Finding your feet in a new job isn’t always easy. That goes double for Josie Way, who’s settling in as Wilfred, Oregon’s, new librarian—and has just discovered she’s a witch. But will her fledgling powers be enough to save her from a spell of murder?
While Josie develops her witchcraft with the help of letters left by her grandmother, there are other changes happening in her new hometown. A retreat center is being built at the old mill site, and rumor has it that the location is cursed. That piques Josie’s interest almost as much as Sam Wilfred, handsome FBI agent and descendant of the town’s founder . . .
When Sam’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Fiona, goes missing at the same time that a bloodied weapon is found, Josie enlists her witchy insight, and her cat familiar, to clear Sam’s name. But then the mill project’s architect is found dead, and it’s clear that someone has been drawing up a vicious plan. Now Josie will have to divine her way out of fatal mischief, before this deadly trouble turns double . . .
Praise for Angela M. Sanders’ Bait and Witch
“Balances paranormal whimsy and small-town charm . . . it’s a delight to read about someone whose powers derive in part from stories and the feelings that readers attach to them. This is a fine debut that promises more bookish fun to come.”
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Angela M. Sanders
“Of course we believe you,” Darla said in a placating tone. “Soft-boiled egg?”
“I’m telling you, it’s why the retreat center hasn’t broken ground yet,” she said. “The land is cursed. That awful man I just saw is proof.”
The envelope I’d randomly selected from Grandma’s box that morning for my witchcraft lesson was on curses. I’d learned that these lessons had a way of reflecting real life. So, my ears perked up at Mrs. Garlington’s pronouncement.
“Cursed? Tell us again,” I said, earning a reproachful glance from Darla.
Mrs. Garlington faced me from a few stools down. “It was like this. I was taking a walk and letting the muse wash over me—feeding the muse is a vital part of being a poet—when a black SUV roared in, kicking up gravel.”
“You were at the old mill site, right?” I asked.
“Yes. The cursed site. The muse had demanded an especially long walk today. You see, I’m working on an epic poem, and—”
“What did the black SUV do?” I knew better than to let Mrs. Garlington be distracted.
She flinched at the memory. “The windows were tinted, and I couldn’t see inside. Then, the driver’s side window slid down. I jumped into the brush and hid behind a tree.”
“Maybe he was lost,” Duke said. Duke used to drive a forklift at the mill. When it closed, he’d repaired coin-operated telephones, which turned out to be a shortsighted career move. Lately, he was a jack-of-all-trades, and, contrary to the old saying, had mastered them all.
“Oh, but you should have seen him. Dark glasses, black jacket, tall and skinny, from what I could tell. And he had a shoulder holster.”
We all gasped. Our town, Wilfred, was rural, and guns weren’t unheard of, but holstered handguns were things of crime movies.
“One thing I appreciate about you, Helen, is your imagination,” Darla said. “Soft-boiled egg and an extra-large pot of tea on the house. You’ve had a rough morning.”
“I bet it was the retreat’s contractor,” Duke said. “He set up an office trailer beyond the millpond.”
Unwilling to let the drama go, Mrs. Garlington reluctantly sighed. “I suppose it’s possible. But I still insist the site is cursed. Everything on it is doomed to fail. I wrote a poem about it once.”
The few people at the counter near her, including Darla, chose that moment to busy themselves elsewhere. Mrs. Garlington’s poems tended to be long affairs larded with nineteenth-century turns of phrase and metaphors involving shipwrecks and orphans.
She’d closed her eyes and was about to launch into the first stanza, when the café’s front door opened, letting in spring air thick with Pacific Northwest drizzle. A man stood, door ajar, surveying the room.
“Or maybe this is him,” I whispered to Mrs. Garlington.
She glanced at the door. “Not him.”
“In or out,” Darla said to the man in the doorway. “Pick one.”
The man let the door close behind him. Judging from his meticulously crafted sideburns and angular glasses, he was from a big city hipster neighborhood.
“Charming,” he said and ambled to the counter, taking the seat next to Mrs. Garlington that we locals avoided. Aside from regular outbursts of her own poetry, Mrs. Garlington taught organ lessons and liked to hum snatches between bites, sometimes shooting sprays of egg yolk or toast crumbs.
“Coffee, please,” the stranger said, and Darla served him with the coffee pot that seemed to be permanently affixed to her hand. After a sip, he set his mug down in surprise. “This is good.”
“Uh-huh,” Darla said.
“I don’t suppose you have anything that isn’t, um, made from a mix?”
“We mix everything that needs it,” she said.
Darla didn’t go for being condescended to. Someone passing through Wilfred—although most people didn’t make it this far off the main highway unless they had a reason—might have mistaken Darla for your typical middle-aged, no-nonsense waitress with a taste for animal prints and snappy comebacks. In fact, she was Wilfred’s de facto mayor.
“Try the shrimp and grits,” I said. Despite being a native Oregonian, Darla had a way with Southern food.
“Thank you.” His gaze took me in, clogs to mess of red curls, and he must have decided I was okay. “Lewis Cruikshank. Architect for the new retreat center.”
“Josie Way, librarian.” We shook hands.
He set a leather bag by his feet, and I heard his copy of Finnegan’s Wake grumbling inside. Books talked to me. The novel was unhappy being lugged around and only having a page or two read every few weeks to impress onlookers. Thomas Pynchon’s work often had similar complaints.
“Architect, you say?” Mrs. Garlington asked. “We were just talking about the retreat center. When are you going to break ground?”
“It’s been a wet spring, but soon.”
“What’s planned?” I asked. “Anything you can show us?”
“Not much. I have a few ideas jotted down.”
Just then, the door opened again, and Thor and Buffy burst in, Thor wearing a cape and Buffy carrying a sparkly pink purse. They must have been watching from across the street, and when they saw a stranger’s car in the lot, they made a beeline.
Thor stopped in front of the architect. At eight years old, he was barely taller than the counter. “I am Thor the Fluoridator, and—”
“Fluoridator?” Cruikshank said.
“Yes,” he said firmly.
I’d tried to convince Thor he might want to give “magnificent” or “mighty” or even “the all-seeing” a try, but he liked the sound of “fluoridator,” and there was no changing his mind.
Thor threw his cape over his shoulders. “For a small fee, I will mystify you with my magical skill. Buffy?”
Buffy extracted from her purse a worn deck of cards with the Taj Mahal printed on the back. Buffy was a few years younger than her brother. Despite her wide-eyed resemblance to a doll, reinforced by her love of pink and purple, she was the brains of the operation.
“Thor,” Darla said. “You’re interrupting. Besides, I’ve already told you not to bother my customers with your magic tricks.”
“Do I have to call your grandma?”
“Come on, Thor,” Buffy said. “Mrs. Esperanza just went into the PO Grocery. She hasn’t seen our trick yet.” They scrambled from the café almost as quickly as they’d come in.
“Use the door handle, not the glass,” Darla yelled after them. She turned to the architect. “Sorry. My sister’s grandchildren. I’d love to see the drawings.”
“I don’t have much yet—just sketches. The only solid plans so far are for preparing the site.” He reached into his bag, earning a groan from the novel, and flattened a sketch pad on the counter. “I’m here for inspiration and to meet with the owners and contractor.” He tapped a page. “Here’s one idea. Notice the reference to tribal dwellings.”
We crowded around him. The drawings showed a building with conical protrusions that made it look like a ceramic hedgehog.
“Tribal?” Mrs. Garlington said, squinting. “What tribe is that?”
The architect rolled up his sleeves, revealing the edge of a blue-black tattoo. “In this one, the main hall has a thirty-foot ceiling with skylights.” He pointed to a long, lower building in the rear. “Those would be the residences for people who come for longer retreats. In this sketch, the center faces the river and the millpond.”
“It’s damp out there,” Duke said.
“Oh, I know. Wilfred is on a flood plain,” Lewis Cruikshank said. “We’re going to rebuild the levee. First step.”
His shrimp and grits arrived, and after replacing the sketch pad in his satchel, he tucked in. We slowly returned to our seats. Between bites, he examined the diner, casting a glance toward the attached tavern, then the parking lot.
My specialty was folk history, but I tried to keep up on national news, and Cruikshank’s name sounded familiar. A museum in Baltimore, that was it. Cruikshank had designed it. Plus an airport in Amsterdam. Wilfred was so small it wasn’t even a proper town. It had lost its incorporation years ago. Why had he even taken a job here?
The architect cleared his throat.
“Pardon?” Mrs. Garlington said.
“Great layout. You ever think about adding a patio?”
“Where?” Darla said.
“You could punch in a door there,” he said, pointing his fork toward the café’s northern wall, “and orient the patio away from the road. It would be a fairly inexpensive job and would double your seating in the summer.” He set down his fork and flipped over the paper place mat next to him. “Do you mind?”
“Go ahead,” Darla said, elbows on the counter.
He sketched an aerial view of the café, including the gravel parking lot out front, then, more slowly, outlined a patio that connected with the corner of the café closest to the kitchen. “That way you can run food straight outside.” He finished the drawing with a striped awning and a potted tree.
“Not bad,” Darla said. “May I keep it?”
He slid the place mat to her. “With my compliments.”
“How long will you be in Wilfred?” she asked.
“A few days. Just long enough for the meeting and to get a good sense of the area. Maybe do some hiking. In fact, can you recommend a place to stay? I didn’t realize Wilfred was so far from Portland.”
“No hotel here,” I said. Besides Darla’s diner-slash-tavern, Wilfred boasted only the library, a church, the PO Grocery, and Patty’s This-N-That, which was getting a lot of attention thanks to the karaoke lounge she’d recently installed in the basement.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ve got an empty home at the Magnolia,” Darla said. Behind the diner was the Magnolia Rolling Estates, the modest trailer court where Duke and a handful of others lived. “I’ll make you a good price. Or we could talk design for a patio.”
“Sold,” he said, cleaning his plate. He turned to me. “Maybe you could point me toward some resources on local history.”
“I’d be happy to show you our collection,” I said. “Stop by anytime. The library’s up the hill. You can’t miss it.”
“If we do this right, it will be a spectacular retreat center,” he said. “Artistically engaging, useful—something people will come from all over to see.”
“Just watch out for gangsters driving black SUVs,” Darla said with a wink.
Mrs. Garlington rapped her knife against the shell of her soft-boiled egg, and it gave with a crack. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. That land is cursed.”
As I walked back up the hill, I pondered Mrs. Garlington’s warning. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised that the morning’s witchcraft lesson was about curses. This kind of synchronicity didn’t even raise an eyebrow anymore. I planned to read the lesson tonight.
I took the bridge up the sleepy two-lane highway over the Kirby River and cut right toward the old Thurston Wilfred mansion, now the library. I couldn’t help but cast a wistful glance at Big House as I approached. It had been six months since Sam had left, but my memory of him was too sticky to shed. Now the house stood empty.
As I rounded the corner, I stopped short. Parked in front of Big House was a moving van. Was it taking things in or out? In, I noted. Two men hustled boxes, one marked “stereo” and the other “books.”
“Hey,” I shouted to one of the movers. “Someone’s moving in?”
The older mover, the one who looked like he was in charge, paused with his hand truck and grunted. “Yeah, I’d say someone is moving in.”
When Sam had left town, he’d told me he wanted to return to Wilfred. He’d also mentioned a wife and had shown no particular interest in me besides brotherly affection. However, Wilfred’s grapevine had said he was in the middle of a divorce. Despite myself, I felt my hopes rise.
“Who?” I said.
“Don’t know,” the man said, resuming the push of his hand truck. “We move, we don’t interview.”
“Sam,” the books told me as they jostled in their crate. “Sam Wilfred.”
Well, well, I thought. He’s come home.
I opened the library for the day and tried not to dwell on Sam’s return. After all, I had plenty to take care of here. The library was in a Victorian mansion built by Wilfred’s founder and converted into a library by his youngest daughter, Marilyn Wilfred. At best, the library was unconventional. At worst, alarmingly eccentric. The pipe organ in the former dressing room on the mansion’s second floor was home to Mrs. Garlington’s music lessons and impromptu concerts. The old house’s kitchen was an informal town gathering spot, dispensing nearly as much coffee as Darla’s Café down the hill. The conservatory was a classroom space, as well as Roz’s—the assistant librarian—office, where she wrote romance novels when she wasn’t on duty.
And, of course, my cat, Rodney, wandered the stacks. He looked tough with his black coat and torn ear, but he was a softie and demanded nightly brushing to maintain his silky fur. When I call him “my cat,” I might be going too far. Locals said he’d showed up only a few days before I’d arrived, but he’d attached himself to me right away. He now lived in my apartment on the library’s top floor.
“Your boyfriend’s back. Sam,” Roz said, appearing from nowhere. Personality-wise, she was a middle-aged Eeyore, but she was built of mounded surfaces—curvy figure, round face, big round eyes. She rarely took the optimistic view, but I knew her heart was as warm as a basket of puppies.
“I see.” I busied myself with labeling the new releases.
“Don’t you want to know why?”
I shrugged, not because I didn’t want to know, but because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know just then. I needed to absorb his return at my own pace.
“Why are you being so coy?” Roz rested a hand on a plump hip. Thanks to her romance novels, written as Eliza Chatterly Windsor, she professed herself an expert in love.
“What? I’m not being coy. Yes, I saw the moving van.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “Word is, he’s back for good. He’s applying for the vacant sheriff’s position. Plans to settle here.”
My face warmed. “You must have dropped by Darla’s after I left.”
“Dylan’s dad came in. He’d talked to Jimmy from the gas station in Gaston, who’d heard it from one of the moving guys.”
“Interesting,” I said in my most blasé tone. “You know he’s married, right?”
“Last fall he was getting a divorce. Timing’s right for him to be single about now.” When I didn’t respond, she said, “All right. I give up. If you need me, I’ll be working in Natural History.”
When I’d arrived, Wilfred’s entire collection was indexed in a card catalog. I’d convinced the library’s trustees to wire the library for the Internet, and now Roz and I—with the occasional help of Dylan, our high school intern—were putting the collection into an online database.
Mostly ignoring the moving van next door, I engrossed myself in the day’s work. I kept busy helping patrons, shelving returns, and taking care of the minutiae that filled a librarian’s day, with only a few peeks out the window to monitor the progress next door. Midafternoon, Duke ambled into the front parlor, now Circulation. Duke’s manners might be crude sometimes, but he was meticulous about his ironed Western shirts and the Brylcreemed curl in his hair.
“I’m talking with the contractor about taking on the role of foreman on the retreat center project,” he said, clearly too proud to keep it in.
“No kidding, Duke. That’s great.”
He seemed to stand a few inches taller. “Said he wanted someone to be his go-between with the locals. I know this town. I know how to get him the crew he needs. Plus, we’re both Navy veterans.”
Which reminded me. I pulled two heavy tomes from the hold shelf. One of them emitted faint sounds of explosions and the whirring of plane engines. The other dryly recited battle dates.
“Here are the World War II books you requested. Does this have to do with that tank out back of the trailer court?”
“That’s no tank. It’s my M29 Weasel, an amphibious vehicle I bought from a fellow out at the coast. I’m getting it running again. Studebaker engine, and a devil to get parts for.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“World War Two military vehicle club,” he said. “We should never forget our history.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I’d be willing to bet it was more the quirks of the vehicle’s engine than the battles it had been in that interested Duke.
He bundled the books under an arm. “Say, did you hear Sam Wilfred is back?”
“No kidding?” I said.
“Josie, I’m glad you’re here.” It was Ruth Littlewood, bird-watcher and inheritor of a vegetable canning operation in the valley that she ran with an iron fist. She was built on the no-frills concept—short gray hair, nondescript clothing—and usually had a pair of binoculars at hand’s reach. “It’s about that cat.” She was never one to mince words.
“Letting cats roam outdoors is irresponsible. Cats are the number-one predator of songbirds.”
Rodney wasn’t a normal cat. All I had to do was relax for a moment and place my hand on his head to know he wasn’t a hunter. He liked chasing bugs and sleeping in the blackberry bushes, but birds were something to watch, not attack. I couldn’t tell that to Ruth. No one knew I was a witch or that Rodney and I had a special bond.
Ruth held up a palm. “No. I know what you’re going to say. He’s used to going outdoors and can’t possibly stay inside or he’ll go nuts.”
She was right. That was exactly what I would have said.
“So I’m proposing a compromise. A collar.” She dangled a blue collar with a bell. “This way birds will hear him coming. It’s not ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction. Eventually we’ll be able to transition him indoors.”
“He’s not a hunter.”
“How do you know? Do you follow him everywhere he goes? Cats are biologica. . .
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