On this side of the portal, the magic wardrobe leading to the mortal world sat innocuously in a dusty storage room at the back of the little shop called the Crook and Nook. The door was kept locked, and very few people had the key. That way, people couldn’t just cross back and forth willy-nilly.
The witch’s council was very particular about passage from Witch World into the sleepy Georgia town of Sweetwater Falls.
If the passage wasn’t carefully controlled, they argued, just about anyone could pass back and forth. Then, before you knew it, all those mortals on the other side would know all about the hidden magic world that was cosmically linked to their own, and the tentative, peaceful balance that had existed along this supernatural fault line would be over.
For that reason, Zoe Cross had never actually seen the wardrobe before. Even though the Crook and Nook was owned and operated by her twin sister, even though Zoe had heard about the wardrobe often enough–it was a common feature in everything from bedtime stories to playground chants to prolonged public policy debates–this was her first time laying eyes on it.
She stood now, gaping at it. The key to the room where it was stored was still in her hand, and her small white kitten familiar, Snow, was twined around her ankles.
“Well?” Snow prompted. “What do you think?”
“I think I can smell it already,” Zoe said, excited. She sniffed the air.
“Me too,” Snow said, whiskers twitching with distaste. “It smells like gasoline and that horrible body-spray teenage boys wear.”
“I think it smells beautiful. Like sugar and donuts and pie and all the wonderful things I’m going to bake.”
Snow gave her witch some serious side-eye. The glance was meant to be cutting, and nearly was. However, the effect was more than slightly undermined by the fact that it was doled out by a small, fluffy kitten face.
Curse the witch’s council, Snow thought morosely, not for the first time since she’d been so unjustly sentenced to this life as an eternal undersized familiar. I used to be so good at withering glances.
Zoe, used to Snow’s crabbiness, didn’t pay her any attention. Instead, she strode toward the wardrobe and opened it.
Where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, instead there was a lovely swirl of silver light, opaque as quicksilver.
Zoe reached out and poked it with a finger. It didn’t feel like anything, but the light rippled outward around her fingertip like the surface of a pond.
“The mortal world,” she said breathlessly.
She’d been dreaming about this her whole life. It had seemed doomed to be nothing more than a dream for so long, but now here she was. And sent by the witch’s council, no less! Evidently there had been some mysterious goings-on over the border in the mortal territory of Sweetwater Falls, and the council had nominated Zoe, of all people, to set up shop on the other side and keep her eyes peeled for strange happenings.
She was determined to do an amazing job. The council had supplied her with enough money to start up a small shop, and her sister and some of her witch friends had already helped her with some of the decor and start-up supplies.
They were all waiting for her, in the abandoned building on the other side of this wardrobe. A storefront that was the perfect mirror of her twin sister’s shop, except for the fact that it occupied an entirely different world.
All she had to do was cross through the silver light. Only now that the time came, she found herself shaking with nervous anticipation.
“Will you go through at the same time as me?” she asked, casting a sideways look at Snow.
Snow scoffed. She would rather not be going to the mortal world at all. What did it matter to someone like Snow if there were difficulties seeping into mortal Georgia?
But, pretend though she might, Snow was very fond of Zoe. And the task ahead of Zoe was a difficult one. She needed her familiar’s help right now.
“All right,” Snow relented. “At the count of three, okay? One, two….”
On three, they both leapt into the light.
Within a week, Sweets and Treats had been set up, for the most part.
The people of Sweetwater Falls began to gossip eagerly about the pretty young woman who seemed to be setting up shop out of that old abandoned storefront downtown. Already there were eager whispers about the little baker and the changes she was bringing so quickly, sprucing up the old building.
Of course, nothing was going quite as quickly as Zoe would have liked. She wasn’t supposed to use magic on the mortal side, so everything had to be done by hand. And she frequently found herself at odds with the strange mechanical implements of the mortal world. It took a long time, and some careful poring over elaborate written manuals with Snow, to figure out how to switch on the oven without casting a fire spell.
Still, it looked like she would be able to open on time for the upcoming Halloween and Fall Festivals, which were the pride and joy of the Sweetwater Falls yearly schedule. She would start by running a booth at the festival to hype up her business, and then open the storefront once she’d developed an enthusiastic customer base.
Which was how Zoe found herself heading out toward the fairgrounds, the night before the Fall Festival was to begin. The vendors were supposed to check out their booth rentals and make sure that everything was in order before the festivities started in the morning. Zoe was enjoying the walk, bundled in a warm cardigan, and the autumn breeze was stirring her long dark hair, when she heard a voice cry out.
“Zoe! Wait up!”
Zoe paused and looked behind her. Lissie Reynolds, the girl from the library, was running up toward her, waving a book.
“It’s that fall recipe book you were looking for,” Lissie said. “Pumpkin spice cookies are on page 67–I’ve put in a bookmark for you.”
Zoe grinned at Lissie. Even though Zoe had only been in Sweetwater Falls a short while, she and Lissie had already gotten to be fast friends. Zoe was in the library so frequently, looking for information on the mortal world. Lissie, who was inherently drawn to all things strange and mysterious, had taken one look at the pretty young woman with the dark hair and the long white streak down one side, and had immediately decided that Zoe would be her new best friend.
It was a huge help to Zoe, having a connection at the library who didn’t look at her askance when she asked for things like “ordinary human recipe books” or “oven operating manuals.”
“Thanks so much, Liss,” Zoe said. “I hope I can master the cookies overnight. I bet they’ll be a huge hit tomorrow if I can manage it!”
The friends parted, and Zoe resumed her trip to the fairgrounds, flipping idly through the autumn-themed recipe book as she walked.
Which was how she almost stumbled over the body before she noticed it.
“Oh my goddess!” she cried, nearly fumbling the book to the ground.
There, are her feet, lay the dead body of a man, mouth gaped open grotesquely around what appeared to be a candy apple.
Zoe fumbled with her unwieldy cell phone as she dialled the mortal police. After she’d stammered to them that she’d found a body, she was instructed to wait for the cops to arrive.
She couldn’t help but inspect the scene while she waited. It was then that she realized she recognized the dead man. She was still working on learning everyone’s names, but this man, she remembered distinctly, was called Todd Jensen. He’d lodged in her mind because she’d seen him earlier in the week, arguing with a man at the gates to the fairground.
As the sound of approaching sirens grew louder, however, Zoe forced herself to push that thought to the back of her mind.
The next morning, Zoe opened the doors of Sweets and Treats for the very first time.
There was no grand opening event. Zoe was a stranger in this town, and she worried what it would look like if she made too big a deal about the opening of her little shop. She was supposed to be keeping a relatively low profile, after all–running a respectable business without looking too flashy.
Still, she had somehow hoped there would be a line around the block when she opened up for the first time. Instead, she had already been full up on baked goods and ready to make some sales for an hour’s time before the first customers came in.
The little bell above the door tinkled pleasantly, and Zoe came practically rushing out of the kitchen and up to the counter.
Her face fell when she saw who had just walked in. It was Detectives Sean Peabody and Ian Logan. They had been the ones to respond to her at the fairground the night before.
“Oh,” she said sadly. “I was hoping for some customers. I guess you’re just here to ask me questions.”
“We’re happy to be customers, too,” Sean said.
“Sure,” Ian agreed easily. “Cops and a bakery? Go together like a horse and carriage.”
The two men sat near the counter and ordered cups of coffee. Zoe nipped back to the kitchen to grab them some of her new pumpkin spice cookies, too, on the house, just to test them out for the festival.
Snow joined Zoe in the kitchen and hopped up on a stool. “Customers?”
“Sort of,” Zoe said. “Remember, no talking or doing anything magical around Detective Logan.”
Sean Peabody, Zoe knew, was a warlock who had been sent by the witch’s council into Sweetwater Falls a while back. He was rumored to be incredibly powerful, and the council thought he would be a good agent for preserving peace on the mortal side.
His partner, Ian, was a mortal. By all appearances, he didn’t suspect a thing about the magical world. And no doubt Sean Peabody and the witch’s council were determined that it should stay that way.
Snow rolled her eyes and said, in a sarcasm-laced voice, “Meow.”
“Maybe just stick back here,” Zoe suggested, before bustling back into the main shop area.
Zoe set the cookies down in front of her two customers.
“Thanks,” Ian said with a smile. He was an attractive young man, stunningly tall, with idiosyncratically silver-blond hair. Most likely, local criminals found him incredibly intimidating. He didn’t look quite so intimidating digging eagerly into a fluffy, fresh-baked cookie. “Ooh, what are these? Gingerbread?”
“Pumpkin spice,” Zoe said. “Detective Peabody? How do you like it?”
Except Sean hadn’t taken a bite of his cookie yet. He was staring at it with a vaguely suspicious expression on his handsome face.
Zoe and Sean both came from the Witch World, but they hadn’t really known each other before they both became outposts on the mortal side of the boundary line. She wasn’t sure yet what to think of him. Sean couldn’t have been that much older than Zoe herself–she thought he was probably 27 years old to Zoe’s 23–but he seemed infinitely more mature and severe than Zoe was.
His looks only emphasized the intimidating air about him. His hair was midnight black, and his eyes were a piercing emerald. There was something almost predatory about them. When that penetrating gaze locked in on Zoe, she had a spine-tingling feeling that there wasn’t anything she could hide from it.
She had another reason for being wary of him. The witch’s council had secretly hinted to Zoe before sending her through the portal that it was possible there was someone magical in the mortal world who was working to expose the supernatural. Doing so would be a horrible betrayal, as it would endanger the lives of every witch and other magical being currently living in peace under the radar.
She didn’t know much about Sean, but if the council suspected there was someone in Sweetwater Falls working to sabotage Witch World’s protective secrecy, then Sean was as good a suspect as any other.
Still, Zoe tried her best to act naturally around him. He was a warlock, a fellow magical creature, and Sweetwater Falls’s lead detective, to boot. It would be best to get along with him as much as possible.
“You know,” she said casually, “in all the excitement last night, I forgot to mention something. The dead man, Todd Jensen? I saw him arguing with someone the other day, out at the fairgrounds. I don’t know if it was anything serious, but….”
Sean didn’t react to this information, but Ian sat up straighter.
“Who was it? Do you know?” he asked her.
“Actually, I think it was his brother,” Zoe said. “I thought I overheard him mention something like that.”
“That’s good to know,” Ian said. “Thanks, Zoe.”
But Sean only looked at Zoe with a strange expression in his eye. “Come on,” he said to Ian. “We’d better get out of here.” He rose stiffly, gaze not leaving Zoe.
“Sure,” Ian said. As he stood, he reached over to grab up the cookie Zoe had placed in front of Sean and took a big bite of it. “These are great. Are you selling them at the fair today?”
Zoe was going to answer, but something about Sean’s behavior had stilled her tongue. “What’s the matter?” she asked him.
“I’m a little surprised you haven’t realized that you’re our prime suspect for Mr. Todd’s murder, Miss Cross,” Sean said matter-of-factly. “He was, after all, found behind your booth. The candy apple was from your shop, and it was laced with poison.”
All of this was news to Zoe. She blinked, gobsmacked, and watched as the two detectives left, Sean in a swirl of dark hair and Ian with an apologetic shrug.
Snow must have meandered in from the kitchen at some point, because she trotted up to Zoe’s feet as they both watched the men make their way down the street.
“All right,” Snow said bitterly. “Are you willing to admit now that coming here wasn’t such a great idea?”