It never really got cold in Georgia, not even in November, but there was a slight bite to the air in the sleepy town of Sweetwater Falls. Stepping out of the warm movie theater, Zoe Cross shivered at the change in temperature.
No sooner had she shivered than she found herself being pulled in against the side of her date, Detective Sean Peabody. His body was warmer than it looked, she realized in a bashful, delighted rush.
“Well,” Sean said, “what do you think?”
He might have been asking about the movie, or about the date itself. But Zoe somehow knew that he wasn’t asking about either of these things.
Instead, he was asking her about Sweetwater Falls. He nodded around them, to take in the sight of it. They were on the main drag, a picturesque and historical little neighborhood crammed with cozy little brick facades and signs that overhung the sidewalk.
Sweetwater Falls was the kind of town people put in calendars and Hallmark movies. People loved to come here for holidays, and the town loved to host them. The store owners up and down the main street, including Zoe herself, had all put in for some elaborate but tasteful decorations in preparation for Thanksgiving next week. Even now, late into the evening, there were tourists walking around, pointing at and cooing over the streetlamps that were decked out in autumnal ribbons and lights.
Zoe was new in town, in a sense. Actually, Zoe had always lived nearby, just on the other side of a magical portal that led to Witch World, Zoe’s home. But she had only recently been installed on the mortal side by the witch’s council, who had asked her to help keep an eye out for someone they suspected might be using illegal magic.
This was also Sean’s mission. Before the movie, over dinner, they had been chatting together about their progress, which wasn’t much, and about how well Zoe was adapting to mortal life.
Which was to say, not so well.
She hadn’t accidentally exposed the existence of magic to the mortals yet, which Zoe figured was a mark in her favor. But she had been the primary suspect in a murder case not quite a month ago. And besides, she was still figuring out how to operate her non-magical oven.
Which, considering she ran a bakery and sweets shop, was a serious problem.
“I think I’m settling in okay,” Zoe said slowly. She wasn’t hurrying her words. Any excuse to linger under the warm comfort of Sean’s arm. “I’m still not sure if I, you know. Belong here.”
Sean nodded thoughtfully. He had been sent to the mortal world long before Zoe had, and he seemed much better adjusted to it than she was. But even so, she occasionally got the feeling that he missed the magical side of things just as much as she did.
Still, she had to remind herself that, although she’d been spending more time with him lately, she hardly knew him.
She was watching his profile, waiting for him to respond, when they were both startled by a sudden noise across the street.
The noise came from in front of Mike and Steve’s shop, the Bait and Tackle. The two men appeared to be scuffling, and one of them tackled the other. Soon, they were rolling around in the street, causing the cars to slow to a stop and the tourists and townspeople nearby to freeze and look on.
Sean’s arm disappeared from Zoe’s shoulder before she’d really processed what she was seeing. Sean trotted across the street, rushing to the men to separate them.
By the time Zoe made it over there, Sean had managed to pull Steve off of Mike. It seemed that Steve was the aggressor here, because Mike wasn’t lunging for him, but rather picking himself up and dusting off his clothes. Steve, on the other hand, was straining to try to wrest himself from Sean’s grip.
“Come on, now,” Sean said sharply. “I don’t want to have to lock you up over the holiday.”
“I’m happy to go peacefully, Detective,” Mike said, holding up both hands.
Sean nodded, and Mike started to move off. Instead of calming Steve, this only further enraged him, and he started pulling harder against Sean, trying to get at Mike before he disappeared into the crowd.
“Is this normal here?”
Zoe jumped and looked to the source of the voice.
It was a tourist–a young guy, probably around Zoe’s age, thin and tall. He smiled when Zoe turned to him.
“Sorry,” he said. “You looked local. I thought I’d ask.”
“Local?” she asked, confused. Then, with a grin, she said, “Yes. I am local. I’m Zoe.” She pointed to her shop, which was a little over a block away. “I run Sweets and Treats.”
“Timothy,” said the young man. “Just in town for the holiday.”
“Nice to meet you, Timothy,” Zoe replied. “And I’d say that things are always… interesting here in Sweetwater Falls.”
Meanwhile, Mike had nearly disappeared around the corner. Steve, still being restrained by Sean, called out, loud enough to be heard up and down the street, “That’s right, you stay away! I’ll kill you if I ever see you again!”
The gathered crowd got to tittering at the dramatic display, and by the time Zoe had turned back to speak to Timothy again she saw he had meandered over toward another group.
Oh well. Perhaps they’d drop into the shop. She hoped this incident didn’t color their perception of Sweetwater Falls.
By the time Sean had managed to talk Steve down and rejoin Zoe, he looked tired and a little bemused. They walked together toward Sean’s house.
“I’m a little surprised to see Mike fighting like that,” Zoe admitted. “He comes into the shop all the time and he’s always so nice. He’s one of my favorite customers.”
“I’m not sure what that was about,” Sean said. “But let’s not let it ruin our night.”
Under normal circumstances, Zoe’s curiosity would never abandon such an interesting topic so quickly.
But these weren’t normal circumstances. This was a date with Sean, and that was more important than two men fighting in the street on an autumn evening.
Dutifully, she put the whole ordeal out of her head.
This machine was going to be the death of her.
When Zoe’s Aunt Zelda had bought her a cappuccino maker, she had claimed it was because she knew Zoe had a weakness for lattes.
But Zoe knew that the cappuccino maker was also Aunt Zelda’s way of helping her adjust to the mortal world. Zoe always had a tough time with mortal mechanical gadgets. They were just so fussy and fiddly, and she couldn’t seem to get them to do what their manuals insisted they were designed for.
She had just managed to figure out her old coffee percolator when Zelda bought her the present and insisted she set it up in her kitchen. Now, Zoe didn’t even have the chance to drink an easy cup of coffee in the morning.
No, first she had to figure out the Rube Goldberg machine that was her cappuccino maker before she had a shot at being caffeinated.
She slammed her hand against the counter.
“Shhh,” Snow hissed at her. Zoe looked down at her familiar. Snow was a being of infinite sass and indignation, all wrapped up in the body of a tiny fluffy white kitten. Currently, she was glaring up at Zoe from the floor. “Lissie,” Snow said in a stage whisper.
Oh, right. Lissie had spent the night at Zoe’s place the night before. The heating at Lissie’s place was unexpectedly out, and as a native Georgian Lissie insisted that temperatures in the mid-40s were simply too low to be braved through with a stack of blankets. So she’d camped out on Zoe’s couch and prayed that the repairman would come by today.
Lissie was still out snoozing on the sofa, and Zoe couldn’t even make any noise in the kitchen.
Frustrated after her fifth failed attempt at a latte, and before Snow could advise her against it, Zoe whispered the spell that would whip her latte up by magic.
Suddenly, the mug she was holding was full of delicious, mocha-flavored espresso and steamed milk. She took a satisfied sip.
“Oh, did it work?”
Zoe jumped and turned around. Lissie was blinking at her blearily from the kitchen doorway. She nodded at Zoe’s latte.
“It looks like you finally made a good one!” Lissie said. “Any chance I can get one of those?”
Zoe’s stomach sank. She felt bad for using magic. She really wasn’t supposed to, not on this side of the portal. And she absolutely could not use magic in front of Lissie to make a second latte.
“Here you go,” Zoe said, hanging Lissie her latte. “I’ll… make myself another one.”
Lissie sipped the magic latte gratefully and watched, baffled, as Zoe struggled with the machine again.
This is what you get, Snow’s expression clearly said when Zoe snuck a look at her. She hadn’t been happy with Lissie coming to stay, considering it meant she couldn’t talk openly. But Zoe thought she was doing a perfectly good job expressing herself with her vast repertoire of disdainful expressions.
“Well, you got it right once,” Lissie said before kindly taking over for Zoe. “This one is great.”
If it wasn’t the cappuccino makers, it was the phones. Later in the morning, Zoe was downstairs in her sweets shop, trying to figure out how to access a message she’d just gotten a notification about. She simply couldn’t find it, so she tucked the phone in her pocket again and went to take the trash out into the back alley.
Only then her phone buzzed again, and she brought it out once more and fiddled with it while walking. So she wasn’t paying attention when she came across the dead body.
She nearly tripped over it before she figured out what it was.
It took Zoe a moment to gather herself. Unfortunately, she had seen a dead body before. Even so, it didn’t dull the sensation of shock and revulsion that came washing over her in overwhelming waves. She had to step away and get a gulp of fresh air before she could take a second look.
When she did look back at the body, she realized she recognized him. He was on his stomach, but his face was turned toward her.
It was Steve. Part-owner of the Bait and Tackle. The one who had been fighting with Mike in the street just last night.
And there was a huge hunting knife protruding out of his back.
At least she knew her phone well enough to call the police. Before long, police were crawling around the alley. They had told Zoe to return to normal, and she did her best. Luckily, there were plenty of customers that morning, so she had a lot of work to keep her busy.
After a while, Sean and his partner, Ian, walked into the shop. She automatically pouted them both some coffee, and she brought Ian a snickerdoodle. He was a tall and intense-looking man, but he had a mean sweet tooth.
“Would you mind telling us everything you saw?” Sean asked Zoe in a gentle, patient voice.
“I didn’t really see anything,” she said. “Other than the body, of course.” She went over the details, but she knew that whatever she’d found, they would also have measured and catalogued by now.
“What do you know about Zeke Michaels?” Sean asked when Zoe was done.
Zoe raised her eyebrows. Zeke was the town drunk. She didn’t know him that well, though she’d encountered him now and then. “Zeke? I guess… well, I find him in my alleyway now and then. After he’s had a night of it. Is he a suspect?”
Ian shook his head–not a no, but a we don’t share that information with witnesses and even bringing me free cookies won’t loosen these lips. However, as soon as Ian stepped away, Sean moved closer and spoke to Zoe in an undertone.
“We’re looking at Zeke,” he confessed to her. “But right now we’re leaning toward Mike.”
Zoe understood why, of course. The display last night couldn’t have been more public or suspicious. But she simply didn’t think Mike was capable of an act like that.
Still, all she had right now was her intuition, and that was hardly evidence. So she kept her mouth shut.