Muriel Bright, America’s latest foodie channel sweetheart, is a real charmer who’s always discovering new uses for her magic outside the kitchen.
Muriel has plenty of experience using her skills as a healer, cooking up comfort and well-being one delicious treat at a time. When there’s a murder behind the scenes at her top-rated cooking show, Muriel has no choice but to draw on her other extraordinary talents. As Muriel takes up sleuthing, she finds that her abilities are quickly put to the test.
Despite what the detective assigned to the case may believe, this is no ordinary murder. Powerful forces are at work, and Muriel is determined to oppose them. As a graduate of the Witches Academy, Muriel is a force to be reckoned with, and it's her calling to keep the darkness at bay. After getting to know the attractive detective better, Muriel would also like to keep him alive. In order to do that, Muriel gives a whole new meaning to the use of smoke and mirrors as she relies on them to deceive some and reveal the truth to others. Can she solve the murder and stop the killing without tipping her hand to the police?
A waitress attending night school at the academy discovers, along with the gift of magic, she has royal blood flowing through her veins. America’s latest foodie channel sweetheart is a real charmer, who discovers not all the magic happens in the kitchen. Clair struggles with taking control of her magical powers until she meets a guy who really needs her help. A beautiful witch, empowered with the gift of creating strong magic spells since childhood, now refuses to use them––until her friend’s murder changes everything. An investigative reporter’s strange visions force her to really use her powers. When a rival tries to mess with her magic a witch must find a way to rekindle her flame.
What do eight enchanted witches have in common? They’ve all attended the Witches Academy of Sorcery in the Big Easy, the foremost school of magic in the world. From coast to coast, each of these bewitched women will work at becoming who they are meant to be, using their powers to the fullest capacity.
Release date: September 27, 2020
Print pages: 177
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) escapist/easy read (1) terrific writing (1)
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Anna Celeste Burke
A Stretch in Time
“If this isn’t one of the most enchanting appetizers you’ve ever tried, I’m not Muriel, your favorite kitchen magician!” I quipped and helped myself to a tiny bite of a pancetta-wrapped peach slice with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar.
What happened next was the first sign of trouble, although I didn’t realize it until later. I would have sworn the appetizer had cooled, but the bite I took was scorching hot. I grabbed a bottle of water that I always keep nearby. Usually, I take a few sips to cleanse my pallet. In this case, I guzzled it, trying to put out the fire raging in my mouth. When I could speak again, I offered a piece of advice to the members of my audience—in the studio and those who would be watching at home when the show aired.
“Make sure they’re cool enough to eat before you serve them.”
Members of the audience chuckled. When a little water spurted from the corner of my mouth, I giggled as I wiped my shirt with a towel. I’ve always been a bit clumsy, so I’m rarely perfect in the kitchen, even when the cameras are rolling. My fans don’t seem to mind and even email me about their cooking mishaps.
“Good grief. This dish was easier to prepare than it is to eat,” I added as they laughed again.
“That’s because you don’t get enough practice eating,” Ophelia, my long-time friend and co-host, said. She continued to chide me in her Southern Louisiana accent. “I don’t have that problem. I’m an excellent eater, which is why I’m so pleasingly plump, and you’re a waif.”
When Ophelia struck a pose, she evoked wild chortling. According to reviewers, the banter between us is one thing that keeps people tuning in. Ophelia cracks me up, and the sassy vamp expression that went along with her pose had me laughing. I lowered my eyes for a few seconds and cut the appetizers into pieces.
When the audience began cheering, I glanced up again. Ophelia was still at it, wiggling her backside, which was more than plump by most standards. Several audience members were standing next to their chairs, trying to outdo her. I wagged my knife at Ophelia.
“You need something to do before you get the censors on our case,” I quipped. “Share these with the audience, will you, please?”
“I sure will. I’ll give our guests a demo too, so they won’t do that nibbling thing you do with your pinky sticking out,” she added as she took the tray from me. Then she popped one of the appetizers into her mouth, chewed it, and mm-mm’ed with delight. “Pure kitchen magic, Muriel!”
“And that’s how you should eat it, am I right?” she asked as she stopped in front of an audience member in the front row.
“Yes, Ophelia,” the bespectacled young woman responded. Wearing a Kitchen Magic t-shirt, she took a sample and ate it the same way Ophelia had done—complete with the mm-mm once she swallowed. “That is so good. I bet apricots would work too, wouldn’t they?”
“They would! What’s your name, hon?” Ophelia asked as she moved to let the camera catch a close-up of our guest.
“Terry—Terry Price,” she responded.
“Look how happy you made Muriel, Terry. She’s grinning like a proud momma.”
“I’m smiling because that was such a great question. In fact, I planned to mention that apricots would also be terrific in this recipe,” I beamed at Terry and then stared directly into the camera.
“Terry’s already thinking about being creative and adapting the dishes we share with you on our show. A new dish is a culinary adventure, so I want you to try them. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, though. Using the ingredients that you, your friends, and family love best is part of being a creative home chef. Adapting a recipe to use what you have on hand is fine too. If you don’t know where to find pancetta that hasn’t been chopped into itty-bitty pieces, buy prosciutto instead, or use smoked bacon.”
“I do love bacon,” Ophelia responded, and set off a round of approving, “so do I’s.”
While the camera followed Ophelia as she handed out more samples, I examined the warming tray I’d used for the pancetta-wrapped peaches. It was plugged in and set on low, as I’d intended. There was nothing that I could see to explain why the bite I’d taken was so frigging hot. We were about to wrap up and say goodbye, so I decided to shut it off. When I did that, I got a zap, and the lights flickered.
“Eek!” I said.
“What did you do now?” Ophelia asked as she turned toward me. “I can’t turn my back on you for a minute, can I?”
“Here,” she said, handing a half-empty tray of appetizer samples to a woman in the next seat. “Will you please pass these along while I check on my co-host?”
“I know how to eat as well as you do,” the woman who’d taken the tray from Ophelia said. “I don’t see why I have to pass them on.”
With that, the woman tossed one into her mouth as audience members reacted with a round of chuckles that quickly switched to groans, “no’s,” and a “don’t you dare” when she ate a second one. I don’t believe anyone thought she was serious until she helped herself to a third. The “don’t you dare” comment had come from a woman in the middle of one of the back rows. She was up, out of her seat, and on the move, scooting past guests who remained seated.
“Ouch!” one of the other guests yipped as she must have stepped on her foot while heading to the aisle. An usher rushed over as she left the row. He was probably telling her to take her seat, but she pushed past him.
Since the camera was focused on the impending confrontation, I motioned to Ophelia for her to go back. Then I waved at the cameraman, trying to get him to switch to me.
The cameraman pointed the camera at me, but he kept an eye on the audience and didn’t stay focused on me for long. Ophelia was trying to retrieve the tray of samples from the woman still holding it. She moved it out of Ophelia’s reach, and a person nearby grabbed an appetizer. That prompted the hoarder to pull the tray close again before anyone could snag another. Ophelia was able to get a hand on the tray as the woman who was still holding onto the other end, shoveled samples into her mouth. She looked like a chipmunk.
The woman from the back row was down in front now. With one hand, she reached for the tray and raised the other one as if she intended to hit someone. I had to do something fast. A basket of little kitchen witches sat on a counter behind me. We usually hand out a few to audience members at the end of the show while we’re saying goodbye or after the cameras have quit rolling, but that would be too late today.
With a surge of will, I acted. “One!” I said, focusing my mind on the moment in which I spoke the word. I held onto the moment and time became a tangible substance. I stretched the space between this second and the next as I grabbed the basket of kitchen witches.
“Time is as soft as clay, molded by our minds. A second is as an hour, an hour as a second or a day—whatever we need it to be.”
“Two!” I said and heard my voice as if it were far away and slowed down as the word two was drawn out. I stuffed gift cards into the dolls’ arms. When I uttered the word “Three!” I was in the audience, placing a kitchen witch under each chair.
“Abracadabra!” I exclaimed, using the old blessing associated with magic. Its origin is lost in antiquity, but the word always brings me joy when I speak it. As I returned to my place behind the counter in our studio kitchen, I let go of the time stretch as the camera swung my way. The lights flickered again, which wasn’t my doing, but I didn’t mind since it helped get everyone’s attention back on me. “What’s that under your seats?”
I sighed with relief as audience members scurried to look under their chairs. Oohs, aahs, and a few happy shrieks were caught on camera as they retrieved their adorable dolls and the gift cards attached to them. The woman from the back row rushed to return to her seat and retrieve her gift.
A near-disaster averted, the guest who’d started the trouble handed the tray to Ophelia. Ophelia brought it with her and placed it on the kitchen island as she stepped around behind it and stood next to me. As the chaos subsided, and audience members sat down, Ophelia spoke to me.
“You do love playing Oprah, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I responded. “As if you don’t!”
“Of course, I do. Spending time with Muriel and Ophelia means you get ‘M plus O,’ as in MO! MO fun, MO food, and MO magic. Right?” The audience members clapped, hooted, and whistled.
Many also jumped up and down, waving their kitchen witch dolls, which bear a remarkable resemblance to me. The dolls also sported a stereotypical witch hat and broom that bothers me a little. At least the producers hadn’t made me over into the image of a crone. I’m not sure why I object to the traditional witchy garb since it’s what people expect witches to look like. Those expectations can help witches, like me, keep a low profile as we go about our lives.
“Ophelia means what she says. There’s nothing we enjoy more than bringing our foodie friends happiness, and sometimes when you least expect it, whether you’re here with us in the studio or watching from home, we know you feel the same way about what goes on in your kitchen. A kitchen is always filled with magic when the food’s prepared and served with love.” I picked up one of the kitchen witches and waved her at our guests.
“We hope our pint-sized kitchen witches, like so many others in kitchens all over the world, will bring you good luck, protect you from harm, and keep your pots from boiling over and your food from burning.
We could have used a little more help like that today, I thought, beginning to wonder what was up.
“You do talk pretty,” Ophelia said, breaking the spell that had brought a hush to the cheering crowd. “Give her some love!”
“We love you, Muriel! You too, Ophelia!”
“We love you back,” I said, putting an arm around Ophelia’s shoulder. Then they began to chant.
“We want MO! We want MO!”
“Y’all know we always have MO. What’s on the menu for next week?” Ophelia asked as if she didn’t already know.
“Our time is running short, isn’t it? Let’s look at a preview of a new episode of Sandwich Magic!”
The producer ran a prerecorded clip from next week’s show featuring sandwiches made on rustic bread. The film showed Ophelia and me visiting an artisanal bakery. Its shelves lined with loaves of crusty bread in different shapes and sizes. We tried chunks of the freshly baked bread as the owner of the shop described each delicious bite.
I do hold out my pinkie, I commented to myself as I watched the film clip.
My mind wandered back to the odd occurrences during the show. If it hadn’t been for my impromptu decision to stretch time, who knows what might have happened.
“That bread was soooo good,” I said as the clip ended, “even if I did eat it with my pinkie up.”
“Your eatin’ skills were much better with the bread. You were even using both hands, sometimes, the same way I did.”
“I love bread, and it was still warm from the oven,” I said as the audience aahed along with me. “There’s nothing that makes a kitchen feel more like the heart of a home than the aroma of freshly baked bread.”
“Except cookies in the oven,” Ophelia added.
“Okay, except—maybe—cookies in the oven,” I conceded, chuckling.
My amusement suddenly ended when I caught a whiff of something foul. Ophelia looked around as if she smelled it too. I maintained my composure and continued speaking when the one-minute warning light came on. Gordon Simpson, the director on the set, gave me the hand signal to wrap it up.
“We had so many types of bread to choose from for next week’s show, I had no choice but to use both hands to try them all. Tune in to see which ones we chose to come up with truly magical sandwiches. We’ll pair them with scrumptious ingredients like...”
“Like fried green tomatoes and thick slices of slab bacon,” Ophelia added, interrupting me. “And wait until you see the hunky guest who’s joining us. You won’t believe it when you see a softer, hungrier side of Dustin Mills. He’s going to tell us what he loves in a sandwich—and maybe women too if the audience can talk him into it. I’m already drooling.”
“You’ve been warned, Dustin,” I said as the audience was still hooting at Ophelia’s remarks. “As always, you can count on us to help you cook up comfort and well-being, one delicious treat at a time. Thanks for joining us. Until next week, keep making your own kitchen magic at home.”
I smiled and waved, as the countdown ran down. It had to be close to zero when the lights flickered again. That was followed by a popping sound, and the room went dark. Emergency footlights came on, allowing the audience members to file out, murmuring as they left.
We followed them, exiting the soundstage and making our way up the steps to the studio’s common space. I felt like doing more than murmuring, but all I needed was to be caught having a tantrum. I’d have a hard time living it down after a LA Times food critic recently dubbed me “America’s latest foodie-channel sweetheart.”
“What the hell is going on?” Ophelia asked, and I burst out laughing. Given what she said next, she’d obviously been reading my mind. “Nobody’s gonna ever call me a foodie-channel sweetheart, so I get to speak my mind. That odor is back, even stronger!”
“I thought you noticed it earlier.”
“Are you kidding me? How could I miss what smelled like a burnt rat?”
“Eew… how would you know what that smells like?” I couldn’t see her face well in the dark, but I knew she was eying me. Ophelia had experienced some hard living in New Orleans before she’d turned her life around. “Never mind. Please don’t tell me.”
“Why can’t you get the lights back on?” Ophelia bellowed. “I’ve got to use the facilities if you catch my drift. Are they out of order too?” She’d barely finished her last sentence when the lights came upon. “Thank goodness!”
Ophelia took off for the nearest restroom. She didn’t get far before an earsplitting scream caused her to come to a screeching halt. At the far end of the studio from us, Mimi Banks, a stylist who does our hair and makeup for the show, darted out from behind a screen.
“He’s dead! Josh Curry’s dead.”
A Weeping Woman
Ophelia and I ran to the place from which Mimi had emerged moments earlier. Josh Curry was indeed dead. An electric cable had fallen on him. It must have been a live wire when it struck him because there were burns on his arms, his hair was singed, and his body appeared to be welded to the wall behind him.
“I tol’ ya so,” Ophelia whispered. “A burnt rat!” Ophelia had shed much of her accent, but when she’s excited or upset—which is often—it takes over. She’d all but dropped the “r” from burnt, and it sounded closer to “bunt.”
I wanted to turn away, but I peered at Josh Curry’s body and the surrounding area. At the Witches Academy, we were taught to hone our senses through hours and hours of training in hyper-vigilant observation. I used what I’d learned, and as my vision became more acute, I spotted several oddities.
The odors around him were almost overwhelming as my olfactory sense intensified. I sorted through the spectrum of scents, trying to make sense of what someone had done to Josh. I didn’t dare touch him, but as I hovered near him, I detected little heat coming from his body except for the parts that were burned by the live wire that had fallen on him. Those spots still sizzled, although the ambient noise around us all but canceled the sound. I wouldn’t have noticed without resorting to hypervigilant observation. The hot spots stood out in contrast to how cool the rest of his body was.
“He’s not my favorite member of the crew, but I wouldn’t call him a rat,” I whispered as I snapped out of it and responded to the point Ophelia had made. Any notion I’d had that some terrible accident had occurred was gone.
“That’s because you won’t let me give you the lowdown about what goes on around here. I’m surprised Mimi didn’t add ‘good riddance’ when she was squalling about him bein’ dead.”
With my senses still heightened, I suddenly felt a chilly whoosh of air I might have ordinarily ignored. For a split second, I also heard a whimper as a hand touched my face, making the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand up. When I turned in the direction from which the breeze had come, I caught sight of a shadowy figure with a shimmering, nondescript face. Tears streamed from genderless eyes, but, somehow, I knew the phantom was a young woman. Then fingers made of a dense, charcoal gray fog emerged from the wall behind her, enveloped her, and vanished through the wall again.
For a reason I didn’t understand, a poem by P. K. Joy popped into my head entitled, “Oh Cruelty, thy name is…” Despite his last name, the poem is anything but joyful. It’s a poem Joy wrote about getting over what must have been an almost diabolical love affair. With no one named in the title, the poem’s a testament to all who’d suffered for love. As I examined the place where the apparition stood before she was abducted, I recalled a line from the poem.
“Tearfully I take leave, carrying the baggage you cruelly packed.”
What was the weeping woman trying to tell me? Did Josh Curry’s name now fill in for the one missing from the poem’s title? My head hurt. I was exhausted by the ordeal we’d gone through during the show, and the shock of discovering an acquaintance’s tragic murder made it worse. The appearance of uninvited guests from the spirit realm was unnerving.
Maybe, I’m too influenced by Ophelia’s comments about our dead crew member’s bad reputation, I said to myself as I reconsidered the meaning of the poem. In it, the man is the victim, not the perpetrator, of cruelty. Perhaps the poor wretched creature had appeared to encourage me to find his killer. If that were true, why did the second entity steal her away?
I needed to go home, shower away the icky feeling clinging to me, and have a long talk with Ginger and Ginseng. A witch who talks to her black, golden-eyed Bombay cats—now that’s a stereotype, I thought. There’s more than meets the eye to Ginger and Ginseng, although they’re sweet and lovely to have around.
“Listen up, folks!” Gordon said in a loud voice. “No one’s going anywhere until the police get here. They’re on their way, so have a seat.”
“I’m sorry, Muriel,” he added as he walked toward me. “You’ve got to be tired after handling the rowdy crowd today. You did a superb job, by the way.”
“Thank you, but don’t forget that I also burned my tongue and got shocked by the warming tray, thanks to whatever went crazy with the wiring in the studio today. I hope the technicians will check all the wiring, or you’ll buy me a new warming tray before I need to use it again. I guess I should feel lucky that I didn’t end up like Josh, huh? What a horrible accident.”
“Accident? You don’t believe that for a minute. I saw the wheels turning as you stared at the body like you were examining the ingredients delivered for one of your recipes,” Gordon replied. “I’m glad you weren’t more seriously hurt. We’ll have electricians check all the wiring, and we’ll replace the warming tray. I wish I could send you on your way home, but ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’ Grab a chair and get comfy. If I could be sure it was safe, I’d suggest you hang out in your dressing room. That doesn’t seem like a good idea right now.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I said quickly. My dressing room was on the other side of the wall, where that hand had emerged earlier and stolen away with the ghostly spirit. “I’m staying put.”
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