.
“Darla?” Addie asked. “Was there something else?”
“No. Not at all.” She turned on her heel and took herself and the broom through the swinging door to the kitchen. It was just a few minutes later when Addie heard the back door of the café close. She’d looked almost disappointed, Addie thought, when she hadn’t been asked to stick around. Well. She’d find some time to hang out with her this weekend. Maybe.
Thursday nights were for family in the Kilorian household.
“Oh, I thought she’d never leave,” a grumbling voice said from behind her. “She’s a dog lover, you know. She’s got those two little Pekingese. Gah. Little mops with legs.”
Addie looked over her shoulder at Doyle, standing in his plush bed over in the front window and stretching out with his back arched. His black and white fur ruffled from neck to tail, and then he blinked lazily, and jumped down to the floor. Addie watched him with a fist on her hip, knowing there would be more to his tirade if she didn’t shut him down now.
“Why do you always have to be so negative? Did somebody take away your squeaky toy?”
“Ha, ha,” he purred. “Why do you always have to close up early on Thursdays? You know I get some of my best table scraps from the dinner crowd.”
“We’ve been over this, Doyle. Thursdays I meet my sisters up at the house.” Which he knew perfectly well. This was something they’d been doing ever since the café opened. “We’ll have dinner together up there. I’ll save you something off my plate.”
He made a face that, if he was a person, would have been considered very rude. “Kiera always picks the menu, and it’s always fish. Your elder sister thinks it makes her live longer.”
“What’s wrong with that, Old Man?” she teased. “You like fish. You are a cat, remember?”
His tail stood straight up, and his whiskers twitched as he looked up at her indignantly. “I am a descendant of the first cat to reach Ireland, thank you very much. My bloodline goes back just as far as the Kilorian family tree. I am actual, for real, feline royalty.”
She rolled her eyes and bent low at her waist to look him straight in his copper-colored eyes. “So you keep telling me. I’d like to see you prove it someday.”
A rumble low in Doyle’s chest might have been a growl, or it might have been the sound a cat makes when he’s stalling for time. “I’ll have you know,” he said to her, “that in one of my previous lives I was pampered by slaves who fed me crab legs and caviar.”
He huffed out a breath, but his tail drooped to the floor as he added, “I miss those slaves.”
“Fine, fine,” Addie relented. “You’re descended from the blood of kings. So what’s wrong with the fish my sister serves for dinner, your royal catness?”
“It’s never the right kind.” He sat himself down, lifting up one of his front paws to examine it as he talked. “I mean, would it kill her to serve salmon once in a while? Or grilled tuna? It’s always that bland flounder. Or tilapia… bleh.”
Addie chuckled. She couldn’t stay mad at him. As frustrating as his delusions of grandeur were, or his insistence that he was the actual head of the Kilorian household and the three sisters were there to make his life easier, she loved the little furball. She didn’t know where she’d be without him.
She picked him up carefully under his belly, making sure to support his hind legs as she did, and then settled him on her shoulder. “I’ll bring it up to Kiera. Less tilapia, more salmon. I’m sure she’ll take your suggestions on her dinner plans seriously.”
“Of course she will,” he purred. “Any smart human would gladly listen to my advice.”
“Because you’re royalty.”
“Exactly.” He nuzzled his head against her cheek, and gently sank his claws into her shirt to keep his balance. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
She hummed to herself as she walked around finishing up the few things left to be done, balancing Doyle on her shoulder. When she was done she stepped out the back door and locked it up tight, setting the security system for the night. It sent a silent alarm to the police department up in Birch Hollow, to the north. Shadow Lake wasn’t big enough for a police force of its own. Thankfully, Birch Hollow was just ten minutes away. The next closest town, Bellewood, was an hour to the south.
She liked the quiet here. She liked the view of the lake right here from Main Street. Shadow Lake was a wide expanse of calm water, fed by a tributary running off the mountains in the distance. The town hugged the wooded shoreline of its waters and grew out from there, and nobody but a chosen few knew the real history of this place, or what lay beneath the still surface of those waters.
There were trees everywhere, and birds and wildlife in abundance. The whole place had its own sort of life force that welled up under their feet. Even people who weren’t magically inclined could feel it. The Essence of Shadow Lake was strong.
Those without magic—Typics, as they were called—still found a lot to enjoy here. The lake was perfect for boating, and fishing, and even swimming in some spots. If anyone ever found their way to Shadow Lake, it was because of the water. Even in the winter when it froze Addie had seen people out there ice fishing.
Of course, those with magic were drawn here, too, and not all of them were friendly. That’s why Addie and her sisters had to work so hard to protect this place. The well of Essence underground could spell disaster if it fell into the wrong hands.
Heh. “Spell” disaster. Witch humor.
The alarm wasn’t her only protection on the café. One last wave of her hand over the top lintel of the door set the magical wards in place. Normal security systems were all well and good, but to her way of thinking nothing could beat good, old fashioned witchcraft. Most people never got past her hex on the building. It turned them aside, and made them believe they didn’t really want to break into this restaurant, after all. The morning sun would disperse it before she or Darla got back tomorrow.
“You’re such a wimp when it comes to using your magic in public,” Doyle said to her, batting at a bug that was crawling across the parking area at the back of the café. “I’ve told you before. You should install a Witching Eye on the doors. That way you’d be able to see anyone trying to break in.”
“Do you know how much those cost?” Addie shook her head. “Besides. The hex I’m using on the doors is just a small thing. I’m trying to keep a low profile, not advertise that I’m a witch.”
“You and your sisters are the guardians of this town, right? Keepers of the secrets? Ladies of the Lake?”
Addie tried her best not to roll her eyes at that last one. For a feline, he could be very impatient and rash. “Look, Old Man, if I start using magic like a Witching Eye then I’ll be attracting every magic user within two hundred miles of here. Not just the human ones, either. I’m talking the big baddies with huge teeth and an appetite for cat. Would you like to see that?”
“Bring them on. I can take them.”
He batted the bug away, sending it skittering into the grass along the side of the building. Proud of himself for vanquishing his foe, he stood up and pranced to Addie’s car with his nose in the air.
Addie smiled at him. Big, tough kitty. She’d have to remember that the next time he was hiding under a table during a lightning storm.
Outside, the Autumn day was still warm. Breezes stirred her hair and tickled at her cheeks. The leaves on the trees growing up between lots and along the sidewalks were just starting to change colors from their once lush green to shades of red and bronze. She briefly considered walking home. It wasn’t all that far. Kiera wouldn’t mind if she was a few minutes late, just this once. Doyle could use the exercise too, in her opinion.
But, her reliable Jeep Cherokee was waiting for them, the only car left in the lot, and she didn’t want to leave it here in town overnight.
It was red with a black pinstripe along both sides, blocky and tough, a true piece of American ingenuity. She’d had most of the engine rebuilt at this point, and all four shocks had been replaced twice by the resident mechanic in town. Still, she wouldn’t trade it in for anything.
As she unlocked the doors with the key fob she thought about maybe stopping next door for a minute, at the holistic foods store. She shopped there sometimes for herbs and other things. Most of the things she bought there weren’t for spells. She had her own recipe for Oregon Chai, and this was the only store in town that sold what she wanted.
The internet was where she shopped when she actually needed spell ingredients. It was surprising what you could find on Amazon and E-bay these days.
After another moment she decided to wait until tomorrow to do her shopping. Her sisters would be waiting for her. At least, Kiera would. Their youngest sister, Willow, would probably be late again.
So what else was new?
As if in answer to her question, the Universe sent her something new.
A woman drove into the parking area from the street, around the corner of the building, so much in a rush that she squealed her brakes and skidded to a stop just feet away. Her car was a sporty blue two-door model. She stared through the windshield at Addie, a look of panic on her face. Addie had never seen this person before in her life.
She was a strikingly beautiful woman, maybe younger than Addie by a couple of years, maybe a little bit older. It was hard to tell because she had one of those faces that was timeless, the narrow chin and the upturned nose, almond eyes and blacker-than-night hair. The only thing that marred her beauty was a permanent scowl on her pert lips.
Doyle mrowled loudly and leapt underneath Addie’s Jeep. “Where’d she get her license?” he protested. “A cereal box?”
“Shush,” Addie warned him. Doyle wasn’t a normal cat, by any means. Most people would freak out if they heard him cracking wise.
The woman threw her door open, a rip in her black cargo pants showing a dirty and scuffed knee. There was dirt on the elbows of her long-sleeved black t-shirt as well. “Oh, thank God,” she said in a rush. “I need a phone. Do you have a phone? My cell died this morning and I forgot to charge it and… oh, my.”
She stopped babbling abruptly, putting a hand to her forehead. Whoever she was, Addie thought, the woman had been through some sort of fright.
“Let me start again,” the woman said with a deep breath. “I’m Donna. I was on my way up to Birch Hollow and I stopped at this little place where the sign said there was a nature trail. I went for a walk, that’s all I did. I went for a walk and then… and then…”
She broke off with a sob and Addie’s heart went out to her. She went over and held her hands, feeling how they trembled. She knew where Donna was talking about. There was exactly one road in and out of Shadow Lake, and when you were coming in from Bellewood there was a hiking trail that wound through a section of State forest. It was a nice little walk for the tourists, and the nature lovers, and people like her who enjoyed communing with the outdoors from time to time. Addie loved sightseeing on that trail.
Obviously, Donna’s experience on the trail had been very different.
Addie could usually get a feel for people. A lifetime spent communing with the magic essences layered through the world around them had allowed her to become finely tuned to people on a truly psychic level. It usually worked. But with Donna, everything just felt fuzzy. Maybe it was because she was so scared. Strong emotions could do that.
“Tell me what happened,” Addie coaxed gently. “What did you see on the trail?”
“It’s terrible. I mean, it’s just awful. I’ve never seen a dead person before! Please, do you have a phone? I need to call the police.”
The hairs at the back of Addie’s neck stood up. A dead body, here in Shadow Lake? There wasn’t any stench of death on the air. Then again, that wasn’t her strong suit when it came to magics. Kiera had always been better at that.
But if someone was dead here, so close to Shadow Lake, then she needed to figure out who it was and how they died. It was part of the sacred bond her sisters shared.
Taking her phone from her back pocket, she handed it over to Donna.
As the woman made her call to the police, and explained everything she had already said again, Addie went over to her car and bent down low on her hands and knees. She found Doyle still hiding behind the front wheel, his paws curled under him, his tail all bushed out.
“Is the crazy driver still out there?” he asked her. His eyes flashed from side to side. “She nearly put my heart sideways, let me tell you that! It’s getting so a cat isn’t even safe in his own backyard anymore.”
“Keep your voice down. Listen, I need you to find your way back to the house.” She could tell from his expression and the way his whiskers drooped that he already didn’t like this. “Doyle, I need you to do this. Head back to Stonecrest, and tell Kiera that I’m going out to Luna Moth Nature Trail, okay? Tell her someone died and I’m going to find out what happened.”
With a heavy sigh, Doyle stood up. He was a pretty big cat. The tips of his ears brushed the underside of the Jeep and it set them to twitching. “I’ll do it, but you better make sure Kiera cooks salmon next Thursday.”
Addie smiled at him. “It’s a deal, Old Man. Now, off you go.”
He zipped off in the general direction of their house, up the hill away from the shoreline, near the middle of town. He really was a good cat. He deserved that salmon he kept asking for.
When she stood up again and walked back Donna was just finishing her call. She handed the phone back to Addie. “Thank you. They said they were on their way.”
“You’re not from here, I take it?” Addie asked her.
“Well no, I’m not. How did you know?”
“I’ve never seen you before, for one thing.” Addie leaned her hip against the Jeep. “Shadow Lake is a pretty small town. The people who live here all know each other. Also, anyone who does live around here knows the police have to come from Birch Hollow. It’s going to be a bit before they get here. If you like, I’ll drive you back to the nature trail and wait there with you until they arrive. We can come back for your car later.”
“That would be wonderful, Miss…?”
“I’m Adair Kilorian,” she said, holding her hand out. “My friends call me Addie.”
Donna brightened at that. Obviously it was a relief that she wouldn’t have to be alone back there at the trail, where a corpse waited. Addie had her own reasons for offering to go with her. She wanted to find out what had happened, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t help Donna at the same time.