New town…new start…same old problems
When sister witches Mag and Clara Balefire moved to the sleepy town of Harmony, Maine, to take over leadership of the coven there, they thought they’d have chance at a new life. Fate had other plans. The Balefires hardly have time to get unpacked when they stumble over a dead body.
“I like them.” Margaret Balefire stretched herself into as menacing a posture as she could manage, narrowed her eyes and glared at her sister, Clara. She waggled a finger, and a set of lace doilies magically appeared on the shelf.
Not intimidated in the least, Clara lifted her nose in an upward gesture and shook her head. “I don’t. They have to go.”
She swiped her hand through the air, clearing the shelves, then continued lining the oak bookcase with sparkling bottles and jars. Each sported the store’s distinctive label—the store name, Balms and Bygones, was emblazoned in silver and green across a complicated Celtic symbol and stood out nicely against a creamy background.
“We agreed you can arrange the antiques any way you like them, but the personal care products are my domain,” Clara said, arranging the jars just so. “The jewel tones of these glass bottles look better against bare wood, and my products are meant for a younger market, so keep the hideous doilies away from my shelves.”
If Margaret—Mag to her friends—had her way, everything in the shop would be covered in Victorian lace and frills. Her decorating tastes ran completely counter to the staunch exterior she presented to the world and hinted at gentler emotions lurking beneath the prickly shell. Instead of arguing, she wrinkled her nose, waggled her hips, and flashed a rude hand gesture behind Clara’s back. Hair aged to a dandelion-fuzz-like texture floated in the breeze created by the motion.
“I saw that,” Clara said. “Mature. Real mature.” Resisting the temptation to return the gesture took every ounce of her self-control. Instead, she swiveled a jar of face cream so the label faced front, and the ruby-colored glass picked up a shine from a strategically placed spotlight. After a moment’s thought, she added a bar of soap in the same scent to the display. Heart, soul, and a dollop of true magic went into every drop of her ever-growing product line.
“If you’re done communing with the display, we should get moving before we miss our appointment at the newspaper office. You have the photos, right?” Despite the tart delivery and emphasis on the words communing with the display, no real heat colored Mag’s statement. If Clara wanted to show her wares on naked shelves, it was her choice.
“I’ve got everything right here.” Clara brandished her cell phone.
“Should have known. That thing is practically melded to your hand these days. What self-respecting witch takes selfies, I ask you?”
“It’s a handy organizational tool. You should get one.” Like that would ever happen. “And it takes fantastic photos.” To illustrate, Clara snapped one of the look on Mag’s face and flipped the phone around so Mag could see the sneer of disdain. “My new screensaver.”
Opening a shop together hadn’t been the main reason the sister witches moved to the hamlet of Harmony, but the joint venture was turning out to be more interesting than either of them expected. The soft opening, about a month before, had drawn in curious customers from miles away. Once people were inside the store, Clara’s open smile and friendly ways combined with Mag’s stash of antiques put people in the buying mood.
It helped that there was enough living space for them, too—Clara lived above the shop, and Mag lived behind it.
“Stop being grouchy,” Clara said, breezing past her, “and I’ll get you an ice cream cone on the way back. Dairyland opened today.”
Mag scowled. “I’m not a ten-year-old, you know,” she said, then sniffed and added, “You think they have butter pecan?”
Clara locked the door behind them, smiling and shaking her head.
Postcard-pretty, the town of Harmony hugged the southern bank of Big Spurwink River and, Mag insisted, possessed a seedy underbelly. But then, she harbored a bone-deep suspicion of almost everyone and everything, so her opinion was best taken with a grain of salt. Or twenty.
Summer leaves would soon hide all except for the barest glimpse of the river, but that day, a stand of white birch trees framed Clara’s view of the rock-strewn banks perfectly.
Balms and Bygones was situated on Mystic Street, which meandered along Big Spurwink’s banks before ending abruptly in a parking lot at the edge of the town square. Positioned in a place of honor at the far end of a grassy quad, Harmony’s municipal office was the oldest standing structure in town.
C-shaped, the town-hall courtyard backed the second oldest structure in Harmony. The clock tower speared skyward and, especially during the summer months, tempted tourists off the main road for a prime photo opportunity.
On either side of the square, a bank of buildings housed shops, eateries, and offices. Today, Mag and Clara approached a brick structure with picture pane windows on the town’s westerly edge—the one separated by the river by only a small back parking area and a steep embankment.
“Sorry, we’re a couple of minutes late,” Clara said to the harried-looking brunette who stepped up behind the tall counter spanning the front of the narrow space. “We had an appointment to discuss putting an ad in the paper.”
“No worries,” the woman said. “I'm Marsha Hutchins. You probably spoke to Leanne on the phone.” The way her voice lifted made the statement sound like a question. “She usually handles setting up new ad accounts.”
“We did. Is Leanne here? It looks like you have your hands full.” Clara nodded toward a long table strewn with photographs, a few of which were arranged in a grid.
“Leanne went out on an errand.” Marsha tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear, a slight frown marring her forehead. “She should have been back by now. Anyway, what can I do for you?”
“I’m Clara Balefire, and this is my mother, Margaret.” The lie tripped easily off her tongue, having repeated it in practice about a hundred times. Clara expected she’d slip up eventually, but given the assumed difference in age based on Mag’s outward appearance, no sane person would buy the story of the two being sisters.
The blood-born power of magic slows the aging process and adds centuries to the lifespan of a natural witch unless she’s the victim of a curse or magical disaster. Mag knew all about the kind of accident that could add years to a witch’s face, but she didn’t like to talk about her past much.
“We’ve recently opened a shop over on Mystic Street. You might have heard about us.”
Gossip travels fast in small towns and any newspaper woman worth her salt would already know that a new business opened up. Marsha didn’t disappoint.
“Oh, yes. Balms and Bygones. Antiques and personal care products. Whatever made you decide on that combination?”
“Playing to our strengths and interests.” While Clara chatted pleasantly, Mag treated Marsha to the same level of scrutiny she did when meeting anyone new.
Shrewd senses ignored the slightly ruffled exterior to test the mettle of the woman underneath the surface. A thirst for truth balanced by a highly-developed sense of justice let Marsha pass the test.
This was a woman Mag could respect. Her dress got the elder witch’s stamp of approval, too, since there was a tiny hint of lace peeking out around the neckline of the muted paisley print. Had they been shopping together, Clara would have been drawn to the garment based on style. She appreciated the way the cut of it hugged Marsha’s curves while remaining work-appropriate.
“Leanne recommended using a half-page spread as an introductory piece, and then she wanted to talk about an ongoing placement where we could feature new items each week. In color.” Clara whipped out her cell phone and started leafing through images.
“This is perfect timing since I’m working on the layout for a commemorative…” Before Marsha could finish, the sound of a slamming door and male voices issued from the rear of the building and interrupted her.
“Go left. No, your other left,” said a gruff voice Clara recognized as Perry Weatherall’s. Perry, though no witch himself, had ties to the organization that camouflaged the local coven.
“Dude, it’s heavy. Where does she want it? Marsha, come here!”
Marsha huffed out a breath. “Excuse me, ladies, won’t you? I’m sorry about this, I feel like a duck paddling backward today.” Leaving that odd mental image, and tossing a second sorry over her shoulder, Marsha hurried toward the commotion in the back room. “In that corner. Watch out for…” Banging noises and grunts preceded a conversation about whether an industrial-sized printer would fit through the door.
Several minutes later, which Mag and Clara spent eavesdropping shamelessly, the back door slammed shut behind Perry, and Marsha popped back into view just ahead of a younger man who was wiping sweat on the sleeve of his Oxford shirt. Everything about him could best be described as average—height, weight, even the color of his hair landed in a nondescript shade between blond and brown. If not for the fact he was wearing neon-yellow cross trainers below the khaki pants, Mag might have thought him completely devoid of personality.
When he noticed the newcomers, he stepped up to the counter, loosed a gleaming smile, and whipped a card out of his pocket.
“I don’t believe we’ve met. The name’s Bryer Mack, and you’d be the ladies who bought Hagatha Crow’s place. Good bones, that one. They don’t build them like that anymore, you know. Foundation needed work, but I’m sure your agent told you all about it.”
He might as well have made air-quotes around the word agent, and when his business card landed on the counter, Clara understood why. Mack owned a real estate office, a rival to the witch-owned agency they’d used.
His smile, artificially whitened though it was, seemed genuine. “Anyway, welcome to Harmony.” His gaze roved over Clara’s curves with interest.
She needed no magic to draw a man’s attention; the curvy body, emerald eyes over rose-petal lips, and a lush cascade of chestnut hair were enough. Of the two sisters, Clara had been the one to take after the Balefire side of the family and was the spitting image of their mother.
Rather than feeling left out, Mag had always reveled in her mile-wide nonconformist streak and was proud to have taken her looks from their father: long and lean, without an ounce of spare flesh over a runner’s frame, ginger hair, and pale skin that freckled in the sun.
Along with his looks, Mag had inherited her father’s desire to see the world and his conviction that justice ranked higher than mercy. By right of birth, Mag should have become the keeper of the sacred Balefire flame instead of Clara, but it would have killed something inside her to be confined to home and hearth. Adventure called, and an eager Mag had answered.
Clara only knew bits and pieces of the rest of her sister’s story. Somewhere out on the road, Mag encountered and defeated her first Raythe. Rare beasts born of untethered magic, they fed off the souls of witches and were devilishly hard to kill. Mag, it turned out, had an uncommon flair for defensive magic and spent her youth honing that skill at significant cost.
“Now, what was I doing?” Marsha shook her head to clear away the cobwebs. “Sorry. What I started to explain before the guys showed up is that I’m putting together the layout for a special edition of the paper. You’re aware we’re commemorating our town bicentennial this week, I assume.” She waited for Clara’s nod before continuing. “Your timing couldn’t be better. Since I’m already late getting this to the printer, there’s time to add your business as a sponsor if you’re interested.”
“I’d have thought you’d be using a computer for that type of thing.” Clara indicated the table covered with images. “Digital seems to have taken over the world.” Mag’s snort went ignored.
“Call me old-fashioned, but I like to do the front page layouts of all our special editions by hand.” This from a woman who looked barely old enough to remember the days when they printed papers on presses. “The way my grandfather taught me.”
“To hear her tell it, ink runs in her family’s veins instead of blood.” Bryer skirted the table without looking at its contents and made his way to the far corner where a mini-fridge and coffeemaker sat on a 1950s-era sideboard with an aqua- and- black laminated top and frosted glass doors. Mag eyed the piece with disdain. Too retro for her tastes, even if Clara insisted there was money to be made from vintage furniture.
As though he’d performed the task a hundred times before, Bryer poured himself a cup of coffee, toasted Marsha with it, and delivered his parting shot, “There are half a dozen celebrations in this town every year, and they all get the special-edition treatment. Seems like you’d have a template ready;, I mean, how different can it be? Besides, no one is even going to bother looking at the same old pictures of the same old clock tower. Might be time to think up a new angle.”
Marsha ignored the mild criticism, but not the insistent series of bing-bong sounds coming from the sleek laptop sitting in the corner of her layout table.
She shot a half-smile at the sisters. “If you’ll excuse me for one moment.” She muttered something impatient and mildly unflattering about Leanne’s lack of punctuality as she hit a key to bring up her email.
“Tell her I’ll be back with the proper cables in a few minutes, won’t you?” Bryer flashed a smile toward Clara and Mag, then turned to leave the way he’d come in—through the back of the office. He cast an idle glance at the contents of the table as he passed by, paused to look back at Marsha, then strode out of the room.
“Can’t anyone hit a deadline this week?” Marsha’s fingers danced across the keyboard in rapid-fire movements for a minute, and then she flipped the screen down and returned her gaze to the sisters. “I really am sorry for being so distracted.”
Marsha pulled a form out of her desk and laid it on the counter with a pen. “Here’s what I can do. We’ll bump you up to a sponsor level, give you a quarter-page ad. I know that’s smaller than what Leanne quoted, but we’ll move you up to page three, so it’s big and bold, and right there when people open up the paper. We’re expecting an exceptional turnout—at least triple our normal readership, so you’ll receive plenty of exposure.”
Ever the pragmatist, Mag cut right to the chase, “How much?”
Marsha named a price and went into a spiel about the forms of accepted payment.
Reasonable, Clara thought. She reached into her Hermione’s purse of a pocket, fished around among potion bottles, a spare scarf for windy days, and pulled out a wad of crumpled-up cash. The sight of Clara smoothing the bills against the edge of the counter to get the wrinkles out brought a hint of a twitch to the corner of Marsha’s mouth.
“Thank you for your business,” she said, taking the money. “And if you’re willing, I’d love to send one of my feature writers around for an interview that would run the next week as a follow-up piece. A mother and daughter moving to a new town and opening a business together makes for a great human-interest piece. I don’t suppose either of you has a checkered past to spice things up?”
Taking a page out of Hagatha’s book, Clara told the truth. “My mother,” she cocked a thumb at Mag, “used to kill rogue hell beasts and I spent the last twenty-five years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit.” The utter dryness of her tone pulled a trill of laughter out of Marsha and even tweaked a grudging smile from Mag.
“Now, Clara,” Mag scolded, “you know that’s not completely accurate. Hell beasts are an entirely different species.”
“What wonderful senses of humor. You’ll want to hang onto them when tourist season gets into full swing.” Turning back toward her layout, Marsha missed Mag’s suppressed snort and Clara’s waggling eyebrows.
“Anyway,” Marsha continued, motioning for them to follow her. “I'm really excited about the special edition this year because we’re celebrating two important anniversaries. Why don’t you come take a look?” She flipped one hinged end of the counter up to let Mag and Clara pass through to the area behind the scenes.
Despite appearing a jumbled mess, there was a sense of order to the table holding Marsha’s proposed layout. Two photos of the clock tower lay side by side in the spot Clara assumed would make up the main body of the front page and looked like one of those puzzles where players are invited to find the differences. Not that it would be difficult in that case.
Marsha tapped first one picture, then the other. “These were taken ten years ago. Before and after the restoration was completed.”
In the first photo, the clock was missing both hands and several of the numbers. Peeling paint and sections of battered trim marred the wooden structure, and the peaked roof badly needed new shingles.
In contrast, the second image featured gaily colored banners festooned across pristine white paint below the fully restored clock Clara had admired earlier in the day. More banners decorated the town square, which was filled with people in the midst of a celebration.
Underlining the before-and-after shots, another series of images tracked the progress of the renovation.
“But, anyway,” Marsha said, “part of the reason I’m so excited is that these photos were taken with an old pocket-sized camera that was past its prime long before the digital age, and the negatives were so small, every effort to blow up the images made them incredibly grainy. I found a company that specializes in digitally remastering old film and had a new set made. As you can see, they did a spectacular job.” The pair of prints looked like day and night.
“Nice work on the clock. Must have taken weeks.” Appreciative of older things, Mag found the restoration process heartening. She might have asked a question or two, but Marsha never gave her a chance. She pointed to the man with the tools, deepened her voice to a reverent tone, and said, Aldo Von Gunten, a name that meant absolutely nothing to the Balefire sisters.
“You’ve never heard of him?” She asked when neither oohs nor ahs were forthcoming.
“Can’t say it rings a bell,” Clara replied.
“He’s a local man who’s quite famous all over the world for his work with historical timepieces. I was sure he’d move away after what happened to his daughter. Absolutely tragic, the way she…” she pressed her lips tightly closed and allowed her words to trail off when Bryer Mack opened the front door, then stepped aside to hold it for a slip of a woman who came in like an apologetic whirlwind.
“I’m sorry,” she said before she was even all the way inside. “So sorry. I’m a complete idiot, and you should fire me on the spot. I set up an appointment with those two women who—” Bright blue eyes magnified by an enormous pair of glasses turned toward Mag and Clara. “Are already here,” she finished, sighing.
The new arrival scurried through the office, depositing a large purse and two reams of paper on the single island of clutter in the whole space—a desk across from the layout table.
Marsha blew out a breath. “Please tell me you at least got a check from Mrs. Mathers for your efforts. Wasn’t that meeting set for 11:30? It’s nearly two in the afternoon now.”
If she had any qualms about discussing Leanne’s lackadaisical attitude toward work in front of complete strangers, it was buried deep beneath a mound of irritation.
“Yes, of course, I got the check, and then I stopped by the office supply place.” Leanne’s cheeks pinked, and her voice faltered when she added, “and misplaced my glasses. It took forever to find them.”
Mag raised an eyebrow. Anyone sporting lenses that thick ought to figure they’d need to be wearing glasses if they planned on finding anything. A circular problem if ever there was one.
“You really should consider wearing your contacts more often.” Marsha looked like she wanted to say more, but didn’t get the chance when the desk phone shrieked to life. Waving Leanne off when she reached for it, she said, “I’ll get it. Take a look at the layout, I think it’s ready to go.”
“And that’s my cue to fire up the printer,” Bryer and Leanne moved in the same direction at the same time and nearly collided. When he placed a steadying hand on her shoulder, one of the restored photos caught his eye, and he picked it up so quickly it created a breeze that blew two others out of place.
On a sigh, Marsha picked up the phone. “Harmony Holler.”
A loud, angry chatter streamed from the handset. Someone wasn’t happy about something; that was for sure. Shrill tones rendered the words unintelligible, but the sentiment was crystal-clear.
The final words were clear, though. “You’re gonna pay for this, you just wait and see!” Before Marsha had a chance to say another word, the line disconnected and she gently placed the handset back in its cradle.
The smile she turned toward the Balefire sisters gave no hint of her response to the threats and accusations she’d just endured. Gently, she ushered them back through the folding counter and toward the door.
“You ladies are all set. It was very nice to meet you, and I’ll be in touch about that human interest piece.” Her tone was filled with sincerity even though it was obvious she wanted to get on with whatever was next on her agenda.
As they exited, she heard Marsha say to Leanne, “Better call Dylan and tell him you’re going to be working late.”
“Speaking of—we should probably head back to the shop.” Out of the corner of her eye, Clara watched Mag bristle. “After we stop for ice cream.” She threaded an arm through her sister’s and turned toward Dairyland and the promise of buttery-sweet, pecan-filled goodness.
On the way home, the clock tower caught Clara’s eye. Armed with new knowledge, she appraised the structure. Ten years on, the paint could use a touch-up here and there, but the permanence of the symbol meant something to this town. She could see that, and felt good about making a life here among good people who would put so much care into making Harmony a better place to live.
Concentrating on that thought, Clara stepped off the curb and if Mag hadn’t yanked her back at the last second, would have become another statistic. The breeze stirred by a passing motorcycle tossed her hair in her eyes, but not before she got a good look at the license plate. BRYGUY.
“Watch where you’re going you jerk.” Waving a gnarled fist in the air, Mag yelled at the retreating figure she recognized partly because it made sense given the vanity plate, but mostly when the neon flash of his footwear gave him away.
“That was close. Next time I see that Bryer Mack, he’s getting a piece of my mind for speeding in town. Kid’s bike, though. ‘77 Kawasaki KZ1000. Kind of machine a teenager might spend his summer income to buy. Still, any bike is better than none. I miss the feel of the wind in my hair.” Mag’s voice turned wistful even as she shocked her sister with the revelation and sparked a mental image Clara never expected to see.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Murder Above the Fold! You can find out more on my website: https://reginawelling.com/books/murder-above-the-fold/