It’s October, the month for spooky stories! To celebrate, I’ve got something slightly spooky to give away. Instructions for entry to win a copy of my novella Best in Show are just before the excerpt. Good luck and Happy October!
I don’t really write spooky stuff—though some of my readers might not share that opinion. I do put my characters in pretty awful situations from time to time, aliens who subsume human souls and evil doctors aside. I have written a story about witches, though. Or the family of a line of witches.
Macavity Birch is the son of a witch and a kitty cat shifter. When it comes to magic, he’s not terribly gifted. He can weave a couple of useful charms. When it comes to mischief, however, he’s a rare talent. Unfortunately, his latest prank has unintended consequences. His great, great, great aunt Clara—who is a gifted witch—feels it’s time he learned a lesson. So she curses him to be stuck in kitty cat form from sunrise to sunset. One mishap leads to another and Mac finds himself locked away in an animal shelter.
Julian Wilkes, on the other hand, isn’t gifted at all. He’s a rather ordinary human being and doesn’t really have any complaints about it. He does like to tell exciting stories, though. He’s a mystery writer and in a bit of a slump. He’s single and feeling rather lonely, and hasn’t written anything in nearly two years. Then he stumbles across the diary of a witch and the ideas start popping up again.
Left to his own devices, Julian would happily fall into a fugue of research and maybe start writing a new book. His sister has other ideas. She thinks he needs a pet. Someone to keep him company. Mostly to keep her quiet, Julian adopts a big ginger tom cat from the animal shelter. It’s Mac, of course, and he’s not too fond of the name Marmalade. As he’s cursed to be in cat form, there isn’t much he can do about it during the day. The night, however, is his time, and in this scene, we see that being cursed hasn’t really dampened his ability to play a prank or two.
Enjoy this excerpt from Best in Show! To enter to win a copy, leave a comment below with your email address and what sort of animal you’d like to be if you were a shape shifter. Entries accepted until Sunday 10/16/16, 11:59 PM EST.
Showered and dressed, Julian went downstairs to make coffee and breakfast. He opened the fridge for something to put on his bagel. The chicken he’d roasted the day before was missing a leg. He didn’t remember eating it, which ticked him off a little. Food should be savored, not nibbled on absently. Julian reached past the chicken for a package of cream cheese and the lox.
Marmalade joined him in the kitchen just as he finished unwrapping the salmon. “Smelled the fish, did you?” Julian smiled down at the cat. “If you let me pet you, I’ll share it.”
The way Marmalade cocked his head, Julian could swear he was considering the proposal. He stepped on the pedal to open the trash and dropped the empty packet inside. Something clanked. Julian depressed the pedal again and peered down into the bin. Two empty beer bottles poked up out of the trash.
Julian looked at Marmalade. “Have I adopted the world’s first beer-drinking cat?”
Marmalade lifted a paw and began to lick it.
“Bottles go in the recycling, just so you know for next time.”
Not that there would be a next time, because a) cats didn’t drink beer and b) Marmalade would be hard pressed to open the refrigerator, impressive set of claws notwithstanding. The question of who had drunk the beer circled Julian’s thoughts as he transferred the pair of bottles to the recycling bin in the laundry. Alicia had been his only visitor, and she didn’t usually drink beer. Was he eating and drinking distractedly now? Madeleine Lingwood’s diary had held him captive yesterday evening. Hours had passed while he was caught up in her story, and he couldn’t actually recall what he’d eaten for dinner.
Chicken and beer, apparently.
Marmalade enjoyed the salmon, and Julian enjoyed feeding it to him. At first, the cat refused to take it from his fingers, but when Julian held firm, Marmalade pulled each piece delicately from his grasp. After breakfast, he rubbed his side along Julian’s leg and held still while Julian stroked his back, head to tail. He did not purr.
Julian took his coffee to his study and sat down at the desk. The diary called to him, but given the fact he’d apparently lost time yesterday, he should check his e-mail first.
His desktop wallpaper was different. Grainy in quality, the scene looked as though it had been captured from a film. It featured two men locked together in a passionate embrace. Cheeks burning, Julian immediately switched the image out for the painting he had been using, but even the almost kiss seemed too sensuous. He blanked the desktop entirely, settling for a blue background, and pushed back from the desk. The hectic pace of his thoughts matched his pulse. He was embarrassed, annoyed, vaguely turned on, and frightened. He looked around the den, but nothing else seemed out of place.
Had someone been in his house last night? In his kitchen and at his desk?
Rolling his chair forward again, he reached for the mouse. His browser history showed nothing unusual, but that proved little. His intruder could have browsed incognito or deleted select items from the history afterward. He ran a backward search on the new image and got eleven pages of results. None of the links were that paler shade of blue indicating a click.
Julian glanced at the diary. Had Madeleine Lingwood decided to haunt him? Local lore insisted she’d been the real thing. An actual witch. She’d been hanged for it. Even someone not imbued with power would be a restless spirit after such a violent death. Julian picked up the old book, tugged at the ribbon marking his page, and reread the entry he’d stopped at the night before.
They will come for me. Clare warned me it would come to this, but I could not let it go. Sebastian was my heart! I feel as if his death has robbed me of life. So if I am to die, if they will hang me for such things as I have done, then so be it. We will be together, my sweet Sebastian. In this life or the next.
What Madeleine had done was the cornerstone of the Lingwood legends. She’d stolen the body of one Sebastian Pritchard from the Lingwood Cemetery. Rumor had it she’d planned to resurrect him. She’d been arrested and tried for the crime of body snatching and, of all things, necrophilia. The Pritchard family had brought the further claim of necromancy against her, but that one had been thrown out by the judge. The Salem witch trials had been over and done with two hundred years earlier, after all. She’d been sentenced to an out-of-state institution. The night before she was to depart, however, she’d been taken from Lingwood Manor by a mob and hanged from the elm in the front garden.
The legends and stories began with her death. The families of those attending the hanging had suffered disease, misfortune, and untimely demise. Many had moved away, but the Lingwood family remained. They still lived in the house on the hill. They opened the place to occasional tours and apparently laughed off tales of hauntings. Otherwise the Lingwoods were a circumspect lot. No one could say exactly who lived at the manor, and rumor had it the ghost of Madeleine appeared in the gable windows on the eastern side every full moon.
Julian found her story sadly fascinating. Lingwood didn’t trade on its past the way some other towns did. In fact, stories about the Lingwood Witches were difficult to find, as if the town had collectively decided to sweep them beneath its cracked slate sidewalks. Hence the diary being such an important find. No one had known why Madeleine stole Sebastian Pritchard’s body. Rumors of a romantic affair had only surfaced after her death. The story Julian had read so far tugged at his heart.
Movement at the periphery of his vision startled him. He rocked back in his chair, biting his tongue in the process. The taste of copper filled his mouth. Wincing at the sudden pain, he put the book down and reached for something he might use to defend himself. He had a choice between several pens, a lamp, his laptop, and a staple remover.
Marmalade was sitting on the corner of his desk.
“Was that you? Jesus, you scared the living daylights out of me. I was about to attack you with a staple remover.”
Marmalade looked at the staple remover as he spoke. Right at it, no mistake. His whiskers twitched.
A cold shiver raced across Julian’s shoulders and down his spine. He pushed away from the desk, stood, and took a step back. The diary suddenly felt heavy in his hand. He tossed it toward the desk and crossed his arms, hugging his torso.
“First the bottles, then my wallpaper, now a cat who…. No, I’m not going nuts. Maybe Alicia is right. Maybe I just need to get out more. Socialize. Make some friends.” Get over the fact his last lover had left him for someone sexier. Start living again.
The cat had his head cocked to one side. Not able to shake the feeling Marmalade was not only listening but understood him, Julian stalked out of the den. He needed a moment. He also needed more coffee. He tiptoed back in to retrieve his empty mug and found Marmalade had migrated across his desk to where the journal lay. Julian snatched up the book and tucked it under his arm. He didn’t want to read the journal, not right then. But neither did he want to entertain the thought that Marmalade might.
If aliens ever do land on Earth, Kelly will not be prepared, despite having read over a hundred stories of the apocalypse. Still, she will pack her precious books into a box and carry them with her as she strives to survive. It’s what bibliophiles do.
Kelly is the author of a number of novels, novellas and short stories, including the Chaos Station series, co-written with Jenn Burke. A lot of what she writes is speculative in nature, but sometimes it’s just about a guy losing his socks and/or burning dinner. Because life isn’t all conquering aliens and mountain peaks. Sometimes finding a happy ever after is all the adventure we need.