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Every town has its secrets, but no one has a secret like hers.
Amber Blackwood, lifelong resident of Edgehill, Oregon, has earned a reputation for being a semi-reclusive odd duck. Her store, The Quirky Whisker, is full of curiosities, from extremely potent sleepy teas and ever-burning candles to kids’ toys that seem to run endlessly without the aid of batteries. The people of Edgehill think of the Quirky Whisker as an integral part of their feline-obsessed town, but most give Amber herself a wide berth. Amber prefers it that way; it keeps her secret safe. But that secret is thrown into jeopardy when Amber’s friend Melanie is found dead, a vial of headache tonic from Amber’s store clutched in her hand.
Edgehill’s newest police chief has had it out for Amber since he arrived three years before. He can’t possibly know she’s a witch, but his suspicions about her odd store and even odder behavior have shot her to the top of his suspect list. When the Edgehill rumor mill finds out Melanie was poisoned, it’s not only the police chief who looks at Amber differently. Determined to both find justice for her friend and to clear her own name, Amber must use her unique gifts to help track down Melanie’s real killer. A quest that threatens much more than her secret …
Release date: June 10, 2019
Publisher: Ringtail Press
Print pages: 256
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Listen to a sample
Melissa Erin Jackson
The palm-sized black toy lay curled on the countertop. Amber stood on one side of the counter, the other swarmed by the wide-eyed, upturned faces of six little boys and girls, their parents forming a wall behind them. Some looked as delighted as their children. Others, especially the fathers, appeared nothing short of harassed—all folded arms and pursed lips.
Amber supposed she couldn’t blame them for being skeptical and a bit wary during her toy demonstrations. They watched with dubious concern, not trusting the toys and trinkets their children brought home from the Quirky Whisker. The toys that seemed to move on their own, that played with their children for hours without showing signs of slowing down. Toys that couldn’t be dismantled to replace the “batteries” when the toys inevitably stopped working in a year or so.
By way of explanation, she would say, “Oh, they’ve got tiny computer chips inside that power them.” And, “I can’t explain how they work, exactly! The designs are perfected by an engineer who wishes to remain anonymous.”
Besides, with their fickle, ever-changing focus, the children would lose interest in the toy in question soon enough, and her creation would languish in a box or under a bed or in the back of a closet, gathering dust. The spell would have worn off by the time the old toy was rediscovered; it would be immobile and unresponsive, as if its battery had finally been drained.
Then Amber would have a new toy on the market and the children of Edgehill would beg their parents to replace the ones they’d already abandoned.
“Are you ready?” Amber asked now, bent at the waist with her arms resting on the wooden countertop so she was eye level with the kids. Her dark brown hair hung over her shoulder in a loose braid, the ends gently tickling her arm.
She got a wave of nods in response.
Her attention shifted back to the black plastic toy, this one fashioned to look like the curled, sleeping form of a cat. Its tail was wrapped around its body, hiding its paws.
“Wake up, little one,” she said softly, placing a single finger on one of the cat’s pointed ears, before pressing down.
The tiny plastic ear gave a click and sank into the cat’s head before popping back into place. Amber folded her arms on the countertop again, giving the toy space. The cat’s head lifted then, blinking slowly, to the delight of the watching children. The toy cat’s back faced her, but she’d seen the cat perform its tricks dozens of times, perfecting the act before she’d invited the kids to see it.
The plastic cat blinked its round green eyes a few more times, then yawned, its tiny fangs visible as its pink tongue stretched out a few centimeters. The kids giggled.
Childlike wonder in the form of wide eyes and slightly agape mouths usually overtook the parents at this point. And, as expected, the expressions on all the parents’ faces, save for one, lit up at the sight.
Owen Brown never smiled during a demonstration. Amber wondered why he continued to show.
The cat rose to all fours, hoisting its butt in the air as it stretched, tail curled overhead like a miniature cane. Then it plopped down on its haunches, tail wrapped around its feet. The tip flicked periodically.
The children erupted into applause, turning quickly to their parents to tug on shirts and pockets and purse straps, pleading for another of Amber Blackwood’s unique toys. Amber straightened, smiling to herself.
Owen Brown’s young son turned back to Amber when his parents began a whispered conversation about whether or not they truly needed another one of these things. “Miss Amber? What else does the kitty do?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
Amber rested her arms on the countertop once more, the wood smooth and worn from years of use. “Can I show you something special?”
The little boy, if he stood on tiptoes, was just tall enough to get his nose to clear the surface. She saw more of his mass of curly blond hair than anything else. That mop of curls bounced as he nodded.
“I programmed this one to obey a couple commands. It will only work for a very special owner, though, and won’t work for anyone else,” she said.
Amber had started adding voice activation “technology” to the toys only recently—the spells involved had been particularly tricky to master.
His blue eyes widened. “Me?”
“If you want, I think I can get Midnight here to listen to you.”
The toy cat, now named Midnight, Amber supposed, had been sitting as still as a statue—save for the occasional flick of his tail—but turned his head at the sound of his new name and blinked a slow cat blink at the little boy.
The boy grinned, showing a missing front tooth. “Hi, Midnight. I’m Sammy.”
A tiny mew echoed from the plastic cat. The little boy giggled again, eyes bright.
Amber’s gaze shifted to the other children and their parents for a moment, but no one seemed to be paying them much mind.
Owen Brown’s attention flicked away from his wife and toward Amber then, a scowl drawing his brows together. Certainly, he hadn’t heard the meow from the cat, had he?
Two of the kids had grown bored and darted off toward the toy display on the other end of the store. The floorboards creaked under their tiny feet as they ran. When Amber’s attention shifted back to Owen, he was talking to his wife again.
Amber shook it off. But, just to be sure, she mentally uttered a spell of secrecy and gave a slight flick of her wrist. Neither the cat nor Sammy seemed to notice.
“Now, Sammy,” she said, looking at the little boy as he tightly gripped the edge of the counter, focus squared on the cat. “Midnight here is like a dog—he knows ‘sit,’ ‘come,’ and ‘roll over.’ All you have to do is say his name and give the command.”
Sammy’s eyes somehow widened further. After a long pause, he said, “Do I do it right now?”
Sammy’s mouth bunched up on one side, and his brows pulled together. Utter concentration. He looked like a miniature version of his father. “Midnight, come.”
The plastic cat stood on all fours, then walked over to Sammy, got right up to his face, and sniffed his nose. Sammy squeaked and let go of the counter to clap his hands. “Midnight, roll over!”
The cat lowered itself to the counter, all four limbs bunched as if prepared to spring from the wood like a cricket, but then froze.
“What … what happened?” Sammy asked, grabbing hold of the counter again. “Did I say it wrong, Miss Amber?”
Just then, a hand landed on Sammy’s shoulder. “How much is this one going to set us back, Miss Blackwood?” his father asked.
She straightened. “Well, since this one is the demo toy, it’s only five dollars.”
Owen squinted at Amber. She could tell him it was a lovely day and he would still look at her as if she’d just admitted to some heinous crime. To say she felt like he didn’t entirely trust her would be an understatement.
Of the year.
Amber figured police chiefs were naturally distrustful, having seen the worst humanity had to offer over the course of their careers. Owen had spent most of said career in bigger cities, namely Portland. Moving to Edgehill three years ago had no doubt been an abrupt change of pace for him, but given the hard-edged stare he angled at her—oh, all the time—she knew his Spidey-police-senses hadn’t been left behind in Portland. Those senses clearly went into overdrive around her, even though he hadn’t a clue why.
Amber flicked a glance at his wife standing nearby, silent as usual. The woman had a hand on her very pregnant belly.
Without a word, Owen fished a five-dollar bill out of his pocket and dropped it on the counter. Shoving his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans, he ruffled his son’s hair. “Let’s go, Sam. We’ve got to get your mother home and off her feet.”
Owen and his wife, Jessica, headed for the door.
Abruptly, Midnight tipped to the side, rolled, and popped back onto his feet. Then he went back to his default sitting position. Sammy let out a squawk of joy.
“Remember,” Amber said, “the commands will only work for you … no one else. No one else will ever be able to see his tricks.” She scooped up Midnight and placed him in Sammy’s waiting, outstretched hands.
The boy tightly clutched the toy to his chest. “But you saw him do it.”
“I’m his mom, so to speak, so I can see it, too,” she said. “Just you and me, kid.”
Sammy grinned his gap-toothed grin. “Thanks, Miss Amber! I’ll take real good care of him. I promise!”
Amber watched as the boy went bounding out of her shop after his parents.
Twenty minutes later, the shop was empty again. Five other toy cats had been sold—at full price—along with Midnight, and Henrietta Bishop had purchased her weekly batch of “sleepy tea.”
Henrietta was a middle-aged divorcee who’d moved to Edgehill specifically to embrace the “Crazy Cat Lady” lifestyle. She was a lithe redhead with a mass of curls that hung to her mid-back. They never were truly contained, no matter what she did. Currently they were loose and out of control. She reminded Amber of the girl from the Disney movie Brave.
“I really wish you’d tell me what you put in this stuff,” Henrietta had said for the four hundredth time, affectionately patting the bag with the Quirky Whisker’s logo on it—a bespectacled and top-hat-wearing cat with a wealth of whiskers spreading out from his smirking face. Amber’s younger sister, Willow, had designed it.
“A girl never tells her secrets,” Amber had replied, as usual.
“Works better than melatonin! I swear you need to sell this stuff online. You’d make a killing. Works like magic!”
If only Henrietta knew.
Now it was just after ten in the morning and Amber was blissfully alone. With any luck, this would hold out until noon when she closed for an hour for lunch.
She busied herself with tidying up after the tornado of children that had torn through. The toy section had super-bouncy balls and plastic animals scattered on the ground, knocked off the kid-accessible lower shelves. One of her favorite plastic dragons lay on its back, red wings flush with the floor, tiny taloned feet pointing toward the ceiling. The dragon looked mildly embarrassed, lying on her back when she was meant for the air.
Picking the dragon up, Amber laid the creature in her palm, wings outstretched and talons resting on Amber’s skin. With a soft, “Scarlet, fly,” the dragon toy came to life and pushed off from Amber’s hand, soon wheeling around the dreamcatchers hung from the ceiling in the dream section of the store.
Amber knew she was getting more and more bold with the toys. Her first batch had only walked on their own. Then they had walked and sat and pretended to sleep. Then she’d added voice activation. And now some could perform actions as complicated as flight.
Customers like Owen Brown were suspicious. They couldn’t possibly know she was a witch, but they knew something was off in the Quirky Whisker. The more she created meowing plastic cats and flying dragons, the more likely it was that she’d be found out.
But her magic needed an outlet. Resisting the energy that thrummed beneath her skin was a surefire way to drive a witch to madness. Just a little release here and there wouldn’t hurt anyone. Plus, seeing that bright-eyed look of wonder on Sammy’s face had been worth it.
That was what magic was about. Wonder.
After an impressive series of loop-de-loops and corkscrew diving maneuvers, the dragon gave a tiny roar before wheeling around to head back to her. It knew as well as she did that the flight spell would only last a few minutes, and if it ran out before the dragon was somewhere safe, she’d crash to the ground.
Amber held out a finger and the dragon landed on it like a trained falcon. Amber had just returned her to her perch on top of the toy display—still as could be, once more—when the chime above her shop door tinkled, causing her to whirl around.
Immediately worried her new patron had seen her dragon’s trick, this one not bestowed with the same failsafe as Midnight, she mentally went through the simple memory erase spells she knew—the kind that wiped away a small memory, no more than a minute old.
Her friend Melanie Cole walked in. Well, more like shambled in. Melanie’s dark hair was plastered to her forehead, her tanned skin pale. She wore an oversized long sweater over sweatpants, and her feet were shoved into ratty fur-lined boots. In short, Melanie looked a hot mess. Melanie, who usually never looked a hot mess, had been battling a persistent illness for weeks.
All thoughts of spells flew out of Amber’s head.
“Mel! Are you okay?” Amber asked, even though the answer was clearly no, and hurried across the creaky floors to her friend’s side, wrapping an arm around her waist. “I thought the remedy you bought last week finally cleared this up. You look terrible.”
“You really know how to talk to a lady.”
Amber huffed, placing the back of her hand to Melanie’s forehead.
“Oh, stop fussing,” Melanie said, though there was no malice in her voice. She had enough strength to gently push Amber away. “I’m all right. I have a slamming headache, though. What you got for me this time? Your stuff is better than anything at the drugstore.”
Amber pursed her lips, staring at her friend as she held herself up by resting a hand on a free-standing pyramid-shaped bookshelf.
“I’m all right, Amber,” Melanie said again. “Stop being a worried grandma and go get me the good stuff.”
Amber harrumphed but hurried behind the counter where she kept her tinctures and teas.
Melanie made a slow shuffle toward the counter. “No more tea, though. I’m so sick of it. If one more person brings me tea, so help me …”
“Okay, okay, no tea,” Amber called over her shoulder, laughing softly. “Where’s that boyfriend of yours? Shouldn’t he be feeding you chicken soup and giving you foot rubs?”
The back wall had been designed to mimic an old apothecary shop—sturdy shelves holding various herbs and liquids in glass jars took up the top rows, while the bottom rows—from floor to waist height—were made up of drawers.
“I’m still not talking about him,” Melanie said. “Stop fishing. None of the fish are biting.”
“Am I going to have to wait until your wedding to know the guy’s name? Assuming I’m even invited …”
“Guilt won’t work either, poppet,” Melanie said in a fake British accent. “Things are going good, though. I’ll tell you that much. I think he’s finally ready to take this to the next level. But that’s all I’m going to say! I don’t want to jinx it.”
Sighing, Amber gave up. She knew she could always magic the information out of her friend one way or another, but that never felt right. Amber hated to use her magic to manipulate others; she wasn’t the type to exploit her powers for personal gain. She was a Blackwood, not a Penhallow, after all.
White cards adorned with Willow’s crisp, clear handwriting had been slipped into slits on the face of each square drawer, labeling them with an ailment or focus.
Acne, bug bites, cardiac, dreams … she moved further down the alphabet. Gallbladder, hangovers—ah, headaches. Amber trundled the drawer open and pulled out one of the small glass vials, this recipe heavily featuring passionflower, which would help Melanie’s headache.
With her back turned to Melanie, Amber muttered a quick activation spell—causing the ingredients to work twice as fast—and waved her hand over the vial. Then Amber turned to face Melanie, who now had her arms folded on the counter, her head propped up on one hand. Her eyes were closed. Had she fallen asleep?
“I think you need to see a doctor, Mel,” Amber said softly.
Melanie gave a start and opened her bleary eyes, but righted herself quickly, placing her hands on the worn wood of the counter to help push herself to standing. “Just need a little rest.” Jutting her chin toward Amber, she said, “That it?”
Amber glanced down at the label-wrapped vial in her hand. The tiny bespectacled cat of her logo eyed her from the space between her fingers. The label read, “For headache treatment, add this to your favorite beverage, or drink directly for more immediate relief,” and stretched long-ways across the thin tube. “Any other symptoms? Can I get you anything else?”
Melanie shook her head, her brown hair hanging limply around her shoulders. These last few weeks, Amber’s friend looked worse than she’d ever seen her. Melanie had lived in Edgehill for just under two years, but she’d quickly wormed her way into everyone’s hearts with her charm and humor. Her looks hadn’t hurt either—better suited for runways and magazine covers than a small Oregonian town best known for its annual cat festival.
Amber handed the vial to Melanie and went over the instructions for their use, despite being printed clearly on the label. “This one has a bit of valerian root in it. It’ll knock you out so you’ll sleep deeply—just don’t take it until you get home.”
“You’re a love,” Melanie said, slipping the vial into the small purse slung over her shoulder, then starting to root around for something.
“If you’re looking for money, just stop,” said Amber. “I’m not taking a penny from you. My payment is you getting better, okay?”
Normally, Melanie would have put up a fight, but she gave in immediately. That was how Amber knew her friend was truly unwell.
Walking to the other side of the counter, Amber wrapped her arm around her friend and guided her to the door. “Can I walk you home? Call you a cab?”
“Stop fussing,” Melanie said. “I’m going to chug whatever foul thing is in that magic vial, and I’ll be back to my old self by morning. It’s just a bug.”
“A very persistent bug that leaves and comes back. Repeatedly.”
Disentangling herself from Amber, Melanie turned to face her and patted Amber’s warm cheek with her cool, dry hand. “Don’t worry about me, okay? We’ll have lunch next week to talk more about the festival. I’ve been getting questions left and right about those toys of yours. Maybe we can double your profits from last year—we’ll discuss numbers.”
Well, Melanie couldn’t be that sick if she was saying things like “discuss numbers.” Melanie lived for numbers.
The chime tinkled again as Amber pulled open the door. Melanie stepped out, huddling a little deeper into her oversized sweater as a gust of cool wind whipped by.
“Don’t drink that before you get home,” Amber reminded her. “And don’t mix it with any other medications.”
“Yes, Mom,” Melanie said, some spark coming back to her tired brown eyes, her ashen lips turning up in a small smile. “Thanks again, hon!” she said as she walked out into the cool January morning, waving a hand over her head as she slowly made her way up the sidewalk.
If only Amber had known then that those were the last words she’d ever hear her friend say.
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