Librarian Josie Way moved to small-town Oregon to lay low. Instead, thanks to newfound magic abilities—and a killer on the loose—she's leapt out of the frying pan and into a cauldron of trouble . . .
Josie Way loved working among the Library of Congress's leather-scented stacks—until she uncovered corruption and made herself a target. As Wilfred, Oregon's new librarian, Josie can stay undercover until the case goes to court. But life in this little town isn't as subdued as she expected. The library, housed in a Victorian mansion, is slated to be bulldozed. Still digesting the news that her safe haven is about to become scrap lumber, Josie discovers a body in the woods . . .
Almost as shocking, Josie learns that she's descended from a long line of witches—and her powers have suddenly sprung to life. With help from a spoiled alley cat who just may be her familiar, Josie's thumbing through a catalog of suspects, hoping she can conjure a way to save her library—and her life . . .
Release date: December 29, 2020
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Bait and Witch
Angela M. Sanders
The driver hadn’t said more than a few words the whole hour-long drive from the airport.
“This job looks fascinating,” I said, hoping to spark conversation. “Why did the last librarian leave?”
The driver was a tall gent with a cowboy hat and an inscrutable expression. Every time the pickup hit a bump, his hat dented against the roof. “Didn’t work out,” he said.
I waited for more, but nothing came. I lightened my tone and tried a different approach. “When will we be in Wilfred?”
“Ain’t no Wilfred.”
My heart lodged in my throat. “What do you mean?”
Had they tracked me down already? The driver didn’t look like a for-hire killer, but I was no expert. My hand crept to the door handle. I was ready to jump, no matter how fast the truck was going, when he finally responded.
“Ain’t no Wilfred since the mill closed.”
“I was hired as the Wilfred librarian.”
“Sure. Folks still call it Wilfred, that’s all.”
Calm down, I told myself. I was still shaky. When the plane had passed somewhere over the Midwest, I’d felt a visceral snap and jerked so violently that the woman in the next seat had fanned me with her magazine and asked if she should call the flight attendant. I’d gulped from my water bottle and forced myself to breathe. After a moment, the internal earthquake had mellowed to tremors. I hadn’t felt the same since.
The truck slowed. There was nothing around us but a copse of trees intersected by a dirt lane.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Slowing for the speed trap,” the driver—Lyndon Forster, he’d told me—said. He shifted up. “Never mind. We’re clear. We’re just about to the library.”
A minute later we passed a few storefronts and a tavern with a nearly empty parking lot. I knew Wilfred was a small town, but I’d expected at least a stop sign. Rural Oregon couldn’t be more different than the crowded sidewalks and high-rises I was used to back home in D.C.
We crossed a narrow river, then hooked an immediate right to climb a gravel lane. Lyndon parked in a circular driveway and cut the lights. In front of us loomed a three-story Victorian mansion replete with gingerbread trim and a central tower. We might have driven into a Victoria Holt gothic novel.
“We’re here,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
The woman who’d hired me had said I’d be living above the library, and I’d envisioned a modern apartment atop a generic municipal building, not much different from my one-bedroom apartment back home. I hadn’t had time to ask a lot of questions.
Too late now. I stepped out of the truck. Crisp autumn air filled my lungs. It had to be near midnight, and a chiffon veil of moonlight filtered through the oak trees ringing the mansion.
“Just point me toward the door, and I’ll take my bag and leave you to the rest of your night. I hope you don’t have a long drive.” In fact, I hoped he had a very long drive to somewhere far, far away. The man gave me the creeps.
“Nope,” he said. “I’m the caretaker here. Got a little place out back.” He grabbed my suitcase and ambled up the steps but bypassed the double doors in front. He stopped before rounding the corner. “This way. We use the service entrance.”
I took a deep breath and followed. Maybe it was for the best. They’d never find me here, that was for sure.
We climbed a narrow staircase, Lyndon hefting my suitcase over his shoulder like a sacrificial goat. The hall was cold and smelled of beeswax. Two flights up, he extracted a ring of keys from his Levi’s and unlocked the door. He set down the suitcase.
We stood in a hall that looked over the old house’s central atrium, open all the way to the third-floor ceiling. A stained-glass window set in the roof glowed dull red and blue with moonlight. Below us, two floors of shadowed rooms that must have once been the house’s bedrooms and parlors held bookshelves.
“Here we have the living room,” he said.
I stuck my head into a dark room with mullioned windows and the dim shapes of a sofa and chairs.
“Next is the bedroom.” He waved his hand toward the next door, closed, but made no move toward invading those quarters.
“Here’s the kitchen. Not too large, but plenty big for you, I reckon.” The bloated form of a midcentury stove was all I could make out in the dark. Lyndon turned to examine me as if for the first time and drew his bushy eyebrows together. “You feeling okay? You seem kind of jumpy.”
“I’m fine,” I lied. We moved on.
“The bathroom.” The mint-green bathtub and sink clearly hadn’t been updated since the Eisenhower administration. “Here are the keys. I’ll show you more once you get settled in.” He touched the brim of his hat and disappeared down the hall. After a moment, I heard the door shut and the solid thunk of a bolt thrown in place.
The apartment was quiet but for the faraway sound of crickets. I rolled my suitcase to the bedroom and clicked on the lamp on the dresser. Pale light showed an armchair and a bed with an elaborately carved headboard that stretched nearly to the ceiling. Someone had left a jug of wildflowers on the dresser, a reassuring note.
A pink envelope next to it was labeled “Josephine Way.” I opened it to find a handwritten note from Darla Starling, the woman who had hired me by phone.
“Dear Josie,” it read in a girlish hand, each letter painstakingly formed. “Welcome to Wilfred. I hope you find your rooms comfortable—we changed the sheets, and there are fresh towels in the bathroom. We’ll see you downstairs at nine tomorrow morning. I look forward to meeting you in person. Sincerely, Darla.” A banner reading SWEET GEORGIA PEACHES ran across the stationery’s edge.
I crossed the room to the window to draw the curtains and stopped short. Amber eyes stared back. It was a black cat, perched on the roof outside my window. I wasn’t being watched, I reminded myself. No one knew I was here. They couldn’t. It was just a cat.
Just as I was about to jerk the chintz drapes closed, the cat sat on his haunches and paddled his front paws comically on the windowpane before falling on his back in a move Buster Keaton would have envied. The cat opened one eye to make sure I was watching. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Feeling calmer, I turned to the task I’d been dreading. I’d seen a rotary phone on the kitchen wall. It had been years since I’d used one, but there was no question of using my cell phone. I’d left it at home so I couldn’t be traced. First I dialed 1-1-6-9 to block my number, then my sister Toni’s number, even though it was three in the morning back home. I let it ring twice and hung up. Our signal. Then I called again, again blocking my number.
Toni—Marie Antoinette was her full name; our historian father had named each of the three of us after French queens—answered with a hesitant “Yes?”
“It’s me, Josie.”
“What time is it? Is everything all right?” In those few words, her voice went from drowsy to alert. “How’s New York?”
“About that.” I screwed my eyes closed and opened them. Out with it. “I’m not in New York.”
She groaned. “Oh, Josie, you haven’t—”
“I won’t tell you where I am. But I wanted you to know I’m okay, just in case you called the hotel and found out I hadn’t checked in.”
“So. You ran.”
“I’ll come home after the trial. It’ll only be a few months. I already gave my deposition. They don’t need me now.”
“I knew this would happen. Couldn’t the feds hide you somewhere? What about the witness protection program? I don’t feel good about this.”
“After what happened to Anton, I didn’t want to take the chance.” The week before, my coworker and fellow whistleblower Anton had vanished, leaving a wife and toddler daughter with no idea whether he was dead or alive.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes—that is, I’m not sure. I had this weird episode on the plane, like my innards were exploding. Is that what a panic attack feels like?” Toni was a physician. She’d know.
“Not usually. Stress does weird things, though.”
I’d had plenty of stress. I pulled aside my collar and pressed a finger on the star-shaped birthmark on my shoulder. Ever since I was a girl, I’d touched it for comfort. Tonight, it almost burned.
“I’m sure I’ll be better in the morning.”
“You really won’t tell me where you are?”
“No. You know I can’t. But you should see it here. It’s crazy, like I stepped into Cold Comfort Farm. The guy who drove me from the airport could have been nicknamed Lurch. I’m waiting for a raven to appear on a tree branch outside.”
“Just give me your town’s name. What if something happens to you?”
“No. I can’t. It’s better this way.” I toyed with the phone’s coiled cord. “I’ll call Mom tomorrow,” I said, replying to Toni’s unspoken question. All our lives, my sisters and I had shared a tacit communication. We could work elbow-to-elbow in Mom’s kitchen and never get in each others’ way. We’d pass a half cup of milk or plug in the mixer or set the oven’s timer for another sister without saying a word. “It’s late. I need to get to bed. I just wanted you to know I’m all right.”
After hanging up, I laid my nightgown on the foot of the bed. On impulse, I heaved up the bedroom window. Oak trees vanished into the night. Beyond the trees was a cabin that couldn’t have been more than a few rooms. The caretaker’s, I guessed. Beyond that, maybe fifty yards away, was a house as large as the library, but squat and wide. I made out the glow of a light in an upstairs window. As I watched, a window shade pulled shut and blocked it out.
A breeze whooshed through the dry leaves, carrying a few to rattle against the roof. “Good night, wind,” I said, almost hearing my grandmother whisper the words in my ear. Funny, I hadn’t greeted the wind since I was a girl.
The black cat returned, too, padding up the shingles below my window.
“Who are you, little guy?”
He took two steps forward, mouthed a silent “meow,” and leapt away into the darkness.
That night I dreamt for the first time in decades—vivid images of my grandmother’s garden with lavender-scented laundry on the line and bundles of herbs drying on a sunny windowsill. One dream in particular stayed with me. I was a little girl, outside in my nightgown. Stars spangled the night. My mother was encouraging me to drink something from a crystal tumbler, but I didn’t want to. In another, darker vision, a woman in a black jacket circled the house, trying doors and windows.
But that was last night. This morning, sun seeped through the cracks in the curtains. I swung my feet to the braided rag rug and pushed the drapes open to blue skies. It was the first day of my new life.
I’d never managed a library before. Sure, in library school I’d supervised a few interns and staffed the information desk, but at the Library of Congress I’d specialized in cataloguing the folklife collection. It had been just me, a computer, and stacks of old documents.
To tell the truth, I was surprised the Wilfred library had hired me, given my lack of experience. I felt a twinge of guilt that I wouldn’t be staying long. Still, while I was here I’d be the best librarian I knew how to be. All I had to do was act normal—unremarkable, even. Do my job and draw no attention to myself.
When I’d interviewed, I’d glossed over my work at the Library of Congress and focused on the job I’d held before at the University of Maryland. My former boss had been happy to give me a recommendation and play down my dates of employment. Darla hadn’t seemed to mind my relative lack of experience. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought she’d planned to hire me no matter where I’d come from.
For my first day of work, I chose a professional cotton skirt, cardigan, and the librarian’s regulation clogs, perfect for hours on my feet. My hair, a long nest of red curls threaded with frizz, would spoil the efficient look I wanted to project. With the help of the dresser mirror, its face spotted black here and there, I managed to wrangle it into a low bun studded with bobby pins.
As I popped in the last bobby pin, I noticed a book on the nightstand. Funny, I could have sworn it hadn’t been there last night. Folk Witch, it was called. I bit off a laugh. Must have been left by the last librarian, probably some hippie girl who made love potions and did astrological charts. I tossed the book on the bed with the intention of reshelving it later.
As I made my way down the staircase, voices drifted up. And, thank goodness, the aroma of coffee.
The staircase led into a bright, blue-and-white-tiled kitchen with a long wooden table in the center. Around the table, three heads turned toward me. All at once, I felt apprehensive. Had I made a huge mistake?
“Hello, everyone.” I took a deep breath. “I’m Josephine Way, the new librarian. You can call me Josie.”
“Ma’am.” Lyndon Forster, the caretaker and last night’s chauffeur, nodded. I knew better than to expect a long-winded greeting. He looked less ominous in the morning light, just craggy and sun-darkened. “Sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Not that it will matter much longer,” a graying brunette said from across the table. She must have been in her early fifties, and she seemed to be made entirely of curves. Jeans and a blue plaid shirt barely held in a plush body, and the theme continued in cheeks rounded like apricots, blue eyes, and even a ball at the tip of her nose.
“What do you mean?” I asked. They couldn’t have found out about me already, could they?
“Hush, Roz,” said the third person, a comfortably built woman with pink frosted lipstick, big hair, and a leopard blazer over a T-shirt and jeans. “Don’t you listen to her. She’s never been a glass-half-full gal. I’m Darla, the trustee in charge of the hiring committee. You interviewed with me.” Darla rose and stuck out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last. Bet you’d like a cup of coffee about now. You had a late night.”
“Roslyn Grover,” the brunette said, offering a hand. “Everyone calls me Roz. I’m assistant librarian.”
Darla poured a mug of coffee with the flourish of a longtime waitress and pushed a jug of cream across the table. “The library will be closed today while you settle in. Before we get down to your responsibilities, I wanted to meet with you first thing. We have something”—she stole a glance at Roz—“sensitive to talk about.”
Lyndon sucked the rest of his coffee from his mug. “Got to rake the side yard. Best be moving on.”
“Sure. What is it?” I asked hesitantly as the kitchen door shut behind him. I had to wonder if I’d be bundled into his truck in a few hours and sent back to the airport.
“Now, I don’t want you to get alarmed.”
“Okay,” I said, my apprehension deepening.
“It has to do with the Wilfred mansion. And the library.” Darla took her seat again at the table.
“It’s getting ugly,” Roz said. “The whole town’s divided.” Her skin reddened, and she flipped open the fan on the table beside her. “Hot flash. Caffeine brings them on.” The fan moved double-time. “That, and stress.”
“Roz, you stay out of it.”
Wide-eyed, I looked from one woman to the other. It didn’t sound like the issue had to do with me, but I wasn’t ready to breathe a sigh of relief just yet. On the other hand, whatever the situation was, as long as it didn’t involve hit men, I’d deal with it.
Darla set down her mug. “I’m sorry to spring it on you like this, but you see—” “Georgia on My Mind” erupted from her purse. “Excuse me.” She pulled out her phone, then wrinkled her nose and dropped her phone back into her bag. “We have a situation, and I’ve got to run.” She turned to Roz. “Why don’t you bring Josie to the diner? I’ll explain it all then.”
A moment later, the door shut, and only Roz and I were left in the kitchen.
Worry—a feeling I’d been all too familiar with lately—sparked in my chest. “What’s happening with the library?”
“Come on,” Roz said. “I’ll tell you about it on the way to breakfast.”
“Darla never hinted at any kind of trouble in the job interview,” I told Roz as we left through the kitchen door. I noticed a cat door and was about to ask about the black cat I’d seen last night, when Roz spoke.
“I told her she shouldn’t hire you on false pretenses. But does she ever listen to me? Does anyone?”
“What false pretenses? What should she have told me?”
“Darla’s a library trustee.”
I nodded. “Got that.”
“She also owns Darla’s Tavern and Diner and the Magnolia Rolling Estates trailer park. Basically, she’s Wilfred’s de facto mayor.”
“I didn’t know you had magnolias in the Pacific Northwest.” A sudden memory came to me of fat, creamy petals falling in my grandmother’s garden.
“We don’t. Not native ones, anyway, but Darla loves the South. Always has grits on her menu. The library subscribes to Southern Dame because of her.” Roz stopped just on the other side of the library and turned toward the river below. “Isn’t that a view? I never get over it.”
The sky was bluer than I’d ever known a sky to be. Every throatful of air was fresher than spring water after a run. My senses were working on all pistons. I felt like life had exploded into Technicolor, as if I’d boarded my flight as one person and left as another.
Down the bluff, beyond the river, the tiny town we’d driven through last night hugged the road. Imagine a cross, with the road as the north-south axis and the river running east-west. The library, including its grounds, the caretaker’s cottage, and the other large house, filled the southwest quadrant. Wilfred proper straddled the road on the northern squares of the cross.
“That must be Darla’s restaurant.” I pointed to the low-slung tavern I’d seen last night. This morning, dirty pickup trucks and SUVs filled the front lot.
“Yep, that’s it. Closer, here by the Kirby—that’s the river’s name—is the trailer park where I live.”
“What’s that building, the one with the bay windows?”
“The old commercial block. Built in the twenties. Next door is the post office. It’s a grocery store now. Across the highway”—she pointed to the woods on our side of the river—“is the old mill site. The mill is long gone, but the mill pond is still there.”
We stood a moment, each thinking our own thoughts, mine having to do with the “crisis” I’d heard about. Birds cooed. The proud old library sat up like a spinster aunt at church, tidy and straight.
“It’s crazy that the house’s best view is over the river toward town, but the front—the big driveway and porch—faces the other direction,” Roz said.
“Hmm. Maybe they liked seeing the woods.”
“More likely they didn’t like seeing everyone else. That would be just like the Wilfreds.”
Town history was interesting, but my immediate future grabbed me more. Time to get to the point. “So, Darla owns land in town. What does that have to do with the library?”
Roz led me to a wooded trail along the bluff. “We’ll take this to the bridge. It’s shorter than going by the driveway and road. See that house?” She seemed almost deliberate in her attempt to keep me from asking questions.
“Yes.” It was the house I’d glimpsed last night through the trees.
“We call it Big House. Even though, technically, the library is bigger.”
“Who lives there?”
“Right now? No one. It used to belong to the Wilfreds. Marilyn Wilfred—old man Thurston Wilfred’s daughter—stayed in the original Wilfred mansion and turned the bottom two floors into a library. The next generation had to build a place next door.”
We were past Big House now. “I saw a light there last night.”
“Couldn’t have,” Roz said decisively.
“Okay.” No use arguing. “Let’s get back to Darla. What does owning a tavern and trailer park have to do with the library and this ‘sensitive situation’?” I asked, feigning patience.
Roz didn’t respond.
She started across the bridge, but I stayed put. “You have to tell me what’s going on here. I haven’t even been on the job an hour and I’ve been warned about something dire that has to do with the library. Plus, this place seems to be a revolving door for librarians. What’s the story?”
Roz looked at the river, then at the tavern just down the road. Finally, she met my gaze. “Okay. Darla said to wait, but I guess . . . Sit down.” She pointed to the bridge’s wide railing.
The cement was cold under my skirt. “I’m listening.”
“Tourism has been picking up lately. Campers, bicyclists, people touring wine country.”
“That’s good, right? More tourism, more business.”
Roz stood. “It’s shaking things up, that’s all. Let’s go have breakfast. You’ve got to try the shrimp grits.”
That was it? That was the “sensitive” issue? “You’re not telling me everything. Be straight with me. What does tourism have to do with the library?” Roz marched straight ahead. I suppressed the urge to yank her back by the waistband of her jeans. “Stop it! You’re avoiding my question. Please, Roz. Answer me.”
She felt around in her pocket, probably for her fan. Yes, there it was. Despite the fall breeze, she flipped it open.
“They want the library.” The words came out in a rush.
“Some people want to buy the Wilfred mansion and bulldoze it and put up a retreat center.”
“When?” The word came out as pure breath.
Pricks of moisture gathered on her forehead. “If the sale goes through, it could be as early as next month.”
“Oh no. No wonder—”
“Don’t panic. We’re doin. . .
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